On Useful Dungeon Key Entries

Consider the following two examples of a dungeon key:

Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit B









Exhibit A is an example of a dungeon room type encounter taken almost at random from one of Paizo’s Game Mastery Modules (D3 – The Demon Within).  Exhibit B is an example of an entry submitted by Chris Gonzales to the One Page Dungeon Contest a few years back. 

Each of these exhibits represents a particular school of thought about how to best organize information about a dungeon room or encounter into something useful.  Exhibit A takes nearly an entire page to key a single dungeon room entry whereas Exhibit B manages to fit an entire dungeon map and its key onto a single page.  Let’s look more carefully at the assumptions driving each of these paradigms.

Clarity, Completeness & Brevity

One feature that both of these exhibits share is that the content of each is clearly presented.  They each use different typeface to differentiate the title of the keyed room from its contents, and the former uses italics, boldface, color coding and  indentations to further visually differentiate the various elements of the entry.  This is a big factor in facilitating ease of access to the pertinent content of the dungeon key.  If a dungeon key is unclear then, regardless of how good the material it contains is, it will prove too inaccessible to be of much use at the table.

Important as clarity is, it alone does not a useful dungeon key make.  The other element required is that the content of the key provide the essential information necessary to running the encounter.  A clearly keyed entry that lacked this would be useless.

What sort of information is necessary to running a dungeon encounter?  Well partly that will depend upon what sort of encounter it is.  If the encounter involves other creatures then it is important to include information about those creatures.  If it involves a trap, then information about the trap is required.  And of course the same goes for tricks and special encounters and even empty rooms (since empty rooms are encounters in their own right). Beyond its contents, the structural features of the room and its dimensions are important.

This much is agreed upon by both of the schools of thought mentioned above.  Where they differ is in determining both “how much” information is required, and what other sort of ancillary details ought to be included.  The difference can be seen in how the two schools of thought answer the following sorts of questions.

What sort of descriptive data, if any, about the the room’s structural features and dressings ought to appear in the key?  Should the key include a section of descriptive text meant to be read aloud to the players?  If the encounter involves another creature is it enough to list the type, quantity and possibly names of the creatures occupying the room or ought their stat blocks, affiliations, motivations and combat tactics also be listed?  If the encounter involves a trap is it enough to list the type of trap that it is or must some description of how it is triggered, reset, bypassed and what its effects and duration are be given?  Should details about the history of the room be included?  What about information regarding how to scale the encounter and what sorts of developments might arise as a result of choices made by the PCs during the encounter?

The first school of thought, represented by exhibit A, would tend to answer these questions by giving a complete description of each of the above items.  The assumption is that maximizing the information available to the referee increases the efficacy of running a dungeon encounter.  In other words, complete descriptions make for a useful dungeon key.  Useful, that is, insofar as the referee has at his fingertips all the information he needs in order to adjudicate nearly any situation that arises within the encounter.  Call this the maximalist approach.  A good example of the maximalist approach in action is seen in the dungeon room format of Monte Cook’s ‘Dungeon a Day’.  It includes a dungeon summary, its historical background, a description of the room’s features (including sensory descriptions), information on the room’s inhabitants and the combat tactics likely to be employed by them and suggestions on how to scale the encounter.

By contrast the second school of thought, represented by exhibit B tends to answer these questions by offering only the bare bones and nothing more.  Room depictions are confined  to simple descriptions of a few words or less,  creatures, traps and treasure are mentioned but not described and ancillary details such as the historical background of the dungeon room and the motivations and likely combat tactics of its inhabitants are altogether absent.  Brevity is the guiding principle of this minimalist approach.  Michael Curtis’s Stonehell Dungeon is a great example of this approach in action.  While Curtis does provide an overview of each dungeon level, it’s population and its key NPCs, the actual dungeon key itself offers only a terse 1 or 2 line description of each room (which includes both its inhabitants and its contents).  Curtis offers a nice summary of the rationale behind his dungeon key format in his blog The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope:

From the very beginning, I adopted the One Page Dungeon Philosophy (although I schismed early and expanded to two pages). The skeletal format appealed to me because I was looking to develop my notes more through actual play than on the desktop. I wanted to have the freedom to come up with ideas on the fly and work with the players and their actions to develop the campaign world. As a bonus of the format, the One Page Design School allows other referees to take my exact same notes and run with them, leading to results completely different from what I produced.

The stated primary appeal for Curtis of a minimalist approach is the flexibility it offers in fostering the genesis of a participatory, ’emergent’ narrative.  As players explore various elements of the dungeon the referee is able to make ‘on the fly’ judgement calls about what is motivating the NPCs they interact with,  how they will react to the PCs and what short and long-term developments will arise as a result of this interaction.  Out of this convergence of spontaneous and creative exchange is birthed a story-line.

