Making a Dungeon: Tomb of Fenregaur

A Guide for New Dungeon Masters to Making Simple Dungeons in Fifth Edition DnD

Dungeons are a classic component of a good Dungeons and Dragons game – it’s right in the name! The role-play focused style of DnD many groups today play still includes a fair share of these sorts of places.

Why? Well, it’s kind of part of the deal, for one. Players want to dive into dungeons, fight monsters, and find cool loot – even the most story-minded player can appreciate a solid dungeon dive and the riches that accompany it!

From a role-playing perspective, dungeons also give you chances to put characters into various crises that might inform future role-play. Characters are often facing down possible death at the hands of horrible monsters in your dungeons, and that tends to lend itself to dramatic moments.

Setting up your own dungeons isn’t actually all that hard, either! This guide will walk you through the steps I take to make dungeons quickly for my games. This is meant to be inspiration more than anything else; in the case of something as complex as running a game as a Dungeon Master, I firmly believe in finding your own methods that work best for you. Beg, borrow, and steal what you can from other Dungeon Masters you like and start building your own style and approach from that solid groundwork.

Let’s make a dungeon!

Context and Theme

If you read a lot of my guides, you’re going to start seeing a pattern here quickly. Your dungeon needs to fit into your world! You need to know the area the dungeon is in to decide what sort of dungeon you are going to create.

Before I get in too deep, let’s define dungeon here. When I say dungeon, I don’t just mean an underground maze of passageways and rooms stuffed with monsters and loot. That’s just one kind of dungeon. A dungeon is any structured set of encounters and challenges the party undertakes, with a shared theme in a closed environment.

Keep an open mind when designing dungeons for your party! You don’t have to always be diving into caves and old catacombs. A dungeon could be something like a large warship moored at a dock that the party has to sneak through to find information among the cargo on the bottom deck. As a more extreme example, I once made a “dungeon” where the party had to climb a kobold-infested mountain dotted with traps to face a Red Dragon. It was completely outdoors, but the skeleton of how I designed it was identical to an interior dungeon.

It’s a good idea to decide on a theme for your dungeon early on. You can look for inspiration in the Monster Manual and other such books; there is a lot of lore written for you on each monster, meant to spark your imagination when building adventures with them. Make good use of that resource!

A unified theme is important for immersion. Don’t just throw any old monsters you fancy in without thinking about why they might be in that dungeon. If you have your players diving through a cave filled with kobolds, suddenly having a group of goblins attack them without explanation is going to feel very strange.

All that said, the dungeon I’m working with for this guide is a more classic dungeon. The Tomb of Fenregaur was made as the first dungeon for a campaign set in the northern reaches of my world. As a first dungeon, I wasn’t looking to do anything fancy. The ancient tomb of a frost giant king from a long-forgotten kingdom would do nicely.

Traveling to the Dungeon

I wanted to play up how isolated this distant frontier town was, as well as how dangerous the wilderness could be here. To fit the theme of the area, the dungeon was nestled up in the mountains after a dangerous trek through the forests of the Northwild.

I prepared a short list of encounters, combat and non-combat, that I could throw at the party as they traveled from town. These included such things as an attack by a wolf pack, running into a group of hunters from the town who warn them about the path ahead, a broken bridge over rapids that forces the players to find a way safely across – the sorts of things you can imagine a party encountering in such a place.

To avoid bogging the party down in the travel portion of the adventure, I handle this as a series of scenes that occur along their path. A few of these sprinkled in give the feeling of traveling through a dangerous wilderness without belaboring the point and dragging out the journey past the player’s patience. A short descriptive transition of their trekking through the snowy woodlands is plenty to bridge the gaps between scenes.

It isn’t important when this part of the process is done, but it pays to keep in mind the space between the town and the dungeon the party has to cover. More distance to cover probably means more hazards on the way. You don’t have to do anything at all here if you don’t want to. If you don’t, though, you might be missing a chance to reinforce the theme or setting a little bit for your players.

Creating the Dungeon: The Map

In my process, I like to take some time to make my Dungeon map once I have my general idea in mind. I know I’m building a tomb, here – in this case, for a giant king. The interior and the doors should be big enough to reflect that.

You have two basic approaches to take when building a dungeon: do you want to make a “tunnel” dungeon, where the heroes move from one room to another in a straight line facing the encounters you have prepared? This kind of running of the gauntlet is easy to design and can be very effective depending on what you are using the dungeon for.

You can elect instead to take a more open approach, with branching passageways and various optional rooms to explore before the party can reach their goal.

For the Tomb of Fenraugar, I went with something in between those two options: the tomb branches after you pass through the first room. The room where the king is interred lies straight ahead, inaccessible by the party when they first enter – they’ll have to explore the dungeon to find the way in. The way to open the door lies down one passageway, and some extra loot and information that may arm them for the final encounter of the dungeon lie down the other path.

