04 May 2017

Dungeon Strangitude: Variations on Dungeon Dressing and Setting the Tone

Dungeons are the antithesis of the “real” world in D&D—the world of plowing crops and brewing beer, where cattle and horses are valuable commodities.  Once the PCs enter the dungeon, they walk willingly into the Unknown, into Otherness—into another world that is out to get them, and from which they may never return.

Dungeon dressing sets the tone for the dungeon overall, but also plays to variations within sections of levels and sub-levels, and helps each to define and retain its own unique flavor in play.  Consider Dave Cook’s A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, with its reeking sewers level and the orcish water-dripping drum beats resonating as PCs slosh through foul waters, desperately trying to be quiet.  Contrast that with Lawrence Schick’s A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, where inbred kobolds and stranger creatures stalk the crumbling caverns, and players must be ingenious to create light, to find arms,  and to escape before the earthquakes and burgeoning volcanic eruption claim their lives.  Each differs strongly from the other, and these nuanced differences can be reinforced by a Dungeon Master who employs dungeon dressing to good effect. 

Dungeon dressing breathes life into the empty rooms and hallways that occupy roughly 60% of any given dungeon level’s space.  Dungeon dressing punctuates the otherwise drab 10’ x 10’ x 10’ cube with hints of something mundane or mysterious, of the magical, or the odd, or the out-of-place.  Something that will, hopefully, pique the players’ curiosity, whet their appetite, and fire their imagination with possibilities:  will the old boots in the corner be mismatched and rat-gnawed, or contain gems in a secret compartment in the sole; be riddled with rot grubs, or be boots of elvenkind? 

Like the use of verticality in the dungeon environment in general, dungeon dressing should not always be placed at floor level:  the aforementioned boots could be hanging from a peg on the wall or sit on a shelf 18’ up, and dungeon graffiti may be scrawled on the ceiling or floor, as well as the walls, or even hang magically in mid-air (in which case, it may reveal a different message if read from the back instead of the front!).  Driving vertical challenges to the players at the local level of a room or a wall or a hallway, in addition to the verticality of large-scale features, helps to ground players in the need for climbers, multiple lengths of 50’ rope, 10’ poles, iron spikes, pitons, hammers, and the quotidian utility of movement and exploration spells like feather fall, jump, levitation, rope trick, and spider climb.

Similarly, the style, frequency, and types of dungeon dressing should vary depending upon the tone that the level sets.  Through taunting riddles, strange portals, the sheer busyness of its elaborate frescoes and bas-reliefs—and hideous death traps, of course—S1 Tomb of Horrors builds an overwhelming feeling of dread in PCs (and players, perhaps!), and of ancient, undisturbed secrets best left unsought.  In S1, there is no surety—of return at all, of return via the same path trod entering, of exiting with any possessions at all, of being the same sex/race/alignment/class upon exit.  Dungeons like S1 change adventurers, one way or the other.  In some cases, such changes are obvious (change of sex or race), others are more-subtle, but regardless none who enter the Tomb of Horrors and similar environs, who partake of its dark feasts and then return to tell their tales in taverns—none are the same, ever again.  In S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth the details of battling Drelnza within her opulent and spherical lair—and desperately trying to kill her without destroying the treasures she guards—stand in stark contrast to the odious and oppressive depths of Greater Caverns, and their myriad of strange portals and warped inhabitants.  The siren call of such dungeons lure explorers into change from which they will only truly escape in death, and their dungeon dressing acts as the foci around which the mood of the dungeons condense in slow, rippling evil. 

Some mysteries of dungeon dressing are not meant to be solved immediately, if ever—otherwise they’re not mysteries, right?  The whys, wherefores, and whens of who created a shelf 18’ up the wall are best left unsolved for some time, especially if players grow paranoid about flying creatures, giants, wall-crawlers, and such in the meanwhile!  That admonition applies to both sides of the screen:  DMs can and should seed hints that raise player curiosity, that can blossom into future encounters—or not—based on player activity in response, and leads that are not followed-up on are sometimes more interesting than ones that the players latch onto, as well….  When the players imbue minor elements of dungeon dressing with greater significance as a result of their attention, they are driving the game forward in the direction they desire, which makes the game easier to manage and run, bridges the gap between encounters, and makes D&D more fun for all of the participants.  

