Old School Dungeon Design Tricks and Tips

Old School Dungeons like Tomb of Horrors and The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar sometimes have quite a few design features that are similar, and help to make "Old School Dungeons" more entertaining than some of the more modern adventures which are designed to be more hack n slash.

Warning! Because I cite examples of these designs, there are spoilers ahead. I will be frequently mentioning designs from Tomb of Horrors, The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar and others. You have been warned.

#1. The Joke or Private Joke

Sometimes the Dungeon Master or dungeon designer will add something to the dungeon that just doesn't make much sense and is there purely for the sake of it being funny.


The chain in The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar. PCs tug on it and cannot figure out what it does. It doesn't do anything, but creator Ed Greenwood probably got a laugh out letting players waste time tugging on it before cracking a joke about them yanking on his chain.

"Private Jake" in the Stormreach Waterworks in Dungeons and Dragons Online. The whole point of Private Jake is that you don't know what the joke is, except for the obvious pun of his name.

The teleporter in Tomb of Horrors that takes people's gear and/or turns them into the opposite sex. Always good for a laugh.

#2. The Trap with No Saving Throw that Characters have to Choose to Set Off

In 1st/2nd edition AD&D traps did not have a saving throw. They just went off and there typically was no way to avoid them unless players were smart about it. Some traps took it a step further however and gave players the choice of whether to press the proverbial button and see what happens.

I ran into one of these recently in a game. There is a rope dangling from the middle of the ceiling, similar to the chain mentioned above. You yank the rope and the whole floor collapses. No saving throw. Everyone in the room falls, including the rope.

The beauty of the trap is that characters have to choose to set off the trap by pulling the rope. If you just leave it alone, nothing happens.


The blank door in The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar that drops a giant stone block on you if you open the door.

The demon mouth with a Sphere of Annihilation inside it, within Tomb of Horrors. PCs who make the mistake of sticking their hand or other items in there, have their hand/etc cease to exist. The proper response is to use a 10 foot pole and you lose part of the pole before realizing that you should just leave it alone.

#3. Details, Details, Details

A smart dungeon designer should sprinkle the dungeon with clues about the story of the dungeon itself. Clues about who created it, who may have lived in it in the past, and who might be living there now.


Wide slime trails in "The Keep of Koralgesh" indicating that there is a giant slime monster in the dungeon somewhere...

Books and notes left in various rooms which tell tidbits of the story of the dungeon.

#4. The Possible Henchman

You don't usually see henchmen in 3rd or 5th Edition games, but in old 1st and 2nd edition AD&D the dungeon designer would sometimes add a possible henchman to the dungeon which could be rescued and could possibly join your team.

I have written previously about The Rarely Used Henchman and I contend that they are an excellent roleplaying device for DMs to be using to add more flavour and interest to their games.


Tomb of Horrors has a female sirine in a cave that if freed is available to join the party.

Haunted Halls of Eveningstar has two possible henchmen. A female wizard (Estrel) who lies dead on a table can be raised from the dead and can join the party, and a 2nd female wizard (Miior) lies in stasis in a closet in a different room and if woken from stasis is also available to join the party.

#5. Environmental Health Hazards

There are many ways to do this.
  • The whole dungeon could be teaming with rats (diseased ones) that sometimes bite the PCs.
  • Parts of the dungeon could be icy or greasy, and thus slippery.
  • Narrow ledges or bridges.
  • Heat or cold dealing damage over time.
  • Lack of oxygen in the air causing exhaustion / fatigue.
  • Poison in the air.
  • Poisonous spores (see The Temple of Elemental Evil).
  • Lava chasms in the ground (see The Keep of Koralgesh).
#6. Mix Monsters of Different Types

A common thing that started appearing in 3rd edition and continued in 5th edition is to mix a common type of monster (eg. kobold) and make their leaders something like a kobold cleric/shaman or a kobold barbarian, etc.

In Old School Dungeons however this never happened. Instead if a group of kobolds had a leader it was likely a lizardman or a human necromancer. A group of orcs with an ogre leader. An army of undead led by a demon. That sort of idea.

It is way too easy to just have a single monster and then just make their leader the same monster but with spells. The Old School method makes the boss monster something bigger and more terrifying. Kobold shamans might have spells, but they don't have the physical presence of an ogre.

Or if you really want the boss to have spells, make it an ogre magi.

