Updated: Oct 25
Creating D&D maps for your game can be a lot of fun. But how do you even start? Do you draw the dungeon map first or flesh out a concept?
If you're anything like me, you may not consider yourself an artist. Here's a later version of a map I originally designed on paper for my D&D 5e Scifi campaign:
Now I obviously didn't draw this! I used a free map-making tool that I'd highly recommend called RPG Map Editor 2. The most important part of your map is NOT the map itself. The most important part I argue is the writing. Let’s go through the steps I took in creating this map. I’ll break it down into 3 simple parts:
Concept & Objective
Size & Progression
1. Concept & Objective
This is the most important element. This gives your dungeon purpose. The concept is the Big Idea for your dungeon. Who built it? What was - or is - it for? Who or what has claimed it? The 5 senses also help bring your idea alive. Is your dungeon cold and damp or hot and muggy? Is there artwork or intricate stonework of past civilizations? What do the players hear when they walk through, is it silent or is there an ongoing mechanical hum? Why are the players going there? Seems like an obvious question, but it’s necessary to answer. Your dungeon needs a clear objective for the players. It can be as typical as finding the monster that’s terrorizing the nearby town or finding out who’s killed the Lord in a murder mystery investigation. Having a clear objective will help your players feel invested and give them a purpose to trek through your creation. My dungeon example is a simulation designed by a faction called the Diamond Alliance. It’s a mental and physical test for players to pass in order to be in the space program.
2. Size & Progression
After the concept is clear, it’s time to determine the size and progression style of your dungeon. Is it a massive labyrinth with only a single route or a medium-sized temple with various paths to the main objective? Use your dungeon concept as a mental outline of what you think your map will look like. Consider the size, the number of rooms and the hallways. Feel free to grab a sketchbook, graph paper, or use map software at this point (you can also grab some D&D accessories that can help you illustrate a map). On paper, I like to start drawing circles and considering how many encounters to place within my dungeon. Think about the linearity of your dungeon and how your rooms connect (or don't).
Here’s an example of the Proving Grounds dungeon I made in circles.
In this image, I already had some ideas for encounters. It’s nice to have an intended order (labelled by numbers/letters) so you can quickly reference them for when your players explore. Since the order wasn’t completely linear (ie: Players could complete the dungeon in multiple ways) my players did skip encounter #3.
If you're a new DM with a new table of players, you may not know how long your dungeon will take to complete (I’ll write a blog soon about a Campaign Tracker which will help you immensely). My current players typically get through 4-6 encounters per session (my sessions are about 2.5 hours). This dungeon, being a small one, took them 1 session.
Let’s consider what lurks in your dungeon. Perhaps you already have an idea for a large monster that’s commanding minions. Maybe your concept involves multiple monsters competing within it! The point is, your dungeon concept should inspire the encounters within your dungeon.
You need to be careful to not flood your dungeon full of the same encounter type. Having one trap or combat after another can get boring and create a low point in your game. You need to consider all types of challenges such as puzzles/riddles, obstacles, traps, combat, NPC (non-player character) and storytelling/foreshadowing encounters. Perhaps an NPC is trapped within the dungeon and freeing them may offer some information or reward for the party. There could be a bloody journal belonging to a vampire that explores the dungeon’s dark history.
It’s fantastic to have combined encounters, such as Encounter #4 seen below. That encounter has 3 levers with different messages posted to confuse the players. Pulling the wrong lever results in a trap springing or snakes being released from the ceiling!
Here are the encounters for the Proving Grounds in condensed format:
Diamond Corridors: Surprise Attack (Combat, Medium) 6 Space Drow (Holographic, look like wire figures from Smash Bros video games).
W. Diamond Amphitheatre: Dungeon Progression Clue (Puzzle/Hint) Projector Clue.
E. Diamond Anti-Gravity Obstacle Course: A) Lava & Ruined Scaffolding, B) Wall of Boulders, C) Acid Rain. Reward: Floppy disk virus for boss in room #5.
Junction Hall & Vault (Puzzle & Trap): “The Lying Levers”
South Diamond, Electronics Recycling: Boss (Combat, Difficult) Two Windows 95 Computers (Used Helmed Horror Statblock, slightly modify).
Note: If you need more help with combat balancing and encounter specifics, check out my more recent blog about encounter design.
If you’re looking for more map design help, I’d highly recommend reading a resource from the Arcane Library on how to make D&D maps.
How do you design your own maps? Please comment if you’d like to share your experiences or if you have questions.
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