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Source GameMastery Guide pg. 174
One of the most beloved and common adventuring sites in the game is the dungeon. In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the word “dungeon” has a much wider definition than merely an underground prison cell—instead, “dungeon” in this chapter refers to a connected series of rooms and hallways within which are scattered numerous encounters with monsters, traps, and other challenges. A dungeon, under this definition, could be the underground levels of a fortress, the fortress itself, a series of caverns, a basement under a house, the house itself, a lonely tower in the woods, a shipwreck, a treasure vault, an abandoned crypt, or any other location that has a series of hard boundaries to limit exploration. Generally, these boundaries are represented by solid walls, but in some cases they can be dense vegetation (such as in a hedge maze), treacherous cliffs (for a series of mountain ledges), or even a fence enclosing a large area (like a graveyard). The key defining feature of a dungeon is simply that the encounter areas are connected and self-contained.

There’s a reason that dungeons are so common in the game—they represent the simplest method of constructing an adventure, since a dungeon map really is nothing more than a flow chart. At their most basic, the chambers of a dungeon represent decision points and the hallways represent paths between those points. The layout of a dungeon removes many variables from the game, allowing the GM to focus on a limited number of areas that he knows the PCs are likely to visit. Since you know what rooms and what routes are available before the game even begins, you can prepare for encounters much more easily than you can for an adventure set in a city or the wilderness, where the flow chart concept is no longer literally represented by the solid stone walls and becomes more of an abstract guide for plotting purposes.

The Dungeon Concept

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 174
Just because dungeons are some of the simplest adventure sites to build and run doesn’t mean that they need to be simplistic. A dungeon can be quite complex, filled with intrigue and dynamic elements. The first thing to do when creating a dungeon for your players to explore is to decide on the dungeon’s basic concept—what kind of dungeon it is. Are you building an underground complex of chambers below a ruined castle occupied by a tribe of goblins? Is the dungeon a series of caves burrowing through a volcanic mountain ruled by fire giants? Is it an immense shipwreck at the bottom of the sea? A wizard’s tower that has sunk into a swamp? A haunted mine? A partially collapsed manor? A dragon’s lair? Choosing a basic concept for your dungeon at the beginning helps guide the creative process of mapping and populating it.

Drawing a Dungeon Map

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 174
For the same reasons it’s good to outline a story before writing it, it’s good to create the map of your dungeon before populating it with encounters. The map is the outline of the dungeon adventure, after all—in drawing the map, you set the boundaries of what your adventure will contain. You should certainly have a general idea of the types of encounters your dungeon will need when you start, but don’t be afraid to let the dungeon drawing itself inspire you as well.

One important thing to realize at the outset is that your dungeon map doesn’t have to be pretty—it merely has to be legible and understandable to you or whoever will be using the map. Nonetheless, cultivating some skill at cartography can really help you keep yourself organized—it’s easier to come back to a legible map you drew years ago than it is to one that’s barely more than chicken scratchings.

A good way to build skill at mapping dungeons is to copy them from published products. Get yourself a big pad or notebook filled with graph paper. Whenever you see a nice map in one of those products, pick up a pen or pencil and try to duplicate that map. Before long, you’ll be drawing your own maps—and it can’t hurt to keep drawing maps even when you aren’t preparing for a specific game.

Dungeon Ecology

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 176
Once you’ve created your dungeon map, you’re ready to populate it. If you’re building a static dungeon, you can simply fill it with traps and guardians and other challenges as you wish, with little concern as to how each area interacts with the others.

But if you’re building a living dungeon, there are more considerations you’ll want to address. In particular, if your dungeon is the lair for a number of living creatures, keep in mind that they don’t just sit in their rooms in stasis waiting for a group of heroes to blunder into their clutches—at least, dungeon denizens don’t always behave this way. Usually, you’ll want to design your dungeon with its ecology in mind.

Food and Water: If there’s not a constant source of food in or nearby your dungeon, your monsters will need storerooms in which to stockpile their food. Even if there is a handy supply of food, monsters whose territories are blocked from access to these ready supplies will need some sort of concession toward food and water. A river running through a dungeon is a handy way to supply both of these necessities, as are magic items like decanters of endless water, rings of sustenance, and sustaining spoons. Finally, including a cleric of at least 5th level in a group gives that group access to create food and water spells.

Shelter and Access: All of your dungeon denizens need somewhere to live. The main thing to keep in mind here is that a monster’s lair should be sized appropriately for the monster. The larger the monster, the larger its lair needs to be. As a general rule, it’s good to give a monster living space that’s at least nine times its own space. And unless you want your monster to be trapped in its lair, make sure it can access other parts of the dungeon, including an exit (by squeezing, at minimum).

Encounter Archetypes

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 176
Most dungeons feature a variety of encounter archetypes. By including encounters from as many of these archetypes as possible, you can keep your dungeon from feeling repetitive and give different characters the opportunity to shine. Even better, it’s a lot easier to keep your players’ attention if they’re not sure how the next room around the corner will challenge them. Listed here are seven different encounter archetypes.

