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How to never describe a dungeon!

Artwork by Luigi Castellani
I've heard it a thousand times. You probably heard it too. Some people, I don't know why, say that dungeons, especially large ones, are boring. The endless repetitions of rooms and corridors and having to choose to go left, right, north or south depresses them. I don't know why. Actually, I do know why.

Because they don't really know how to run a dungeon in play. It seems easy, effortless. Just say what's in the room the PCs are in and where the passages going out of it go. But it's not. They get bored with the "you get to a intersection and there is a door to the north and two passages, one going east and one going west" because that's a terrible way of describing a dungeon environment and gives nothing really useful to the players to choose from.

You never describe a dungeon like that. There's a lot more going on that we can initially see. A good referee will take all the context of what the dungeon was, what it is now, who lived there, who lives in there now, who or what passed through this passage and use it to describe the dungeon, to make it alive and real. If the corridor in the east leads to a natural cavern covered with mushrooms and myconids, maybe when the PCs look down that passage they will see a dim fluorescent light that emanates from the weird moss that lives there, and feel a light cool breeze flowing from that direction. Some moss may be growing in that corridor also. If to the west there is a nest of giant spiders, that corridor will certainly have more cobwebs covering it than the other passages they have been through, and some of them are still vibrating, as if something alive is touching the web.

The thing the people who think dungeons are boring and repetitive don't get is that dungeons can be as surprising and exciting as anything else (if not more, since under the earth, away from the laws of nature and the blinding light of the sun, anything can exist). And it's the job of the referee to pass that information and feeling to the players. Exploring a dungeon is basically an exercise of choice. Every room, every corridor, every passage offers a choice. Do we go in? Do we go north, south, east, west?

And being a choice, it only makes sense if it's not a random choice. Players need some information to make that choice, otherwise they can simply roll a dice, or the referee can choose for them. Thus, the referee must provide some clues, some signs. They need to present each choice within a context that can be used by the players to extrapolate what that choice might lead to. He doesn't have to make it clear and say that this passage leads to mushroom men and that to giant spiders, but the elements he presents must have a connection to the result. Reaching the right result is totally up to the players. That's where player's skill comes in too.

So there you have it. Never describe a dungeon in a cold and simplistic way as "a room with a north, west and east passages". Think about what's through those passages. What went through those rooms. Think about what signs would be left behind. What clues are left behind so PCs can try to make a better choice for themselves. Give at least one element to inform their choice. If you can, give them 3 clues for each option. Think about their senses. What can they smell? What can they feel? Do they see anything? Do they hear any noise? Does a bad taste suddenly appear in their mouth because of the smell they just felt?

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