My Dungeon Has Empty Rooms

If you’re like me, somewhere in your room, you’ve got a notebook crammed full of graph paper.  This graph paper isn’t like the other sheets of graph paper from your youth. It doesn’t have that unholy cross of the X-Y axes. It isn’t freckled with coordinates that remind you all too much of those irritating pimples (I was that pimpled teenager, so I speak from experience, not out of cliche). No—unlike the graph paper of your youth that now sits beneath a heap of rotting banana peels and  plastic that won’t degrade until dinosaurs rule the earth again—this graph paper persists, a testament to the enduring geekiness of your youth. This graph paper is Undermountain, it is White Plume Mountain and the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and Tomb of Horrors. It is a DUNGEON, the boundaries of which were limited only by your imagination and 8-1/2 by 11 inches. And it probably looked, something like this:

They don’t build dungeons like they use to. And that is to say, we don’t build dungeons like we use to. For a while, I’ve been had a tirade against the “full” dungeon—the dungeon where every room has an encounter or skill challenge. I mean, let’s face it, dungeon construction has just improved in the past few decades. It used to be when you’d go exploring, you could count on at least half the rooms to be empty. Or else they’d have a lethal trap that would threaten only the rogue. There’s been a philosophical shift among demiliches, mad wizards, and foul dragons. They seem to have figured out that if they fill every room with monsters, the adventurers are more likely to be pooped by the time they get to the big bad.
I consider myself a student of the old school of dungeon construction. When I recently received Tomb of Horrors as my DM Reward, my visceral craving for this type of dungeon was realized. I am indebted to Scott Fitzgerald Gray invoking the power of Gygax to fully realize this adventure in a fourth edition context. This adventure showed that the system maintains the versatility and spirit of older systems; it shows that a dungeon need not be driven by encounters and can instead be driven by exploration. I had the pleasure of running this adventure for some gamers at Gen Con. I scaled the adventure down to 1st level on the fly, and it was fabulous. The characters were paranoid of every door and tile; they feared the shadows would jump out to swallow them.

And yet the experience was also hilarious. One secret door led to another, and another, and another, to the point of absurdity. Oh sure, a dungeon-maker would have to be mad to secret such a labyrinthine construction, but isn’t that kind of the point? I want more secret doors. I want more rooms with traps. I want more rooms with nothing. Yes, nothing. I don’t mean exactly nothing—the rooms still have a feature or two: a lonely skeleton, a withered tapestry, a rusty iron chest. But every room doesn’t need a monster. I think those folks creating the early dungeon of D&D were really on to something. In absence, there is tension. With every room that goes by, the tension mounts. With every trap, another trap seems imminent. I want to go back toward this type of dungeon, and fortunately, we can make it happen.

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23 thoughts on “My Dungeon Has Empty Rooms

  1. Doubleplusgood! Especially coming from a Wizard. 🙂

    Seriously though, I’ve been…uh…complaining about the adventures that WotC has been putting out since the beginning of 4e…and pacing has a lot to do with it. That and the death of exploration.

    However, after reading the new super-adventure Tomb of Horrors I’m starting to hope that we’ve turned the corner on that. I’m loving the increased exploration aspect of this adventure.

    I’ll be honest, I’d stopped even reading through the Dungeon adventures as well but things are definitely starting to look up.

    Actually, I’ve gotten this impression on a lot of aspects of 4e in that our issues are being listened to: the lack of challenging monsters at Paragon and Epic (fixed!), the lack of interesting magic items and the clunckiness of the Daily item usage restriction (about to be fixed!), the craziness of selling magic items above level 20 that could feed an entire kingdom (maybe to be fixed?), better adventures (possibly being fixed?!).

    I was really starting to sour on 4e about six months ago, but my enthusiasm is definitely increasing again.

  2. As I am reading this, I am reflecting on my own upcoming campaign. I have decided to do an old-school super-dungeon campaign updated to what I will call “modern sensibilities” and also preparing to discuss some of these updates on my own blog. It is interesting to see that I am not the only one nostalgiac for the ‘old-school dungeon.’

