Dungeons Part Five: Information ManagementJuly 20, 2014
You don’t just design the dungeon for the players to play it, you also have to design it so you can RUN it in play. This post is just about the practical tricks to managing your information.
What to Track?
Do Not Bury Your Information
One of the worst ways to organize your dungeon info is to have several blocks of text with important stuff buried in it. You want information broken out, into separate sections so it is easy to navigate. You can find adventure modules where a room has nearly a half page of description but buries stuff like stats and mechanical bits right in with the (longwinded) room description.
Do Not Scatter Your Information
The other terrible thing for handling information is to bury a chunk of information into it’s own section, elsewhere. For example, if you have a magical effect that works on several rooms, you could put a single section describing this effect near the beginning or the end, but it’s probably better to have a shorthand of that description included WITH each of those rooms. It’s just easier to not have to flip back and forth in your notes, or skip around. Your notes are supposed to make it easy to run a game, so put everything you need, every place you need it.
Exploration, Logistics, Tactics
Depending on what your group wants, determines what you should bother recording.
Groups who have no interest in exploration don’t actually need a map, even. You can just have a list of relevant locations and an approximation of how long it takes to get there. Groups who care about logistics probably want to know things like sources of water, where to find tools and supplies, or things that can be used as such. Groups who want tactics might not care about an overall dungeon map, but want good maps for the fight areas… So keep this in mind, as I describe stuff to track, you pick and choose what makes sense based on your groups’ needs, rather than do everything just to do it.
What are the odds of events in one room affecting another? Are monsters going to react to hearing sounds of fighting? Or are they undead or constructs bound to an area? Or is it too far too hear? If monsters run from one area to another, will other monsters react in turn? If a guard doesn’t show up at another station in a certain amount of time, when do they send out patrols to check on them or barricade themselves in assuming an attack is imminent?
If your rooms and it’s inhabitants might have chain reactions upon each other, you may want to track it (see Sounds, below).
If you’re playing a one shot or short run through a dungeon, you probably don’t need to worry too much about notes and obsessing on what effects the players have upon the area. If the dungeon is a mega dungeon where the players will be playing for many game sessions, or a years-long campaign, you may want to track how things get changed and what the consequences are, in detail.
If your game is going to be long lasting, you may want to track Persistence (see Breakables and Notes, below).
I use the word “room” but this can be any kind of area in your dungeon – a hall, stairs, a giant cave with an underground lake, etc. A “room” is basically an area you need to have some kind of information to deal with about it.
Give each room a title. “The Creepy Statue Room”, “The Sliding Hall Trap”, etc. work better than just “Room 42”. To be sure, you can still use numbers as well, but the title will help you remember things so you don’t have to re-read your notes as often.
Features is the most important thing! What are the exits? What hazards, threats, challenges or rewards does this room hold, if any? If it doesn’t hold anything, you should ask if it needs to be here, and even if you do need the room, do not spend too much time giving it description. You can look at this as being the “reason” the room exists at all from a game design standpoint, and determines if the room has engagement density. This is a good place to write down critical mechanical bits, preferably with a bullet point breakout for ease of reference.
This is how I measure how “big” a dungeon is, not how many rooms, but how many rooms have something interesting to engage with.
Description is what the PCs see upon first sight. It can either be a few sentences you can read out loud, or it can be short notes that mean something to you (“Storage room, looks like creepy shop from Gremlins movie”) that allow you describe or improvise the rest. Notice that this is not going to include things that are hidden, require investigation/examination, stats, etc.
Unless I’m using a mapless dungeon (just a list of important areas), I don’t bother writing the basic room dimensions – that’s what the map is there for. If there’s some kind of weird thing that wouldn’t display well on the map (an incline, the ceiling sloping in a weird way, etc)., then I would include it here, although if it’s enough to impact gameplay in an obvious way, then it goes to Features instead.
Traps, hidden doors, hidden treasure, etc. These are the things which aren’t obvious without close and careful inspection. If someone starts searching or using funky detection magic, you have it in the Secrets section to make it quick and easy to find. It’s also worth noting if some special action has to be taken to find these things or what the difficulty numbers are if it involves some kind of skill roll.
Does the room have objects, decorations, markings or evidence of anything that tells something about the setting or the world around you? Does the room communicate information? This can be anything from giant claw marks that serve as forewarning there’s a large monster about, to tapestries that show you this was once the stronghold of the Elven King of the East. Information is broken out separately because it nearly always requires a little bit of time to inspect and think about it, which may not be relevant if players are just running through.
If you already know your players and what their characters can do, you can specialize information to be specifically relevant to certain characters. Give different characters extra information based on what they would know.
How well does sound carry between rooms? Is there any nearby rooms where sound carries well? Useful to check if other creatures can hear you, or if you can hear things going down with other creatures. This is worth noting if there usually are creatures in these other areas, and especially important in Fortress, Mastermind, and Faction style Threat Structure dungeons.
