How to run a dungeon crawl in DD (2023)

I know someone reading this is already saying“What’s so hard about running a dungeon crawl? You just put the party in a dungeon and fill it with monsters!”and I understand that impulse, but it’s wrong. Just throwing the party into a monster-packed maze has a high chance of ending with a party kill, especially in, whichis set up so that certain powers and abilities are limited resources, and those limited resources are often taxed by dungeon crawls. Any ability that takes a long or short rest before you can use it again is a limited resource, and in dungeon crawls once they’re used they’re gone — unless you you provide places for the party to rest, aDiablo-style dungeon crawl is a recipe for disaster in mosttabletop RPGs, especiallyD&D.That makes dungeon crawls particularly challenging for a DM to design and run.

And while we’re usingD&D as our example, but other games likePathfinder 2ecan run into similar problems — and similar solutions will help.It’s possible to run a great dungeon crawl, no matter the game. But to keep it fun for your party — and to avoid killing them — DMs need to spend some time planning. So let’s take a look at some ideas that will make it easier for you to run a dungeon crawl in a tabletop setting.

How to run a dungeon crawl in DD (1)

Dungeon crawls should only have a few big encounters

Less is more in a dungeon crawl forD&D.A single game session can last four to six hours, and more than three long combats will just eat up your session time. Especially with any turn-based RPG, combat takes a while to adjudicate and it’s simply a lot to deal with. In general, when designing a dungeon, unless you plan on it being the central focus of a long stretch of a campaign — dungeons likeThe Temple of Elemental Evil,White Plume Mountain,orThe Tomb of Horrorscome to mind here, mega dungeons that parties leave and return to several times — my recommendation is to design three or four major encounters and a smattering of smaller, less involvedflavorencounters, ones with low stakes for the party.

Now, don’t tellthemthat — let players think every encounter has the potential to be the big boss fight. But it’s very helpful for you to design smaller encounters to flesh out the dungeon. Use these encounters to reveal details about the place and keep the party on their toes, but don’t try make them so difficult that the party is forced to burn their bigger abilities.

The challenge of dungeons inD&Dis partially one of conservation. The party’s goal is to get to the last fight with as much of your arsenal intact as possible, and it’s your job as the DM to get them there. These encounters aren’t there to kill the party — they’re there to let the partythinkthey were going to be killed if not for that clutch roll, tactical spell use, or other thing they did that helped turn the tide.

How to run a dungeon crawl in DD (2)

Why should you run a dungeon crawl ?

So why evendoa dungeon crawl if it’s so challenging? Why not just do a session where the party travels overland, gets to a big bad’s lair, and goes in to kill him with all their spells and abilities ready? Why not just let the party travel around going from dragon to dragon?

Well, for one, that’s boring.

For another, it’sreallyboring. Boring for your players and boring for you, the gal who has to think up these encounters. It’s very hard to get your players to pay attention to the scenery if they know they’re going to yet another lair to kill yet another powerful monster, which they’ll be facing at full strength. There’s something cool and awesome about exploring an ancient lost city or temple, or venturing deep into a long-lost Dwarven mine invaded by subterranean horrors. DMs can put in rooms full of traps, or even backstory for future events — if you know you plan to have an undead Dwarf king rise up and attempt to purge the surface world, you can put several murals in the mine dungeon that talk about his accomplishments and how he was betrayed and cursed. Dungeons offer unique storytelling opportunities.

Secondly, dungeon crawls are great places to give the party magic items and treasure. There’s a reason the game is calledDungeons & Dragonsand not simplyDragons. While a big dragon fight is cool as the climactic moment of a campaign, having a campaign of nothingbutbig dragon fights — or beholder fights, or whatever — is like eating nothing but cake. Sure, it sounds great at first, and six year old you used to fantasize about it, but actually doing it ends up with you sick to your stomach and desperately wishing foranythingelse to eat. Using dungeons gives you a break, lets you intersperse smaller and larger encounters, distribute treasure — including items that can and will add complications to your campaign, becausemo magic items mo problems— and introduce lore and future plot elements to your players.

How to run a dungeon crawl in DD (3)

Help! I’m a new DM and I have never run a dungeon crawl before!

Here are some suggestions for new DMs, which can help you design a one- or two-session dungeon crawl. As time goes on you’ll learn more and get more confident, and it will be easier to design longer, more complicated dungeons for your players. But if you’re just getting started, these tips are to help you get your first dungeons going:

  • Don’t go too big.Your first dungeon should be manageable. I’d say two major encounters, and no more than four smaller flavor encounters. Make sure to use at least one of these encounters for mooks — lower level antagonists who exist primarily for the party to take them out and feel heroic doing it.
  • Ramping difficulty is best. The hardest fight should be the last one — preferably with the dungeon’s major threat, so that after this fight the party is free to rest and recover. This is the fight the party came for, make sure that it’s memorable. This is the fight to put lair actions and legendary abilities into, not the first pull of the dungeon.
  • You want to challenge the party, not wipe them out.Killing the party is easy, and while it can happen, it shouldn’t be your goal. Keep the monsters within the realm of possibility for your party — four 5th level characters shouldn’t be going up against the Tarrasque.
  • Mix things up.A variety of monster encounters is better than a series of increasingly aggressive Orcs. I’m not saying don’tuseOrcs, just remember, the Orcs could have some Goblin friends, maybe they hired an Ogre to guard their main treasure room, and they have some pet Worgs.
  • Make sure there are good rewards f0r success.Don’t be afraid to put some gold, some nifty magic items — maybe a +1 Greatsword for that Fighter, or aBag of Holdingfor the party as a whole. [Ed’s note: Or even aDeck of Many Things, though new DMs may want to hold off on that.]

