Building a random dungeon with the 5e DMG

Let’s say you don’t want to use an existing dungeon generator for some reason. Maybe you have some time to kill in a parking garage and can’t reach the Internet. Maybe you want to draw a map but nothing comes to mind. You could do worse than use “Appendix A: Random Dungeons” from the D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide.

In this post, I’ll generate a dungeon to go with the adventure I created using the same book a few days ago. That means we need to create a lair originally built by dwarves under a graveyard. It should have some bells that contain the villain’s soul, or at least will summon a good celestial.

Blando and Schley sit to discuss their profession

Blando and Schley sit to discuss their profession

Many talented illustrators work on maps for roleplaying games. Professionals like Jared Blando and Mike Schley set a really high bar, but amateurs often do a fine job as well. I do not belong to any of those august groups – just a nerd with a #2 pencil, some graph paper, and dice. That explanation out of the way, let’s roll on the Starting Area table:

9. Passage, 10 ft wide; T intersection

That doesn’t mean the party magically transports into this place. “Pick one of the doors or passages leading into the starting area as the entrance to the dungeon as a whole.”

I’ll roll three times on the Passages table to see what connects here, then figure out where to put the entrance.

7. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead
13. Continue straight 20 ft, then the passage turns right and continues 10 ft
3. Continue straight 20 ft, door to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.

I need to roll a passage width for the side passage on the first roll. Also, I want to use that door on the final roll as my entrance. So on Passage Width:

5. 10 feet

Then Door Type:

11. Wooden, barred or locked

I don’t need to roll for what lies beyond the door in this case. Four more rolls on the Passage table:

13. Continue straight 20 ft, then the passage turns right and continues 10 ft
10. Continue straight 20 ft, comes to a dead end; 10 percent chance of a secret door
17. Chamber (roll on the Chamber table)
2. Continue straight 30 ft, no doors or side passages

I will put that dead end at the north, the chamber on the west, and the two passages heading east can use the other rolls. No secret door (6 on a d10) and the chamber is:

14. Rectangle, 40 x 50 ft

I will come back to that chamber in a moment. First, two more passages:

18. Chamber (roll on the Chamber table)
6. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.

The chamber will go in the northeast corner and I need a width for the side passage.

11. Rectangle, 30 x 40 ft
5. 10 ft

We require two more rolls on the Passages table. Clearly that one is the workhorse of the process!

6. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.
7. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.

Widths for these:

4. 10 ft
8. 10 ft

However, we need to start thinking about how this starts to run into limits. From the introduction to the appendix:

Following these instructions can lead to sprawling complexes that more than fill a single sheet of graph paper. If you want to constrain the dungeon, establish limits ahead of time on how far it can grow.

The most obvious limit to a dungeon’s size is the graph paer it’s drawn on. If a feature would exceed the boundaries of the page, curtail it. A corridor might turn or come to a dead end at the map’s edge, or you can make a chamber smaller to fit the available space.

Alternatively, you can decide that passages leading off the edge of the map are additional dungeon entrances. Stairs, shafts, and other features that would normally lead to levels you don’t plan to map can serve a similar purpose.

For the purposes of this post, I want everything to fit on one sheet of graph paper. So that means that my next set of rolls may need a bit of adjusting. Already, I had to close off a passage because it had turned back on itself and we had a conflict. That passage could also ramp above or below the other passage. However, I have enough trouble with two dimensions. Adding a third complicates things too much now.

10. Continue straight 20 ft, comes to a dead end; 10 percent chance of a secret door. [rolled a 2, no secret door]
20. Stairs (roll on the Stairs table)

For the stairs, I could also reroll, use it as an alternative entrance, or replace them with another feature. As noted, I don’t want to go up or down. So I will choose to place another entrance here.

What about our two chambers? We need to roll for the number of exits first. The Chamber Exits table has one column for Normal Chambers (including the 30 x 40 ft room), and another for Large Chambers (including the 40 x 50 ft room). Respectively:

15. Two exits
9. Two exits

For each exit, we roll Location and Type.

