Dungeon Exploration is the Story

Back to the game’s basics…

TSR 2001 Basic D&D
TSR 2001 Basic D&D

Back in the day we didn’t need a story, dungeon exploration was the story. This may seem a bit odd but it is true. In its most simple form the adventure is exploring a dungeon for treasure, and fighting monsters. The design of the game is such that Character progression and improving fighting capability are mainly driven by the accumulation of experience points obtained in dungeon exploration. The structure of the game is such that in effect it allows the Players to write a sequential story.

I first began playing in high school before Holmes Basic and at that time we would draw dungeons first, without wilderness supporting elements. All dungeons were drawn on graph paper, and the larger the better.  We regularly played only in this context. The end of each session was signaled only by an escape from the dungeon, after which we would total experience, heal, advance in level, and buy items. Where the dungeon was, or where the Characters actually were was not considered important.

It wasn’t long however before we soon discovered that published material was available which both raised the bar and expanded the scope of adventure to wilderness settings. We were inspired by these works. These days there is no shortage of such material, old, new, professional or self published, and all these are undoubtedly very useful. However, if one is starting out as the Game Master I would suggest that one is missing something by not creating their own dungeons. Therefore, it occurs to me that new Game Masters might be interested in some thoughts from an old guy on writing their own material for dungeon adventures, its not that hard.

Dungeon adventures really don’t have to be complicated. Its usually best to start out writing for the first three character levels (of an old game or a clone) as those early levels are the most suitable. That is consider having a dungeon of at least three levels deep. I usually begin by imagining a suitable locale for an underground dungeon. I often begin with nothing more than a typical Hilroy notebook (scribbler) of the sort used for school and loose leaf 1/4 inch graph paper for map making, a pencil, the rules, and some dice. These were all we had in the old days, and while computers can make the presentation and organization of material more slick looking, in the end its what one writes that really matters. A computer can sometimes get in the way of the basics; after all this is a game which exercises both creativity and imagination. Another thing, once on paper, even scribbles, are there permanently for reference, don’t take back and erase. I have more than a few little notes written in the margins of many scribblers which expand on and illuminate previous passages. Rarely will I think of it all at one sitting and return to amend and annotate, so take heart if today does not reveal all.

Insofar as one needs a locale, at a minimum players need only some place to rest and recuperate, like a nearby frontier town, and then a conveniently adjacent ruin with a dungeon underneath it to fulfill their adventuring requirements. This theme has been exploited in various ways over the years so its hard to go wrong. Extraordinary details aren’t necessary, and if the Game Master so desires answering some simple questions can provide a simple back story for the dungeon.

Who, What, Where, When, Why, How

Answering the five W’s and one H will flesh out critical details about a locale in which a dungeon is found and suggest further points to expand upon, for example:


To answer this let us suppose that in an imaginary frontier is set a ruined castle, under which is rumored to be a dungeon. The castle, locally known as the Ruined Keep, lies near a border town which is part of a Greater Kingdom. The outer walls have fallen, leaving only the inner bailey and remnants of a defensive ditch. Traces of burned soot still stain the stone walls around the windows and doors although the battle that brought the castle to its destruction occurred long ago. At the ruined gate to the castle is a statue of a stone knight, with a sword raised high above his head as though he were about to strike down a foe. The keep has an unwelcoming feeling, and the travelers which must pass by it never stop there, as the scowling eyes of the stone knight train upon them. It is a forlorn place. Well, that takes care of the “Where”.


The knight was a defender of the castle, turned to stone, by an Evil character whom we shall call Zernon. It was Zernon’s Legions which sacked the castle and turned it into a ruin.


Some 100 years ago, the Legions of the Evil Zernon sought to win the area from the Greater Kingdom; laying siege to the castle. The siege lasted for months before the gate was finally breached. During the battle the castle was destroyed and its defenders turned to stone. Their now weathered and broken forms may be found throughout the ruin. The castle was sacked, burned, and all that remains now are its walls. In the years that followed, the First Dynasty of the Greater Kingdom declined, the castle was never rebuilt, and it was abandoned. It is now a crumbling ruin.


Why is it there? Because I need a place to put the dungeon? Well, yes but we need a little more detail than that. Time for some additional fiction, a simple back story.

Legend has it that the Greater Kingdom’s power and prosperity was founded upon the Luck Stone. This stone brought prosperity and peace to the lands of the Greater Kingdom. For a time all was well however darker forces were at work and the Evil Zernon sought the Luck Stone so that its power might be turned to Evil. At first through intrigue, and then by war Zernon strove to obtain this legendary treasure but it was well guarded and defended by the Knights of the Greater Kingdom. They took the stone and hid it but in the end the secret of its location was eventually discovered by Zernon.

Zernon pursued the trail of the treasure to this remote Castle where the Evil Legions were finally able to overwhelm the defenders. In the end the defenders, realizing that the castle would fall, smote the stone and sundered it into two halves. One half they hid somewhere below the Keep in the dungeons and the other unfortunately fell into the hands of Zernon. In a rage at being cheated of the entire prize Zernon destroyed the castle and cursed it, turning the remainder of its defenders to stone. Although the power of the Luck Stone was diminished, perhaps leading to the eventual fall of the First Dynasty, Zernon was never able to entirely overcome the power of the half which was not obtained.

