Creating 4th edition D&D dungeons

If you look at the name of the game Dungeons & Dragons and compare it with the reality of pen & paper roleplaying, it is obvious that the Dungeons part is far more frequent than the Dragons part. Over an average full campaign you will have many dungeons, but only few dragons. One reason for that is that “dungeons” is a far more open term than “dragons”, there can be millions of different dungeons. If you need a dragon, you just take one from the Monster Manual; if you need a dungeon it usually is worth putting some effort into creating one. So how does one make a good dungeon for 4th edition D&D?

The first thing to realize is that 4th edition D&D has some substantial differences from other editions, which is cause for a lot of edition warring. But once you leave the squabbling behind you, the differences also have consequences for dungeon design. Basically earlier D&D editions (and D&D Next) had more and smaller fights, while 4th edition tends to have fewer and bigger fights. Thus an earlier edition dungeon might first have a small room with 3 kobolds, then another small room with 3 goblins, and finally a room with the one orc chieftain leading them. The 4th edition version will rather have one big room with 3 kobolds, 3 goblins, and the orc chieftain all present at the same time.

Thus old school “blue” dungeon maps of first edition AD&D tend to have a large number, sometimes of over 100 rooms. And each individual room would be small, with the dungeon map usually just showing an empty room. Furniture or other features might be mentioned in the text, but wouldn’t appear on the map. And in some extreme cases you’d open a door to a 3×3 room and find 10 orcs in there and nothing else, because nobody bothered to wonder what those 10 orcs were doing in an empty room.

4th edition dungeons need a bit more effort to create, because a room with monsters in it is at the same time a battle map for that encounter. And terrain plays a huge role in combat, so your dungeons get a lot better if the rooms aren’t just empty. You will want to know not only what features are in the room, but also how the monsters are placed in relation to those features. An archer behind a barricade at the back of the room is very different from an archer standing on the first square in the open after the door. Therefore it makes sense to build 4E dungeons from the bottom up: First create each encounter with its battle map, then connect the battle maps to form a dungeon. In earlier editions dungeons were often created top-down, starting by drawing the dungeon on a squared paper and then filling the rooms.

While I still use squared paper for the first sketches of a dungeon, I’ve moved to Campaign Cartographer for the final map. In Campaign Cartographer you can save zoomed in “views” of one room and just print that view out as a battle map. That avoids showing the players the whole map: The view of the room they see is at the same time a description of what they are seeing, and the battle map if a combat takes place. But I don’t just print the views of rooms in which combat is planned, but of every room. That has the advantage that putting a map on the table isn’t a sure sign to players that there is a combat ahead, and also serves well if a combat for some reason moves out from its room.

For some of my larger battle maps I went to the trouble of having them printed as a “poster”, most online poster shops have a service to print your images on a large piece of poster paper. But that is obviously expensive, and with the usual 1 inch equal to a 5 foot square, most battles don’t really need a huge poster. Using A4 paper, I try to fit smaller room on one page of 8 x 11 squares, medium rooms to two pages of 16 x 11, and large rooms to 4 pages of 16 x 22 squares. Anything bigger tends to get messy if you try to print it at home and then tape the pages together.

Another nifty feature of Campaign Cartographer is that it has layers, and you can put some dungeon features like secret doors on a special “secret” layer. Then you print the zoomed in battle maps with the secret layer hidden, while the overview map for the DM shows them. In some cases I print out the secret features extra, and overlay them on the battle map once the players have found them.

The ideal size of the overall dungeon basically depends on your play rhythm. My group only plays twice per month, with sessions lasting 3 to 4 hours. Thus my dungeons are more likely to have something like 20 rooms or less, with around half of these being battles. That way my players don’t spend half a year in the same dungeon. But if your groups likes long dungeon crawls or plays more frequently and longer sessions, nothing speaks against making much bigger dungeon maps. Just remember that dungeon size also has an influence on the narrative of your adventure: Many rooms with many fights against similar monsters might slow story development down to a crawl while the players are busy with one fight after another.

