Designing a Dungeon: Part 3—Monsters!

Welcome to the third installment of my Designing a Dungeon blog series. Follow along as I create a new dungeon crawl adventure for the World of Aetaltis patreon patrons.

Previously, on Designing a Dungeon...

In the first post we talked about choosing a map. Maps are really fun to draw, but there are times when you want something that's ready to go. In this case, I picked a cool map from Dyson Logos available in in his map pack on DriveThruRPG.

In the second post, we figured out the original purpose of the place on our map. After a bit of back and forth I settled on a dwarven Diplomatic Entrance to a Deepland Hall. After that I decided what all those cool rooms were used for originally.

Step 3: Traps, Monsters, and Other Nastiness

It's time to sketch out what the characters will run into into when they explore our dungeon. An important part of making the adventure fun for the players is to make sure we give them a decent variety of threats and encounters. This means variety both in the difficulty of the encounters and in the flavor.

For instance, a fight with zombies followed by a fight with skeletons followed by a fight with ghouls doesn't have a lot of flavor to it. It's pretty much one slugfest after the next. On the other hand, a fight with some zombies followed by a tricky trap followed by a hungry carnivore (that the party should probably try to sneak past) will be a lot more interesting and fun to play

Before I go too much further, it's probably a good idea to have a rough sense of what levels this adventure is for. Personally, I think trying to achieve 'game balance' is overrated, but that's a topic for another day. Still, if the players can't survive the adventure, it probably won't be a lot of fun for them.

For this adventure I'm thinking 1st to 3rd level. I want an adventure you could run early on in the campaign without accidentally causing a TPK, but I still want an adventure the players might not all survive.

One design type that  I love but I'm going to pass on for this adventure is the menagerie. A menagerie is a dungeon where each room contains something different and often disconnected from what's in the other rooms. You know the type: Room 1 has four stirges hanging frm the ceiling, Room 2 has an evil cleric reading a book, Room 3 has three skeletons, and the next hallway has a gelatinous cube.

Menageries are a lot of fun to design and play, but this map really isn't suited for it. Lots of dead ends, very few entrances, and a lot of confined spaces mean that we'd have to get really creative to not completely shatter our player's suspension of disbelief.

So I want variety but not too much variety—no more than two or three groups of enemies with some traps and puzzles thrown in for good measure.

I usually start by flipping through the monster manuals and jotting down ideas. A lot of the usual suspects come to mind: goblins, kobolds, oozes, bandits, skeletons, stirges—typical low level fare.

I'm going with kobolds as my first threat. Kobolds are great since in Aetaltis they are neither good nor evil, but simply monstrous and a bit chaotic. Anytime you have an enemy that isn't necessarily pure evil, it introduces fun roleplay opportunities and moral challenges that test the characters' alignments.

I also picked kobolds because I'm working on a series of Aetaltis adventures where kobolds play an important part in the story. If I use them in this little dungeon crawl, I may be able to tie the stories together down the road. Anytime I can find little threads to tie together to create a larger story, I like to weave them in. It's one tool I use for weaving campaigns out of individual adventures.

The only problem is that kobolds alone don't give us a lot of variety. Even if I throw in a kobold shaman, I still need a little more flavor. I start thinking about that flooded room. What if the kobolds are farming some kind of nasty, carnivorous fish in there. There is no telling whether or not the players will encounter them, but a room full of piranhas certainly seems fun!

For my second group I think I'll use bandits. The complex is large enough that two groups could potentially share the space if they came to a truce of some sort. The nice thing about bandits is that it lets me throw in any race or class I like, opening up a ton of great opportunities to introduce different types of threats, from spellcasters to thieves. Maybe I'll give them some vicious hunting dogs too, just to keep it interesting.

That's two! For my last group, I feel like I want something more monstrous. Maybe a great big brute of a creature. I've got that nice second entrance on the map, so maybe something nasty crawled in there to live? The kobolds could easily barricade the doors to keep it out of their area, so they could logically co-exist.

My first instinct is to go with something animalistic, but here is the thing—I've been looking for an excuse to share the Aetaltan trolls. Trolls in Aetaltis aren't much smarter than animals, but they're smart enough that the kobolds and bandits might be able to come to a truce with it as well. Useful for explaining why troll doesn't just come around to the front door and eat everyone!

The nice thing about these three groups is that the adventurers could encounter and even fight with any one of them, and the other two might happily ignore it. This lets the players explore the dungeon a little at a time while maintaining a believable reason everyone doesn't come running.

I'm almost finished picking my threats, but I need some non-combat challenges. Aside from potential social interactions between the kobolds, the bandits, and the players, I'd like to add some puzzles and traps. This keeps the dungeon from being an extended (and usually boring) multi-hour slugfest.

I think I'll put a trap on one of the two main entrances (or maybe both). Neither the kobolds or bandits will want uninvited guests, so this makes sense.

That vault is interesting too. Maybe the vault or the secret door leading to it has a trap on it the kobolds couldn't bypass so they've just ignored it. I can also add a puzzle here as a means of bypassing the trap. If the players kill the kobolds they'll find it. If they strike a deal with the kobolds, the kobolds might reward them with access to it.

Finally, I want to throw in something totally unexpected. I'm not quite sure what it will be yet, but I'm thinking that secret room in the flooded zone would be perfect for this. Maybe the kobolds never found the room, and it stil contains whatever was there back before the Age of Darkness.

Okay! Now we're getting somewhere. I'll assign side rooms to the troll, the central complex to the kobolds, and the entrance area to the bandits. I also sketched in where the other threats and challenges will go.

That's enough for today! In our next installment, we spend a little time thinking about how all these monsters and NPCs interact, what they use the rooms for today, and the history of how things got to be the way we see them now. All this will set the stage for going through and detailing each of the rooms in our fourth post!

- Marc

If you missed Part 2 in this series, you can find it here.

Marc Tassin is the creator of the World of Aetaltis and the founder of Mechanical Muse. He's been gaming since 1985, and he's also a published author and game designer. He's had the opportunity to write for some of his favorite RPG products over the years, including Shadowrun and Dragon Magazine. You can find him at Gen Con every year, usually lurking about near the Exhibit Hall or the Writer's Symposium rooms! To support his Aetaltis patreon, just click here!

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Art & Illustration

  • An'Gras Lab Illustration by Mitchell Malloy
  • Kobold Illustratioin by Gary Dupuis

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