Non-linear dungeons



Really, this is more of a general dungeon mastering question.

A lot of people on youtube praise non-linear, jacquaysed dungeon design, but every time I tried to do it the only result was players drowning in non-dramatic choices after every room. It seems like non-linear dungeon looks extremely cool when you are looking at it from above as the DM, but only gives frustration to people, who have to actually PLAY it.

On the other hand, Hankerin, I think, said in some videos that he minimizes path choice in his sessions, leaving most of the player freedom for time in between sessions.

Have you tried running non-linear dungeons with 2-3 possible exits from some rooms? How did it go? Did you feel that your players got something, that they would not get in linear dungeon?


So speaking from a game and “dungeon” design stance, my “Dungeons” are mostly buildings or natural caverns so some rooms have multiple entrances and exits if they make sense. having had the benefit of studying architecture I layout my buildings with rooms and entrances that make sense for the kind of building I am using. When my Player’s Characters enter the area they may go in whatever direction they want I set timers for events that take place throughout the play space generally I will use 1 to 2 d10s per Objective in the encounter space to get my total countdown time. the final objective has that long to be accomplished. Then from the pool of time, I will assign a count-down timer per room 1 to 2 d4 or d6 for an event to happen in that specific room. The countdowns to the event are generally unaffected but can be affected if the players are in that specific room.

My encounter spaces have a budget of foes unless they are in an extensive cave network where there could be literal thousands of foes. Generally support arriving in numbers is one of my timers a d8 or d10 once the alarm has sounded. Most room times will only start when one or two conditions are met.

  1. the PCs enter the room
  2. an alarm or other trigger sets off the timer

Both of these conditions are reactionary in nature to the player’s actions.

There are timers that are not set as reaction triggers these are on a world timer such as midnight approaching in ‘X’ rounds. The ritual will start in 1 round but finish at ‘X’. The players know the bells of midnight are coming and must do something before time elapses.

[edit 1]
As far as player choice goes, they typically have an idea of where certain places in the play space are and what events might kick off based on their plan of action. My PCs plan their entry points room flow, and objectives like a Navy Seal team when they have the time. If they know they are going in blind they use stealth as much as possible and strike hard and fast against foes using the elements of surprise and guerilla tactics or flat-out assault.

[edit 2]
I find that as long as the PCs are moving it does not matter what direction they move in especially if there are multiple methods of getting to the goal.


How much info do you give your players? Sometimes when my people start planning someone says “Well, we can plan whatever we want, but who really knows what is down there?” and then everyone agrees to just rush in and see what happens

It seems like the more info you give, the more tactical players can get and then it really makes their choice making process faster, but also it feels like it diminishes exploration aspect.

Almost like exploration (as in discovering something unknown and acting on it) and tactics (doing the best with what you know) are diametrically opposed because you can’t plan for something you do not know.


The amount of information received depends upon the actions taken prior to getting to the encounter space.

For example, if there is a wizard in the party who is a diviner and scrys the location they can effectively plan. Similarly, if the group’s rogue sneaks in, surveys the location, and reports back they may plan their next move.

Conversely, if the party has no time to learn of their target location properly, but they know what their mission is and any potential time constraints they can make limited or no plans. When this happens all they know is that they need to act in one of two ways Stealth (Slow) mode and survey as they go or Blitz (Hard and Fast) where they rush the objectives in hopes of not allowing time triggers to activate.

This has been my experience… with my groups.

[edit 1]
In many of my games the players have objectives given by an NPC or they have their own goals, if the party is just exploring and there is no conflict that is driving them forward they put it to a vote on which way to proceed or they send a scout of some kind. This means they can miss hidden things that are down branches or paths untaken, assuming I as the GM have planned that area. In many cases for free exploration I don’t plan the paths of the dungeon, I roll on a limited table what the room is, what obstacles it contains, and any potential reward it may have, I also have a limited lore table that I can roll on to string some elements together. Ultimately my “nonlinear” dungeons are unplanned spaces and they are almost always cave systems or other natural environments rather than buildings. This is because if a place was built it was built for a reason or purpose, and a place that has purpose needs to make design sense for those who built it. With common pathways and rooms where doors are aligned with each other. entrances and exits that are clear of obstructions. Because if it was built it’s not going to be built as a nuisance to navigate. Only defensive structures have purposefully nuisance-inducing areas to harry the invaders.

[edit 2]
I hope that I am making sense in my ramblings.


I always use non-linear dungeons, because it strengthens the exploration element. From a “level design” perspective, you just have to make sure that the two paths lead to places and obstacles that are different from each other. So the left path leads to the goblin camp, the right to a prison; the left to the witch, the right to a ruined bridge over a rapid stream; etc.


What is dramatic to you?
And do you need every decision to be dramatic or is there a personal rythm to it that you would like to enjoy at your games?


