One of my favorite books for fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons was a little number called Dungeon Delve. The book was simply 30 three-room dungeons complete with traps, encounters, a few story hooks, and advice for continuing the story or further fleshing out the dungeon. It was basically a tome of a single, four-hour, one-shot adventures for every character level in the game (each of which could be turned into something more if so desired).

Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons plays a lot faster than fourth, particularly where combat is concerned, which is a good thing. I regularly play D&D on Monday evenings but the sessions are only about three hours long. On average it seems the combat encounters I plan take 30 to 40 minutes. I know that seems a little long but because of our limited time I usually plan only hard encounters to force the players to use up some of their resources and feel a sense of challenge. That means smaller dungeons in fifth edition are perfect for my game because they pack in enough action and my players still get to interact with NPCs and get in some exploration.

I know there’s a lot of other adults out there who have similarly tight schedules, so I’m going to share with you how I craft tiny dungeons for my games.

Why Tiny Dungeons are Great

One of the best things about tiny dungeons is they’re designed to be completed in one session or less. If your group doesn’t meet weekly, completing a longer dungeon can be daunting. When too much real world time passes between sessions in a single dungeon, players can lose track of the story and the point of being in the dungeon in the first place. They forget why they’re holding a key and which door they were saving it for. If the last session didn’t end with an extended rest, they might forget how many resources they’ve spent. So for my biweekly games huge dungeons aren’t the best. Tiny dungeons, by design, are perfect for games that meet on a less-than-weekly basis.

Another win for tiny dungeons at my table is that my players don’t really enjoy long dungeon crawls (and maybe yours don’t either). They like to get engaged in the story and interact with the cultures and societies of the world. Most dungeons are a lot of exploration and combat, with only a little interaction here and there. They get bored if I lock them in a dungeon for multiple sessions so our play style is suited by tiny dungeons, since they can be explored in a three-hour session. Maybe they’ll suit your play style too.

Finally, tiny dungeons are great for us Dungeon Masters! Making a big, sprawling dungeon crawl is really good fun, but there are occasions where I have less time to prepare than I like. Designing a tiny dungeon is quick and easy. These little nuggets pack a lot of punch and allow for some really creative thinking as you’ll see in the next section of this blog post.

Designing Tiny Dungeons

Here are some guidelines for creating a tiny dungeon. Remember the guidelines are just that. They’re meant to help you out when designing. Feel free to break the mould! That’s what D&D is all about. The guidelines are the ones I use specifically for designing dungeons for my typical three-hour sessions, so if you have sessions which are longer or shorter adjust accordingly.

Tiny dungeons…

  1. consist of three to five rooms. Sticking to this guideline keeps the size of your dungeon manageable and quick to explore, but also big enough to present multiple combat encounters and interesting exploration challenges. Some of the rooms can be enormous if that helps make sense. For instance the soldiers of a bugbear warlord might hide in a ruined temple submerged in a swamp. The complex holds many bugbears, but most of them sleep, eat, and live in the temple’s spacious grand cathedral. Just as many bugbears as might be in a sprawling cave complex, but in this case they’re all in one room.
  2. contain no more than three combat encounters. If you’re trying to get through a dungeon in a three-hour session and still want some time for the PCs to interact with NPCs back at the ranch, you won’t have time for more than three combat encounters. Depending on how much time your PCs are spending in town, on the road to the dungeon, etc. you might be able to get away with one more combat encounter if the dungeon is right next door and they’re headed there as soon as the session starts. If the PCs are going to spend more time in town, and maybe get caught up in a combat encounter on the road, consider capping the in-dungeon combat encounters at three or possibly bumping it down to two.
  3. contain combat encounters of a hard or greater difficulty. Since you’re limited on time, to give your PCs a challenge, crank up the difficulty on those combat encounters. Get your PCs to use up some of those resources and bring ’em to the brink of death because that’s dang good drama! Seriously, don’t be afraid to turn up the heat since the combat encounters are limited. When you’re experience budget is bigger, you can dream bigger. Go nuts! Give that orc chieftain the wyvern mount she deserves!

What Can Be A Tiny Dungeon?

Any complex with a few rooms can be a tiny dungeon. Get creative when you’re thinking about yours! Here’s some examples of a tiny dungeon.

  • A necromancer’s five-story tower, wherein each floor is an entire room.
  • A small, fortified outpost of violent separatist wood elves hidden high atop the trees.
  • An underground bunker full of goblin cultists convinced the end of days is coming.
  • A genie’s extra-dimensional pleasure den hidden in a small demiplane.
  • A small tavern run serving as a front for a wererat criminal enterprise.

Next Week…

How about I give you a look at a tiny dungeon? Maybe one that lives on the Free Game Resources section of this site as downloadable PDF? Sounds good!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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Comments
  1. Brian Hall says:

    The Dungeon Delve book looks exactly like something I’d love to look through and borrow ideas from. I’ve added a copy to my amazon wishlist to remind myself to get it soon.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. DelveLord says:

    Great advice! I do something very similar, and turn the dungeon exploration into a turn-by-turn experience too:

    http://overworld5e.blogspot.com/2015/07/exploration-turns.html

    Liked by 1 person

  3. icksy says:

    Yeah, tiny dungeons are the best – and often the most memorable parts of adventures/campaigns. Working different challenges into each of the rooms was great too, to force your players into using their different strengths or different ways of thinking to work their way to the next room. I still remember the 9-floor drow tower with ‘arcane teleporting elevator’ I made, that required a different key-stone be used to get to each floor, so floors were effectively locked from anyone with the stone. It meant they had to locate stones and could skip floors if they solved earlier floors in particular ways. It was like a bonus reward system built into the rooms.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oooh, great post! My group meets monthly and does two 5-6 hour sessions in one day to make up for it. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that book! My current precious resource is a 2nd edition “Toolkit” that has pretty much anything I would want in charts to create instantly. It doesn’t do dungeons well, and I have to edit any stats to be 3.5e, but hey, it’s a great springboard for NPC and city creations.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. shane00mail says:

    Good read, I have run more and more Tiny Dungeon style dungeons over the years myself unless the “Story dictates the need for a delve.”
    I have followed your blog for some time and I just now noticed that your blog is the tome Show. Irony I have listened to the tome show for some time. Great blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. shane00mail says:

    Reblogged this on R.P.G. (Runkle Plays Games) and commented:
    The best part about Tiny Dungeons is that you get the taste for your Dungeon Delves and you can be in and out in one session often. I also loved the Dungeon Delve book and it sill sits in a spot on my shelf as a go too idea book. Along with the great first ed Encounter cards.

    I had never liked with long Delves and that drew me as well to begin running Smaller Dungeons. The two biggest issues that I had with long delves feel to the time sink and the death of RP. Once a party dipped into the the first few rooms of a dungeon the games always would shift immediately from a free form fast paced game to a room by room slog. As well as because of this the first thing to fall by the wayside was inevitably the roleplay.

    I highly recommend for all GM’s to give the Tiny Dungeon theory a try. It will fast become thing of second nature once you embrace it.
    And you game the added bonus any Delve into a Large Dungeon becomes farm more epic in feel because your players are used to being in and out in a few hours of play.

    Liked by 1 person

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