In an episode of the Official D&D Podcast, D&D’s principle story designer, Chris Perkins, explained why he called on Will. “I realized I would not be able to justice to the maps unless I brought in someone to help. There’s this wonderful collaborator, a freelancer named Will Doyle. He had done some work for me back when I was editing Dungeon magazine and I was always impressed with the style of his maps and the amount of effort and devotion that he put into them. I’m very, very meticulous when it comes to map creation, and he has those same qualities.”
In Tomb of Annihilation, Will mapped and designed the adventure’s centerpiece, the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He made Acererak proud.
Will’s maps attracted notice when his adventure Tears of the Crocodile God appeared in Dungeon issue 209. Chris Perkins called the adventure one of the best to appear in the magazine. You don’t have to take his opinion alone, because I agree. Chris has only worked professionally on D&D for decades; I have a blog.
When I gained a chance to talk with Will, I asked him for a secret to making a great dungeon map. He gave me five:
1. Cross the map with a river, rift, or similar connecting feature.
Will recommends splitting your dungeon map with some kind of central feature that characters can travel. Tomb of the Nine Gods includes three connecting elements:
- An underground river links sites on the first and fifth levels.
- A grand staircase and vertical shaft connect the dungeon’s first five levels.
- An underground lake spans the fifth level.
During players first hour exploring the tomb, they could easily find all these features.
These features connect many rooms and passages, giving players choices. Instead of forcing players along a linear path, the dungeon teases explorers with perils and routes to discover. In a study of designer Jennell Jaquays’ dungeon maps, Justin Alexander explains how a well-connected dungeon gives groups agency and flexibility. “They can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes. The environment never forces a pre-designed path.”
Of course, a corridor could also serve as a connecting feature, but such features feel dull. Rivers and the like add variety to dungeon travel. “You row down the river, rope across the rift, fly down the magic wind tunnel, which makes it fun and memorable,” Will explains. “In play, it’s also easier to say, ‘let’s go back to the river and try another route, rather than ‘let’s go back to that long corridor and try another route.’”
2. Show the final room first.
Will suggests revealing the player’s final destination early in the adventure. Perhaps this location shows the locks to open or a task to complete. Such designs set the characters toward their goal and gives the adventure focus.
While more video games use this technique, a few table-top adventures follow the pattern. In Tomb of Annihilation, both the Lost City of Omu and the Tomb of Nine Gods make finding the players’ goal easy, but both send characters searching for keys.
In Storm King’s Thunder, the forge of the fire giants has massive, adamantine doors that lead from the mountainside directly to the hall of Duke Zalto, the players’ target. But to reach the Duke, the characters probably need to climb 1500 feet and battle down through the mountain’s interior.
If the final room is a metaphor for a visible goal, many more adventures start to follow Will’s advice. For example, in Curse of Strahd, Castle Ravenloft looms visible through the adventure, but the players learn they must gather certain artifacts to stand against Strahd. Teos Abadia drew inspiration for his adventure DDEX2-13 The Howling Void from Will’s Tears of the Crocodile God. The characters enter an elemental node where Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players can see the node the must reach to stop a ritual, but they will visit others to weaken their foes before a final confrontation.
3. Give players goals that compel them to explore.
Linear dungeon adventures come from designers who only plant one goal in the dungeon, usually its villain and its hoard. Players have nothing to find but the end, so authors feel tempted to put all their ideas along the path to the end.
Instead, Will designs his dungeons with elements that draw characters to explore.
For example, the dungeon in Tears of the Crocodile God draws players with several goals. First, the characters aim to save four human sacrifices wandering the dungeon. Second, the dungeon’s four areas include clues that enable the characters to confront the crocodile god. As a bonus, this premise leads the characters to hurry to rescue the sacrifices before the dungeon’s monsters and traps claim them.
In another example, Tomb of Annihilation sends players chasing five wandering skeleton keys.
4. Make the dungeon a puzzle.
In the D&D Adventurers League scenario DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent by Eric Menge, the dungeon becomes a puzzle. Early in, players find a puzzle that unlocks a portal to the main villain. Players must explore the dungeon to find the keys to the puzzle. This design combines two of Will’s other suggestions: It shows the final room first and and draws players to explore. Plus, the adventure turns the dungeon into a puzzle. Tears of the Crocodile God mixes a similar brew with its scattered clues.
Most dungeons will follow this suggestion less rigidly. Perhaps the dungeon merely works as something to unravel, location by location. As an inspiration, Will cites the levels of the Doom video game. To progress, players must find a series of keys. Each key brings the heroes deeper into hell.
5. Give each level a distinctive theme.
In larger dungeons, flavor the levels or areas with themes that add variety and make regions seem distinct. This practice dates back to D&D’s second dungeon, which sprawled under Castle Greyhawk. Gary Gygax included levels themed around types of monsters.
Large, contemporary dungeons such as the Doomvault in Tales From the Yawning Portal or Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage feature stronger themes. For instance, Doomvault includes areas bubbling with slime and oozes, overrun by underground gardens, and corrupted by the far realm.