Tag Archives: Dungeon

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.


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.

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.