Others have observed that the minimalist approach also has three advantages over its more ponderous rival (see for instance LS’s post on Paper & Pencils and this thread over at the LL forums).  First, keying the dungeon takes far less time, rendering it somewhat less of a daunting task.  Second, minimalist formats are easier to reference, and therefore more useful than maximalist formats.  Third, in particular the absence of boxed descriptions meant to be read aloud to players represents an improvement of the format, since these descriptions tend to take up too much time and bore players to tears.

Assessing the Two Approaches

Is there a clear winner here?1  I’m not so sure.  I think there is something to be said for the maximalist’s focus on ‘completeness’.  To begin with, it offers a more well defined structure within which the PCs can make decisions.  Having access to information about the fact that say, the goblins in in room 31 are runaway slaves seeking vengeance on their former hobgoblin masters in room 71 opens up creative space for collaboration should the party decide to parley.    A room description that offers details on potential environmental hazards allows for interesting choices within a combat scenario and often leads to more memorable experiences.  Also, in games in which detection and disabling of traps relies upon a player’s problem-solving abilities as opposed to a character skill check, it is vitally important that all the relevant details of how the trap functions be present in order for the referee to run the encounter.

In addition, the maximal approach appears to be better placed when it comes to the construction of ‘interesting’ dungeons.  When running a megadungeon there is always the risk that one room will begin to seem like the next.  Spending time up front prepping a host of unique encounters to sprinkle throughout the dungeon helps to avoid these vanilla experiences and keeps things fresh.  Now a gifted referee might be able to spontaneously come up with enough original content each game session to keep her players on the edge of their seats.  But the rest of us mere mortals could use a little help.

I also think that some of the criticisms of this approach are off the mark.  Recall Curtis’s explanation of the rationale behind his dungeon key format. While he does not himself make this claim, I have heard others argue to the effect that in contrast to a minimalist format that allows the players a large degree of control over the direction that the story takes, a more ‘scripted’ dungeon key tends to stifle character agency and lead to railroads.  It doesn’t seem to me that there is any substance to this claim.  A well fleshed out dungeon key complete with information on creature motivations does not limit the agency of a party of PCs but rather provides a context in which choices can sensibly be made (for a more in-depth look at this particular topic see Justin Alexander’s fantastic piece over at the Alexandrian Don’t Prep Plots and Courtney Campbell’s many posts on the topic of agency over at Hack & Slash).  My guess is that the reason some find this claim plausible has more to do with an aversion to the linear D20 era dungeon adventure modules in which the maximal approach featured writ large.  Guilt by association.

I am also not convinced that we should completely eliminate the boxed text (to be read to players) format.  While I agree that many of these are overly verbose, they still strike me as a useful way of partitioning off information specifically to be given to the players.  I’ll have more to say about this in final section.

However it must be admitted that the maximal approach very often suffers from a glut of information.  As visually well laid out as exhibit A is, navigating the walls of text takes time, making it difficult to use as a quick reference during play.  There have been multiple occasions in the past in which I couldn’t quickly locate the information I needed in modules similar to this and decided to just ‘wing it’.  On a few occasions I’ve even found myself writing ‘cliffs notes’ for certain rooms that just felt too cumbersome to refer to in actual play.  If a dungeon key becomes too information dense, then, even if attention has been paid to organization of the content, it can still end up suffering from a lack of clarity.

For this reason I tend to think that the minimalist approach generally scores higher in the category of clarity and ease of reference.  As for the claim that it is quicker to set up a minimalist dungeon key, I take that to be self-evident.  Attractive as this is however, for reasons which I’ve already touched upon I think time spent up-front in planning out a dungeon key can pay big dividends during game play.

A Via Media

So should we just flip a coin then?  Well, we may not have to.  It strikes me that the way forward in creating a useful dungeon key is to subsume all three of the principles discussed (clarity, completeness and brevity) within a single design strategy.  This will require that compromises be made.  There is much fat that needs to be trimmed from the the content rich maximal approach.   Yet what we end up with will doubtless be substantially longer than 1 or 2 lines of text.  What such a synthesis requires is a skillful application of the principle of economy.   All of the essential data necessary to running novel, interesting and memorable dungeon encounters must be given in a format that is clear, easy to reference and that takes up as little space as possible.

