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5E Dungeon room description

oriaxx77

Explorer
Hey guys,

I would like to publish some of my homebrew modules. Since this is my first attempt to publish something RPG related I started to read a lot about room descriptions.
As far as I see there are two - sometimes contradictory - requirements:
  1. The module should be fun to read and evocative.
  2. The module should be easy to use and practical at the table.
I am not sure how to achieve both. I tried to come up with something and I would like to post an example here.
Since you have tremendous DM-ing and Roleplaying experience I thought you could help me with some feedback.
It would also be a big help if you could give some examples about your preferred room description.

The example:

Shrine of Orcus
This is the room where Cinna performs the heart implant rituals. The door has a rotting, female, elven head that speaks. The room itself is small and barren, with only an altar dedicated to Orcus with an enormous, desecrated, black and rotting goat head in the center . It has a terrible atmosphere for non evils and exhilirating for evils. There are some bone fragments and a skull on the floor.

DM Notes:
  • Door with talking head
    • Stone door. No locks.
    • Animated, wrinkled, female elven head on the door.
    • She is the guardian of the shrine.
    • She speaks elven and abbysal.
    • She can utter the spell Symbol (PHB p.280, WIS DC 20) every round until she is destroyed.
      She cannot use the same symbol twice in a row. She is very clever and chooses targets appropriately.
      E.g.: she uses Insanity against fighting men, Discord, Pain against casters etc.
    • She has 200 Hit Points, AC: 20, Immune to spells.
  • Atmosphere
    • Evils act with advantage for every roll.
    • Goods act with disadvantage for every roll.
  • Bone fragments and skull
    • Old, possibly humanoid bone fragments and a skull in the corner.
    • This is Ennio Cinna. A Demilich (MM p.48).
    • He is guardian of the chamber and this is his home.
    • He speaks through Drusus, his Imp familiar (MM p.76).
  • Altar dedicated to Orcus
    • A black, bloody stone slab that acts as a sacrificial table.
    • It also acts as sarcophagy and Cinna resurrect here if not destroyed properly.
    • A big, black rotting goat head acting as the symbol of Orcus.
    • Anyone spending 1 round in the vicinity (20') got a random Confusion (PHB p.224, WIS DC20).
Thank you for your help and sorry for my English.
Oriaxx
 

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aco175

Hero
Some DMs like this way so they can have a conversation with the players instead of reading a bunch of text. The problem is that the DM feels like he needs to make up all the descriptive text on the spot and not miss anything that is important to the game.

On the room itself, I do not know the level of PCs expected to be there but it looks rather tough. There should be a way to stop granting evils advantage and goods disadvantage. There could be something with the goat head's eyes glowing blood red and shooting beams out that appear to charge the monsters in the room.
 

oriaxx77

Explorer
Some DMs like this way so they can have a conversation with the players instead of reading a bunch of text. The problem is that the DM feels like he needs to make up all the descriptive text on the spot and not miss anything that is important to the game.

On the room itself, I do not know the level of PCs expected to be there but it looks rather tough. There should be a way to stop granting evils advantage and goods disadvantage. There could be something with the goat head's eyes glowing blood red and shooting beams out that appear to charge the monsters in the room.
Thank you. You are right about the adv/disadv. I need to come up with something more interesting. It is wip.
How do you like the layout? Is it something you could use at the table? Would you make any improvements? E.g. too much text here, too little there etc...
 

tommybahama

Adventurer
Some famous writer said that if you describe a rifle on the wall then that rifle better go off in the third act. That's all I got.
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
Thoughts on Layout:
1. I like the point form but will you have enough room on a page to describe all your rooms this way?
2. Is there any information that PC will get if they try a perception/investigation? If so, what's the DC? Is there any pertinent information included that might only be revealed with a Knowledge check? If so, which skill might be applicable and what is the DC?
3. I'd suggest some descriptive changes(language, grammar etc..) but that's just editing stuff.

Thoughts on Content:
1. Instead of good/Evil, why not just have any follower of Orcus (or his allies - like a cleric of an allied god might count) get reap the benefits while anyone else unaligned to Orcus suffers the penalties? Then no need to have a discussion about character alignment. It will just move smoother since some tables don't use alignment.
2. Instead of advantage/disadvantage, use the spells 'Bless' and 'Bane'. Then they can still reap the rewards of getting advantage etc...
 

I dig the quick formatting. I might add that if there's anything that the PCs might talk to, adding some quick personality and goals information would be useful.

