A musty dungeon corridor set with uneven ﬂagstones whose walls are daubed in coarse goblin graﬃti is inﬁnitely more interesting than “a dungeon corridor.”
Dungeon dressing is one of the most important things you can do to bring your dungeon (and campaign) alive. Sadly, dungeon dressing is not a crucial aspect of dungeon design. It’s not as critical to play as stat blocks or treasure hoards, for example. Thus, most of us don’t have time to dress our dungeons. Instead, we might improvise the odd description or (more likely) we won't bother. That’s a shame as there are many great reasons to dress your dungeon; all of them translate to a better, more compelling game.
If you waﬄe on about the ancient style of dwarven construction or the fascinating intricacies of goblin art, your players will likely switch oﬀ and go to sleep. However, you can use dungeon dressing to build your world.
- If you casually mention the intricate locking mechanism of a stone door, the players immediately want to know more.
- The skeletons the characters fight throughout the dungeon are all dressed in archaic or strange garb. Why?
- The dungeon lies at the centre of a snake cult. Snake carvings, paintings and statues feature throughout the complex. Other architectural features, including one-foot-diameter tunnels linking various rooms, ramps instead of stairs and so on, might predominate.
Surpassingly few dungeons are sterile, unchanging places; explorers and inhabitants (as well as time and nature) leave signs of their presence. Crude graﬃti daubed on the walls, skeletal remains, carven pillars, and more all add a sense of realism, which helps players maintain their suspension of disbelief.
- The ogres dwelling in the dungeon are unlikely to be fastidious about mess. Their rubbish and leavings will no doubt lie everywhere.
- Goblins dwelling in the deep tunnels have decorated them with crude "art" showing the tribe's warriors slaying humans and so on
- An old camp, stubbed out torch, discarded piece of broken equipment and so on all hint at the presence of other adventurers.
Verisimilitude—the quality of seeming true or of having the appearance of being real—is my favourite piece of Gygaxian vocabulary. It’s one of those words I would never have encountered without reading my trusty (and beloved) 1st edition DMG. It’s a fantastic word and perfectly sums up dungeon dressing. Make your dungeon seem real and your players will find it easier to suspend their disbelief.
What happened in the dungeon before the characters got there? Dungeon dressing can provide the players with answers or clues to this basic question.
- Were the orcs slaughtered by something large and powerful that yet lurks in the lower caverns? Signs of the slaughter should abound and provide a clue to all but the most clueless adventurer that something is not right.
- Do parts of the dungeon periodically flood? Perceptive characters might spot signs such as watermarks, waterborne debris and the like and be forewarned.
- Was the dungeon originally a temple that fell to invaders? If so, decorations and features of the original faith may still be in evidence.
Players figuring out what happened in the dungeon before they got there could gain a tactical advantage from their insights. They will also get a sense of achievement from divining the truth behind your clues.
Are the dungeon denizens working toward some evil scheme? No doubt, if they are, the characters will ﬁnd signs of their work throughout the dungeon. Alternatively, is the dungeon about to suffer some calamity? Are the signs of impending disaster evident?
- A hobgoblin tribe planning an invasion or raid into a nearby human kingdom will likely stockpile arms, equipment and provisions in their lair. They may also have maps showing their targets and so on.
- Does a necromancer work to raise an army of the dead? If so, she might require many live subjects to work her magic on.
- If an earthquake struck the dungeon, cracks in the ceilings, piles of rubble, rock falls and the like will do the complex.
Don't go mad with detail when dressing a room (or entire dungeon). Adding too much detail creates confusion and eventual apathy in players; eventually, they won't see the wood for the trees. Instead, concentrate on a couple of notable features in each area.
If you want to quickly and easily add Dungeon Dressing into your dungeons, I (self-sacriﬁcingly) recommend Raging Swan Press’s Dungeon Dressing books. Our updated and revised supplements are available in 5e, OSR, Pathfinder 1 and Pathfinder 2 editions. Alternatively, our 20 Things books present a system-neutral approach to dungeon, wilderness and urban dressing.