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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Empty and Unoccupied

There's a couple things rolling around the blogs and forums that I could write about, even want to write about, but I don't have the energy to tackle the whole subject. Stuff like character abilities and the sharp division of opinions on megadungeons. I think instead I'll just focus on one tiny subtopic of the megadungeon debate: the empty room.

Apparently, some people have problems with empty rooms. I think the problems come from two sources: GMs and players. On the GM side, I think some people are interpreting the admonition to only place monsters in one-third of the available rooms and treasures in one-sixth of the rooms without monsters a little too strictly. "No monster, no treasure" does not mean "empty", and in fact Underworld & Wilderness Adventures notably does not use the phrase "empty room", only the phrase "unoccupied room". There should be stuff in most rooms, preferably common, mundane stuff, with an obvious use, but not immediately useful, so that players can say "oh, this is the room where the goblins stored their pots and pans" and move on... until a later problem causes a player to say "hey, we should go back to that one room and grab some pots to solve this problem!"

But on the player side, I think too many players try an "exhaustive search" method of exploration. Move to Room 1, search thoroughly, fiddle with everything, and once you've done everything you can possibly do in that room, move on to Room 2 and repeat. That kind of approach is not only exhaustive, but exhausting. And if more than half the rooms are empty, the players are just going to feel cheated.

A better approach is to move to Room 1, make a quick assessment of the room (Occupied? Obvious container? Safe, or suspicious?) and move on quickly, basically doing a quick scan of part of the area before going back and doing a thorough search of anything. In essence, you want to secure an area before deciding which "empty" rooms ought to be thoroughly searched. Actual player mapping will help, here, because the players can skip searching for secret doors unless there's an area that looks promising: a gap in the map, a dead-end passage, four nearly-identical rooms, one of which is missing an exit... that kind of thing. The player map will also help define escape routes and defensible safe havens.


  1. For this very reason I tend to use the phrase "normal room" in place of "empty room". It's not quite a perfect description but gets across the idea that the room should still have stuff in there. Just no monsters, treasure or traps.

  2. Yes, I was following the same argument. This seems eminently reasonable.

  3. I think the "do everything possible" approach comes from video games, were you really need to do that in order to get anywhere (or get all the stuff). But regardless, I have a fair amount of empty rooms. Some are completely empty, but most of them have a little stuff in it to indicate a past or recent use, or a hint about nearby monsters or obstacles.

  4. The solution to the "exhaustive search" is the wandering monster check. Searching through a bunch of pans is going to be noisy. Hell, I can't put two pots in a drawer without making a racket.

  5. "doing everything possible" flows from players spending play time in environments that wait for them to show up before something happens. Ina dungeon full of combatants the introduction of PCs is going to stir the place up and it should be anything but boring.

    Another essential factor to the megadungeon -empty room- problem is restocking. Space is limited, just because a room is empty on week doesn't mean it will be empty the next week. If players have been mapping and exploring and occasionally ask residents questions they may learn the goblin pantry is now occupied by a pair of trolls, or possibky they find the dishes stocked up in a hallway...hmmm maybe the room has be repurposed? Players gain by mapping and exploring when the empty space don't stay that way forever.

  6. That last suggestion assumes that the area is designed so that secret doors are in logical places. I'm not sure which is less realistic though - that assumption, or the contrary assumption that the sadistic dungeon designer will delve their labyrinth so as to confound logic in mapping.

  7. There should almost always be *some* logic to secret doors, even if its a rationalization after the fact (naturally concealed or underwater passages being maybe the only exception). Most secret tunnels are either built or concealed because someone at some point had a need to quietly get to, away from, or around some important thing. If the connection is so pointless, difficult to build, or obscure that nobody ever said, "Man, there should be a secret tunnel there," nobody would ever have wasted their valuable time putting one in. And since form follows function, whatever that need was is going to define a lot of things about the passage.

    I could maybe see exceptions for mythic-underworld or crazy-wizard dungeons, but even mythic underworlds usually have some kind of weird mythic-symbolic or logic to them. Even when they don't, they usually just have naturalistic passages that are just coincidentally concealed, rather than rationally-designed secret doors with no rational purpose. The insane demon/wizard/god with a random hate-on for cartography is a somewhat better excuse, but its a huge genre cliche that only works once before the excuse starts to grate some people's sense of verisimilitude.