Levels of Player Engagement with Encounters

In my campaign dungeons, encounter types typically span four “levels” of player engagement (I used to use five levels, but combined two levels of dungeon dressing into one after feedback):
  1. Nothing: literally nothing to see here—search for secret doors and move along; I try to insure that that a number of seemingly-empty rooms are, in fact, empty, to help dungeon dressing stand out further
  2. Dungeon dressing: spot color to maintain the game’s flow, provide distraction, and avoid player boredom; some dressing will be simple spot color, while some will be “special” dungeon dressing---dressing with inspirational potential that could build into a something of significance, and perhaps even a true encounter, depending upon the players’ actions in response (i.e., when I'm winging it); in general, dungeon dressing should also highlight the unique aspects of a level in the small, details that make A1 differ from A4 (I dislike the term “special” so if you think of a better adjective, please let me know!)
  3. Encounters: the usual mix of monsters, treasures, traps, hazards, riddles, puzzles, tricks, enigmas, and other dungeon features that wreak havoc upon PCs
  4. Centerpiece encounters: the unique and distinctive encounters that resonate with players across the years of a campaign, like the Black Reservoir and Great Stone Face of Castle Greyhawk, and the Unopenable Doors and Terrible Iron Golem of Maure Castle
Special dungeon dressing offers players spot color that contains an order-of-magnitude-more potential than standard dungeon dressing.  Dungeon strangitude is when the dungeon background foregrounds, and intrudes into the PCs’ reality — lacing it with mystery and madness, marvels and mayhem.  Dungeon strangitude defines Zagig’s whimsy and Halaster’s cruelty—where the surreal and the anachronistic are living, breathing laws of the land. 

When I use standard dungeon dressing, it’s mostly scenery, with some interesting bits thrown in for variety.  With dungeon strangitude, the monsters and environment often play dirty.  For example, the PCs discover staked corpses set before the dungeon entrance, to warn away potential invaders (or deeper within, at a hallway eventually leading to the lair of an intelligent and puissant foe).  The corpses span local PC and monstrous races:  an elf, dwarf, and human, side-by-side with a kobold, bugbear, gnoll, and ogre.  Any creature who cares sufficiently about their own kind to remove the corpses from their stakes to provide a proper burial, may—in the minds of those issuing the warning—also be a credible threat.  So they infested the corpses with rot grubs or yellow mold, covered them with contact poison, or turned them into buboed incubators for disease.  The noble few who not only ignore the warning but act against with compassion can hopefully be slain with little to no risk.  That said, special dungeon dressing must not become a “Special” detector:  for special dungeon dressing to be unique and interesting, dungeon dressing should usually remain mundane:  most of the time, corpses are just dead bodies rather than trap-laden warnings.  When special dungeon dressing appears too frequently and is overdone—as with any element in a dungeon’s environment—it spoils the encounter, ruins the mood, and detracts from the tone of the entire level. 

Example of Dungeon Dressing:  Doors

Consult this table when you want to insert some colorful doors into your dungeon; the table mixes together what I consider levels 2-4 of encounter types:

