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5E Dungeon room description


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oriaxx77

Explorer
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.
Observation noted. Thank you Sir! I would like to write a high level module so I think experienced DMs and Players would use it so they may do not need it.
 

oriaxx77

Explorer
A
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).
A legendary reply from a legend! Most useful! Thank you Sir!
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
G'day, Oriaxx!

Love the encounter. Full of interesting details for a DM to play with! :)

As Quickleaf notes, the door is properly a separate encounter. I've attempted a reformat of the information, while including a few other items that a DM might want to know, but I would want to develop this further. In particular, I would like more of a sense of the head's personality. Giving the head a name helps the interaction, I feel. A few more details on her history would help.

The formatting in the Shrine of Orcus proper is tricky. I do believe you can overuse dot points; too many and it's just as bad as a wall of text. I like the practice of using inline headings in bold italics to call out important features. However, using dot points to convey NPC information is something I find useful.

This is one time when boxed text is quite useful: it alerts the characters to what's there. The next paragraph tells the DM what the purpose of the room is. After that, you put the details for individual elements of the room.

As noted, I would prefer to rework the NPC information from what I've given below; in general, you want to provide details on how the NPC interacts with the characters, and an idea of their goals (particularly in relation to the PCs!)

I'm sure there are lots of problems with this reworking, but if it provokes more discussion, all good!

DOOR TO THE SHRINE OF ORCUS
The stone door to this room has a rotting female elven head hanging on it that greets the characters as they approach. The head is named Jenna and she protects the entrance to the shrine.
  • Jenna speaks Elven and Abyssal.
  • Jenna wants to know why the characters wish to enter. If the characters cannot convince her they are worshippers of Orcus, she attacks.
  • Jenna has AC 20 and 200 Hit Points. She is immune to spells and poison damage.
  • Each round during combat on initiative count 20, Jenna casts symbol (DC 20). She may not use the same symbol two rounds in a row.
  • The door only opens if Jenna wills it or if Jenna is destroyed.
THE SHRINE OF ORCUS
A blood-stained, stone altar with a rotting goat's head lying on it stands in the middle of this room. Bone fragments lie scattered around a human skull in one corner. The air is thick and oppressive with the stench of rot.

Cinna uses this room to perform the heart implant rituals. A demilich guards the room against intruders.

Evil Atmosphere. Good-aligned characters have disadvantage on all ability checks, attack rolls and saving throws in the room. Evil-aligned characters have advantage on the same rolls.

Bone Fragments and Skull. These are the remnants of a demilich named Ennio Cinia, who guards the chamber and speaks through his imp familiar Drusus. He is automatically hostile to the characters if they destroyed Jenna, but otherwise begins the interaction friendly. He knows the following:
  • Ennio has served Orcus for 500 years.
  • Cinna was once his apprentice, but has come far. Her plans thrill him, and he knows all the details.
  • Ennio is easily flattered, and he reveals Cinna's plans if asked.
  • Ennio wishes to help the characters serve Orcus.
Black Altar. This black, bloody stone slab acts as a sacrificial chamber. It is also a sarcophagus; Cinna resurrects here if not destroyed permanently. If a non-evil creature approaches within 5 feet of the altar, they must make a DC 18 Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, they are affected by confusion (as the spell) for up to one minute.

Cheers,
Merric
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
@MerricB - that's a great write-up but still doesn't tell me the dimensions of the bloody room! I don't want to have to look at the map (which in most modules these days means page-flipping, oh for the days of detached cardstock maps!) and count squares to get this info.

Both in and out of character players need to know the room dimensions and other distances for things like spell ranges, movement times, and so on: there's a big difference in play if this is a 10x10' room, a 30x80' room, a 120x120' room, etc.; also different is how much of it the PCs can immediately see on entry if they're only running on their own lights.

Because yes, the write-up also doesn't tell me anything about the ambient lighting in the room, if any, or if the PCs are relying solely on their own lights and-or darkvision; yet this would be immediately obvious to the PCs on opening the door.

I added in the bolded bits (no idea if they're what the OP had in mind or not) to what you wrote; yes it's more words but now it tells me what I need to know. :)

A blood-stained, stone altar with a rotting goat's head lying on it stands in the middle of this dark 40x40' room. A smoke-stained ceiling 10' high at the sides rises in a gentle dome to 20' height above the altar. Bone fragments lie scattered around a human skull in one corner. The air is thick and oppressive with the stench of rot.
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
@MerricB - that's a great write-up but still doesn't tell me the dimensions of the bloody room! I don't want to have to look at the map (which in most modules these days means page-flipping, oh for the days of detached cardstock maps!) and count squares to get this info.
lol. I know what you mean! I didn’t want to invent too much. (And ambient lighting might be in a more general description of the area earlier.)

I do not believe adding room dimensions is a necessary idea if the adventure uses a map which allows several ways of approach as you WILL reference the map immediately before going to the encounter. Any non standard room can’t be described easily, in any case.

If this is linear, then having a section with dimensions, light, etc. may be good. I have disliked those in most examples I’ve seen, but that may be because of formatting. A sidebar may work better.
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
I've been doing a lot of thinking about this sort of thing myself, especially after spending some time with the Mothership RPG and The Hole in the Oak which focus a lot of terse, evoctive writing and thoughtful formatting.

