D&D 4e Dungeon Design Experiences

At the beginning of this year, I’d planned to wrap up my Sunday afternoon (Ulek) campaign and start up new a 4e campaign for that group with Keep on the Shadowfell. I’d also planned to continue running the Friday Nighters through Savage Tide until we finished it (most likely at the end of 2008 or in early 2009) and then start playing 4e.

The latter part of that plan did not eventuate. My Friday Nighters told me, in no uncertain terms, that they weren’t really enjoying Savage Tide and wanted to convert to 4e as soon as possible. Well, what is someone who is interested in 4e himself to do? Start up a new 4e campaign, of course!

However, my Friday Night group has traditionally been my “published adventures” group whilst the Sunday Afternooners are a homebrew group – I don’t have the time to spend preparing two homebrew groups. And I didn’t have any published adventures for them; a couple of the players are also in my Sunday group, so running KotS for both was out. So, my only option was to design adventures for them myself. My homebrew campaign had swapped days. Eek!

As an aside, I’m going to find a homebrew on Friday night to be much tougher to run than one on Sunday. Sunday games allow me Saturday to prepare and have everything fresh in my mind. Friday night needs to be prepared earlier, for often I’m exhausted on Thursday night when otherwiseI’d be preparing. We’ll see how it goes.

In any case, those who know me will not be surprised that I’m setting the action in the City of Greyhawk. Although this isn’t exactly the “Point of Light” setting of 4e, when you come down to it, 4e doesn’t really need a PoL setting to work. This also has the advantage of being a place I’ve run many adventures in before, so I’ll have access to NPCs that I’ve previously established, and we might even be able to run into some of the old PCs from the Age of Worms campaign. I find that sort of thing cool.

To allow the players to get used to the new system, the first session will involve a basic dungeon crawl. Now, I have a perfectly good dungeon already designed – my version of Castle Greyhawk (which isn’t any official version from TSR, Wizards or Troll Lords). So, all I have to do is update the monsters to 4e and I’ll be good to go. Right?

Well, not quite.

There are a couple of problems.

First, my notes for this dungeon are based primarily on 3e design work (although I designed some areas during 2e), and 3e has one great flaw when it comes to encounter design: it assumes the PCs will be facing only one or two monsters.

Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part, 3e didn’t assume you’d be facing 10+ monsters. One of the great joys of 4e for me is the introduction of minions. I can have 10+ monsters in an encounter and they’ll be pretty much as easy to run as those goblins in the Keep on the Borderlands were all those years ago.

So, some of the encounters need a few more monsters added. That’s not so hard… except that the rooms on the map aren’t quite big enough. When you have to contend with miniatures rather than just descriptions, you suddenly need a lot more room. (No 30 orcs in a 10’x10′ room!)

However, I noticed something about the map I’d drawn for this level: the rooms were in clusters, often with a central room with a few side rooms around it. Hmm. If I made sure the encounter included *all* of the rooms, and perhaps removed a few walls here and there or added a door or archway… the map wouldn’t need much surgery to work as a 4e dungeon. Cool!

I was rather amused to see that after I’d consolidated encounters, what had been a dungeon key with about 45 separate room descriptions (many empty) was now 11 encounter areas. That’s a very 4e trait, although in some ways it gets back to AD&D and the idea of the reactive encounter.

I think I need to add a few more rooms and encounters, lest the PCs bre required to clear out the entire level to reach level 2.

The second issue that has turned up in one of treasure placement. This is less an issue with adapting the dungeon and more one of just my unfamiliarity with the system. You see, I’m not familiar enough with the magic items to be really sure of what I’m giving the players.

This is something that will fade with more experience. However, it’s not like there’s a master list of all of the items by Treasure Level. (I rather hope that such exists in the Tome of Treasure, a book I’m really looking forward to).

