Based on my experience as a dungeon master, I find that the perfect ratio of rooms in a dungeon is as follows:
30% combat encounters
10% weird stuff
Which, in practice when it comes to making a quick dungeon in 30 minutes, is 3 combat encounters, 3 empty rooms, 2 traps, an NPC, and something weird to fiddle with. Also one magic item, thrown somewhere in there.
Now this is all well and good but I've found myself realizing that even I didn't really full "get" what made a good one of any of these archetypical rooms in a dungeon. What separates a good trap from a bad trap? When is a combat encounter just a boring die rolling competition, and when is it tactical and neat? How do I
Here is what I came up with to answer these sorts of questions:
What does a good combat encounter need?
- A reason for the party to fight. The enemies should be blocking off an area they need to get to, there should be treasure that is being guarded, or maybe there is an innocent person to save.
- The environment needs to be interesting and exploitable. There should be stuff in here that both the enemies and the party can use to their advantage. Tables that could be knocked over and used for cover, chandeliers that can be knocked off the ceiling, explosive barrels, etc. This encourages the players to think tactically and makes combat actually interesting.
- Enemies should think tactically and act in ways that make sense. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, a mindless zombie is probably gonna be less intelligent than a bandit, but the general principle makes sense. Enemies should flee when wounded, take cover from ranged fire, coordinate with each other, and select targets logically.
(This is taken from the Wolfenstein 3d mod Medevil, and I think this forms the basis of a neat combat encounter. There is a table in the middle that acts as cover, two different enemies with unique tactics and strategies. If this were in a D&D game, the players could even utilize the tapestries on the wall to their advantage, maybe throwing one over an opponent to blind them!)
What does a good trap need?
- Some sort of reason for the players to want to bypass it. If there is just a side room with no treasure and a chest with a poisoned latch, that's not a good trap, you're just being an asshole. A proper trap should reward the party for overcoming it in some way, through either treasure, access to more of the dungeon, etc.
- A way to bypass it or deactivate it. Sure, logically a dungeon builder would want a trap that can't be avoided or stopped, but you're not running a game about killing player characters, you're running a game about fantastic adventure! Put in a sneaky hidden lever that deactivates the crusher, or a magic word which makes the spikes in the walls retract. Or just add a way out that avoids it all together! A death trap shouldn't be a death trap, if that makes sense.
- A way to actually notice the trap before it does its business. You don't need to necessarily tell the players anything when the enter the room, but if they start looking around and asking you questions, answer them! If they look closely, let them notice that tripwire or pressure plate. Reward exploration and observation.
(I love this illustration from D&D 4th edition, its a little bit over the top for my taste but this image of the adventurers fleeing from a huge boulder while being shot at by arrows is so cool)
What does a good empty room need?
- An empty room should have a reason for existing. There should be doors or corridors that lead to other rooms, some treasure, or some lore and story behind it.
- Something should be in the "empty" room that relates to the dungeon's theme or history. For example, a wizard's labyrinth might have a portrait of the wizard, or a small laboratory in great disrepair.
What does a good special room need?
- Honestly do whatever you want with this, this is your chance to put something in the dungeon that is wacky and out there. Just think about something weird that you could semi-reasonably explain its reason for being here, and then plonk it in.
- Screw balance, this place doesn't follow the rules. That doesn't mean it has to be super deadly or game breaking, it could just be some weird effect or encounter, like an ogre which doesn't actually exist or something.
What does a good NPC need?
- Mannerisms or a distinct voice. Give that fella a silly voice, go ahead, it will help the players remember them.
- Goals and motivations are also important. Why is this person in the dungeon? What do they want?
- An NPC also needs likes and dislikes. A character who is deathly afraid of rats and is oddly attracted to wizards is a lot more interesting than someone without any preferences for anything.