Another easy trick to improve your non-linear dungeon is to make the entry point of each room very distinct. So if you go left and enter the goblin camp you encounter their guard post, but if you go via the prison and witch and then circle back you instead arrive directly to their campfire (and if you picked up goblin attire from the prison you can easily go unnoticed and pour the potion of confusion that you stole from the witch into the goblins’ cauldron, and thereby bypass the camp without bloodshed).


Dramatic choice, as I would formulate it, is choice that

  1. Challenges character’s values and beliefs about world
  2. Has a lasting impact on character/world

Do we go save the captured peasants or do we try rescue the lord’s son? Do we risk our lives to get the ancient artifact that can stop orks’ bloodthirst, or do we give in to anger and wage war on them?

For example, if a group has a set destination and there are two main ways to get there: Troll cave and Ooze tunnel, then that choice is mostly mechanical: which one will be easier to go through?

If I have two cool encounters ready, than there is absolutely no reason to not put them one behind another in a linear fashion: more cool content for the players.

If I have a really fleshed out troll encounter and the ooze one is kinda meh, than why would I not just drop the ooze encounter and vice versa?

If I have no good ideas for these encounters and the only reason they encounter a troll in this cave is because trolls just do live there as per established lore, I would much rather make it a skill challenge or something to that effect and be done with it as fast as possible to get to the interesting part.

And even if I do place both encounters in a linear fashion it’s not like they can’t avoid them by being smart. If they really do not want to face the troll, then they will find a way to do that without me giving them choice between troll and ooze.


Fantastic answer! Then it feels like no matter the dungeon layout you won’t ever attain your objective! What I would recommend is to make clusters of rooms, each controlled by faction of monsters with bullet points about diplomacy and their culture & laws so your players can related or not to those!

I would, for example, design each space to contain most of the stuff that the factions requires for its needs (to be open to negotiation) as well as resource mines (leverage during negotiations), then I would give them at least a single detestable trait that could clash with your players (gotta confront them to pull your players out of their comfort zone; like sentient sacrifices, slavery, etc.). Add a redeeming societal quality to the faction if you do not want them to be merely cannon fodder (honourable, faithful, a strict system of law, etc.) and then perhaps an ambitious goal that will drive that faction forward if they ever gain everything that they need or the control of the dungeon.

By the way, ensure that the detestable trait is actually societal, and not just:“They smell.” 'cause then that isn’t really a reason to make war to them. Can’t blame Goblins if they live in the sewers. :man_shrugging:

You can give an interactive hint (knowledge checks) to the players when they arrive into a faction territory and open up the paths to allow them to continue forward into the territory or not to possibly meet another faction. Now, there can be an ecosystem or trade network, or not, but if you want the actions of your players to matter you have to decide if something is going to be an obstacle or not to their goal. Is the trade network an obstacle? Or perhaps completing the trade network would ensure that they accomplish their goal? If a faction win do the players win? Do they have to choose? It’s up to you, always question what is the real obstacle or opportunity for your players.

Finally, for the layout of the dungeon, pick a series of pattern that you like. For me, it’s numbers. So my most simple dungeons are simply numbers that I have filled with rooms. Sometimes it’s linear, other times it’s has clusters of rooms that fill up the space around the numbers. The true magic of this idea, I think and maybe you won’t agree but it’s fine we’re all discovering our favorite methods of doing things on these forums, is when you roll multiple D10s and then imagine bringing those layout numbers together to build a bigger space that you can then sprinkle with rooms or fill the white space around the lines with clusters of rooms to make dungeons. It’s simple, it’s quick, you can do it with D10s, and it’s amazing. Try it out, tell me what you think! :smiley:

Good luck with your dungeons friend! :+1:


I see the point about getting maximal use of cool content, and I also understand the will to emphasize dramatic choices. But I still think this is largely a matter of granularity. In a linear dungeon, players are still faced with mostly non-dramatic choices: should I use my sword or my bow, should I sneak or charge. And like the choice between a easier and harder foe, many of these choice points are situations where you can mathematically calculate the best course of action.

So using linear or non-linear dungeons is, to me, not so much about offering more or less dramatic choices - the degree of planned drama is approximately the same. Instead, the preference for non-linear dungeons has to do with a different aesthetic - the aesthetic of emergence. Basically, with a non-linear dungeon I start from the assumption that there is only so much dramatic choices that I can plan ahead, and by allowing the player-characters to move across the “rooms” or scenarios in ways that I didn’t plan, there is a possibility that their actions create new dramatic choices for themselves. And from this vantage point, it suddenly becomes reasonable to offer two different paths, even if one encounter is much more interesting than the other.


Hey Yarmoon,

I’ve run almost exclusively non-linear dungeons for several years. Exceptions might include like a defensive installment meant to funnel invading forces through a choke point, but I usually consider that part of a dungeon (in that case, an ancient city). So yes, I have ran non-linear dungeons with multiple interlacing spaces, both on the same dungeon level and between levels. Since this is my thing, hopefully I can help a bit here!

