The conventional Dungeons & Dragons adventure includes a dungeon key describing numbered locations on a map. When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax created his first dungeon under Castle Greyhawk, he usually wrote a 1-line note for each room. These notes served as more than just Gary’s reminders to himself. He and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz shared the notes. For more, see “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.”
Early published D&D adventures such as Palace of the Vampire Queen adopted the same terse style.
Tegel Manor and minimal descriptions
When Judges Guild founders Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen published Tegel Manor (1977), its rooms featured minimal descriptions:
B8 25’x16’x20’H Picture on south wall depicts living battle scene. Arrow flies out of picture every 4 r. Arrows stuck everywhere.
B9 25’x24’x20’H Dire wolves head E Wall has Ring of Mammal Control in nose. Stuffed Elf, Giant Ant, boar, etc.
In 1978, my friend Gordon tried running Tegel Manor, but the campaign fizzled after his first session. Young Gordon lacked the experience to turn a list of creatures, clutter, and spooky effects into something fun. His manor played as a dreary slog.
In Dragon magazine issue 27, Bob Bledsaw wrote, “Originally we had some bad feedback which indicated that judges felt that the actual description of dungeons was their ‘domain’ and all they desired was a very skeletal framework with the more time-consuming level details worked out. We learned quickly and now design to allow the judge to delete (or modify) that which doesn’t suit the tenor of his play.”
Gary Gygax sets the standard
Gary started publishing adventures with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). He included generous descriptions for every location, even the rooms with little to interest players.
CHIEF’S CHAMBER: This room is hung with rugs and skins and there are hides on the floor. There is a bed, 2 chairs, a small table with a tun of cheap wine on it, an old shield and some of the chief’s weapons (in the corner), a chest with his clothing, and other clothing hanging on pegs. A thick chain (for his cave bear) is set into one wall. Nothing of value is in the place.
Gary’s longer descriptions set the pattern for virtually every adventure to follow.
When Gamescience updated Tegel in 1989, they expanded the descriptions. The bedroom with the battle scene gets the following description:
B8 BEDROOM (25’x16’x20’H): Opening into the side hallway that leads from the Master Gallery to the Whistling Hall, this room would appear to have been trapped, and to have claimed a victim already. The door stands ajar and a corpse sprawls partway out into the hall, with an arrow protruding from its skull. Two more arrows are lodged in the wall beyond. Any who examine the room further will find a fascinating sight: The wall opposite the door is entirely covered by a vast depiction of a fearsome battle scene—and the picture is alive! Not only does it continue to move, but every fourth turn another arrow flies out of the picture in a random direction. The other walls of the room bristle with arrows stuck in the woodwork, the bedding, other pictures (one of which—a portrait—is bleeding!).
Longer descriptions free DMs from a need to invent details at the table. Even if you have a knack for description, the ideas that spring to mind first will steer toward the obvious—likely the most familiar and blandest ideas.
The update turns the curiosity of the arrow-shooting picture into a possible trap for players to investigate. The bleeding portrait adds another spooky detail. The fuller description makes the room more fun than the version Gordon ran.
On the other hand, the description of the taxidermist’s bedroom adds some color, but little play value.
B9 BEDROOM (2S’x24’x20’H): Entering this room off the Master Gallery, one is immediately overcome by the strong animal musk that clings to the chamber. A stuffed elk stands in one corner, while heads of boar, dire wolf, great cats and other fierce beasts fill the walls, along with hunting bows and spears, all heavily layered in dust. How one could sleep in such a room without keeping a bonfire going is questionable, especially since the eyes of all heads seem to glimmer and follow you around the room.
This description takes a good, middle sentence and pads it like a school paper stretched to an assigned length. The custom of longer description encourages authors to write something even when they have little to add. The format makes authors feel obligated to describe the shelves and pegs in an empty closet. I have quotes from published adventures. Don’t force me to include them.
Matching description to a location’s purpose
A location’s purpose in the game should also figure into the length of its descriptions. If the player characters meet the sheriff about a wanted poster, no one needs an item-by-item inventory of her kitchen. Even the kitchen in the giant chief’s steading only merits a sentence. In the unlikely event that players care about pots and pans, Gordon can improvise.
The Curse of Strahd adventure lavishes detail on every location. The homes of notable NPCs get pages of room descriptions. To be fair, players might explore some of these rooms and author Chris Perkins fills them with creepy, moody details. But unless your players treat social calls like dungeon crawls, they will never enter the Burgomaster’s scullery, much less care about his spooky spatula. As I read the adventure, many locations interested me until I considered how players might experience them. Often then, I realized that nothing would bring players to the location. I wonder if any DMs led players to explore village houses like dungeons because the places’ descriptions seemed to invite that mode of play?
An avalanche of description does more than squander page count. It buries many great details might actually enter play. For example, in my Curse of Strahd game, every time I needed to find information about the players’ ally Victor Wachter, I needed to find him buried in the page-long description of his workroom in the 5-page description of his father’s mansion. (I have an idea: Trade 2 pages of mansion for 2 pages of index.)
Boxed, read-aloud text
Even though I seldom read-aloud text verbatim, boxed text consolidates and identifies features that require description. I like box text, but not every location needs it. Curse of Strahd includes it for every location. The descriptions are evocative, but DMs who dutifully present the box text for all the empty rooms in a place like the Argynvostholt dungeon will bore players.
Clearly, writing box text for the endless, gloomy rooms in Curse of Strahd caused Chris Perkins to collapse weeping into his keyboard. His follow-up, Storm King’s Thunder, omits almost all read-aloud text. Find a happy middle, Chris.
For more on boxed text, see “Picturing the dungeon – boxed text.”
The influence of one-page dungeons
A few modern adventures skip long room descriptions. Michael Curtis, author of the well-reviewed Stonehell megadungeon follows a style pioneered for one-page dungeons. Curtis explains that the format provides “the minimum amount of information needed to run the dungeon, allowing the referee to customize the adventure to his own (and his players’) tastes.”
Stonehell dungeon presents each level on 2-page spread, with most rooms getting a just a couple of lines. Features that deserve special attention get descriptions in sidebars. (You can download a free, 6-page sample of Stonehell.)
Even a novice DM could run Stonehell cold, but I wonder if the sparse details offer enough to bring the adventure to life.
The ideal dungeon description
My ideal dungeon description would adopt the best of both worlds. I want a map overlayed with notes and matched with an abbreviated key on the same page. At the table, the short key offers an easy reference. The latrines, empty bedrooms, and such can get the one line they deserve. More interesting locations can break out into a second, expanded key.
The length of descriptions should match the way players will engage a location. If sofas, throne-like chairs, and urns appear in the kindly widow’s salon, skip the box text. If they appear in the Tomb of Horrors, keep typing.
Descriptions should focus on telling details and plot-critical information—details I can use in play. Don’t bury the evocative bits in lavish descriptions of sleeping pallets and rubbish. If your kitchen description seems like the first thing a typical DM would imagine at the table, you may as well rely on the typical imagination.
How much description do you want in a dungeon key?