‘Dungeon’ Descriptions

I had a habit when running a game. It could be a tasteful corporate lobby or a buried temple full of ghosts but my general description would go something like this…

“You are in a room, about 20×14. You see three pedestals, each containing some bauble or trinket. There is an exit to your left and a collapsed doorway straight ahead. It doesn’t look like anybody has been in here in a while. There is some crud on the floor, random detritus from who knows how many years of disuse.”

This was me operating on the assumption that if my players wanted me to describe the baubles on the pedestals, they would ask. If they wanted to search for traps or secret passages, they would ask. If they wanted to know the furnishings, whether there were tapestries, what was on them, whether this one room was oddly art deco in defiance of the surrounding style, they would ask for more information.

And THAT’S all well and good. But there are some important things I haven’t been considering. Light, for starters. A lot of games spend a lot of times on rules, feats, special situations and such for light conditions, including items and spells that give off light in some form. I don’t have players who really give a crap about stealth gameplay (they’re more run-and-gun) so it’s not something I feel like tracking and mapping in minor detail. Which is BAD because if it’s presented as an option or even a possibility a player will try it just for the hell of it, or to see what happens.

So I present it as an option. Whether it has any mechanical effect or not it has to at least be atmospheric. But for that matter there’s a lot I can be doing to help inject atmosphere. I could be injecting all kinds of little extraneous details that the players could obsess over and spin the adventure into a new area. Runes, a particular painting the party has seen before, stuffed animals, rare poisonous flowers…things anybody could base a whole adventure around. Allowing me to shift gears and incorporate that stuff or let it drop according to player interest.

So here’s how I’m planning dungeons now: I keep using my regular methods to determine say monsters and traps and stuff but I also have to describe each room in the dungeon as if I were describing a furnished apartment listed on craigslist. I don’t worry about listing doorways and room size because that certainly is something the players will ask about if they’re interested. Instead, every room comes with this questionnaire:

  • Does this room have an obvious purpose?
  • Is it well appointed for this purpose?
  • In what manner?
  • How new are the decorations and furnishings?
  • What is the most unusual element in the room?
  • The most common?
  • Have I included at least one thing that the players can get sidetracked by?

…because honestly why just do a secret passage when you could go full-on eye-holes-in-the-painting secret passage and change the adventure entirely?

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