Planar travel for dummies – session 21

In this session, my players wander into the planes for the first time, and therefore I will write something on how I see the planes in D&D and how I’ve changed it for my home brew world, in addition to the normal session recap.

A couple of the issues I have with the planes in D&D are that there are so many of them, that the facts concerning the planes are ‘true’ and that most of them are infinite.

The problem with the fact that there are so many is that most characters – and thus players – will so rarely visit the same ones that they never gain any familiarity with them. The planes fail to become an integral part of the game world. In a typical campaign you will maybe visit one plane, so unless a campaign is centered around one of them – invasion by the City of Brass or the intrigues of the unseelie courts – they don’t play a big role.

sigil
Sigil is probably the most interesting city Wizards or TSR ever made, and it doesn’t exist in the prime material plane. 

But on the other hand, the planes are infinite. They must therefore have many more interesting places and beings than the prime world, which annoys me, because the prime world should be the most interesting (Sigil is in many ways a more interesting place than Greyhawk or Waterdeep). And there are known ‘facts’ about them (you can look them up in the DMG), which makes them less mysterious.

 

The prime world is more complex and finite and therefore more manageable and interesting to explore (as it should be), but the actual interaction with these far planes should be part of the adventurer’s lives and understanding.

My approach
To improve on this (in my opinion), I’ve made some changes to my multi-verse. The key ones are below. Others I will not write here, as my players are unaware of them, and I like to keep it that way.

earthdawn3
In Earthdawn powerful monstrosities lurk in the Astral plane, and some even exists in both planes at once.
  • First of all, I’ve combined the Feywild, Shadowfell and the Etheral plane into one and called them the Warrens (inspired by Steven Erikson), and that plane mirrors the prime plane, like the astral plane in Earthdawn and the umbra in Werewolf the Apocalypse.

 

  • Secondly , I’ve changed several spells to fit this, so when you detect or divine you see through the Warrens and when you teleport or misty step or whatever, you actually walk through the Warrens, where time and distance works differently. As the Warrens are a mirror to the prime world, it also means you can’t teleport across an ocean, you need a vessel inside the Warrens, which would enable you to cross the ocean faster. There are also beings inside the Warrens, many of them powerful, so you have to tread carefully.
  • Thirdly, there is not one, but several explanations to what they are and how they work – just like we can discuss the nature of the divine. The two my players have heard are: Some say the Warrens are a failed version of the prime world that the first gods discarded. Others that the presence of magical essence in all things naturally creates a mirror state.

These changes have the effect that the Warrens are relevant in basically every session and that the players slowly learn more about them.

It also underscores the main theme of my campaign: exploration. The Warrens is a place you explore and it is part of exploring the prime plane.

Also, instead of simply teleporting from one place to the other they have to travel everywhere, and have to consider if the advantage of going somewhere quickly outweighs the risk of meeting something very dangerous. This also underlines the theme of the campaign.

The session:
When the characters stepped through the portal (only 3 out of 7 players were present) they were immediately set upon by vengeful animal spirits, which they relatively easily defeated but they damaged them. The portal was located inside the Warren’s version of the hollowed tree.

They then began investigating the tortured elf who was crucified nearby and concluded that he had lost his soul. Then the Horned Devil and its two henchmen (bearded devils) were summoned and another fight ensued. It appeared that it had been promised their souls.

devilhorned
5th edition Horned Devil. A CR 11 monster taken out by 3 level 6 characters. Maybe I was easy on them?

To explain the presence of more characters and make they fight more appropriate, I ruled that the non-present player’s characters engage the two bearded devils. The three remaining characters then sniped away from a Fog Cloud and managed to banish the devil.

Outside of the tree, the woods of the Warrens were eerily quiet and unnatural, with no sun and with the great trees casting long shadows. Two paths had been marked through the Warrens, and they knew that to navigate the Warrens away from the path would require a stern focus (successful INT or WIS checks). One path was marked with skulls another with small crystals. They chose the crystal path north, which should lead to the middle sister.

After a few hours journeying through the Warrens they spot a corpse of an elf by an altar holding a staff with gems. They move away from the path to investigate, and when they get closer suddenly the path has disappeared, as has their four companions, and the elf turns out to be a skeleton holding nothing. At that point they are set upon by shadow bats and a weird sylvan creature with the legs of a hind and razor sharp teeth that sucks blood. They defeat them after a fierce battle and search the area as they can’t see the path anyway. In some ruins nearby they find her lair and a cloak woven from living plants and shadows and decide to rest.

