Dungeon Dressing – When’s a door not a door?

So when’s a door not a door? Obviously when it’s a window… But you don’t find too many windows in traditional dungeon crawls. Perhaps in the dungeons of a huge castle there may be a few high-class rooms with windows – but that’s about it. :)

Doors and doorways. We’re guaranteed to find at least one in almost every building. (Have to have some way in and out, right?) In the modern world, we’ve settled on a standard size for most of them, but there are still many variations on a theme — wooden doors, metal doors, glass doors…

But do they all look the same? Not usually. In some cases, the door itself is decorated for a particular style or color. In other cases, the door is the central focus of a larger entryway and the entire wall or wall section provides a larger area for visual effect. For some futuristic settings, we might see the standard spaceship door being the same everywhere as well.

Let’s consider how many doors in the modern world and potential futuristic settings are manufactured. For the most part, doors today are made in automated factories that eliminate the potential imperfections created by human artist. Some doors may be created by hand, but the majority are factory-made.

Now let’s go back to a gaming environment. Why do so many dungeon doors look the same in the typical fantasy or medieval setting? In the fantasy case, there may be an assembly line approach with multiple artisans in some places, but usually variations creep in from the tools used, the artists or skilled labor doing the work, materials used, etc.

So when designing a dungeon, we have to look at the big details and the little. Not every door has to have custom details, but it’s nice to sprinkle these details here and there to add a bit of flavor.

First, we’ll consider the materials used for the doorway. Even if your dungeon is a traditional one carved deep into the mountains like those of Tolkien’s books, you’re not likely to find everything to be made of stone. Doorways may be rough-hewn from the surrounding rocks or built of brick or small stones with the skills of a mason, but the doors themselves do not have to be the same as their surroundings.

For instance, let’s take a traditional wooden door. Many different questions may provide some interesting color to an otherwise unremarkable, everyday portal closing…

  • What type of wood is it made of? Oak? Teak? Mahogany? Redwood? Olive? Elm? Cedar? Pine?
  • Is the type of wood used the same as may be found in wooded areas nearby the dungeon entrance? Or was the wood brought in from a different locale and environment?
  • What type of construction was used for the door itself? Is it a heavy, fortress-style door, with vertical planks of solid wood joined by iron nails and hinges? Or is was it done with more of a paneled approach, indicating a more artistic eye of the architect, artist, or owner?
  • Does the door have an eye-hole or window through which someone on the inside could peer at any visitors?
  • Is it a single door? Double doors? Do the doors fold? Do they pivot or slide?
  • Does the door open outward (towards the visitor)? Inward (towards the inhabitant)?
  • Are the hinges on the left or right? Does it slide to the left or to the right?
  • What style of doorway is the door in? Is it a square door? Are the doors rounded at the top? Is the entire door an odd shape such as a circle, diamond, cross, etc?
  • What color has the wood been stained? Or has it been discolored by smoke, water, or fire?
  • Have any carvings been made into the door by the artisans? Or by the inhabitants? Were the carvings artistic, practical, accident, or idle hands?

What about a metal door? Stone door? Glass door?

  • Is the door merely a series of bars like a jail door? What metal was used? Iron? Bronze? Steel?
  • Has the metal for the door been plated in copper, silver, gold, or something else?
  • Is the door on hinges or hung in some other manner to allow it to open and close?
  • If made of stone, what type of stone? The same as the surrounding corridor or something different? Granite? Obsidian? Basalt? Marble?
  • If made of glass, is it truly glass or some type of transparent gem? What color is the glass? Is it transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque?

What type of hardware is on or around the door?

  • Does the door lock? Is it a traditional lock with a traditional key? Can it be picked? Is the lock broken? Is it a non-traditional key? What mechanism is used?
  • What type of hinges were used? Metal? Stone? Do the hinges work? Do they only swing the door open so far? Can they be fixed?
  • Can the door be closed again once open? Or is it stuck open?
  • Does the door have a handle? Has it fallen off? Is it functional?
  • How hard is the door to open? Can it open at all? Is it stuck in a particular position?

How old is the door?

  • Is the door as old as the surrounding dungeon? Or is it newer? Were there multiple waves of construction and reconstruction?
  • Has the material of the door degraded to the point where it is no longer usable? Has it been eaten away by rust, water damage, or vermin?
  • Is there evidence of other damage such as fire, weapons, claws, teeth in the door itself?

