On Reader Mail: Set Design

More Reader Mail, this time on some questions about Set Design. 

"I'm attempting to key a modified version of the B1 module for an ACKS game I'll be running in a week and a bit, and I'm trying to use the method you describe in your two 'Set Design' blog posts.

I wanted, if you're amenable, to run the first room by you to see if I'm on roughly the right track, or if you had any recommendations for improvements.

Entrance |          6 Statues
-> Saints (Muses, Knowledge throw to ID), Broken and vandalised -> Holding Writing Tablet (Calliope, Epic Poetry), Lyre (Terpsichore, Dance), Cithera (Erato, Love Poetry), Aulos (Euterpe, Song & Elegiac poetry), Comic mask (Thalia, Comedy), Tragic mask (Melpomene, Tragedy).               
-> Ornate, damaged.
             Tiled Mosaic Floor
-> Broken, Coloured Geometric pattern
             Steps up
-> into corridor -> triggers magic mouth
             5 Bodies
-> 2 Human Bandits, 3 Human ‘adventurers’
             (1 Fighter, 1 Cleric (Sol), 1  Thief?)
-> mucky red bandana,
-> broken Sol symbol,
-> ruined leather, bandits -> ratty wolfskin cloaks.

1. The alcoves contain statues, all of them broken. Anyone with knowledge of the old world can identify them as minor pleasure goddesses. The floor is tiled in a coloured geometric pattern. Many tiles are broken or missing, but clearly it was once very elaborate.

The magic mouth described here does not actually appear anywhere but a disembodied voice speaks as the first person climbs the short stair to the open arch at the north end of the hall. Rather than the text from the book, it says in a jovial voice, “Welcome guests! Seek your pleasures within!” It won't speak again unless someone passes again through the front entrance doors.

The grisly sight remains beyond the arch, with the addition of a broken statue. This statue is a stone angel, broken in two at the torso. The berserker wears a ratty wolfskin.

But that misses out some of the details from the original module, like the bodies.

Any advice? Suggestions? Critique?

Hi Stuart and thanks for writing in. I'm really glad you sent me this. It lets me talk more about the theory and practice behind the set design.

For those that are unaware, the point behind my method of set design is to allow you to quickly reference what you need in order to pay attention to the table and the players in the game. Reading the text is great for prep, but when playing, all you need are the easily locatable prompts. For example, compare:
" The alcoves contain statues, all of them broken. Anyone with knowledge of the old world can identify them as minor pleasure goddesses. The floor is tiled in a coloured geometric pattern. Many tiles are broken or missing, but clearly it was once very elaborate."
Alcoves -> Broken Statues -> Minor Pleasure Goddesses
Tile Mosaic Floor -> Elaborate Coloured geometric pattern, Broken Tiles

They are basically the same thing, but the written paragraph format means you need to stop and read, parse the information and then respond to player queries. Using keywords speeds up the process and helps combat the "I just read what kind of statues those were, where is it in the text".

The format of set design digitally is immediately visible things are in bold, Monster Names are underlined, with stats in italics. When I'm actually working with paper, so I'm rarely doing second drafts. I'll rewrite a module once, but doing it twice is a bit more work than something I want to do for my home table. I'd rather focus on creating more content. On paper, immediately visible things are thicker lines, monster names are underlined and stats are in parenthesis.

What I'm actually doing when I'm keying a room this way is thinking of how the players are walking into the room. What can they immediately see? What is going on nearby? What is most obvious? What must I mention at a bare minimum to maintain their agency? This is not an easy process, in either time or layout.

I understand that a lot of formatting got lost in the translation to me. I have rekeyed the adventure as I would run it below. I would do everything possible to eliminate any need for text blocks.

Entrance 1) | Ornate Columns -> Damaged
                     5 Bodies -> Human -> Male
                                                   Bandit (2)  -> ratty wolf skin cloak 
                                                   Cleric -> broken Sol Symbol
                                                   Fighter -> Ruined Leather
                                                   Thief -> Murky Red Bandana
                      Tiled Floor-> Elaborate coloured mosaic geometric pattern, Broken Tiles
                      6 Alcoves -> Broken Statues -> Minor Pleasure Goddesses (Knowledge to ID)
                      Stairway -> Triggers Magic Mouth 
                                                |->"Welcome guests! Seek your pleasures within!" (Audio Only)

                     The Statues -> 
                            Holding Writing Tablet (Calliope, Epic Poetry), 
                            Lyre (Terpsichore, Dance), Cithera (Erato, Love Poetry), 
                            Aulos (Euterpe, Song & Elegiac poetry), 
                            Comic mask (Thalia, Comedy), 
                            Tragic mask (Melpomene, Tragedy).
                            Stone Angel ->Broken in Twain

I cannot tell from your example if you intend on keeping the text. When I construct my modules, the whole of my text used is contained in the examples above.

