You need monsters and treasure - but what else works?
In all forms of D&D, a 'dungeon' (or any set of encounter-spaces) includes a monster and some treasure. This is basic carrot & stick stuff, you want a conflict for the story and you want a treasure as a reward. Sometimes you can get tricky and offer traps (monsters... that don't move very far) or tricky riddles (monsters... made of words and hurdles... like traps but weird?) or other stuff (maps... a treasure that punts treasure for later on?). But mostly it is monsters and their fat loot. Is that the game? Clearly not, this isn't what a story is made of. And even if you are not playing for a story, one certainly has a lot more to adventure than killing creatures and taking their stuff.
Like what though? How do you fill a dungeon with stuff so it goes from 'killing & taking' to 'epic adventure'? What do the middle steps look like?
Hocus Pocus: The Magic Of Focus: Throw A Ball That's A Ball - But Keep Your Eye On The Ball.
Consider a dance party or ball-style event. What's to it? People show up in a large room. A bunch of the people make vibrations with tools, sometimes 'an assortment musical instruments' or even 'powerful stereo equipment'. What things are there?
Explaining this in STAGES: a Stage 1 party is 'a bunch of people show up and someone plays music', like a spontaneous dance party. Stage 2 means that specific people were invited to a specific theme (rock and roll, halloween theme, etc.). Stage 3 means you have the whole party play out in stages and include food, different rooms and possibly even two different bands. Stage 4 party would mean this dance party may be entirely silent, be on stage for others to watch, or be a demonstration of professional dance performers or even a virtual event that happens at a specific public space-time.
What Every RoomSpace Needs:
- (stage 1.) Permanent Room Space: A 'box' that is this many feet by that many feet. This must include permanent features like doors, murderholes, tiles and frescos. Related to Elements & Materials
- (stages 1. & 2.)Moving Parts, Big Or Small: Big things: portcullis, doors, shutters, barrels, bags, furniture, boxes. The only time you see a bunch of guys standing around in an otherwise empty room is in a dungeon. It adds much fluff but you can do amazing things ('you are hit by a massive bag of flour that explodes')
- (stages 1. to 4.) Monster-Motive: Job-Trade / Tactical-Strategy - combat & more: based on the motive, room shape, contents and moving parts - monsters will have shaped everything based on motives and combat-survival is one of them. Note that a guard guards and a scout scouts. As such, a scout seems cowardly and a guard ('the last line of defence') has incredible morale / fights to the death. Same person. Motive-function changes how 'conflict' is handled mechanically.
- (all stages, 1. to 4.) Rewards or More Moving Parts: treasure, items (magical, technical or otherwise useful), knowledge containing tools (books, maps, etc.). The prestige, reputation and power are in psychological, though they overlap. Relates to Monster-Motive because the monster must have relation-stake in these things, or did at one point (example: leftover gold after an ooze feeding). Note how rewards change from a Stage One Hacker-Grinder to a Stage Four Cause & Effect game.
- (stages 2. & 3.)Elements & Materials: Knowing your fire, earth, water & wind flows along with materials (wood, concrete, glass, etc.) adds both to fluff and mechanics ('climb it? go through it? see through it? break it?). Theoretically, this includes traps, tricks and other flow capacitors.
- (stages 2. & 3.) What's Up? Most dungeons are 10' tall and no one knows what the ceiling is even made of (rock maybe?). Related to Permanent Room Space and Down.
- (stages 2. & 3.) Why So Down? An entire dungeon is drawn on a paper-flat two dimensional surface. Let that soak in for a moment. Such a dungeon lacks... depth. Related to Permanent Room Space and Up.
Meta / Theme Stuff (Stage 1 does NOT require 'meta thinking')
- (3. & 4.) Stake: both monster & player need Freedom To &/or Freedom From - often shared / accepted by all. This is what everyone is so excited about: McGuffin, discs of rare metals
- (2. to 4.) Choice - The Grand Illusion: In reality, your players cannot do anything unless you put it in there and allow them to do so. All 'choice' is given by the DM. Real creativity requires players to quasi/pseudoDM - a journey where they ask for what they want and then get it.
- (3. & 4.) Point / Plot: Where is this all going and why couldn't everyone just stay home and watch Netflix.
- (2. to 4.) Conflict: Why Can't Everyone Just... Get Along? You need to answer this and have it connect to Motive-function.
- (2. to 4.) Rewards = Means To An end: Even gold is still game-gold and gains its meaning only where you spend it. Game elements include a place to expend-use one's accumulation of gold, magic, experience and alliances. This means you need someone to build that magic-thing, a mount that costs a lot of gold, a noble that is impressed by your deeds, a bard that sings of your exploits, people will now go to your bar to buy a drink and hang out, etc. In a Stage One Hacker-Grinder, getting gold and Phat Lewt is plenty and need not go any further. It helps if you can spend it, but only a bit. Gary Gygax gave XP for gold directly, meaning that the point of the treasure was to get it. Then money had no value if you have finished buying all your basic gear.