    Without even being aware of it, I realized that I had dropped back into the old habit of allowing some empty space: places that serve as transitions, places that are merely interesting to dawdle in, interesting landmarks, and above all, places that appear to be safe and therefore help build the sense that something is coming somewhere. And it could be RIGHT HERE! Aaaah! It also helps that I’m thinking in terms of encounter areas instead of rooms, so that, when the party starts a fight or makes too much noise, doors will open allowing creatures to join the fray. The rooms they live behind will, of course, be explored and ransacked, but by the time they are reached, they will be empty of monsters. Because monsters don’t simply wait in one place to be attacked, but they must have rooms of their own to call home with knick knacks and decorations and flavor.

  3. Ahhh… the memories…

    I am now about to seriously consider designing a one or two-shot for my group involving a cool, old-school dungeon.

    Thanks for the pick-me-up!

    -Tourq

  4. Good article! Since I haven’t DM-ed or played bigger dungeons in the last few years I hadn’t really noticed this ‘phasing out’ of empty spaces. Empty doesn’t mean useless(!) and that point comes across in the article very well. Hope designers pick up on it.

    Our DM has incorporated Tomb of Horrors into the home campaign (we just finished chapter 1) and I am happy to know there are empty rooms in there! 🙂

  5. I’ve tried to create dungeons using the “new” design philosophy of only mapping rooms that has an encounter in it, but I too am just way to old school. I love rooms that have nothing more than a corpse (skeletal… or rotting eww), or some broken furniture, or even a few copper coins under some rubbish. Those rooms are like bluffing in poker – they make the other players at the table nervous, edgy, and a bit unsure of themselves. And that tension, as you refer to it, is awesome to watch develop in your D&D players. I don’t think I’ll ever stop making those “useless” empty rooms.

  6. To be perfectly honest, all the adventures published for the wizards dnd site disappoint me because I find them to be nothing but combat combat combat, maybe a skill challenge, *mabe* a puzzle but for the most part its 80/20 combat and that get’s so old quickly for so many players.

    This is a great writeup, I always leave at least one empty room in my dungeons, gives the players respite, or leaves them wondering, it provides mystery and sometimes even a blank canvas for the players to arrange ambushes, traps, etc.

  7. I spent my first 2 days at Gencon playing AD&D with the folks from Expeditious Retreat. Our group ran through their “Stonesky Delve” and had a really amazing time. There were some great “whitespace” rooms. There was a magic chamber where the voice of a dwarven god could be heard and numerous dead-end rooms that caused the party to have to backtrack frequently. One dead end contained a shallow pool and several large blind catfish. Of course, the druid had to cast his speak with animals spell because we thought this dead-end would have to have a secret door. The fish said that no one had ever visited this chamber before. They were hungry so we fed them some giant caterpillar pupae and moved on.

    I like to use whitespace in my game, usually of the aftermath variety. You know the room. You enter and there are twenty corpses on the floor. Or the room where there is a giant cage with the doors broken off but the room is otherwise empty. That’s sure to unnerve any player.

  8. This is a great article and one that I hope more people, both out in the wild and at WotC, will keep in mind. I’m running the first Scales of War adventure (Rescue at Rivenroar) for my group and before long I was struck at the fact that every room had something in it. First it was funny, then it became boring. I’ve removed 2 encounters from the adventure and wish I’d removed at least 1 more so I’d give the players the sense that they’re exploring the tomb complex, not just cleaning it out. It’d have also given them that sense of mystery, of anticipation, of fear (“is something in this room going to try and kill us?”). When I finish Rivenroar, I’ll use the lessons I used running it to make the rest of the campaign even better for my players. Which will include more than a few empty rooms.

  9. Maybe I’m just being another “me too” poster, but I’d say the lack of “empty rooms” in many recent RPG releases has made them suffer.

