The dungeon is a staple of role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons in particular could be said to be about 50% dungeons. But the quality and content of these great locales can vary in the extreme. In some campaigns; all a dungeon needs is a goal and a string of encounters to dole out gold and XP. But a dungeon can be far more than that, it’s one of the most interactive parts of your world and every dungeon should tell a story.
Why does this place exist? Who occupies it? Why? How do they defend it? How do they survive? And the topic of this article: What has happened here? These are some questions you should have in mind when creating a dungeon. There is no place that does not have a story. Sometimes a story is so simple that it exists as a single sentence. It’s believed to be Hemmingway who wrote “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”. An illustration of the power of telling an entire story in a very brief moment. You can easily tell a tale in a single moment or scene. It can be as simple as one Orc that wears the finely crafted but now abused armor of a knight from a neighbouring land. It can be a skeleton still clutching an unopened healing potion, or a section of cave leading into darkness, it’s entryway warded off with salt and silver.
If you want to, you can stretch this out into many tiny details that come together. Perhaps each of the strongest three or four Orcs in the dungeon has a different piece of the same suit of armor. The players find the skeleton by following a trail of blood to an opened chest, an adventurers belongings still inside, including gear that would not fit the skeleton they found. Each room of the dungeon is lined with strange symbols and icons, and human sized cages are kept near the tunnel leading into darkness.
You can even grow these moments larger, leaving clues sprinkled through the world and through many dungeons and encounters if you have the foresight and desire to. The important thing is that these little pieces of story will be there to help build player immersion and catch their interest. Maybe something will really stick in their mind, they may even want to investigate further, leading to whole new adventures! Environmental storytelling is an amazing and impressive way to build your world and add details to everything around you. Videogames have been mastering environmental storytelling for years, and many of the finest RPG’s thrive on it. Look to series like the Elder scrolls, Fallout, and especially Dark Souls for tips on how to pull this off seamlessly and effectively.
Remember: Every monster, every item, every brick and coin and bone is yours to create and decide, you have unlimited tools at your disposal, so use them to craft a truly beautiful story.