They steel themselves and locate the path again, but they can’t see their companions anywhere. As the move on, they come upon a fight between a big dark skinned man wielding a beautiful great sword fighting a pack of very cunning regenerating wolves next to a mysterious dark well. They enter the battle on his side and finally slay all the wolves, which coalesce into one rangy man wearing wolf-skin.

malazen
Very complex fantasy series, highly influenced by Black Company, and grew out of an RPG campaign. One of my favorites. 

The man, who is named Xarzon, thanks them and they talk. It turns out the man was hunting him on behalf of a former employer, whom he has a disagreement with. He was a dangerous Dissembler – a shape shifter that can turn into multiple beasts (also stolen from Eriksons novels). He also tells them that the well has a spirit in it which serves as an oracle, if appeased correctly. He also tells them a few things about the Warrens: that they are strange beyond the vast space of the north, that the land is under some kind of curse and that the eldest of the Sisters of Sorrow dominates the trolls in her area and has made a pact with one of the Lords of the Nine Hells.

He also gives them a ring of protection as thank you, and with the loot of the Dissembler, it was a rewarding session.

Curse of Strahd – a review from a player perspective

Curse of Strahd is the best published adventure that I’ve ever played in. The atmosphere is fantastic, the locations, NPCs and villains are interesting, tragic and funny and the campaign requires you to play skillfully. And I must say, played in, not played to the end, because we TPK’ed about half-way through… I will keep the review spoiler free. Perhaps you will buy it for your DM? DM’s like that kind of sucking up (you can buy it here)!

Curse of Strahd can be improved (or modified) though, and I hope any DMs who run it will consider my perspective. As a reviewer, my challenge is that I haven’t read the campaign. I’ve only played in it, and therefore my DM’s choices, awesomeness, mistakes, additions or oversights is reflected in my opinion.

17527
Cover of the original 1983 module.

The sand-box campaign is a remake of the original Ravenloft module. The original mainly focused on the dungeon – the castle itself. The remake is bigger and contains Strahd’s domain of Barovia and several locations and many NPCs living there.

We played with the Rest Variant – Gritty Realism (DMG pg. 267), with the change that you could use HD to regain spell slots. I think this added a lot of tension to the whole story, and helps create a more realistic timeline.

What I really liked:

  • Lore, which is important to your survival, is scattered all over. Every time you speak to an NPC or find a new location, you have a sense that there is more pieces to recover for the grand puzzle. It made the world feel important and alive, and exploration and paying attention to detail was essential.
  • It is difficult. It is hard to judge what locations are the most dangerous, and you feel very vulnerable in the beginning. We got somewhat overconfident though, which was stupid, and partly led to our demise. It feels like Skyrim without the save functionality.
  • Loot and good equipment is scarce. The supply of goods in Barovia is limited, and stuff like armor and spell components are hard to get. It added a fun dimension that we had to struggle for items even at level 5 and 6.
  • The mood is awesome, and there are some great stories and people and sub-plots in the adventure.
  • dnd_curstrahd_tarokka
    The Tarokka cards help define the adventure, for example who you can expect to be your ally or Strahd’s weakness. But they are cryptic ofcourse.

    The card mechanic that helps define the campaign (and was in the original, I believe) adds re-play-ability, which is good for us, as we never reached the end.

What I disliked or would want changed:

  • Everyone we met, basically said that everywhere was dangerous (and it was compared to the villagers). But after you survive the first few locations that description becomes less meaningful, and led us to misjudge the location where we TPK’ed. Only one NPC hinted that one location was beyond us, until we were significantly more experienced. I would like a little more indicators as to the danger level, because let’s face it, it will be years before we try the adventure again.
  • The Curse of Strahd (and Storm King’s Thunder) use milestone XP, and we didn’t like that. We don’t find it satisfying as players to walk up to a new location and then the DM tells us we get a level, because the adventure says so. We want to earn it. But on the other hand, it seems like there isn’t enough material in the adventure to progress to the required level the old-fashioned way. Thus, the DM would have to add a few more locations and plots.
  • I would like even more minor locations and sub-plots.

