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GM Advice: Empty Dungeon Rooms

Empty rooms are boring and a waste of space, right? Wrong.


(Art: William McAusland [Outland Arts])

Empty rooms are a vital part of dungeon design that have fallen out of fashion in recent years through the tyranny of falling page counts and increased space given to the crunchy bits of modules. I recently posted about crafting memorable dungeons, and including empty rooms for me is a vital part of the process.

But what do I mean by an empty room? An empty room is a location that does not contain foes to fight or traps to avoid. An empty room can, however, contain furniture, hidden secrets, interesting dungeon features and even treasure! Skilled players can learn a lot about a dungeon by poking around empty rooms.

So what’s cool about empty rooms? Why do dungeons need them? They:

  • Provide a Change of Pace: They provide a break from the constant grind of combat that often occurs in dungeon delving and allow players to catch their breath.

  • Enable Skill Checks: Such locations practically beg to be investigated. Perception checks, Knowledge checks and so on can all be used to learn more about the location. Canny players can use this information to their advantage. If, for example, the party explore an unoccupied barracks and note there are 20 bunk beds in the room, they get a good idea of the size of the garrison. That could be very useful information to have.

  • A Place To Rest: If the party are in need of rest, an empty room is the perfect place to hunker down for the night. An easily defensible, empty room or one that is remote from the main complex is even better.

  • Verisimilitude: Not every room in a dungeon should be stuffed full of villains waiting to be slain. Some rooms are used for storage, meeting, sleeping or ceremonial purposes. They won’t be all occupied all the time. If every room is occupied by foes it is very hard for the PCs to move through the dungeon without every denizen charging to the aid of their companions. Such a situation usually ends up in a very large, bloody and long-winded fight the PCs have no real chance of winning (and is probably crushingly boring).

  • Dressing: Empty rooms can be interesting places to poke about. They can contain interesting odds and ends that although not intrinsically valuable build on the flavour and style of the dungeon.

Of course, the principles listed above can be applied to any kind of adventure. Not every part of a forest, for example, is inhabited by wolves, evil fey, ferocious boars and so on. Building empty space into your adventures benefits both you and the players.

Did I miss anything? Do you include empty rooms in your dungeons for other reasons? Tell me what they are in the comments below.

(And remember, this article – and all of Raging Swan’s advice articles are available as a handy free download from Raging Swan Press’s Article page).

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empty space

I think this article is especially true with regard 4th ed. where there is such a focus on combat encounters. Empty rooms in 4e really throw players a curve.

Well, if there is something to notice in the room, it's not empty. Just unoccupied.

Really empty rooms still are boring.

Perhaps I should have been clearer in what I meant my an empty room. Sorry about that! I was really talking about rooms in which no combat takes place. One of the things I loved about the 1st Edition modules was the wealth of detail in many of the rooms the PCs could visit - The Temple of Elemental Evil is a great example of this.

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