On Dungeon Anxiety

It’s not uncommon that I will sit down with the intention of designing a small dungeon adventure. Dungeons are meant to be easy and fun to build but my anxious mind sometimes simply overloads and leaves me empty-handed. I find myself, two or three (or more) hours later, having achieved very little.

It’s far too easy for me to get stuck in an anxiety loop:

  • Sit down to design a dungeon and feel anxious that the adventure will turn out crap.
  • Start to worry about the design, the overall purpose of the dungeon, what might logically live there.
  • Spin my wheels with various non-productive actions until I finally give up.

I get hung up on how big the first room should be. I worry about how many locations makes for a good dungeon. I find it hard to imagine the place as a whole before I begin to draw it out.

If I allow myself to turn on the computer – thinking, “Hey, I could just open up Word and type up the notes as I go!” – well, it’s not long before I am faffing around looking for a mapping tool and stressing myself out with how the whole thing looks.

The key problem is that I don’t really know where to start. While I have been paying trying to use the simple step-by-step guide in Old-School Essentials to give me a process, I notice that when it comes time to draw the dungeon the whole task always ends up feeling a bit like those silly memes about how to draw owls:

There are basically two solutions I have found that work:

  1. Find a map you like online and then stock it.
  2. Draw a map using pencil and paper, letting your hand freely roam.

These methods both bypass my anxieties about drawing and designing. The first replaces the creative act with someone else’s art. The second places focus on doing rather than thinking.

Using someone else’s map allows me to see the whole of the map, appreciate the aesthetic and get excited about what might be inside. That moves me quickly on to stocking it, for which I can use random tables to kick-start my mind if nothing obvious pops into my consciousness. It is, of course, a kind of cop-out.

Drawing freely with pencil and paper allows me to drop all pretence of design and simply sketch something that feels interesting. From there, I can ask questions about the overall shape might suggest. I can roll on tables to spark an idea for a monster. Either way, I kick start the dungeon stocking – which is the best bit. This is the way I used to do it as a kid, without thought and relying on my intuition instead.

The sad thing is that a lot of the time I end up just grabbing someone else’s adventure. Instead of running myself into the ground, berating myself for being a terrible GM, perhaps the most viable alternative is to draw like a 10 year old.

Game on!


  1. Same thoughts and feelings here. Revert back to your early teen years for roleplaying advice. That kid was very wise and has great suggestions that work. Just look at the sheer volume of good stuff he created.

    Liked by 1 person

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