When you make optional paths like this, it’s a good idea to include some kind of benefit to the party for taking the time to explore them!

I like to use graph paper and pencil for my maps. I personally prefer working with physical components over computer programs – it’s much less complicated for me. The act of drawing a map also makes me think about what is in each of the rooms I make and what purpose they serve. This is just another one of those times where it comes down to personal preference, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using computer programs to make dungeons – and plenty of cool programs exist for it!

Here’s the map I made for the Tomb:

As with the city map in the my guide to making a city, you can see that I like to keep these uncluttered. There are a few symbols, but only a few. When laying out my dungeon, I map out the rooms and hallways then label them with numbers. I use these numbers to describe the contents of the rooms in much more detail on a separate piece of paper – what kinds of encounters the party will find there, any traps or puzzles, what the room looks like, and so on.

Map in hand, I’m ready to start getting into the dirty details of the dungeon!

Building the Rooms

At this point in my process, I have a solid foundation. I have a dungeon map, with rooms labeled by numbers. I know how the dungeon fits into my world and the story of the campaign. I have a theme to work with when building encounters and challenges, to increase immersion for my players.

All this groundwork can be time consuming, but if you want to create dungeons that fit your world and advance your campaign compellingly that work is invaluable.

Starting with a new piece of paper, I start writing a description of the exterior of the dungeon first. The heroes have to approach and enter the place, after all, and it’s easy to overlook that since an exterior isn’t on the map if you’re as scatter-brained as I am!

This is also a good time to note if there are any challenges the party might face while entering the dungeon. You could, for example, need to solve a riddle to open the door (as with the gates of Moria in Lord of the Rings). Perhaps the creatures that inhabit the dungeon are organized enough to have guard patrols, and the party has to contend with that. The approach to the dungeon may be littered with traps to deter intruders.

From the exterior I move room by room, using the numbers on the map. For each room I write a short description, so that I have something to work with when describing them to the player’s. Then I add any encounters the players might have to contend with in that room – as well as traps, secrets, loot, and any other details connected to the room.

Here’s an example room, from the Tomb:

  1. Entry Hall: This is a grand room, with high ceilings and broad walls. The stone blocks that make up the structure of the walls are unusually large. Two large pillars stretch to the ceiling, with scenes of humanoid figures geared up for war adorning them. The huge stone door on the far side of the room bears a depiction of a crowned humanoid with a long beard kneeling before a robed figure
    • The players can make a history or religion check to learn that the robed figure on the door is Dronar, God of Order and Oaths based on the symbolism of the artwork (I have a list of important symbols for each god of my world in my notes to reference if any player does this here).
      • Words in Giant above the doorway: “If you truly serve our Lord, show your due reverence to enter these hallowed halls”
    • The door is locked. The lock can be picked (DC 15). If any member of the party kneels before the door and bows their head, or otherwise shows respect to the image on the door, the door will open. If the respect is at all insincere, the door remains closed and the offender takes 1 radiant damage.
    • An easy perception or investigation check (DC 10) reveals some stones in the walls that appear loose, flanking the door.
    • Encounter: Two skeletons (Monster Manual p.272) with 18hp
      • If the party fails to solve the door puzzle, attempts and fails to pick the lock, or if they disturb the loose stones directly, the encounter triggers.
      • The skeletons are hidden in alcoves, behind the loose stone blocks revealed in the perception or investigation roll.

Not every room has to have a combat encounter! The room labeled with the “3” on the map here, for example, mostly just serves as an intersection to move between the three wings of the dungeon. For some added flavor I threw a couple somewhat fresh corpses in this room, of Goliath tribespeople from one of the nearby mountain tribes. This was to show the party that they may not be the only people investigating the tomb.

Loot and Secrets

Regardless of the story reasons for delving into a dungeon, your players are going to expect to be carting out some loot for their effort. Dungeons are the primary source of gold and new magic items for the party in most games I’ve run, and as far as I have seen this is commonly the case.

You have two main choices when putting loot into your dungeon: you can curate the loot for the dungeon, reading through the magic items in the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide or other supplemental materials and deciding what exact items you want to use. This is most often what I do; I try to make sure each party member is getting chances at cool and useful magic items for their character throughout the campaign, and this is a good way to do that.

I don’t always have a certain player in mind when adding an item – sometimes an item just sounds fun and I want to see what the party will do with it!

The other option is to use random loot tables, and let the dice decide what the players get.

There are great random loot tables available in the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I make use of them often. It can be fun to just roll up a random magic item to see what comes up. I’ve also ended up looking more closely at magic items I had overlooked before as a result of rolling on the random tables!

Bonus: the tables serve as good guides for what general levels and amounts of loot to include when hand-picking your own loot tables for dungeons.

