You know the joke about level 20 shop keeps to keep murder hobos in line? What about like an actual reason for a level 20 something shopkeeper? Like a retired adventurer selling off the contents of their many bags of holding. Great place to get magic gear, plenty of potential adventure hooks, and a retired adventurer would have a great many connections.
Shopkeep: Agiviv Stoneeye, The Alchemist under the Hill
The title? It’s my little joke, I always said I’d be in my grave before I gave up on the great work, so after I retired I found myself a cozy little barrow in which to continue my studies. Still brings a smile to my stiff old jaw each time I think about it.
Setup: The Sad truth is that age catches up to everyone, even heroes, and those that live the adventurers life tend to age faster than most. If it isn't the life sapping curses or the devouring jaws of beasts that get you, it's the slow accumulation of innumerable breaks, stabs, burns, and mishaps that accumulate in a body along with years of hard wear and stress.
Such was the case for Agiviv and his companions, a once celebrated band of heroes who saved the world in their own small way before settling into happy obscurity. After their mission was done each wanted different things, some family, some to return to the duties they left behind, but for Agiviv the whole point of adventuring was to secure the means by which he could continue his studies, and by the gods did he ever find it.
While each of his retiring friends took a hero's share of their accumulated wealth Agiviv (who served as the group's quartermaster) ensured he was left holding the bags: the bags of holding containing years of accumulated treasure, crafting ingredients, and dungeon junk. Settling in one of the first dungeons cleared by his companions, close enough to a town to make a supply run but not so close that he’d be bothered with neighbors, the old Orc now works away happily on all the projects he never got around to during his life on the road.
Joke as you would about alchemists and their search for gold, Agiviv was always the most business minded of his companions, and has spent the intervening years setting up storefronts in several major population centers across the kingdom. Each one is minded by one of his apprentices, who discuss the needs of customers as they enter and browse through catalogs before popping into the back room to secure the stock. These “back rooms” are in fact portals to Agiviv’s workshop, where the apprentices can clear any important transaction with their boss or shift down to one of the many storerooms to retreive the stock. When the party visit their local “Stoneye’s Alchemics” only to have its attendant disappear for a protracted period of time, their curiosity may lead them to intrude upon the workshop and begin to poke around where they don’t belong. Depending on whether they decide to do a smash and grab or actually investigate the disappearance, they may later encounter a very angry Agaviv or one thankful to them for saving an apprentice that’d fallen victim to a long unnoticed mimic.
Given his talents lay in the crafting of potions and other alchemical wonders, Agaviv is more than happy to part with various bits of armor, enchanted weapons, and miscellaneous doodads too impractical to be of any use in his research. One of these items happens to be a very dangerous book that Agaviv accidentally mislabeled saving it from his “Very cursed do not sell” Pile. Sold to the party as a genuinely useful and benign object, the group’s spellcaster may only learn of it’s true nature after it has become attuned.
Though the dungeon Agiviv claims as his home was cleared out years ago, one wing of it has become infested with pests, which the shopkeeper may send the party to clear out as a bit of a nostalgic lark. What he doesn’t suspect is that these creatures actually crept out of a portal to the underdark, and their reckless burrowing has created a fissure that the party will inevitably fall down and will be forced to climb their way back to the material plane. After braving an unusually long road of trials, Agiviv will be shocked to realize he’s going to have to move or risk his entire operation falling into the world beneath.
I was reading a list of D&D epic spells, and one of them was called Nailed to the Sky and literally just sends enemies into low-earth orbit. I thought that was pretty cool so I added it to my game.
Goblin Shaman by Allnamesinuse
DnD Commission, Half Elf Paladin of Gorum.
Warrior in the shadows (Dave De Leuw, Proteus 2, early 1985)
Art by Donato Giancola
Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time (2009-2017) S1E18 “Dungeon”
The fearless Pokemon team explore the mysterious Alph Ruins! This was a commission I painted recently. The bandanas are a reference to the video game, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon.
Admit it, you were always a little more interested in torture than most.
More fascinated by racks at museums. Watching more attentively when characters were interrogated on TV. You thought about dungeons more than most.
Being led into a room filled with all manner of restraints, knowing it is a place of torment where practiced hands will extract your confession, no matter how unwilling.
By stock, or rack, or torture table, you imagined whether you could take it. Who doesn't imagine themselves the brave hero, resisting torture on behalf of a greater good?
You knew of course, you WOULDN'T resist pain, and didn't really want to. But your mind lingered on the concept... and you realised you still sort of wanted the experience.
Being captured, bound, left waiting for a fate you KNOW is inevitable... these all held your attention. You wanted to taste the powerlessness, be left helpless, the most sensitive parts of you exposed to the cool air of the dungeon and then overpowering sensation administered by someone who just won't stop until they get what they want.
Somebody sadistic. Somebody infinitely creative with ways to hold your body perfectly still, ways to restrict and enhance your senses to tune the torment to the EXACT frequency that will break you.
Somebody who understands your secret craving, and will make you experience every facet of that desire to be pushed. Tested.
Someone who will have you as their captive, get inside your head and let you experience what you always wanted.
Sophie, the Great Dragon of the Dragon Hills (Walter Moore illus for Dave Arneson’s D&D module “Garbage Pits of Depair, Part 2: The Dragon Hills” in Different Worlds 43, Chaosium, Jul/Aug 1986)
Art by Matthew Dobrich
Drafting the Adventure: Dungeons, an Introduction.
