Thursday, May 30, 2019

Should we Start Numbering Hallways on our Maps?

I was thinking about Diogo Noguiera's now-famous post "How to Never Describe a Dungeon!"

If you haven't read it, you might like to. He makes a persuasive argument. I'll summarize.

There are two ways to describe a dungeon hallway. One way is bad and, you should never do it. The other way is good, and you should try to do it every time.

The bad way is like this: "You get to a intersection and there is a door to the north and two passages, one going east and one going west."

The good way is like this: "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 bad way is bad because it prevents the players from making an informed decision. With no information to base their decision on, they might as well roll the dice to decide which way to go. They might as well be in a straight railroad.

The good way is good because it supplies information that lets players make meaningful, informed decisions. Rather than a simple toss-up between "left or right" or "heads or tails" they have a real choice between moss and cobwebs, and whatever each implies about what's at the end of each hallway. (I would add, this approach also encourages players to use the information available to them to try to draw conclusions, and it rewards them for thinking ahead, by hopefully supplying them with a safer or more favorable path through the dungeon.)

I feel like Diogo has persuaded me, but what I'm thinking about is how to make it easier to put his idea into practice. (I say "his idea" even though I know Diogo's not the only one who's ever made this point - he IS the one whose essay on this point I'm quoting here.)

Because good intentions are fine, but I think there's a reason so many game-masters probably default to the bad way of doing things. The reason is, it's easier.

Pick any dungeon you like. Open the map, find a hallway. Imagine your players entering the hallway. Now, prepare to describe it to them. What will you do?

The first thing you'll do, of course, is look at the drawing of the hall on the map. How long is it? How many doors open off of it? Where are those doors? Are there any special features you need to mention?

All of that is important information, but if that's all you describe (and I'll be honest, it's probably all I usually ever describe) then you're doing things the bad way that we just agreed doesn't allow for meaningful player decision-making.

What more do you need to do, in order to describe this hall the good way? Well, you need to take note of the room numbers. You need to go check the key to the map for each of those rooms. For each room, you need to read the description, come up with a general impression of what's the most important thing in the room, decide what a good clue about that thing would be, and then move on to the next room, which is probably on another page. Also, you need to hurry, because your players are waiting, and what's taking so long describing a simple hallway?

Did I say the bad way was easier? I misspoke. The bad way is MUCH easier.

So if all you have is good intentions and a regular map, it's going to be much harder to describe each hallway the good way. And that's because RPG maps don't number hallways.

Which is one of those things that I noticed, and thought was odd, when I first started reading RPG books. But there are all kinds of conventions and practices that go into making RPG books. Pretty quickly you get used to them, and basically forget that you ever thought they were strange. But reading Diogo's essay made me remember the way I felt when I first looked at an RPG map and wondered why the hallways didn't have numbers like the other rooms.

Which is fine, I guess, if you're treating hallways as non-spaces, like we've probably all been doing all along. But treating them that way basically forces you into the bad way of describing halls, because it forces you, the GM, to come up with a description right there on the spot.

If we want to describe hallways well, we need to number them on our maps.

Every hallway is an empty room, except we usually don't think of them that way. They have all the promise, and all the problems, that we associate with empty rooms. Think of every blog post, every essay, you ever read about what to do with empty rooms - we should apply all those ideas to hallways. And we should number them.

Getting good hall descriptions during play shouldn't be a matter of exception skill, fast reading, and quick thinking. It should be a matter of looking at the hallway's number on the map key, and communicating the information there to your players.

40 comments:

  1. I actually do this a little bit, although not for every hallway and not in so organized a way. In my experience it makes keying the place take longer, but it helps players remember their way around the dungeon a little better.

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    1. It definitely would take longer to make the map, I just think that if you want your hallways to hold clues, it's probably better to take the time during mapmaking rather than trying to ad lib them with no reference at the table.

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  2. I think dungeon hallways make more sense if you don't think of them as random connections between scenes/rooms but as part of a larger spatial puzzle that makes up the dungeon as a whole. While I agree that a nice hallway should have some character (you can describe a region/node of a dungeon in general terms that a Gm can use on the hallways and key deviations from that fairly effectively) I don't agree that they need to provide clues as a matter of course.