This is a low level starter dungeon, so typically there would be few to zero magic items in it. In this case, it’s good to know that loot also takes the form of better equipment for characters like nice armor or better weapons. Of course, you should be sure to include some cold hard cash for the party to cart back to buy their own items from shops.

As a Dungeon Master, I love to saturate my party with magic items, even early on. Getting magic items feels cool for players, and makes their characters feel more like heroes. You have to be careful about this, though – magic items significantly increase the power of your party. You will need to keep that power level reasonably in check or you are going to make encounter building a nightmare for yourself. There is also the obvious problem – you still want magic items to feel special, so you can’t get too reckless about throwing them at the players.

To handle this in my games, I trickle out less powerful or impactful magic items for the first few levels – maybe with one or two decent ones mixed in like a magic weapon for the fighter. My monsters and encounters tend to be amped up a touch from typical encounters of that level as a result of my generosity, to account for the power level of my party.

If you like, you can also include secrets – hidden little extras the party may or may not find. In the Tomb of Fenregaur, there was a secret room. I hinted at it’s existence by having a collapsed passageway (marked “3” on the map), and a search of the Slave Tomb (number “5”) on the map would turn up a hidden mechanism to open a secret passageway to that blocked room.

To reward my party for finding it, there was a small loot hoard in this room – it had been the treasure room for the tomb, where all the wealth the king would take with him into the afterlife was stored. I also included a small bivouac here, with clear signs that somebody has been staying in this room for at least a few days. This room has been the hideout and base of operations for a Yuan-ti cultist named Leska, here for the same reason the party is. She serves as the boss encounter for the dungeon, so finding her camp and the supplies within gives the party some small advantages going into that fight.

Speaking of…

The Boss Encounter

There has to be a boss encounter, I don’t make the rules. Of course you can be flexible about the nature of that encounter – it doesn’t even have to be combat-oriented, though that’s that most common kind.

The boss encounter is the final challenge of the dungeon; it’s the moment the rest of the dungeon has been building toward, with the final reward the party came seeking lying on the other side. It should feel suitably more difficult than the other encounters of the dungeon.

The best way to do this is to simply choose (or build) a special monster for the occasion. In this case, I made some modifications to the Yuan-ti Pureblood stat block from the Fifth Edition Monster Manual to create Leska and gave her a giant constrictor snake companion so she wasn’t too outnumbered (it’s worth noting this was a party of 3 players, so the encounters were tuned a little down from the standard party size of 4 for this dungeon). Leska was sent here by her organization to find the same book the party is looking for. She’ll first think they are working for her enemies and be distrustful of the party, but won’t attack on sight because she is outnumbered.

When making a combat boss encounter, don’t forget the importance of action economy in fifth edition combat! One powerful monster will get swamped and destroyed by a typical 4-player party purely because the players can act 4 times for every 1 time the monster does.

To make these combats balanced, you have a couple options. You could use monsters with Legendary Actions, for one. These are actions a monster can take after any turn in the order, giving them a way to make up that action deficit. These don’t tend to appear until higher levels, but there’s nothing saying you can’t just slap 1 or 2 legendary actions on a low level boss if you feel like it.

Your other primary option for balancing this combat, and the most straightforward, is to just add some low level goons to the fight on the side of the boss. Be careful to not overwhelm your party, still – try to keep numbers somewhat even. You’re going to be feeling out how strong your party is as you run a campaign, and as you figure that out encounter building gets a lot easier. For a first dungeon, err on the side of less powerful – it’s embarrassingly easy to accidentally TPK (total party kill) a low level party.

Making Dungeons Serve Your Story

My campaigns are very story-driven, and I believe that is the trending norm in the larger Dungeons and Dragons community right now. There are many probable reasons for this (and I’ve talked about them, once or twice), but what it means for us Dungeon Masters out there is that more and more players are craving character-rich story-focused campaigns.

It’s not enough to just go into the hills, kill some goblins, and come home with some gold. If you are playing a campaign with an overarching story, that seems more like a distraction from the plot than anything else. It might be passable at low levels, but players are probably going to start wanting to feel more motivation for going dungeon-diving outside of just accumulating wealth.

To satisfy this kind of player, you need to create dungeons that meld seamlessly into your story. You can do this by doing things like planting plot-central items inside dungeons, or perhaps having a foe the party is trying to track down take shelter in one.

This is another one of those times you need to get creative – but I have some good news, and a small secret: Everything you do builds on what you’ve already done. You can draw on notes you’ve previously made on the region the dungeon is in when making this first dungeon. As you make more dungeons in the future, you’ll be drawing from larger pools of notes; these are also likely supplemented by notes on other factors like the state of the campaign’s plot or player character details. If you’ve been laying a good foundation, building out one piece at a time, you will accumulate a wealth of material to turn around and steal from when making future adventures.

The real trick is keeping the whole mess organized. That’s where the DM binder comes in.

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