Testing out a New Dungeon Format

Yesterday I discussed the qualities of a useful dungeon key format and I gushed a bit over Courtney Campbell’s model.  Today I’m going to test out my own adaptation.

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:

4. Barrow11. Cultist Kitchen & Mess Hall

4. Barrow 

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 [eyes10 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.


13 thoughts on “Testing out a New Dungeon Format

  1. I would give it a shot, without the box.

    You’re talking to your friends, right? Just tell them about the room as if you were telling them about something that happened to you last night.

    It’s super more engaging.

    1. I’ve tried both methods before. The last dungeon I wrote contained a mix of entries, some with boxed descriptions and some without. What I found was that my depictions of the rooms without tended to be lack-luster. I tended to forget to include sensory data.

      Other times I would spontaneously make up details about the room but then forget about them and later when the PCs covered the same ground (or when I ran a new group through the same area) I couldn’t remember the details I’d given before.

      1. Same here, plus falling for one other trap: inadvertently blurting out a DM-eyes-only secret (e.g. room mechanic). This was especially so with rooms that were designed to appear to the players as one thing but were in fact another. It’s that old “don’t think of an elephant” psychology biting your ass.

  2. I like it! It’s a good blend of useful information and efficiency, and will definitely keep adventure manuscripts short and concise. It reminds me very much of room descriptions from early 1st Ed. AD&D modules.

  3. I find Courtney’s method too terse. For me, that makes it more difficult to read. I think your method strikes a good balance.

      1. I’ve thought more about this topic and think I have come up with an analogy that illustrates my view. I think of Courtney’s method as similar to a sentence without verbs, or a language without vowels. I can probably work out the meaning, but it will take me some extra effort. With just a little more information, however, there are great gains in understanding and utility. I think of your method as the latter situation.

      2. As Courtney, I’d like to point out two things.

        First, set design is one half do the equation. The other half will be apparent when I release actual examples from Numenhalla later this year.

        Secondly, the idea is not that you somehow “auger my meaning” by working it out. The idea is that you make up the meaning. Set design is a tool to present a dungeon with all the work parts handled, so you can do what you have to do with every module (personalize it) on the fly.

        Players enter room
        Look down, no searching, see the items that are in bold. Look up from module. Interact with your friends as you describe the room.
        Players say, we mess with object b
        Find object b. See what happens next to it, re-engage with players

  4. The analogy that comes to my mind is “shorthand”. Rather than filling out an entry with paragraphs of text Courtney only types in a handful of details and creates a syntax structure for organizing those details into something meaningful.

    This is something many of us already do when using a published module. I know that on several occasions I’ve created my own set of condensed reference notes when using content-rich modules. The question is, should modules just be designed in a “shorthand” fashion to begin with? There are different schools of thought here. Courtney and people like Michael Curtis say yes (for all of the reasons that Courtney mentioned). Others Like Justin Alexander have observed that there is a difference in expectations between a module you create for your own use and one you publish for others to use. The latter requires more elaboration in order to be playable out of the box. At core here are two competing design philosophies.

    As for myself I’m happy to say let a thousand flowers bloom! Different individuals have different ways of doing things and there is room enough in the industry for a variety of products that cater to each of our different methodologies. It’s the absolutist position that there is a right way and a wrong way to design an adventure that I cannot abide. That is not to say there shouldn’t be criteria for evaluation of adventures. In the previous post I mentioned several principles of “useful” dungeon keys. It’s just to say that those criteria are always going to be relative to a particular style of role playing.

  5. I’m digging it, man! In fact, I will be using a slightly modified version of your dungeon format. Yours is super easy for reading and practical use. I will be posting about it on my blog (http://semiretiredgamer.blogspot.com/) and directing people here at some point soon. I’m finding a lot of practical and useful content here.

    1. Hey thanks Charlie, glad to here it! Really I have Courtney Campbell to thank for the inspiration and basic structure. I also look forward to checking out your blog as well.

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