Barmaids, merchants, peasants working the field, little old men from scene 24 - all can reduce to talking wallpaper by application of needless exposition. Do they deserve this ignominious fate? They may know something you don't - although such knowledge may not be readily translatable into wealth galore. If it was, do you think they'd be talking to you?
So, how to avoid redecorating in talking wallpaper?
- Books - Elminster's Ecologies were a nice way of putting in additional lore about creatures. Not all books in a dungeon contain spells or obscure rites, some even contain knowledge. How much detail you go into depends on your time - a notebook can be a very nice draw for campaign play and can foreshadow future events.
- Graffiti - The writing on the wall can save a little old man from obscurity. It's also a nice way of show and tell that doesn't need setup. If you're subtle, you make it a way to show which parts of a dungeon are cleared out (doubtless such enabling behaviour sets grognard teeth on edge) or introduce recurring plot threads - not all graffiti is complimentary...
- Poetry & songs - If you're modestly talented, you can put together scraps of verse or song that refer to dungeon denizens. You don't have to sing or recite them and such verse is not unknown - either as a cryptic saying or as a known clue to taunt adventurers. Some races are known for their love of song and poetry, why not include it?
- Public notices - Something for people who enjoy creating props - finding a public notice for a tournament on a dead warrior can offer a new hook. If a character is outlaw, a wanted poster is a nice touch if only as they get to re-enact every outlaw trope with their prop ("Only 500 crowns? Must do something about that...") and you will get players competing.
- Endangered contacts. It is an age-old truism players feel they've earned information if they had to risk something for it. Be sure to make the information proportionate to the risk and also consistent. It's an unusual magician who knows the combination to the evil Duke's cunning death-trap and who is beholden to a group of heroes.
- Enigmatic sources. The mysterious stranger is another cliche ranging from meddler to divine avatar (and meddler). Perhaps they have plans for the characters or will portray themselves differently from their true visage or even use intermediaries; you need to consider how your players will respond to this kind of thing.
- Recurring contacts. From wise sages to knowing courtiers to out-of-luck lowlifes, there is nothing wrong with these people as long as you get multiple shots from them. Give them their own life and motivation to help the characters and you've got durability and maybe the players will come to get to know them...
- Self-destructing sources. A cliche but effective. "Whatever you do, don't... "(person dies). Perhaps one of the best examples was a Call of Cthulhu scenario where the source mutates through magic into a monster, the longer you stay, the more information you get but you may have to clean up the mess.
Your dungeons need not go as all-out as that. Maybe two stories? A really big place like the labyrinth of Crete, designed by the greatest engineer of that time to house a terrible monster with an appetite for human flesh, whispered to be the unholy union between the queen and a sacred bull. Do Knowledge checks about your dungeons have that kind of zing?
And if not, why not? Share your thoughts...