We TPK’ed, after we had visited Castle Ravenloft once to steal an important item. The heist was an evening full of tension, and I wished there were more direct hints to go to a part of the castle to complete a specific task during the adventure. It seems like many save the castle to last, but that is not necessarily the right thing to do.

One of the things that was a bit mysterious to me was the fact that one of the cards we drew led us to the encounter where we TPK’ed. At 6th level we were completely outmatched. And I mean completely. We were all dead at the end of round two. We may have missed something obvious, but I’m not sure directing us there, to something that is clearly evil (and we are mainly good guys), and expecting us to come out ahead, is good design.

We only saw a small portion of Castle Ravenloft, and I assume there is a lot of interesting material in there.

We will try again…

After our wipe, we talked about picking the adventure up again after a couple of years, and perhaps starting at level 5, with the initial elements of the story completed, narrating that part together with the DM, and drawing fresh cards. I know for sure that I would like to return to Castle Ravenloft and face the Lord of Barovia.

For now, though, we’ve begun a game, where we play low level mobsters (or petty criminals who know some mobsters, really) in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in the glorious city of Luccini. It is going to be great fun!

 

 

Double feature: A dragon surprise…

So, being a dad and a DM, leaves less time for prep. And obviously, prep is more important than the recap and the blog. But I will keep at it, but the recaps of the latest two sessions will be short and to the point.

lazy_dm_cover_340wI’ve been looking into The Lazy DM (Lazy DM download), and there are some very good tips, but aren’t fully applicable to the kind of campaign I’m currently running. The kind of depth that I’m looking for in the history of the world they slowly uncover simply can’t be extrapolated from a few notes and improvisation (I can’t at least). It requires a bit more prep.

I did one thing in session 19 that I think warrants a pat on the DM-back, and that is letting go of prepared stuff, in favor of moving the plot forward.

When the PCs finished with the mine and returned to the settlement to rest, they discussed what to do next. I had already cut out the attack on the goblin tribe nearby by having the other adventuring party deal with that threat. That also reinforced the meta-theme of colonizing a new land and dealing with the natives. It is brutal, and interesting, how easy the dilemma of wanting to build something in a new land, but faced with enemies and diverging interest, leads to morally questionable choices. In any case, I had mapped the goblin lair and made a few rooms, but they were already too high level, and I would rather follow other, and more important, plot threads.

I also clearly said that the Kuo Toas could be dealt with by others as that adventure also wouldn’t push the plot(s) forward.

But back to the recaps.

Session 19:

The group explored the umber hulk lair and the tunnel from there that lead down to a natural cave, where the ancient miners had begun digging. From that cave they found the first shaft, which they entered the complex through.

0fcf9a3b039cf78b7ab1b984c1a04958
The dragon simulacra had less dangerous breath weapons and only AC 17. 

Finally, they went down to the automaton storage via the unexplored elevator. The automatons didn’t attack, and the room led to the vault. The vault was protected by a security system, including an automatic portcullis, a very intelligent magic mouth that shot frost rays from its eyes and two dragon simulacra of metal that attacked when they tried to pick the lock to the vault.

They succeeded in dispelling the worst of the trap and rapidly killed the simulacra (the damage output, when the party is lucky, is insane). Inside the vault they found their first platemail, a few magic items, including an axe made by giants, and a lot of knowledge. This included letters between two elven sisters and a story about a curse put on an elven family by giants.

Having cleared the mine, they returned to the settlement and spent a month and a half of down time. In that time, they returned to the mine with a few dwarves from the settlement and made an anvil in the mine, so they could setup their own smithy and the druid awakened a couple of beasts to help protect the settlement.

Session 20:

Of the four most interesting options: going after the remaining hags through the portal, visiting the Colourless Bridge, exploring the ruined city and exploring Fort 25, they chose the first.

Before they left, someone scried on the party, and Welk, the wizard with a weird item, knew that to be the case (for some reason).

After the harvest, they returned to the lair of Kinsira, but went a different route, and found a devil trapped in an old building with magic. They decided it would keep until they returned.

When they approached the huge tree stump, they noticed webs in the area that would warn anyone inside of their approach.

