Friday, January 17, 2020

On Empty Rooms

Occasionally I analyze early dungeon design rules given by Gygax (or others) in OD&D, and note that a majority of the rooms are supposed to be empty. Examples of this rule are:
  • OD&D, Vol-3 (1974), p. 6: "As a general rule there will be far more uninhabited space on a level than there will be space occupied by monsters..."; followed by a 1d6 for each room in which, "A roll of a 1 or 2 [on d6] indicates that there is some monster there."
  • Monster & Treasure Assortment, Set One (1977): "... a dungeon level should have monsters in only 20% or so of the available rooms and chambers..."
Often I then receive the following critique: "The rooms are supposed to be unoccupied, without monsters, but that doesn't mean they're empty of furnishings, puzzles, clues, useful tools, etc.".

But I'll respond here by pointing out that Gygax's earliest dungeons had really, honestly, truly, totally-bare rooms for the most part. Examples:
  • In his map to Castle Greyhawk Level 1, seen Monday, the vast majority of spaces (like about 120 of 160, or 75%), didn't even have key codes. So they had literally no contents whatsoever (unless we posit that he was ad-libbing meaningless dungeon dressing in all of those unkeyed rooms). Which isn't very surprising consider the very cursory nature of that key; every keyed area was just a single line long. Even the keyed areas didn't have furnishings listed other than their monster and treasure. 
  • The map to AD&D Module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, follows the same design structure, so I suspect that it's among his earliest creations that actually got published. A snippet of the map to Level 1 is shown above; again, it utilizes a use-every-space style, and the vast majority of rooms aren't even keyed. (The text does say that these rooms are all demolished apartments or utility rooms, with shattered and useless furnishings, and 0-3 human skeletons. But it's hard to imagine that not being ignored in play as negligible after the first few such inspections.) 
Gygax's early strategy of using duplicated stock key codes (mostly novel to his works) is seen throughout adventures such as: his Castle Greyhawk map, AD&D module S3, D1-D3, etc. The Holmes Basic D&D sample dungeon follows the same pattern, with a key code of "E" for the many rooms that are completely empty of contents per the key (8 of 22, or 36% of the rooms by my count).

It's arguable whether this was a good idea or not, and possibly the design strategy was abandoned pretty soon after OD&D was published, but the evidence is pretty clear that Gygax's earliest dungeons were composed of majority really-empty (even unkeyed) room locations.

23 comments:

  1. A room with nothing in it is functionally just a corridor: passage or dead end.

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    1. Not entirely. I always mark turns by hitting the numbered rooms, since that's the amount of time needed to search a room. Hence going through those, other than red herrings and false security, bring wandering monster rolls.

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    2. On the contrary, every door is a decision point, because until you open it (or something else opens it) you don't know what's on the other side.

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  2. Interesting, because Gygax's design philosophy clearly changes by 1978 (if you look at the G series, you'll find every single room and niche stuffed with SOMEthing). The comparative emptiness of S3 seemed strange until I checked its entry in wikipedia and found that it was first presented for Origins in 1976...the published S3 module I own appears to holdover a lot of the blank space from its earlier publication.

    Do you know what the DMG says on the subject? I'm too lazy to review my copy at the moment.

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    1. Bottom-left table on page 171:
      d20 roll for room contents:
      1-12: empty
      13-14: monster
      15-17: monster + treasure
      18: special
      19: trick/trap
      20: treasure

      So 60% empty, 25% with monsters (with treasure 60% of the time), 20% with treasure (with monsters 75% of the time), 5% tricks and traps, 5% special.

      I love "empty" rooms. I just don't leave them empty. Add dressing and details, and it does a fine job of injecting tension by obfuscating differentiation of empty rooms from rooms with hidden dangers/treasures while also playing into the resource management game (STRICT RECORDS OF TIME et al).

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  3. As both a DM and as a player, I find huge numbers of empty rooms to be tedious. I much prefer Gary's A/D&D modules, which tend to be chock full of monsters. His most famous (B2) has monsters in a little more than 80% of the dungeon rooms.

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    1. In general, I agree. The G1-3 modules are very nice. I think on analysis that B2 might be a little TOO stuffed with lots of monsters everywhere. The difference between B1 and B2, say, is very stark.

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  4. Way back when I ran a megadungeon game, I found empty rooms essential to building atmosphere and tension, especially as it related to conservation of resources. An empty room presented a dilemma: do we spend a couple turns to search for secret doors or an unguarded treasure or just press on? I was keeping strict track of time and resources, so burning through torches and risking wandering monster checks were constant pressures. I didn’t really plan on this effect, it just sort of happened because I stocked the dungeon according to Moldvay’s guidelines to see how it worked in actual play. It made me realize D&D is a resource management game first of all, something that even the grognard set overlooks.

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    1. Yes to all of this. Lots of empty rooms also makes evasion and pursuit more meaningful and makes mapping more important (when you've passed through a half dozen or more doors to get from where you started to where you are now it's a lot easier to get lost trying to find your way back). They also enhance the "living dungeon" atmosphere when creatures move around between expeditions - the room that was empty on visit #1 might not be on visit #2.