d100                Result
01-08               Door is wizard locked at level (roll 2d6): 
                                    2:         Dungeon level – 2d4 (minimum, level 3)
                                    3-4:      Dungeon level – 1d4 (minimum, level 3)
                                    5-6:      Dungeon level (minimum, level 3)
                                    7-9:      Dungeon level + 1d6 (minimum, level 3)
                                    10-11:  Dungeon level + 2d6
                                    12:       Dungeon level + 4d4
09                    Door is held (hold portal; roll 1d10 on the table above for wizard lock to
determine level of the caster, and wing the remaining duration; given the
short duration on hold portal, the caster is either nearby, or likely already
in flight….)
10-11               Door is variable (see “One-Way Doors, Variable Stairs, and the Accessibility of Sub-Levels” from Knockspell #1)
12-15               Door is one-way
16-22               Door is locked
23-27               Door is barred (roll 1d6:  1-3 singly, 4-5 doubly, 6 triply)
28-30               Door frame is present, but the door and its hinges and hinge pins have
been removed
31-40                         Door is trapped (DM to provide details)
41-47                         Door is of special construction (roll 2d6):
2:         Door is metal, air tight, and looks and functions like a
submarine hatch
3-4:      Door is a Dutch door (split in half horizontally; each half
opens and locks independently)
5-6:      Door is equipped with a covered aperture (which may
or may not have a grille on the other side of the cover to prevent passage of objects through the aperture when open)
7-9:      Door is equipped with a peep hole (that may be obvious or
hidden, one-way or usable from either side)
                                    10-11:  Door is created from an interesting but non-valuable
substance:  steel bars, stone, blood, mercury, magma,
moonlight, flesh, etc.
                                    12:       Door is a composite, whether a mosaic, jigsaw puzzle, or
simply created from multiple substances, and may or may
not be complete, and may open once complete (or when
made incomplete)
48-50               Door only opens to (roll 2d6):
                                    2:         Creatures from its home plane (not the dungeon’s plane)
                                    3-4:      Monsters only
                                    5-6:      Creatures of a particular class
                                    7-9:      Creatures of a particular alignment (could be an particular
alignment like LE or a general ethos like “any Neutral”)
                                    10-11:  Creatures of a particular sex
                                    12:       Creatures of a minimum level or HD
51                    Door is intelligent; DM will have to create its personality and
motivations, which will influence whether it allows PCs to pass, as well
as whether and how it can defend itself
52-53               Roll 1d6:  1-3 Door is a teleporter, 4-5 Door is a gate, 6 Door is a teleporter or
gate and functions only after 2-5 characters pass through the door
54-57               Door is monstrous, or has a monster bound within it or nearby (roll
                                    1:         Demon/devil/guardian daemon/deva or other outer-
planar monster
                                    2-3:      Undead (shadow, wraith, spectre, etc.; the infamous
                                                “Dread Portal” from Undermountain)
                                    5-6:      Mimic (roll 1d6:  1-4:  intelligent mimic, 5-6:  killer mimic)
                                    7-9:      Ear seekers have infested the door
                                    10-11:  Yellow or brown mold has infested the door
                                    12:       Door is a golem, and will animate to attack PCs
58                    Door is made from a precious metal, gemstone, or some other valuable
substance, and is worth a fortune; it presumably cannot be removed for
some reason, or else it would probably be gone already
59-63               Door is written upon (roll 2d6):
                                    2:         Nonsense verses (I recommend Lear or Carroll)
                                    3-4:      Dungeon graffiti in a PC language
                                    5-6:      A palimpsest of overlaying graffiti, much of which has
been rendered illegible over time
                                    7-9:      Dungeon graffiti in a monster language
                                    10-11: Door depicts some scene or map, whether drawn,
painted, gouged, carved, etc.
                                    12:       Magical writing (explosive runes, sepia snake sigil,  confuse
languages, symbol, glyph of warding, wizard mark, etc.), or
other effects (magic mouth, secret page, maze, sanctuary, etc.)
64                    Door only opens upon the proper answer to a riddle, or when told a
story or sung to, or when kissed by a virgin, or when fed, etc.
65-72               Door is concealed
73-82               Door is a secret door
83-86               Door is a false door (roll 1d6:  1-3 Door is false, 4-5 False door is trapped,
                        6 False door conceals a secret door)
87                    Door can only be opened (or unlocked) from a remote location
88-92               Door is scarred by (roll 2d6):
                                    2:         Acid
                                    3-4:      Scored by monstrous claws, hacked by axes, pitted, etc.
                                    5-9:      Fire
                                    10-11:  Water (water marked and swollen, rotten wood, etc.)
                                    12:       Door has been warped (if wood) or stone shaped in some
manner, to enable passage in (or out)
93-94               Door is features bas-relief or is sculpted to resemble some creature, scene,
object, person, etc.
95                    Door is invisible, ethereal, out of phase, a shadow door, or otherwise not-quite-
there (and may be periodic, in the manner of variable features)
96-97               Door is open (roll 1d6:  1-4 Door works normally, 5-6 Door won’t remain
closed unless spiked)
98-99               Roll twice
100                  Roll three times



"Dungeon Strangitude:  Variations on Dungeon Dressing and Setting the Tone" first appeared in Knockspell Magazine #2 (Spring 2009). This version of the article includes the errata published in FKQ#3 that fixed the entries for 31-40 and 41-47, which were dropped from table when originally published.  I've also collapsed the original five levels of encounter engagement down to four after feedback from readers.

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