Inside the tree, there were apparently giant spiders, and something spoke to them in draconic, demand that they leave. They tried to intimidate it into submitting, but they were unaware that the creature behind the voice had been paid by the two remaining hags for protecting the area.

green_dragon_wyrmling
I liked the idea of having a quite mercenary young dragon, who ran into more dangerous adversaries. 

The spiders eventually attacked together with some ettercaps. At the worst possible moment, for the group, the young green dragon attacked, and its breath weapon drained a lot of hit points from the team (42 to be exact). Unfortunately for them, I rolled a 6 on recharge next round, and gave them another breath, but couldn’t cover them all, and it could have ended in a TPK, but the characters still standing responded with a wall of thorns and a fireball, and when the dragon failed to fell the mighty half-orc fighter the following round, it submitted to the stronger adversary.

Back on their feet, they questioned the dragon and learned a couple of things, including the facts that the eldest of the hags lives in a swamp to the south and the middle sister lives in a crystal forest to the north, and that they are called the Sisters of Sorrow. The group argued about whether to make a deal with this evil dragon about staying there as their ally, but they ended up banishing it, and hoping it will stick to their deal.

Finally, they passed the portal into the Warrens. Inside they found a tortured elf and was almost immediately attacked by animal spirits of beast that Kinsira had conducted her experiments on.

Roll initiative! 

Session 18: The Battle against Ku’ud

In the previous session, the characters burst in on the sentient automaton Ku’ud, and we began the new session, before they made a decision on whether to follow his order and show him the way out, which might disrupt the power balance in the region, or fight him.

Ku’ud was obviously dangerous, and I thought I had made a suitable challenge for a large level 5 party. As we had a couple of people who couldn’t attend, and I was worried that they might feel pressured to go with the ‘show him the way out option’, I gave them the option to run the session as a flash back, and let them go through the unexplored part of the dungeon, and before they left, flash forward to this important decision. They opted to stick with the moment.

The group talked more with Ku’ud, who was walking towards the exit, and trying to make up their minds on what to do, when Welk, the wizard of the group, began casting an identify spell to see if he could learn more. Ku’ud demanded that he stopped, but also got curious, because he knew magic. He ordered the wizard to tell him what he knew, and dragged him back to the throne, where he began questioning him.

Ultimately, Jarn, spoke with his advisor, the warlock Abbott, and made a decision. He asked about his understanding of ethics and demanded that he made a promise to learn of morale and ethics, before he could show him the way out. Ku’ud responded that nothing could compromise his decision making, which made Jarn attack.

paladin-smite2
The damage spike of the paladin smite ability can surprise me, but in this encounter they would have been hard pressed without it… And I’m very happy that in 5 ed. the Detect ‘Evil’ has been change into detecting celestials and devils and such. 

After a short battle, they defeated Ku’ud. Single boss encounters are hard to make. I had given him a couple of henchmen, but for verisimilitude and to ease just a little bit, I let the two fighters deal with them, as their player’s weren’t present, but had been there when they entered the room. They piled on Ku’ud, and Jarn unleashed his new found Smite ability. The wizard cast a ray of enfeeblement and managed to roll so well, that I couldn’t even use Ku’uds shield spell to ward it off. In the heat of battle, I forgot his advantage on saves (magic resistance), and wasted a round casting dispel magic (which the wizard countered), and in round 4 it was over. Jarn, as their only fighter-type, was down to 2 hp in round 1, and it could easily have tipped with a lucky roll or two.

 

It turned out, that Ku’ud was semi-biological and crafted with high order magic, and very advanced. They found a bit of loot and a spell book.

umberhulk10
This Umber Hulk looks dangerous! Awesome art by Andreas Håndlykken. Better than the MM. 

After this epic battle, they went back to the middle of the mine and found an ancient shrine to the elven god of craftsmen. Inside the shrine they were attack by two Umber Hulks, and came close to a TPK. They were only four characters left, but still two CR 5 opponents were more dangerous than one CR 10 – mainly due to the incapacitating glare with a DC 15 Charisma save.

Next time, I’m confident that they will find the exit from the mine and return to the forest and begin exploring again.

I will upload the stats on Ku’ud on the blog later.

 

Session 17: The sentient automaton

Last session the group found the magic machine that once powered the large iron mine they are exploring (and are caught in, due to a collapsing tunnel).