    Some should, but where that makes sense. Hallways act as a spatial matrix to place rooms, the tactical environment for conflict in the dungeon and to expend time and resources even when they aren't providing clues to the next room. Think to those first dungeon crawls or perhaps to some as bad graphics 80's dungeon video game. The hallways were likely featureless and grey - but they created the space of the adventure and ticked down food and light. Understanding the layout allowed the player(s) to circle around, figure out what was next to what and otherwise engage in the game of using their hard won spatial understanding to outwit the dungeon and its inhabitants.

    Also yeah - you totally should know what your floors, walls and doors are made from.

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    1. I think I take your point. There is a playstyle where you WANT the hallways to be featureless, to reward players for mapping them.

      The INITIAL run through the dungeon might be made on the basis of no information, but as you go back through, your own prior mapping supplies the information you need to make informed decisions.

      It seems like that strategy would work best in a megadungeon where there will be enough return trips to sufficiently reward players who map well (and sufficiently punish ones who keep guessing every time.)

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    2. I think it works best in multiple visit dungeons yes, lair dungeons (5-15 rooms say) likely don't have or need many long halls.

      Likewise I don't think it precludes halls with character, only that halls can serve a distinct mechanical purpose independent of their organic or narrative purpose within the dungeon. It's odd because I tend to design fairly hall free dungeons with a lot of rooms abutting each-other (my mega-dungeon design has largely been more nodal then something like ASE which really uses long hallways to good effect, partially out of necessity). I think this is also partially the result of using an exploration/overloaded encounter die mechanic which makes every turn more tense and appears to deplete supply resources more quickly (it shouldn't based on the percentages - but it seems to). I also tend to use pretty abstracted movement - so I may not be practicing what I'm preaching here.

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    3. You make an interesting point about drawing maps for resource-management play. It makes sense that while you want the normal amount of empty rooms, you might not want very many halls, which could just slow things down too much.

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  3. Put something in those corridors!
    https://aeonsnaugauries.blogspot.com/2009/07/put-something-in-corridors.html?

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    1. Thanks, JD! There's a lot of good ideas in there!

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    2. Thanks. It's an old post but I was pretty sure plenty of folks could find something useful in there.

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  4. Creating an additional corridor key is fairly unwieldy (unless the corridor itself contains the encounter, which is clearly not what you are describing here). The most practical solution which comes to my mind is to put the useful information directly on the map.

    Judges Guild's Tegel Manor does this, putting a lot of content on the Judge's map which is not even mentioned in the sparse module text: http://dragonsford.com/realm/index.php?title=File:Map-tegel_manor.jpg You can note environmental descriptions ("riotous laughter", "Singing Swordsmen Hall", "Stale Smell") and various traps. There are numbers keyed to a list of magical portraits, and there are magical statues you can roll up on a random chart. And of course, the rooms are not just numbered - they are named on the map sheet, which helps tremendously with at-a-glance corridor descriptions. (The room entries also list dimensions, including height! You don't see that very often.)

    Now, Tegel is not a perfect example. A lot of this content is entirely random. Some of it is foreshadowing, but it is mostly a separate layer of dissociated stuff. However, it is a good start, and still remarkably rare to find something even reasonably close. It is kind of a lost art in module design.

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    1. Also, the traps are marked but, oddly, not described.

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    2. On your second point, Roger GS talks about this problem of un-described traps, and this was definitely on my mind writing this. If traps are supposed to be discovered using player skill, then the person writing the dungeon needs to describe them - it will be too difficult for the GM to come up with descriptions on the spot with no help from the writer.
      http://rolesrules.blogspot.com/2012/04/osr-contradiction-2-player-skill-vs.html

      To your first point, I think noting clues directly on the map would work just fine. It would actually be easier than numbering the halls, because you wouldn't need to go read the hall description on another page. Named rooms certainly help as well.

      My larger point is just that if you want clues to be present, you should write them in advance, because it can be difficult to invent them quickly at the table.

      I also think we should leave random dungeon dressing as a relic of the past. A random table of false clues and red herrings is probably worse than featureless halls.

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  5. I'm lazy and build my dungeons almost exclusively with the donjon random dungeon generator, which labels halls for me :). That being said, the "bad" labeling of halls was one of the criticisms I received in the first dungeon crawl of my last campaign, which I'd like to think I've since taken to heart. Didn't realize this idea was first propagated by Diogo!

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    1. I'm sure he's not the first person to ever have this idea, but he does write about it very convincingly!