17. Wall right of entrance + 7. Door + 2. Wooden + 9. Chamber on the other side
9. Wall left of entrance + 4. Door + 16. Iron, barred or locked + 8. Passage 20 ft straight ahead + 9. 10 ft wide

15. Wall right of entrance + 4. Door + 1. Wooden + 9. Chamber on the other side
20. Same wall as entrance + 14. Corridor, 10 ft long + 13. 20 feet wide

One of the passages has to end there because it has reached the edge of the paper. We still have two chambers and a passage, though.

13. Rectangle, 40 x 50 ft
12. Rectangle, 30 x 40 ft
11. Continue straight 20 ft, then the passage turns left and continues 10 ft.

That passage will end there as it has run back into a wall. Each chamber should have four exits, but at this point I think we have enough for our dungeon. This includes four full-size chambers and a side room. Just for demonstration purposes (like this whole thing), I will roll twice on the Chamber Purpose table for lairs and then three more times for General Dungeon Chamber:

17. Training and exercise room
7. Cistern or well for drinking water
28. Crypt
61. Observatory
80. Storage room

Other dungeon types like Planar Gates and Strongholds have their own tables. Additional tables include things like Current Chamber State and Chamber Contents. This latter table can then direct you to Monsters & Motivations, Random Traps, and more. For example, in the Cistern room, I could decide it remains in working order but roll on other tables to learn that it is an otherwise empty room with spider webs.

By rolling on the various Dungeon Dressing tables, we also learn that people in the dungeon may hear footsteps ahead of them and breathe clear, damp air that smells of manure. Rotting wood pieces litter the floor. The crypt may contain furnishings like vestments, a stand, and a throne.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of what these tables can do. In real usage, I would probably interpret the rolls a bit more liberally (“training and exercise”, really?!) and develop out the rooms a little further. But for now, our little dungeon looks like this:

Hand-drawn map on graph paper with dice, pencil, and protractor

Initial Impressions: Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Kyle holding his DMG

Happier than I should be

I went down to my friendly local gaming store this morning and picked up the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. (They had a 15% discount on all D&D stuff, which gave a little extra bit of unexpected happiness.)

A full review of this book would take significant time due to the density and amount of material in it. But I wanted to see right away how to build & modify monsters. I also have been looking forward to learning how to distribute treasure (especially magic items). This post mostly discusses those two areas. Other brief impressions include:

  • I see Robin Stacey in the credits. More Microlite20 love.
  • The art matches my expectations and deserves its own post. In fact, it probably even exceeds them. During my upcoming business trip, I could spend hours on a plane just examining the illustrations. I recognize a few of them from earlier products. The goblin illustration on page 107 comes directly from the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.
  • Yay for “low-level followers” and “hirelings” – torch bearers! This doesn’t contain nearly enough information for me, though. I will need to refer to older DM guides for this sort of thing.
  • Successfully noticing and bypassing a trap should provide XP. I don’t think that the book gives any guidelines for that, or even credence to that idea. I may have missed it, of course, in the brief time since I acquired the book.
  • Reaction rolls on page 244. As a rule, I don’t like to roll for social interaction. But since players “spend” some power to have those skill and ability scores, I can’t just ignore it, either. These guidelines will help a little.
  • HEX RULES!!! I spent many years playing war games, both tabletop and computer-based. So I have a special love for maps using hexagons and the tactical play they create even if I don’t like using D&D as a tactical game itself. Come to think of it, this may help me get into that mode when it fits.
  • The Madness section on page 258 will assist me greatly with the upcoming “Madness of Iliasha” campaign (spoilers?).
  • Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration looks like an “Appendix N” with more specificity. The list largely consists of non-fiction books with a few true classics in the greatest possible sense. For example, in addition to lots of books by Gary Gygax and TSR, it includes Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Monsters and CR

Page 312 sample mapSince the Monster Manual came out, I have wanted to roll up my own monsters. Other DMs have already started, of course, but they have far more experience at it than I do. The section “Creating a Monster” in Chapter 9 starts on page 273. It discusses reskinning, including minor changes such as adding special traits or switching weapons. The section also includes a table on Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating. For each rating, the table lists the proficiency bonus, armor class, hit point range, attack bonus, damage per round range, and save DC. This table fits those situations where you just need something quick, such as an on-the-fly conversion.