We began the session by rolling initiative. The magic machine is huge. Like the engine on one of the newest massive container ships. That means multiple levels of machinery, levers, crystal dials and buttons. And it was guarded by six automatons. Three medium sized ones that also could use an arm as a flame thrower, and three small spider-like automatons (similar to one of the types you can encounter in Skyrim).

180px-sr-creature-dwarven_spider
Drone from Skyrim

The small drones were able to conjure a defensive shield (as the shield spell), which made them hard to hit. We only had four players at the very beginning, but luck was on the side of the players, so they managed the battle, without anyone going down.

I think it was a fun and well balanced encounter, with both ranged and melee attacks and saves being made to avoid the flame throwers. I’ve become a fan of abilities with re-charge, because you can add quite powerful abilities, that the players are scared of, and the randomness of the recharge keeps them guessing if the monsters can use them or not.

engine_2
This is the kind of size of the machine I had in mind. 

After vanquishing the automatons they found a second elevator down and the mine path continued to what could be an exit. The group decided to try and power up the machine, and after four days of work, they succeeded (it was a DC 20 Arcana check per day). I rolled random encounters for 8 hours per day, and they got one that I waived, because it was easy, but the half-orc Arak and their range/paladin leader Jarn, ran into a Black Pudding, and Jarn’s splint mail was basically destroyed.

Players may hate that situation, but I think it adds a fun tactical dimension, and force the players to change the way the play for a while. For example, Jarn’s ability to tank monsters is significantly reduced, until he finds a new armor. It also makes a CR 4 encounter fearsome, without endangering their lives (Jarn was at 2 hp at the end, but they would have won…)

After powering up the machine, which was by systematic trial and error. They could activate the elevators. They scouted the one by the machine with the Warlock’s clairvoyance ability, and saw a large room below with many, mostly empty, storage pods for automatons, and then moved on to the one hidden inside the foundry (see previous session).  

Beneath the foundry they found a storage room for magical ingredients and a few spell scrolls. It also had a door and behind it another elevator. As they couldn’t see anything at the end of the elevator, except a tunnel, they decide to take the elevator down. Half-way they are asked for a password, and as they fail to comply, an air elemental is summoned into the confined space, and it attacks.

The air elemental can use its Whirlwind attack to throw people within its 10×10 foot space around, with damage dealt to characters hit by another character. It was not quite as dangerous as I had hoped, but with more failed saving throws, or a full party, it could have been a real mess!

At the foot of the elevator, there is a tunnel which has been collapsed on purpose. The druid figures out that he can shape shift into a giant badger and burrow a way through. Inside they find a couple of large rooms, with a 9-foot-tall automaton (golem basically) with crystal eyes and a slim elven-like rune covered metal body. The floor and walls of the room are all inscribed with text, and there are signs of a workshop. The automaton speaks to them, and tries to figure out who they are, and demands to be escorted outside, when it learns that they are able to go out.

The automaton is clearly sentient, but also not quite right in the head. It speaks to itself and has created a couple of naïve automatons itself. It also has valuable information. It tells them that the mine belonged to the Sestial family, that the Bones of Sarakhon are the enemy and that it intends to fight them. It has no sense of time, and appears to be quite bossy.

We end the session here, with three (I think) characters advancing to 6th level. The final meeting with the golem was great, because they can’t figure out what to do. Is the automaton dangerous to their settlement and future in this new land? Will it become a major threat? Or will it simply create confusion and damage their enemies? They can tell it knows things that they find valuable, but how much can they get out of it? And if they decide it is too dangerous to let out, can they actually defeat it, because it looks pretty tough? All are interesting questions. They also speculate a lot about, why it is there? Was it imprisoned and why was the mine abandoned? Does the automaton have anything to do with it? 

Next time, they will have to resolve what to do with the automaton, and perhaps explore the last of the mine. I at least except it to be the final session inside the mine. Then we can get back to exploring the great forest above, and perhaps beyond…

Session 16: Discovery of the magic-engine

So, I’m a bit behind… We had session 18 last Wednesday. We also played a evening of White Plume Mountain, which I hope to write about… but I’m starting in a new job, and with a 6-month old at home, there is a lot less time and energy. My main hope and priority is to continue the development of the campaign.  I hope I can keep up the blogging!

