We love exploring dungeons, but let’s face it: not all of us are any good at drawing dungeons, and many players grow bored traveling around the seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors and passageways, interspersed with little and big rooms full of monsters. Then there’s the GM who either can’t or won’t show the players the maps and expects them to track their exploration as he reads off dimensions; “you enter a room through a south entrance, the west wall lays twenty paces to your left and the east wall lays thirty paces to your right while the north wall lays seventy paces ahead of you.” What a headache. Theatre of the mind is usually the best rout to take when handling dungeons, but how do you organize them so players aren’t lost?
The last thing you want is to draw up a map and simply tell them literally where they’re going as this can frustrate and confuse the crap out of them. What follows is a blow by blow, simplified way of expressing the interior of a dungeon to the players and only requires them to write down basic reference points. I know this will infuriate certain miniatures collectors, most especially players of D&D 5th Edition. But enough about that. Let’s begin!
First, let’s treat the dungeon like a creature. By giving your dungeon stats you can track all important information on as little as a single page! Here are the stats, arranged in a hierarchical order to help you track details by level of importance.
Name: name the dungeon. Something like “cellar of the windy tower,” or whatever strikes your fancy.
Level: what level of character is the dungeon suitable for? The challenge rating?
Relevance: this is a short description that tells why and where the PCs are entering it. Also mention details that tie it to a specific quest or NPCs.
Entrance: how do the PCs enter the dungeon? Is there a hidden door in the face of a cliff? Is it under a statue in a courtyard? Perhaps the PCs have to dig a hole in the desert and drop down into one of the rooms after prying up a stone slab?
Passages: here is where the confusion can arise; you don’t need to tell the PCs what direction they’re going, how many right or left turns they’re taking, or how long the hallways are. Just tell them they’re navigating hallways and bring them to each important room in order, but in such a way they feel as though they discovering each one and not merely making stops on a bus rout. One last important thing to note is to prompt the players to describe how they transition between rooms; are they searching for specific types of rooms? Are they checking for traps as they go? Who's first and who's last in line?
Passage Encounters: one thing you can do is have special encounters between transitions. What this means is you can have the PCs happen upon certain things as they go from one room to the next. This includes whenever they want to go back to a previously visited room. Simply create a unique d6 table as follows:
1- nothing happens: they travel safely to the next location.
2- goblins: they come upon the encounter amount for goblins.
3- traps: they encounter a trap of your choosing.
4- orcs: they come upon the encounter amount for orcs.
5- hazard: they fall prey to a hazard, like stones falling from the ceiling.
6- encounter: they encounter an NPC, like dwarves digging in the dungeon.
Random passage encounters can be tailored however you want; there could be a lot of “nothing happens”, or if the dungeon is overrun with enemies you could have almost every possible roll be an enemy encounter. When placing enemies, be sure they are scaled for the party and have a variety of different kinds. Lastly, let the rogue detect traps. As mentioned above, this is done before traveling from one room to the next, entering a room and inspecting elements of a room. Likewise, elves and dwarves or any other race who may detect hidden passages should do so any time the party transitions between rooms or searches a room. Even if a secret room isn't listed in your dungeon, you could invent one on the spot if a player successfully searches for one.
Rooms: create a list of all relevant rooms in a dungeon. This is what the players need to keep track of, and the rooms need not be complicated. You could have things like “the torture chamber,” or “the hieroglyph room.” Just give a description of what kind of room, how big it is and other flavor elements, like “stench of mold in the air” or “sound of distant rumbling”. Rooms, once cleared, may also provide a safe place for the PCs to rest in, especially if this is a particularly large dungeon with dozens or hundreds of rooms!
Room Elements: here is where the rooms take shape. When the PCs enter a room and you describe it, they should begin asking questions about what else is in the room. You will then express to them specific things they find while searching. You may even begin with the PCs encountering a monster in the room. Examples of things to put in rooms would be like NPCs that the PCs may meet and talk to, treasure boxes, shelves with books, tables covered in coins, a pile of rubbish, pool of water, levers and switches, large crack in the floor/wall/ceiling, statues, etc.
Exit: the way out of the dungeon. This is optional as the PCs may simply leave the same way they entered, unless you have them trapped in a dungeon through barred gates or a cave-in, in which case this aspect of the dungeon becomes most important. They should not find it until after they have explored all of the rooms leading up to it. If the players say “we want to find the exit NOW,” you could skip over irrelevant rooms, but bring them to the next convenient room of importance, like if you plan for them to encounter an NPC. The exit is described like a room and may have specific furnishings or elements that they may interact with in order to open the way out. This may also be the place to have a “boss” enemy, if you wish. Examples will be detailed below to show how these work:
The following is a prerendered dungeon to give you an idea how to set these up and present them to your PCs. One final suggestion; even though it’s "theater of the mind", providing pictures can help the players visualize the dungeon. Ideally, if this is done, you will have pictures of the exterior or first room of a dungeon, a passageway, and a picture for each room. If you really want to go all out, you could have a picture of each monster or NPC the players encounter as well. Now to our example!