“Conversations can be heard in the hall (2), shouting reaches the Garden (5) and the Stair Entry (23).”
A list of things that break easy – fragile objects, furniture, etc. You don’t need a detailed laundry list, shorthand is fine (“alchemy lab on the table, bookshelves of ancient books”). This is important to consider when players are tossing fireballs and lightning around the room or a minotaur is running around swinging wildly. Just cross off the things as they get ruined… “Table,
Paintings, Urn of Hot Coals, Chairs, Shelves of Books”
Also note that a lot of breakables are also “takeables” – things players might have their characters pick up, or move to somewhere else… Also useful to cross off.
If you plan on having this be a longer dungeon run where enough time will pass for significant adaptation within the dungeon, give yourself space to write notes on each room. This becomes useful when you need to remember that one area is full of rotting carcasses stinking up the area and drawing scavenger monsters or another place has been barricaded, etc.
The Flooded Chamber
- The room is flooded up to 3 feet. It counts as rough terrain. Shorter characters may need to swim.
- The water is murky, anything in the water has Concealment to things above/out of the water.
- Fighting things in the water has Disadvantage unless the weapons are daggers, short swords, or spears.
- There’s a crocodile that will ambush the party, getting the first round by surprise.
This part of the abandoned mine is flooded with 3 feet of water, and you can see water trickling down the walls. The east and west tunnels are also partially flooded, but you can see the very top of a downward sloping Northern tunnel which is completely flooded. A strong breeze comes from the northern doorway. The water is murky and fetid, and a rusted wheelbarrow is floating nearby.
Mining/Dwarf characters only: This flooding must be relatively recent, only within the last couple of years as the wood supports haven’t rotted out yet. Since you can see water trickling down from above, you wonder if a small pond has formed above or a stream has been diverted somehow…
Sounds: N/A (Nothing is nearby to react to sounds that happen here.)
Secrets: N/A (There’s nothing really hidden here, it’s a flooded tunnel)
Breakables: N/A (there’s the rusty wheelbarrow… but yeah, nothing really)
NOTES: Normally I’d leave out anything with “N/A”, but I’m including it here for you to see the sort of layout for a room I might play with. This is mostly a mild terrain hazard with an ambush type creature, not much else. As you can see, the Features lists a few critical things to pay attention to.
If I had a lot flooded areas, I would consider either putting the relevant bits at the beginning of each room description under Features OR I’d have it printed on each page, so I don’t have to flip around looking for anything.. Alternatively, you could use a single index card for every flooded area and just keep it available.
There’s a ton of map options these days – drawing it out on graph paper, using a dry-erase mat, pre-printed dungeon tiles/maps, and dungeon mapping software. Regardless of what you’re using, I suggest trying to put notes directly on your maps, if you can. The less you have to flip between your map and your descriptions of areas and rooms, the better it is for you.
The trick, of course, is finding which bits are most relevant and can fit within your chosen medium.
Divvy up by Sections
While you could theoretically simply list 100 rooms in order, it’s easier to navigate these things if you actually break them up into sections. Those different sections might be stored as parts of a binder with dividers between them, or it might be different files in your computer. This makes it easier to navigate overall rather than having to shuffle through the whole dungeon. This also works well if you’re using some of the design ideas from “Metroidvania” style videogames – where you already end up dealing with larger sections connected by a few possible paths.
Using Index Cards
If you don’t have to have too much info to list, an index card system can work great. I like to write the room number in the top right corner, with a big, black marker. Put all your index cards in a holder, or box, in order. Then, as you go through the dungeon, you can check your map, pull out the card the players are exploring plus the connected ones as well. If you have monsters, give them their own cards and paperclip them to the room they’re in – and if they move rooms, you just move the clip accordingly.
The drawback is that you don’t have a ton of space to record information and if you’re not organized, you can turn it into a complete mess. Also, unless you go out of your way with cardstock and printing and cutting, you’ll be putting these together by hand, which might be a ton of extra work.
There’s a ton of software out there these days, though I have to admit I can’t give a lot of info for you there – I’m mostly into hand drawing maps and scrawling out the notes by hand. I can imagine a lot of value being in a map tool or presentation software where you simply hyperlink the image of the map and the individual rooms to take you straight to a file or description of that room.
My basic experience with gaming and software is that screen space is a premium and you always underestimate how long it will take between clicking, opening up files, scrolling to the right location in the file, and then dragging windows around to have everything you need visible at the same time. I usually will use a combination of a file open on a screen and written/printed notes as you can spread out the notes in front of you for quick reference.
The other concern is if you need to be online to access your notes and what happens if you lose connectivity, and also if you have players sending you data, if you have to reformat it or re-enter it to work with whatever other system you have going on. These all seem like mild hurdles, but these just add up to more work you have to do that isn’t directly focused on playing.
Next: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting
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