Dungeon Crawl One-Shot: Expert Game Master Tips

Dungeon Crawl One-Shot: Expert Game Master Tips

Dungeon crawl has always been a relief for some game masters and players, while it is one of the worst nightmares for others. I myself really love dungeons. Mapping one, filling it with friendly roleplay encounters and deadly combats, designing original traps, even throwing some puzzles in the mix always thrills me.

Setting the Stage

I always try to make the players feel like they’ve been the first to enter somewhere for hundreds of years, a place filled with dangers and mysteries. However, it is dangerous to run dungeon crawl. The players can get bored very easily if they feel that the dungeon is there just because there should be a dungeon. Instead, the dungeon should be a vital part of the game; a vital part of the story. Especially in one-shot games, balancing a dungeon and making it fun can be even harder.

In this small article, I will try to give a template I generally use in my one-shot convention games along with some advice on dungeon crawling.

I always start the dungeon crawl one-shot with an introductory part. I give information about the setting, the themes of the adventure, general history of the setting we are playing in, and make the required warnings if there are going to be sensitive concepts within the game (such as extreme violence). Do not forget that we are playing this game to have fun, and as the Game Master, you should make sure that everybody is comfortable. 

Character Backgrounds

Then I make a prologue. The prologue contains information about the characters, their backgrounds, and the background of the adventure itself. Of course, I keep this information limited appropriately. (We don’t want to spoil all the surprises, do we?) I prefer to come with premade characters to one-shots, especially in conventions, to be sure that all the characters have a connection to the adventure and to buy time. I also explain all the features and spells the characters possess. 

Taking the Quest

Then, I keep it straight. The characters take the quest  they probably won’t reject from an NPC. For example, the characters are city guards and their commander gives them an order. This is also a chance for the players to roleplay, trying to find and then act like their characters. The quest sends them to the first checkpoint, where the characters encounter a small combat. This is again to get the players riled up for game mechanics and make them comfortable with their characters’ abilities. 

Dungeon Crawl

At the first checkpoint, the characters learn that they have to go to the second checkpoint, which is the dungeon, about which I want to mention several things that I think are important. First of all, the dungeon should feel full. There can be empty rooms, and the characters can rest in them, but having to hear, “There is nothing of interest in this room,” over and over is boring for players. So keep your dungeon simple if necessary, but keep it occupied.

The second most important thing is that the dungeon should feel alive. If there are goblins in it, then think about different daytime and nighttime routines for them. If the characters enter the dungeon, battle against a group of goblins, then get out and rest, let the goblins make plans as they wait for the characters. The inhabitants can patrol the dungeon. There is no rule that makes them wait in their rooms while there are sounds of battle coming from the outside. 

The inside of the dungeon is completely up to your imagination. The characters can gather the parts of a magical tablet to open the gate to a secret ritual room, discover the grave of a long-forgotten hero and retrieve the blessed sword needed to kill the villain, or they can just get in and gather some mushrooms for the cure of the plague in their village. It is completely up to you.

Adding Sidequests and Secrets

I could advise, however, that you add some little sidequests in the mix. The characters can find a love letter on a body, and may argue amongst themselves about whether they should give the letter to the relevant person or not, or the characters can find a goblin searching for the big spider in the dungeon since the spider ate their sibling and the goblin is seeking vengeance. 

Moreover, it is important to include secret loot, shortcuts, and traps. However, none of this should punish the characters if they fail. Of course, they can take damage from a failed trap-disabling, but using the shortcut or finding the secret loot shouldn’t be mandatory to reach the end. There should be another way.

The Final Boss Battle

After all that, we arrive at another must-have: the final boss combat. The boss can use the dungeon’s features, destroy it, or make the characters realize that they are in the villain’s house. When the characters defeat the final boss, I let them make the final roleplays, and describe the ending after they fulfill the quest. In one-shot games, I find it’s important to finalize the one-shots, so that the game can have a meaningful and completionist end.


While this is the template that I personally use in general, there is no one correct way of running one-shots or dungeon crawls, so I’d love to learn about your own tactics or templates. 

Have fun!

Back to blog