Exploring a Dungeon’s Atmosphere

As I wrote up the “Wolves in the Walls” article about crafting dungeons, I realized I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about next. I’d covered ceilings, floors, and walls. A year ago I wrote about staircases. And I have an entire book about doors. What was left?

Turns out, there’s quite a bit. And I have to thank my friend Mike for pointing that out. 🙂 When I asked what else he might suggest, he said the word “air.” And when I asked him to clarify he said – “is it musty? dry? funky? would it kill a canary? is there a draft?” We explored further, considering sounds in the air like dripping water or the grinding of stone on stone echoing throughout the halls.

So let’s talk about atmosphere. It’s an overloaded word, so let’s define it first. We already know it as the “envelope of gases surrounding the planet.” Without it, I would have a harder time breathing while I type this at my keyboard. But in this case, I’m more interested in the definition as it pertains to drama or art – “the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or work of art.” Consider it the ambiance or feeling of a space for now. But we’ll also add the idea of sensory perception to that mix. We experience the world around us through our senses, so wouldn’t our characters?

Who knows what lurks in The Mist?

Who knows what lurks in The Mist?

Exploring a dungeon can be a dark, dank venture into parts unknown. Usually as a GM once we’ve established what light sources the PCs have at their disposal (and active), I dispense with the pretense and go on as I’ve always done… “You see ahead a long corridor of stone, roughly 10 feet high and 10 feet across. How do you proceed?” Maybe there are traps or doors or lurkers in the dark waiting to attack, but we usually focus less on the experience our PCs are sharing than the mechanics of dungeon exploration in a role-playing game.

I propose that we change that. Let’s add back in those little intangible touches as our PCs dive deeper into danger. Perhaps they smell the scent of fresh blood or the lingering odor of decay. Or they hear a howl, growl, or conversation echoing from up ahead. Maybe they can feel the humidity on their skin or the rising temperature beneath their feet. Does a sudden rush of wind extinguish their torches, leaving them in complete darkness? Or do they see the tiniest reflection of light on metal from the weapons of those lying in wait?

In most modern RPGs, our characters have the concept of a “Perception” score or check. Do they notice the world around them or head forward only paying attention to the “Standard Operating Procedure” or “SOP” they follow to keep them alive? (Detect Traps, Detect Secret Doors, “Taking 10”, checking the door for traps, checking to see if the door is locked, Listen Check, etc.) I think sometimes we slip into the routine to such a degree that we rely on roll-playing to save our characters’ butts when we can do much more role-playing to achieve the same result. I know I’m guilty of this as a character and a GM at times.

The next time your PCs turn a corner, open a door, or enter a new dungeon, why not try this? Add some atmosphere. Let your players interpret and freak out. Perhaps it’s a premonition. Perhaps it’s nothing. But either way, the paranoia will rise a bit.

Need some inspiration? Roll a d20 on the following table and let me know what your players do!

20 Random Things Your Characters Experience (d20)

  1. The scrape of metal on stone echoes.
  2. You catch a whiff of wet hair.
  3. The tinkle of coins hitting the stone floor beckons.
  4. A growl reverberates around you.
  5. The solid click of a door lock pierces the silence.
  6. A creaky door hinge squeals.
  7. You feel a rumble as something clatters to the floor.
  8. A sudden rush of wind makes your torches dance.
  9. The gurgle of water adds to the noises surrounding you.
  10. You are overwhelmed by the sweet scent of decay.
  11. A door slams.
  12. A sudden chill sweeps through you.
  13. You note the rising temperature of the air around you.
  14. A dampness in the air threatens to snuff your torches.
  15. The clink of chains rattles down the hall.
  16. A stomp of feet not your own echoes in the darkness.
  17. A wet smacking of lips punctuates the silence.
  18. A thick, cold mist rolls from nowhere around your feet.
  19. Low, muffled whispers echo from the distance.
  20. The scent of smoke grows heavy in the air.

I think all of those would raise my blood pressure if I was playing a PC in a dungeon!

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2 thoughts on “Exploring a Dungeon’s Atmosphere”

  1. The more description the better as long as it is not so much that it takes the players in too many directions away from the plot. Sometimes players take too much description as thinking something is more important than it really is.

    1. @Keith – That’s a good point. And I would say that “Everything in Moderation” has to be the key. If things are getting “boring” in a campaign, inject some life with a bit of atmosphere. Maybe it’s getting a bit tried-and-true and you need to shake things up, add some detail. If you do it too much, you definitely run the risk of it becoming just another factor we all ignore. But sometimes those random elements can lead you to new and interesting ideas during a game session or during game prep that you wouldn’t have explored before.

      As for players taking description as too much, I would counter that it’s their game. As GM, you know things they don’t and can see how pieces come together but they are always going to key in on things THEY think are the most important – and some of those may be red herrings. I think that’s ok. You want them to be engaged, even if they’re engaged sometimes on the wrong things from time to time.

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