Dark Waters Rising: Dungeon Design

This is the second of my two design blogs, which I hope lend some insight into my adventure design generally, and my design on Dark Waters Rising in particular.

Dark Waters Rising



The bulk of the action in Dark Waters Rising takes place in a dungeon, but I wanted to focus on what happens in a dungeon. I think a GM will be pleased to see what the players—not just the PCs—go through in a dungeon adventure.

As a player, I’ve spent an awful lot of time in dungeons. I mean “dungeon” not just in the classic flagstone and masonry tomb, but also more exotic locations such as an ice cave, animal den, graveyard or prison demiplane. The dungeon has a lot of advantages in play:

  1. It’s a realistic setting for several dangerous encounters in close proximity
  2. it’s a defined space in which the PCs know to be careful and cautious
  3. it provides a dividing line in the game world between areas in which danger is omnipresent and areas in which the PCs can relax.

Some DMs will claim that they have moved beyond using mere “dungeons.” I caution any DM with this attitude to take a closer look at his or her game and see whether the dungeons are right there in plain sight. Did you have an intrigue-laden adventure at a royal dinner party? The dinner was a space-delimited environment with several dangerous encounters (dangerous in the political sense rather than the physical sense), and was effectively a “dungeon” for your adventure. Did you have a murder mystery in a haunted mansion? The mansion was a dungeon play-space for your players. And so on.

Fantasy RPGs thrive on dungeons of all types, so a look at the play experience in a dungeon is particularly valuable. No matter the size or the type of dungeon, I see these three phases of player interaction with the dungeon:

  1. Exploration. The PCs have come to the dungeon for a specific goal (in Dark Waters Rising, it’s to rescue several kidnapped townspeople, but less noble goals are just fine, too). The PCs experience some of the overall themes of the dungeon that set their expectations: the dungeon is dark and abandoned, or it’s a necropolis filled with zombies, or it’s a sagging ancient manor long past its glory days, or it’s a rough-hewn ice cave lit by mysterious crystals. The key element in the exploration phase is that the PCs don’t really understand what they’re in for. If you ask the players in the Exploration phase to tell you how big the dungeon is or where its key villains are located, they can only give you incomplete information at best. Players that enjoy experiencing new things have the most fun in the Exploration phase, as the dungeon seems boundless.
  2. Comprehension. The Exploration phase tips to the Comprehension phase as soon as the players get a sense of the scope of the dungeon (“That was the northeast corner, and we’re now in the southwest corner, so this whole complex is approximately three hundred feet square”), the main dangers in the dungeon (“I see…the rooms all switch around in a cyclical pattern”), or the main villains (“Ah, these goblins keep yammering about their Harpy Queen, a reclusive tiefling wizard, and a bugbear champion between them”). The PCs might not be physically halfway through the dungeon, but this point feels like “halfway” to the players, as they now understand how much “dungeon” is in store for them. There are still plenty of surprises and some hard fights left to come, but the players “get it.” Personally, I love feeling this tipping point, and seeing it in my players. Players that enjoy complicated planning love the Comprehension phase best, because they now have enough information to make extensive plans about how to tackle the rest of the dungeon.
  3. Mastery. In this final phase, the PCs have defeated the key villains but haven’t necessarily explored every nook and cranny. The dungeon now holds few surprises for them, and the players feel that the PCs can overcome these surprises without much further difficulty. The players just feel like they are “mopping up,” and both GM and players are much more likely to hand-wave combats or detailed investigation during this phase. Curiously, player response to danger shifts as well: players are less likely to tolerate unexpected obstacles in this final phase (as an example, a deadly trap in the Exploration phase will put players on their toes; a deadly trap in the Comprehension phase seems sensible; a deadly trap in the Mastery phase seems to irritate players). Power gamers get the most fun out of the Mastery phase, as they can tromp quickly through the remaining encounters in the dungeon without too much challenge and with satisfying alacrity.

Dark Waters Rising

As the PCs descend the busted waterwheel into the crypt complex in Dark Waters Rising, they’re plainly still in the Exploration phase: they don’t know who is here (other than ghoul monks), why the townspeople were kidnapped, or how big the crypt complex even is. Somewhere in their explorations, you’ll see the players flip from phase to phase as they learn Odwain’s plan and how quickly the “dungeon” is flooding beneath them.

My playest group entered the dungeon and made their way through the training room plainly in the Exploration phase: they scrutinized every flagstone and clue. They skipped the mediation chamber, resolving to “check that on the way out,” and then headed into the vault. While they figured out the time-consuming puzzle there, several PCs could hear the moans of the kidnapped villagers coming from not too much deeper in. They were almost to their goal! Although the PCs had figured out the vault puzzle, they didn’t take the time to solve it, because they had a sense of where their main foes were located. That is, they were now in the Comprehension phase. A quite dramatic fight later (apologies to Brad’s beleaguered half-orc druid!), the PCs had defeated the villains, rescued the townspeople, and were already quizzing some of the morally-suspect townspeople about their role in the disaster. Here, they were in the Mastery phase. One of the PCs ventured into the meditation chamber by himself, “just to see what’s in there.” Imagine his surprise when, only a few seconds later, he was paralyzed and all alone with the fearsome Garsel!

I’d love to hear any experiences you have with Dark Waters Rising, and how your players move through these phases as they move through the dungeon! Why not write a review or leave a comment below!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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