Then it has a procedure for “Creating a Monster Stat Block”, allowing us to brew up a full-fledged monster. That procedure has 20 steps, some of which themselves have several parts. Obviously this requires much more effort than the process for games like Microlite20. But as the introduction to the whole section notes:

Part of the D&D experience is the simple joy of creating new monsters and customizing existing ones, if for no other reason than to surprise and delight your players with something they’ve never faced before.

This zooms in on the abbreviated process described before. It discusses things like damage and special traits in far more detail. We also have a Monster Features table that covers two full pages. Finally the section discusses the mechanics of creating NPCs from scratch (not the preview section on mannerisms and backgrounds and such).

Magic Items

Illustration of an adventuring group reviewing a mapPlayers get excited to see the actual magic items themselves. People like me get excited to see how we can distribute them. Chapter 7 (“Treasure”) should satisfy us both.

The distribution frequency for magic items in this edition in particular has confounded me a little. Page 135 shows a “Magic Item Rarity” table showing the expected character levels per rarity type. For example, common and uncommon items correspond to all characters starting at first level. But rare items typically go to characters at fifth level and higher. Of course the text makes clear that DMs should do as they wish according to what fits their campaigns. The book only makes suggestions, not rules.

For more specificity, of course, the book has several treasure tables. It has four different Individual Treasure tables for different CR ranges. The same applies to the Treasure Hoard tables. Gemstones and Art Objects have several different tables by value. Some of these tables refer to Random Magic Items of various types. You can enhance those with tables on magic item flavor (e.g. What Is a Detail From Its History?). Between this and Appendix A on “random dungeons”, I should have no trouble populating environments generated by Donjon or using maps created by other people.

Time to go tweak tomorrow’s adventure!

Using Dwarf Fortress as a map generator

The previous article in this series discussed my reasons for generating a new campaign setting. This time I will discuss the maps that Dwarf Fortress generates for a new world.

DF allows users to export the world maps and history in Legends mode. This creates great depth via procedural generation without requiring the world builder to design everything by hand. (I also sponsored Worldspinner on Kickstarter for similar purposes. I have a problem…) We have only to specify a few parameters such as the world size (e.g. “Small” or “Medium”), the length of the history, and the relative number of civilizations. It then generates the world by simulating natural processes and interaction between the civilizations, monsters, and people.

After generating a new world in DF, I use a map maker script for GIMP. This takes various maps from DF (such as “Biomes”, “Elevation”, “Volcanism”, etc.) and combines them. Despite the tedious user experience of repetitively navigating to the directory with the exported maps, the script produces fantastic results like the gorgeous render below. By itself, this could provide enough for some world builders to get started.
World map of Inalaanenu

But DF can also directly generate maps of a particular site. For example, one of the settlements in that world looks as follows:

Town map


The town belongs to a broader civilization which has its own culture and history. For example, we have a list of the deities and forces of nature that civilization worships and a chronicle of its rulers. (I will discuss this part of the world generation for the next article in the series.) I haven’t yet figured out the best way to label the sites on the world map. In the meantime, DF has its own map viewer that allows us to follow along. The existing utilities for viewing maps and Legends mode data have given me a bit of trouble. But DF also exports a very large XML file with lots of data that I have started to parse with Dwarf Chronicler, a tool I have started to write myself. Future posts will discuss this project too.

