RPGBA Carnival – Unusual Dungeons – Wrap-Up

May comes to an end, and so does the Unusual Dungeons RPG Blog Carnival.

After a somewhat slow start, we’ve had a number of submissions:

James Introcaso was the most prolific contributor this month, supplying us with a series about a prison for dragons:

And from myself:

Phil, from Tales of a GM, is taking over for June – with the appropriate subject “Summerland” (Summer in RPGs). Take it away, Phil!

(And of course, if you’d like to read up on past carnivals or check on future subjects, head on over to the RPGBA Carnival archive page.)

Links for May 2015

I have some links for you, for a change:


Unusual Dungeon #4: Crevasses

Antarctic Crevasse, Photo by Mtpaley
Antarctic Crevasse, Photo by Mtpaley

Crevasses – basically cracks in glaciers – are a type of dungeon I first encountered in the Secret of the Silver Blades, where they lead up to the evil Dreadlord’s castle. Cringeworthy as that sounds, I’ve always loved the idea of a band of adventurers exploring the bottom of crevasses – the combination of dangerous environment, bitter cold, and even unearthly beauty is quite potent. Snowy environments are also much neglected, in my opinion, so here’s the chance to kill two yetis with one chunk of ice.

The crevasses will be a fairly irregular mess. There are similarities with caves, but the passages will mostly be narrow and long. Lots of dead ends. A similar feature – ice caves – can offer larger, covered spaces.

Use: The crevasses is probably best used as an obstacle, or rather, a passage through an obstacle – the glacier. It could connect to one or more destinations. One trope is the hidden valley full of lush vegetation, warmed by magic or volcanic vents. Another the frozen castle or similar lair. Or turn it around – the crevasses are the only means of escape from the white dragon’s lair.

The crevasses also serve as a “man vs nature” subplot. Adequate equipment, food, and protection from the cold will be essential to the protagonist’s survival.

Enemies: Since the structures are of a fairly temporary nature, your adventurers won’t find much in the way of permanent settlements. Opponents will be related to cold – yetis, snow elementals, frost giants, ice mephits, you name it. Less fortunate adventurers who fell into the crevasses could now rise as frosted-over zombies, awoken by the warmth of the player characters’ campsite.

Tschingelfirn crevasses, Phot by Ambroix
Tschingelfirn crevasses, Phot by Ambroix


Unusual Dungeon #3: One Huge Tree

Samuel_Palmer_-_Old_Cedar_Tree_in_Botanic_Garden,_Chelsea_-_Google_Art_ProjectHuge trees occur throughout mythology. There’s the tree of life, and Yggdrasil, for example. There’s also the beanstalk that brought Jack into the land of the giant. In more recent history, Kaena and Ryzom come to mind. Any tree that’s big enough makes for a wonderful dungeon.

I first came across the concept in the old Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) adventure module Durch Das Tor der Welten – Through The Gateway of the Worlds –  where (Spoiler alert!) the players are forced through the eponymous gate and end up on top of a huge tree. Their task is to get down safely.

In some ways, this sort of setting is a variation of the treetop village and, if your tree is large enough and/or features intelligent inhabitants, it might include a treetop village.

Due to the three dimensional nature of a huge tree, your dungeon map will be very different from a normal dungeon. Instead of having a floor plan, or try to map every little twig, a flow-chart like affair seems like the best approach. For each location, note what connections exist to other places. Make sure, in your description, to include what players see above and below them. How much is foliage blocking your protagonists’ sight?

Objective: The obvious goal of a giant tree is to climb to the top, or to get back to the ground. The Dark Eye adventure mentioned above used the later, but I personally feel that getting to the top is more intuitive. Obviously, you’ll need to make sure there are reasons for your heroes not to have access to flying machines, magic, or beasts. The reward at the top could be anything: A flying ship that got caught in the branches, or perhaps the tree pokes – much like Jack’s beanstalk – through a cloud and leads them to Serranian.

Climbing down would be more of a survival/escape story. Your characters start with limited resources and have to make do with what they can obtain during their descent. What brought them up in the first place depends very much on your setting. Perhaps they were jumping an air ship, or an annoyed dragon dumped them there instead of eating them.

Enemies: Anything you can imagine living in a tree. In the case of the singular huge tree, though, opponents could be a bit more faery-tale like. Flying beasts might perch on the branches. And if you are with Jack, a cloud giant could live above.

Special treasure: A seed from the tree may be very valuable to mages, alchemists, or as a curio.



E2015: The Moons of Enderra

Back when I first designed Enderra, I decided that it had three moons and a (thin) ring system. I did this mostly for the imagery, not really thinking about the consequences much. Multiple large moons can have severe effects on the planetary environment. Universe Today has a summary of some of the effects of adding a second, Moon-sized, moon to Earth.

