This document explains some basics of vault making. For actual vault work, you will need to refer to Basic Syntax. However, by simply looking at the example provided here and looking through the *.des files in /dat/des/entry, you should be able to make changes or small vaults on your own.


A game like Crawl generally uses random content. This also applies to maps, which are made in various ways, but all with a large random component. However, for several reasons, it is also useful to have handmade maps: they can provide challenges random levels would rarely come up with; they can be especially thematic, for example on branch ends. Simple pre-made pieces of maps are called “vaults”, these can provide challenge, loot, flavour or just make the rather big levels of Crawl more interesting.

These vaults come in all sizes, from mere 3×3 to level encompassing maps. Section B contains an example vault (not to be used somewhere), giving you an idea of how vaults are defined.

Since predefined and fixed content clashes with the philosophy of randomly generated content, vaults can be randomised in many ways. The other way to help lessen the effect of deja vu is by having lots of vaults. Therefore, new vaults are always appreciated.

Sample Map

Before going into the technical details of the level-file syntax, it might be a good idea to look at an example - a branch entry for the Ecumenical Temple - to see what a map definition looks like.

# name below:
NAME:    useless_temple_entry
# header section below:
ORIENT:  float                    # "ORIENT: float" tells the level builder that
                                  #     this entry can be anywhere on the level.
TAGS:    temple_entry             #  "TAGS: temple_entry" turns the 'O' on the
MONS:    butterfly, plant         #               map into stairs to the Temple.
ITEM:    stone
KFEAT:   O = enter_temple
# actual map below:               # The symbols on the map:
MAP                               # x - rock wall
xx.d.xx                           # . - floor
x..1..x                           # @ - entry point (
@d2O2d.                           # O - stairs to the Temple
x..1..x                           # 1 - first monster from list (here butterfly)
xx.d.xx                           # 2 - second monster from list (here plant)
ENDMAP                            # d - first item from the list (here stones)

Every map consists of a name, a header and the actual map (the order is not important as long as the name comes first, but try to stick to this order for consistency).

Lines starting with # are comments. The keywords available are explained in detail in Basic Syntax.

The .des files

All fixed level information resides in various .des files to be found inside folders of the dat/des directory. If you are interested in adding some vaults, say, start with the existing ones and modify them. If you are new to vault making, look at the following files:

    • entry_guide.txt - read for a brief guide towards map making
    • simple.des - particularly simple entry vaults; they are ordered with learning the map syntax in mind (all games use a premade map like these for the vicinity of the dungeon entrance)
    • float.des - floating vaults
    • large.des - all regular vaults which have ORIENT:encompass/northwest etc
    • mini.des - minivaults (no ORIENT line at all)

There are also the following other directories:

If you feel comfortable with vault making in general, you may want to turn to branch ends or even portal vaults. Poke into the relevant files to get an impression, or to find examples of how Lua is applied.

Kinds of Vaults

The different kinds of vaults used by Crawl are described below.

Entry vault

A map designed for D:1, which (usually) contains the primary upstair { and is always tagged “entry”. A player starting a new game will usually land in an entry vault.

Branch entry vault, or branch portal vault

A map containing the entry to a branch - either a branch stair (such as the stair to the Orcish Mines), or a branch portal (a portal to Hell, say). Always tagged ”<branchname>_entry”.

Special level

A map for a location of significance in the game, such as the Ecumenical Temple, or the end of branches such as level 5 of the Snake Pit (Snake:5). Special level maps usually have a PLACE: attribute.

Random vaults

Random vaults may be randomly generated at any level in the dungeon. Random vault maps are selected by the dungeon builder based on their DEPTH: attributes.

Random minivaults

Random minivaults are small maps that are placed onto a level that the dungeon builder has already constructed fully otherwise (the level may include other vaults).