First, the purpose of a non-linear dungeon is to be playable space. Just as in Dark Souls and related games, the environment is a core component of play. Do you go left or right first? Are there any signs that suggest what is down each passage? Do you have a rogue that can use their climbing tools, scale a rock wall, and lower the rope to unlock a shortcut for the party? How are you going to get past the flame trap without alerting the ghouls nearby? How much further can you go before you need to fall back due to resource depletion?

If you do fall back and need a few days or weeks to rest, recover, and resupply… what do the dungeon inhabitants due to reinforce their home? And so on.

So, the drama comes from hard choices within the dungeon and the roll of the dice (torches burning out, limited spell slots being used for a light spell that is about to expire, random encounters, saving throws versus traps, massive damage received from monsters). Indeed, the role of the dice is to inject drama through uncertainty. Make the rolls count.

If your players do not want to explore and play the space, they probably won’t have a good time. Set expectations beforehand.

Second, you cannot run a non-linear dungeon as if it were a linear dungeon. Do not expect every choice to be a dramatic one! I believe that the modern obsession with DRAMA at every turn in a TTRPG session actually undercuts such efforts. When a scary movie is nothing but jump scares and gotchas, they lose their potency. You need the empty rooms. You need the random encounter rolls that result in NO ENCOUNTER. You can’t force the “standard story structure” of 5 room acts (see: 5 room dungeons), it’s plastic and unbelievable. If every wing of the dungeon is a layered story, it’s confusing and drowns your players in useless crap.

Your non-linear dungeons need white space. Let things breath. The narrative is emergent, it comes from play. It comes from you having a rotting library with no encounters keyed. Suddenly, you roll a random encounter. It’s 3d4 goblins. What are they doing in the library? Most of them can’t even read. Do your GM brain thing and figure it out. Now in the fight, what if their guide is killed by an errant goblin arrow. What was supposed to be a safe, steady trek through the fens is now a serious challenge - their guide is dead! Drama. And you get to be surprised, too.

I’d like to respond to some of your comments, too.

You said, “It seems like the more info you give … it really makes their choice making process faster, but also it feels like it diminishes exploration aspect … Almost like exploration … and tactics … are diametrically opposed because you can’t plan for something you do not know.”

You need to stagger your information. They enter a dark, webbed library with rotten wood tables. They can smell mildew and spoiled meat (zombies hiding under overturned bookshelves). That’s all you tell them. Of course they want to know the dimensions of the room, how it’s laid out, what else they see, etc. Give them the opportunity to ASK you! Now you’re not just describing the room - now, they are exploring. Their tactical toolkit will expand as they interact with the environment. (exploration leads to tactics)

You said, “For example, if a group has a set destination and there are two main ways to get there: Troll cave and Ooze tunnel, then that choice is mostly mechanical: which one will be easier to go through? … If I have two cool encounters ready, than there is absolutely no reason to not put them one behind another in a linear fashion: more cool content for the players. … If I have a really fleshed out troll encounter and the ooze one is kinda meh, than why would I not just drop the ooze encounter and vice versa? … If I have no good ideas for these encounters … I would much rather make it a skill challenge or something to that effect and be done with it as fast as possible to get to the interesting part.”

The choice shouldn’t be purely mechanical, it should be nested in the established narrative. But, even if it were purely mechanical, we are playing a game and the mechanics are agents of drama. You noted that there were two main ways to get there. Great! But what about other ways? Yes, they have to go through the troll cave or the ooze tunnel. How else might they get into the troll cave other than the main entry? What if the ooze tunnel is much longer but, unbeknownst to the players, has some valuable magical items they will need later? What if they know that and now have to decide: do we have the resources and time to try and get those magical items?

There are several reasons not to put them one behind the other. Verisimilitude is one, and often overlooked as a buzz word. Give that careful consideration. Pacing and player agency are others. If your ooze encounter is meh, fix it. If you design something and you don’t think it’s interesting, make it interesting! And remember the cost to the players: hit points, spell slots, arrows, potions and scrolls, torches, random encounter rolls, time limits, and very importantly… REAL TIME LIMITS. The players have you for four hours today. If they go down Path A, they may not get to experience Path B until next week. Make sure they have some information, most of the time, to make that an important decision for them.

The major hurdle to running proper non-linear dungeons is the preparation required. If you’re like most of us, you simply don’t have enough time between sessions to do that amount of preparation. Take a tip from the older editions, and front-load the strain into generation tables and gameplay procedures. Once you’ve made or found them, you can use them forever and they pay immense dividends.

PS: See attached image for one level of a dungeon I designed. Three entries/exits from the level, looping passages within and between wings, multiple lines of sight and elevation (not noted on the map). Many areas are “designed” and keyed ahead of time, others are empty, others still have things that are inaccessible or unusable for now… I used my generation tables to make 10 random encounters ahead of the game, and I will roll D10 on that list anytime an encounter is rolled during play. It’s fun!

Game on.