      I would say that even if you don't plan to give away clues automatically, but you want them to be available if the characters search, or if the right number comes up on an "Overloaded Encounter Dice" then writing them down in advance might still be a good idea.

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  6. I ran a dungeon last night where players woke up in an abandoned science fiction research base- the hallways were made of white plastic right out of classic science fiction movies. I ran into this problem as hallway descriptions got rather repetitive, but to a degree that was the point- this was a man-made maze, all the hallways were similar, almost disorientingly so.

    There were still some choices. In the first room with a branch, a robot wolf retreated from the party down one hallway, while a door blocked the other. One path led to what was a probable ambush, while the other led to unknown. The players (somewhat unwisely) chose to walk into the ambush, and one of them was devoured by robot wolves.

    Which is to say that A) the inhabitants of the dungeon can create texture and clues where the hallways themselves do not and B)the type of door leading to a hallway is as important as the hallway itself (and can be fit into room keys). Furthermore, as the players explore the dungeon and get hints from residents, what originally seemed to be meaningless choices will take on more and more meaning. "The Med Bay is to the East", for example, will make every hallway turning to the east naturally tempting, but if you were to also drop "The Exit is to the West", now you have an interesting choice!

    That said, there were a couple elements that distinguished some of the hallways- some were well lit, some were not. Some had evidence of conflict (blood on the walls), others did not.

    So to cut a long post short, I think hallway descriptions are one tool that can be used to give meaningful choice, and in some cases it's absolutely fine to label them as a room. I don't think it needs to be done all the time, however. Sometimes a maze of hallways is just a maze of hallways.

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    1. I like the variety of clues you managed to fit into otherwise featureless halls!

      And you're right, if there's no clue present, there's probably not much point in keying the hall. Did you have keyed entries for the robot wolf or the dim lights or bloody walls? Or if not, how did you keep track of those details?

      And of course you're right, talking to residents of the dungeon is an excellent way to get information about the general layout of the place.

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    2. I had a keyed entry for the robot wolves, both the initial encounter and their lair. The keys were actually in rooms, but I noted in the room keys how they would use the hallway to lure the players into an ambush.

      The dim lights were regional- there was a central area of the complex that was well lit (due to being considered essential rooms by the creators of the base), but everything else was dim, barely lit. I didn't really keep track of the dim lighting- it was more that I kept track of which rooms were lit, and everything that wasn't had dim lighting. This made it really easy to remember that detail when the players left the central area.

      The blood was very specific and if I had been more thorough with my notes I actually would have noted it on the map key- it was hinting at a room up ahead where Bad Things had happened. I was very aware of where this room was, so I remembered to give the players clues when they got closer.

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    3. Thanks for sharing! So it sounds like your experience is that room keys are enough to put clues into the halls?

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  7. If the only meaningful decision that the player's have is what hallway to go down, then yes, I suppose giving some hint to their contents is the way to go. But if the whole dungeon is the thing, as Gus points out, then you "play to find out" what's behind the doors, and as you gather knowledge you go from making fairly low knowledge decisions to much more tactical decisions.

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    1. Yeah, I think Diogo's complaint is probably most important when you're only going into this specific dungeon once or twice. Under those conditions, you won't really have the chance to gather intel and then benefit from gathering it - the ONLY way you're going to have a hint about what's in a room before entering it is if the GM gives you one.

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  8. This is a minor point, but I like to use letters for hallways and anything else that isn't a room because it picks them out a little more clearly in my notes.

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    1. That's a good practice - I think with keying halls (or really keying anything)for a published product here's always the interplay between giving information and aid to the reader/GM and using up too much space, making things confusing. Hallways are usually low information environments, so minimizing the amount of space spent on them seems wise, and separating that out with different notation also seems worthwhile - because it's easier to the letters while never repeating numbers and use that 'A' for a whole general class of hallways.

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    2. Thanks for the advice, John!

      And Gus, you're right that you could then re-use the letters for halls with identical clues.

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  9. This is brilliant. "You come to an intersection, do you go left or right?" is such a joy-killer but so few people address it. Maybe our way of mapping is wrong?

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    1. Thanks for the post (and the link) Anne, it's got me thinking. I always manage to mess maps up when describing/drawing them for the players so I have been thinking about scrapping the map and using a node diagram instead. Rooms are nodes (with descriptions and key info) and the lines joining become corridors or doorways. So I thought if I label the LINES that can be a description of the corridor and can provide information for making decisions...

