Yearly Archives: 2015

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.)

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.

 

Enderra 2015

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.

twomoons2
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”.

Enderra 2015

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.

 

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.

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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!

 

A New World, Part 7: Mythology – The Five Gods of Man

Third and last part in the Mythology arc of posts.

The names of all Old Gods were created using the Lovecraftian Names generator.

The Five Gods of Man

Even though his mother got better in the years after Darac and his companions freed her from the Underworld, where she had been imprisoned by the dead god Rarthot, Darac himself was a changed man. He had seen so many horrors in that realm of torment, too much suffering, and too much brutality. Before, he had been convinced that some – if not most – gods were benign; now he doubted this belief.

His doubts on the matter were finally settled when, five years after Darac’s return from the underworld, a series of calamities began to hit the lands: A drought led to forest fires and a famine. The following year, winter lasted so long that there was no summer. The snow finally melted at the time autumn arrived, and the seasonal rain and the melting snow led to floods and mudslides. Without a crop that year, the famine grew worse – granaries were empty, and even the foragers returned to their villages empty-handed most days. And as if this had not been enough, the dead rose from their graves that winter.

Darac sought his mother’s council. Because of her years in the Underworld, she had developed a… gift, saw visions in her dreams, and had great insight into the workings of the divine.

“The gods,” Darac’s mother said, “are angry at you, my son. They seek revenge for their humiliation, for your defiance.”

“But we are not suffering, mother,” Darac replied. “We have enough food. our lands are large and my estate small. Why must others suffer for what I did?”

“That is the way of the gods, son. Your first punishment is to see those suffer who are innocent in your eyes. It will get worse.” She paused. “It always gets worse.”

Darac knew, in his heart, that Iruwa was right, but his mind did not want to accept what was clear to his sight. As before, he summoned his companions. Of the three who had accompanied him to the underworld, two answered his call. Darac told them of his mother’s explanation, and what he intended to do about it. The two replied that they believed that Darac had become insane, but yet, they once more swore an oath to stand by his side, no matter what the cost to their own being or souls.

Darac, his companions, and Iruwa then travelled across the land to the palace of the God-Queen, Nuria, whose lands had remained unaffected. Three times he demanded that the God-Queen Nuria open the gates of her kingdom to refugees. Three times he demanded that she share the contents of her granaries with the starving people outside. The God-Queen Nuria denied each of his demands. Darac then challenged her to, and with the use of the Sword of Yorhorh and the powers of the dead god, Rarthot, defeated her in personal combat. As he was about to behead the God-Queen Nuria, she yielded and offered her loyalty in exchange for her life. Darca accepted, and the God-Queen Nuria henceforth fought on Darac’s side.

Indeed, Darca had had no intention of killing the God-Queen Nuria, for her abilities and powers played an important role in his plan. As a goddess herself, she was able to find, and lead Darac to, other gods. They met Daugggol by a stream, as the Wild God was feasting on still-beating hearts. Darac killed Daugggol after but a short fight. Thalhar was the next god they confronted – the lustful god was killed in the brothel he had been frequenting in disguise. Sorth-zaraug survived, but was banished to the Underworld – the first time that a God would be imprisoned there.

In similar manner, Darac’s band of adventurers hunted down and killed every god they could find. Word of his deeds spread, and volunteers arrived. Soon, Darac had an army at his disposal.

The gods had, of course, taken notice, and they, too began to band together. At first smaller groups challenged Darac, but while Darac lost some men, and could not always kill all of his opponents outright, he and his companions remained undefeated.

At long last, the gods united under the leadership of Rarakrsha, who had led many armies over the eons as his enjoyed the bloodshed and death of soldiers on the field. The gods called their faithful to a crusade against Darac, and the army of the gods and the army of men clashed on the northern plateau of Tarn. The battle raged for weeks, with heav causalities on both sides. Darac and Rarakrsha met in the midst of the battlefield, and the hero of mankind slew the god of warfare right there, raising his severed head high. Silence fell on the battlefield, and then the mortals in the army of gods betrayed their masters. The few remaining gods present on the plateau of Tarn did not survive their general for long.

After the battle, Darac and his companions decided to push on for a final victory, advised to do so by the God-Queen Nuria. She said that if there ever was a day to strike against the Pantheon, it was this very day, and so they set forth, bringing with them a small group of their best fighting-men.

Tensions ran high among the men as they approached the white marble pillars, and a few fell to their knees as they crossed the Threshold, frozen in fear. The rest left them behind. They followed the long, tall halls, their steps echoing through the eternity of Pantheon. They were alone. They found nobody – no god, no mortal, nothing. The Great Chamber was deserted, the throne room of Anagkekra was empty. It was here that Darac and his companions held council. Again, it was the God-Queen Nuria who, through her own status, could offer an explanation.

The gods, she said, had fled. Fearful for their lives, their very existence, they had abandoned the world for good. “You know what must be done now,” she said.

“I do not know,” Darac replied. “I do not.”

“You must take it,” the God-Queen replied. “You must sit on the throne. You must take the reigns of power, and replace the gods you have slain.”

“I can not,” Darac answered. “I do not want this power, can not carry this responsibility!”

“That,” the God-Queen Nuria said simply, “Is why you must.”