Our first session after the summer holiday, was a solid session with a couple of fun encounters and some clever use of spells, but wasn’t a session that pushed the plot much further. Therefore, this recap will also be relatively short. From a challenge perspective, the encounters could have been ramped up a bit, to put the big group in real danger, but on the other hand, I don’t mind that every encounter doesn’t feel hard. It puts the hard ones into perspective.

One of the things I really enjoy is that the players and character begin to get some clues about the history of the world they are in. They can see for example that this magic is very advanced, compared to what they know, and they begin to speculate about the civilization that came before – sometimes correctly, and sometimes not at all. [More on that in session 18…]

Descent…

The seven adventurers descended deeper into the mine, instead of moving through a horizontal shaft at their level. They ended up in a large cave, where couple of piercers dropped and a Roper ensnare three characters, and started to reel them in.

Monster_Manual_4e_-_Roper_-_p222_-_Warren_mahy[I had placed the roper in the ceiling, but even so, they managed to get through its almost 100 hit points in short order.]

The druid was the final character, who was just about to be eaten 40 feet above the cave floor, when the Roper was killed, and the wizard had cast levitate on the druid, so he didn’t fall.

They explored the big lake in the cave and found a smaller cave with a dragon skeleton. Initially, only the gnome rogue and the druid went to the cave, and the rogue left in a hurry, when the dragons vengeful spirit (poltergeist with extra HD) attacked him. They went in the whole team wearily, and I rolled miserably, so the spirit was also killed, and the small dragon hoard taken.

From the cave, which was semi-natural, but with some signs of mining activity, they finally began moving back in the direction they believe they entered the mine from. The tunnel led to a large gate, which was protected by a double ward (dispel magic and fireball). They managed to set off the ward and move through the gate before they recharged. Inside they found a small foundry and the workshop where they built all the automatons they had encountered, including two new guardian automatons, which they defeated. Inside the final part of the workshop, they discovered a dial, which was like the lock on a safe. The gnome first failed to open it, and the room was filled with a Cloud Kill. That gave some serious damage, but they moved the cloud with a Gust of Wind, and decided to let the rogue try again (and he rolled nat 20). The lock opened a secret door to a room with an elevator, but it wasn’t powered.

The group figured that something must power the magical mine carts and the foundry and everything, and they were right. They rested in the foundry, Abbott, the group’s warlock talked about trusting Jarn, and Jarn explained how his order views users of magic, who have no code or creed or control, as witches that needs to be destroyed.

Ainitiativefter a full rest, they moved on, an entered a room with a giant machine, guarded by more metal automatons.

Session 18 begins by rolling initiative! (which I view as the best way to start a gaming session)

Between Realism & Fantasy: my dungeon design

As I was working on the Iron Mine dungeon for my own campaign, and reading various things online (including the AngryDMs articles on his MegaDungeon) I decided I wanted to write something about my high level dungeon design approach, and some pet peeves.

Obviously, every dungeon should have a story, and a history, which explains why it was built, what its function was and what has happened with it since it was built. Knowing these things will help you add the small details that makes the dungeon come alive.

Two Extremes

To me, there are two extremes of dungeon design – the realistic and the fantastic – and a

Deathstar_negwt
It is hard to explore the Death Star room by room. And all the random encounters with Storm Troopers would become quite boring. 

 

whole lot of variations in between. Another way to look at them are complete dungeons versus ‘just the cool bits’ dungeons. An example of a complete dungeon would be Temple of Elemental Evil, where every little corridor is described and the Death Star, where we just see a couple of important areas, would be a ‘cool bits’ dungeon.

Gary Gygax leaned towards the realistic and complete dungeon. His gaming and inspiration starting point was actual medieval castles, and therefore many of the early published dungeons look somewhat like something you could find in real life – an example would be the Moathouse in The Village of Hommlet module.

Mausoleum
The catacombs beneath Paris has 2 km of tunnels (which isn’t counting the rest of the lime stone quarry) keeping the bones of 6 million dead. Good place for a lich…

The biggest problem, in my view, with many of the old school designs is that many of the dungeons are actually far smaller than the “dungeons” – in the broad sense – that you can find in real life, and Gary’s sources of inspiration are focused on medieval Europe, which limits the imagination. However, humans have built vast fortresses, palaces and constructions that dwarf what the early designers came up with for D&D. And until the Underdark became a thing, the natural caves in the real world were far more extensive than e.g. Keep on the Borderlands. Real world strongholds are also often very complex buildings with many complicated passageways and interconnecting rooms.

