Dangerous Archaeology

I often refer to Dungeons & Dragons as a game of dangerous archaeology. In their classic tomb-robbing mode, the party enters an underworld with its own history, meaning, and ecology.* The process of exploring a dungeon is much like the process of excavating a tomb… except eighty times faster and with more blood and looting. You’re like Heinrich Schliemann dosed to his eyeballs on haste.

The dungeon is the first and most important venue for environmental storytelling. (Yes, I said the “s” word, but stay with me a minute.) The classic dungeon isn’t full of helpful NPCs… for every Scarlet Citadel with a friendly-but-evil wizard in a holding cell, there’s a Moria or Howling Tower. The central question of those latter dungeons is this: what happened here?

Which brings me to a presentation from GDC: “What Happened Here?,” an examination of environmental storytelling by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch. Smith and Worch are, of course, addressing video games, but their analysis has a lot to offer classic dungeoneering.


Let’s start with some very basics:

We’re saying that the game environment, which has been derived from a fictional premise, can communicate
the history of what has happened in a place
  • who inhabits it
  • their living conditions
  • what might happen next
  • the functional purpose of the place
  • and the mood.

In other words, say you’re exploring a mouldering tomb that’s now the home of a band of human bandits. Entering a room, you find a makeshift deck of cards, dirty bedrolls, and the smoldering remains of a fire.

Immediately, you can infer that this is a living space, that the inhabitants spend a lot of time idle, and that they might be back at any moment. The GM has scattered the elements, but you, as a player, have constructed the story behind the space.

As Smith and Worch say:

Environmental Storytelling is the act of “staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.”

“Environmental storytelling relies on the player to associate disparate elements and interpret as a meaningful whole.”

The narrative layer they’re talking about isn’t flowcharted or railroaded, it’s a layer of story that the players assemble non-linearly using their PCs senses. Rather than a passive storytelling experience (like two bandits sitting there talking about how bored they are), we’ve created an active and interactive exploration.

[I]nterpretation is more compelling than exposition.

“Active” also means that the story isn’t shoved down the player‟s throat –quite the opposite, discovery is self-paced. The player is *pulling* the narrative.

This leads to a familiar world, which is self reinforced, more complete, and more immersive.

Now, what you’ve seen might create a feeling of subtle menace: the bandits could be back at any moment. Or it might create a feeling of sympathy for men living in filthy quarters and passing time without even a proper deck of cards. Or disgust at the moral decrepitude of gambling thieves. In other words:

Every player is going to bring his own views, experience and frame of reference to the scene, and come to different conclusions.So environmental storytelling “Invites interpretation of situations and meaning according to players’ views and experience.”


Environmental cues can also be a powerful tool for informed decision making by players — a cornerstone of the old school and the classic dungeon experience.

This dead NPC sizzling in a fence points out real environmental dangers to the player. Just like the trail of red blood leading into a dark room helps the player prepare for what’s ahead.

Environmental storytelling “can help the player navigate an area by telegraphing.”

Let them imagine the hell out of it

“Meaningful narrative is inferred by players if you give them cues but leave them the space to imagine.”

— Steve Powers, Disney

At Grognardia, James often speaks of the pleasant lacunae in rules and settings that give referees room to imagine the hell out of their game. I posit that those lacunae are equally vital for players, and should be present in the content the referee creates.

Something should be wrong

Smith and Worch:

When dressing up the scene, think about how these elements connect. This is how we take the act of simple environmental jumbling to the next level:

  • Placing a cup of coffee in an odd place.
  • Offsetting a chair in front of that table a little bit.
  • Maybe it was hastily pushed over. Think about what happened there. A single prop can transform the scene.

Imagine another element in our cramped tomb chamber: a dark brown stain across one of the bedrolls. Blood, or shit? Is the owner ill? Wounded? More questions, more room for interpretation and imagination.

The Environmental Layer

All of this exists in a layer of “story” that’s not the railroaded narrative or epic history gamers have come to associate with the term. Environmental story isn’t just the communication of information, it’s another way in which the imaginations of the players and the GM interact.

The process is, fundamentally, archaeological: the players unearth the world piece by piece and invest it with meaning from their own speculations and experiences.

What are your experiences with weaving story into environments? How do your environments reflect the stories your players have created in them?


* See James Maliszewski’s excellent essay on Gygaxian Naturalism at Grognardia.

6 thoughts on “Dangerous Archaeology”

  1. I adore this post so much, I want to build a nest with it and have its babies. And regurgitate into those babies’ mouths so they are sustained.

    I don’t have much more to add, except, it has me thinking.

    — c.

  2. So here’s a game I’d love to play.

    Fantasy setting where the characters are all archeologist and anthropologists not of the world where the setting takes place. They don’t speak the language, know anything about the culture, and must put it together bits at a time as they travel through the setting. They have to blend in while discovering, so they can’t just sit down and have someone teach them the language or explain the history. That would take the fun out of it for them as well.

  3. One other thing to keep in mind here is the “Chekov’s gun” principle. When you put elements into your scene, have those elements be relevant somehow. The trail of blood leading into the darkened room is an excellent example. If that informs the player that a grievously wounded or recently dead animal/person/whatever either limped or was dragged into that room, then the party needs to discover the bleeder in that room (or, at least, obvious signs of the bleeder’s fate). If you don’t follow up on the cues you are handing out, the players will very quickly learn not to pay attention to those cues.

    Note that this doesn’t need to be carefully planned out ahead of time. When you are describing the room, you can just add a random chair in the corner. If one of the players investigates, make it mean something. And that something can be very simple (“You note that the chair offers an excellent view of both doors, and was likely used by a guard.”) or fairly complex (“The chair is bolted to the floor. Eyelets for securing ropes are screwed into the wall on either side. Peculiar, possibly magical, symbols are crudely carved into the wood.”). But, the important thing is that your detail not only tells the players something additional about their environment, but something they can use.

  4. Much agreed, Lugh. So far, I’ve been looking at this very much on the individual room level. In the future, I’m hoping to look at a more developed example of a dungeon. Preferably one from an existing module.

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