Name: “Library Caverns”
Level: for characters leveled 1-3
Relevance: while traveling through the city, the PCs learn of a librarian who discovered a hole in the wall in the lowest chambers of the library, in the rare books sectoin. Guards have barred off all access to this section until the tunnels beyond the hole are explored and cleared of danger.
Entrance: the entrance to the caverns rests in the basement of an old library, in its lowest halls. The masonry appears to have been knocked inward by something digging through the earth. Several books lay scattered across the ground, some with pages torn out and others stomped by muddy feet. The cavern beyond the hole is dark and moist from recent rainfalls. Strange sounds echo from beyond and cool air wafts in from deep recesses.
Passages: the passages in this cavern complex are very low, twisting and winding about as though dug by a giant worm, but the telltale gouges along the cold, wet surfaces denote the work of crude tools. Puddles of water lay here and there, creating cold, unpleasant footing for anyone who crouches through the squat tunnels.
Passage Encounters: roll a 1d6 on the following table to determine what is encountered while transitioning from room to room.
1- nothing; pass to the next room without trouble.
2- nothing; pass to the next room without trouble.
3- goblins: the party encounters 2d4 goblins; roll for surprise!
4- goblins: the party encounters 2d6 goblins; roll for surprise!
5- goblins: the party encounters 2d8 goblins; roll for surprise!
6- hazard: rocks and dirt fall from the ceiling, someone potentially takes 1d4 damage.
Broad Opening: the party comes upon a section of tunnel that has been widened and upheld with wooden buttresses. 2d4 goblins dig through the earth here with mattocks and spades, possibly expanding their complex into other areas below the city.
Supplies: off to one side of the room is a pile of sacks containing hard bread and vile-smelling wine. Beside this is a barrel containing mattocks and a spent lantern.
Secret Stash: if a PC searches for hidden doors, he or she will discover a small covey hole dug out and filled with a pouch containing 12 copper pieces, 28 silver pieces and one random gem.
Sleeping Cave: the party comes upon a slightly larger chamber, which the goblins have set up as a living space. Straw has been cast upon the ground with filthy bedrolls and blankets laid on top. 2d6 goblins rest here quite soundly and are unaware of the party’s presence.
Bedding: the crude beds used by the goblins contain scattered bundles of the following loot; 120 copper pieces, 89 silver pieces, 145 electrum pieces, 50 gold pieces and 1 random gem.
Food Stores: a larger pile of hard bread and vile-smelling wine is kept here, along with dried vermin meat, rolls of cloth that the goblins use for foot and hand wrappings, and an assortment of pots, pans and a kettle over a fire.
Privy: a small tunnel has been dug out to the side with a bucket set up as a privy.
Arms Rack: a small rack containing 3 short swords and 2 hand axes as well as 4 small wooden shields.
Dead End: the PCs encounter a dead end where they are ambushed by 2d6 goblins.
Room Elements: no elements in this place of note, but when the goblins are defeated, the PCs will discover 3 random gems on the corpse of one.
Foreman’s Chamber: one of the tunnels ends at a crudely set wooden door, which has been locked. Once the door is bypassed, either by breaking it down, picking the lock or simply knocking upon it to get the occupant’s attention, the PCs will see the following: a wide chamber, upheld by wooden buttresses with a hammock strung up for the goblin foreman. This foreman is a goblin with 2 levels as a fighter and is equipped with a chain hauberk, a battle axe, a medium steel shield and a potion of haste.
Foreman’s Locker: beneath the hammock is a wooden box, which has been locked. It contains 30 gold pieces, 15 platinum pieces, 5 random gems, 2 random potions, and 1 random art object.
Book Shelf: a crude book shelf contains many books, likely pilfered from the library. One of them is a spell book containing 3 random priest scrolls and 6 random mage scrolls. Detailed searching will also reveal a note written to the goblin foreman, instructing him and his lads to dig into the basement of the city’s guard post and procure as many weapons and armor as possible for a possible invasion. The items are to be delivered at the crossroads at nightfall in a month’s time to a human agent of an enemy force.
Exit: other than the hole in the library basement, the PCs may continue searching until they find a passage flowing with a stream of water. This will lead them to a tiny cave entrance that opens out into the wilderness just beyond the farmlands of the city.