I remember reading about the idea of having a proper “dungeon ecology” in the RPG magazines of the early 1980’s. The fantasy RPGs of that era all included random dungeon generation tables, and many GMs would simply draw a map and then start rolling to fill in the rooms; this would lead to things like the stereotypical “dragon in a 10’x10′ room.” So the RPG magazines of the era began publishing articles about planning your dungeons, really thinking about where you put the monsters, what they ate, even how they got air to breathe.
And yeah, this was an improvement, and a big one. Not only was a sensible, logical dungeon design more pleasing to play, it allowed the players to actually reason about the adventure. Having met an orc patrol, they might suspect the presence of a lair, for instance; or an encounter with a monster seemingly held prisoner behind a locked door would result in a search for its secret entrance.
Of course, this was more work, but it was worth it. After all, everyone said it was, so it must be so, right?
Thus “dungeon ecology” became a thing that everyone was supposed to do. All monsters had to make sense in the context of the imaginary environment, all treasures had to be reasonable, and all parts of the dungeon had to be assembled logically.
The only problem with that is, the real world doesn’t work that way. So why should the fantasy world?
I’ve seen many old buildings where the arrangement of at least a few of the rooms makes little or no sense. I recall an old school building where the third floor rest rooms were like handball courts, a few toilets lined up along one wall, sinks on another, and a bunch of empty space. I think they were converted classrooms. In another building, a staircase goes up to a blank wall where a doorway was closed off some time in the past.
I’ve seen large houses subdivided into offices, or apartments, or both, with varying degrees of strangeness left from the conversion. I lived in such a house once, where I had a good lock on my main door keeping people out, but no lock on the attic stair door; that attic being connected directly to the other upstairs apartment. They could have slipped in to my apartment and robbed me (though they’d have gotten little for the effort) or I could have done the same to them. Of course, I put a lock on that door.
The point is, life is messy. Plans get changed, items get repurposed.
Well, the true believer in dungeon ecology would say, then you need to think about that too. When you design a dungeon, think about all the different creatures that lived there and how they would have changed or expanded the dungeon.
Gah. That gets complicated fast, and there’s a better way.
Seriously. Any adequately complex dungeon design of this sort, put together with all that deep thinking (which is hidden from the players, of course) will look pretty random in the end. So go with the flow. Roll up your rooms using the random design system of your choice (there’s one in the BFRPG Core Rules), and then go through the design with your map in front of you and think about what parts are pure nonsense. Dragons in 10’x10′ rooms, for instance. Rearrange, or change, whatever really doesn’t work, but don’t sweat the details.
Creating a dungeon shouldn’t be so much work that nobody wants to do it. So why make it that way?
Note: There’s another good reason to use random rolls at least part of the time for adventure design. Stay tuned next time for “Single Creator Syndrome.”