The Room 110 problem.

A little while ago, I was flipping through my copy of the Temple of Elemental Evil, and a room caught my eye. It was a block of detailed read aloud text and a single sentence of information for the DM. It broke the standard pattern for a room description in the module, Read aloud text followed by a huge block of description of what is in the room and why, so I stopped and read it. “Nothing of any use or value remains here.” That is perhaps the shortest description Gygax ever wrote.
I am a little surprised that he didn’t stick a 6000gp tea set in the room, given their ubiquity in the module. It does illustrate one of the problems of naturalism, Gygaxian or otherwise. Gaming is a complicated action that takes place in a limited time frame. You don’t want to clutter that up your headspace, take up your play time, or risk your players becoming enraptured and obsessed with the mundane and pointless dressings of your scene. They will anyway, but let’s not encourage it. If there is nothing of use or interest, leave it out. Is a fight pointless? Get rid of it. Is a bit of cryptic text a red herring? The real clues will steer your players off in the wrong direction often enough. That table of random encounters? Trash. The room with nothing of any use or value? Don’t include it. Your gaming time is too short, your head is full of the things that are actually important, and your players are ready and willing to fixate on the single first mundane bit of description you toss their way. Keep your design simple, the better to improvise while running the game.

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  1. Is your implication is that room 110 is inherently flawed and that the module would be better if it was omitted? If so, are you just saying that as a cute example, perhaps overstating the case against room 110 as a lead in to your argument for simplicity? Because I think 110 and random encounter tables serve important and positive purposes. I’d be happy to discuss it, but I want to make sure I’m not arguing against a straw man of your actual beliefs on them matter.

  2. roninkakuhito

     /  January 17, 2011

    I think that when you start including areas with no purpose other than (possibly) authenticity, it is time to pare back your design a bit. While realism is nice, time and attention are both limited resources in a game session. You can spend those resources on additional areas with no baring on the game other than proving authenticity, or you can tighten up your work in the otherwise useful regions of the adventure to do the same job.

    As for random encounter tables, I generally prefer to have several optional encounters that I can use when they are thematically or dramatically appropriate. If you absolutely must, you can roll a die to keep people happy, but unexpected does not have to be the same as random. As a GM, I find it better to give myself a few loose encounter frameworks as an aid to improvisation rather than rolling on a table in the place of improvisation.

  3. Why have “useless” rooms, like 110? (Sadly my own copy of the Temple appears to be MIA, so can’t check that specific room.)

    – Authenticity. Not just from an anal-retentive point of view, but from a “this is or was a functioning space” point of view, potentially allowing the players to predict who or what will be nearby. If it’s abandoned, it suggests a location where they can recuperate in piece. It may serve as a place to set up an ambush. It also makes a place more believable because it isn’t all mashed together in an amazingly coincidentally tightly crafted shape. Real living spaces aren’t generally optimized that much. Dungeons where every room is noteworthy in some way can grow tedious and implausible.

    – Down time. Players need regular down time to contrast the excitement of fights. Puttering around a quiet room examining the objects provides that down time. Of course, it doesn’t remove the tension, maybe someone will wander in and discover them. Maybe something seemingly harmless will surprise them. Maybe they’ll get luck and find something of value that was lost long ago.

    – Spacing. Sometimes you just want a dungeon to feel big without feeling bloated with encounters. Empty rooms fill the job. Furthermore, the empty rooms provide a bit of padding around encounters. If nearly every room is inhabited, you would reasonably expect the first encounter to alert everyone and everything in the dungeon. Spacing around the rooms makes it more believable that and extended response would be slower or fail to appear at all.

    Generally speaking, I don’t find regular empty rooms to be that much of a time sink, and I think they pay off in authenticity, down time, and spacing.

    As for random encounters, that’s a complex one. Arguments have been that they’re a great way to add authenticity. That is, of course, nonsense. At best it’s a phenomenally crude tool for the task. A timeline showing how dungeon inhabitants move about is a far better tool. But what a random encounter table does add is surprise, surprise for everyone. The players cannot become complacent because monsters or static or are moving on very fixed schedules. The players can’t assume that they’ll be attacked only when it’s thematically or dramatically appropriate. The GM is forced to improvise with a particular situation they may never have envisioned, allowing the game to go in unexpected directions. Of course, all of these things are really about old-school play, where the game is about survival and pesky things like theme and dramatic cohesion aren’t valued. Were I to go on a serious authenticity kick, I would probably couple some randomization with a timeline. “Every day at 7:30 Bob goes from him room to the guard tower.” Then the random encounter table would have things like “Bob slept in late.” Roll a handful a day to keep the schedule from getting too implausible.

  4. Alan De Smet

     /  January 19, 2011

    Interesting coincidental post:
    The key bit:

    1. Tension is the mode. As Tavis noted, the generally empty nature of the dungeon causes an interesting tension to build. Empty… Empty… Empty… Empty… Screaming, confusion, blood, fire.

  5. roninkakuhito

     /  January 27, 2011

    “Doesn’t have an encounter” isn’t the same as empty. The ToEE is full of rooms that fill all of those purposes. None of them are listed as containing noting of use or value. There are dozens of rooms where nothing dangerous waits, and that’s as it should be, but this particular room was one of several that served the exact same purpose in the area. Safe places to rest were generally listed as such, and if this room had been one, that would have been something of use or value. (admittedly, I m glad that they did not put in their standard place holder, the multiple thousand gold piece silver tea set. ) Just like no one piece of information/event (save perhaps the finale) should be essential to to the completion of an adventure, every part of the adventure should have something that can, if the players choose to pay attention to it, move the adventure forward.

    None of the stuff that random encounters do can’t be done as well by an on the ball GM. One could definately incorporate Mouseguard style Success:Failure:Complication modes into a game and do the same thing, and I think perhaps do so in a more satisfying manner. Esp in a game like 4th ed that is so (comparatively) easy to make stuff on the fly for. I will say that I like to run my games on a minimal skeleton. Here’s a dozen potential encounters, here is a physical location, I’d like to see x, y, and z happen. Let’s go. It comes from running Amber I think, well and losing a binder with a painfully detailed campaign setting once way back when.


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