#7. Not all Traps are Traps, some are Ambushes

A common theme in Old School Dungeons is to give the baddies some advantage. An ambush with a surprise round is one way to do this. Having the PCs fight in an unfavorable situation where the baddies have higher ground, have cover, have mounts, have useful weapons, have annoying pets, etc.


The stirge in the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar that ambushes the PCs on slippery moss covered stairs. Sure, it is only 1 stirge, but it puts up quite the fight with the PCs having difficulty just moving on the stairs.

The kobolds in the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar that have crossbows with sleep poison bolts - and attack from behind a wall with arrow slits while the PCs are in a room full of corpses (some of which are undead).

#8. The One Combat that the PCs have to Strategize or choose to Avoid

In Old School Dungeons there is usually 1 room with something so big in it that the party would be better off just avoiding it. Sometimes there is a monster so big it is just there to get PCs to realize that running away is an option.

Typically however that one monster will also have some really nice loot and it is worth the risk and the extra effort of strategizing how to take it down.


The mummy in the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar. It is way too powerful for a low level party, but if they are rested and prepared (with fire spells) they can possibly take it down.

Funny Note

If the DM has a room filled with vampire rust monsters (level drain + they destroy your metal gear) then the team should probably avoid that room anyway. The DM was being silly when they designed those monsters anyway. Also if the DM actually ambushes the party with vampire rust monsters, clearly they want a more "DM vs Players" kind of game, which isn't really fun any more. It is just completely silly.

#9. Traps that can be avoided with a 10 foot pole

Thieves and rogues are really optional in old school dungeons. Smart players can solve or avoid a trap using wits.

Assuming that players are seasoned at dungeon delving they may have figured out a long time ago that many traps can be defeated with a 10 foot pole... and some chickens.


Most of the traps in Tomb of Horrors can be defeated with either a 10 foot pole and chickens. (Or Sticks to Snakes.) All the players have to do is be extremely cautious and test everything with a sturdy pole or a chicken to see if it safe and they will avoid 90% of the traps.

#10. A Puzzle or Riddle that cannot be solved with dice

I did this recently with a teleporting puzzle where each 10 x 10 section of the room teleports the person when activated. There was clues in the dungeon that help solve the puzzle, but if the players take the time they can solve the puzzle without needing the clues. It works well for low level PCs, but would not work against a higher level party with access to Dimension Door or Teleport.

Sometimes a puzzle will also have a riddle element to it, or a timer (like the room is flooding) or traps within the puzzle to discourage wrong guesses.


The Keep of Koralgesh has a nice lever puzzle in it which when solved unlocks something. The lever puzzle is actually ridiculously simple, but in my experience players think that it is more complicated and end up spending more time on it trying to solve what they think is a complex puzzle when it is actually really simple.

#11. The Physical Obstacle or Old School Dungeon Hazard

A good Old School Dungeon should have some kind of physical obstacle to overcome, at least one - but the players have to use their brains to figure out how. It could be something simple like building a bridge over a chasm, or something more complicated.

For extra challenge the obstacle might be very dangerous - and have a monster lurking near it. Like a watery tunnel that they have to swim through... and it has man-eating fish inside it.

The Old School Dungeon Hazard is things like green slime. Which is not a monster, but it is a deadly fungus.


The Keep of Koralgesh has a number of fissures in the ground with lava flowing further below. They can easily be avoided with wood to make a quick bridge.

The green slime in the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar... it is a potential party wipe if the players have no clue how to get rid of it. (Burning the entire room of slime before entering works well.)

#12. The Permanent Change

There should be something in the dungeon that does something that is either a benefit or a detriment. Or both simultaneously. Or it is all random. Whatever the case, the effect should be permanent.

It could be a magic or cursed item, place, monster, or trap that causes a permanent effect: Crosses gender, changes race, raises/lowers hp, raises or lowers stats, and can even change their alignment or age.


The teleporter in Tomb of Horrors that takes people's gear and/or turns them into the opposite sex.

The Fountain of Youth - no explanation needed.

My own little ideas...

The party finds a magical tome that boosts one RANDOM stat. You don't know which stat is effects until after they read it. Watch the party fight over who gets it.

The Gambler's Gambit - The device has a 60/40 chance of raising or lowering 1 stat. Roll a d10 to determine whether the stat goes up or down. Roll d6 to determine which stat is effected. The item only works twice for each PC. Trying to use it a 3rd time causes it to drain half the user's current hp (no save) and takes away 1 point of their highest stat permanently. (A smart player will use divination magic like Augury before attempting to use this item.)

