O inspiration, you fickle mistress.
How did you get the idea for your favorite dungeon/adventure location? No, seriously, tell me in the comments. Was it based on something you read? Something you saw? A personal experience? Acid trip?
I also write songs, and the main thing I've learned is that I can't sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. I might have a half-formed idea here and there, but if I don't pick up an instrument and force it, it's not going to come out on its own.
With dungeons, I find that I need shortcuts. Anything that will get me started and keep me from the tyranny of the blank page. I posted a die-drop generator I wrote, but like I said in that post, relying on one trick too heavily will hamper creativity. So here's another one. It's far from revolutionary, but it's fun:
- Find pictures you like. Pictures that plant an idea in your head for a room, trap, encounter, etc. Find as many as you can. The more the merrier.
- Save them to your computer, or do like I do and make a Pinterest board. There's an extension for Chrome called PinDown that allows you to download the entire contents of a board with one click.
- Print them out, real small. On my Mac, I open them all at once in Preview, select them all in the thumbnail sidebar, and open the print menu. In the Layout tab, I select 16 pages per sheet. Make sure you don't print double-sided.
- Cut each picture into its own square.
Now you have a bunch of custom dungeon tiles to play with. Often, I'll shuffle them and arrange the top ten or twenty haphazardly on the table, then start thinking about the contents of each room and lightly editing until I have a final layout. I take a picture of the final dungeon, which forms my "DM map." The other good thing about this method is that you can place each room on the table as the players explore it. Sure, it takes some of the challenge out of player mapping, but I find that's not necessarily a bad thing and it adds a nice visual element.
The key is to find a nice mix of pictures: monsters, NPCs, items, traps, and even "empty" rooms. A number of pictures in my collection could be are abstract enough to warrant multiple interpretations, but not so abstract that they don't actually make me think of anything. It's a tricky balance.
Here's an example from my last session. The dungeon is a former elven villa carved into a natural bismuth outcropping in the middle of a radioactive jungle, now taken over by Mystra-worshipping religious fundamentalists.