    Done right, empty rooms–be they long stretches of road, wilderness campsites (sans threats), modest buildings adjoining the village square, or actual empty rooms in a dungeon–are the context, the norm, that make the “encounter areas” feel more special.

    With a descriptive flair, they give the DM a chance to lend the area some authenticity and personality. They make travel seem more real and interesting. And they give the players the freedom to interact with the world in a way that doesn’t involve powers and skill checks, but rather curiosity and ingenuity.

    And without their surroundings to separate them, the fantastic locales in which encounters take place quickly lose their meaning and become just a series of adjacent battlegrounds for players to analyze for tactical effect.

  10. Great post and one that I hope more people take to heart.

    It seems that the fine folks at Wizards are having a bit of “return to your roots” ephiany lately. The changes in essentials all seem to harken back to early game-design (in philosophy if not mechanics); a change in adventure design would be greatly appreciated as well.

  11. I think the lack of white space in certain adventure settings (like dungeons) is probably driven primarily by page constraints. Certainly this is a concern in Dungeon magazine (any magazine) — especially now that there aren’t as many actual adventures in it — and even with the published modules, which are only about 90 pages (I haven’t seen any of the super-adventures yet).

    It’s a business decision first, I believe.

    Put another way, only homebrew adventures will ever provide that gritty, detailed, quirky, more ‘realistic’ feel (i.e., more empty rooms) because everyday DMs don’t have to worry about how much it costs to print out extra pages that provide descriptions for empty (but essential or interesting or mood-setting) rooms, or worry about the map ‘running over’ onto another page (and therefore costing yet more money to produce).

    It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think there’s any getting around it.

    One thing Wizards CAN do, though, is to ease up on the cross-marketing of the dungeon tiles in published adventures. I realize the tiles are probably relatively high-margin products given the rest of the company’s offerings, but geez they’re klunky, and they SEVERELY limit the imagination. I look at a dungeon tile adventure and I think, “meh”. Ah, but when I see a map with cool spaces created with nifty software, I think “dang, I want to go there!”

    Not EVERY Dungeon adventure has to be a cross-marketing extravaganza.

  12. In echo of Maurice’s comments, I think that WoTC and most new DMs equate 1 encounter with one room and that doesn’t have to be true.. there are some encounters in the first few published adventures that have more than one room involved, but really only if there are more bad guys waiting to make a 2nd wave of minions arrive on turns 3 or 5 or something…

    the whole concept of empty dungeon rooms should give players, PCs, and DMs more room to move… however, when playing a (somewhat) 3D game on a grid map there probably is no other good way to make your DM hurl his or her erasable marker across the room than to run backwards through 3 feet of map space to get back to room that is more defensible or a choke point or has a trap you want to try to get the bad guys to fall into… in old 1st and 2nd edition pen and paper AD&D you could move back easily.. in newer miniature based games, you really aren’t encouraged to move off the grid as it were… and that is another reason we see so little white dungeon space…

    are you going to go through the effort of placing tiles or drawing on your grid only to just erase it 30 seconds later when the PCs make rolls of 15 + on their perception and find secret door checks and realize nothing is going on…

    no.. you are just going to describe the room to them, in which case they might realize there is nothign to fight, and will move on… so, it takes either a very patient, very prepared, or very easily erased marker to make a lot of these empty dungeon rooms as “threatening” as other rooms and that is probably why they have been falling by the wayside…

    I like putting down tiles and maps for roleplaying encounters and to make the PCs stay on their toes, but it is more work, and for a game that can end up with long, long lasting encounters, cutting out stuff that just slows the game down is probably for the best for many groups. To each their own, I certainly do like realistic dungeons with sleeping, eating, and guard chambers and not just overly boobytrapped guard rooms every 20 feet, but it is harder to convey in 4th edition than it was previously, but hopefully this article helps remind people to flesh out their dungeons and puts the empty dungeon room back into some games!
    – Josh

  13. Wait. You mean Tomb of Horrors (any edition) contains rooms that WON’T kill you and flay your soul?

    Hmm, maybe my group isn’t in as much trouble as we thought…

  14. Very nice article! I don’t run published adventures very often, but my own style has become heavily encounter-based with some roleplaying and story-based decision making in between. Not that there is anything wrong with that approach, of course, but it has become much like watching episodes of a TV show. The characters are presented an immediate problem and deal with it, usually resolving the conflict within a session or two, they decide which challenge they will face next.