We don’t have to use the site maps from DF, though. Many of them don’t look nice enough for displaying or have much interesting detail. In fact, the map of Puzzlingdust above has more to it than most. The geographical locations and basic demographics of the hamlets, towns, dark fortresses, and such, should provide enough detail to get started. From there, we can populate the towns as needed with some of the characters that DF has generated or create our own. I already sponsor Dyson Logos via Patreon and some of those maps will serve this purpose well. Those who want to stick with procedurally generated dungeons should look at Donjon as usual. (Side note: thanks to Drow, who runs that site, for the shout-out to my daughter in the banner. That really made her night, and mine, when we saw it.)

As referenced above, the next post in this series will discuss the races, civilizations, and monsters of Dwarf Fortress and how to use those for an old-school campaign setting.

Microlite20 and solo play: winging it

On quiet nights here at home, my daughter (just shy of 11 years old) occasionally asks if we can play D&D together. Tonight, I told her that we’d try something a little different. Rather than try to slog through a nerfed version of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, we’d do things the way I did when I was about her age.

So we busted out the Microlite20 PDFs, some dice, pencils, and character sheets. It took less than five minutes to roll up a human female ranger randomly named Xunari Emerald. Since she had no party members, I gave her a pet wolf that she promptly named Briggan. In response to a few probing questions, she told me that Xunari stood about 5’11” with an athletic build, had black hair and green eyes, and grew up around the village of Kohona.

Because we had precisely zero prep time, I didn’t have anything prepared for her. Donjon saved the day, of course: a few clicks on the random quest, encounter, and NPC pages, and we had enough for an adventure! A local noblewoman asked Xunari for assistance in tracking down the “beast of Thernigoia” that had attacked several outlying farms. Some livestock had gone missing and the town wanted to get rid of this monster before it could attack a child.

She set off down the road, but before she got too far, she heard the plaintive cries of a halfling girl caught in a web between some trees on the side of the road. Xunari and Briggan started to free her from the web just as a giant spider appeared on the scene. The halfling girl, Ennen, finished getting free and the three of them fled! After exchanging thanks, Ennen continued back down the road to the village, promising to write a song in Xunari’s praise.

Just before reaching the farm where she’d start her investigation, a highwaydwarf attempted to waylay her. The ranger and her wolf quickly disabused him of that notion and sent him scurrying off into the woods, promising never to return to Kohona.

scorpion tracks
Once she reached the farm, a peasant woman with auburn hair, thin blue eyes, and a toolbelt named Beada greeted her and explained the situation. Oddly, Xunari asked to speak to whomever was in charge. (My daughter was taken aback when Beada said, “ye be talkin’ with her”, based on some social studies lesson at school I think.) Anyway, I showed her this image and told her it led to a sandy area around some large boulders that had collected at the bottom of a hill and formed a small cave. When she looked around, there were animal body parts and a thin, brownish-green ichor smeared on the ground in a few places. At this point, she decided to go into the cave anyway – where she found a giant scorpion.

The scorpion felt threatened by having a human and a wolf in its personal space and a fight ensued. At some point, the wolf fell to the ground bleeding. But the farmer landed a few crossbow bolts into the monster, and Xunari finally finished it off. She took the stinger for a personal trophy and the head for proof. The ranger then carried her injured companion inside the farmhouse where they stopped the bleeding and got it back on its feet.

On the way back, she met a kindly old man and accompanied him on his way to the village. When a flock of sheep scattered across their path and the shadow of a manticore fell on them, her slingshot and his fireballs brought it down. (OK, mostly the fireballs.)

When all was said and done, she’d reached level 2, the town hailed her for keeping them safe from the encroaching wilderness for another day, and she and her wolf could get a much-needed night’s sleep.

