EMPTY BUT NOT NOTHING: Thoughts on Actionable Empty Rooms

Its not much, but it's honest work

Here is an entry I just wrote in a dungeon:

06. SPENT KITCHEN: A simple kitchen is here. Empty stew pot. Skull inside.

Much like the previous "03. TOMB: 8 skeletons", it is serviceable, generic, and expected, especially for a room that was rolled "empty" and "no treasure" by BX stocking procedures. Even too wordy because I shouldn't repeat the obvious so: 06. SPENT KITCHEN: Simple; empty stew pot- skull inside.

However, like encounters, empty and special rooms, I believe, can also be layered to provide for a more dynamic environment. But the aim here for "dynamic" is to provide actionable information. Not just lore, but lore that can be used. Why?

Remember, players generally want to play D&D, not listen to a DM's made-up history about totally-not-Westeros. Knowing something about the world just to know is not as engaging as then being able to act on the same information. This really goes back to the same principle as with dynamic encounters: choice. And to that end, we want our lore to mostly be actionable in some capacity.

Also, I think these sorta rooms help appeal to a type of player that likes to play the "scholar role" as well. Or if you're moving a 5e player who loves investigation checks or insight checks into an old-school system.

How is this encoded in an empty room? Here are the ways I think about it:

The empty room contains:

1 | ...mundane items
2 | ...an encounter clue
3 | ...a warning
4 | ...a clue or password
5 | ...a mosaic, fresco, or basrelief
6 | ...an inert feature or nothing, but is an interesting shape

1. The empty room contains mundane items. Nothing is valuable in the same way as treasure. More functional, but not delving equipment-- like the stew pot. Can it be used for something? Yes. Conveniently. Not so much.

2. The empty room contains a clue to the encounter table. So in the stew pot is a skull. Most players will ask what kinda skull. This is an opportunity to help them be informed about the level they are on and what monsters or humanoids exsist.

Another variation on this might be a corpse. The players could investigate to determine the cause of death. But they have to get close to the body- potentially risky- which can create nice tension. Stab wounds, claw marks, or death by stirge all are going to be different. But remember don't say "death by stirge", instead "puncture marks on the neck, drained of blood"-- which might also make the players think "vampire'".

3. The empty room contains a warning. Maybe its an empty kitchen, but scrawled on the wall in chalk could be message: "The gnolls are only out for blood!". A little better than the skull because it gives two pices of information: creature and potential motivation. This could also be a territory warning, letting players know how far a territory could extend: "Oh $%&*, the Red Wolves are here too and they still completely hate us for offing their mage."

Suggest from a Discord I'm on;
A great example of both a warning & clue from Deadspace

4. The empty room contains a clue or password. I like the clue or left note because it implies it was left for someone or left to be returned too. I think placing notes in empty rooms really drives home the dungeon is being visited by other adventuring groups or factions. This can also allow players to become aware of factions they might previously not know exists or foreshadow them.

Riddles are fun because secrets can be placed in plain sight so your players will run into them, but not completely given away. Also its a sorta puzzle that doesn't limit play like say a puzzle door might. And given the use of Discord and such, players can puzzle the riddle outside of game-time.

Notes to avoid traps is good too. Like an empty room with three doors. Maybe the doors themselves are not trapped but the hallways on the other side are. A chalk scrawl on the opposite wall might say "As the middle child of 3 siblings, I survived, while my eldest brother died of poison, and my youngest sister died by the sword"-- the hallway behind the middle door is safe the other two have poisoned gas and a blade trap.

NOTE ABOUT PC LITERACY: I think its worthwhile, especially for old-school games, to determine if a PC is literate in "common" and if they know other languages. Employing 3 & 4 effectively requires the judge to know if PCs can read. And a lot of information can effectively be hidden in plain sight simply by being written down.

For instance, an order of wizards might simply write the "use this door" in common on the non-trapped door for their house staff. For more esoteric but still low-level information, it might be written in "wizard tongue". The first could be understood by any PC with an INT of 10+ while the second might be only known by MUs & Elves. But this could work for demi-human and monster scripts.

5. The empty room contains a mosaic, fresco, or basrelief. I like pieces of art because the biggest "lore drips" can occur with them. Its a way to show potential relationships between multiple elements while not having to explicitly lay it out or be answerable to further PC questioning-- which can be an issue with an NPCs handing out the same sort of information.

6. The room is empty, but interesting nonetheless due to space or an inert feature. Empty rooms don't have to be square, white rooms. Since there is a chance empty rooms will be employed by the PCs and/or they could eventually contain monsters, traps, & treasure, they might as well be interesting. Its a sorta future-proofing.

And if they are interesting enough that PCs "waste" time in them, eh, all the better. You as the DM/dungeon designer don't have to construct a space optimized for PCs to move through.


  1. I've always been pretty against empty rooms because I want every room to have something interesting in it - and this post opened my eyes to the possibility that they do.

    1. Honestly, it just depends on how interesting you think, just... ANYTHING is.

    2. Hey thank you for reading Josh! Glad it provide a spark of inspiration.

  2. I've been quite the fan of randomising a sense to focus on when keying "empty" rooms