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.
- … 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.
- … 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.
- … 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.
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!
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