Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Water, water, everywhere

I love water hazards in dungeons. Underground rivers flowing through humongous cave systems are a thing of beauty for me, able to conceal all manner of monsters, treasures, etc. Magical fountains can get so ludicrously random it's hard not to grin at the prospect. So here for your edification I present some ideas for water in the dungeon.
  1. Underwater pit traps. Sometimes the only way to get from one place in a dungeon to another is by wading through an underground stream. Rarely, though, do the PCs think to pull out those 10' poles while doing so. This will cure them of that omission. It won't do any real damage, except getting wet anything they might have been holding over their heads to keep dry, as they plunge into a sudden 10' pit. Those wearing heavy-duty armor might be in for a bit of a shock as well. Swim? In that?

  2. Water-only access. There could be entire areas of a dungeon that are accessible only by going underwater. If the PCs demure because of the notion of having to hold their breath, or because they want to hold on to their potions of water breathing, then they lose out on the goodies.

  3. That's not water... Speaking of potions of water breathing, and all the other various and sundry magics that allow for relatively easy action beneath the surface, what if the PCs encounter an area that is filled with, say, oil? Or an underwater pit that is filled with some heavier-than-water substance (so it sinks, filling the pit) that will foil such magics and yet leads to some place of interest?

  4. Oxy-gum. The cheesy 1960's Japanese cartoon Marine Boy had something called oxy-gum. You pop it in your mouth and it turns the seawater into breathable air for a time. If you're looking for a non-magical way to let your PCs delve into the depths, you might give them access to a plant or herb that has the same effect, for a limited time.

  5. On a (Not So) Slow Boat to Adventure. Nobody says the PCs can't travel on subterranean rivers in style. They come upon a fancy paddleboat, crewed by skeletons, or permanent unseen servants, or orange snirfneblin, or what have you. They pay a coin for passage and climb aboard. What could possibly go wrong?

    There's no earthly way of knowing
    Which direction we are going
    There's no knowing where we're rowing
    Or which way the river's flowing
    Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is a hurricane a'blowing?
    Not a speck of light is showing
    So the danger must be growing
    Are the fires of hell a'glowing?
    Is the grisly reaper mowing?
    Yes!
    The danger must be growing
    For the rowers keep on rowing
    And they're certainly not showing
    Any signs that they are slowing!

  6. Three-Way Fountain. The PCs come across a three-sided pillar deep in the dungeon. Each side has a different face, from whose mouth flows a stream of colored water into its own basin, red, blue, and yellow. Alone, they are mildly poisonous or mildly curative (1 h.p. damage), determined randomly with each drink. However, once you start mixing the streams, you are able to create potions with magical effects; two reds and a blue make a potion of speed, two blues and a yellow make a potion of extra healing, etc. Perhaps the PCs find a key to some of the recipes somewhere else in the dungeon. Lest the PCs think they can just plop down here and go into business for themselves, have the potions lose their magical effect after 24 hours. And naturally some combinations will result in explosions, poison gas, etc, just to add some zest.
  7. Scrying pool. The PCs come upon a deep black pool (or well). Drop a gem of not less than 100 g.p. value into the water and the ripples will function as a crystal ball for a round or two. Make sure it's in a place that's somewhat difficult to get to, or the PCs will be dropping gems into the thing like dimes in a gumball machine.

  8. Flooded Level. More than just having a water feature, you can have an entire level (or more) of your dungeon completely flooded. Bring out the water trolls, nixies, giant pike, and so forth. This gives you the opportunity to trot out those underwater adventuring rules from the DMG without having to leave the comfort of your own dungeon. It usually works better if you hand-wave the need to breathe with oxy-gum, giant conch-shell diving helmets, piles of bubbles on the dungeon floor that randomly release large bubbles of breathable air, etc., but of course you can build real tension by putting a time-limit on when the air runs out. Plop a kitchen timer on the table and say; "You've got this long before you drown. What are your characters doing?" Lots of portcullises are a bonus in such a situation.

  9. Hollow Man. If you regret ever letting that certain character find that ring of invisibility, here's your chance to make things right. If in a shallow pool or stream, all the monsters need to do is aim above the two foot-shaped indentations in the water. Or, if under water, aim at the big person-shaped space where the water isn't.

