Changing my Dungeon Notation

A kitteh opening a secret door in the dungeon. +2 cute.

An image macro from I Can Has Cheezburger

I’m a long-winded kind of guy. When you get me talking, I tend to go on for a little bit longer than anybody wants to listen. It’s a failing which has often crept into my game mastering. When it’s time for me to make a dungeon, I’m inclined towards writing detailed descriptions for each room. Sometimes these descriptions can be a paragraph long or longer, noting what’s in the room, where that stuff is, what the room smells like, what it’s used for, and so on. It takes forever for me to finish a dungeon. And because of the time it takes, I’ve often had difficulty keeping to a gaming schedule. If I’m being honest, the paragraphs I write about rooms aren’t even that useful to me at the table. Every time the players enter a new room I need to flip through a large stack of papers, and once I find the description I need, reading it takes even more time. All the while my players wait, twiddling their thumbs and making dice towers.

My saving grace has always been improvisation. I’m good at figuring out what comes next while my players are describing what they’re doing right now. In fact my verbose note taking has given me many opportunities to practice my improvisation. I’ve sunk so much time into my notes in the past, that I often don’t have time to finish everything which need to be finished by game day. When the players arrive, I’ve often needed to come up with more content on the fly just to keep the game rolling. It doesn’t help that I have a penchant for games which last until everyone is exhausted of playing. One of my fondest memories is a ~14 hour overnight game session. I think I ran out of prepared material for that session within ~2 hours.

A couple months back whilst I was improvising a dungeon, it occurred to me that I’ve been a fucking moron. As much as I may personally enjoy writing comprehensive notes for my dungeons, this strategy has obviously not served me well, while improvisation always has. Why in the world have I wasted all of this time trying to write notes so detailed that I would never need to improvise? What I should have been doing instead is writing brief notes which give me structure, but still allow me to do most of my elaboration at the table.

Thus was born my new rule: Dungeon room descriptions must fit on a single line of handwritten notebook paper. One additional line each can be added for traps (T), secrets (S), monsters (M), and loot (L) if any (or all) of those are present. The descriptions need not be complete, because anything missing can easily be filled in during play.

If the descriptions says “Bedroom in bad shape. Rotted. Bed, Armoire Fireplace, Painting of a woman.” then when the players enter the room I might say “It looks as though this bedroom was once very fine. The bed appears to be made of oak, but the mattress sags to the floor and emits a stench of mold. From the bed’s canopy you can hear the skittering of vermin. An ornately carved Armorie rests against the north wall, while on the east wall is a fireplace filled with ash. Above it is a painting of a woman.” And if, for some reason, my players decide they want to smash the bed and ask if there are any blunt object nearby, I may say “There’s an iron firepoker laying next to the fireplace.”

Additional lines are just as easy, and might add bits of detail to the room which were omitted in the original description. For example, in one octagonal room I have mirrors on every wall which doesn’t have a door on it. The S line says only “If the mirror on the wall marked with an S is pressed, it swings open revealing a locked safe.” The T line reads “Safe has needle trap [relevant numbers]. If any mirror other than that one is pressed, a spear is launched from behind the mirror. [relevant numbers].” Finally, the L line reads “Safe contains bag of 200gp, and a small bronze statue of a cat. Non-magical. Worth 50gp.”

I’ve already run 3 sessions using this notation system, and I’ve found it to be remarkably effective. I’ve never found dungeons more fun to run, or more fun to create, in all my years of GMing. I expect that the system will continue to evolve the more I use it. Tomorrow I’ll post the first sublevel of The Ironbone Tower dungeon, to serve as a full example of how I’m currently using this method.

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5 thoughts on “Changing my Dungeon Notation”

  1. In my imagination—where I am a DM—this is how i’d do things. It seems like anytime you end up with more than a few lines of description you’re not going to be able to convey that in any meaningful way to your players while running a game that doesn’t involve some level of making shit up.

    And yeah, like Brendan, I think you should post a scan of your notebook. Do it!

    1. My handwriting is godawful. But I am in the process of typing the notes for one of my dungeon levels into wordpress. I’m about 20% done, and at 700 words.

      This dungeon had a shit-ton of rooms. >.>