Collaborative Dungeon Design

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 25, 2012

It’s unusual for DMs to get the players to help them design encounters. After all, part of the fun of being a player is the element of the unknown. Players love it and DMs relish in it. The idea that the DM springs the unknown on the players is practically a mandate of D&D. I know this is how things usually work when I’m the DM. I have a vision of what an encounter will be like or where it will take place and I make it happen. I create the encounters in secret. The last thing I want is for the players to have any foreknowledge of what’s next. In fact I’ve gone so far as to change details if I discover they know something they shouldn’t about the next encounter.

During my recent introduction to the Dresden Files RPG I experienced the extreme satisfaction of being part of the collaborative city creation process. The game takes place in a city that everyone helps develop. The DM (or in this case GM) still has the final say, but all the players work together to make the setting interesting. Of course it didn’t take long to see how this exercise could be just as useful to other games, namely D&D.

However, D&D doesn’t usually limit the characters to playing in just one city. The game is built around the transitive nature of PCs who wander the countryside in search of danger and adventure. Although these can be found in some cities, it’s not the typical D&D fare. So instead of collaboratively creating a city that the PCs may only visit once in a while, why not build a collaborative dungeon? Have each player create a room or an encounter. The room or encounter might be something helpful (a lost shrine to a good of healing) or harmful (a dragon’s lair) depending on each player’s whim.

I see a collaborate dungeon working in one of two ways. The first is that each player designs a room or section of the dungeon in secret, sharing it only with the DM. When the party happens upon this room the player either separates what he knows from what his character knows (which rarely works well), or it’s assumed that his character alone knows something about this area. For the later this could be role-played as a flash of insight, a keen eye that picks up on some detail, or a recollection of legend or prophesy.

The other way this kind of collaborative exercise can work is to have all the players working together at one table, discussing what elements will work best in the patchwork they’re creating. When it comes time to actually explore the dungeon, the DM works something into the story to explain why the PCs have some advanced knowledge of this dungeon. It might be tales of survivors who have explored it before, information learned by interrogating the monsters that inhabit the dungeon, or good old-fashioned book learning. Explaining how and why the PCs have knowledge of the dungeon can be as big a part of the adventure as the dungeon crawl itself.

The real advantage that comes from this kind of collaboration is that everyone will emphasize different aspects of what they believe to be cool dungeon design. One Player might focus on numerous natural hazards and obstacles; another might focus on an area inhabited by lots and lots of minions. What will inevitably happen is that every room will have something that at least one PC will be particularly suited to overcoming. In other words the player that created that room will likely tailor it so that his PC will shine. I know that’s what I’d do.

By working together in this way the current DM can take note of the differences he sees in play compared to what he’d have done if he’d created the dungeon by himself. It’s a good way to learn how to be a better DM and how to create better encounters. This is also a good way for players who might not want to be the DM still get in on the creative process and shape encounters.

Crafty DMs may even get the group to collaborate on creating a dungeon and then break it into its individual components. Now the DM has anywhere from 3-6 dungeon encounters completed that he can drop into any dungeon he might already have created or that he plans to create in future adventure. With a few cosmetic adjustments the player who created each encounter may not even recognize it when it finally comes into play. Of course when the realization happens the players will certainly take a sense of pride knowing that he developed the latest threat. Whether or not he chooses to say anything before the encounter is done will certainly depend on the player and the current state of the adventuring party.

Being the DM is a time-consuming commitment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s usually incredibly rewarding, but there is certainly more work required to be the DM than there is to be a player. By sharing some of the creative burden by collaborating on a dungeon as described above it can lighten the load for your DM, at least for a little while.

Although there are benefits to this kind of collaborative framework, there is still something to be said for the element of surprise. I think that creating a collaborative dungeon is certainly a worth-while exercise, but I don’t think its something that I’d want to do all the time. Players want their character to face unknown obstacles and perilous challenges. This is a lot less likely to happen if any of the players have participated in the encounter creation process. So as a one-off exercise I see the collaborative dungeon design as being a very fruitful experiment, but it’s not something I’d suggest become the norm in D&D.

Have you ever participated in a collaborative dungeon design for D&D? How did it work? Were the players able to separate their’ real-life knowledge of the encounter from their character’s ignorance? Or did the DM say that the PCs knew this perils before them?

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1 Alphastream October 2, 2012 at 2:04 am

I love the idea! It could be really cool to design something like the Caves of Chaos (or Castle Greyhawk’s level where wizards experiment/compete with various alignments) and have each player contribute in Dresden fashion to what will be there.

2 Andrew October 2, 2012 at 6:31 pm

I have inadvertently borrowed a lot of elements from story gaming, myself. I usually ask players to create locations, name people, and so forth. It has really reduced my time investment because I know I just have to come up with a lot less. Half of the taverns in my Waterdeep and Neverwinter were named by players and populated by peculiar characters imagined by the players.

I suppose it’s a contrast to the style of where you craft a very detailed world and allow players to explore it. I feel like when you put part of the creation process on the players, everybody is sort of exploring the world (even the DM).

3 Svafa October 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I’ve not done collaborative dungeons, but I usually create NPCs and towns with some collaboration (whether the players know it or not).

One of my more common (and possibly subtler) tricks is to leave the players alone in town and let them decide what to do. I typically give the town a rough description and map, but don’t label anything aside from key features. Then the group goes and creates a farmer Billy Bob that they go to visit outside the walls, a hemp shop run by a high Elf, and an octogenarian wizard whose door they break down while he’s in the bath.

I’ve also pulled the “give me a name” or “what race is X” when I was thrown completely off guard or unable to recall/find the information in my notes. And finally, I’ve also given the occasional exp incentives for creating fleshed-out NPCs with a story connection to their character/party.

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