  10. Wave pool. The PCs encounter a rather large cave with jagged rocks lining the shore. A largish underground lake is there. Every few rounds, however, a huge wave crashes onto the shore, tossing anything on it against said jagged (and painful) rocks. Perseverance would allow the PCs to discover the cause of the waves (some sort of large stone piston beneath the water), and enter into a treasure chamber (via a secret door in the piston chamber, only accessible while the piston is resetting to slam down again, and so very dangerous to get to).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More Minifigs Pics

I found a bunch of new pictures of those Minifigs World of Greyhawk figures that I posted about this summer. I put the new pics in the original post for your edification. Some of them are neat, some mundane. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stairing into the Abyss

One of the more overlooked features of any dungeon are the stairs. Most of the time these are little more than purely utilitarian vehicles for getting characters from one level of the dungeon to another. I think this is a bit of a shame, myself, and thought I might offer the following ideas to jazz up the usual dungeon staircase. Some are more mundane than others, naturally.
  1. Drawers under the stairs. Some steps on the staircase conceal drawers. These might be locked, or trapped, or both, and make an ideal hiding place for small treasures, keys (to the door at the top of the stairs?), a wand of lightning to be grabbed by the wizard as he flees an enemy coming after him up the stairs, etc.
  2. The Grand Staircase. In real life, many buildings have a central staircase that wraps around a central empty core. In a dungeon setting, this could be used to give direct access to lower levels of the dungeon (which could in and of itself be a Very Bad Thing). Flying monsters could also avail themselves of the central shaft, presenting a threat to adventurers.
  3. Landings. Many DM's seem to forget that a staircase doesn't have to be a straight shaft boring down at a precise angle to the level below. You can have your stairs make right-angle turns (or, heck, any angle you want). Make a staircase that branches at a landing; one flight goes to one level, another to a sub-level (and don't forget they can go back the way the adventurers are likely to come).
  4. Musical Stairs. The staircase is made up of white and black stairs. As each one is walked on, a note sounds, like a giant piano (think of that scene from "Big" with Tom Hanks and the giant piano). By stepping on the stairs in various orders to play a tune, the staircase will go to different locations via a magical teleportation effect, depending on the tune played (some sort of clue to this effect should be findable by the players, perhaps in riddle form). Playing no tune (i.e., just trudging up the stairs) will lead to the least exciting place in the dungeon. Playing the right tune could lead players to the locale of Heward's Mystical Organ.
  5. The Rainbow Steps. The stairs in this staircase each have a seemingly-random color. If the players use the stairs without regard to which color they step on, they enter an ordinary area. If they are careful to only step on a single color, they are taken to a more special part of the dungeon (red leads to a fire-themed sub-level, green leads to a plant-based one, blue for water, etc.). If they are careful to ascend in perfect rainbow order (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet), they are taken to a really special place (a demi-plane or perhaps one of the Outer Planes; Asgard seems mighty appropriate). Whatever you do, don't step on the plaid step!
  6. Random Escalator. The staircase is moving; that will either double the speed of the players as they go in the same direction, or cut it in half if they are going against it. Naturally, it should be put in a place where time is of the essence; say, when they will likely be pursued by some Big Nasty Thing, or need to escape poison gas, or something. The stair could also randomly stop or start, or reverse direction, just to add to the fun.
  7. Slide. It's a cliché, but I can't remember the last time I actually had a staircase that turned into a slide, dumping the players onto a new level as a one-way trip. Wheee!!
  8. Traps. Dig through your old copies of Grimtooth's Traps. Plenty of nastiness there to give your players a second thought when they encounter a seemingly-ordinary staircase. Blades, spikes, poison gas; the fun never ends. Best used sparingly, though; if every staircase is a trap, the tension loses its effect. You don't trap every door and chest, do you?
  9. Up the Down Staircase. Player: "We head down the staircase." DM: "Okay, you get to the top of the stairs and you see a hallway in front of you." Player: "I thought you said the stairs went down?" DM: "Yeah, they did. Weird, huh?" The players can never quite figure out when walking down the stairs turns into walking up the stairs; its part of the magic.
  10. Mimic stairs. Imagine if a killer mimic turned itself into a staircase, seemingly leading up to a blank piece of ceiling in a room. Or parked itself at the top of a staircase, imitating more stairs heading up. The best part is, the players might think there really was something at the top of the mimic-stairs, and spend time and resources investigating.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nightmare of the Derro

