I want to have a discussion about dungeons and goals and level design. No one is around so I will have to start this conversation with myself.

Self, you have talked about how important it is for a dungeon to have a point. You’ve compared it level design in video games, and recently even said that dungeons in D&D have stagnated for basically forever while all the brilliant advances have been in video games.

Me: Uh, yes. I’ve said things like that very recently.

Self, you’ve said that some of the most important parts of teaching people the game — and fostering a dynamic play environment — is developing expectations. For example, if the players push a log down a hill — it should probably roll.

Me: Have you been reading notes from my book?

Self, you’re providing a helpful back-and-forth but failing to answer any of my questions. I’m going to continue leading myself with questions.

Me: Am I trying to browbeat myself?

Self, stop answering my questions with questions. You’ve contended time and again that anything so important should be self-evident and that if the players can’t figure out what you’re doing based on your presentation, you’ve failed.

Me: Almost everything I do fails.

Self, don’t be so pessimistic. You’re losing sight of what I’m trying to talk about. All your dungeon design is meaningless if the players can’t figure it out just by what you tell them, minus the lengthy rules explanations.

Me: It isn’t pessimism if it’s true but you’re right. If I have to spend all my time explaining to the players what a dungeon is then I’ve probably failed.

That’s right, Self.

Me: This is an awfully one-sided conversation.

I have a problem with the way dungeons are presented.

What even is a dungeon? Dungeons show up in lots of different games and aside from in-game definitions — they can vary wildly in presentation.

I think there’s a sweet spot in dungeon design which likely betrays my origins in game design — bosses and bonus levels. Did you guess video games?

For me, dungeons are like obstacle courses that should each tell a little story. The named levels in the Donkey Kong Country series are a fantastic example of this. Sadly the bosses in the series are kind of lacking — particularly in the first game — or this would be an ideal example.

Do your dungeons have replay value? If not, you might be doing it wrong.

Sometimes you want your dungeon to be a frustrating mess — but if it is, you have to make it a really thematically compelling mess of frustration.

Also, there always has to be a clear reason for the players to enter a dungeon.

Ideally this is to rid the world of monsters or evil but you don’t always get that from your group. So you can use treasure. Also, secrets. And sometimes really infamous or challenging traps and enemies.

In a way, every dungeon should have the capacity to change the world — maybe the “world” in question is just the immediate area around the dungeon, but there are only so many ways the players can affect the world at all.

Exploring dungeons should be one of them.

You want them to explore dungeons after all.

That’s where “secrets” come in, and I’ll talk more about them at some point — how to “manage” (predict, guide, and contain) the party’s capacity to change campaign worlds, et cetera, et cetera, and so on, and so forth.

But first you have to be open to the possibility, and that’s important.

The players have to be willing to explore a dungeon to shape their world and as the GM, you have to be willing change the world as the players explore it.