For running a dungeon, the familiar map with numbers sets dungeon masters up for trouble. Many times when characters enter a dungeon room, I turn to a room’s key, and then learn that the party just passed a trapped door. “Wait! You can’t go in yet because…no particular reason.” Other times, when dungeon expeditions recklessly make noise, I want to find any monsters that hear. After all, dungeons should feel like active places where dangers lurk and where actions bring consequences. I check the map, spot 10 or so nearby room numbers, and realize that paging through the adventure text would stall the game for minutes. So I wind up supposing the werebats next door failed to hear the thunderwave. I guess monsters can wear headphones. Meanwhile, a dog in the yard hears a bag of chips opening in the attic.
Really, as a tool for running a dungeon, the typical map with just numbered locations sucks. But DMs can easily improve maps and the process leaves you better prepared for adventure.
My best tip for running a great dungeon: Write all over the map.
For published adventures, make a copy of dungeon map pages. For your own maps, either write on your original or save a clean copy. Then get out your colored pens and highlighters and mark the maps with the notes you need to run.
- List monsters in their locations.
- Mark traps and locked doors.
- Circle areas where characters may hear or smell things in the dungeon like waterfalls, forges, unholy rituals, and so on.
- If guards might call for reinforcements, mark the travel times between key locations.
- Circle areas controlled by factions.
Time spent writing on the map doubles as preparation for running the adventure. If you mark enough, you can run direcly from the map.