Dungeon Design: Dungeon Dressing

Musty dungeon corridors set with uneven flagstones whose walls are daubed in goblin graffiti are infinitely more interesting than “a dungeon corridor.”

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Dungeon dressing is one of the most important things a GM can do to bring his dungeon (and campaign) alive. Sadly, because it’s not a crucial aspect of dungeon design – it’s not as important as stat blocks, for example – most GMs don’t have time to dress their dungeons. That’s a shame as there are many great reasons to dress a dungeon:

  • World Building: If you waffle on about the ancient style of dwarven mining or the fascinating intricacies of goblin art the players will likely switch off and go to sleep. If you casually mention the intricate locking mechanism of a stone door, the players immediately want to know more.
  • Verisimilitude: Dungeons are not sterile, unchanging environments; explorers and inhabitants all leave signs of their presence. Crude graffiti daubed on the walls, skeletal remains, carven pillars and more all add a sense of realism to the place which helps players maintain their suspension of disbelief.
  • Story Telling: What happened in the dungeon before the PCs got there? Dungeon dressing can give the players some of the answer. Were the orcs slaughtered by something large and obviously powerful or are the signs of flooding, earthquake or other calamity everywhere?
  • Foreshadowing: Are the dungeon denizens working toward some evil scheme? If they are, the PCs will be able to find signs of their work throughout the dungeon. Does the dungeon periodically flood? If so, signs will be evident throughout the complex and give canny players a warning that something bad might be about to happen.

A Final Thought

When dressing a room (or entire dungeon), don’t go mad with detail. Adding too much detail creates confusion and eventual apathy in players; in effect, they don’t see the wood for the trees. Instead, concentrate on a couple of interesting features in each area.

Help Fellow Gamers

Do you have any other dungeon design tips related to this topic? If you do, please leave them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs design better dungeons today!

This article is part of Dungeon Design Fortnight. Dungeon Design Fortnight celebrates Raging Swan Press’s upcoming release of GM’s Miscellany Dungeon Dressing – a huge 336-page tome dedicated to all aspects of dungeon design and dressing. This article, along with loads of other useful information, appears in the book. I’m insanely proud of GM’s Miscellany Dungeon Dressing and I hope if you are thinking about designing dungeons you check it out.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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15 thoughts on “Dungeon Design: Dungeon Dressing

  1. I think dungeon dressing works best if a theme is chosen and used consistently throughout each dungeon or subdungeon. It’s simple (but a lot of work) to pick new elements for each piece, but it can become overwhelming if [i]everything[/i] is different.

    With the fractal dungeon design methods I use, at each level of the process I identify the theme for that level, and how it differs from the rest. For instance, I might use dressing that indicates that the dungeon as a whole is of dwarven manufacture, then have the various regions (not always dungeon levels) fairly consistent with that, but introduce differences to indicate that they are different regions. A little like the palette shifts in early Metroid games, I suppose.

    * Dwarven Hold: well-worked and -fitted stone; clean, dry, orthogonal passages, level and plumb, low ceilings, well-made but utilitarian furnishings
    ** Dwarven Mine: mostly level floors (makes carting easier), rough walls, well-beamed and -propped; passages in whatever direction follows the veins of ore; assorted rubble and detritus; tools and equipment well-organized and racked at the end of the day.
    *** Flooded Mine: full of water (obviously), tools scattered where they were abandoned when the flooding started, wood beams and props decaying.
    ** Abandoned Area: dusty, with signs of unchecked vermin such as rats; organic objects breaking down, if not outright rotting, sense of emptiness.
    ** Ambassadors’ Quarters: higher ceilings, furnishings and architecture is more ornate (to show respect to the ambassadors… and perhaps show off dwarven crafting)

    … etc. I try to provide some overarching theme to it, which provides flavor and reason, then deviation from that stands out as something different, instead of just another thing.

    (I do something similar with magic items: most [i]ghost touch[/i] weapons come from [i]here[/i], so have these characteristics. If you find something with those characteristics you can have reason to expect certain things, and if you find something different it stands out.)

  2. Keeping these articles bookmarked, especially some of the lists. If you’re familiar with the webcomic Goblins, the artists wife wrote a book of handy fantasy lists including some fantastic set-dressing you might find interesting, “The Hyper Halfling’s Book of Lists”.

    I wrote a similar series to this, and I really appreciate reading other viewpoints, is anyone else you know doing the same (or have they done in the past)?

    My piece on “level” design should you be interested.
    https://geekoutsw.com/2014/11/13/2549/

  3. While this isn’t the most original thought on the topic, I keep a list on my DM screen to help me describe environments, especially if they have not been planned ahead of time because the players have taken me in an unexpected direction:
    Sight: what can the players see? What can’t they see? Don’t ignore line of sight.
    Hear: what are the ambient sounds? And what sounds are the players making that others could hear?
    Smell: what can the players smell? Lingering odors can give great clues, and smoke from fire can travel quite a distance.
    Taste: if the players drink water from the environment, if there is a mist in the air, powders on the walls, fungus growing in the corners- there a multiple opportunities to use taste.
    Feel: what is the temperature? What is the humidity? What textures do things have? A sticky wall tells a much different story than a slimy one.

  4. I make it a fashion statement to ‘outfit’ my dungeons or anything for that matter….I usually use the charts found in the first hard cover DMG…I swear by those charts…I ‘throw’ stuff out there and it makes my PCs ‘think’… I had some broken arrows in one room and my ranger grabbed them to save the arrow tips…in another room a bunch of parchment was found and the PCs used it to draw maps on them so they knew where they were….and in another room they found a bunch of wax and made candles out of the stuff…..I gave them XPs for using their non weapons proficiencies and their intelligence….it wasn’t much, usually 20, 25 XPs…the point being though that I was making to them was what you mentioned in that dungeons aren’t sterile and Gelatinous Cubes come around and clean the walls and the floors like a hotel maid:)….

  5. I do this myself. While keeping the game moving, I tend to use “The environment” ( rain, snow,swamps and jungle) as a back ground that does impact the players, but not enough to take away from the game. On a side note, love this page and truly enjoy posts of this nature. You’ve given me ( and my players ) additional fun and a fresh perspective to an old game. Thank you.