Combat: In a combat encounter, the PCs are faced with a foe or foes that bar progress—in order to complete the encounter, the PCs must defeat the foes in combat. A combat encounter can be with a single opponent or a group of foes. In most dungeons, combat encounters are the rule. Rules and guidelines for building balanced combat encounters can be found on pages 397–399 of the Core Rulebook. Hazard/Obstacle: This kind of encounter presents the characters with a dangerous condition they need to navigate in order to proceed. A room filled with yellow mold, a chasm with a rotten rope bridge, a pool of lava, an unstable chamber with a crumbling ceiling, or even something as simple as a barricaded door can serve as a hazard or obstacle. Generally, a hazard or obstacle is an encounter that is solved not through combat but through a combination of skill checks, saving throws, attack rolls, and the application of magic spells.

Puzzle: A puzzle encounter presents the players, not the characters, with a challenge. These can be riddles, shifting tiles, mazes, word puzzles, or anything else that must be solved by brain power, logic, or experimentation. Often a puzzle encounter can be enhanced by giving the players a handout or prop that lets them directly manipulate or study the puzzle. A puzzle generally can’t be solved with die rolls, but if your group gets stuck on a puzzle, you should consider letting them make appropriate skill checks to learn clues (or even the solution) from you.

Random Encounter: A random encounter is an unusual encounter that isn’t tied to a specific location in your dungeon. The classic method of building random encounters is to create an encounter table of possible encounters (see pages 182–183 for several sample dungeon encounter tables). Then, when a random encounter is called for, you can simply roll the dice and let fate determine what the PCs run into. Traditionally, checks for wandering monsters from a random encounter table are made every so often (either once per hour, four times a day, every time the PCs rest, or whatever works best for you) by rolling d100. A heavily populated area with lots of potential encounters might have a 20% or higher chance of a random encounter occurring at each check, while a remote or relatively empty area might have only a 2% chance per check. It’s important not to let random encounters become the adventure, though—an endless parade of wandering monsters can quickly turn into a dull slog through forgettable combats, and a poorly timed or unlucky roll can impose a powerful foe on a party when they’re in no shape to cope with it. Random encounters should be used as sparingly as possible—they’re a great tool to use when play bogs down (such as if the PCs insist on resting after every encounter or exhaustively searching a huge, empty room), but they shouldn’t become the dungeon’s defining theme.

Story Encounter: Since story encounters rarely involve any actual danger or impediment to physical progress through a dungeon, they are often forgotten during the design process. Yet in some ways, story encounters are the most important encounter type of them all, for they allow the players to learn about your dungeon and world. There’s no point in creating a multi-page history for a dungeon if there’s no way for your players to learn about it! A story encounter can come in the form of a roleplayed conversation with a friendly dungeon denizen or talkative ghost, a carving on a wall, an old journal, or even just an opportunity for a player to make a Knowledge check when faced with a particularly unusual scene in a dungeon to learn more about the dungeon’s story.

Trap: These classic encounters are similar to hazards and obstacles in that they are generally dangerous and can be defeated with a combination of skill checks, saving throws, attack rolls, and the application of magic spells. Their primary difference from hazards is that traps are hidden from view and, unless the player characters are careful, can strike without warning. As a general rule, you should use traps sparingly, since randomly springing traps on a group only serves to slow down the course of play as increasingly paranoid players check every 5-foot square and every doorknob for hidden perils. Often, it’s a simple matter of giving the players some kind of warning beforehand that they’re heading into a trapped area— story encounters are great for this purpose.

Special Encounters: Finally, you can include special encounters. The easiest way to make a special encounter is to combine two or more of the archetypes listed above into a single encounter—a battle against fire elementals in a burning building is a combination combat and hazard encounter. A riddling sphinx that attacks any group that can’t answer her riddle within 24 seconds is a combination puzzle and combat encounter. A chase can serve as a special encounter, as can purely roleplaying encounters. One particularly important special encounter that every dungeon should have is the “climactic” encounter, where the PCs confront one of the dungeon’s rulers or reach the goal of their delve. A climactic encounter should usually be a deadly or epic encounter (typically with a CR of 3 or 4 above the average party level), and often combines three or more of the above archetypes (usually combat, hazard, and story).

Resting in the Dungeon

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 177
It happens to every adventuring party—you power through half dozen or so encounters and suddenly the prospect of facing the tougher encounters at the end of the dungeon with your depleted resources seems foolish. Often, the party has progressed far enough into the dungeon that merely leaving the dungeon and coming back isn’t an option—especially if there are a lot of deadly hazards or traps along the way, or if the dungeon’s denizens are likely to repopulate rooms with reinforcements.

In such situations, a group of adventurers often chooses to rest inside of a dungeon. Don’t let this rattle you! In fact, you should consider putting a few rooms in your dungeon (especially if it’s a large complex) that can be easily defended or work well as campsites. When a group of PCs decides to rest in a dungeon, decide if the threats that remain will challenge the adventurers—if you know that they need to recover their strength, you should let them rest (but only after instilling a little bit of paranoia by getting a schedule of watches and details on how they fortify their campsite). But if you know that the group still has the resources to forge ahead, feel free to have wandering monsters come by to harass the characters while they relax.

If your PCs are habitual dungeon relaxers who rest after every encounter, the dungeon’s inhabitants should catch on after a few naps and set up some ambushes or assaults on the characters’ campsite. The goal is to keep the PCs challenged without making things hopelessly difficult, and to allow them time to recover when you feel they really need it—don’t let them dictate when they’ll have the luxury of a full night’s sleep!