Old-school roleplaying let us spend some nice family time together when the mood struck her and I could cater directly to what she wanted out of the session. That set the mood perfectly for my Roll20 session with my regular group later that night…

Microlite20 and O5R

d20-rockThis weekend, I discovered Microlite20 on Suddenly I “got” the OSR. Despite having read a bunch about it, the whole thing just hadn’t clicked for me. Then I read that Purest Essence version and boom. I remembered being 13 in my best friend’s converted garage, playing D&D and GURPS and Traveller and our own designs and just having fun.

In fact, the OSR in general feels a little like “classic rock” to me. That particular subgenre has something special for a lot of people. Newer trends in rock music have lots of good stuff to enjoy (grunge forever), too, and so you have things like the Foo Fighters and Black Keys with similar appeal even to listeners who come from newer eras themselves. Rock music… microlite… it made sense in my head, anyway.

Specifically, the simplified attributes and skills within M20 really appeal to me. The non-Vancian magic system also makes more sense, at least so far as made-up phenomena that bypass the rules of physics can “make sense”. In M20, mages fuel their spells with their life force, spending HP, rather than “fire and forget“. Other things concern me, like clerics not getting any healing until 3rd level. Resting daily for 1d4 HP seems a little underpowered. Maybe I missed something?

But D&D 5th Edition has lots of good stuff too. In fact, a few folks have coined the term “O5R” to refer to OSR-style gaming (whatever that means for you) in 5e. After all, 5e kept one of the most important aspects of what I like in RPGs: rulings instead of rules. So I will forklift a few ideas from the newest version of D&D into Microlite20. The Advantage / Disadvantage mechanic replaces modifiers (+2 / -2) quite cleanly. That Wild Magic Surge table looks useful, too, and so I’ll yoink that into my game for when a Mage rolls a 1. Many others have published various hacks on the system, so I’ve started collecting the ones I want to use (plus a few of my own tiny modifications) into my own house rules. I might need to add some rules about rests and healing there, in fact.

That’s the other thing I like in RPGs: rule 0 always applies.

Madness of Iliasha: Campaign Concept

Underdark artAs previously noted, I have begun work on a fresh campaign. Using the working title Madness of Iliasha, I have included elements from the Underdark and Deepholm. This means a fully underground world with no concept of a “surface”, filled with mind flayers and aboleths and fungi and stone elementals.

I intend to run it more or less “old school”, which (for me) means:

  1. Lots of generated elements rather than individually crafted
  2. Deadly for adventurers (player characters)
  3. Less concern about encounter balance and more about fitting a theme
  4. Players and GM shaping the world together
  5. Emergent narrative through gameplay and interaction
  6. Sandbox exploration of the world via hexcrawl
  7. Hexes for “outdoors”, squares for “indoors”

However, I am adjusting a few other elements from the old days, particularly turning the fantastic racism and sexism way down. We can imagine subterranean cities in worlds suffused with magic, so we should be able to imagine universes where your actions, not your ethnicity and gender, play a larger role in determining your identity and reputation. In fact, I have united all the “humanoid” races (humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes) so that they are just different flavors of “human”. Some individuals may hold racist opinions and even take actions based on those, but in general the societies are not organized along those lines. Conflict still exists, naturally. But rather than base it on “race”, instead we have factions competing for resources. These power struggles won’t always impact the adventurers, of course, particularly at low levels. But they will progress on their own and bring the world to life, very similar to Dungeon World fronts.

I still have lots of planning infrastructure to build. Because much of the world will come from random generators, for example, I have started gathering from other sources, hacking them to fit, and in some cases building from scratch. Each region has:

  • Hex map (6-mile scale) for exploration
  • Random encounter tables for the different terrain types (e.g. fungal forest versus crystalline fields)
  • Points of interest (e.g. significant monsters, cities, mines, dungeons) with a few sentences each.
  • Initial quest hooks

Right now most of the first region, Ositrailum, already exists. I haven’t yet completed customizing the randomly-generated map to a nicer-looking one, because presentation counts. The terrain-based random encounter tables will come next, plus a few special events I will make available throughout the region. Dungeons will mostly come from the gorgeous work of other mappers like Dyson plus occasional randomly generated maps. Donjon has my favorite dungeon generator but I will end up customizing heavily based on material from other sourcebooks.