Darac’s mother, Iruwa, put her hand on her son’s shoulder. “You know she is right,” she said. “There is nobody else you can trust. We will be with you, son.”

And so, with a heavy heart, Darac approached the enormous throne, his two remaining companions, his mother Iruwa, and the God-Queen Nuria at his side, and it is they, who have since that day, protected and guided all the peoples of the world as the new Five Gods.

 

A New World, Part 6: Mythology – Darac’s Descend into the Underworld

These turned out to be longer than I thought, so I decided to split them up. Part two of the Mythology arc:

Darac’s Descend Into the Underworld

Darac’s victory felt hollow to the great hero, as he knew that his mother was still trapped in the Underworld, suffering unmentionable pain every day. And not only his mother – he knew all too well that there were hundreds, maybe countless, people who had been taken by gods over the eons.

Two year after his return from the Pantheon he called his companions to him. Three answered the call, and after they arrived, Darac proposed that they should descend into the Underworld, to free his mother, and any other humans they could. His companions agreed they would follow him, but said that such an endeavor was plainly impossible. Everybody had known, they said, how to get to the Pantheon. Nobody knew how to get into the Underworld. Darac told them that he had thought about this, and had come up with a solution. He asked his companions to swear that, no matter what, they would be loyal to him, and the cause, and all three agreed and swore this oath.

Darac smiled and gave a sign to his servants. They opened a large door at the other end of the hall, and armed guards led in eight priests and priestesses. Each was in chains. Each served a God known to be particularly cruel – Thachac, Mmoldar, Teggogh, Yor-Sothan, and others.

“You serve your Gods well, do you not?” Darac asked the men and women. They nodded in agreement.

“And what you see, your Gods see, do they not?” Again, the priests agreed.

“Then know this. We are coming for you. We will hunt down every one of you, and kill each and every one of you, until your masters stop us. Banish us to the Underworld, I dare them! Nothing will stop us!” and with this, Darac drew the sword of Yorhorh, and killed each of the eight priests and priestesses in turn.

Darac revealed to his companions that he had used the treasure of the red dragon to gather a small but highly trained and fiercely loyal group of mercenaries – five thousand men in total. And he intended to carry out his threats. At first, the companions were aghast, but Darac reminded them of all the evil the Gods had committed, and convinced them that his way was just.

For the next six years, Darac’s army traveled through the lands, and they killed every servant of those gods they could find. As word of his deeds spread, some cities and kingdoms denied him entry, and so he forced his way. He spared the God-Queen Nuria, but only after burning down her temples and palaces.

At the end of six years, the Gods decided that enough was enough. They banished Darac and his companions, and his entire army, to the Underworld. Darac and his companions used every trick at their disposal, all the power of the dead god Rarthot, to protect their men from the torment, but most succumbed and died in the first weeks. The rest marched on and made war on the demons of the Underworld. They even freed some people, who then joined their crusade.

At long last, Darac found Iruwa. She had not aged a day since Rarthot had imprisoned her, and she was physically unharmed, though her soul had been broken. She did not know who the strangers were who suddenly faced her, and had long forgotten the notion of a life without eternal suffering. She followed, but not out of enthusiasm to be free once more; she followed like any broken slave would in fear of the whip.

Despite having achieved his goal, Darac had a great moment of doubt. It seemed that despite all the hardship, he could not even save his mother. He nearly gave up, there, in the deepest levels of hell, but his companions reminded him of the good he had done, of the people he had saved, and that it was not, after all, too late for his mother – if Darac would lead them out of the Underworld.

Darac agreed, and with a heavy heart took charge of the men again. They soon found that their entry had been easy – all the guardians of the Underworld aimed at keeping people and souls in, not out! Roads that had been free were now open. Rivers of molten lava had appeared where there had been serene lakes of blood before. Things with sharp teeth came for the men when they rested, and the gods sent armies of the dead to confront them. Darac’s army, already reduced to a fraction of its size, dwindled. They fought and defeated Zotsa, whose phlegm dissolved a man within seconds. They came across a lake where a dozen men would not heed warnings out of thirst and turned to stone as they drank. They climbed a wall made out of the writhing bodies of disloyal temple slaves. They braved the burning air of Genvahorr and the frozen caverns of  Ucpelardi.

It was in these caves that they nearly found their end, were it not for a strange coincidence. Through the thick snow-storms, they saw several shapes. As they got closer, it became clear that what they saw was a battle. It was a naked woman, with dark hair, surrounded by a dozen winged demons. Her skin was pale, almost blue from the cold, and the demons had frost-covered skin. She was using a horn she had ripped off a demon’s head as a club. Then Darac recognized her, it was the God-Queen Nuria! Without much thought, Darac charged the demons, and his companions and men followed him.

After defeating the demons, and providing some of their clothes to the God-Queen, Nuria explained that she had been cast into the Underworld as punishment for being spared by Darac. She was not the ally Darac would have chosen, but she was a familiar person. More-over, she said she thought she could find the way back, even though she was feeling too weak to make it on her own.

Darac agreed to trust the God-Queen Nuria, and she was true to her word. She led Darac’s now very small group of men to the surface, where they emerged amidst the volcanoes of the southern islands.