Some of the above is dependent on how it is you intend to present the module. Are the statues immediately visible in the alcoves? Then they must be moved to the left of the arrow, like so:

6 Alcoves with Statues -> Broken -> Minor Pleasure Goddesses (Knowledge to ID)
6 Alcoves with Broken Statues->  Minor Pleasure Goddesses (Knowledge to ID)

The first indicates that the statues are immediately visible, the second indicates that they are very damaged.

I reorganized the order, because the human eye will be drawn to the columns first (because they are long narrow shapes at eye level) and the bodies second (because we are biologically engineered to seek out human forms, shapes, and patterns in visual stimuli first). The floor and stairway would be noticed after and later.

What isn't noted above, is that I will describe the room that the characters enter based on the information garnered from the map. E.g. "You walk through the door and see a (small|average|large|huge) (room|chamber|closet|hallway) with ornate columns running (at column locations). Bodies lay strewn around the room on the tiled floor. You can see alcoves in the dim light and a stairway that rises on the (N|E|S|W) wall. There is an exit(s) on the (N|E|S|W) wall."

On Expanded Set Design

The other day I was talking about Set Design, or how to write a 'useful in play' adventure description. I gave some examples of how I would key rooms, and was asked a question about how I would key a more complicated room. The example is below.

Brendon of OSR search asked me to key this location from Matt Finch's Demonspore module. (Print) (.pdf)

Original Text reproduced under "Fair Use".

5. The Lake Portcullis

BEGIN boxed text

A massive portcullis of wooden beams, bolted together with iron, bars the way across the tunnel and river. The unpleasant smell of rotten fish is heavy in the air.

END boxed text


• Toad-Man Sentries (2): HD 2+1; HP 11, 5; AC 6[13]; Atk 1 spear (1d8); Move 9 (Swim 12); Save 16; AL C; CL/XP 2/30; Special: None.


Two toad-man sentries guard this portcullis. Because the dam beyond (AREA 4) is also protected by a locked gate and portcullis, guards at this portcullis are almost never particularly alert. If a party of adventurers calls out from the gate at the dam, or lingers very long there making noise or carrying a light, the guards will raise the portcullis and go to find out who seeks entrance into the Halls from the river. Obviously, this is a foolish way of manning the defenses since it leaves the portcullis open. However, it has been so long since the Halls faced any serious attack from the river entrance that the toad-men are not cautious at this entrance. Just inside the portcullis there are five reeking wooden buckets, half-filled with what appear to be fish guts. These are used to placate the toad-hydra beneath the bridge at AREA 9. If the party peacefully buys entrance into the Halls, the sentries will hand them a bucket of fish guts, and explain, “For crossing the bridge.”

The central part of the portcullis, which descends into the river, has longer bars than the rest of the gate, descending into the river itself. However, the bars do not actually extend all the way down to the riverbed, and if the party is entering (or leaving) the Halls under the river, it would be easy to squeeze underneath.

Treasure: One toad-man carries a pouch containing 10gp and a small crystal worth 50gp. The second toad-man carries 22gp and a potion of healing.
How I would code such a room.

Lake Portcullis 5) | Portcullis→woodenblocks tunnel & river→can pass under portcullis
                               Beyond Portcullis→buckets→wooden→reeking→fish guts
                              |→If party noticed (light, noise) 2 Toad-Man Sentries approach
                                      (AC 6[13], HD 2+1; HP 11, 5; spear 1-8; Save 16; XP30)
                                      |Pouch→leather1) crystal (50 gp), 10 gp; 2) Potion (healing), 22 gp;

                               Toad-Man Sentries raise portcullis to approach party.  
                                 | Fight→Defend in tunnel
                                 | Parley→Purchase Passage→Fish gut bucket→"For Crossing Bridge"

Why do things this way? The physical structure of the room is first. The relevant triggers for action are bolded much like the immediately visible items because they are the "immediately important actions". Monsters are underlined with stats in italics, allowing me to ignore them when scanning the description and find them quickly when combat starts. (You can test this. Look away and think "I'm going to look for the monster"; or "monster stats"; or "what the players can see from the entrance". Then glance back and see how long it takes you to find it.)

The various options when interacting with the sentries are outlined here. It is separated for ease of location. I just wrote what was in the original key, though in my games, I would also add a personality word and some 'Combat Commentary' in the left hand margin.

I find that the quick outline gives me the information I need allowing me to facilitate a game without having to stop the game to read.
Have a separate section of the module for 'exposition' before each dungeon section is where a broad overview can be presented. This beginning narrative explication would give the person running the game, the information they need to parse any more complicated situations. Visual aids such as artwork and descriptive useful maps (with light sources, sound ranges, verticality) also help.

 The reason I prefer the above to the ultra-simple Teagol Manor style, because it makes it more clear what is in the room at a glance, and provides slightly more information making my responses more varied and creative.