Minivaults are distinguished from normal vaults by the absence of an ORIENT: declaration. Any map without a specified ORIENT: is a minivault. Minivaults are handled like floating vaults (ORIENT: float vaults) in most respects. The differences are:

  1. Floating vaults may be placed before the rest of the level layout is generated, and the rest of the level may be built around the floating vault. This is never the case for minivaults.
  2. Floating vaults may be placed anywhere in the map, including places completely separated from the rest of the level by rock. The dungeon builder will then connect the exits from the floating vault to the rest of the level, usually producing obvious “passages” from the floating vault to the main body of the level.

In contrast, minivaults are placed such that at least one square of the minivault overlaps with an existing part of the level, and are thus more likely to look like part of the level.

Hints for Level Makers


You do not have to place all of the stairs unless the level is full screen, in which case you must place all except the extra stairs (these are glyphs > and < and produce escape hatches). Any of the other stairs which are not present in the vault will be randomly placed outside it.

Also generally try to avoid rooms with no exit (you can use > or < to make it possible for players to get away, although there are other, more elaborate options like teleporation traps, etc.). However, unless needed for the purpose, escape hatches are generally not interesting. If you do use them, > is almost always better than <.

Entry points

Minivaults can use explicit @ exits, or be completely surrounded by one space of floor for accessibility. Alternatively, you can request that the dungeon builder pick appropriate exits as it does for floating vaults by using the “mini_float” tag.

The entry point '@' must be present for all vaults (except for full-screen vaults where it must not, and for floating vaults and minivaults where it is optional). All @ will be connected to floor space in the rest of the map (multiple @ close together may merge into the same exit corridor). Make sure that no part of your entry level can be cut off! If no @ is present in a floating vault (and there are no doors on the edge of the map, see below), the level builder will use one or more random floor spaces '.' or doors at the circumference as exits. Note that it is not possible to predict which spaces the level builder will choose to connect; if you need predictability, use explicit @ exits on the edge.

The level-builder will also implicitly treat doors and secret doors on the edge of a map as explicit exits (the same as using @) and connect them to the rest of the level.

Not using @ and allowing the level-builder to pick exits is acceptable in floating vaults, but when you use no @'s with this feature in mind, please add comments stating this - else somebody may just add @'s later on. :)

Minivaults vs. random vaults

Minivaults are handled very differently from regular vaults and special levels. They're placed *after* normal map generation, whereas normal vaults are placed before generating the rest of the level. There's no way to guarantee generation of a minivault on a particular level, although using a PLACE: attribute makes the dungeon builder try very hard to place the minivault on the specified level. Regular vaults can always be forced to appear using a PLACE: attribute.

Technically, you make a minivault like a normal floating vault but without an ORIENT: line. Note that minivaults used to be exclusively of size 12×12 but this restriction is gone. Still, the smaller the better.

Where possible, use minivaults instead of regular vaults, because the dungeon builder has greater freedom with the rest of the level layout when using minivaults.


If you use vim, the levdes.vim syntax highlighting script (provided in the dat directory) can make level-editing far more pleasant by colouring different features in maps and syntax-highlighting .des-file syntax. vim is available for nearly all operating systems, including Windows.

Visual vault editor

There is a Visual Vault Editor for crawl vaults (requires java). It uses a tile to represent each glyph. There is support for previewing the results of SHUFFLE and SUBST commands, and partial support for NSUBST. In is not part of Crawl, so in can get out of date for new updates. In theory, inifiniplex keeps this matching the current development builds, but he is not that reliable.

Principles of Vault Making

Small is good!

This applies mostly to entry vaults and minivaults. Especially entry vaults should be rather small. Their intention is to provide some atmosphere for the starting room, not to get a grip on the whole of D:1. Minivaults should be rather small, as well, in order to increase the chances they may actually be chosen during level generation.


The level making syntax is very supportive for making a single map appear in many versions. Use the SHUFFLE: and SUBST: and NSUBST: directives and look at the existing entry vaults. Besides reducing tedium, this avoids giving veterans a spoiled edge. As an example, if a secret chamber with loot is always at the same place, it's a no-brainer for those who know. The same goes for traps. This is much less so if there are several places for the chamber (or trap) and there's even a chance it doesn't exist.