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  10. Can’t point to specific examples, but I’ve seen a few maps around where there are room names at least (the memory jogging suggestion mentioned above) and also notes around some corridors and tunnels about things that can be heard, felt or smelled from a particular direction. That impressed me as a good trick to employ. Works well if the map isn’t too busy, so that is another way to go, but is a bit limited too. So as a shorthand memory jogger, backed by your proposal, I think that is a method well worth following.

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    1. Lettered and keyed hallways and corridors are a standard feature of the random dungeons generated at https://donjon.bin.sh/5e/dungeon/

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    2. Having room names written on the map is probably a good idea for helping the GM (assuming there's enough space to use a decent font-size). Thanks for suggesting it, Alistair!

      Also thanks, Tamás, for the link!

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  11. I should give a shout out to Roger GS from Roles, Rules, and Rolls whose written before about the importance of good map keys because improvisation is difficult.

    http://rolesrules.blogspot.com/2012/07/mediocrity-of-improvisation.html

    http://rolesrules.blogspot.com/2012/04/osr-contradiction-2-player-skill-vs.html

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  12. Rather than referencing a number of corridors when the PCs get to an intersection, I have been numbering intersections.

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    1. That certainly makes sense. Thanks for mentioning it, Beoric!

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  13. Should hallways get numbers or be differentiated from rooms by getting letters instead? Is it worth differentiating?

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    1. Up above, John B suggests using letters for hallways. I can see the logic.

      Does it make sense to differentiate them? I'm not sure. If halls are just long skinny empty rooms, then maybe we should just treat them like other rooms?

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  14. If the dungeon room descriptions are consolidated, that is terse and evocative rather than exact, it becomes easier at a glance to weave the locality into the hallway.

    I don't like long room descriptions in modules. I want the key elements and feel so i can spin my own thing out of a dozen words. You can fit twenty rooms on a page this way.

    Also coming to a doorway or intersection with not much to go on becomes a problem of known unknowns or such and context. Where have we been? What have we seen? Is this place like the last place? As soon as my players stop and start thinking I'll begin giving them extra hints as to whats nearby, sounds smells lights etc. If they want to know something they can't tell just by standing still I'll offer suggestions for what they could do to find out. If they take a risk by peeking down a hallway or pulling grates off the wall I'll really reward them with some kind of discovery. I dont need a key to do this if i know whats in the area. The problem with keying hallways is exacerbating the need to flip through pages cos there's so much shit to sift through.

    I'm in the process of translating old modules like B1 into Chris McDowall's hyperterse style. We'll see if it works.

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    1. For sure, you'd want any clues to be as quick to read through as possible.

      "If I know what's in the area" is really the difficulty here though, isn't it? I'm not sure if numbering hallways is the BEST way to get that information to the GM at the right time, but I have a sense that getting the GM to know what's in the area when they need to know it can be difficult unless there's a numbered entry to check.

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    2. You're right about that. I number hallways if there's something interesting to put in them. If not they just become a liminal space between the areas they connect. If the next room has glowing fungus the door and hallway will have little bits of glowing fungus. If one wanted to number all their hallways two or three nouns might be enough to spark ideas.

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  15. This is where art-filled maps are possibly very useful. If the artwork on the map shows cobwebs, and I know that they look of the map is pretty much an in-game view (not necessarily an in-game artefact), then it is easier to narrate that a given hallway has a specific look and feel.

    Downside is more time, and the map becomes less flexible.

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    1. True - if you can manage it, putting the clues directly into the art of the map would work.

      I think the key here is just to think about the clues at the mapping stage, and make sure that you insert them in SOME WAY that you'll be able to find them easily when you're running the dungeon. If the GM can't find the clue in about 15 second or less, they're probably not going to say the clue out loud to the players.

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  16. Excuse me for commenting on a post three months late, but this popped up in my feed reader, and I found it interesting.

    I've taken a very different tack to solving this issue. Instead of labeling them, I've largely eliminated corridors in my dungeons altogether. The rooms mostly just lead into each other.

    We play short sessions, and I try anything I can to move things forward and reduce the friction of tedious option pondering.

    I think a lot of dungeons would benefit from fewer hallways.

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