The deterministic method of treasure allocation also feels very odd to me, someone who learnt D&D from AD&D and Moldvay Basic. I like my dice! To have set treasure portions that you dole out amongst the encounters? Very weird. I think it’ll will work well in play from the viewpoint of the PCs, but it feels too controlled for me, the dice-loving DM.

An issue I’ll have to come to grips with is also what’s on the second level of the dungeon. Should it be primarily level 2 encounters? Or should it get difficult more quickly than that? Should level 1 of the dungeon before the first two levels of PC experience, and then level 2 be for levels 3 & 4 PCs? Something to decide after I see the first session.

I also have to include traps, skill challenges and some role-playing, just so everyone can show off their strong points.

I’ve got less than a week now, before I run my first homebrew session of 4e. Wish me luck!


  1. rebelowl42


    Please keep up these wonderful posts! I am currently playing in a 3.5 game and hope to run a 4e game once our current campaign ends. I’m interested in all of your thoughts on the new system.

    As for the treasure rule, I think they threw that one in to help out player who were playing with stingy DMs. I have seen many games where the PCs as a party only had half of the wealth they should have for their level (and most of that was being carried around by the tank). I think there will be some more random charts later, but using the predetermined list a guide (some sort of +/- 10% would be my guess).


  2. charlesatan

    Hi! I was about to recommend the same thing, about combining the desperate encounter areas into one big scene. (It certainly worked for Keep on the Shadowfell (the dreaded Irontooth encounter).

    As for treasure placement, the only requirement is that players have a +1 item to attack (weapon or implement), AC, and Defense bonuses every five levels for the math to work. Everything else is gravy and theoretically someone could make a table for the rest of the magic items. (Personally, I’m planning to give each player a +1 item at around level 3 and have it “improve” itself ala Weapons of Legacy every five levels after.)

    As for challenges, I’ve also discovered that if the players use superior tactics (not yet evident from your previous post), a party can more or less handle encounters 3 levels higher than them (hmmm… just like 3rd Ed!). So actually I wouldn’t be afraid to send levels 1-3 encounters in the 1st-level of the dungeon (and that’s playing it safe) and levels 4-6 in the 2nd-level of the dungeon.

    P.S. You might want to check out the adventure at the back of the DMG. There’s a couple of traps there that’s easily adaptable into any dungeon that can be slapped onto any combat encounter.

    Good luck!


  3. orryn_emrys

    And I hereby add my own well-wishes to your upcoming endeavor. My own first 4E session is Monday night… and I’m currently doing what I can to overprepare. Go figure.

    Good luck!


  4. keterys

    You’ll probably want to mix things up to a certain extent. I believe the DMG goes into pretty good detail on mixing up encounter difficulties and types and such, but I’d expect that even the first level might have a couple ‘level 3’ encounters, for instance. So the second level might have level 1 – 5 encounters, etc.

    http://www.enworld.org/showthread.php?t=230885 has a list of the magic items by level.

    If you factor in quest XP, skill challenge(s), and a couple tougher than usual encounters, the group would probably level after the 8th or so combat encounter. If you follow the old megadungeon dictum of making the areas around the stairs a little easier than the rest of the level, but still letting the party know what they’re getting into, it should all work out.


  5. tallarn

    With regards to the number of encounters before levelling, don’t forget that you can include a Quest Reward and XP for defeating traps in that – so it doesn’t have to be all combats. Of course, your players may not experience every combat, but that’s the way it goes…

    Something else I noticed today was that characters still get their Dex or Int bonuses to their Reflex defence if they’re wearing heavy armour, which for some reason I thought didn’t apply.

    I also noticed there are no shields with an enhancement bonus to AC in the PHB – meaning you can only ever get +2 to AC by using a shield…evens the score between sword’n’board and two-handed fighters in terms of AC.


    • merricb

      Heh; yeah, only the Int/Dex bonus to AC is stopped by heavy armour. Shields are cool, though. Magic ones allow all sorts of nifty things, like DR 5/all… and certain fighter powers rely on the shield.


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