#13. One piece of cursed treasure

Any more than that would feel like you are punishing the players. Just 1 however teaches the lesson that players need to be careful about treasure, because sometimes the treasure IS the trap.

Yes... I totally picked #13 on purpose.

No examples this time. Lets not spoil that one.

#14. The Faux Climax

The false climax is a way to trick the players into thinking that the dungeon boss has been defeated. And then later springing the real dungeon boss on them later. If the PCs fall for it, the real boss fight will turn out to be a real surprise and a challenge. Wise players should realize that the fake boss was too easily defeated.


The fake lich in Tomb of Horrors when the real demi-lich is further into the dungeon. Along with other fake copies of himself.

#15. Something that disorients the PCs

Floors and hallways that move, random teleports, getting trapped in a mirror dimension, becoming trapped inside a monster or a maze (or a monster that is a living maze). Gravity doesn't work properly, time travels at different speeds, etc.

#16. Low on Resources

The party should lose things along the way. There should be something that causes them to lose their food or water, or all their torches, spell components... they might even start running low on air to breathe. Or weapons or armour.

The quick and easy way to do this is to ambush the party with rust monsters. A spell that ages them 1 year also ruins all their food. All their torches are waterlogged and useless. Spell components ruined / rotten.

#17. The Giant Valuable Thing that is impossible to carry...

There should always be one thing that is really valuable, but too big to carry the whole thing. And possibly attached to the wall or floor.

Alternatively, they can carry it - but it leaves the party vulnerable to an ambush.


A giant silver statue, worth over 10,000 gp - but it is impossible to carry.

The old "Bunny on a Stump" trick.
#18. The Sneaky Shapeshifter

There should be a monster of some kind that is not what it appears to be. Like a potential ally who is actually a villain in disguise. Wolves disguised as sheep.


The mimics in the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar. Any of them... there is multiple.

The doppleganger disguised as a statue in the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar.

#19. Unique Monsters not found anywhere else

Or rarely found anywhere else. Something very rare and unique, like a new type of slime that has its own rules.


The flying daggers inside Irongard, a quest made by Ed Greenwood. Similar flying weapons are to be found in some other quests also by Greenwood. To my knowledge they are not found in any other quests except Greenwood's.

In the town of Eveningstar there is a type of flying cat (not to be confused with the Catowl below) called a Tressym. Tressym are really only found in the kingdom of Cormyr in Forgotten Realms, and no where else. They apparently make good familiars for wizards or companions for druids.

The Catowl. Not all unique monsters have to be scary. But it is on a stump...

#20. Something that makes no sense at all

This is there just to boggle the imaginations of the players. It should be inexplicable and it is left for the players to argue over possible meanings as to why.


The pile of old rusty adventuring equipment, some of it still in good condition, waiting within the foyer of the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar. When touched a magic mouth speaks, warning the visitors that these items belonged to those who came before them.

Or the above mentioned chain, which doubles as Ed Greenwood's private joke that has players "yanking his chain". It has no meaning really, but is worth a laugh.

#21. The dungeon should have an Awesome Name
  • Tomb of Horrors
  • Haunted Halls of Eveningstar
  • Temple of Elemental Evil
  • Keep of Koralgesh.
  • Etc
So seriously, come up with a good sounding name. Often the creator uses a bit of alliteration to create a dungeon that flows nicely, but sounds scary or mysterious at the same time.
  • The Catacombs of Chaos
  • The Dungeon of Infinite Death
  • The Fortress of Finality
  • The Garrison of Ghouls
  • The Hundred Haunted Hills of Hillcrest
Clearly I am just going down the alphabet here and just having fun coming up with names. Having an "of" in the middle of the name is optional, but it does perhaps help to make the name sound more impressive.


Just because there are 20 things on this list does not mean you have to use all 20 to make an "old school style dungeon". You might only use a wee number, like 5 of the things and still have a pretty awesome dungeon.

You can mix and match items. eg. The unique monster could be disguised as something else, and it could be the faux climax too. Players might thing that monster was the boss monster because it was disguised as the boss monster...

One of the common themes within bad dungeon design is to use a single theme, such as undead or traps. But the hallmark of good dungeon design is actually having a variety of things in there so it never becomes boring.

"Oh look, another room filled with undead."

A good dungeon should mix things together that you might not normally think work well together... like plants and undead. The plants don't care about the undead, and the undead don't care about the plants. But put them in the same room and suddenly the plants provide hiding places for the undead to lurk behind... and the plants turn out to be "disguised monsters" who add extra spice to the conflict.

Have fun!

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