Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Empty Rooms and Dungeon Design: Negative Space Ain’t So Negative

Empty Rooms and Dungeon Design: Negative Space Ain’t So Negative

A recent conversation on G+ got me thinking (you could even say, room-inating) about the subject of empty rooms in dungeons.  (By “empty rooms” I mean empty in the sense of things directly relevant to what an adventurer looks for or tries to avoid- things like monsters, secret doors, treasure, or traps.) An empty room is a space with hidden potential, hidden by what is not there rather than what is there. Because we often look only for the latter and not the former, that potential can be quite difficult to find.

A concept that I’ll be borrowing for this discussion is the concept of negative space, the emptiness between and surrounding objects in the field of vision. In my discussion here, I will be referring to empty rooms as the negative space. Negative space is the interstitial tissue that links the positive (filled) space together (as in, rooms with monsters, etc.)

What does this suggest to you regarding airflow, temperature, and even emotion? (art by

 Hasegawa Tōhaku)

Appropriate use of negative space in the dungeon is important because it helps facilitate mental understanding of the dungeon’s positive space. The mental image evoked by suggestion can be more efficient and powerful than the image created merely by explicit statements.  Like letting the players imagine the horrible possibilities the DM might be up to rather than just stating it up front.
So with the approach that empty rooms are negative space, here are some further thoughts on how to use the empty room to enhance the full ones.

1) Build atmosphere and pacing

 Each dungeon has its own flow based on its nature.  This includes its population density. Enemy barracks will differ in spacing from a weird funhouse dungeon designed by a sadist. The former will likely have several clusters of enemies close together and be light on traps. In the latter the sadist will likely place negative space in between threats to throw his victims off guard and slowly eat away at their sanity. Empty rooms may appear as full rooms, and full rooms may appear as empty rooms.
Regardless of the design or layout of the dungeon, too much action without interruption can cause said action to become stale or even numb the experience. Empty rooms can allow for emotional catharsis through moments of calm and slow-down.  Conversely, ominously placed empty rooms can build tension or put the players on guard. Curious rooms can make everybody put their detective hats on, which leads to the next point.

2) Provide clues or implications about the dungeons and its denizens

The empty rooms of a dungeon can tell us a lot about what the dungeon is like, who designed it, and whom lives there. The WinchesterMystery House is a pretty obvious example: confusing winding passages, doors going nowhere.  It shows a mind preoccupied with something out of the norm, among a number of other possible conclusions. 

Where does this door go again? (Source)

On a more mundane level, even something as ordinary as a broom closet can give canny players a lot of insight on the creatures that live there. Obviously, these creatures are concerned with cleanliness to a degree resembling that of the human range. On the other hand, it would send a very different message if they carelessly tossed everything aside without regard for where they slept or ate.
Even an empty hallway can suggest something. If it’s covered in dust, there’s a good chance nobody has gone this way recently. Is it because it’s dangerous, or it is because it’s merely forgotten? A really loooonnng hallway might suggest that whatever is at the end of the hallway might be either highly valuable or highly dangerous, enough to warrant significant separation from the rest of the dungeon.

3) Emptiness is temporary.

Just because a room is empty now doesn’t mean it will be empty forever. Both the PCs and the dungeon denizens can proactively use empty rooms for places of ambush, chokepoints, shelters to retreat to, or other locations of strategic importance.  Not to mention, the next time the PCs return, the empty rooms may be full and the full rooms may be empty.

4) Emptiness is relative.

The mental understanding I mentioned earlier is important because it’s created in the minds of the players. As such, they may bring understandings of empty space that are completely unexpected by the GM. And whereas junky trinkets found in empty rooms may not have any objective value in the game world, such trinkets may have subjective value to the players and/or their characters. This may be because the trinket is just really cool, and the player wants to hold onto it. Or the player might envision a use for the object at some later day. 

Where is the positive space and where is the negative space here? (source)

  Case in point, in a recent game I played in I found some old beer mugs and wine classes that had no monetary value. However, I took a few of them anyway, thinking I might trade them to somebody for something at some unknown date later. Later I ended up trading them to an iron golem with an obsession with cups in order to get passage beyond him. One man’s trash is another golem’s treasure.

To sum up, there’s quite a lot to be done with empty rooms, both by the designer and the player. It just involves the use of implication to inform meaning created in the mind’s eye.

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