Despite the demise of the RPG Blog Alliance, its namesake Blog Carnival rolls on. May brings a new topic for discussion.
The host for this month is Nil Jeppe at Enderra. The theme for this month is unusual dungeons. Nils describes the theme at his blog as follows:
the dungeon [became] 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 gameplay. 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 mould.
The topic for this month is a difficult one for me, as I do not run a game which features many dungeons. There have been a few, but I prefer to avoid the grinding elements of a dungeon. Those which I have used tend to grow from a powerful image or single concept.
This essay illustrates this process with a hidden temple complex.
GM on Pinterest
This article combines the RPG Blog Carnival with another ongoing series of posts: A GM on Pinterest. That series features a cool image uploaded to my Pinterest page, combined with a short piece of text where I brainstorm how to use the image in a game.
I found this image in the twitter feed of user @roman_gazzeta.
Urban legend claims there is more to the Grand Temple than meets the eye. Most people in the city dismiss this as the usual tavern gossip, or merely ill-feeling towards the growing power of the Arch-Hierophant.
Yet, the Temple holds a garrison far larger than its size would suggest. The steady stream of prisoners arrested by the Arch-Hierophant’s Guards disappear into the Temple somehow. Most of those arrested are never seen again, and the few who do return are suddenly fervent supporters of the Arch-Hierophant.
Adventurers claim there must be catacombs beneath the Grand Temple, for where else could the Guards live. Those with contacts in the Thieves’ Guild note the city sewers all skirt around Temple Square. Masters at the College of Magic refuse to comment, but smile knowingly when asked about the Grand Temple.
The mystery of the Temple has been nagging away in your mind for months. The persistent rumours of the wealth of previous Arch-Hierophants only serves to frustrate you further.
And then you hear of a prisoner who escaped. Agents of the Arch-Hierophant are in pursuit, but a contact tells you she can arrange a meeting with the prisoner. Finally, you will learn the truth of the Grand Temple.
Access to the catacombs beneath the Grand Temple presents the first major challenge. It is easy enough to visit the upper Temple during hours of worship. However, the zealous Guards limit the amount of weaponry carried within the Temple to a simple dagger. Plus, all the doors to the private areas are locked, and often guarded. You could try bribing a Priest, but this risks betrayal.
Breaking in at night is possible, but who knows what stalks the Temple in the hours of darkness. Urchins tell of weird howls from within the Temple after dark. This option allows entry with full equipment, but increases the level of danger encountered.
A quicker option is to orchestrate an arrest by the Arch-Hierophant’s Guards. For certain crimes, this guarantees passage to the rumoured cells beneath the Temple. This still leaves the Heroes at the mercy of the Arch-Hierophant. Unless they also have a plan to smuggle in their equipment, this is a high-risk option.
Finally, it ought to be possible to sneak into the Temple through the deepest levels of the Undercity. If all the fell rumours about the Grand Temple are true, then there is sure to be hidden access. However, this will entail a long expedition though the lower levels of the Undercity. If the Heroes need to break in quickly, then this is not an option.
Puzzle & Roleplaying Challenge
The most obvious puzzle about the Grand Temple is how can the Heroes find what they seek in such a vast location. Just by looking at the picture, we know the Temple has numerous chamber, halls and towers.
Perhaps the Heroes could capture a Guard. This makes for some interesting roleplaying as the Heroes quiz their reluctant guide. Initially, the Guard will be loyal to the Arch-Hierophant. Thus, the Guard might deliberately lead the Heroes to the garrison, or other defensive strong points within the complex.
However, after being shown some of the deeper horrors of the Temple, the Guard could switch allegiance. Once the truth is revealed, the Guard renounces the Arch-Hierophant and becomes a reliable guide. Or is it all a clever ruse?
Once the Arch-Hierophant is aware of the presence of marauding Heroes within the Grand Temple, he throws his full resources at catching them. An infiltration mission can quickly deteriorate into a desperate chase through the vast labyrinth of the Temple.
Perhaps the Arch-Hierophant unleashes a demonic servitor or two, and it is the sight of these slavering beasts which turns the captive Guard into an eager guide.
Alternatively, for a more political campaign, the Players may learn some great secret to reveal the complex machinations of the Arch-Hierophant. Is he blackmailing the Queen? Or bribing a rival kingdom to invade? What the Heroes learn in the heart of the Grand Temple could turn the campaign on its head.
The climax has to be a confrontation with the Arch-Hierophant. This could be an epic battle around the altar to a fell goddess. Perhaps the Arch-Hierophant is a coward, who flees once his bodyguard is slain. The climax could be the desperate flight of a broken man through the darkness of the Undercity.
The nature of the reward depends upon the reason for entering the Grand Temple. This could just be the rescue of a beloved family member, snatched away from the Arch-Hierophant’s prison. In a game with a larger theme, then the unmasking or removal of the Arch-Hierophant could have serious political implications for the kingdom.
Of course, this could have merely been a quest for treasure. In which case, the Heroes are likely to have raided some of the ancient tombs of previous Arch-Hierophants and now own some powerful artefacts.
A cool image can be enough to kick-start an interesting dungeon. The scale can be adjusted to reflect the power level of the Heroes. Indeed, the scope of the Grand Temple is broad enough for it to be the backdrop to multiple plots.
Have you ever written a scenario to make use of an image you found? How did this work for you? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.