In the example below, in which I've taken some liberties, I focused on a few ideas:
  1. Keep the writing as terse as possible while still being readable.
  2. Provide the demensions and light level, but separate from the defining details.
  3. The main room description contains all the important details of the room in a terse, evocative manner. It is possible to be read verbatim, but is intended to inform the DM's own description. The last thing in the description is each creature in bold and underline. (this leave bold alone for something else if valuable)
  4. The bullet points are keys to items that appear in the main description, in the form and order that they appear.
For my own stuff, I would also work to reduce text like "all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws" down to "all roll" or something similar. Sometimes I'll even drop an element entirely if I can't describe it succinctly. Honestly, trying to bring down the word count is a time-consuming process. But I find it's worth it.


THE SHRINE OF ORCUS
40' x 40' with 20' domed ceiling; dark (unlit torches on wall)

A goat's head rots atop a blood-stained alter mid-room. The rot-stench is oppressive. In one corner, bone fragments lie scattered around a human skull (remnants a living demilich). An imp sits nearby playing with a femur.
  • Black Altar. The bloody stone sarcophagus Cinna uses to perform heart-implant rituals. She resurrects here if not destroyed permanently. Any non-evil creature approaching within 5 feet must make a DC 18 Wisdom saving throw or be affected by confusion (as the spell) for one minute.
  • Rot-stench. Good-aligned characters have disadvantage on all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws in the room. Evil-aligned characters have advantage on the same rolls.
  • Demilich and Imp. The demilich Ennio Cinia guards the chamber, speaking through his imp familiar, Drusus. If the PCs destroyed Jenna, he is hostile. Otherwise, he is friendly and easily flattered. He has served Orcus for 500 years and wishes to help the PCs do the same. Cinna was once his apprentice, and he will reveal her plans if asked.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I do not believe adding room dimensions is a necessary idea if the adventure uses a map which allows several ways of approach as you WILL reference the map immediately before going to the encounter.
The room dimensions don't change based on point of entry. :)

And in this particular case, though it hasn't been mentioned explicitly it certainly seems like the OP's intent is that the Jenna-door be the only entry to the shrine.

Any non standard room can’t be described easily, in any case.
In which case, write "see map before describing". Otherwise, if I don't have to reference the map to get simple things like dimensions it's one less round of page-flipping
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
For my own stuff, I would also work to reduce text like "all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws" down to "all roll" or something similar. Sometimes I'll even drop an element entirely if I can't describe it succinctly. Honestly, trying to bring down the word count is a time-consuming process. But I find it's worth it.
It's easy to overdo this, however.

For example, saying "all rolls" when you really only mean attacks, saves and checks is a recipe for disaster as read literally "all rolls" includes damage dice and everything else. If you're the only one who'll ever read it, that's fine, but I think the OP's intent is that this be distributed to others - meaning any choice between clarity and brevity has to fall to clarity.
THE SHRINE OF ORCUS
40' x 40' with 20' domed ceiling; dark (unlit torches on wall)
Yeah, this gets it done nicely. I snipped the remainder of your write-up as it's just a few posts up.
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
It's easy to overdo this, however.

For example, saying "all rolls" when you really only mean attacks, saves and checks is a recipe for disaster as read literally "all rolls" includes damage dice and everything else. If you're the only one who'll ever read it, that's fine, but I think the OP's intent is that this be distributed to others - meaning any choice between clarity and brevity has to fall to clarity.
Agreed. I would likely only do "all rolls" if it were intended for me alone. Though, to be fair, advantage is only ever applied to attacks, saves, and ability checks. But your core point stands. Taken too far can harm clarity or end up omitting valuable details. It's a difficult skill to develop, and easy to mess up, but excellent to have when done well.

One thing I'm still trying to determine is when it's worth adding details as to the materials of the room. The Hole in the Oak regular often has details as to what the floor, walls, and ceiling are made up, sometimes with details, and I admit that it can really help me visualize a room prior to description. But is it worth it? I lean toward no, unless it's a feature that stands out.

Another aspect that the given example doesn't have to deal with is how to describe the exits of a room so that they telegraph something about why you'd choose to go that way.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Agreed. I would likely only do "all rolls" if it were intended for me alone. Though, to be fair, advantage is only ever applied to attacks, saves, and ability checks. But your core point stands. Taken too far can harm clarity or end up omitting valuable details. It's a difficult skill to develop, and easy to mess up, but excellent to have when done well.
Ayup.

One thing I'm still trying to determine is when it's worth adding details as to the materials of the room. The Hole in the Oak regular often has details as to what the floor, walls, and ceiling are made up, sometimes with details, and I admit that it can really help me visualize a room prior to description. But is it worth it? I lean toward no, unless it's a feature that stands out.
A generic "all walls floors and ceilings are dull gray fitted stone with sometimes-crumbly mortar between, unless noted otherwise" at the start of the level or chapter covers this off. Then one only has to note the materials and-or colours if they vary from this.

Another aspect that the given example doesn't have to deal with is how to describe the exits of a room so that they telegraph something about why you'd choose to go that way.
Easy. A room with multiple exits therefore also has multiple entrances, and you often never know which one the party's going to come in. If you get in the habit of always describing exits clockwise (or counterclockwise, as long as you're consistent) going around the room from wherever the party comes in*, and even point out to the players now and then that this is how you're doing it, they won't be as easily able to get a read on you.

* - example: a room with exits in each of four walls - if you go clockwise and they come in from the north you describe in order the east, south and west exits; if they come in from the west you describe in order the north, east and south exits, etc.

Writing it up is tricky. For the four-exit room above I might just say "arches exit east and west, wooden doors lead north and south; each exit is at the centre of its wall", and so what if you end up describing as an exit the entrance they just came in. :)
 

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