It's been a while since I posted. Things have been very busy in my life! Here's the Friday post for this week. I'll be back on the weekly schedule for a while now.
The word "dungeons" is so common in D&D that it's almost comic. Yet it's important to look at what it really means and what makes a "dungeon" a unique play element in the most iconic of tabletop RPGs.
A dungeon is isolated so that it can have monsters and treasure.
The dungeon is isolated by some factor of its design. Either it is geographically remote ("two days North of here") or hidden ("somewhere beneath the city sewers") or alien ("through the portal to the Shadowfell") or sealed up ("in the vaults beneath the Great Library"). Its isolation causes it to be mysterious, and allows it to be full of treasure and monsters. If it were not remote, the treasure would have been looted by now, and the monsters would either be killed or escape and destroy the nearby civilized lands... and that would mean it's remote and isolated.
The ogres that are raiding our village seem to be coming from the old cliffside temple, but we thought the Paladins of the Silver Flame sealed that up generations ago...
A dungeon is full of discrete areas so that the encounters are distinct.
Every encounter in a dungeon is distinct from the one before. The roleplaying encounters, exploration challenges, and combat encounters are all isolated from one another. For whatever reason, the enemies in the dungeon don't all band together to mob the protagonists. It's not a mystery -- the dungeon's layout determines this fact. It's full of remote areas and sealed rooms, secret tunnels and long passageways, locked doors and cave-ins. If the areas in the dungeon were close together, all of the monsters and foes inside would hear the sounds of combat and come rushing to one another's aid.
The ancient temple is carved into the cliffside, with long passages connecting distant rooms that were once used for some dark purpose...
A dungeon is old so that it can have an A plot and a B plot.
In TV terms, the "A plot" is the main story of the episode, which resolves at the end of the episode, but may be connected to an "arc plot." The "B plot" is a subplot that also resolves at the end of the episode and also may be connected to an arc plot. Most of the on screen action revolves around the A plot. In a dungeon, the A plot is usually "what's happening lately" and the B plot is usually "what happened centuries ago when this ruin was first built."
Ogres have moved into an ancient hidden temple that was made by cannibalistic werewolf cultists of The Fury, but 90 years ago, Paladins of the Silver Flame came and killed them all and sealed the temple. But a few years ago, there was an earthquake and the bricked-over entrance collapsed inward, and a few months ago, ogres moved in and used the temple to stage raids on the local village.
The B plot has mysterious effects on the A plotThe B plot colors the dungeon. Most dungeons are re-purposed structures in remote areas being used as a base or home by criminals, cultists, or monsters. They have moved in and taken the space as their own, but the space doesn't fit them perfectly. It leaves them too spaced out to come to each other's aid if they get raided (by the PCs!) and has some lingering shadows of the past. Those lingering shadows color the treasure found there (magic items and works of art from the B-plot time), monsters themselves (some lingering monsters from the B-plot time) and secrets (passages, puzzles, traps, etc.).
The ghosts of the slain werewolves have possessed the Ogre Tyrant and his two brothers. They have started acting strange. They have ordered that the band capture and imprison villagers in the old cages beneath the temple, and they seem to be sleepy and quiescent as the full moon approaches, in three nights' time...
But there is hope... In an old situation report found in one of the first rooms, you learn that four of the paladins were lost and never accounted for. They explored deep in the temple's East wing, and disappeared. It was assumed they fell into a trap or were killed in a secret passage. If you can find their bodies and appease their restless spirits, you may be able to take their silver weapons, which are the only way you can defeat the possessed Ogre Tyrant and his brothers.
More, some of the ogres are disturbed by the Tyrant's strange behavior. Just after the PCs find the situation report, they encounter Rashga Grey-Beard, the band's elder, who will actually converse with the heroes instead of attacking them, asking them if they know any ghost stories about this temple. If they are honest with him, he will take several of the ogres out "raiding" for a while, clearing the way for them to get to the inner sanctum, where the Tyrant's brothers guard the passageway into the Killing Rooms downstairs, where the Tyrant stands silent watch over the terrified soon-to-be-victims.
A dungeon is a discrete unit of arc plot.
An arc plot is the plot of a season of television - a story with a beginning, middle and end. Serial TV shows have several arc plots over the seasons, and some arc plots span multiple seasons (that's why some things aren't resolved in the season finale). The plot of the campaign, in D&D, is designed to link a string of dungeons together, so that it keeps giving the protagonists a reason to explore a new isolated area composed of discrete zones filled with challenges. Each dungeon has a clue, item, or objective that unlocks the next step in the arc plot. The next step inevitably leads to a new dungeon.
In your plot outline, you may have "track down the surviving witness and find out what really happened to the Duke." So you create a dungeon and put the surviving witness in it. You can have the witness be a villain in the dungeon, or an innocent victim of the villains in there. You can have the villains there connected with the arc plot, or not.
...a secret known only to the three witnesses who saw the Duke's murder. Two of them were found dead within a day. The third, a priestess of the Silver Flame, fled to the North. She was last seen on the road to Morda, a small mining town along the mountains...
...Yes, the priestess was here. But some ogres raided the town, and she was kidnapped along with the innkeeper and his family when they burned the inn to the ground. Please, adventurers, will you go to the old cliffside temple, slay the ogres, and rescue the kidnapped villagers? Your priestess may be among them. If you do not, they will surely come back and kill the rest of us...
A dungeon is full of choices.
A linear dungeon is boring. Give the PCs forks. Remember that the decisions they have must have consequences. Do we go left or right? That decision is boring. Give them some information about what lies each way, even if it's incomplete or confusing. Give them tactical and strategic options. Give them roleplay choices.
Do we go left, through the underwater section, where the ogres can't be standing guard, but other dangers may be present (like drowning)? Or do we go right, where we know ogres patrol regularly? Do we sneak past the patrols or fight them? Do we disarm the trap or try to lure ogres into it? Do we take the secret passage, leaving monsters behind us, or kill them first? Rashga proposes to take some of the evil ogres out to raid the town to get them out of our way while we deal with the Tyrant. Do we accept his offer and hope the town militia can handle a smaller ogre band? Do we let him go, but plan to press on the rest of the way without rest, hoping to finish up here then race back to town in time to chase him off? Or do we kill him, even though that means we will be forced to camp the night to recover from our wounds? Does one of us swear an oath to convert to the religion of the Silver Flame to satisfy the paladins' ghosts, or do we destroy them as abominations, as their own religion would have us do? The innkeeper has been possessed by a werewolf ghost as well. The full moon is coming very soon. Do we kill him out of mercy and compassion for his family as the priestess suggested, or do we chain him up and hope to find a cure?