DMing 101 – Level Design

In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.

There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.


Level Design

Combining aspects of both narrative and game structure, both must be considered in equal measure when designing scenes where your group will be challenged. Combat encounters, puzzles, or any situation where the players surroundings are essential to record carefully will require a certain degree of careful thought.

Part of the Scene, Part of the Story

Don’t forget, your level is part of a living breathing world. What relevance does the level bear to the story and what are you likely to see there? Suppose your players have to traverse a street without being seen. Is the street lined with shops, houses, or something else altogether? Is the street filled with cars, or people, or overhung with Futurama style transport-tubes? What methods are their pursuers using to hunt them down? Eyes, sniffer-dogs, or hovering drones? And what tools are available to your group, and where?

Of course, as with all things in your toolkit, you needn’t describe every detail. Set the scene as you would any other, and reveal details as your players ask for them, or succeed in uncovering them. In the case of maps, your drawing can be kept fairly simple, but it can be very helpful to either have physical representation (miniatures or other models) of major items of interest, or at the very least keep a key handy:

Click to enlarge

Traps And Dynamic Terrain

A group of heroes have to reach the head of giant mechanical gorilla to stop the madman piloting it before he can reach the city. Tomb-robbers walking down a corridor stop dead as one of them hears a “click” underfoot. Stumped by an obstacle, it slowly dawns on the party’s smartest member to think in three dimensions.

Some things can’t be described, or rather the minute detail you may have to go into at times may become a little overwhelming and frankly pointless. Maps are a great tool for helping your players share your vision of what is taking place in a scene, but it also makes it much easier to represent complex movements and specific locations, especially if you’re prepared to get a little creative.

Creating a map with moving parts can make for one hell of a memorable game. Dungeon tiles can be rearranged to represent shifting rooms, overhead-projector sheets can over-lay maps with auras, spotlights and other moving items, or anything you can lay hands on can make for a more interesting display. Moving parts can also force the players into places they don’t want to be, and will get them thinking very differently about their actions.


Maps can also help you add a third dimension to typically flat scenes. Second floors, mezzanines and balconies, floating platforms, or even depth in water can create new opportunities and encourage players to revisit old ideas and get experimental. It also gives you a few opportunities to try new things, and drop a few surprises on them.


Cover is the one rule included in almost every role-playing system I have ever encountered; it is the degree to which an obstacle obscures a target and how it changes the attackers chances to hit. However, if you have played enough games you’ve probably found yourself addressing tactical matters, possibly unconsciously. Here are a few thinking points to consider while building combat situations:

  • Chokepoints: A narrow corridor or gap that forces large numbers of opponents to bunch together and make them more manageable. A chokepoint can also help prevent flanking by minimizing the angles from which opponents can attack, usually to in-front and behind, but potentially from above as well.
  • Range: A ranged attacker is not just an annoyance who can assault the group with impunity from afar, but they also encourage movement. Players rushing to engage in melee with, or moving to gain a better vantage on ranged attackers are forced to move around, which can cause them to stumble into traps or similar unpleasant situations.
  • Vantage: What advantage does elevation grant? Is it easier to see from above? Is it easier to hide from below?
  • Entry Points: How will your players enter? Once combat has begun, consider where your group are likely to be, and where their opponents will be entering (assuming they’re not there already) or exiting if they decide to retreat. Perhaps you’ll drop extra opponents into the scene half-way through. How will they enter?

If you’ve enjoyed this post let us know in the comments down below, or on our Facebook and Twitter (links on the right). If you’ve played a few RPs, also take a look at my own site, Quotes From The Tabletop, a place for all your favourite quotes and stories from your games.


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