You can also use WEIGHT to create modified versions of the same map. In order to do this, make several maps and endow each with a chance such that the sum of chances add up to 10. If it wouldn't be flavorful for multiple version of your map to appear, use the uniq_BAR tag.

Randomisation does not just apply to layout: you could also have different monster population sets (for example make a branch end skewed for either melee or ranged opponents), or perhaps couple difficulty to loot.

Not too much loot!

For example, entry vaults should in general have very little loot - in particular no good_xxx or '*' items lest they might give incentive for start-scumming. For random vaults, there needn't be loot at all and, in any case, there shouldn't be too much of it. Compare with the branch ends rich in treasure (Tomb:3, Cocytus etc.) to get a feeling for this.

It is very easy to fall into the power spiral trap: making newer vaults harder than the old ones, but handing out more loot. Be strong, don't give in to that temptation.

Have a theme

It is often worthwhile (for me at least) to have a theme in mind before making the actual level. For entry vaults, something simple like 'forest' or 'fortress' may be enough. For later (or larger) maps, try to think of distinguishing features your map may have. Being cool can be good enough, but possessing some gameplay value (for example by being easier for particular skills/capabilities like ranged attacks or Traps & Doors or necromancy) is even better.

Testing your maps

This is easy for entry vaults. Temporarily introducing either

  WEIGHT: 50000   or
  PLACE:  D:1

will make your entry appear almost always. For other vaults, you can for the moment declare them as entry vaults with a huge WEIGHT: as above (and preferably in wizard mode).

In wizmode, you can use the following commands

&L  "map name"   (creates that vault on the current level)
&L* "map name"   (creates vault **on your current position**)
&P  "map name"   (for playtesting portal vaults -- go to the proper location first with &~)
&~               (for jumping to a branch end).

For both &L and &P, you don't need to specify the full name of the vault, a substring which uniquely determines the vault is enough. If a branch end has several alternatives, you may want to use a high WEIGHT: again.

Minivaults can also be tested by adding a PLACE: to the definition, which makes it very likely that the minivault will appear in the chosen level.

If the .des file syntax is incorrect, Crawl will tell you on which line of which des file it found the syntax error, making for easier debugging.

Be fair!

Crawl is hard but try to balance your monsters. While it is true that Orc:1 can show an orcish knight, this is very rare. Hence it's probably a bad idea to use orcish knights for an entry to the Orcish Mines.

Phrased more generally, do not use OOD (out-of-depth) monsters unless you really know what you want.

Be especially fair when creating entry vaults. If your entry is too hard, it might get just trashed. Keep in mind that your vault will be played very very often, so even small chances of something stupid happening (like creation of a really nasty monster) will kick in often enough.

Glass, colours, names: use sparingly!

It can be very tempting to use the cool new features all over the place: transparent walls for looking through, colouring walls and floor in exotic ways, giving monsters special names. Each of these have their uses, but ask yourself each time if the vaults really benefits from this. If all vaults use colours, actual flavour has been lost.

How Vaults are Picked

The dungeon builder selects vaults by:

  1. PLACE: Before the dungeon builder starts building a level, it looks for non-minivaults that are marked for the same PLACE: and places them. After building the level, it looks for minivaults that are marked for the same PLACE: and attempts to place them.
  2. TAGS: Branch entries, Pandemonium special levels, etc. are placed by looking for vaults with a particular tag, for instance “mnoleg”.
  3. DEPTH: When building a level, the dungeon builder looks for random vaults that are eligible to be placed in that DEPTH range.

If you do not want a vault to be randomly generated, do not assign it a DEPTH. If the vault is in a des file with a default-depth set, you can force it to have no DEPTH setting with an empty DEPTH: line.

Vaults without a DEPTH: should be eligible to be selected in some other way, either by PLACE: or by tag.

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dcss/help/maps/introduction.txt · Last modified: 2017-06-19 17:41 by advil
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