The most impressive example of this sort of economic approach that I’ve encountered is offered by Campbell in his post On Set Design (and further elaborated in On Expanded Set Design and On Reader Mail: Set Design).  Courtney’s method manages to present a bunch of information in a condensed, readable format.  Another attractive feature is that it allows the referee to quickly and easily decipher what sorts of objects in the room are immediately visible to the party, and what items are visible only upon inspection.  The format uses a variety of visual cues to accomplish these tasks.  Here is an example he offers of how a classic DMG room entry would look using her format:

In the classic DMG example:

DM:’First, the others checking the containers find that they held nothing but water, or ore totally empty, and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white, eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4′ to 6′ deep and about 10′ long. That’s all. Do you wish to leave the place now?”

 I would key the room as so:

Water Room 2) | Barrels->Location A->Water, Rotting, BucketsSmall Rivulet/Pool
                           Stream (Rivulet)->Cold, Fast, North to South, 7′-5′ wide, 3′-5′ deep
                           Pool of Water->Mineral Formation->Skeleton->Hand->Key
                                                                                          |->Disturb->Cylinder dislodged,
                                                                                              floats South in steam, AC 16
                           Cylinder->Watertight Ivory Tube->Vellum Map of level (See Handout)


So here’s how it works.  Room type and number are given on the first line just before the bar.  Just after the bar the immediately visible items are listed in bold-face.  These are the sorts of things the referee would describe to the players immediately upon entry of the room.  Arrows to Non-boldfaced entries indicate items that are only described if the players investigate the area in which they are found.  This includes items stored in some form of container.  For storage items that contain multiple items within indents are used to group the items and these items are listed in the actual order they are stacked.  Words that are not essential are simply not used. There is more here that I could go into, however if I did so pretty soon I’d just end up quoting Courtney’s entire article, so instead I suggest you read it in it’s entirety for yourself.  

I find this to be an incredibly sleek, informative and user friendly model for an economical dungeon room format.  The only real reservation I have about it is that it may be a bit intimidating to referees who are new to the game, or who have difficulty with spontaneously coming up with gripping descriptions.  I confess that I often fall into the latter camp.  Personally I find that if I jot down a room description ahead of time (including sensory data for flavor) it usually comes off better than if I just make one up on the spot based upon what I already know the room to contain.

Of course this isn’t so much a criticism of Courtney’s dungeon room format as it is an acknowledgment of my own limitations.  Nonetheless as I begin the process of keying my most recent dungeon I intend on using a slightly revised version of Courtney’s method, one which makes use of actual descriptions.

In my next post I’ll throw up an example of what I’ve come up.  Wish me luck!

1 I am aware that I am dichotomizing here; there is a spectrum of mediating positions between these two extremes and my guess is most gamers fall somewhere between these two poles. In fact in the last section of this piece I’ll be exploring one such example. But as philosophers from Socrates to Hegel have observed, sometimes defining the poles of a debate helps to shed light on the conceptual space that lies between them.


6 thoughts on “On Useful Dungeon Key Entries

  1. Ooh, I really like that format. It’s an even more pared down version of how I’ve been rewriting modules for a while, and I like the use of different text formatting to clarify what is and is not immediately visible.

    One thing I always struggle to remember when I’m making up descriptions on the fly is other senses — sounds, smells, breezes, etc. I think this format would work very well for that, as you could just give it its own line and it would be immediately noticible.

    Now I’m wondering how you could adapt this idea to non-room descriptions (social encounters, NPC descriptions….)

    1. I know right? Yes, the sensory descriptions are something I have difficulty with as well.

      In the second article of Courtney’s I linked to she givens an example of a room with a possible social encounter, though it really only goes over two possible outcomes depending upon whether the PC’s decide to fight or parley. However you could easily expand upon it.

    1. Eek! You’re right, I feel like an ass. Let me just go ahead and quickly edit this post…

      Yup, that little book of yours is on my “to purchase” list. I’ll probably pick it up sometime early in the new year.

  2. I’ll try your arrow method out on the next dungeon I write. Actually, when I was doing dungeons entirely by hand, I’d trace the dungeon out onto another sheet (so the the one without the grid stays pristine), key it, and write in very small text what’s inside.

    It’s very true that, as a DM or writing a module, you don’t need to write a whole description unless the thing is very rich in fine details (like a fancy door). A minimalist approach gives the DM the freedom to be creative on their own without missing any important features.

    1. Well just to clarify, the method I describe at the end of this post was designed by Courtney Campbell. In a followup post I modified this format somewhat to allow for a bit more descriptive text (https://arsphantasia.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/testing-out-a-new-dungeon-format/). In general though I agree. If I had to pick between a minimalist and a maximalist approach, I’d take the minimalist approach for all the reasons you describe. However as I’ve explained in more recent posts, I’m also a fan of descriptions and so in my format I’ve tried to make room for them whilst keeping a clean easily accessible format.

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