Remember, dungeon crawls are a big part of the history of tabletop RPGs, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t make use of this time-tested tool. It can provide your party with unique challenges and give you some unique storytelling opportunities. Just be smart about designing your dungeon crawl, and use the dungeon to move the campaign along, not to grind the party down.

Particularly in a monster-dense dungeon, the DM’s job isn’t to “win” by defeating the party, but to the partythinkthey just barely escaped defeat. That’s a challenge for a DM to pull off, and can be a lot of fun for the players. Just keep the above tips in mind, and your dungeon crawl — whether it’s your first or your fiftieth — will go just fine.

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How do you run a good dungeon crawl? ›

Principles of the Dungeon Crawl
  1. Focus on the fun parts. Choose what parts of a dungeon crawl work for you and your group. ...
  2. Avoid "gotchas". ...
  3. Plan some upward beats. ...
  4. Add friendly encounters. ...
  5. Mix easy and hard encounters. ...
  6. Don't Worry About Puzzles. ...
  7. Let Checks Fail Incrementally.
Aug 22, 2022

How do you run a dungeon as DM? ›


The DM describes the locations and creatures in an adventure, and the players decide what they want their characters to do. Then the DM, using imagination and the game's rules, determine the results of their actions and narrates what they experience.

How do you run an old school dungeon crawl? ›

The Procedure
  1. Describe where the players are in the room. ...
  2. Tell them the shape and dimensions of the room, then the exits they see. ...
  3. Describe details of the room using cardinal directions for where they are. ...
  4. For monsters, describe the quantity, their size, and then other details.
Mar 5, 2022

What character is best for dungeon crawl? ›

For a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl, I would say go old school: cleric, fighter, halfling rogue, and elven wizard. The cleric and fighter should be a dwarf and a human, but either pairing works fine. This is the default 4 member D&D party and has been ever since there was a D&D.

What is a good dungeon layout? ›

Good dungeon designs include loops, multiple paths, multiple entrances, an asymmetrical design, secret doors, and short cuts.

What makes a dungeon crawler fun? ›

Sometimes, exploring a dungeon is more about what's off the beaten path rather than what's on it. A good dungeon should incentivize you to explore it thoroughly. Maybe the dungeon is teeming with hidden rooms to uncover, or perhaps you can find rare items in the dungeon or on its denizens.

Does DM stand for Dungeon Master? ›

In the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game, the Dungeon Master (DM) is the game organizer and participant in charge of creating the details and challenges of a given adventure, while maintaining a realistic continuity of events.

Can you make a living as a Dungeon Master? ›

All it takes to become a professional dungeon master is some creativity, an active imagination, and an eye for detail. If you have these skills, you can take your passion for D&D and turn it into a lucrative job managing games played by dedicated D&D players online.

Is it hard to be a Dungeon Master? ›

While a learning curve is definitely required, DMing can be a satisfying and creative way to play DnD. Is DMing Hard? No, although there is an increase in responsibility. Anyone can be a DM, it just requires more preparation outside of the game and a mindful eye in-game to ensure a smooth experience.

What was the first dungeon crawl? ›

Dungeon crawling in board games dates to 1975 when Gary Gygax introduced Solo Dungeon Adventures. That year also saw the release of Dungeon!. Over the years, many games build on that concept.

How do you make a fun dungeon? ›

A one-page dungeon of five rooms with three monster encounters, a trap, a hazard and a puzzle or secret makes a good one-shot adventure location for a couple of hours of play. For bigger dungeons, think vertically as well as horizontally. Multi-level dungeons should have several ways to go up or down.

Why do dungeons crawl classics? ›

Dungeon Crawl Classics don't waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren't meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere."

What is the most op character in D&D? ›

One of the most overpowered melee DnD builds is the Polearm Barbarian. To get the most out of this character, players should choose a variant human to get a feat from level one.

What is the most powerful class in dnd5? ›

1 Paladins

The paladin is perhaps the most powerful combatant of all of D&D 5e's classes. It combines the best aspects of the fighter and cleric into a single character. Paladins get a fighter's weapons, spellcasting like a cleric, and several unique features. These make paladins terrifying to fight.

Who is the most popular dungeon master? ›

Critical Role's Matt Mercer is one of the most prominent Dungeon Masters in the world because of his ability to create memorable NPCs, his worldbuilding skill, and his adaptability as a storyteller.

What are the elements of a dungeon crawler game? ›

Dungeon crawler games typically feature a fantasy setting, some kind of exploration or event system, a combat or conflict resolution system, and character-driven gameplay. Individual entries may not feature all of these aspects or may place greater emphasis on some elements than others.

How long should a dungeon crawl be? ›

Dungeon crawls should only have a few big encounters

A single game session can last four to six hours, and more than three long combats will just eat up your session time.

What is an example of a dungeon crawl? ›

Examples include the aforementioned Wizardry, Might and Magic and Bard's Tale series; as well as the Etrian Odyssey and Elminage series. Games of this type are also known as "blobbers", since the player moves the entire party around the playing field as a single unit, or "blob".

How do I make my dungeon more interesting? ›

Think about your dungeon as a real place with real creatures and real things going on. Paint that picture for the players as their characters explore it. Ignore fiddly details that get in the way. Focus on the parts that make the whole adventure more interesting.

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