Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Secret Door Tell

I don’t like blocked text.
I prefer really sparse descriptions for room text.
Just let me improvise.

These seem to be common refrains out here on the interwebs.  I don't mind improvising adventures, characters, plots, but I struggle with improvising dungeons well.  For instance, take the ubiquitous secret door:

The room is mostly empty, except for a door directly across from the way you entered.  Unlike the last empty room you entered, this one has a torch sconce on the right hand wall.

The map indicates there's a secret door in the room - I see that, and need to decide whether there's a tricky way to get it to open.  How often do you quickly improvise a unique way to open the secret door, and then introduce that element into your room description at the table?  Or do you just describe it as an empty room, and if the players happen to search the right-hand wall and find the secret door, their roll to find it includes finding the way to open it?  Or do they have to mess with the sconce?

If you add a clever way to open each secret door (like the moose head on the wall, or the sconce) you just telegraphed to the players to fiddle with the moose head.  If you just rely on a secret door roll... yawn.  Might as well play 3x or 4E and use spot checks.  Ostensibly, the paradigm of old school play shifts these types of problems to player skill, but that requires detailed DM descriptions to allow the players to push knobs and levers in the environment.

I'm finding that detailed room descriptions with lots of things to interact are the exact opposite of ultra sparse descriptors- and 33% of the dungeon are empty rooms.  There's an appeal to sparse dungeon keys and stripped down maps that requires a lot of DM improvisation.  My favorite old school experiences have been when the rooms are detailed enough that even empty rooms have something interesting to do in them, and this avoids telegraphing hidden treasures and secret doors.  I'm using secret doors as an easy example, but is really just the start of a larger conversation about improvisation versus pre-scripted content, and the level of detail (or lack thereof) in the two styles.

At this point, I'm just looking for recommendations from fellow DMs - how do you handle empty rooms, dungeon dressing, secret doors and sparse details in your own games?  I'll consider rephrasing this as a poll, later, but am interested in hearing how folks handle improvising the minutia.  I've seen some random tables on dungeon dressing and secret doors but would love to get shout outs to your favorites.  And empty rooms and empty hexes might as well be interchangeable.

If this were a poll, these are the types of answers I might foresee:

a. I develop some notes for empty rooms, traps and secret doors ahead of time (random tables or not).
b. I generate details during the game with tables.
c. I Improvise details for empty rooms and secret doors on the spot .
d. Empty rooms are empty rooms and secret doors are found with a die roll.