You’re running a session and the players stumble into a dungeon that you haven’t created yet.
What are you going to do?
Recently, I was a player in a session where this happened to the DM. We went off map, found a monastery and decided to sneak in. The DM did a good job for a very improv heavy session and to be honest, sneaking in to the monastery was my idea. It got me thinking about what I would do if I was ever caught in that situation. So I made this method.
There’s a TLDR at the end of this big messy blog post.
For this method I break a dungeon down into these constituent parts:
- A Theme
You will need pencil, paper, d4, d6, d8.
Quickly, write the theme of the dungeon. This is your touchstone and ultimate unifying concept for the dungeon.
Then jot notes for the dressings. What might be found in the dungeon, more than actual dressings like furniture and objects, but smells and textures – what the floor and walls are made from (unless obvious or you don’t have the time). These are the things you’ll glance to and sprinkle in when describing the rooms - like a word mood board. Through this explanation I will be talking through a generic fantasy dungeon – an Orcish Temple. The dressings for which will be dirt, blood, splintered wood, mold and black stone idols.
Then write 3 spark tables. That sounds like a lot but it’s not, it’s 14 words. Write words that are evocative of the dungeon milieu. Don't pick prescriptive words especially for locations. Your dungeon will only generate better and easier if your words are good. For a alchemist's laboratory dungeon, rather than have an active element word 'laboratory' have 'cauldron' and 'chemical' and 'device'. For a decadent swords and sorcery dungeon have 'pleasure' rather than 'banquet hall' or 'harem'. Words that can be interpreted in different ways are good, overly specific words are bad.
I cannot stress the importance of using random tables to generate the rooms for your dungeon. I don't deny your creativity, using tables will force your creative brain to dream up far more interesting rooms than the stock situations and room-fills you might fall back on given the pressure of creating a dungeon during play.
There are two example dungeons with tables I have provided later in this post. Don’t be precious - be quick, write the first words that come to your mind. The most obvious ones first, if you run out of obvious words write 1-2 generic or weird words (a good dungeon should have both of these things). As you write the words you should already be thinking of fun things to happen in the dungeon. Again, you have to write quickly.
These tables are:
D4 Room type. This table does not change and the 4 results are always the same regardless of the dungeon. (change them if you really want to) The results are as follows;
2. Hazard, a dangerous thing in the environment, potentially hidden as a trap but not always.
3. Travel, all rooms have a way of getting to one other room. Travel rooms have two ways and one of them is hidden. A travel result means there is a way of getting to another room of the dungeon via another egress than normal. Usually a secret door with attached corridor but the means of travel could be anything from a river to a teleportation circle. The simplest and easiest method of generating secret doors is this; secret doors will always lead to the room after the next one and bypass 1 room. A secret door in the 2nd room will lead to the 4th room of the dungeon. When getting to the end of what you feel is the right size for this dungeon have the travel result’s secret corridor loop back to the dungeon entrance or become a hidden dungeon exit/entrance.
4. Treasure, something valuable that the PC’s would want. Not easy, quick or safe to acquire.
These results can phase into one another as you imagine the room. Don’t feel to constrained by the result but don’t stray from the result too much either. Do what feels natural and fast.
D6 Active element. What’s the important thing going on in this room? At least one of the six words should be whatever owns, made or is in control of the dungeon. For the Orcish Temple I will have the most obvious words;
D8 Passive element. Whatever modifies the room/active element and makes it unique and interesting. These words should be primarily descriptive words, some objects or events are actually ok. These words can be more generic, but should be in keeping with the dungeon’s theme. The Orcish Temple will have the words…
Rolling the Dungeon:
I found it easiest to draw the dungeon as I describe it. It doesn’t need to look pretty.
For each room roll a d4, d6 and d8 at the same time for the room type, active and passive elements. Read the dice in ascending size order, combine the results in your head and start drawing and talking. Don’t stop to plan it out (you don’t have the time), talk and draw as you imagine the room not afterwards. You have to imagine out loud. Think and describe the biggest and most prominent details first then hone in on the smaller details to build a good picture. Resist the urge to add things/details to a room after it has been described to the players even if you had thought of something better as this will disorient them.
All standard rooms have an obvious way of getting to one new room. Rooms generated by the ‘Travel’ result have paths to two rooms. Travel results create tiny loops in the map by bypassing the next room to be generated. Secret doors are only secret in the room they have been generated in. For mental ease the other end of a secret corridor is not secret, just a normal entrance that enters back into the just generated Travel room. Do not forget to describe this door when that further room is described.
All rooms are connected via corridors. These corridors are liminal spaces between rooms. Corridors don't contain anything important. Corridors can go up, down, north, south, east, west, be straight or crooked – it doesn’t matter. They give you time to generate the next room and for the players to listen to/smell the next room before deciding on if they want to go in or not and what their approach will be.
If you need encounters – things to enter the room because PC’s are doing something loud, taking a long time to do something etc; roll the active and passive tables and combine with the most obvious monster or being to be found in the dungeon. For the Orcish Temple I would combine the word with Orcs.
Here are two dungeons I made with this method, each dungeon was generated start-to-finish in about ten minutes. This time frame includes the writing of the spark tables, drawing and pretending to describe the rooms aloud as if I were DM’ing them. Unfortunately, because I was going quickly, I was unable to write notes or record my rolls as you might during actual play. It goes without saying the drawings are not beautiful, the point is speed and something I can read.
Ancient Theocratic Monastery: