Inspire Confidence – Where Do Orcs Pee? Realism and Dungeon Design

I’m stepping out of my usual community building blog space a little this week and talk about dungeon and game design briefly.

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Moaning Myrtle and Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 2002. Warner Bros.

A while back I asked for topics people would like to see me write about and this title* was requested. This general topic originally came up back in January 2015 when I was competing in Paizo’s RPG Superstar and my map was reviewed for voting. My map was of a well appointed dwarven manor, a la Downton Abbey without the benefits of indoor plumbing. Sure, dwarves could dig out space for plumbing and the like, but ultimately I only had so much space on my sheet of graph paper and I wanted to convey an exciting place to adventure, not an exciting place to relieve one’s PC. I put cabinets in the sleeping quarters for residents, I imagine there were Golarion equivalents of “port-a-lets” for parties, or little rooms under the stairs that don’t resolve on the map well, who knows? Who cares? Someone cared and commented on it. Someone else asked where the kitchen was, mistaking the kitchen and servants quarters for a torture chamber. Some days you just can’t win as a game designer, even if you do win RPG Superstar.

This whole process did get me to thinking though, how many times do you really think about where the pipes are and where the waste goes? The only time you really think about where someone goes pee is when you need to go pee. When was the last time you asked to stop game action so a PC could void? Of course you have excused yourself to the restroom during a game, most of us are not blessed with 5L bladders, but do your adventurers specifically take identified relief breaks? No, they don’t. You may designate when you rest, because spell casters just aren’t much use after their spells are gone. You definitely state who sleeps and takes watch when, what precautions are set up to keep the party safe while they sleep, whether there’s a fire or not, but at no time in my 25+ years of gaming have we ever designated that someone dug a latrine.

So where do Orcs (or PCs) pee? Out in the wilderness, it’s easy – they find a tree preferably with a shrub that is not poisonous nearby, they go behind it, and go about their business. In an enclosed dungeon, things can get a little dicey – if they leave behind evidence, they risk being discovered. Perhaps they have a favorite dead end tunnel where they’ve placed a bucket (not unlike some of the forts in Skyrim) or a well situated rocky outcropping in a sandy area.

Survival is a real world skill as well as an in game mechanic. If you ask something of the players, that goes for the NPCs as well. How realistically you run your game is up to you. I urge both GMs and players who become obsessed with such real world, but unheroic aspects of the game, to let that kind of thinking go. No one wants to spend precious game time hiding their feces. Role playing games aren’t intended to replace real world experiences, they are intended to entertain people at a table and not bog people down with minutia. This reminds me of an infamous story a friend of mine shares about an early gaming experience where his PC died before the adventure “began” because the GM made him traverse a forest to get to the closest town where he could buy his equipment and he died in the forest – doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it?? This level of realism will kill not only PCs, it will kill the mood of the table.

If you wish to experience real world situations, do those things in the real world. Go outside, go camping, in tents, campers, or sleeping bags. Backpack into the woods – cook your food over a wood fire, try to find safe leaves for toileting, sleep under the stars and wonder “was that a bear?” When you choose to do something like that, you aren’t likely to go out on your own the first time without talking with an experienced camper, you might even take one with you. Remember, your PC has some nominal training and lives in the setting, this isn’t their first time peeing in the woods, even if it is yours.

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Zombieland, 2009. Columbia Pictures.

As a GM or game designer, you are called upon to write and design a place where players will be exploring. As mundane and inane as it sounds, this is really going to bother your players and ultimately could be a problem for you. There is always that one player that simply cannot rest until they know how bodily functions are managed. For that player, it is best to have some kind of answer so they can let their fixation go, hence the cabinets in every room. A small bucket or pot in a cabinet or under the bed answers the question without having to make a space in an already drawn map for toilets. At our table, we encountered a toilet area and as players we were torn between excavation or walking away. After some tentative Perception checks, our GM saved us by simply reporting “There is nothing of interest here today”. It has become a running joke for us for any strangely empty area, because frequently toilets are spaces that are included on maps, but nothing really exciting seems to happen in them (until now, I’m certain I am changing the gaming industry with this blog). In movies, television, and books, people are almost exclusively going to restrooms to avoid discovery, have a private conversation, or do pretty much anything other than relieve themselves – unless they’re a Lannister, but I won’t spoil that particular scene.

It is worth noting that some amazing archaeological discoveries have been found in outhouses. Perhaps it is worth digging around in latrines and outhouses to see if some wealthy noble dropped their family treasures in to keep them safe from bandits or the assassins outside the door, or maybe it’s just gross. Only you as a designer, GM, or player can decide if you are going to wade into personal waste.

There comes a time in every gamer’s life where they really need to decide, is it important to me where Orcs pee? And hopefully you will come to realize that maybe you don’t really care where Orcs pee after all, you’re just here to adventure and have fun.

*Thank you, Owen KC Stephens for this amazing title. If you have something you would like to see discussed on Inspire Confidence, please contact me through the network’s email at KnowDirection@hotmail.com.

Monica Marlowe

Monica Marlowe is the 2015 Paizo RPG Superstar. Winning the contest launched her freelance game designing career. Her winning adventure, "Down the Blighted Path" and PFS scenario "Captive in Crystal" are available through Paizo. She’s publishing additional gaming materials under Marlowe House and through 3rd party publishers. Monica is also active in the ongoing education in gender, sexual, and racial equality in the gaming community. Driven by a desire to see a more diverse gaming community, Monica has joined the Know Direction network to help and encourage all gamers, veteran and new, to find their voices. Monica lives in southwest Ohio with her husband, Andrew, and 2 children, Kate and Thomas.

3 Comments

  1. I honestly never hear anyone complain about their suspension of disbelief being broken by an absence of restrooms, chamberpots are pretty common knowledge. However, the number of times a stealthy entrance into a building/dungeon through its sewer has been suggested to me has happened too many times to count. I suspect that’s more of a reason anyone ever cares, they’re trying to think tactically, not about their character’s bladders (granted, I didn’t read the review of your map. *They* might have been thinking about that).

    • As always, your miles may vary. I have never entered a table top location through the sewers to my recollection, but now I’ll be on the look out for sewers in urban settings!

    • One adventure there was a tag-along NPC that was becoming a burden to the GM, so the NPC did not return after going around the corner to pee. It was meant as both a plot hook and to get rid of a GM responsibility that was bogging things down. One of the players hassled the GM about this for the rest of the campaign because “we should have been told when the NPC was going to pee in case we could have done something about it.” But the argument only holds water to me if going for a pee is an unusual occurrence. If we were told every time every NPC releived themselves, and if we had to keep track of when we needed to relieve our PCs, Pathfinder would quickly become Toilet Finder, and I’m only a bit interested in playing that.

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