Dungeons are a staple of TTRPGs (it’s even half of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the most popular games!), and they’re awesome tools for one-shot adventures too. So we interviewed Duke Davis, from One-Shot Questers, to tell us all about dungeon one-shots and how to use them at your table!
Scroll down to listen to the podcast episode!
Why use dungeons
One-shots are usually about getting from point A to point B—since it’s a self-contained story within a single session, there isn’t time for anything else! And dungeons, thanks to being enclosed spaces that are fully under the GM’s control, are exactly that too! Sure, the players may take their time searching in empty rooms, but they’ll eventually make their way to point B, and you can use some tricks to get them there faster too.
Now, before you get too excited about dungeon and pull out your mapmaking tools: don’t start with the map! Dungeons should follow a story, a theme. You don’t need to go very deep into it (unless your players are lore-hungry), but even a minimal story will make the dungeon feel more realistic and purposeful.
How to build a dungeon
If you’ve been with us for a while, you might know that we have a certain (healthy) obsession with something we call “the meta“. One of the points of the meta is Theme, so of course I’m going to bring it up here too! Think about common themes you can build your dungeon around so that it all feels consistent. For example, Duke mentioned two examples of his past games—one was an illusion-based dungeon. Everything in that dungeon was an illusion… except some things weren’t to throw the players off! To find a theme, think about why the dungeon is there in the first place. Was it an abandoned building? Is it a burial site? An old fortress? Think about how it became abandoned and what has happened since then, and you’ll have your theme!
Listen to your players too! Ask them what they want to see in the game and building the dungeon around that. Of course, don’t ask them for details, but if they want a dungeon full of riddles and traps, you can be sure that if you build that, they’ll be happy and have tons of fun! And having fun is why we’re sitting around the table, after all.
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How to make dungeon combat more exciting
It might be difficult to escape the “they hit, you hit, they hit, you hit” combat dynamic in certain systems like D&D if you don’t specifically look for ways to make combat more engaging. And, let’s face it, this dynamic can get boring fast. So, to prevent that, add some interesting elements that make combat more than just hitting someone with particularly sharp sticks. Here are some suggestions!
- Traps: if fighting monsters wasn’t enough, have your players fight the environment too! Traps could be location-based (you can’t step on certain areas) or time-based (the room gets narrower every round).
- Practice multitasking: give the party an additional goal, like rescuing some hostages. This will also encourage them to roleplay and might even create some conflict among them as they discuss what their priorities should be.
- Useful minions: rather than giving the boss minions just to balance the action economy, add minions that are doing actually useful stuff! They could be calling for reinforcements, summoning a spell or a monster, or trying to run away with important information. This will give the players additional things to do while still balancing things out!
And remember that not all combats need to be physical! You could throw in a social encounter too, which can sometimes be as difficult as a physical combat. Or you could even mix them together and have a fight if the social interaction goes south.
Puzzles and traps
Players have a habit to overthink anything you throw at them—put them in front of an open door, and they’ll still try to find a secret mechanism to unlock it. So when designing puzzles, don’t make them too complex, or they might get stuck! Still, you should have a way to move the story forward if they can’t find the solution. For example, a guard might come out a secret door (and sound the alarm) if the players take too long to unlock it. And don’t be afraid to use the rule of cool—if they come up with a solution that could work even though it’s not quite what you had in mind, reward their creativity and let them do it!
Whatever you do, puzzles and traps should make the players think! It’s not fun for a puzzle to be resolved with a dice roll—encourage critical thinking and the entire one-shot will be more fun. And connect them to the story whenever you can. This will make them more consistent with the world, but also easier to solve because your players will be able to use the information they have about the world as hints!
Listen to the full interview to learn more about dungeon one-shots!
Who is Duke Davis?
Duke Davis is a GM specialized in short campaigns and one-shots. He’s also the mastermind behind the One Shot Questers, where he’s trying to bring fantasy into the real world, as well as OSQtv, a comedy channel packed with hilarious RPG sketches!
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