Dungeon Dressing (not for Salads)
Dungeon Dressing is a catchall term for all of the descriptive elements that Game Masters will use to describe the adventure location and the things you find in it. These are things like what the walls, floors, and ceilings are made of, the doors, any random objects like columns, biers, altars, etc and the elements that characters can interact with. It’s also the sensory inputs characters can experience, from sight and smell, to taste, touch and hearing. Characters with nonstandard sensory inputs (like Darkvision, or telepathy or any other unusual sensory capacity) might react differently to specific objects they encounter as well.
So how do you describe the dungeon/encounter area/environment? Well, that depends on what type of a place you’ve decided on. This is an area where having a map helps a lot, because you know what the layout of the place looks like and what should be encountered in those areas. If you’re a digital artist, you’ll understand this next part a lot easier, but i always suggest you have a couple of different versions of the map. The First one is the base layer, and the other versions add in details. We’ll get to that closer to the end of this article though.
The first question to ask yourself when you are digging into the dressing of a “dungeon” is what exactly is the purpose of the dungeon? Tombs and crypts have different needs and structural layouts than say prisons or forts. Sewers and other infrastructure projects can be different, depending on what they are designed to do. Ruins add another level of complexity because they take one of these existing concepts and smash the crap out of it until it’s only partially functional again.
Now Add CroutonsThe actual details of the dressing can be one of the most interesting parts of the design. Once you know what the area is supposed to do, you can lay in a bunch of supporting details. What are the walls made of? How about the floors? Are there wall sconces or does light come from some other place? What does the place smell like? Even before you start adding in physical things like beds and tables and other pieces of furniture, you have some decisions to make.
Are these features consistent throughout the dungeon? Are there areas where there are differences that people encountering the area would notice if they were to go looking for them? These are important to take notes of if you are going to use them, because they can help you key up your players to be on the lookout for something out of place.
For Example: “You enter the brick lined chamber and notice that in a section of the wall on your right side the bricks are discolored.” is a visual clue for the characters (and their players) that there might be something up with that particular space of the encounter area.
Also, they don’t have to be visual cues, you can add the sounds of voices coming from places they shouldn’t be, A smell that’s out of place, or a host of other sensory inputs that aren’t where they are supposed to be. There’s a lot of interesting ways to describe your dungeon and key up the characters (and their players) that they might find something interesting,
Rules Suggestion: If you’re playing 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, you can set a Passive Perception threshold to notice these details.
Layers?So now that you have your basic dungeon aesthetic, you can add in other features. One of the things that i think get overlooked a lot are doorways. Just because there’s an opening in the map that moves from one location to the next doesn’t necessarily means it’s an easy trip. Some dungeons are designed to allow things like water or other elements to move freely, but not people. In this instance, those doorways are probably mesh screens or grates that characters have to either navigate around or find a way to open.
Another thing you can layer in at this point are the furniture and fixtures of your dungeon. Not everyone uses the same type of equipment (or treats it the same way) and out of place design elements (like the oddly humming crystal chandelier in the catacombs) can help clue the characters that something is up. At this point you can also figure out what monsters/critters are where and what treasure they are hanging on to.
Thoughts in Closing (For Now)
Building your dungeons/encounter areas should be purposive. They should have a form or a function that they performed at some point and this informs both the layout and the internal design. Once you have your idea for your design, you can layer in the features and basic consistencies of how characters experience the dungeon through their senses. This lets you build and create the inconsistencies that will attract the characters into exploring and interacting with their environments. And then you get to add monsters and traps and treasure, and bang, you’re off to the races.