Thursday, 20 April 2017

Literary Dungeon Making for Fun and Profit

A long time ago Talysman posted this interesting idea about creating a dungeon short hand. As somebody for whom drawing up dungeons is probably the hardest of all DMing tasks, I am always on the lookout for stuff like this.

The core of the idea is simple: "a way to represent a dungeon as text and a way to take arbitrary text and turn it into a dungeon". What interests me the most about it is the idea that one could take a piece of text (fiction, poetry, etc.) that you enjoy or  think is interesting and transform it into a dungeon.

Because I have been reading Wallace Stevens poems to my unborn daughter so she grows up to be all pretentious like me, I've got a book of his poetry handy. Let's experiment. The first two stanzas of the poem "Invective Against Swans" are as follows:

The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind. 
A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures

Now let's turn it into a basic dungeon framework based on Talysman's dungeon short hand. I am going to be much, much looser with the rules here - the length of words will be approximate, and the West - East flow not so regimented. (I am dashing it off to demonstrate a wider point.) In real life you would in fact want to be even freer I think to make the flow more interesting. You would also of course add in corridors, staircases, doors and so forth - whether in the manner Talysman suggests or just as to taste. But for illustration's sake:

The question now arises, then - what's the "value added" to this beyond just being a way to arrange rooms and connections when feeling uninspired?

Well, it allows you to also incorporate literary flavour. Think of the stanzas of the poem I cited as the basis not just for the rooms and layout but also the contents. Again, being rough and ready, this results in:

So now you have a guide to fill in contents. Where it says "soul" it would suggest something undead. "Ganders" I may not choose geese exactly, but maybe some giant bird or bird-man. "Parks" suggests a garden zone. "Discord" an area with a magical trap which causes conflict between friends? "The sun, descending" could be an area where there is an open roof with a sun dial. "Bronze rain" could be - well, there are all sorts of ideas which might spring to mind from that if you want to get creative. "Endures" could be some incredibly old magician who never dies, or a galeb duhr or something. But you get my point.

Thinking about it, this approach may be more productive as a way to plot out entire zones in a dungeon rather than rooms. Pick a favourite novel or book of poetry and flick to a random paragraph or poem, and use its structure and contents as a way to map the basic structure of a layer of dungeon. The specific content and detail comes later.


  1. I've done this with track lists on the backs of album covers, but never poetry. Brilliant. =)

  2. I can't speak to the at-the-table utility of this idea because I'm taking a bit of a hiatus from gaming, but I just wanted to say I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only OSR gamer who reads Stevens. One of the most magnificent poetic intelligences to ever grace this earth.