One thing I want out of dungeon crawls is descriptions that help give the PCs some context in deciding where they go. Too often, one direction appears to be the same as the other. So parties arbitrarily have to decide, and just come up with things like always going north, or just taking right turns. As a DM, I like to give them information like "to the west is a door with an old elven woman's head on it, to the east there's an earthen smell, and to the north you feel the temperature rising."
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
A great suggestion I read once was that room descriptions should be no longer than two sentences. I think that's a good rule of thumb.

I'm inclined to break that rule only if the description is meant to convey more than just the surroundings. For example, flowery language can be appropriate to convey unusual architectural features or similar aspects that might not be familiar to all groups or GMs. This approach is particularly useful as well if NPCs are known for a dialect or a manner of speaking; providing examples of how they talk can really help illustrate the scene and make it evocative.
 

oriaxx77

Explorer
Great help so far. Thank you!
Could you point me some published adventure modules you regard as almost perfect / very good in room descriptions. Any adition.
 

aco175

Hero
I tend to have each dungeon having its own feeling or theme. If the whole temple of Orcus is filled with bones, blood, and icky things, I tend to say that throughout the dungeon you witness these things. Then the players can just go with it and any changes from that brings their attention. Also I tend to go with less gore and blood than some dungeons warrant. A temple of Orcus would be filled with gore and yuck, but some players and DMs aim for PG13 level of detail.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One thing glaringly missing: the size of the room, including ceiling height. The text should mirror the map so I don't have to look in both places to describe the place. Some dimensions and distances elsewhere would be useful too; from reading the above I can get no picture in my mind at all of this room's size and-or layout.

One thing to add: "Stone Door. No locks. Hinges to the north, opens outwards." (or whatever suits). Far too many module writers skip little details like this, yet players ask "which way does it open" at every damn door they meet.

Under 'Atmosphere' add something like 'Evil gloom noticed automatically by all non-Evils on entering the room' - this is a hint that the adv/disadv problem goes away if the PCs can somehow act from outside the room and-or entice the foes (or somehow move the foes) outside.
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
One thing I noticed is some vagueness in your description. For example, is the head a real head? Is it nailed to the door? Or is it a wooden carving hung on the door? Or carved stone part of the door? This can be critical to how the DM describes the room. Also, every room needs to be done in the SAME way. If you give a size description, always give it in the same way for each room.
 


Eltab

Hero
The more description of a room, the more important it should be. And vice versa.
The guards' coat closet can be short, nothing here but some coats on hangers. The room where Boss Villain will be found - whether an animal's den or a dragon's lair or a Mastermind's relax room or a Mad Scientist's laboratory - should have enough details that PCs 'can see it with their mind's eye' and have gear, equipment, &c to interact with, so PCs can do more than "I move up and hit him with my sword."
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Shrine of Orcus
This is the room where Cinna performs the heart implant rituals. The door has a rotting, female, elven head that speaks. The room itself is small and barren, with only an altar dedicated to Orcus with an enormous, desecrated, black and rotting goat head in the center . It has a terrible atmosphere for non evils and exhilirating for evils. There are some bone fragments and a skull on the floor.

