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Sensing the Dungeon

530368_teddy_sniffs [1]One of the  ways to craft good dungeon description is describing to appeal to the senses. Mentioning the sights is common, but including smells, sounds, feels and tastes can greatly contribute to immersion. However, it can be difficult to remember to feature sensory input and to come up with good descriptions on the fly. To that end it can be useful to make a brief set of descriptions, one for each sense that represent common, or typical sensations in a particular themed area in your dungeon or other area.  Most areas are more or less homogenous, so this doesn’t usually require multiple lists. Nor do these lists have to be long or complicated. Simple lists of adjectives or short phrases can work as well as entire paragraphs of boxed text, especially since you’ll want them to be modular in nature, using them whenever and wherever it is appropriate. Here’s a quick example for a swampy forest.

Sights: “Hanging moss, stagnant puddles writhing with larvae”
Smells: “Loamy rich soil, rancid water, sweetly rotting vegetation”
Sounds: “Weirdly echoing bird calls, rustling in the underbrush, muddy suction underfoot”
Feelings: “Wet feet, sloggish steps, vegetation pulling at limbs and dragging over shoulders”
Tastes: “Humid air, soggy rations, stale water splashing”

Taste and Touch:
Taste and touch can be tricky senses to adjudicate because they’re generally active senses, while the others are passive. While it can be helpful to have a few details handy in case players initiate touching objects (likely) or tasting them (less so), it’s more useful to find ways in which those senses can be passively showcased. Feelings are easier because there are actions you can assume players will take: walking, fighting, interacting with scenery or NPCs, etc… Taste is far more difficult because excepting supplies they brought with them or a very safe location (town, etc…) players are usually wary about eating random things they find lying about. However, this can be surmounted by remembering that some smells are so potent that they can also be tasted (acrid, rancid, or other foul smells), some environments come with tastes (very wet, dusty or ashy for example), and that a certain amount of “splash damage” can be expected in active situations (fights, falls, etc…).

The Sixth Sense:
Certain locales, creatures, magics, etc… have a strong “psychic” component that can be felt (in games anyway). If you feel that you’re featuring such a place, feel free to add the 6th sense to your list, including things like chills, feeling of being watched, or whatever you feel is appropriate. This is also generally a passive sense, so it doesn’t usually carry the problems noted above. Here’s an example list for a haunted house:

Sights: “Dust everywhere, drop cloths, movement out of the corner of the eye”
Smells: “Dust, dust, and more dust. Sickly sweet rot, something died in the walls”
Sounds: “Scrabbling behind the walls, house settling noises, scraping and squeaking, your own breath and heartbeat”
6th: “Someone watching, whispers, a light touch, gentle breezes”
Feelings: “Unstable flooring, grime on your hands”
Tastes: “Mud mouth, dry throat, everything tastes dirty”

If you care to, you can add senses to your encounter tables, or make sense descriptions a table all it’s own. In either case, I would suggest that touch and taste get less frequency than the other senses because of the problems cited above. You can add sensations directly into another table, but if you build one specifically around it, a d8 or d10 is perfect for double chances for the common senses and single chances for the uncommon ones, while a d10 or d12 is perfect for double chances for all senses.  Here’s an example of a busy city:

1-2 Sights: “A gaily dressed person, an impressive building”
3-4 Smells: “A whiff of perfume, cooking food”
5-6 Sounds: “Clamor of the market, a busker playing, a barker calling, tradesman’s racket”
7 Feelings: “Press of bodies, hard cobble underfoot, rumble of a passing cart”
8 Tastes: “Cooking from a nearby shop, an alley of rancid trash”

If you have a hard time coming up with a few examples for each sense, think about the area you’re describing. What does a typical setting look like? Who lives there? What are the notable features? How does moving around feel? What kinds of things are there to see? Does anything have distinctive odors? Anything so overpowering that you’d taste it? Spend a few moments picturing the location and it’s inhabitants. Don’t forget that you can give clues through this method too. Want the players to eventually discover a secret? Have the players hear, smell, or “feel” it psychically from a distance.

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4 Comments To "Sensing the Dungeon"

#1 Comment By Rickard Elimää On September 18, 2012 @ 6:57 am

I like how you wrote under the headline Inspiration. It’s easier to get into a state of mind of you got questions guiding you how to think.

Anyway, here are some more things to think about. Nothing of this, as your article, is really just about dungeons. You can use it in any environment.

Will you see light in the distance? What reflects the light and how will something look in the light of a torch? I usually play around with describing shadows as well. How they dance to the flicker of the torch, how the shadows change as they move or how the shadows seems longer or how they seem to want to invade the PCs.

As a Swede, I usually think about this. How the sweat breaks out or how the the cold sting in their faces. I usually use this to strengthen the emotions of the area.

One thing I’ve experimented with these last few years is describing an area after a general emotion. I found that seductive works well with horror, for example. To break off the visionary sight (“The shadows seems to throw themselves at you”) with something contradicting (“It’s warm and cozy. You almost feel sleepy”), you get a better reaction from the players. I do this to spread an atmosphere in an area, like how the harsh environment hates the PCs (“The cold bites your faces”) or describe an inn by showing different kinds of decadence.

Another thing I’ve been experimenting with, and still use, is writing 4-6 keywords that I keep repeating (perhaps 4-6 words per hour) all through the session (around 2-4 hours). The players never seem to pick this up, if it’s not something that really stands out. When I first tested this, I wanted to create an atmosphere, but I found out that it’s something that works well with new games, as a reminder of what makes the game different. When I game mastered Mutant Chronicles to some new players, I wrote down “black, tuxedo, pointy, poster, broken, smoke”. Words I kept on repeating all through the session.

Sixth sense
I usually describe something contradicting to the players to show that’s something isn’t right. In a swamp, you can hear bells. In a cold winter day, a man is sweating. People smile with stiff smiles, almost forced, as they are scared of something. I also tend to describe things that shouldn’t be of relevance, just to mess up the player’s mind.

Storytelling techniques
Use “focus” sometimes. The more you describe something, the more important the players think it is. You give that thing a focus. “A bunch of henchmen, where one woman is wearing a black hat” or “Why is the GM describing those panorama windows in such a detail? Are something going to happen to them?”.

Also, you should use “sow and harvest”. You know, when you say something early, often as a unimportant sidenote, and after a while give that thing a purpose. You harvest what you’ve sowed. This is used everywhere, from theatre and film to stand up comedy.

#2 Comment By jpmg90 On September 18, 2012 @ 11:29 am

Wow Rick, this was very helpful when combined with the article. I particularly like the parts about emotion and keywords. Thinking about it, I can see how keywords can bring an ambiance of a setting out, without giving anything of substance to the players.

I also think these would be great techniques for running published adventures. You already have the session there and as you prep you can write out these senses to give this pre-made world your very own feel, and make it very different that what might have been originally intended.

#3 Comment By shortymonster On September 18, 2012 @ 8:45 am

Good points throughout, and something that I think a lot of GMs – myself included – could take something from. I tend to brush over things like the other senses when it comes to setting a scene, but have no such problem in a combat, going into details of the coppery taste of blood, the sounds of steel on steel, the smell of cordite etc.

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#5 Comment By cyalume On October 22, 2012 @ 5:21 am

Fantastic article, lots of things I can use at my table.