White Moon, Meet Red Moon

The scenario they describe is extreme, and I am not quite sure where they get some of their numbers (tides “thousands of feet” in height seem off) but I am sure they know more about this stuff than I do. Anyway, even with lessened effects, I have come to think of three moons as excessive.

At the same time, I do like the “exotic” visuals. Let’s ditch one moon and the ring system.

Enderran Moons . Size Comparison
Enderran Moons . Size Comparison

I’ve done some math to make sure the moons don’t cause huge problems. I mostly used GURPS Space for this, since I couldn’t find formulas easily, and ran the numbers for the Moon (of Earth) through the same process – for verification. Even when the two moons align, their effect on tides should be at most twice that of Earth’s Moon. The actual tidal levels, though, depend a lot on geography and local conditions. Yes, we will have some tides that are more extreme than on Earth, but it won’t mess with the fundamental state of affairs. Nights will be a bit brighter, and there will be a little bit more volcanism on Enderra than on Earth.

Both moons are tidally locked to Enderra – that is, they always show the same face to Enderra. The White Moon’s synodic month is 30.33 days, the Red Moon’s is 43.22.

What’s in a Name?

The two moons are simply named “the Red Moon” and “the White Moon”, similar to how Earth’s moon is just called “the Moon”. I might give them name later (the three original moons had names) but I think I like the simplicity of “Red Moon” and “White Moon”.


E2015: Revisiting Enderra

Planet drawn with Inkscape
Planet drawn with Inkscape

Oh, Enderra. You were my first fantasy world. I named this site after you. And yet, I have neglected you for a decade. I am sorry.

I’ve recently been in the mood to do some fantasy world-building again. Part of it is that I’d really like to get back into gaming; part of it is a desire to get rid of all those post-Enderran attempts at fantasy worlds that are cluttering my Worldbuilding folder. And part of it is that I’ve been doing too much Science Fiction in the past few years.

And there’s another reason. My nephew is going to be old enough to start gaming in a few years. I should prepare for that.

Enderra is now over twenty years old. It was created, more or less ad-hoc, for a GURPS Fantasy campaign, but it’s been used with my own D&D clone rules, Tunnels and Trolls, AD&D 2nd, D&D 3rd, and even TORG. We played campaigns of our own invention and “official” modules. The Temple of Elemental Evil, to me, is not in Greyhawk – it’s in Eastern Enderra.

Enderra already went through one major revision, in circa 1999 when we started our D&D campaign. I had not been happy with some of the decisions I had originally made, so I advanced the timeline and changed a lot of stuff around.

So – what are my goals for Enderra 2015?

Since Enderra is not actively used by anybody, and I have published very little of my material, I feel like I can afford to reshape the setting from the ground up – apply everything I have learned about world-building in the past twenty years. One of the lessons I learned is that it really helps to have design goals and guidelines:

  1. Enderra Is Real: Well, it’s of course not really real; but the approach should always be that “this is not a game” – Enderra is a parallel earth, and can easily be found in a universe one phase shift away from our own, if you just know how. I believe that treating it as “real” will help make the right design decisions.
  2. Enderra must be internally consistent: This is really my number one golden rule for worldbuilding. Everything must make sense inside the setting. If there’s a Raise Dead spell, then why isn’t the world ruled by immortal kings? Or is it? Hmmm!
  3. Enderra shall not be a kitchen sink. Do you remember Eberron? “If it exists in D&D, it exists in Eberron”. Or consider RIFTS. Kitchen sink settings rarely work out well.
  4. Enderra is not a hexcrawl: Hexcrawls might be compelling, but a world consists of more than random hexes filled with combat encounters. Enderra is a place, its inhabitants lead lives, plot against each other, wage wars… I’ll use the story-based approach described by Paul in the Shakespeare & Dragons Podcast.
  5. There are no holy cows: I’ve got a lot of material and notes about Enderra. I have even more in my head. I will re-use material where I can, but if there’s a better way to do something then I will change it.
  6. Enderra shall be a fantasy setting that works with D&D and its clones.  This doesn’t mean that much, considering how archetypical D&D really is. It does imply certain assumptions, for example how magic works, and will guide certain thematic or stylistic choices.
  7. Enderra must be compatible with Contact Light: Enderra is the “lost homeworld” of the Contact Light setting. This places some minor restrictions on my design – for example, I can’t turn Enderra into a Ringworld.
  8. Produce a publishable World Book: By publishable I don’t mean “for sale”, but my end product should be a campaign guide that other people can use. This places some limitations on the scope of the work, and above all, provides me with a measurable goal.

Let’s get cracking.



Unusual Dungeon #2: Treetop Village

Treehouse_at_Milne_Bay_-_Papua_New_Guinea_-_1884-1885This is another, actually relatively common, dungeon type that still makes for a great change of pace: A treetop village. Probably the most famous example would be the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi, but they’re really all over the place, especially since many authors like to use them for Elves. The Channelwood Age from Myst is also an example of this.

But Nils, you might say, a village isn’t a dungeon! And you’d be right, for any normal village. A treetop village features the same limited movement than an underground dungeon does (provided your party can’t fly). Sure, characters could try to jump across chasms or improvise rope bridges, but that’s the sort of drama and problem solving that makes an adventure fun.

 Why go there?

I think an “intact”, that is inhabited, treetop village doesn’t work well – the inhabitants will be able to communicate easily and mount an effective defense; our intrepid adventurers would fight wave after wave of defenders. Fun, but not your usual dungeon crawl. It also means any sort of hostage rescue is out of the question – the occupants could just kill the captives at the first sign of trouble.

A better approach is probably to use an abandoned treetop village. Maybe oversized spiders or some other wildlife inhabits it now. Maybe a villain on the run is hiding in it. And maybe the locals simply left something of value behind. Druidic artifacts or some other form of nature magic probably works best, but just because these guys lived in trees does not mean they did not like gold.

Who’re we fighting?

Any sort of animal or monster capable of flying or climbing. Giant spiders, semi-sentient vampire bats, twig monsters. If it has a place in a forest and can make it up, it can be a possible monster in a treetop village dungeon.


D&D Gold Coins

On Earth, 174,100 tonnes of gold have been mined in total throughout human history. D&D 5th Edition defines the weight of gold coins as “50 to a pound”, or 110.231 coins per kilogram. This means that your average D&D campaign world can have a maximum of about 19.2 billion gold coins hidden away in dark dungeons.

Talk about monty haul.


Unusual Dungeon #1: Hedge Maze

Labyrinth_Versailles_colourOne type of unusual dungeon that actually gets used sometimes is the Hedge Maze. Hedge mazes are familiar to anybody – labyrinths grown from, well, hedges. They evolved from know gardens, a type of garden that features a very strict, symmetric, and usually square layout. A hedge maze could even have grown from such a knot garden, after generous application of black magic by an evil faery queen.

The usability as a dungeon is really well illustrated by the picture on the right, a map of a hedge maze that used to exist in the gardens of Versailles.

Due to the amount of work required, they are almost always part of a palace or so, but in a fantasy setting some madman could just set up a hedge maze for the sole purpose of confusing, capturing, or distracting his enemies. Usually, the game will be less about the maze itself, but more about something to be found at the center, or at the other end: The villain’s castle, shreds of a treasure map, statues that are hints to the location of a cache of art looted in the war.

How not to run a hedge maze dungeon

To make a hedge maze useful, you’d have to provide some sort of mechanism to prevent the characters from simply cutting through the hedges. If the maze is used to toy with the characters, this could be a mere threat (“Don’t even think about cheating, or the Mad Jester will kill the mayor’s daughter!”). The maze itself may be a monster; the hedges have sharp thorns and lash out at any attacker. If the hedge is magical, perhaps cutting a hole into one just leads to the point of origin. In a space opera context, the plants are of a strange, alien variety that draw metals from the ground and cannot be cut by the characters’ knives.

Thematically, the obstacles and opponents found in the maze should be plant-related, or park-related. If the antagonist is a faery or evil jester, add fey and joker-related creatures and traps to the list. Clues should be guarded by puzzles, traps should hinder progress – and these tropes work so much better in a hedge maze because they are set up deliberately as puzzles.


RPG Blog Carnival: Unusual Dungeons

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallA ‘dungeon’ is a room or cell in which a prisoner is kept. Traditionally, it is where evil overlords keep the fair maiden until the knights in shining armor come to her rescue. In fantasy role-playing games, the term ‘dungeon’ quickly expanded to mean any underground complex which the players explore in a structureed format; often, examining it room by room rather than in a story driven fashion – even when a backstory drives this explanation.

This has led to the dungeon becoming perhaps the biggest trope of the hobby, and one of the things every GM strives to do is break the formula – provide interesting settings, variations, and breaks from the pattern, while often keeping the convenience of dungeon-based game-play. Additionally, a classic dungeon is not appropriate for all genres.

I’ve always been a fan of dungeon delving, of cave exploration; from the old Red Box introduction dungeon to Undermountain, from the asteroid mines of Ceres to the fallen ruins of the Venusian space elevators. This month, I’d like to invite you to join me in exploring unusual dungeons – be it by location, theme, design, or any other element that you think makes a dungeon interesting and stand out from the usual mold.

If you write an article on the subject, please post a comment with a link below to share your work with others! (I need to approve comments, but I will do so at least once a day.)

Happy dungeon exploration, everybody!