For a long time now I’ve been wanting to share my advice on how to build dungeons but after months of trying to turn the knowledge I'd collected on the subject into a distinct methodology I’ve realized that there’s just too much for it to fit into a single post. Even beyond how diverse they are in terms of layout and underlying theme, the mechanical gameplay purpose that dungeons serve have a huge impact on how they’re built/designed, meaning any “ how to build a dungeon” checklist would need to be able to account for far too many options.
Instead I’m going to do a series of posts, developing the idea of dungeons layer by later, focusing on specific topics and design goals which you can then pick and choose from when building your own player vexing labyrinths.
Today we’re going to start with how to best use dungeons in your adventure, which I think is a topic that doesn’t get talked about enough. When I started DMing I heard a piece of advice that there should be atleast three dungeons per settlement the party visited, which led to me doing a lot of extra work creating caves, castles, and ruins that my party never ended up visiting. I didn’t really know how to include them in my stories and my players didn’t want to be sidetracked from the story they were experiencing to risk dying in a hole.
The problem is that dungeons are so ubiquitous that they’re in the name of the game, most players who get into the hobby have at least a general idea of what a dungeon is “supposed to be”, and DMs feel obligated to include them despite not knowing how to employ them for best effect. Much like a fight scene or a loredump or a big villain reveal, there’s a specific time and place to employ dungeons in your campaign for maximum benefit, leading into the tempo of your campaign rather than breaking it for some smash and grab archeology.
Below the cut I’m going to go in depth on story structure and how dungeons can fit into this, but right now I’m going to give you a simple tip that you should keep in mind as we go forwards: Dungeons come in about three sizes and these sizes determine how they fit into your campaign.
Plot relevant dungeons: These are the smallest type, effectively consisting of a few challenges between the party and their plot relevant objective. They’re made to use the idea of a “dungeon” to funnel the party through a specific high stakes gauntlet that might have a few branches but always leads to where the story needs them to go.
Sideshow Dungeons: Small to Medium in size this type of dungeon provides the party a hack n slash/puzzlesilving pallet cleanser from the drama of the campaign to be completed in one or two sessions. or they can serve as set ups storybeats to follow up on once the party gets back to town. I call these sideshow dungeons because they are best employed as something your players can “opt in” to of their own volition, rather than something the plot makes mandatory.
Exploration Dungeons: Medium to large in size These dungeons are entire adventures unto themselves, and will likely have the party circling back to town multiple times to rest up and resupply before heading back to their delve. Dungeons of this type tend to be more intricate and sprawling than the others, hosting challenges across interconnected levels that reward players for keeping a map.
Trying to use one of these sorts of dungeons when another type is called for risks breaking the momentum of your game and worse yet forcing you to do a lot of work for an inconsistent amount of reward.
What IS a dungeon? As I mentioned before, dungeons are sort of ubiquitous to gaming as a whole, and while the current DMG gives us an idea what a dungeon looks like, it’s sparingly brief on what a dungeon is in terms of game design.
Dungeons are a series of encounters and challenges blocked off from the world so that the players have to face them in a certain order. You as the DM can’t predict how the party is going to act in each instance, but the structure of these encounters lets you build in interesting mechanics and set pieces.
Dungeons have a goal which determines their shape: this is most evident in the case of plot relevant dungeons, where a party might say, be trying to stealth through a fortress to rescue an important NPC and have to be quick and clever enough to avoid raising the alarm or else risk having to fight the whole garrison and imperiling their hostage. In the case of more open ended, or exploration based dungeons, the challenges tend to revolve around navigation: forcing the party to brave the unknown while finding shortcuts around hazards that imperil their progress.
Dungeons are areas high risk, high reward: D&D characters are made to get into fights and usually have enough of a reserve to handle a couple of skirmishes per day. dungeons are where you put your party’s abilities to the test, throwing them against escalating hurdles with the temptation of greater and greater prizes as a reward. On that note, dungeons should be chock full of rewards, which will make your party want to push forward and brave whatever horrors their dm has planned.
Dungeons are Mysterious: This might seem like it’s surface level at first, but the whole reason characters in d&d are called “adventurers” is because there is something essential to being human in our desire to explore the unknown. Dungeons are secret places removed from the world, filled with the unexpected and hints at a dramatic past. A dungeon without mystery might as well be a series of fights in a succession of rooms, a purely mechanical exercise forgotten about as soon as your players receive their numerically mandated loot drop.
With these in mind we can begin to think about actually constructing our dungeon. I’m going to leave my tricks on designing a layout to another post, but for the time being, let me give you my rubric for how many encounters you should be putting into your dungeons: Since the average party can handle 5-8 encounters between long rests, the indicator of a dungeon’s size is how many of those rests it will take for them to get to their goal and back out again. Also notice that I said “encounter” not “combat”, as there are plenty of other sorts of challenges that can drain a party’s resources that don’t require rolling imitative. This includes a majority of small scale combats against enemies that can be cleaned up in a couple rounds, representing enemy patrols, random encounters, or incidental foes faced along the way to greater challenges. Likewise, this introduces the idea that smaller dungeons might take up half a rest’s worth of encounters, especially if the adventure surrounding it is busy enough.