So, with a back story in place one can begin drawing a dungeon layout. However its clear we need a map of the area showing the local area, and ground level maps at a 10 foot scale of the town and dungeon’s site. What happened to the two halves of the Luck Stone are questions that eventually need to be answered. One is clearly below the ruined keep hidden somewhere in the dungeon. And the other… Well that might eventually be the source of another adventure, one in which the PCs re-unite the pieces of the Luck Stone possibly bringing a restoration of prosperity to the Greater Kingdom. Or, maybe the magic of the Luck Stone doesn’t work anymore, who knows?


Zernon, possibly a mad wizard or cleric, used magic powers for Evil to destroy the castle and obtain half the Luck Stone.

Making a Dungeon

I prefer multi level dungeons with elevators, stairs, pits, slopes and and shafts leading between the levels. I usually draw the levels myself as its fun. More often than not I draw maps freehand, and then populate the rooms using the usual methods. Sometimes its fun to take an existing map and then make up content for each numbered area. The following map, “The Pit” has stairs and shafts which descend to levels below. The caves are numbered for easy reference.

Dungeon Level 1 – Example of a Map Key:

This is the sort of text I would write explaining the dungeon. I have left out any monsters and treasure for the reader to imagine themselves if they wish.


The entrance to the dungeon is a 20 x 20 ft pit opening and Level 1 is 30 ft below. In order to gain access a rope may be tied to around the bole of a nearby giant toadstool and the Player Characters will then have to climb down the rope into The Pit. The entrance is at the center of the four maps. The numbered keys may indicate; nothing is present, a treasure is to be found, or one or more monsters are present, refer to an appropriate topics in whatever rules one is using.

This underground dungeon is a combination of natural caves and mined areas and the walls show signs of having been cut out of the rock with a pick. Secret doors/walls are well concealed and resemble the natural or worked stone. The portcullis are made of iron and some are operated with cranks. There are few wooden doors. Sliding stone doors must be pried upward and raised vertically; their weight closes them if they are not held open in some manner.

Square (6,5) Map Key
  1. Pit Entrance, a dank wind blows from the NE. The pit entrance is 30 ft above. Do not locate a Foe here.

  2. A Medium size mushroom grows here. Note the hidden pit trap just to the NW. It opens suddenly when it is walked over dropping unsuspecting travelers into the pit.
  3. The door to this room slides upwards, inside is a hidden pit trap 20 ft deep. It opens suddenly when it is walked over dropping unsuspecting travelers into the pit.
  4. A Medium size mushroom grows here.
  5. Stairs descend into darkness down to level 2.
Square (6,6) Map Key
  1. Pit Entrance, a dank wind blows from the NE. The pit entrance is 30 ft above. Do not locate a Foe here.

  2. A secret room is hidden here behind a concealed door.
  3. Cave area, hideous laughter is heard here.
  4. A shaft in the floor descends 80 ft to level 3, the bottom end is closed with a trap door. It is not sealed well and a dank wind from below blows to the SW and up the pit entrance. It is strong enough to make lights flicker.
  5. There is a pile here. It may be searched.
  6. A crank here operates the portcullis. There is a statue in the niche to the East.
Square (7,5) Map Key
  1. Pit Entrance, a dank wind blows from the NE. The pit entrance is 30 ft above. Do not locate a Foe here.

  2. A shaft here descends 40 ft to level 2.
  3. There is a pile of dung here, it stinks.
  4. A deadly trap here drops a block from the ceiling on those who walk under it.
  5. Cave area.
  6. There is a pile here. It may be searched.
  7. Cave area.
Square (7,6) Map Key
  1. Pit Entrance, a dank wind blows from the NE. The pit entrance is 30 ft above. Do not locate a Foe here.

  2. There is a trap here, the portcullis is charged with magical energy which causes damage to any who touch it. Moans may be heard here.
  3. This crank operates the portcullis, when the portcullis is raised the secret door to (4) is locked and cannot be opened.
  4. A hidden room behind a secret door.
  5. Cave area. Moaning may be heard here.
  6. Cave area.
  7. Cave area. A rattling sound may be heard here.
  8. A secret room is hidden here behind a secret spinning wall.
  9. Cave niche.

Most game rules give directions for monster placement. The placement of the monsters and treasure as indicated by a dice roll, needs to be tempered by the Game Masters understanding of what he/she wants the adventure to be like. Random determination of the monsters doesn’t always work because they may be incongruous or unbelievable. A Wight in one room, and four Goblins in the next doesn’t always make sense. They are unlikely neighbours. Of course if one is ok with this (as we were back in the day) then why not? Random tables meant to be suggestive. In our adventure the dungeon rooms could have virtually anything in them we like so long as it isn’t too wild for first level characters. I usually hand pick a few monsters and treasures appropriate to the level for key areas, and then see what turns up randomly for the rest. Even these I regard as suggestions so nothing goes in unless its appropriate.

