A while back on Tumblr I was asked how to make dungeon crawls more interesting and descriptive. Just describing measured squares and hallways can get a bit bland.
Lots of GMs struggle with this, and for good reason.
Dungeons are the most mechanically straightforward aspect of the game besides combat, and the immediate shape and contents of them is more pressing to players than the atmosphere.
But, there are some simple ways to make your dungeons more atmospheric. Here’s my proposed solutions, both a long thinky one and a fast random one:
Fill your dungeon rooms with history, decay, sounds, and smells!
I think that dungeons should thought about as ‘once functional spaces’. Every place in the world has a purpose for which it was built, even if it’s a weirdo crazy one. Dungeon rooms should almost always be more than just treasure, traps, and monsters.
For example, temples have cloisters, treasuries, storage rooms, waiting rooms, choirs, sanctuaries, apse, washing rooms, etc. Each of these rooms has specific objects and furniture inside them, as well as different acoustics. They get decorated with frescoes and murals or hanging art or sculptures. They’re cultural places. Think about them as physical spaces that people would use.
Now imagine something happened in them, long ago. Why is this place a ‘dungeon’ and not still used? What event caused it to be abandoned? A battle? Plague? Was the place cursed? Come up with that and you can seed the rooms with small historical details: evidence of fights, skeletal remains, treasures hidden so they could be reclaimed later (but never were).
Now add the effects of time and nature. Fabric rots, metal rusts, stone erodes and crumbles. Plants and roots push stone tiles aside, and water seeps in and floods deep places. The passage of ages scours away history and purpose. Now, your once functional rooms don’t appear so functional, but their purpose can still be intuited.
Now add some new tenants. Monsters are always the first to reclaim abandoned civilized spaces: goblins make shantytowns out of old human ruins, beasts make warrens in sepulchral tombs, small dragons and basilisks favour places with statuaries and abandoned treasures. No matter the space or its original purpose, monsters move in and call it home. Sometimes multiple species of monsters…and then they fight or argue over sharing space.
So now your dungeon has a vivid look and feel. The important bit now is to think about how that imagined space sounds and smells.
With every room and hallway, imagine how its history smells. Is it acrid or pungent? Smokey or mouldy? Does it smell surprisingly pleasant? If so, that’s often a worrisome sign, because it means something sentient might already be there.
Audio can clue players into a space faster than any other description. Wind whistling indicates access to the surface…or a much deeper cave. Dripping denotes water (you hope). Creaking could mean doors…or ghosts. Large spaces echo, and sounds warp and distort the further away they are. There’s even different kinds of silence. There’s an empty, lonely silence that comes with long dead spaces, or the claustrophobic close silence of small spaces.
Appeal to your players senses besides sight. Describe what rooms smell, sound, and even taste or feel like. This is a surefire way to make your dungeon rooms stand out. For example:
“You enter a 20 by 20 foot square room. It’s a stuffy old parlour. Pushing the door open you immediately smell something caustic and sour, but you don’t see an immediate source. All the furniture is rotted, but some of it looks smashed. You can hear the faintest scraping of something against the wall in the adjacent room”.
If that seems like a lot to write, try something like this: Reveal each bullet point as the players inquire about them, or when they make Perception checks:
Parlour, 20 ft square room.
- The room feels uncomfortably thick and stuffy.
- All the furniture is rotted out. Some of it is smashed. Evidence of a fight.
- Smells caustic and sour. The smell comes from under a tattered rug. It’s beholder puke. 50gp if collected and sold to the right buyer.
- Scraping sounds from the cloaker in the next room.
So maybe you already have a pretty basic dungeon and you need to make each room (or block of rooms) less boring. Here’s my handy set of sense tables:
Random Room Sensations
For each room you want to enhance, roll four dice (a d12, a d10, a d8, and a d6). Your rolls will determine what’s up with this room. Every time you roll a result, cross it out and replace it with a new one you come up with.
- Sickly sweet, like rotting fruit or wilting flowers.
- Musty, like old people and expired cologne.
- Tangy, like body odour and grime.
- Dusty, the choking scent of age and ghosts.
- Foul, like waste and death; something unholy.
- Crisp, like freshly cut grass or unchecked plant life.
- Soggy, the lingering smell of still water and flooding.
- Pungent, like rot and decay.
- Spicy, like herbs and dried ingredients, aged.
- Electric, a faint aroma of ozone and metals.
- Earthy, like fresh dirt and clay, mixed in with the copper of blood.
- Roll again twice, both smells clash together.
- Claustrophobic silence.
- Deep, echoing silence.
- Low moaning or groaning.
- Creaking of wood in the distance.
- Faint, maddeningly indistinct whispering.
- Faint, maddeningly indistinct whispering in a language you don’t know.
- Metal scraping against metal, rhythmically.
- Dripping of some kind of liquid onto stone.
- Dripping of some kind of liquid into more liquid.
- Roll again twice, both sounds are present.
Touch Sensations (1d8):
- Dryness on the skin, chapped lips and dry eyes.
- Cold dampness, water beads on metal items.
- Humidity, clothes become hot and heavy, metal feels colder.
- Dry heat, throats become parched, skin itches.
- Pressure change, ears pop and noises distort.
- Static tingling, hair stands up on end, goosebumps.
- Unholy chill, shivers, goosebumps, a sense of unease.
- The feeling of being watched, an uncomfortable presence.
Kinds of Darkness, if applicable (1d6):
- Grey, distant darkness that yields to lantern light.
- Cloying, smothering darkness that seems to draw close to you.
- Eerie still darkness that feels like it holds endless monsters.
- Calm, still darkness that invites restfulness.
- Flickering, shifting darkness where the room seems to be moving.
- Impenetrable darkness that makes darkvision endowed races feel at uneasy.
I hope all this helps make your dungeons a little less boring.