Today I’ll go over how a few details can make or break the feel you want when you’re making a dungeon. There’s a huge difference between a mini-dungeon hidden under the home of a demon cultist, a prison maintained by nobility, and a vault meant to guard a terrible ancient artifact, and while some of that comes down to the monsters, treasure, and size, a large chunk comes down to you, as GM, using sensory descriptions.
One of the things often given to writers as advice is to incorporate at least one extra sense in a scene beyond vision and hearing; it works for GMs as well, as the more information players have to process, the more effectively they can imagine the situation. It also helps disguise those moments where a designer has detailed something important, but left the rest of the area at a bare minimum. After all, if the players are used to 10′ x 10′ rooms with the occasional mention of a sound or cobwebs, they’re going to pay close attention when a room suddenly has a detailed mural on one wall because the extra information clearly makes it plot-crucial.
Putting in details where it isn’t vital. This is something important, as otherwise you’ll often have players zone out during generic sections of the dungeon, only snapping into focus when they hit a detailed room. While this can be fine if that’s what you’re willing to go for, it can have an extremely heavy-handed feel to it as you’re essentially spoon-feeding plot importance to the players. Including snippets of sensory information in other rooms will keep players active, as they’ll need to examine each instance to try to connect the plot-relevant fragments and discard (after enjoying) the simple pieces of atmosphere.
Don’t over-do this, however! If every room is a flood of description, players will end up tuning it out and missing the relevant tidbits. Each group is different, and so GMs will need to experiment to find what keeps their group engaged. It may work best to do this with a few small dungeons, each one with a different amount of detail, to see which one keeps the group active.
The most common piece of information is visual. Even sparsely described dungeons will mention basic visual information – cobwebs, whether the room is stone, wood, or something else, the presence of furniture, and the amount of light present. This tends to be the most heavily used sense, but even so what gets provided is sparse. Adding a little extra here can go a long way.
If there’s a light source, describe the light some; is it flickering and causing the shadows to dance, or steady? Is it a particular color, or reflected from something enough to case an extra shadow? Are there cobwebs? Light or heavy? Are the walls made of stone, wood, or something else, and are they rough, smooth, or carved? What’s sitting around in the room?
Sight is the primary sense we rely on, so most of what you’ll be telling your players will be visual. Use it to set the tone for a given area of the dungeon; a chamber with thick tapestries on the walls and a heavy rug with a writing desk against one wall will suggest a well-educated inhabitant; the same scene, but with a description of the tapestries being half-rotted and the wood of the desk being splintered will give a vibe that this room has been abandoned.
Hearing is the other sense we rely on. After sight, our next most dominant sense is hearing; it’s why being blind or deaf is such a big deal, while anosmia is something that almost never gets remarked on. Using a few touches of sound when painting the description of a room will add a great deal to how the room feels to the players. In the example above, a well-furnished room that’s dead silent will prompt the players to move quietly out of a concern for being heard, while one where they can hear the sound of metal on metal somewhere nearby will let them move around more freely. An abandoned, moth-eaten room where they can hear a distant wailing will make them more cautious than one where they can just hear the drip of water in the distance.
Most games have a skill for preception; put this to good use when it comes to sounds. Those who make a check hear something – a distant whistling or wailing noise, for example – with no real idea of what’s causing it. It’s just wind whistling around an arrow slit, but they don’t know that. Or, if you’re going for a creepier feeling, the players who failed the roll hear something, while the ones who quite obviously succeeded don’t.
You can also easily use sound as cues for things in the dungeon; hearing voices speaking what sounds like Orcish some distance down one corridor gives players a cue that if they’re looking for the orc guards, they should go that way. Hearing a low, feral moan on the other side of a stout door probably means there’s something like zombies or ghouls on the far side. The skittering sound behind them? Probably vermin following them in hopes of an easy meal.
The third most useful sense is smell. We don’t really pay much attention to our sense of smell when we’re in daily life, unless it forces itself into our attention with a powerful stink or a particularly pleasant aroma. The smells of daily life blend into a sensory background, helping inform us of where we are and what’s going on around us. In a dungeon, however, this becomes the best brush for a GM to finish painting a scene.
Again, with the above room, if it were occupied it might have the faint scent of burned beeswax from a candle, the smell of parchment and ink from the writing desk, and the hint of someone living in the room. (Or, if you want to introduce an alarming hint, the faint scent of decay instead; perhaps the person is alive and has a disease, but perhaps they’re some kind of intelligent undead.)
For the abandoned, decaying version of the room, the lingering scent of long-dried rot and a whiff of mildew amplify the sense of abandonment; again, an additional whiff of some more recent corruption can lay a hint that undead await the party. The smell of beef stew and fresh bread can make a mess hall’s ambiance clear, while the smell of oil and sweat give a distinctive feel to a military barracks or armory.
The remaining two senses can be useful at times. Taste is one sense that will almost never come up during a dungeon crawl, save for rare occasions when it comes as a warning; an acid taste to the air warns of toxic gas, the taste of mold and mildew warn that an area ahead is infested with fungal growth, and so on. Touch is more likely to come up, but can be hard to use unless a character somehow has incredibly sensitive skin. Still, letting players know if the stone in the walls feels worked, and letting them check for imperfections that might yield clues in seemingly decorative items can be worth it when it pays off.
Next time, I’ll be back to dungeons again to talk about campaigns set entirely inside one. I do hope you’ll join me.