Over the past few months I’ve posted a few how-tos, but none of these series of helpful hints has been as close to my heart as this one. As a self-described “Full time-time DM, part-time illustrator”, I spend most of my days sketching & painting. I’ve learned many shortcuts & methods to help expand my creativity when it comes to painting, and I’ve often wondered if similar techniques would be useful for a DM. Join me as I apply some basic creativity to dungeon design!

The Scribble Method

This is a relatively common practice for artists who want to exercise their mind’s ability to extract shapes from chaos, and it’s generally pretty fun to do in your spare time. You just scribble loosely on a piece of paper, or in my case, in Photoshop with a graphic tablet, and try to find shapes you could expand upon. You then darken the lines you like, and start to form a face, character, creature, or even a landscape from these shapes. Eventually this chaotic mess of scribbles turns into something polished, and can become the foundation of a whole new idea.

All too often, I see pictures from people’s tabletop RPGs featuring the players entering a HUGE circular room. This is occasionally appropriate, but caves in real life are so much more interesting than just large rooms with narrow passages in between. Implementing this scribble practice into Dungeons & Dragons is not only straightforward, but fast & easy… so let’s get started!

STEP 1- Scribble!

With a pencil on paper, loosely sketch a bunch of scribbles! Be sure to venture out from the center, and include both jagged and smooth lines. Don’t be afraid to go to the corners of the page.

dmlaa-part-1

 

STEP 2- Identify

Now that you have your initial scribble, focus on the lines that you like –keeping the flow of the room in mind. Try to find interesting shapes and darken them with a pen, or a 100% opacity brush in Photoshop.

dmlaa-part-2

STEP 3- Create Sections

Now you can start to section areas off into rooms, walkways, and cliffs. I’ve darkened the inaccessible areas. You can crosshatch with a pen or pencil along the cave walls and in all other inaccessible areas.

dmlaa-part-3

STEP 4- Add more stuff!

Now that you have what looks like a functional cave room, it’s time to add some cool little touches! I’ve added a stream that will hinder movement, some false walls, traps, and cliff edges. You can use different colored pens to add these features, and the stream here could easily be a lava flow, or even sewer run off… at this point it’s whatever you want it to be!

(also a horribly drawn treasure chest)
how-to

STEP 5- Finishing Touches

What’s a cave without a room full of rotting corpses and some seriously difficult terrain? Here I’ve added the finishing touches, general NPC placement, and a few little extras!

how-to-2

 

Alternative -Add straight lines!

Sure, caves are fun, but you will eventually need to explore other areas like dungeons, slum streets, or castle ruins. For these kinds of encounters, a purely organic scribble doesn’t make much sense. In this case, after step 1, you can take out your ruler and start putting down some straight lines with your light pencil. Make sure the lines are evenly spaced, or use graph paper.

 

hints

 

More hints!

Below is what could be a canyon and river with some structures carved out of the sides, or perhaps a ruined bit of town –but I think the first thing we obviously see is a dungeon. The darkened area is a chasm with a few bridges stretched across it. There are also a few pillars in the large room to the bottom left.

 

hints-2

 

I hope this was helpful! I’m already whipping up part two, so be sure to come back and find it. If you create something using this method, please leave a comment below with a link to your creation, we would LOVE to see it! If you have any ideas on how this method could be improved, please let us know in the comments.

 

  • Hunyock

    This was a great article! I am definitely not the artistic type, and I struggle to make time for creative endeavors like this so this really helps give me a place to start. This sort of brainstorming approach, combined with a methodology, is just what I need. Thanks!

    • kennstan

      I’m so glad you will try this out! Please share your results

      • Hunyock

        So. Hm. After a couple of scribbled pages of paper, I’m not making any sense of what I drew! Your example looked so easy and obvious the way you walked through it, and I’ve just got spaghetti. I’ll have to give it another try tomorrow.

  • Hunyock

    Aha. I think it clicked. Previously I was looking for patterns (like looking at clouds and figuring out what they look like). Instead, I decided I wanted it to be a natural cavern, picked an area that looked like an entrance and started drawing / tracing. It meant that in some areas I was following the scribbles, and in other areas I had to draw freehand to make the “matching” side (i.e., tunnel walls), but it quickly got easier to envision things in the scribbles as I went along. I did the original scribbles in light pencil, then went back over with heavier pencil and when I was satisfied, retraced all the exterior walls with ink pen. Not bad for my first effort.

    • kennstan

      WOW that’s awesome for a first try! yeah this is definitely an exercise, so itll take a bit of practice for it to feel really natural. They dont take too long so if you do one a day of different scales and sizes soon enough youll have like 100 caves designed!

      But that is great I like the stream that runs through the tunnel!

    • That’s really cool. I’m gonna be trying this technique tonight. I’ll post if I have time.

  • Maarten Vd N

    I loved this post! I always have difficulties drawing maps, but this looks very promising!

    I was looking for part two of the how to dm like an artist, but… it’s not there (yet?). Would love to read it!

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