Your seven players are now fourth or fifth level. Wandering monsters won’t cut it anymore: they’re a waste of time, since they don’t stand a chance in hell. One carrion crawler in a corridor is just a nuisance. Avoid it. I have seen my players generate 320 points of damage in one fight scene.
When you sit down to design the next big adventure, it’s a balancing act: on one hand, the intricacies of role-play and worldbuilding; on the other hand, the simple, straightforward mayhem of big combat scenes with lots of miniatures. To this end, I have identified 6 key elements I think will help build (almost) perfect dungeons. You need to look at
• PC Motivation
• Visual Aid
• Time Limit
• Branch Off Options
“Ten volunteer NPC heroes are already set to embark on that dangerous mission. Your party has acquired quite a bit of local renown by now – so you guys can choose to bump some of the NPCs out of this adventure lineup and take their place. But you don’t have to. These volunteer heroes are ready, and they’re gonna get all the juicy XP...”
There, PC motivation solved.
Let them know that there is always someone else in line for any given adventure. This is a D&D world, after all. There’s always a young druid and two wandering paladins around the corner.
When you provide the players with a map of the dungeon – even an outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete map – it gives them a general idea of how much terrain they’ve yet to cover. They can see the remaining corridors and rooms. Very efficient, especially for one-off adventures.
“This Gate opens once every 25 years, only stays open for 50 minutes, and can only allow 10 people to get in – or out.”
The in-game time limit prevents too much retreat and recharge; spellcasters may be able to huddle down in some corner and replenish ONE first level spell, but that’s it. Use up your scrolls, guys, and use up the charges in your magic items. (That’s the reason your DM gives them to you in the first place.)
Back in the early eighties, players were reckless. Most of them, anyway. Nowadays it’s all groupthink and elaborate min-maxed strategies – a blatant legacy of the video games and various MMORPGs. Players move in tight knots with the spellcasters in the center, and the thieves unable to do their thing (finding traps, listening to doors, hearing noises, etc).
Narrow walkways and teleport traps are the two best tricks to deconstruct that solid clump of miniatures on the table. Monsters appearing from above (or through the walls) are also an excellent method – lava children, blink dogs, wraiths, xorns, or a good old lurker above.
Scenes are of the utmost importance. Arcs, not that much (especially if you don’t play often). I now focus all my energy on scenes – i.e. amazing rooms or locales in which messy / complicated clashes occur. Dungeon Chokepoints, if you will. That is the fundamental part, and that’s what players will remember.
This room is a fitting example: a cul-de-sac teleport fronted with a pit, three concealed doors high up on the right wall, and two separate landings on the opposite side. The PCs teleport in and find themselves bottled up. There are three ways out of there. One, through the concealed doors. Two, across the pit, right side. Three, across the pit, left side – but there’s a gnoll archer waiting over there and of course he starts firing arrows immediately.
Those concealed doors slide open, and kobolds begin throwing spears down onto the party. As for the pit itself, it is covered with huge iron bars upon which it is possible for a character to walk. A giant scorpion dwell inside that pit. Too large to slip through the bars, but its pincers and stinger can still strike at any PC attempting to cross over to the other side...
There’s no shortage of potential action in there. The party cannot fall back: that teleport only works one way. They also have to decide on a course of action quickly, because they don’t have any cover while the damn gnoll is firing away – and he’s got cover, plus a large supply of arrows. So it’s either climb that wall under raining spears, or walk across those iron bars and risk being stung / shot with an arrow.
Thieves or bards may decide to climb, and tackle those kobolds. Magic-users will fire magic missiles at the gnoll and maybe spider climb on the ceiling, bypassing the pit. Fighters and clerics will have no choice but to cross the pit on foot, weapons drawn.
The only way out is through. Party needs a little push? So push. Trust me – it’s for their own good. Players don’t know better, even if some of them are also DMs who run their own games. When you sit down and put on that Player hat, you forget things.
If you give them a retreat option, they’ll use it.
The question is: are you willing to let them chop your combat scene into three smaller combat scenes? If not, then why bother with the monsters chasing the party throughout an entire dungeon level – how many different dungeon floors will you have to whip out then? Just go one step further and keep the PCs trapped in the one room. They will thank you later: memorable combats don’t have two or three time-outs. Unless what you want is precisely that: a full-tilt, arduous running battle like the Chain of Dogs, but within a dungeon environment.
Branch Off Options
Be up front about the stuff you’ve prepared. Your players are grown-ups, right? Just tell them, “This is what I have with me today. It’s a portal to Avernus, and a lemur-infested volcano fortress. I made all the props, sculpted them, and painted them, plus the necessary miniatures. You don’t want to go? Alright. I can improvise a game in the city or out in the forest, but we’ll have no props and almost no minis. There are no lemurs and Legion Devils in the forest.”
Nobody wants an absolute railroad. Keep some lateral options open. Sub-levels. Opposite corridors. Even if you provided the party with an accurate map of what the previous expedition saw twenty-five years ago in that very same dungeon, I’m sure there are corridors they haven’t explored – or maybe some new dungeon developments were added sometime during the course of the past 25 years? Allow them to go off-script if they really want to.
The perfect dungeon is a mix of what’s fun for the players (optimizing / gaining powers) and what’s fun for the DM (utter, absolute mayhem). Give your players some room to optimize, especially if they’re a bunch of project managers / web architects / university teachers – but not too much room. The best role-playing memory is never a perfectly optimized adventure, but rather, a time when everything went to hell as your cleric didn’t save against Polymorph and was turned into a swarm of bees and the fighter drank his Potion of Heroism and then rolled three consecutive 20s but died 7 rounds later because he had lost way more than his regular HP and also the thief tried to backstab an otyugh and the magic-user simply fled the scene and the others called him a damn wimp for months!
Twenty-five years, and I still remember that.