Monday, March 1, 2021

Listed Assumptions as Dungeon Characterization


More of this! (from Vayra's Rat Warrens)

You can do a lot to make a space feel authentic with some sensory specificity. When writing up, say, a dungeon, it  pays off to list out some specific assumptions about what the space looks like. Even though it takes literally a minute, actually listing it ensures you actually remember tactical concerns, like lighting, and evocative concerns, like the gym sock smell of the Liche's Twisted Undercroft.

An example from a castle along the Dreadful Coast:

1. The lighting is: sparse candelabra, windows admitting moonlight

2. The smells are: dust, incense, decay, roses, wet dog, ammonium

3. The walls are: dark marble, decaying plaster

4. The floors are: creaking pine

5. The doors are: cracked stone or lacquered pine

6. The stairs are: circular to disadvantage right-handers going up and lefties going down

7. The ceilings are: vaulted but low

8. The inhabitants are: compulsively melancholy and apprehensive

9. Appropriate passwords are: “Lugubrium,” “Nepenthe,” or “Doomed”

10. The coinage is: a mixture of dust-covered doubloons and modern vampire-minted tender.

Here we see different goals served by different parts. The first two questions are sensory, one tactically essential and the other more to create a sense of place.

The next five exist merely to realize the common repeating elements of dungeon-space architecture, to adorn something abstract (like "a hallway") with a modicum of detail to render it something you can visualize (like "a hallway of marble blocks filled with the scent of ammonium and incense.)

Number 8 is a quick way to extend the dungeon characterization to its inhabitants, and to inflect a reaction roll. The way a someone seized by gothic melancholy reacts on a positive roll should be different your standard, contextless reaction roll. Number 9 is I think a great way to show organization for a faction, and to create a social resource PCs can exploit.

The final question brings evocative, minor detail to the treasure a party might find, and carries implications of the dungeon into the world afterward. Players will start to consider things like how the barkeep will react to being paid with old pirate treasure, and will imagine their belongings to be substantial things, not just a number at the bottom of their inventory.

Here's a blank version of the above list. I'd love to see proposed alternates, standards, and other assumptions to consider!

1. The lighting is:
2. The smells are:
3. The walls are:
4. The floors are:
5. The doors are:
6. The stairs are:
7. The ceilings are:
8. The inhabitants are:
9. Appropriate passwords are:
10. The coinage is:


  1. Fantastic as always - we can all benefit from including this or being inspired by it.

  2. 1. Brought in by the delvers, else cast by walls of flame and gleaming implements of death.
    2. Stale air, dead adventurers, river water, nesting creatures of all shapes and sizes.
    3. Heavy slabs of undressed stone, panels of semi-petrified wood, Torn tapestries, inset with sculptures and shrines.
    4. Uneven, a tripping and trapping hazard. Gaps between the slabs hide slashing blades and worse.
    5. Metal-bound, cracked and leaning, thickly locked, portcullis.
    6. Steep and treacherous, corkscrewing up and down forever, better to use the dumbwaiters and other lifts.
    7. High and out of sight in places, or crushingly low in the corridors.
    8. Just as lost as you are. Or mad enough to think they aren't.
    9. "Password". Yes, the sentient bridge / guardian is *furious* about it
    10. Soaked in the blood of the last delver to hold it. Hope you have better luck! Anything between copper bullion and occultum strips