John-Michael Gariepy

The Random Dungeon: Room Zero and The Theme

In my Previous post on Room Negative One,  I argued that you should Dungeon Master your game as if the world outside the dungeon is as exciting a place as the dungeon itself. ‘Dangerous dungeons do not exist in a vacuum,’ I implied, ‘and the players should be harried at every turn when approaching their destination.’  Now I’m going to argue the exact opposite.

Room Zero represents the first room upon entering the dungeon.  In many ways, it may be the most important room out of the one hundred or so rooms that your players explore.  That’s because the first room will frame the rest of the dungeon.  Players will subsume what to expect based upon what they see, or don’t see in this room.  If your players see an empty room with four doors, they can assume that your dungeon will be sparse, low on detail playground for a series of miniatures combat scenarios.  If, however, the first room they encounter is rich with details – from the mutilated bodies of dead orcs on the ground, to the cryptic runes etched into the wall, to the more crude taunts from one goblin tribe to another scratched below that – then your players are going to assume that your dungeon has a lot of important intricate details in it and they will advance appropriately.

You can do a lot with player expectations.  You can play against them, luring them into a false sense of security, or trick them into trusting in the wrong non-player characters, with some well-timed false clues.  You need to be careful when doing this, though.  If you subvert a player’s mental process too often, you’re inviting them to stop thinking about the consequences of their actions.  After all, if nothing follows its logical progression in your game, then its best to take everything at the point of a sword.  Just smash everyone or everything.  It’s probably a monster or a trap.

More often, you should seek to justify your player’s expectations.  Just like Chekov’s Gun, if your party sees evidence of orcs in the dungeon in the first chapter of your journey, then they should attacked by orcs in the second or third chapter.  “If it’s not going to be fired,” instructs Chekov, “It shouldn’t be hanging there.”  Playing within the realm of player’s expectations is a rewarding experience, even if it sounds counter-intuitive.  Giving your players what they expect, after all, doesn’t sound imaginative.  But finding a way to reward your player’s insights, while maintaining an engaging plot, is a very imaginative task, indeed.  Anyone can perform the unexpected.  Performing the expected, and maintaining excitement, is an earmark of good story-telling.

In this spirit, you should let your players have Room Zero, the first room of the dungeon, as a room to acclimate themselves, group and prepare themselves for what they will encounter.  You should do this because most players will expect it to happen, since this is what happens in many published adventures.  It’s ‘normal’, and the more normality there is in your game, the more willing the players will be to accept the fantastic, later.

But this does not mean you should draw a quick shape with a few doors and call it a day.  Room Zero is your first, and sometimes only, chance to engage the players.  Make certain to leave hints to what will come, so that when your players do encounter those things, the puzzle will feel like it clicked together.

To give you a push in the right direction, I’ve included a random chart for things you might find in Room Zero.  Roll randomly, choose one, or just make something up inspired by one of these options.  Roll multiple times if you wish.  I left the details vague, intending for the individual Dungeon Master to play off of the entries.  If you roll, for example, ‘blood’, don’t just say “You enter the dungeon.  There’s blood on the wall.”  If the players don’t ask any follow up questions to that, you’re wasting your time.  Explain the quantity of the blood, where it’s located, and hint who it might have belonged to.  Is it a trail of blood that leads down a corridor?  Or does it look like a group of kobolds were using the blood as finger paint?  A little bit of creativity with the theme, here, can instruct an entire dungeon.

01 – Blood
02 – Water
03 – Tools
04 – Corpses
05 – Runes
06 – Graffiti
07 – Icons
08 – Trash
09 – Furniture
10 – Camp
11 – Ashes
12 – Weapons/Armor
13 – Bones
14 – Cobwebs
15 – Fissures
16 – Pottery
17 – Crates
18 – Fungi
19 – Vermin
20 – Insects
21 – Bats
22 – Pets
23 – Bell/Gong
24 – Machinary
25 – Spare parts
26 – Light
27 – Art
28 – Statues
29 – Chains
30 – Fount
31 – Shrine
32 – Kegs
33 –  Clothing
34 – Tanks/Tubs
35 – Books
36 – Offal
37 – Crystals
38 – Vines
39 – Earth
40 – Stonework
41 – Wood
42 – Architecture
43 – Grates
44 – Pillars
45 – Illusions
46 – Mirrors
47 – Communication
48 – Murals
49 – Mumbling
50 – Distant screams
51 – Sounds of fighting
52 – Laughing
53 – Ringing
54 – Footfalls
55 – Music
56 – Scuttling
57 – Squeals
58 – Activating
59 – Groaning
60 – Howling
61 – Grinding
62 – Hum
63 – Breeze
64 – Cold
65 – Hot
66 – Rumbling
67 – Gaseous
68 – Quivering
69 – Tilting
70 – Warped
71 – Crumbling
72 – Bogged
73 – Mold
74 – Musk
75 – Ozone
76 – Rot
77 – Waste
78 – Smoky
79 – Spices
80 – Alcohol
81 – Incense
82 – Pickled
83 – Sludge
84 – Mud
85 – Sand
86 – Ice
87 – Slick
88 – Hair
89 – Leather
90 – Tar
91 – Grease
92 – Shells
93 – Metal shavings/Sawdust
94 – Blasted
95 – Worn
96 – Tracks
97 – Vaulted
98 – Cramped
99 – Grooved
100 – Unnatural

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