I confess that I've always liked the drow (from a time that pre-dates the appearance of that most unfortunate scimitar-wielding fellow who shall remain nameless), but the derro have always been a bit less than awesome for me. Until, that is, I started doing a little research about the origins of the derro in literature and popular culture. Now I cannot wait to get them into play.

Looking into the "Shaver Mystery" and reading some of the Hollow Earth mythology from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, these little buggers start turning into some of the bestest antagonists ever. Inhabitants of a mysterious subterranean world of ancient abandoned cities which they have inherited from their own mysterious creators, possessors of mysterious mind-bending rays which can be used not only to torment or control the minds of those on the surface, but actually cause disasters and influence events on a local and global scale. Their penchant for taking slaves from the surface for food, toil, and torture would seem a minor foible in comparison.

This mysterious "ray technology" could be magical in nature, or it could be some sort of technologically-based horror. Personally, I favor the "pneumatic chemistry" of the troubled mind of James Tilly Matthews. I imagine derro outposts nearby to and perhaps beneath major cities, each with its own "air loom" chamber, whence the fiendish savants direct their minions to control events on the surface world to their own unintelligible purposes. Most precious would be the source of the "volatile magnetic fluid" which is used to power the air looms, and perhaps the PCs would be called upon (or take it upon themselves) to staunch the flow of this vital substance to stem the power of the derro.

And imagine the nastiness that could be perpetrated upon the PCs themselves, once the derro were convinced that their plots were exposed and the PCs had become a danger. Using their air-looms, they could not only inflict the unspeakable torments of the lobster-cracking (preventing the blood from circulating) and stomach-skinning, but also sending forth illusions and mental torments to make them appear insane, thus ensuring that those officials who were not already under the power of the derro would not believe their strange paranoid ramblings.

And, naturally, my derro would also be able to take to the sky in their glowing cigar-shaped vessels, emerging from their deep caves to travel at unimaginable speed high in the sky on some mission for their savant masters. Perhaps they, too, operate using the volatile magnetic fluid.

I might also have my derro involved in an ancient and world-shattering war with the vril-ya, who use their own "vril" technology to counter the derro's own volatile magnetic fluid. And indeed their own flying disks could be set forth to battle the derro's own flying boats in furtherance of the war effort. But in such a conflict, are the motives of the vril-ya as benign as they may seem at first? Might they not have an ulterior motive of their own?

Can Spring Heeled Jack be far behind, to terrorize the streets of my City of Greyhawk?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Archaeology News: "New" 4,300 year-old Egyptian pyramid discovered

Now, if you're like me, when you first read that headline, you had to ask yourself, how the heck could there be an entire pyramid that was still undiscovered all this time? The answer, according to the article, is that the pyramid, aside from being only a third of its original height due to the passage of millenia, is buried in the sands of Saqqara.

According to the article, the original pyramid was about 50' in height, and included a door to the burial chamber. That would make the base approximately 75' on a side (very approximately; I am just guessing on the angle the pyramid was originally built).

Naturally, when I see this sort of thing, aside from the general coolness that there are still awesome and relatively huge things left to be discovered in Egypt, I think of it in terms of dungeons and encounters with undead. I don't know about you, but I could put a couple of very interesting rooms into a structure 75' on a side at the base, especially with 50' of room to go up (each level smaller than the one beneath it, naturally) as well as the potential for chambers beneath the pyramid itself. I especially like the idea that the pyramid itself is buried in the sand.

Wouldn't it be refreshing for a group of PCs to actually have to undertake a little mundane work to get to the entrance of the thing? It would certainly explain why it and its inhabitants remain undisturbed, its treasures unlooted, and its traps untriggered. Might even encourage them to bring along some hirelings to do the digging (remember all those great Mummy movies?) with all the attendent fun and joy that can bring (how do you feed and water all those men while they work? What if there is a spy in their midst?)