On a Map of the Known

A map of the known world that my players purchased!
Totally Accurate!
If you click me, I get bigger!

On Set Design

There have been some posts lately on how to label adventures.

I think that the old methods and indeed these new methods are unsatisfactory! I run a game based on agency and that has certain specific description requirements. Here is an example of some encounters in my adventures and how I think they should be labeled.

My entry for the famous Tick room in the Moathouse. The bar is the line separator on the page.

Kitchen 17)  | Tables -> Stained, Wooden Cask->Giant Tick
                      (AC 16, HD 3, HP 19, Bite +5/1-4/1-6 auto, ML (20) XP 141)

Here is an entry with treasure and a monster

Small Alcove 32) | Refuse, Furniture, Bones->in corner, 8 Ghouls!
                                (AC 6, HD 2, +3/1d4-1/1d4-1/1d6, Para 1d6+2, ML (20) XP 175)
Ornate Iron Armchair-> Dwarven, decorative cobalt inlay (900gp) 65lbs. + Bulky.
Blanket (60gp) Chiffon, covering-> ottoman, Hollow slate upholstered in woven twill. (200 gp) 35lbs. + Bulky.
      -> Gem, Kunzite  /mi (202 gp) 
      -> Human sized Iron mail (Chain +1, weightless)
      -> Fleece Pouch (Pouch of Accessibility)
      -> 3 Scrolls (Scroll-Protection from lycanthropes, Scroll-Cursed, 
          Scroll-Cleric, spell levels 1,2,4,5,6,6)
Sack, Moleskin(10gp) Horsehair cord->platinum aiguillette-> 3 vs/vf Rubies (400 gp)
       -> 400 gp, 200 hs, and 80 pp

Let's break down how this works.
  • Before the bar on the page is the room type. This let's me know instantly what kind of room this is. When stocking this room, I use Empty Rooms which lists common contents for every room type. Ever. In the history of the world. All rooms.
  • After the bar are the immediately visible items! When describing things, I only use the bolded words! The players receive no extra information unless they ask for it!
  • The arrows indicate that it is either "Information available upon further examination" or "An item contained in or on the container". For items containing or supporting multiple items (tables, chests) indents are used to group the items.
  • The order the thing is listed, is the actual order it is stacked. I.e. Inside the ottoman, the gem is on top of the mail, which is covering the pouch and scrolls.
  • Gems are noted as to number, with size/quality following. Blanks indicate average size/quality. The GP value is for each individual gem. 
  • Coins listed without modifiers are just that, loose coins.
  • Any word that is not important, is not used. It is clear, for example, that the horsehair cord with the platinum aiguillette is what is securing the moleskin sack, by virtue of it being listed on the same line.


On the fly, I look down and say, "Roll for surprise (party rolls a 4, ghouls roll a 3) You see a small alcove filled with bones, furniture and refuse, as half a dozen dessicated humanoids turn towards you and groan. They move forward intent on consuming your immortal souls, except for you Frank. Declare actions." After the combat I will go "What do you do?"

If they go, "We look around." I'll say, "You see a small alcove with refuse, furniture, and bones in the corner"

If they say, "We look at the furniture." I'll say, "You see an ornate iron armchair, a blanket covering something like a box, and a sack sitting next to the chair."
"What's under the blanket."
"You can't tell from here."


The key things here are speed, flexibility, and creativity. I do it this way, because I am in constant engagement with the players.

I look down at the tick room, and I see enough information to tell me everything I need to run the encounter successfully in seven words. The next time I will have to disengage from the players is to read the Ticks stats!

It also allows me to construct encounters dependent on player skill, in such a way that I won't give away anything by having to check the sheet. I've given them the inter-actable objects, with the red herrings, so they can't read where the danger is.

This structure changes depending on the complexity of the room easily, while still keeping the information clear, and not taking up a ton of space on my sheets.

From the player side, they don't know what the results of interacting with anything will be, so even though it seems simple from the DM's side, it remains a complicated sequence of choices for the players.

Mostly it's safe to examine refuse or travel through it, except when it isn't. If they didn't examine the refuse; and it contained rot grubs; and they moved to inspect the furniture. . .

My school is all old up in here.


In the classic DMG example:
DM:'First, the others checking the containers find that they held nothing but water, or ore totally empty, and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white, eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4' to 6' deep and about 10' long. That's all. Do you wish to leave the place now?"
 I would key the room as so:

Water Room 2) | Barrels->Location A->Water, Rotting, Buckets, Small Rivulet/Pool
                           Stream (Rivulet)->Cold, Fast, North to South, 7'-5' wide, 3'-5' deep
                           Pool of Water->Mineral Formation->Skeleton->Hand->Key
                                                                                          |->Disturb->Cylinder dislodged, 
                                                                                              floats South in steam, AC 16
                           Cylinder->Watertight Ivory Tube->Vellum Map of level (See Handout)

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