To review, what I hope to achieve here (what I believe Campbell has achieved) is a dungeon key format that contains all of the pertinent informational content necessary to running a dungeon encounter and is organized in a highly clear and economic fashion. I want to end up with something that is both informative and easy to use at the table.
So why not just use Campbell’s model? Well, as I mentioned yesterday Campbell’s format requires the referee to makeup in-game room descriptions based upon items contained in the key, and this is not something I’m particularly good at. Call it a crutch if you like, but I am I still very much dependent upon boxed descriptions.
Let me first say a word about what will and will not be featured in the key, and the reasons why. I typically will not list any information about the history of the room, or what its former function used to be. Interesting though this information may be I don’t find it relevant enough to the immediate encounter to warrant its inclusion (though I will likely include information about the history of the dungeon in a separate section of my notes).
I also generally won’t be including a section on the tactics of any creatures within a room, since this is something I can easily do on the fly. To avoid clutter, I won’t be placing the stat blocks for creatures within the key. Nor will I include information on how to scale an encounter. This just seems a waste of space to me. For one thing I don’t find the notion of ‘scaling’ encounters to be in keeping with the ethos of the megadungeon. For another, if you really wanted to scale the encounter it’s best to just do so beforehand and then revise your notes accordingly. Occasionally I will include information on the motivations of these creatures and some possible outcomes of interacting with them.
As I’ve mentioned I am keen to include descriptions in the key, and I want these to contain evocative sensory information that will get my player’s imagination going (for some interesting posts on how to use the 5 senses in descriptions check out Justin Alexander’s tips on The Art of Description and Matt’s post on 5 Senses Room Descriptions). That said, I want to be sure to avoid the pitfalls of boring my players with too many details, describing features they are already familiar with and giving away information that they should really only have access to upon investigation. So I will try to keep my descriptions brief and will only describe general features about the dungeon upon their first entry of it. Thereafter I will just describe specific features of each room, such as its dimensions, unique structure, building materials and contents, and obvious environmental hazards. The descriptions will be kept general but more details can be gleaned through further investigation.
Dungeon Key Format
Right, so is here is what I’ve come up with so far for my current dungeon:
You enter a dark 30ft wide octagonal room. The air is cool and musty and alive with the sound of crickets. A faded fresco lined by two black columns frames the northern wall. A sarcophagus sits in the center of the room, on top of a faded tattered rug.
- Fresco – a somber-faced armored figure stands over a pile of decapitated small red winged creatures. The fiery eyes of these creatures glint and glitter in the torchlight [eyes – 10 sunstones, touch triggers Trap].
- Columns – composed of thin ribbed obsidian. A small knob lies within the central rib of each column (magic darts shoot from the knobs if Trap triggered).
- Sarcophagus – a sunken relief image of an armored figure holding up the heads of two horned creatures is carved into the lid. The heads are of inlaid obsidian. (Pressing either head disables Trap).
Trap: Magic Dart: CR 3; Type magical; Locate DC 20; Trigger touch (fresco); Reset automatic; Effect (2d4+2).
11. Cultist Kitchen & Mess Hall
This room is 20 ft deep and 50ft long, save for a 15 foot portion of the southwestern wall that angles inward. The Room is dank and smells of rotted produce. The walls are covered in soot and the air is thick with ash. A cauldron sits in the north eastern portion of the room, alongside several barrels and a wooden cabinet. Two long tables sit in the center of the room. Torches in sconces provide light throughout the room.
- Cauldron – [porridge or stew (depending on meal)].
- Barrels – [1 wine (10sp); 1 rolled oats (3sp); 1 wheat (5sp); 1 apples (3sp). Each barrel weighs 10 stones].
- Cabinet – composed of hard oak, good craftsmanship: [50 jars pickled vegetables; 10 hanging chickens; 5 cheese rounds; 5 loaves of bread; 2 legs of venison; 1lb pepper; 1lb cinnamon; ½ lb salt; 1lb tea].
Creatures: 1d6 cultists (or 50 at meal times).
As I’m sure you’ve figured out, the first line gives the room number followed by room type or function. Immediately below is the boxed description that is read allowed to the players when they first enter the room. Below the description is the information the players gain if they investigate the rooms contents. Each item receives its own bullet point. Sometimes an elaborated description of the item is given (say that the cabinet in room 11 is composed of hard oak and is well crafted), and anything stored within is placed in brackets. If the object somehow figures into a trick or a trap, information about that is listed in parenthesis at the end of the description. Finally, creatures, traps and tricks are listed.
Regarding traps, I’m using a hybrid of the “player skill” and “character skill” method. A thief may attempt to use their special class abilities to locate and disable traps, but most mechanical traps (and some magic ones) offer some clues that could be discovered upon inspection. In the Barrow room above, the magic dart trap is triggered by touching any of the sun-stones that make up the eyes of the imps in the fresco. An observant PC might notice the odd knob in the center of the columns on either side of the fresco and suspect a trap. A curious PC might run their hand along the sunken relief of the lid of the sarcophagus and discover that the imp heads can be depressed. Given this, it pays for characters to explore features mentioned in the general description more closely.
So that’s a run-down of my dungeon key format as it currently stands. Admittedly this is not quite as elegant a format as Courtney’s, but I think it might serve me well. Comments, advice and constructive criticism are all welcome.