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I have never run a dungeon crawl before, such as the one linked here. How do you tell the players what they see? Some examples from older ROG books I have have description in the form of "You come to a passageway, 5 feet wide and extending about 30 feet long, before it ends at a wall with a door set in it" but some of the shapes of the rooms defy simple description.

What sort of visual aids or techniques can I use to 1) show the layout of each passageway and room and 2) run combat inside a dungeon crawl where players can virtually "go anywhere?". I'm using 13th Age, which does not use a grid but measure distances with abstract range bands. But this is just for context, it is not a 13th Age question.

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Switched this from a 13th Age to a system agnostic question at OP's request, though that may not be the best thing to do (see Should I use a narrow system tag, or go broad if possible and use system-agnostic?). – mxyzplk Jul 15 '13 at 18:02
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Use "napkin" sketches.

These are simple and rough sketches--the kind you'd scribble on a napkin with a pen to illustrate a point. They give a sense of shape and the relationship of locations to each other, but make no claim to accurate detail or scale.

You could even draw each room and hall separately, then draw lines to show where they connect to each other.

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You, as the GM, have a clear view of the world. The characters will not, so neither should the players. Describe things using different vocabulary. There are lists of things you can find or just use a thesaurus.

You should try to use as many as the senses as possible to describe things. How does it smell? How does the floor feels under your feet? How cold is it? What are the air currents? Distances are weird in the dark, by a limited light source. Shapes, shadows, and tricks of the mind will make you see things that are not there. Bright lights will let you see clear things close by and will plunge the rest into darkness. Oh, and your enemies will see the light well before you get to see them.

Sometimes, let the players' mind fill the gaps in your descriptions -- many authors use said technique to make their world more vivid. Let the players describe their actions and if it makes sense, have the background shift so that it fill the need for the action to succeed. That door has hinges on this side, or there is a slop in the floor, or a smallish alcove in the wall. The wetness of the wall can be used to enhance a spell.

For example:

Worst: Here is a map. [hands over a piece of paper with doodles on...]

Bad: You open the door. There is a dark corridor 10 yard long finishing in a door.

Better: As the door creeks, stale air hit your nostrils. As you strain to move the door against rusty hinges, a passes gets revealed. Stale and cold pools of water lay on an uneven floor, somewhere some water drips down from the ceiling. The door jams before being fully open, jarring your arms and making a loud noise. At least, silence engulf you only marked by the regular drips, some where off. As you strain your eyes against the darkness, you see another door. Your eyes catch the glitter of light on brass fixing... What are you doing?

On the other hand, if you play a tactical board game, just draw the map and use miniatures/counters... meh. Okay, "no room" is a little strong. It is always possible to enhance a game with descriptions. Just as it is possible to write clear C code. However, it is harder to get a sense of chaos, of the unknown, and an oppressive atmosphere if you know with iron clad certainty where the enemy is, how big the room is, and every other details that a battle map provides you. Tactical board game can be played as roll playing games but the rules and set up does not promote role playing. So, no room, of course not. Mode difficult and maybe counter productive yes.

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I'm not sure what you mean by your last sentence. Are you implying that there is no room for the kind of description you give if the game uses a battlemat and miniatures? If so I would strongly argue that this is not the case. – Wibbs Jun 20 '13 at 12:15
May I suggest you edit that last sentence then to indicate that it is harder but not impossible? At the moment if feels really dismissive of a whole raft of RPG systems that people play and successfully include vivid descriptions in, myself included. – Wibbs Jun 20 '13 at 13:27
@Phil: Done. Thank you for your feedback. Clearly, I did not intent to offend you, or anyone else. My apologies if it read that way. – Sardathrion Jun 20 '13 at 14:01
@Phil The issue described is not the impossibility of vivid description, it's the inutility of vivid description to create a fog of war, or a sense of place that overrides the battle map's more precise sense of space. – SevenSidedDie Jul 14 '13 at 17:35

Sardathrion's answer is excellent. I'll just expand one bit, which is the point about "shapes, shadows, and tricks of the mind."

If you think about it tactically, entering a dungeon is about as close to suicidal as you can get. Your opponents know the landscape intimately, while you have at best some probably inaccurate map to guide you. Your opponents likely can maneuver in the dark better than most of your party can. If they have even the most rudimentary intelligence, they've set up all sorts of nasty surprises for intruders.

Dungeon raiders know all of this. Even the most reckless and brave of them have heard tales of stout adventurers who have perished on dungeon expeditions. So they will be nervous. They will be vigilant. They might not say it, but they will be afraid.

Play that up in your descriptions. Bring that fear to life. "There's an outcropping about ten feet up the far wall. Is it natural or is it an alcove? You'll have to get closer to find out." You can use this sort of ambiguity to get them to slow down and be careful, but it can also be useful in cases where their suspicions turn out to be nothing. After a time they might let down their guard. "Look, the last three times we thought there was something hiding up in the stalactites and there was nothing. Let's just blast through. See, I told you there was nothing to worr... oh, no!!!"

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We almost always use battle mats and figures. But because the mat has grid lines, the players' maps are much more accurate than they should be. Do PC's bring tape rulers into the dungeon?

One time, when I was playing via chat (so no battle mat), the PCs were exploring a troll cave with no straight passages or rectangular rooms of any kind. I would say things like, "you see a passage that's between 40 to 50 ft long, but it curves to the right near the end." The resulting player map looked nothing like mine. The session took longer than it would have with a battle mat, but the added confusion really added to their sense of fear.

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