In a large dungeon or megadungeon (such as Gloamhold) a GM can never be perfectly prepared. No one has the time — or I suspect the patience — to prepare hundreds of different encounter areas.
When the PCs are in danger of wandering out of the area the GM has fleshed out, disaster looms. At this point, an inexperienced, tired or stressed GM can panic and either the session comes to a juddering halt or the quality of GMing plummets dramatically. Neither situation is ideal.
I’ve found the following tactics handy in providing the illusion of detail without flogging myself to death preparing countless areas and encounters.
- Random Encounters: The wise GM has a small pool of detailed random encounters to hand. Such encounters enable him to slow down a party’s progress, if they are heading in a direction he has not yet detailed. These encounters don’t have to be particularly deadly, they just have to slow the player down. Dungeon wanderers (gelatinous cubes, dark mantles and so on) or even other bands of adventurers make great add-in encounters. Chance encounters with other adventurers don’t even have to end in combat! Padding out a session with pre-designed random encounters gives a GM breathing space to prepare the section of dungeon ahead of the PCs.
- Blockages: The actions of burrowing monsters, the side effects of powerful spells or even just earth tremors and earthquakes can temporarily block off access to part of a dungeon. If it’s rained recently, flooding can also create an area of all but impassable terrain for lower level characters. Once the GM has prepared the relevant dungeon sections, he can remove the blockage — the flood waters subside, the powerful spell effect wears off, the dungeon denizens clear the blockage themselves and so on.
- Powerful Monsters: As effective as a blockage, placing a monster or pack of monsters the party know they can’t defeat in their path is a great way of diverting a rampaging band of adventurers. Use this tactic carefully. If the PCs don’t realise how powerful the monsters are, things can go horribly wrong.
- Sub-Levels and Side Complexes: Dropping in a small side complex of rooms, or an access point to a self-contained sub-level can divert the party long enough to give the GM time to prepare the upcoming area. These small “mini-dungeons” don’t need to be fully fleshed out. The GM just has to have enough details to wing it. The players will likely never know as long as the monsters and treasure make sense in relation to the rest of the module.
- Cry for Help: In a similar vein to Random Encounters, the party might encounter someone who desperately need their help. Perhaps, they encounter an escaped prisoner or slave who needs to be escorted to the surface. Alliteratively, they could come across a lone adventurer searching for his companions who just happened to go missing in the part of the dungeon the GM has prepared. If you use this strategy, be sure to reward the PCs for their aid. The NPC might even become a regular fixture in the campaign!
- Dungeon Dressing: I love dungeon dressing. I love it so much Raging Swan Press released a 300+ page book (GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing) devoted to the subject. In the context of the illusion of detail, dungeon dressing fulfil two important roles: it both slows down the PCs (as they investigate the mutilated body, strange graffiti daubed in blood or whatever) and helps the GM to add depth and verisimilitude to the dungeon.
When using these tactics, don’t use only one or two. A clever GM mixes things up a bit so the PCs don’t realise what he is doing. Using a mix of the above tactics helps the GM maintain the players’ suspension of disbelief and keeps the session running smoothly.
Help Fellow GMs
Have you got any tricks or tips for adding the illusion of detail to your dungeons? If you have, share them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs build better dungeons today!
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