Experiments in Dungeon Keying

A villa in the Vaults of Pahvelorn

Evan has a post up about the level of detail used for megadungeon keys. This is something I’ve been playing with a lot recently as well.

This map should probably look rather familiar to my players, as it is the first villa within the cavernous area beyond the upper eastern door. The state of these rooms has moved on, and I think they have found all of the architectural features, so it should be relatively spoiler-free.

The vertical layout is probably not clear from the map. Rooms 2 and 3 are “standard” underground chambers, whereas rooms 6 through 14 make up a villa which is part of a buried city in a cavern. The floor of rooms 2 and 3 are at about the same level (a bit higher) as the roof of the villa. Area 15 is an alley. The “W” in room 3 is an open window looking down over the subterranen boulevard (20′ drop).

This was the original key.

  1. Empty. Roof: connects to room 2 by a hole blocked by a shelf. Looking down into area 98.
  2. Entry chamber. Mosaics of prosperous farms. Statue in the center. Warrior in breastplate, arms outstretched. Hand missing. East and west doors are wizard locked. Restoring the appropriate hand unlocks the door. Lutratar has possession of the hands.
  3. Sitting room. Both doors wizard locked. See area 7. Pounding can be heard within. 2 beastlings have been imprisoned within as punishment for disobedience (they were badly created). He has left them here until he has a chance to correct them somehow. “Sustenance” runes keep them alive.
  4. Model of gardens on a table. Miniature rivers filled with mercury. Small figurines to scale.
  5. Courtyard. Dry fountain. Empty earthen vessels. 10 giant rats.
  6. Benches. The ruins of a large table.
  7. 5 grimlings. AC7, HD 1/2. Axe, mace, morning star, curved sword, dagger. Each has a well carved children’s toy, worth 1d6 GP.
  8. Was once a library of scrolls. Several scraps remain, along with racks along the wall. If the NE racks are examined a seam in the wall can be seen. The treasure room is beyond: on a table is a brass jar (600 SP) and unlocked steel box (40 GP).
  9. Both doors wizard locked. See area 7. Empty shelves.

Why did I put the info about the roof in the entry for room 6? Hell if I know.

I think I improvised a bit of minor loot to room 14, because I’m pretty sure the PCs found something in there but I don’t have anything on this key. Either that or there was a note somewhere else that I’m missing right now.

Both my mapping style and my keying style has changed significantly over the course of my experience running Pahvelorn, but I still thought it would be interesting to share this.

12 thoughts on “Experiments in Dungeon Keying

  1. -C

    Huh. My key looks very close to evan’s.

    Now that I’m mostly done with the first level, each module (there are eight or so, five are currently done) has about 30-40 rooms. Each room is keyed very similarly to Evan’s with two exceptions. My treasure is much much more detailed, and my maps are more thoroughly designed (each area has a dozen rumors, half a dozen possible treasure maps, and a slew of area specific quests.)

    1. Brendan

      -C, I don’t necessarily see the key above as any kind of ideal to emulate. I think I have greatly improved my technique in more recent dungeon areas, but unfortunately I can’t share them yet because PCs are still interacting with them heavily. I do think this example is interesting though, because such a small amount of description has led to a comparatively large amount of play. One example: the PCs defeated the wizard locked doors by breaking holes in the ceiling with sledgehammers (and making a lot of noise) rather than solving the statue puzzle.

      Hazards, traps, and clues are what require the most text for me. Monsters, treasures, and incidental details can often be handled with a single noun and perhaps a few adjectives.

    2. Roger the GS

      The key is really only to keep you honest about the level of dangers and rewards you’re making the adventurers face. HOW you, and they, choose to resolve and adjudicate them is another matter.

    3. -C

      Ok, First, My key looks like Evan’s key, not yours. See my posts on set design for the final example of what my keys look like. It’s evocative and allows the DM to work on what’s there, spending his time focused on presentation. Simple. Direct.

      Second, brief evocative descriptions lead to much longer play. As I said, each section is 30-40 rooms, and that takes about 6-8 hours to key (with 2 hours to assorted other related tasks, plus time spent on art). Those 30 rooms represent 4x that amount of time in play at the table, minimum.

      The treasure is detailed, because it is a point of high engagement from the players. They don’t want to hear a bunch of flowery language from the setting. The treasure on the other hand, makes them excited. “You find a sword +1” is less engaging then “You find a steel dagger, with it’s hilt wrapped in pebbled brown leather and electrum wire that exudes a peppermint scent (+1)”. That is the sort of thing that is fun for them, and makes the choice of what to take and haul an in-universe one, rather then one of simple mathematics and numbers.

      Every piece of treasure, from pelts, to potions, to scrolls, to weapons and armor has that level of detail. It usually is equal in length to the key of all the rooms.

      The key to what I’m saying is that my maps are designed. Evan’s map looks like a bunch of corridors and rooms, whereas, for example the rotating death trap known as the Chambers of Freya has two rooms that are identical to confuse mappers. The maps are deliberate and reflect specific experiences I desire players to experience in play, much like levels designed for video games. They are set up to require magic user keys (certain spells) expert abilities, and to challenge the players abilities directly, but in a naturalistic way.

      I know how this sounds (and certainly know how I’m perceived on my blog) but I really believe I’m doing something superlative with Numenhalla. Of course the proof is in the soon to be openly tasted pudding.

    4. Brendan

      Yeah, I got that you were comparing your style to Evan’s. To me, your set design style looks far more hierarchical though (X -> Y -> Z, where you get told about Y only if you investigate X). Evan’s is more description + monsters + treasure.

      Regarding treasure detail, my assumption was that you would want to hide important details within interesting but unimportant details (in the same way that you use “nothing” results in dungeon rooms). I will also point out that many of my treasures are more detailed than a box of coins, but rarely more than two or three adjectives. In my experience, unless a description is particularly “metal” it often does not leave much impression.

      Here’s another treasure example:

      Flanked on either side by huge skeletons. Skulls have been replaced with skulls of the rare six horned stag (250 GP each).

      I am really looking forward to seeing Numenhalla, both as a player (assuming schedules work out) and as published.

    5. -C

      It is hierarchical because it is the order in which the information is given to the players, if that wasn’t clear.

      Oh, you are correct. That is also true. I don’t give out the +1 information. But there is a specific skill subsystem/mini-game to handle that information.

    6. Brendan

      Another question. Regarding, keys/locks, you know I like this formulation for thinking about abilities and spells. However, would a party of only fighters have a chance in Numenhalla, or do you really need magic-users and experts? Or, to put it another way, is your conception of locks strong or weak?

    7. -C

      I use the lockpicking minigame! (Rake/Bump/Probe/Undulate) Any class can try! Wizards get knock. Experts get bonus free guesses that are level based.

      Also, anyone can learn the devices skill to unjam pins!

    1. Brendan

      Those rats actually led to the adventuring company name in my current game. The PCs had pressed a captured bandit into retainer service in exchange for his life, and then that bandit was promptly eviscerated by the rats. The bandit’s name was Gavin, and from then on the party was known as the Company of Gavin in honor of that first fatality.

    2. Gus L

      Nice to see these areas from the GM prospective. That was Louvratar’s villa huh? Interesting. The whole underground city aspect of Pahvelorn’s 1st area a wonderful concept and really makes for fun 3d play.

      As to descriptions I can’t help but wonder if your sparse descriptions are so because the larger faction/monster and story elements of pahvelorn are strong.


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