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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Contemplating the Mini Dungeon

by Ken Newquist / December 28, 2014
The tools of small dungeon design.
The tools of small dungeon design. Credit: Ken Newquist

Five years ago, I wrote about the dangers of the mega dungeon. Now my group has returned to Dungeons & Dragons, and I'm contemplating the role of dungeons in the campaign.

Time has shown that the folks in my group aren't big fans of mega dungeons, but I think we still enjoy the challenge of subterranean complexes ... we just don't want to get trapped there. That's led me to consider creating a series of mini dungeons: small complexes, largely independent of one another, that can be completed in one or two evenings.

Previous editions of D&D -- notably D&D 3.5 and Paizo's Pathfinder offshoot -- made dungeon crawls a slug because even at low level combats could take an hour. With D&D 5th Edition though, combats are much quicker. I can reasonably expect to fit in 4-5 combats in a 4-hour session, maybe more. That means I could layout a small dungeon, complete with traps and the oddball role-playing encounter, and a half-dozen combat encounters and expect to complete the dungeon in two sessions or maybe a single 6-hour one.

That scratches the dungeon crawl itch without having to spend weeks slugging our way through yet another endless, goal-less deathtrap. Borrowing a page from Skyrim, I can see stringing these diverse locations together through a series of tunnels and caverns. Again, I wouldn't want to spawn a massive dungeon; instead I'd rather creating a small constellation of linked locations that occasionally repopulate with new threats.

I have several tools I'm eager to use for this endeavor:

  • Random Dungeons from the Dungeon Master's Guide:The 5th Edition DMG, like several of its previous iterations, includes charts for randomly creating dungeons and creating random dungeon dressing. I've got a hankering to roll some dice; these charts satisfy that need.
  • Dungeonmorph Dice: These hella cool dice include mini-maps of dungeons and caverns and can be used to quickly create small (or not-so-small) dungeons.
  • Moleskine Square Notebook: I've got a graph paper-style Moleskin dedicated just to mega dungeons. I've tried drawing dungeons freehand with mixed results, but I like the idea of returning to my graph paper roots for this project.
  • Uni Jetstream Pens: These pens write like silk. I can't wait to use them with my dungeons.
  • Staedtler Color Pens: I like adding a splash of color to my dungeons; these pens provide me with a robust palette.

My plan is to leverage my campaign's background -- a fallen kingdom overrun by monsters -- to spawn all manner of collapsed ruins, lost mines, and abandoned quarries. Each of these locations will have its own backstory and be completable in a session, two at the outside. Some of these may lead us back to the Obsidian Maze -- our gaming group's own mega dungeon -- but the group will be under no obligation to return there.

I'm drawing inspiration for these mini dungeons from the annual One Page Dungeon contest and Dyson's Delve (a series of small maps that combine to create a larger -- but still manageable -- dungeon). My hope is to create a series of unique dungeons that are every bit as memorable as the Obsidian Maze, Undermountain, or Castle Greyhawk ... but without the overhead. I'm not sure how successful I'll be, but it's a worthy goal.