    Once school starts up in a few weeks, however, I am not going to have much time for planning, so I have been wanting to run a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl. This article, along with TheAngryDM’s, have gotten me thinking about exploration and tension-building again, rather than just moving through story-based decisions from one set of encounters to the next. I also realized that I have barely given the rogue a chance to use Thievery for traps in this campaign, and there have not really been a lot of other non-combat obstacles to overcome either, except for the story-driven roleplaying challenges.

    I rather miss the stuff this article talks about, and most of my players are old-school guys whose introduction to 4e is our current game, so I think some traps, secret doors, empty rooms, and the ability to freely explore without worrying about the progress of a complex overarching storyline would be a nice bit of nostalgia and fun for all of us.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  15. Totally agree: the lack of empty rooms is a major design flaw in the 4E dungeons I’ve seen. It gets downright oppressive, in a boring sort of way, when you know with dead certainty that every new space you enter will (1) hold something carefully crafted to be challengingly dangerous, but not truly overwhelming if you remember to zealously work as a team and if it’s not the climactic encounter, (2) some part of that danger will jump out from what is supposed to be a clever and surprising direction, and (3) whatever this opposition is, it will work as a coordinated team that uses its environment (whatever that happens to be) to deadly effect.

    It’s like listening to a powerful singer with exactly one volume and one tempo, and who never takes a breath. And it’s why our group burned out on 4E halfway through its first module. I think it’s a great game underneath, but they put so much raw science into the adventures that they’ve lost their soul.

  16. Greg…Just re-read this piece and I really like how thought-provoking it is. I have always been a fan of looking behind the scenes at design elements and trying to thoroughly understand the intent of any given element…and then seeing what happens in actual play. For my players the lack of empty rooms is a feature of 4e….not a “bug”. Check my site and see what you think…www.escapevelocitygaming.com

  17. For me the greatest dungeon, and the one I’m always in some way trying to “get back to” is Moria and Gandalf, although somewhat over optimistic, thought that with a little luck and three days walking the party could traverse it without an encounter, that’s quite a few empty rooms, but, for me at least, still the most memorable dungeon there is. Then there’s also Gormenghast of course which runs a close second…

  18. I haven’t actually designed many dungeons. In my early days i simply had a piece of blank paper and a pencil and i filled in the paper as the players went, drawing whatever met my fancy.

    Recently (ok, about 6 months ago) my gaming group played my first real dungeon. It was a nightmare dimension in disguise, hidden inside a simple mansion magically sealed and made impregnable so nobody could just break in, and nobody could break out. Whether or not the players met with monsters depended on some things they had done. If they found a magical lamp then the rooms would remain well lit and the shadow monsters wouldn’t appear, but if they didn’t f ind the lamp…

    I had also designed some rooms that weren’t empty, but didn’t have monsters, they were there for clues and puzzles, but some puzzles would summon monsters if they weren’t solved correctly, or weren’t solved quickly enough. Some rooms were just rest stops, like a magic pool or a dining room with a full meal laid out. Other rooms had passive entities, a butler and two maids looking out a window, or a kitchen strewn with dead servants. If anyone interacted with the butler or the maids they would attack, and if anyone left the kitchen then went back the dead bodies would be up and attack them.

    I remember one room that locked as soon as the players entered it, and the door on the other side wouldn’t open till they had killed the monsters that entered the room after them, so the room was empty when they went in, but not after a couple rounds.

    For my next dungeon i’m contemplating an organic structure, like a tree or something. It is alive and actively inhibiting the players.

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