The Airas Chronicler – Session Four
A behind-the-scenes, slice-of-life series based on the trials of a new Game Master.
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Creating dungeons is probably one of the most exciting things about being a DM. You get to create intricate mazes of rooms and halls, monsters and traps, and create a sense of danger for your players. In my fourth or fifth session of Airas I finally led the party into my first official dungeon.
We’d spent several weeks growing more comfortable with each other as players and people. They’d finally gotten used to their characters and I felt that it was finally time to throw them into some real danger. After a long stakeout mission and an intense chase sequence, they managed to break into an underground lair – the Criminal’s Den.
When you’re building a dungeon, as with every quest you send your players on, you need to provide a specific goal or task at hand. My party were tracking a bounty that they knew to be hiding somewhere within the lair and so with a specific target in mind, it was up to me to now make that task difficult but exciting.
Creating your own dungeon gives you the opportunity to pull all of your stored up puzzles and conflicts out and finally test them. Trying to balance the sense of risk and fun is a difficult task, and my first dungeon taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t. I created a labyrinth of sorts, with enemies and classic traps distributed throughout. There were only 11 rooms and more than one way to get to their bounty who was hiding in one of the very back rooms.
One of the more interesting traps I used was a series of teleportation crystals lodged into the handles of doors. (Encounter Roleplay’s first magazine issue included a short segment based on this trap.) Pressure plates and trip wires are all fine and good, but adding an extra element of randomness really amps up the tension. When one party member disappears before the rest of the group’s eyes and is suddenly dropped into a room with sleeping wolves, the stakes get that much higher.
Second to the traps the random encounters and loot make the journey to the final room that much more thrilling. I had about six guards scattered throughout the rooms and a few wolves as backup. All of these encounters were designed so that combat wasn’t mandatory. It’s good to let the players decide how they think their characters would approach each situation. If you have a deceptive or sociable player, talking their way through can be just as exciting as combat.
When you make your players roll, whether that’s against an enemy, against a trap, or just a straight stealth role, make sure there you have clear consequences and rewards set in place. When your players fail, punish them for failing. If they unsuccessfully pick a lock, letting them try again and again removes the sense of urgency in an enemy territory. Maybe they hear someone coming from the other side of the door or from behind them. Give them the motivation to try new ideas. Dungeon crawling can get monotonous, and it’s your job as the DM to keep it fresh and exhilarating.
Of course when I was designing my first dungeon there were a few things I didn’t take into account. I never anticipated the party splitting up, as this is a generally frowned upon decision. DMing two simultaneous encounters can get confusing, but it isn’t impossible. However, when you were expecting a party of five for a particular encounter and end up with a party of two you can run into some serious issues.
With lower level parties, I recommend setting the CR a little lower than you might normally, especially when running your own homebrew dungeon. You can learn a lot and then be better prepared for the next.
I’m including the map to this very first dungeon I created myself, feel free to use it and incorporate your own traps! I’d love to hear about your first dungeons, what worked, and what didn’t. Feel free to email me anytime, I can’t wait to find out about your campaigns and what you’d like me to talk about in the future.