Who made the door?

  • Was the door hastily created by unskilled, entry-level, or slave labor? How about skilled labor or a true artist?
  • What types of tools were used to create it?
  • Did the creator mark the door with some sort of signature?

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list of questions! It’s just here to spark your imagination a bit. (Please let me know if you have any other questions you think of regarding dungeon doors and construction!)

When I asked a couple of folks to review this article for me, they (rightly) suggested that there had to be some way to make this information a) quick and easy to relate to a player at the right moment and b) something more functional than a long list of questions.

To answer these concerns, I present a two-part mechanic.

Part 1 concerns the PC and player. If neither is interested in the fact that a particular door on one side of a room is ornately decorated with beautiful, yet deteriorating wood moulding and some sort of an ancient story in pictographic form on the door itself… then why go to all the trouble of creating it?

The simplest way to determine if the PC might find something interesting about the door is to ask. What serves as the character’s Modus Operandi for checking out each door? Does the rogue in the party physically examine each square inch of the door top to bottom or simply do a scan for anything out of the ordinary? If the former, you can use Part 2 to create as many or as few details as you would like to share before they go insane. If the latter, you can focus on one or two details as necessary and move on.

Part 2 becomes a simple matter of creating a random table of descriptions. Use some common sense and random rolls to create a few doors. Place them where they make sense or create a table to randomly use when needed.

For example, you might have a set of four or five different descriptive elements…

Door Material (can vary based on location of dungeon/building) – roll a d20:

  1. Oak
  2. Teak
  3. Mahogany
  4. Redwood
  5. Olive
  6. Elm
  7. Cedar
  8. Pine
  9. Copper Plating (Bars or solid)
  10. Silver Plating (Bars or solid)
  11. Gold Plating (Bars or solid)
  12. Glass
  13. Granite
  14. Obsidian
  15. Basalt
  16. Marble
  17. Diamond
  18. Emerald
  19. Ruby
  20. No door (missing)

Construction Type – roll a d6:

  1. Single Pane
  2. Paneled
  3. Double Door
  4. Bars
  5. Folding
  6. Bricked-up entrance

Lock/Closure Type – roll a d4:

  1. Slide
  2. Barred
  3. Lock and Key
  4. Hidden switch or button

Door Condition – roll a d6:

  1. Rusted
  2. Rotted
  3. Burned
  4. Melted/Broken/Cracked
  5. In perfect condition
  6. Stained

Door State – roll a d4:

  1. Open
  2. Closed
  3. Locked
  4. Stuck (may be fully or partially stuck)

By using a combination of these tables (or others more suited to your own dungeon design), you could create a simple random table to spice up door descriptions a bit as the party works through the dungeon… Roll a d10:

  1. A once bricked-up entrance lies before you, a small pile of bricks on the floor. Beyond the bricks is an open heavy stone (basalt) door.
  2. In the doorway lay two massive mahogany doors, previously broken by someone else passing this way. A thorough rogue might notice the switch in the doorframe that once opened the double doors.
  3. A light pine folding door blocks the hallway before you. Barred on your side of the door with a rotten oak board, you wonder why anyone would try to stop anyone from anyone getting out from the other side…
  4. Diamond bars block this doorway. A pressure plate on the opposite side appears to be stuck with a rusty dagger, holding the door locked securely.
  5. A sliding elm door has been closed across the doorway.
  6. An enormous granite block blocks the doorway. Though locked, the large keyhole seems straightforward enough to pick…
  7. The oak double doors before you appear to be stained in blood. You suspect a crossbar has been used to lock the door on the other side.
  8. A huge, black obsidian door lies open in front of you, with half the door broken into pieces on the corridor beyond.
  9. Crude steel bars, their copper plating now green with age, block your way. In the center of the bars, you can see that someone must have bent them in an attempt to get through. A slender person may slip through or someone handy with lockpicks may pick the lock holding the door shut.
  10. You see a doorway, but no door. It may have been removed by the original tenants of this dungeon or later in its history.

Obviously no single table will work for all buildings or dungeons. But it’s nice to scatter a few doors that aren’t so ordinary as your usual heavy oak door burned by torches over the years…

Next time we’ll talk about corridors and see if they all really lead to Rome… (Wait, that may be roads…)

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