Thursday, February 24, 2011

5 Senses Room Descriptions

Boxed text in adventures are a bit of a mixed bag for me. On one hand, they're classic, which I know doesn't make something good, but it makes it stick in your mind. On the other hand, it's hard to convey a room properly with boxed text for every group out there. Some people may just want to play to kill things, so the players are drifting off as your describe the smell in the air and paintings on the walls. Others are trying to map every detail and anything left out of boxed text will mess them up. Other times, boxed text comes off as ridiculous, as several sentences describe the craggy walls, dripping water, and odd smells and end with "and a huge minotaur stands in the center of the room!" as if that wasn't the important first detail...

Many adventures that do away with box texts (especially more modern ones) give the DM little description of the room save for what can kill a PC or be killed by a PC and expect the map to handle the killing space (what the rest of the room looks like, who cares? As long as I know where I can stand when I hit things with my axe). Others might give a sparse description, but leave out details PCs may want to know about.

For our room descriptions I've come up with something I've tentatively called the "5 Senses" model, where in each location will be described using the 5 senses. Each sense entry won't be boxed text, it will be up to the DM to decide what to reveal and what not to reveal based on what the PCs are doing. Special provisions for the Demi-Humans and their special senses would also be included, such as describing the room by sight if only using infravision or things noticeable about the architecture to a dwarf.

Sight would concern itself mostly with the room size and locations of exits, I feel a good description of dimensions and ways in/out are important for mappers, as well as all the other descriptions most often found in traditional boxed text; unusual features on the walls, the materials/look of the walls themselves, large pools of water, paintings, etc. etc. As mentioned above, it would also include anything that may appear special via infravision, or perhaps an elf would notice that the room is dessigned in an elven style.

Sound would be useful not only for flavor, but the go-to entry for those adventurers smart enough to remember to listen at a door.

Smell and Taste don't often come up in room descriptions but I feel they are something that can really help set the scene. They are strong senses we use in real life that are oft neglected when describing something (be it a novel, dungeon, or even recounting a memory), but when are used often provoke an instant response from those listening to the description. Taste, as you may imagine, wouldn't come up too often, unless the adventurers go about licking the walls, however sometimes odors are so overpowering they have a "taste" to them, as to rooms and places that are overly stuffy, old, dusty, etc.

Touch/Feel is another thing often neglected, but can be important, be it the feel of soft ground under the adventures feet or the cold draft the chills the skin the second the door is open. It can even be used to describe the feel of the walls as adventurers run their hands over it looking for secret doors.

These don't only apply for the room of course, things in the room can get that treatment too, from inhabitants (the look of the monster is that much more memorable when coupled with its smell and sound) to items the adventurers investigate (the rusty squeal of an old suit of armor being moved, the smell of the odd liquid in the beaker on the table).

These won't be written to be read aloud, but rather, they'll be descriptive and thorough, with this system the DM can use as much or as little as he wants, depending on his players. He may stop at just the basic room description by sight for players who want to move along to the killing, or leave out parts the party hasn't discovered yet because they haven't fully walked into a room or the light hasn't hit that one corner with the weird pool of liquid (even though they can still hear and smell it). Also, each detail that only a certain race would sense/know about will be distinctly called out so that the DM's can adjust to what the party consist of.

For now, it's just an interesting concept, I'll put it into practice on the revised write-up of the first level of the dungeon and run it by my group for their thoughts on how well it works or if it's too much or not enough. Stay tuned.


  1. I forget about sense other than sight and sound all the time, to be honest. Sometimes I remember taste, but it's usually no more than "totally amazing" when I do mention it. ("This sammich is totally amazing! The guy who made it is awesome.") I'm on board with it, but then again I'm the one who has to sit there listening to it, not the guy who has to read it before tweaking it for his group.

    Also it might be cool if you talked about the various things that other classes might take interest in. Delvers are probably interested in the estimated market value of everything shiny, for example. Because in my mind it makes sense to give every class something fancy instead of just two. It doesn't need to be something that gives them an advantage while going through the dungeon (i.e., relative room heights means there's probably a secret door here!), it's something to make the world seem more alive to them. Just a thought, you don't need to go anywhere with it.

  2. This has to be handled carefully. If every empty room in a dungeon has a long, detailed description, the players will get bored with it. If ONLY the interesting rooms have these sorts of descriptions, players will learn that those are the ones with fun stuff and ruin surprises.

    It's not a bad idea, and one I always plan on doing when I run games, but never get around to.

  3. @xwd: I like the idea of having call outs for the classes that aren't demi-human, they have enough advantages as is, right? Delvers, like you said, are pros at dungeons and tomb robbing so they'd know details other classes wouldn't and the same could apply to other classes as well. Something I'll have to try going forward.

    @MyrddinWyllt: Well the description wouldn't be "boxed text" so the DM is under no compulsion to read any of it. I'd describe the room the best I could in all five senses and the DM can use as much/little as he wants. Having the option there for detail in even the empty rooms means those players that want to drink in every detail can do so, but because it's not a "forced read" for the DM, he can skip it if he knows his players wouldn't care. Yes the same could be said about any dungeon and it's description, but I'd rather side on having more details available to ignore rather then leave it to my decision of what rooms, sections, etc. aren't important enough for full descriptions.