Remember after Player Characters clean out a few rooms and leave the dungeon, something will move back in, perhaps a session or two later, so don’t be afraid to change the map or map contents by adding or removing things. This will surprise the Players!

Dungeon Exposition

After discovering which rooms have something in them any additional room text for the dungeon should keep to the adventure’s  five Ws and one H. Consistency with the back story always makes the adventure convincing.

Obviously Zernon didn’t find the second half of the Luck Stone so that must mean that the relic was originally not easy to find and still lies hidden somewhere in the dungeon below the ruin. The Players will be naturally curious even if finding half of the Luck Stone is really secondary to the Characters main reason for being there. Remember the Players are looking for treasure which translates into the experience points needed to advance their Characters. What the Game Master might desire is entirely secondary to what the Players want for their Characters.

Although the Luck Stone may have been hidden in Level 1 or 2 originally, perhaps it has been carried off to the third level below by some “thing”. Well, we decide that it should be so.

Wandering Monsters

I do things a bit differently than rely on the usual game tables for wandering monsters although they inform my choices. I make a custom wandering monster list for each level, which I roll on for encounters. These need not all be monsters, some could be gasses, winds, smells, bats, lights blowing out, groaning or other sounds, periods of anti magic when nothing works to double magic when you get 2x the usual result, improved saving throws, etc. Anything which contributes to the player experience. Its always fun to include new monsters in this list, as well as modifications to old ones to keep things jumping. Here is an example, anything in [square brackets] refers to the title of another table. Roll on that table to supply the relevant content.

Table: Dungeon, Roll 3d6


[Sound] is heard in the distance to the [Direction].


Something drips from cracks in the ceiling for the next 1d6*10 feet for 2d3+1 turns. It is [Substance]


Undead, [Undead]


There is a sudden feeling of chill and malaise, Torches and Lights flicker and



Knockers, the sound of tapping leads in the direction of the nearest treasure but the knocking only lasts for 1d4 turns.


Giant Ants one is always a warrior ant.


Giant Beetles crawl upon the [Location]


Giant Black Widow Spider(s) crawl along the [Location]


A Crawling Monster gibbers and howls as it squirms toward you.


A single Ooze lies nearby.


Flies buzz along looking for a feast.


From cracks in the stone walls Gas seeps out and forms a cloud 1d3 squares x 1d3 squares x 10 feet high, duration 1d6 rounds), [Gas]




[Undead] trail the characters.

Table: Direction, Roll 1d6









Table: Gas, Roll 1d6


poison, damage per round of exposure


sleep 1d3 turns


paralyzing 1d3 turns

Table: Kobold, Roll 1d6


Kobolds come marching along.They sing [Song]


There is a loud bang and Kobolds appear out of a cloud of smoke. They shout [Say]

Table: Light, Roll 1d6




nearly extinguish


burn furiously for a moment


sputter giving intermittent light


extinguish completely for 1d2 rounds and then suddenly alight

Table: Location, Roll 1d6


left wall






right wall

Table: Motivation, Roll 1d6


roam the darkness in search of the living.


shamble toward you their eyes gleaming with hatred.


wail piteously and rattle the shackles which bind their limbs


drip with ichor, they look as if they drowned in it.


drag a metal box they are chained to.


with chains pull a giant stone behind them, blocking the passage.

Table: Say, Roll 1d6


Thieves! They must be here to steal the Royal Diamond!


Thieves! Metal Thieves!


Stop where you are!


Halt, you have entered the realm of the King of the Kobolds!

Table: Song, Roll 1d6


Poke them with a pitchfork! Roast them on a spit! They stop and shout, Thieves!


Oh give me a home where no Overlanders roam and the brimstone’s are burning all day! They stop and shout, Overlanders!


Fight! Fight! Fight!


Where oh where can our Spider be? Oh where oh where has it gone? They stop and shout, Intruders!

Table: Sound, Roll 1d6






Chains rattling







Table: Substance, Roll 1d6


Acid, the drips cause damage to any who touch it and fail their Saving Throw. The acid damages weapons and armor reducing their effectiveness -1.


A poison drips causes a chaotic battle madness to any who fail their Saving Throw. Characters must attack any foe sighted within the next 1d6 turns but they gain +1 for 1d6 rounds.


Water drips, it is cool and clean.


Ichor drips and forms a sticky web which blocks passage. Touching it entangles someone if they fail a Saving Throw to escape. Any Character caught in the webs must make a successful Check Roll to free themselves from the sticky Ichor. It takes 1d3 rounds to free a stuck Character.


Sewage drips and there is a risk of catching a disease from it on failing a Saving Throw. The disease makes the character sick for 1d6 days and they cannot undertake any activity in that time. Incubation period is 1d6 hours.

Table: Undead, Roll 1d6





Final Words

Bear in mind that Character progression is always measurable in experience points and closely tied to success in the dungeon.

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Greg MacKenzie is the author of the novella Seven Crows a Secret, the Fenris 2d6 role playing game, adventure modules Gloomland, and Wildwood, as well as countless other adventures.

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