Furthermore, it is obviously not realistic to have 5 goblins living 20 yards and two doors away from a ferocious owl bear. Would you be living in an apartment if there was a wild bear living a couple of apartments away… even if you had a spear?

The influence of the real world architecture has also prevented many designers from actually thinking about how things would look in a high magic fantasy world. A castle is designed to take as many lives from the enemy as possible, while protecting the people inside from the attackers as much as possible for as long as possible. Therefore, you typically only have one or two access points from the ground level and towers from where you can better attack the enemy. But if you are a wizard who wishes to create a flying citadel using a castle seems to be a terrible design. Why would you want towers and battlements on your Citadel, when you might as well carve out a big rock with whatever you need. It would be much safer from dragons and armies of knights on griffons.

In my current campaign I’ve tried to think more about this for current and future dungeons.

The Published Designer’s Constraint: paper

The issue for designers who have to publish their stuff is that they are limited by the medium: for example, the paper size and the number of pages you can publish limits the designer. That seems to be one of the reasons why Gary G. cram so much stuff into each level of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Obviously it is also fun that every time you open a door to a room there is something interesting.

The designer also has to be able to communicate his vision with a map and text, which can be quite difficult. At home, you don’t need to explain to other people in text.

Your GM notes only needs to be understood by you. That’s a big advantage.

1929306_6520803106_6434_n
The beautiful Caerphilly Castle. A big dungeon, but I wouldn’t want to use it as a flying Citadel.

The realistic dungeon just doesn’t seem Fantasy-like to me, when you play a high fantasy game like D&D at least. With massive magocracies and enslaved giants, why would you build those tiny structures. As a lich, with endless amount of time, I would build something more imposing than Caerphilly castle in Wales – even though it is very grand in real life.

In your home game, if you want to make a big fantastic dungeon in a ruined city, you can make sections of the dungeon and cut out the boring parts. If your dungeon has a massive slave pit, make one big encounter against the slave masters and their pets, figure out how it connects with the rest of the dungeon, and then simply narrate the rest of the trip there.

The Iron Mine

Gates
Build it bigger! These are the Roman gates to Florence. Why make a lousy 20 foot gate, when you can make it 50 feet tall?

 

For the Iron Mine in my campaign I used the approach I’ve described. The site has a historical background and fits into the world, and it has a twist, that I can’t reveal here. But it relates to a couple of the greater narratives in my world. For example, last session they found the foreman, who had locked himself up in a room and killed himself. The question is why?

The mine has been worked by the elves for perhaps centuries, so it wouldn’t make sense to have one page of graph paper with some 10×10 corridors and a few rooms. Therefore, I made several sections of the mine, connected with tunnels that were 30×30 feet, and hundreds of feet long, and explained to the players that there were numerous small side corridors, shafts and tunnels, which their characters would be looking into and checking out superficially along the way as part of the story, but that we would only go into full dungeoneering mode, when they arrive at significant parts of the dungeon.

Each section I made is sort of a mini-dungeon by itself, with typically 3-5 separate locations/rooms, and the sections function and history is incorporated into the overall backstory of the dungeon. And each section has its own map. The map connecting the sections is basically a flow-chart.

Some of the advantages with the approach are:

  • The mine seems like a more grand, fantastic and scary place, in my view.
  • The dungeon ecology becomes more realistic. The eco system comes more alive with more realistic space.
  • There is room for wandering monsters, as the players will never explore it all, and things can move around them, without the party noticing.
  • Time becomes more realistic. The characters have to move carefully hundreds of yards between points of interest, with resulting consequences for spells, light sources and resting.
  • Each section is easy to grasp by the players when they get there and I can explain and draw it quite easily.

When my players get deeper into the Iron Mine, I can write more about how I work with stories in my dungeons.

This is what I see as at the core of my design philosophy. Let me know if I’m off the rails, or what else should inspire me.

AD&D-Dragonlance-Dragons+of+Desolation+-+9139+DL4
Flying castles against dragon armies seems to make very little sense.