After having read several great articles on Mike Shea’s blog , I picked up his book The Lazy Dungeon Master . It’s a fast read, and worth the $5.99 asking price, (It’s around 60 pages and mostly about common things DMs spend a lot of time prepping that they don’t need to and how to streamline them, supported by a pretty cool survey he collected about DMing.) In his book, Mike talks about the minimal level of prep required for locations and gives (among others) this example location:
The Saltmines: Former center for the town’s industry, now closed down when they found a dark power buried deep within. Leads from Yellowtop to Ashland Fortress.
What the book doesn’t discuss, and what I was curious about, is how exactly, using Mike’s “lazy” method, one goes about mapping and populating a location like this that has the potential to be the proverbial “twisty little passages, all alike “. So, I emailed Mike and asked how he handled that type of location. He very quickly got back to me and I asked for his permission to share here. Here’s an excerpt: (Link to his product is mine, not his):
On the Lazy Dungeon Master and maps.
If the characters are going to explore a dungeon-type setting, I’ll usually try to steal and reskin a map to fit the situation. Either that or I’ll sketch a very rough stick-figure map that shows how locations are connected.
Since writing the Lazy Game Master I focused a fair bit of time on the idea of building “fantastic locations”. These are the interesting places that characters discover in their journeys and can be connected by various caves, tunnels, or passages. To me, the overall dungeon isn’t as interesting as the individual interesting locations in that dungeon so I tend not to let them get too complicated.
… There might be five fantastic locations in the cove interconnected by natural water-carved caves. Each location will have a name and three interesting traits (or “aspects”) that the characters can investigate or use if there’s a battle. Here are some examples:
- The Tentacle Pillars: Huge stone tentacles that appear to pierce out of the ground; sinkhole that leads into the tunnels below; old octopus statue sitting on a pedestal that appears very old.
- The Weeping Caverns: Stone caverns eaten away by streams of saltwater; carvings of strange symbols on the walls; illuminated shells of phosphorescent mollusks.
- The Nursery: Submerged oily pool filled with psychic baby octopuses; large channeling crystal piercing down from the ceiling; chained screaming madman on the wall.
Those three come to mind but its early and I can’t think of three more at the moment. Hopefully you get the idea =)
If you poke around on Sly Flourish for more discussions of Fantastic Locations you’ll find more about it including the book of 20 locations  I wrote around these ideas.
Hope that answers your questions. …
The two approaches that Mike offers are good ones: swipe a map from elsewhere, or reduce a big complicated complex to a five room dungeon with “you travel east for a while, through a maze of tunnels until you come across . . . “. I don’t have much to say about the first one, except to point everyone to my favorite site for random dungeon generators . But the second suggestion about reducing a big complex to a five room dungeon with handwavey bits between rooms has made me think quite a bit.
You see, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up my twisty mazes full of empty rooms, red herrings, and minor treasures just yet.
Maybe it’s nostalgia for the afternoons of lonely fun  (which I have just amusingly learned is now called a game’s “solitaire component “) and gold box CRPGS , maybe it’s just me perpetuating the same skinner boxes of my youth where poking into nooks and crannies of maze like passages eventually resulted in a handful of GP until they could be traded in for a new breastplate, but to me half the fun of RPGs is skulking down damp passageways, ransacking moldering garbage heaps and searching areas where the map is weird in hopes of finding secret doors.
Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between the two. In one of his “MegaDungeon Monday” articles , The Angry GM discusses the “encounter space” which by his definition is a piece of the dungeon in which all inhabitants work as a unit. So if you have the stacks of a great library with study cubbies and there’s a wight in the stacks and skeletons in the cubbies, but engaging with the wight will alert the skeletons and they will open the cubby doors and surround the PCs, that’s an encounter area.
This middle ground definition allows for a bit of both worlds. You can create just a handful of encounter areas, each with something interesting in it, but you still get the nooks and crannies to explore, because each encounter area (most anyway) is comprised of a handful of rooms, some of which are interesting, some of which are not, some of which hold secrets and treasure, some of which don’t etc . . .
But, how much exploring and poking about in otherwise uninteresting space to do is really a secondary concern. Because the trivial answer is that you should do only as much of it as is interesting. Uninteresting exploration of uninteresting space is a waste of time and should be avoided. I have indeed played in games where no one did much exploring and if there was space that wasn’t an active encounter, paused only long enough to say: “I loot the room.”, toss off a search check, and move on. It may just be selective memory, but the reason for this was that exploration in these games was boring. Rooms were just a collection of squares, sometimes from a battle map, tiles, or a software program, description was minimal and there was the feeling that if a room contained a statue or a desk it was because it was filler, not because it may have been something interesting to interact with.
So the bigger question is, how do you make exploration interesting, even of areas that aren’t inherently interesting themselves? While I don’t claim to be an expert, there are a few tips I can give:
- Grid maps are counter productive: Grid maps are great for combat, but shitty for exploration gameplay, which is good because it implies that there’s not a lot of reason to painstakingly map areas that you want players to explore, only combat encounters (and if one turns into the other that a very simple map with walls and features of interest is sufficient). Players will naturally imagine areas you describe verbally, in ways that they will not when presented with pictures, and it’s very easy to ad lib and add as much detail as you can improvise with verbal descriptions, which is not the case with drawings.
- Pick a few adjectives: Part of the draw of exploration is immersion, which is enhanced by good description (in fact, a quick search of the stew shows we’ve written articles about using sensory cues  to describe things no less than a half dozen times). In this case, I suggest giving a few seconds of thought to the traits of an area (a dungeon as a whole is fine, but you can break it down further if it warrants) and make a back of the envelope (3×5 card) list. Refer to this list often and weave a few of the traits into every description. If that library above is “crumbling” you can describe the collapsing shelves, the piles of tumbled books that fall apart at a touch, the dust in the air. If instead it’s “flooded” you can describe the mold crawling up the shelves, the ankle deep black water with floating piles of mush that may once have been books, and the warped damp pages.
- There have to be successes,especially early ones: This goes back to that skinner box I mentioned earlier. Even if you explicitly tell your players that searching and exploring will net secrets and treasure, if they meet with no success while doing so, they’ll stop. On the other hand, even a few small successes will have them searching under the cushions of every moldy couch they find. Of course these finds have to be of value. Finding a handful of coins is (should be) of value to low level characters, but the same isn’t true for high level ones. As such, it’s fine to have these caches be money, but it’s equally useful to hide secret paths, maps, clues and items of strange origin, as well as items which do little except establish flavor, all of which will retain value through characters’ careers. Consider having a small table of incidental loot that can be found in each large area so this is easy to do off the cuff.
So I put it to all of you, because I’m not sure what the end conclusion is. Is poking into nooks and crannies, riffling through the pockets of ancient moldering coats, and sifting through dungeon trash heaps a valid and fun play style or am I biased and it’s more fun to hop between big set pieces? If it is a compelling play style, what are your best tricks to keep it fun and interesting? Like I said above, I’m not the expert on this, so I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts and techniques.