      There was something Gygax mentioned in some of his play-reports when he was running those retro-Greyhawk Castle games - that a lot of the monsters in the dungeon are actually trying to hide, both from the marauding adventurers and the other monsters. They don't want you to find their lair where they keep their food and treasure and defenseless babies. They'd rather ambush you as a wandering monster while you're exploring empty rooms. That was kind of a Eureka moment when I read that, because it was a whole different dynamic of play - dungeon exploration as a sort of game of cat & mouse, where the PCs are looking for the monsters and the monsters are looking for the PCs, both sides stalking each other through a series of mostly empty rooms filled with trash and debris. This isn't boring - it's tense and exciting, especially when resources are limited.

      I honestly don't understand why more people don't see the appeal of empty rooms and exploration. To me it's the most atmospheric and fun and immersive part of the game - wandering around a maze of dark tunnels, looking for treasure, knowing that sooner or later you're going to run into deadly monsters and hoping you don't also get caught by tricks and traps.

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    2. Last paragraph: Yes, I agree fully. Also, by having fewer occupied rooms, you give the monsters space to move about and do stuff in. In the 11 rooms (the total of all discrete areas) in my house only three are presently occupied!

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    3. That's a really nice observation, I think. Thematically I think it's bolstered with some amount of dressing/trash in places (maybe EGG was doing this on an ad-hoc basis on the fly, I don't know).

      I kind of love Trent's observation that the monsters are intentionally trying to catch PCs while wondering -- and that very much echoes the action with the wilderness rules, the core in-lair% chance, and the fact that treasure is only found in the lair.

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  5. I'm one of those who says "The rooms are unoccupied, not completely empty," although I don't say that because there is some advice from Gygax or someone else in official rules. I just think it's the best method for keeping players on their toes. Do they search through the stuff in the room to find hidden treasure? Is there anything they can use, regardless of value?

    But I rarely describe the contents of empty rooms in dungeon keys. I figure there's no need of saying anything more than "kitchen" or "ruined library" and improvise the content description based on that. Actually listing what kind of garbage players might find seems like a waste of space.

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    1. I strongly suspect this is one of the main reasons dungeon-sizes shrank and the occupancy rate of rooms went up so dramatically in the module area: because (1) there just aren't that many interesting ways to describe an empty room, and (2) people don't want to pay $ for a bunch of mostly-empty rooms. And that's borne out by the amount of complaints you see from people about the number of "boring" empty (i.e. no monster or trap or significant treasure) rooms in modules like B2, T1-4, etc., even though they're only ~25% of the total instead of 75%. Leaving the rooms unkeyed and improvising descriptive color on the spot works for a home campaign and (assuming you're reasonably good at it) keep the players on their toes and potentially brings out emergent depth as they react to things you hadn't expected and take the game in new directions, but I get why TSR (and Judges Guild, and everybody else who was producing module-style content) went in a different direction of smaller, more densely populated locations.

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    2. I think that's a valid point of view. I'm not a great adlibber so I'm toying with pre generating 100 lines of random dressing for rooms and passageways and then just crossing them off as I use them. TSR could've done this as an appendix alongside pregens..

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    3. The DMG has a bunch of dungeon dressing tables. I'd use them a lot for empty rooms or long stretches of corridor.

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    4. This matches a lot of my instincts, but... I find that my players generally expect every little piece of trash or trinket to be a clue or related to some plot somewhere, and express some amount of disappointment when that's not the case. So personally I've gotten away from random dressing that doesn't potentially have some real effect or play to it.

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  6. Somewhat of a tangent, it's curious how quick people (including myself) are think there's a difference between rooms and corridors. When you think of corridors as rooms (with the purpose of providing connections to other rooms), it can add a lot more "rooms" to the map which are often empty. If I look at cave A in B2, for instance, I can take it as 5 rooms (as keyed), or I can take it as 10 rooms by adding "rooms" for the corridor from 1 to 2, the slanted corridor from 1, the corridor from there to 6, the corridor from 3 to 4, and the corridor between the previous two corridors.

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  7. Lots of empty rooms versus every room with a monster or trap are very different gaming styles.

    With a monster or trap in most rooms you have a hell of a slog, as anyone who has run B2 finds out very quickly. There is nowhere for player characters or monsters to hide or run. Its kind of like having the PCs go to the Monster Mall and start hacking and slashing; you'd quickly have the entire dungeon swarming you in self-defense.

    With lots of empty rooms as mentioned, there is room for cat and mouse style hunting (of monsters or PCs), room to rest in between encounters, a reasonable amount of space in between settlements of inhabitants, room to leave clues as to what the party might encounter (goblin graffiti on this wall, giant lizard spoor in this room, old webs over here, etc.)

    I much prefer lots of empty rooms (that are again, not empty, level of description depending on local inhabitants, age of ruins, and former function of the room).

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  8. Delta

    I have a D&D arithmetic conundrum and I can’t think of anyone better to help me solve it. How can I email you?

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    1. Cool! Head to OED Games (www.oedgames.com) and click the email at the bottom of the page, it's me. Sometimes it takes a few days for me to find time to reply.

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