Monday, November 19, 2018

How to describe caves, caverns and irregular tunnels?

One thing I struggle with as a GM is my vocabulary of dungeon description. This is especially true when it comes to irregular areas.

Take a cavern area like this:

How do I describe that? (And those circles with dots in the middle are columns - floor to ceiling pillars of stone.

Try it from A, B, or C. Or all three.

When I do, what the players put down on the map - or how they describe their placement on the eventual hexmap for a fight - is at best kind-of close. Most of the time it's way, way off. Yet for actual delvers in those situations, it should be much clearer what they see even if the size and orientation to other areas is not.

My own style comes with two inherent complications:

No Compass Directions. I use relative orientation - "it opens out to your left" or "it's a dozen feet or so ahead of you as you face in from the cave mouth" - and not "North" or "Southeast."

Rough sizes - I give sizes in rough sizes, not specific. Not "ten feet" or "30 feet" but more like "3-4 yards" or "about 10 yards." And how far "about" is depends - I don't always count, I'll eyeball and estimate. A hallway 110' long might be 35 yards, 40 yards, or "a bit more than yards" depending on how I eyeball the map and choose my words.

Neither of those make it easier. But given linear hallways and flat-sized rooms, the players tend to nail the map pretty closely (or close enough to navigate from reliably.)

So I realize I do this poorly. Yet maps-are-life kind of gamers back in the day used to deal with this. How? What was the vocabulary and style used to explain caverns in a way that made it clear what you really see?

Folks who play online, with fog-of-war and maps in a VTT, I don't think you can help me here. You don't have to do what I'm struggling to do. But I'm not discouraging you from commenting . . . just know "show the players the map!" means a lot of maintaining multiple copies of the map and having to have them ready to show piecemeal to the players. It's easier to share snacks and harder to share maps face-to-face, I have found.


  1. The traditionalist answer here would probably be that any mapping difficulty is entirely by design. It's not for nothing that OD&D listed it as one of its example Tricks and Traps:
    >Natural passages and caverns which have varying width and direction, so that it is virtually impossible to accurately map such areas
    (Most of OD&D's tricks and traps are about complicating mapping, really, which has kind of fallen out of fashion.)

    With that in mind, what's important is probably giving rough lengths and widths. Entering from A or B you have roughly 3x3 squares "West", an exit on the opposing side, a 5x4ish area where A and the columns are, a 2x1 dead-end to the "North" and 4x3 to the "East". How to describe this can also depend on available lighting distance, whether those columns are thick enough that you could describe them as tight passages to someone who doesn't know the other side, and whether or not there's enough interesting stuff in there for detailed mapping to matter.

    If the room is empty, you can basically just describe it as 14x6 with columns in the middle and four exits - one to the north that runs north, two to the south-west that run south and south-west, respectively, and one to the south-east that runs south. Maybe include the dead-ends if you want them to act as red herrings for cautious mappers.

    If you want an actually accurate map, you probably need to walk them through it - so from A you have the straight wall to the right going three squares and on the left it goes 1sq left, 45 degree turn followed by 90 degree corner into thin passage, etc. etc. Answer as many questions as they ask, I suppose.
    This level of accuracy might not be necessary, though.

    1. Thanks for the comment, first off.

      It's important to note that I'm explicitly not looking to confuse mapping. I'm really looking for words that will describe what I intend the cavern to look like that conveys it understandably to the players.

      I'm a bit concerned that if I'm giving very explicit X blocks x Y blocks descriptions that I run two risks:

      - I'll need to change how I describe everything in the game, cavern or not, to maintain a consistent vocabulary;


      - It'll just be easier and more effective to map for them.

      The former is a problem as maintaining a consistent vocabulary actually helps me reach my goal. The latter is because the goal is to make mapping a player activity, not a GM activity. I'd like to help them visualize the location accurately, in the main, and then if they choose to map it let them do so based on the correct visualization.

    2. What I do is if the shape is weird (like your above cavern), I just rough sketch it out (small, no where near scale) and let them map it and apply the scale.

      But I've also have had groups where no on liked actually mapping so I'd map it for them, with Cartography rolls and creative mistakes on failures. ;)

  2. Follow in veins of the earth's footsteps and equate it to a better known thing- "a cathedral-like space", "a small cavern shaped like a vase, 20 feet high and 10 wide". that one in the example could be "a wide cavern shaped like a capsized ship, with a northerly and two southerly tunnels as exits".

    1. That's not a bad idea, but it does mean I'm going to need to find equivalents for every cavern area I've ever mapped, and hope the players understand the word choice so they can visualize the map the way I'm trying to describe.

  3. In AD&D the travel speed when mapping is so slow (6-12 feet per minute) that I always assumed time was spent pacing off the dimensions and mapping quite accurately. So it would be fair to say (and enough for general mapping) that it is an irregular cavern about 140 feet long and 60 feet wide, with two exits on one wall and another on the opposite wall (and where they are relative to where the party enters); a 25 feet deep alcove opposite entrance A; and four columns in the middle.

    For mapping purposes, it would be enough for them to draw a blob of the appropriate dimensions with the right number of exits going the right direction, and they would not really care where the pillars are.

    However, for combat purposes they need to know more, and the PCs (as opposed to the players) can actually see where cover is etc. So our DMs would often just trace their map, which was way faster than trying to describe the location of features orally.


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