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5 Responses to “Creating 4th edition D&D dungeons”

  1. Carmedil says:

    The problem with respawns is the time that it takes to resolve these additionnal battles the game night is over …

    That's the logical option, but it's not practical real time wise.

  2. Caldazar says:

    Roaming monsters, dungeons repopulating with prepared reinforcements if the players leave to rest somewhere. Plenty perfectly reasonable deterrents to sleeping 8hours mid crawl

  3. Carmedil says:

    I remember having One attack per character level against 1 Hit Die monsters back in the old AD&D.

    What I'm gonna try tomorrow night in my 4th ed campaign are Paragorn Level Minions.

    Instead of having 1 HP, I'll give them 15 or 20, just so they are felled in one shot by most Encounter and Daily powers, but generally need a good damage roll on an At-Will power. Often minions have higher defences instead, to compensate the one-shot kill.

    Players hate when they missed by 1 or 2 on their attack roll. They feel like it's a "swing and miss" rather than you hit the minion but didn't do enough damage to kill it one shot when they know they have 1 HP.

    That makes them less a pushover and have players manage their powers carefully.

    The biggest problem with D&D 4th ed is the one extended rest = all healed and fully powered. It really screws-up pacing.

    I've seen a DM that played telling the his players that : "You shall not get to do a extended rest until you had 8 encounters". Which is pretty much the standard of 4th printed adventures.

    I hate it. Because of this a DM can't spread out encounters in a timeline of more than a day. Else the DM has to make the Encounters much harde each time since players are back to full power every 2-3 fights. Did I say I hatted it.

    Back in the days of 1st edition when Clerics didn't have a heal spell at every spell level (you had Cure Light Wounds and then waited for Cure Serious much later) and Clerics didn't have tons of bonus spells per day, bonuses on the healing die roll or healing feats. The party after a vicious fight have to camp out for days to get everyone back to max HP. It might have been too slow but …

    Now things go too fast, the next step shall be that our pen and paper heros shall heal up to max after each fight like in many MMORPGs (ex.: GW2).

    I think half the HP should come back fast (so action doesn't grind to a halt) and half should be very slow (even with magical healing) to allow some sense of ressources running low / danger.

  4. Tobold Stoutfoot says:

    one might regularly run into packs of 20-40 goblins, hordes of slaad and barbazu

    I remember only a few 1st edition fights against large hordes, and then there was some modification of rules, so that the DM didn't have to roll 40d20 for the attacks. But if I remember correctly, the modules with large fights were mostly those of very high level, and we didn't play all that many of those, so your mileage may vary.

  5. Tori Bergquist says:

    Thanks for the topic. As someone who started in 1st edition AD&D and also enjoyed 4E a lot, I have to say all editions of D&D have their merits and quirks. However, in paragraph 2 I have to question this, as it was extremely typical in most 1st and 2nd edition AD&D modules to have a wide range of encounter sizes, and far larger encounters by volume than 4E could easily support (one might regularly run into packs of 20-40 goblins, hordes of slaad and barbazu, and so forth; 4E handles large volume encounters best with hordes of minions). Large volumes of foes in a 1/2E encounter were much more common, although in some specific dungeon modules that could vary widely. In fact the minion mechanic for 4E was built to assist in recovering the feel of a horde of monsters while also avoiding the level of book keeping involved with forty 1D6 hit die goblins or what-not. On the other hand prior editions placed a lot less emphasis on the overall encounter design, so features like terrain placement/difficulty and battlefield structure were not emphasized in prior editions like it is in 4E. 4E made the battlefield a set piece unto its own, encouraging the DM to think of the encounter as more than just a bunch of monster stats. My experience with 4E has been that it got rid of a lot (most) of the superfluous encounters of prior editions….in my campaigns it became more sensible to focus the game on the encounters that counted, and to ignore the small fights that were rife in earlier editions.

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