A very important design concept used in Architecture that I would like to discuss today is the concept of negative space. This topic flows naturally from the discussion in last week’s post about the open spaces in an urban setting being defined by the buildings that are placed around it. In addition I have been thinking quite a lot about the topic since seeing the post on Boing Boing about classic style D&D hand-drawn dungeon maps. If you haven’t seen those maps yet, they are indeed very classic but they are also, unfortunately not examples of good dungeon design.
There is certainly something to be said for that style of dungeon map and the feel it creates, but the simple truth of it is that one of the reasons they feel so classic is because they are inherently illogical and impractical. I admit that logic and practicality are not necessarily the primary concerns addressed by good dungeon design, but at the root of those dungeons there are a handful of factors at play that should not be in play when designing a location for you and your players to explore at the table.
We All Love Graph Paper
Everyone knows it. We really do all love graph paper. If you’re designing dungeons and have never used graph paper then you are missing out on a certain form of exploratory design that most DMs hold very close to their hearts. The problems that are apparent from the “classic” dungeon designs shown in the above Boing Boing article almost all stem from the use of graph paper. For starters, the extents of the dungeon are clearly set at the very edge of the paper itself but far worse than that is the fact that the designer seems to have been overcome with the strange desire to populate every single square of the graph with dungeon.
The next big problem is that the designer has decided to get “creative” and go against the nature of the graph paper by making roughly 50% of the walls at various angles to one another. The end result is a series of straight/angled corridors forming a rough grid around far too numerous rooms almost all of which are forced into harsh triangular shapes. Players and DMs the world over might enjoy looking at these graphite and graph paper dungeons for pure nostalgia, but the fact remains that the only thing gained from playing through them at the table is a shared sense of pride in having survived a horribly designed dungeon.
You might be thinking that I’m being too hard on these dungeon designs and their designer. In all honesty, you’re correct. However, the benefit of this specific scenario is that my opinion and feedback of these dungeons in no way effects how they are designed or how they were played and so I feel that expressing my opinion in this matter is much more like historic observation than any kind of design criticism. Plus, I couldn’t call myself any kind of designer and not have the opinions that I’ve expressed above with regards to these designs. I acknowledge that they may have been designed at a very young age, or that dungeon design as an art form was in its infancy back when these were completed, but if you were to hand me these dungeons today and ask me to run them for a party I would probably laugh heartily and then pull out a sharpie and begin fixing them.
Negative Space is a Positive
What I’ve been building up to with all of this discussion so far is that the biggest thing these dungeons are missing is negative space. In its simplest form within dungeon design negative space includes the walls and larger areas of the map that cannot be occupied by a person. Solid space. Without negative space you can argue that anything you design is essentially non-existent or undefined. One of the biggest advantages of negative space in dungeons is that it is precisely where secret doors and hidden rooms can be hidden. In the above mentioned maps there are several secret doors and rooms indicated, but I bet it wouldn’t take any party long to figure out that anywhere they can’t get through or access is certainly a room because there is no negative space except at the perfectly rectangular borders of the paper/dungeon.
The great news is that it would not be hard for you to take any dungeon, even those I’ve been discussing here, and improve them with the addition of some well placed negative space. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a hundred room dungeon or lots of spaces close together, it just means that the less negative space you have the more of an impact each portion of it will have. For instance, consider an immense dungeon room spanning hundreds of feet in every direction, then imagine the same dungeon room with a large cylindrical column of solid stone in the center of it. Now the space not only has a central focus but most parties will end up checking the column to make sure there isn’t some way to get inside of it. Now think about the immense dungeon room but this time it has large square columns at regular intervals throughout the whole space much like the open mine spaces depicted in Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies. With the careful application of negative space we have managed to amplify and accentuate the inhabitable space of our dungeons in new and interesting ways.
Some Basic Design Principles
Some of the easiest ways to use negative space in your location designs are to consider the thickness of walls, doorways, floors, ceilings, and columns. As I discussed in my earlier post about adding some structure into your dungeons, the thickness of columns and whether or not they take up actual space in your encounter locations can be a very important design decision. Many examples of older style structures have extremely thick walls and doorways by today’s standards because of the building materials and methods that were available at the time. A doorway that is several feet in depth (meaning several steps between rooms) can create a much different feel then simply stepping from room to room and provides an excellent sense of separation that might otherwise be difficult to achieve.
In the end, getting a firm grasp on the design of negative space will greatly improve your ability to design any type of location whether it is a city street/plaza or intimate holding cells deep within a dungeon. If you’re already starting to think about it you might realize that though I am denouncing those dungeon designs as horrible, they actually present some good characteristics that emulate those used in building design. The plan for the Villa Rotunda (picture above) makes excellent use of the space within its boundaries much like those dungeons, but where they differ is that the building has more regularity in its rooms and has actual thickness to its walls.
The reasons for this difference are because in the typical dungeon a certain amount of negative space is going to be required for the tunnels and passageways to not collapse in on themselves, and in a building the use of space should be maximized to reduce the amount of materials required in relation to the space within the building. The ultimate lesson there is what makes for good dungeon design does not necessarily make for good building design (and vice versa), but exploring different options in both types of design can help us improve in both.
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.