Friday, January 17, 2020

Empty Rooms and Improvised Contents

Delta’s D&D Hotspot has a second post about empty rooms, worth reading for commentary about Gary Gygax’s habits when keying dungeons. Basically, he didn’t describe room contents other than monsters and treasure, at least not in the early days.

Although I’ve long been an advocate for treating empty rooms as unoccupied, but not truly empty, I’ve also been an advocate for not cataloging room contents. It seems to me there’s more sense in just improvising room contents based on the type of room (kitchen, torture chamber, storage room) and how thoroughly the PCs search.

Cursory Glance:
“You see a typical kitchen with three prep tables, storage cabinets, and a cauldron, with a smoke flue above the cauldron.”

Basic Search:
“The prep tables have several spoons, knives, ladles, and bowls on them. One cabinet contains spices in bottles, another contains pots and pans.”

Examine Cauldron:
“There’s a gunky brown residue and bits of bone caked on the bottom. The underside is covered with soot.”

Each kind of search takes time and adds wandering monster rolls, of course. The main reason to have rooms not be completely empty is to force players to make decisions. There might be something valuable in those rooms. There might be something that’s at least usable, like spices you could throw in someone’s eyes or wood that can be turned into a club. There might be hidden snakes, rat’s nests, and other petty monsters.

Searching every room is probably a big mistake. But so is never searching a room.

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  1. I think, for random encounters and room filling, the chances are for something interesting being there. i.e. adventure, or 'the game'. We aren't playing so that we can imagine rummaging through cupboards. Those random tables are to help us spread the adventure out and make it a bit more unpredictable. It helps reduce cognitive load on the DM, so rather than having to decide every little thing, they can just follow the dice.
    The player skill is then identifying where the adventure is. So poor players will search every room or talk to every towns person but skillful players will cruise right past the empty rooms and look for the main event.
    I think a lot of people mistake adventure distribution tools with set dressing tools. Random encounter and dungeon stocking tables help you spread the adventure out over space or time; room contents and town passers-by tables are an aid to help the DM describe what the world looks like. They are different things and serve different purposes.
    The DM can help the PCs identify where the adventure is by not spending much time on the dressing. If you spend a lot of time describing it and providing more and more details the more the PCs look at it then players with low skill will become confused and spend more time there than they should.

  2. I always have the rule of three levels of perception. I'm not a fan of the 'empty' room, but understand the philosophy behind it. Like you, I prefer to call them unoccupied rooms, but there can be some interesting things to discover within.

    1. I sort of do three levels of perception, too. Or, at least, the way I write keys has three parts:
      * Bold text = summary of room,
      * ordinary text = what is different than expected about the room,
      * italic text = what’s discovered if a certain condition is met (room is searched, monster ambushes party, lever is pulled.)

      But that "third" part can occur multiple times, as Inside chest: or Hidden under bed:. And plain text after an italicized portion can indicate further discoverable information, so it's more like a "branching three-plus levels".