While I won’t actually launch until my Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign concludes, Madness of Iliasha excites me tremendously for 2015.

Dungeon Master’s Guide Table of Contents Preview

Dungeon Masters Guide Table of Contents

Wizards of the Coast released the Table of Contents for the Dungeon Master’s Guide as part of their participation in the Extra Life fundraiser this weekend. I’ve been anticipating this preview for some time, probably like most everyone else playing D&D 5e.

Looking at the contents

Even from just this table of contents, we can get a good sense of what WotC wants to accomplish here. Time to dig in.

Part 1

Chapter 1 looks like something I will enjoy greatly. Others have written plenty of system-neutral and system-specific advice over the last several decades on world building, so I really want to see material that addresses it within the context of this edition in particular. Guidance on how to incorporate lower-magic settings, for example, will help me a great deal. And the pages on Factions and Organizations could help just as much with the setting I’ve started developing.

Chapter 2 will probably answer some questions for me, as I’ve never quite understood the cosmology of D&D. But it probably won’t occupy my attention past one or two read-throughs.

Part 2

Chapter 3 again looks like most of the advice could apply to lots of systems. Perhaps some streamlining of the existing encounter building guidelines could show up here. For my personal style, I’d like to see suggestions on creating tables and generators rather than just a few tables that we will all hack anyway.

BBEGChapter 4 should get into really system-specific advice. How do we build our BBEGs? What about guideposts / herald type characters, or the ‘dudes in distress’ that the party will rescue? As somebody who occasionally runs a solo game for my daughter, I will also appreciate the Hirelings section. The writers probably intend Villainous Class Options for NPCs, but that might come in handy for player characters in certain types of campaigns too.

Chapter 5 sounds generic. But if they had really excellent folks writing it, then it could serve as an excellent guide for building the environments in which we place our various encounters. A five-page section on traps pales next to Grimtooth but certainly belongs in the core material!

Chapter 6 will probably find its greatest value in the Downtime rules. This matters quite a bit for some activities like crafting and whatnot. Adventurers League games also use this feature quite a bit.

Chapter 7 has already had quite a bit of material previewed so I don’t have much to say about it here. Other than balanced rules for random treasure, not much will matter to me.

Part 3

Chapter 8 reminds us that RPGs can do so much more than just serve as squad-level combat simulators. Looking at another world through the eyes of a fictional character inevitably leads us to explore it and meet other characters within it. D&D has always focused heavily on dice mechanics even for these things, though, so let’s see what the DMG has to say about exploration and social interaction. This also seems like a bit of a “miscellaneous” chapter, with rules for chases, siege equipment, and diseases & poisons. (Plus titling a section “The Role of Dice” is nice wordplay.)

Chapter 9 gets to the heart of what a DMG has to cover. What options make sense within the existing notions of balance? How do I create a monster and estimate its XP value and Challenge Rating? The section on Character Options also looks like it will matter a great deal.


weird_dice1Appendix A on random dungeons could go either way. Lots of generators already exist, like Donjon and even special dice. But more options mean more fun, particularly if the appendix here spends its time on creating coherent, thematic dungeons. The 4th Edition book Into the Unknown: Dungeon Survival Handbook contains a section on exactly this. An update of that material would really please me.

Appendix B hopefully contains the proper index to the Monster Manual and maybe some additional categorizations. Other players have produced a lot of that already, though, so I don’t know how much of it we will actually need.

Unknown Unknowns

I don’t see section headings here for some things I really want. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, because some of the preview material (like Firearms and Explosives) doesn’t appear directly in that ToC. But I really hope for official conversion guidelines for material from earlier editions. Guidance on older, non-Forgotten Realms settings like Eberron would also satisfy a lot of people.