To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map

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.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

My best tip for running a great dungeon: Write all over the map.

This tradition of minimally-useful maps dates to the publication of Palace of the Vampire Queen and F’Chelrak’s Tomb. For 40-some years published adventures almost always include maps that suck. Designers should stop following a bad example. For a better example of useful dungeon maps, look to entries in the one-page-dungeon contest.

Meanwhile, few DMs considered improving their maps by marking up a brand new copy of, say, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In 1978 its $4.49 price amounted to $18 today. You couldn’t even mark a copy of the maps, which TSR printed in blue to thwart Xerox.

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.

Smaller map marked for adventure

Smaller map marked for adventure

Lacking a copier, I used sticky notes

6 thoughts on “To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map

  1. Kaique

    My Caverns of Thracia is filled with margin notes, notes covering the maps, and highlights with multiple colours. These marks not only helped me to run the dungeon, but they also helped me to understand, memorize and have a macro view of it.

    Reply
  2. Senshi

    Wait, you are telling me that there’s people out there who does NOT do this? That’s insane! Since my ever first DM time I did this, and I didn’t had a mentor or someone telling me what to do. It just felt right. I guess there’s really some people who can’t see the obvious.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: D&D’s Advice for Dungeon Masters Offers Nothing on Running Dungeons | DMDavid

  4. Tracy Burnham

    I find it very frustrating that entries to the one page dungeon contest are easier to understand and run than professionally published material that costs money. Having to recopy the adventure onto the map is time consuming and a labeled map is something the adventure should provide the DM

    Reply

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