Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Giving scale & directions

DM: "You are in a chamber about 30' across to the south and 30' wide east and west. There are 10' wide passages to the left and right and ahead, each in the center of their respective walls. The stairway you descended likewise enters the chamber in the center of the north wall.
-- Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master's Guide, pg 97.

Why cardinal directions? Why give directions by the compass anyway? "The room has a door to the north, and a corridor branching off it to the east by southeast." What? How do we even know? In GURPS, a character with Absolute Direction will always know which was is north. But otherwise? But in the early D&D stuff I grew up with, of course you knew. All directions are given by compass points or by relative direction and compass point.

Somewhere along the line - probably around when I started to run GURPS - I stopped doing this. I started to get vague. No more "You enter a 30' by 30' room with a 15' ceiling through the arch in the east wall and doors to the north and south" and a lot more "You see a roughly 30' square room with a tall ceiling, and doors to your left and right." Or "it's about a dozen yards in either direction, and the ceiling is about half that high, maybe lower. There is a door in the center of the wall to your left and to your right."

I think this approach has some advantages and disadvantages:


This allows for more natural confusions and getting lost. Always describe it as they see it, not how it relates to the world.

This allows for dungeons that don't orient on the cardinal north. You don't need graph paper or map orientations (unless someone can tell north). It's all relative.

It makes for simpler descriptions, too.

It rewards asking questions and checking the facts in game. Suspect the walls don't quite match up with upstairs? Measure, and maybe there is a secret closet there.


It's harder to confuse people with mis-direction magic or traps that make "south" seem "north" and vice-versa, such as you find in one Basic Set module I'll leave unnamed. Left is just left.

If you get people who obsess over map accuracy, they're going to pace out rooms and measure walls and all of that, and slow down the game when it's not actually useful to do all of this.

You can end up making the same vague statements of size all the time, so the players always know that "About 10'" means 10', or "roughly 10 yards on a side" means 30' x 30'.

For all of that, though, I prefer to give relative directions. It just feels more right to me - gives me more of a feeling of verisimilitude.

How do you give directions?

And how specific are you with sizes?


  1. I definitely use directions like left, right, across.

    "As you enter the door, the room goes 10' to the left and 20' to the right from the door making a 40' wall. The room is 40' x 30'" - I always give the size of the entrance wall first, then the side walls - "and there is a door in the wall across from you, in the far right corner".

  2. Of course, "about 10'" could be 9' or 11'. I know that I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference in real life w/o measuring!

  3. We have the convenience of using a large battle mat. This allows the players to see the dimensions of the room and frees me up from having to give specific dimensions. "You enter an immense domed chamber, it is almost as tall as it is wide..." etc etc

  4. It depends. In GURPS, I'd be more vague, since there are advantages and skills that only come into their own if you do that. In D&D, I think that more exact numbers work just fine, with the assumption being that PCs are practiced at eyeballing distances.

  5. I've been oscillating between the two.

    Left/right has more verisimilitude, but causes more confusion -- and while mapping mistakes can and should happen, getting thing so wrong as to draw the doorway on the wrong side of the room seems a bit silly.

    Also, classic explorations speed is definitely slow enough for a fair bit of accuracy.

    1. @Beedo: Oh good, it's not just me. :)

      @Ben Thul: Yeah, and I figure the actual room size isn't exactly 10 x 10, either. If it is, I figure that's worth a distinct mention. If all dungeons are really 10 wide by 10 tall corridors, exact sizes, then the only odd thing about a dwarven hallway or a space station walkway is the color of the walls.

      @Matt: I put down a map, too, if there is a fight, so the size gets to be pretty obvious. But during actual mapping, I'm vague.

      @faodladh: I'd do this regardless of the system, though. In D&D, it's still left and right if I run it. Same with Rolemaster, GURPS, whatever, in any genre.

      @rpgist: Left/right has more verisimilitude, but causes more confusion -- and while mapping mistakes can and should happen, getting thing so wrong as to draw the doorway on the wrong side of the room seems a bit silly.

      Well, obviously you can correct their errors - and "a door in the south wall" is tricky if the person mis-hears or misunderstands.

    2. Oh, left and right, ahead and behind, and so on, sure. I was thinking more about estimated distances.

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  7. For dungeon mapping, I tend to give N/S/E/W directions and distances rounded to five or ten feet. Reasons:

    1) In general, I tend to give out a bit more detailed information than PCs might actually have by way of compensating for the fact that the players have to rely on my sketches and verbal descriptions. That is, they may get more of certain kinds of information from me because they get less of the kinds of information they would have if they were actually there.

    2. As rpgist mentioned, dungeon exploration tends to go slowly enough that the characters can usually figure this sort of thing out.

    3. Among the people I play with, at least one or two PCs in a group is likely to have Navigation or some similar skill, so if I were inclined to make an issue of it ("Ha HA! You thought you were heading north, but you're actually heading north by northwest!!!"), they'd have the abilities to back it up anyway, and I'd prefer to get on with hitting things and looting shiny objects than quibbling about details of navigation.

    That said, I'm likely to be more vague when it comes to long-distance travel, where there's less of that visceral feel of distances limited by walls and where being off by a few degrees or a few percentage points of a distance has a more meaningful impact.

    1. I can see that. I generally assume that they're not taking their time and measuring distances, or checking map directions or compass points unless they say so. If they do, that's fine, they walk more slowly and make a roll.

      I figure that actually rewards the skills and attention more - take the time, pay attention, get more specifics. This may be why the Barbarian keeps putting points in Survival and Navigation and such, actually - he keeps rolling it.

  8. I've not run much in the way of dungeon crawls. One of the few times I did the party mapper wound up drawing the dungeon as an enantiomer of the actual dungeon; the exact mirror image.


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