Thursday, 9 October 2014

Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions

A question I see from time to time in various forms is, "How do I make dungeon descriptions interesting?"

One possible answer looks like this:

Random Dungeon Details (d1000)
01-03  Bad smell (d6: 1-2 sulphur, 3-4 decay, 5-6 methane)
04-06  Manticore poop
07-11  Blood stains (d4: 1-3 old and flaky, 4 fresh)
...

Random charts are great, and this will liven up even an empty room. Interesting descriptions are fun!

The information, however, is going to be useless to the players. Why? It's not connected to anything important going on in the dungeon. (1)

Essentially, this is a red herring table. A few red herrings are fine to spice things up, but because they're a waste of time, they tend to score low as gameable campaign capital.

Adventuring in a Dangerous Place

Imagine a place so dangerous that the players can't afford to be distracted by red herrings. Just by coming in here, they've accepted a level of risk that would drive most folks to terror, because death could be lurking around every corner.

There might be great rewards, even potential allies, but there are also threats that they don't stand a chance against, and they don't know where those are.

Everything the party does spends a precious resource - time, light, magic, their unbroken bodies, their sense of direction, or just their luck.

Everything they use up might be needed later, every step forward invites an untimely death, or maybe a lingering one: the dungeon is only the halfway point of their foray!

Not only that, they still have to get home, and that's even harder than getting here. Sure, they know the way, but now their rations are stretched, they may be nursing injuries, threats along the expedition path might have been alerted by their first trip through, not to mention they might leave pursued by horrors from the adventure site itself.

Add to this the mundane difficulties of exposure, getting lost, and random mishaps.
disgusted manticore

What Do We See?

To survive this deadly place, what they need is information.

So when they say, "What do we see?" they're not asking for an "interesting" description, they're asking for a useful one. They need information that will help them stay alive:

Should we go around this corner? (If we do, will we die?)
Should we use this spell now? (If we do, will we die later?)
Should we turn back? (Are we already too beaten up to survive the trip home?)

Random Trivia Knowledge is Power

For players to want to risk their lives collecting information, they have to believe it's going to pay off. This means they need to believe that they are surrounded by useful information.

How do you do this? (drumroll) You surround them with useful information!

In fact, for practice, why not strip out everything else, so that absolutely everything they see can help them learn:
  • What sort of place is this? (What can we expect of the layout of the rest of it?)
  • What's been happening here? (What might happen again, soon?)
  • What's in here with us? (Where is it? How do we prepare for it?)
  • What does it want? (Should we avoid it?)
  • How bad is it? (Is it a militaristic, vengeful gestalt? How brutal is it with prisoners?)
In general, useful information reveals a pattern that lets the players predict what's coming.

I'll write more about other types of control, but that's the most basic. If you know there are four grues and a gold crown down below, you can make an informed choice about whether to go downstairs.


Stocking Dungeons With Useful Information

When stocking a dungeon this way, I like to think of the underlying patterns as emitters, spewing evidence everywhere.

Keep the emitters few in number, since each one is going to lay down lots of evidence.  An emitter might be the site's plan - what sort of building is it?  This can give players an idea of what sorts of rooms they might encounter, and (if the site follows a traditional plan) even give them ideas about the layout of undiscovered parts. (2)

Dungeon inhabitants are emitters - they move around, they defecate, they gather food, they improve their lairs, they leave signs of their culture and their other activities.

Important events are also emitters. What happened here?  A fight? Was the place repurposed?

Also consider the effects of weather, time, and flowing water.

Emitters don't just generate evidence, they also interact with one another. This is most of the fun in laying down evidence.

Strange Evidence

Sometimes, evidence makes no sense on its own. This is wonderful! The players (who by now have been trained to know that everything they see is a clue), will know that it means something, but they might not realize what. This creates an itching in their minds, so satisfying (and memorable) when it's scratched and the pattern fits into place.

In one of my dungeons, an abandoned monastery protected by a gatehouse, every single wooden fixture had been removed. There were no tables, beds, chairs, pews, furniture of any kind. Even doors and door frames were missing.  I didn't explain this up front, just pointed it out with each new room they entered.


Temple of the Second Try

Here's a bunch of evidence from an example adventuring site, in the order the players might encounter it.  I worked this up by writing out the emitters first, thinking up evidence, thinking up how the emitters interact.

Here's the emitter list:

1. A cult built a temple in the center of a small lake.
2. There, they achieved their goal of summoning their evil demigod
3. This triggered the formation of a sinkhole directly under the temple, killing everyone
4. The abandoned site was later inhabited by orcs, who adopted the cult's religion

Here's the evidence that players might encounter as they move through the site:

The Forest
  • hunting trails are everywhere
  • some are older and more overgrown than others
  • Galu devotional fetishes hang from boughs along the trails (symbols shaped from woven grasses and twigs, daubed with blood)
  • the Galu fetishes are not the usual sort, and are made in the shape of an unfamiliar symbol
  • any Galu encountered (that the party doesn't scare off) will be unusually friendly, inviting the party to join them at their camp
The Depression
  • in a low-lying area of the forest, the trees are much younger than elsewhere
  • a stone causeway, some 4' off the forest floor, runs east-west through the trees of this area
  • crazy doctrines are etched into every hard surface of the causeway, showing scenes of a huge, tentacled demigod appearing over human sacrifices on an altar
  • a large alterpiece radiates wavy lines
  • the etchings have been crudely vandalized, with large, Galu-proportioned stick figures added to the scenes
The Temple
  • at the end of the causeway is a temple
  • its crowning icon is the same symbol as the fetishes
  • it's etched, just like the causeway, but the vandalism is all below 7'
  • the temple is of the same architectural style as nearby human towns
  • the back half the temple, including the altar, has fallen into the sinkhole, leaving just the front facade and a bit of the sides
  • the temple doors are reached from the causeway, and are locked (as they were during the ceremony)
  • the Galu go in and out by skirting the edge of the sinkhole
  • around back is the Galu camp, animal-skin tarps stretched between the inner walls of the temple's entryway
  • the Galu have erected a wooden version of the altarpiece shown in the etchings at the edge of the sinkhole
As soon as the opportunity arises, the Galu will try to overpower the party, confine them and sacrifice them.

The Sinkhole
  • Some of the huge rubble pile at the bottom of the sinkhole is recognizably bits of temple
  • the rubble is strewn with refuse from the Galu camp
  • several Galu bodies are visible, as are a couple of trappers
  • The golden altarpiece (unrecognizable and battered) lies under rubble, near the top of the pile

So, this is a simple enough adventure site, but everything present can help the players understand either what's happening here, or their likely fate if they let their guard down (which is important if Galu have been established as territorial, but not especially violent or brutal).  Lastly, the etchings and the sinkhole form a crude treasure map.

Making Knowledge Useful

I'm going to revisit this topic again. In particular, I think there are some tricks to making knowledge more useful.  But before I get to that, I need to talk about integrating one-page adventures into a sandbox campaign!


Footnotes

(1) A fast-thinking GM can, of course, rationalize any detail and provide at least a tenuous connection to what's going on in the dungeon. What dungeon has a hard time producing blood stains?

(2) Note that this means the randomly generated dungeon is essentially an ongoing, architectural red herring.  Endless, purposeless geometry, reminding you over and over again that there's nothing to be learned and you should stop thinking about it.