Friday 17 June 2011

J is for Junk

If I were to empty my pockets right now, in addition to change, there would be pens, keys, a flash drive, a tissue, and a comb.  Some of the keys on my key ring open doors that I could no longer identify.

If I was to turn my home into the setting for a D&D adventure, the poor adventurers would have to wade through mountains of paper, clothing, paperbacks, bric-a-brac, kid’s artwork, and more in order to discover whatever “treasure” they were seeking.

Call it fluff, or details, or verisimilitude, or dungeon dressing, or whatever else you like, there are good reasons to include a lot of junk in your campaign milieu.  If you’ve been reading this alphabet from the beginning, you are going to know what some of them are, because including junk is very much like including mundane animals.  If you don’t include plenty of insignificant stuff, the significant things stick out like a sore thumb.

Take, for example, the Moathouse in TSR’s Module T1:  The Village of Hommlet, by Gary Gygax.  Mr. Gygax writes:

15. EMPTY ROOM: The place was the domicile of the major-domo of the castle, but it Is stripped of everything save broken and ruined furnishings now.  One wall cresset remains near the outer wall, and its torch stub is actually a silver baton worth 30 g.p. in its present condition.

Now, the question becomes, how likely is it that PCs entering this area will discover the baton?  Will they automatically know that everything they “see” is significant?  Well, the answer is in Mr. Gygax’s design work, where several previous areas (5, 6, 8, 10, 11, and 14) are described as “littered” or filled with specific valueless junk, and at least one of those rooms (11) contains a potential disincentive for exploring too closely!  Area 9 seems likewise, but has a fine broadsword hidden within it.

By layering junk into his dungeon design, Mr. Gygax makes it more difficult for players to realize that they should be looking at this particular cresset, and this particular torch stub.  In other areas, specific junk is described.  For example,

14.  EMPTY TROPHY ROOM:  Only a few mangy pelts, stuffed heads, and shattered antlers indicate the former status of the chamber.  All worthwhile Items are looted.  It is possible to spend considerable time searching the litter here, but nothing of value will be found.


10. EMPTY BED CHAMBER:  Once the quarters of a castle troop leader or some other petty official, the place Is now a total wreck. the bed chopped to pieces, the furniture smashed or gone.

Although this level of detail might seem to be wasted, all of the flavor of the area is contained within those details.  Moreover, more detail could be given.  The “litter” is glossed enough that, should the PCs decide to search these areas more thoroughly, the harried GM will be forced to come up with some quick bits of information.  That Mr. Gygax tells you what the room was used for is of some value here.

Although I am no Gary Gygax, I also make liberal use of junk in my adventure designs.  To my mind, this only makes sense.  Including junk serves the same purposes mentioning normal animals does:

  1. 1.    It increases the verisimilitude of the setting,
  2. 2.    It makes it more difficult for the players to determine what is “significant” and what can be safely ignored, and 
  3. 3.    It gives potential clues about the area that is being explored.

In addition, including junk increases the time that it takes the PCs to explore an area, allowing for additional wandering encounters, and dividing the better players from the rest.

The following examples of encounters come from Balmorphos Dungeon, an adventure I wrote that was published in Dragon Roots magazine, issue #3.  If you are interested, you should consider dropping by and purchasing the issue from the store.

(I don’t get anything if you choose to buy the issue, except some sense of satisfaction if I later learn of it.  Another module, Temple of the Golden Ape, is in issue #1.  Both are written for the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5.)

1.  First Landing:

The arched stairway goes down about 25 feet at a 40º angle, ending in a space about 20 feet square, with a vaulted ceiling 12 feet high.  The walls are covered with rust-colored moss and lichen, except where they have been scrapped clean by the passage of an enormous serpent.  Where there is no moss, you can see moist rivulets of water seeping down the ill-fitted stone walls.  To the northwest, you can see another archway, where another flight of stairs leads further into darkness.  As with the steps you just came down, these seem worn and cracked as though by frequent passage.

The steps to the northwest are wider than those that led into this area, but not as steep, descending at an angle of about 20º.  The stairway is arched to a height of 12 feet, and goes downward some 35 feet.  A pair of medium boots is discarded on this flight of stairs.  The boots can be found separately along the left-hand (southwestern) wall, about three quarters of the way down the flight.  There is still a rotted human foot in the left boot.

The rust-colored moss is harmless, and exists by consuming the stone itself.  This weakens the stone so that flakes of its surface can be pulled off wherever the moss is found.  The Climb DC for these areas is 20, and the first foot of stone has only hardness 5 and a Break DC of 30.

5.  Old Barracks:

The door opens into a dusty space some 30 feet wide and 40 feet deep, vaulted to a height of 12 feet.  This room was obviously once a barracks used by those who guarded the entrance to Balmorphos’ underground fortress.  The collapsed wooden frames of several cots line the west wall.  Rusted metal racks for weapons are bolted to the eastern wall, although whatever weapons they once held are long since gone.  A dank hole about a foot-and-a-half in diameter is bored into the floor.  Presumably, this was once used as a well, or to eliminate waste.

The well in the corner has no lip built up around it to prevent folk from falling or sliding into it.  It drops 30 feet into swiftly flowing water.  In days past, this was used both for waste elimination and for drinking water, as the underground river carried away any waste materials.

Searching the collapsed wooden frames of the beds uncovers a small chest, which is still locked (Open Locks DC 10).  The chest was once protected by a poison pin (Search DC 10, Disable DC 15), but the poison on it long ago lost potency.  (In the event that a PC gets pricked with the pin, though, the DM should still require a Fortitude save as though the poison were still active).  The chest has hardness 5 and can be broken into with 5 points of damage.  Within, wrapped amid an old moth-eaten tunic, is a leather pouch and a small vial.  The pouch contains 15 sp.  The vial contains two doses of the poison that once guarded the lock:  large monstrous scorpion venom (DC 14 Fortitude save resists, 1d4 Con/1d4 Con).


Here are some descriptions from an RCFG starter module I am working on:

Beyond the entrance is a spacious chamber, with gaping doorways opening to the north, south, and west.  You can make out relief work on its shadowed walls – images of tall priests, monkeys (including flying monkeys like those you just encountered) and dancing apes.  The floor is a shattered expanse of mosaic tiles in blue and red.  Where light falls in through the doorway, the jungle has entered as well – green plants have pushed aside the tilework, and vines grow on the near walls.

The passage opens into a fair-sized chamber, its ceiling a low, dark barrel vault only 8 feet high at its peak.  Vats of clay and stone line the southern wall, although many of these have been opened, pushed over, or (in the case of some of the clay vats) broken.

This is a vaulted chamber, some 40 feet wide, going onward into darkness.  Along the shadowy walls, you can see carved images of cavorting priests and bat-winged apes, carrying human victims with them, while large bats dance and wheel overhead.  These walls run with moisture, and you can hear a steady dripping in the distance to the north.  Heavy cobwebs stretch from wall to carven image, and from ceiling to floor, showing that few (if any) have passed this way in recent times.

This is a large chamber, about 60 feet square.  The vaulted ceiling, which once reached a height of 30 feet, has collapsed, creating an uneven floor of alabaster rubble and vines.  Other vines grow along the walls and up to the gaping hole in the ceiling.  In addition to the wide passage entering the room in the middle of the west wall, stairs lead into brackish water to the north.


This one seemed to ramble a bit, and I apologize if that was off-putting.  Still, I would highly encourage you to use junk liberally in your dungeon and wilderness designs.  Even towns should have public dumps, middens, garbage-filled alleys, and the like.

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