Gadzooks, it might even be enough to actually use the rules in the DMG for digging and construction...

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Riftcrag Mega-Campaign

Before my last campaign ended due to out-of-game issues, I had gotten the party to the city of Riftcrag, perched on the edge of the mighty Rift Canyon. The plan was to get them involved in the exploration of a warren of tunnels and dungeons dug into the sides of, and running beneath the floor of, the canyon itself. The major dungeons were to be connected by tunnels, laced with minor encounter areas a la D1-3. The dungeons were laid out rather linearly in terms of accessing them through the tunnels, but it would be possible, by finding secret passages and so forth, to skip ahead as it were (and also skip some of the potentially dangeous minor encounters).

One of the tricks was that the dungeons could not be easily found from within the Rift Canyon itself, which is riddled with caves so that years of exploration could fail to find their entrances. Once you found the exit, however, getting back in would be easy. Thus, the players would have to start at the beginning, but could make their way back to Riftcrag for rest and recouperation, and then rejoin their explorations of the whole where they left off. The encounter areas were designed so that they could start at level 1 and then work their way up as high as 15 or so; each major encounter area being designed with that power-level in mind (analogous to the idea that deeper dungeon levels have badder monsters; the further away the characters get from the Orc Tombs, the harder things get). Naturally, that makes skipping encounter areas via the secret passages somewhat problematical...

I hesitate to put forth any details, just in case I end up getting to finish designing and then running the series. But I thought the setup was worth jotting down, in case anyone else thought they could make use of the concept in their own game.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An Alternative to the Thieves Guild

I'm not a big fan of gangster movies outside of the first two Godfather films. Yet I can't help but think that many D&D locales are suffering from the institution of the Thieves Guild that has become ubiquitous, found in almost every village and town.

The idea of the single, monolithic criminal organization obviously comes from Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, which featured a thriving and politically powerful Guild of thieves in the alleys and palaces of the great city of Lankhmar. The Guild brooked no competition and drew a tithe of its members loot, presumably to buy political protection offered by the Guild for its members.

While this is a wonderfully inventive idea, it just doesn't seem realistic enough to be enshrined as a condition to be found throughout every city and village in every D&D world. I'm no expert on crime and criminals, but it seems to me that thieves and assassins would be more likely to associate in gangs, mobs, and families, akin to what is portrayed in films like Gangs of New York, The Warriors, The Godfather, and The Sting.

Such gangs would be focused on a particular leader. Depending on their size, they may or may not self-perpetuating after that leader is removed (either killed or imprisoned for his illegal activities). They would not be exclusive to thieves, but would include all sorts of character classes, particularly fighters and assassins but not exclusing magic-users and clerics, in much the same way that gangs of the 1930's would have not only "muscle", but accountants and bootleggers as well.

If you use mountebanks, I would personally set them apart from this element of criminal society and place them in their own sub-culture, one that co-exists at varying degrees of tension with the more violent gangs (a la The Sting).

I find this a much more engaging and dynamic situation to encourage urban adventuring based on underworld activities. Rather than the once-in-a-few-decades attempt to usurp the power of the Thieves Guild by some upstart, cities would see a constant hum of gang violence based both on retribution for previous attacks or slights as well as power struggles to add territory or new criminal enterprises (Marcus the Stirge controls all of the prostitution in the River Quarter, but the Red Kobold Gang from the Foreign Quarter is trying to muscle in on the action, etc.). The regular constabulary (or the PCs!) would then find itself in a much more difficult position as they attempt to solve crimes, as they don't simply have the dualistic option of "Guild or rogue thief" to consider.

Certainly, singular cities such as Greyhawk or Stoink may buck the trend and have well-established "conventional" Thieves Guilds, but the very fact that such a state of affairs is highly unusual would be enough to add to the uniqueness of the places.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

For all my American readers...

Just a reminder to all my readers in the United States to cast a vote for President (and all the other races and ballot questions you might have in your locale) today. This is one of the most important Presidential elections in my lifetime. Don't waste your opportunity.