DM Notes:
  • Door with talking head
    • Stone door. No locks.
    • Animated, wrinkled, female elven head on the door.
    • She is the guardian of the shrine.
    • She speaks elven and abbysal.
    • She can utter the spell Symbol (PHB p.280, WIS DC 20) every round until she is destroyed.
      She cannot use the same symbol twice in a row. She is very clever and chooses targets appropriately.
      E.g.: she uses Insanity against fighting men, Discord, Pain against casters etc.
    • She has 200 Hit Points, AC: 20, Immune to spells.
  • Atmosphere
    • Evils act with advantage for every roll.
    • Goods act with disadvantage for every roll.
  • Bone fragments and skull
    • Old, possibly humanoid bone fragments and a skull in the corner.
    • This is Ennio Cinna. A Demilich (MM p.48).
    • He is guardian of the chamber and this is his home.
    • He speaks through Drusus, his Imp familiar (MM p.76).
  • Altar dedicated to Orcus
    • A black, bloody stone slab that acts as a sacrificial table.
    • It also acts as sarcophagy and Cinna resurrect here if not destroyed properly.
    • A big, black rotting goat head acting as the symbol of Orcus.
    • Anyone spending 1 round in the vicinity (20') got a random Confusion (PHB p.224, WIS DC20).
There's no single right way to do this. A few observations:
  • You actually have 2 distinct encounter areas: The Door with the elven head nailed (?) to it & the Shrine of Orcus. I would give each its own area description.
  • The Door seems to assume (a) that the elven head automatically notices the PCs even if they're invisible and sneaking, and (b) that once it becomes aware of the PCs it immediately becomes hostile and attacks. Both of those assumptions, from my perspective, are flaws because they steer away from creative out-of-the-box solutions and kind of force it towards a combat encounter. For instance who is this head? What is/was her name? How'd this elf end up animated and bound to this door? If it was done against her will, shouldn't she be a potential ally against the cult of Orcus? You also make note of her languages... but then don't give her any talking points / information to convey to the PCs / questions to ask the PCs.
  • With the Shrine of Orcus, you fall into a bit of a trap that many modules do with their boxed text – you wait until close to the end to mention the monsters. In rare cases, you can get away with it if the monster is not the center piece of the encounter, but just part of the backdrop. Also, if it's a monster with, say, the False Appearance trait or a hidden monster, you can not mention it at all (or reserve mention of it if the PCs have sufficiently high Perception). However, a demilich doesn't usually hide nor does it have False Appearance – i.e. it's clearly more than just a "skull." It's OK to add additional traits and mess around with those assumptions sometimes, but in this case I recommend you don't do that. A demilich is a legendary monster. Its presence should be in big bold letters right at the beginning of the area description for the Shrine of Orcus!
  • The magical environmental effects you have listed under "Atmosphere" are something I'd recommend against. But YMMV.
  • Also "fighting men" is... how do I say this... 70's era terminology. It's no longer considered politically correct, particularly if you're publishing for modern 5e D&D (and not, say, a niche OSR product).
 

Libramarian

Adventurer
I think your standard template should be three sections:
1) First impressions (including hostile creatures in the room, if any)
2) Notes for handling how the players can interact with things or examine them in detail
3) Supplemental information for the DM

This follows the natural rhythm for running a dungeon room:
  • The PCs enter, receive first impressions
  • As the PCs decide what to do, the DM absorbs the second paragraph
  • The players interact with the room, which the DM can handle seamlessly because they read the notes for interaction while the players were digesting the first impressions
 
Last edited:

DMMike

Guide of Modos
A great suggestion I read once was that room descriptions should be no longer than two sentences. I think that's a good rule of thumb.
...no longer than two sentences when the PCs first enter it. Of course, there should be more description available to the GM, so that the PCs can explore/discover more through role-playing (and the GM can better understand the designer 's intent).

Check out Eamon Online - it 's a copy of the old Eamon game that nailed room-description-shorthand: room name, short description, list of exits, list of contents and creatures. Players had to ask questions and do things to learn more.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I think your standard template should be three sections:
1) First impressions (including hostile creatures in the room, if any)
2) Notes for handling how the players can interact with things or examine them in detail
3) Supplemental information for the DM

This follows the natural rhythm for running a dungeon room:
  • The PCs enter, receive first impressions
  • As the PCs decide what to do, the DM absorbs the second paragraph
  • The players interact with the room, which the DM can handle seamlessly because they read the notes for interaction while the players were digesting the first impressions
Another thing I like is the "Development" part that 4e and 5e adventures have (not sure if they were in 3e). That's basically what happens if the PCs do this one thing or do nothing. I don't think all rooms/encounters require it; but I think they are useful.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Another thing I like is the "Development" part that 4e and 5e adventures have (not sure if they were in 3e). That's basically what happens if the PCs do this one thing or do nothing. I don't think all rooms/encounters require it; but I think they are useful.
I found this a hindrance, in fact, as it either a) tended to push me towards pushing the PCs to do whatever it was the Development was written for (which I then had to fight against), or b) left me high and dry when the PCs did something entirely unexpected because under Development I'm expecting the module to provide the next step and there isn't one.
 


oriaxx77

Explorer
I dig the quick formatting. I might add that if there's anything that the PCs might talk to, adding some quick personality and goals information would be useful.

One thing I want out of dungeon crawls is descriptions that help give the PCs some context in deciding where they go. Too often, one direction appears to be the same as the other. So parties arbitrarily have to decide, and just come up with things like always going north, or just taking right turns. As a DM, I like to give them information like "to the west is a door with an old elven woman's head on it, to the east there's an earthen smell, and to the north you feel the temperature rising."
I usually use the map at actual play to indicate the directions, doors etc. I always look at the map and the players usually have their own map so it is pretty obvious most of the time. But observation noted. Thank you Sir!
 

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