Alternative Dungeon Environments
From Garrison Sutton (with overwrought filler text added by Johnn Four)
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #371
- Alternative Dungeon Environments
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
I’ve been experimenting with alternative adventure settings, and by that I mean dungeons that aren’t underground (I’m in the D&D world). Below are some ideas I’ve had, and I’m hoping Roleplaying Tips readers might write in with similarly-structured alternative dungeon environments ideas of their own.
Example Alternative Dungeon – The Swamp
Recently, I created a swamp setting where each “room” was an island surrounded by marshy water. I drew the islands as large rectangles and asked the players to suspend disbelief enough to pretend that the edges weren’t perfectly square. I told them the regular lines on the map only showed places where the ground was firm enough to stand.
I had narrow paths running between islands, which worked as hallways, and semi-submerged paths that were difficult to spot, which acted as secret passages.
Of course, the use of water between islands wasn’t always enough to keep non-armored characters from wandering where I didn’t want them, so I put schools of piranha in the water that would arrive in 1d6-1 rounds from whenever a character entered the water.
There was also enough low brush between islands to prevent a long-jump, and marshy fog let me limit visibility. I also used quicksand in place of pit traps in a few places.
It made for a very interesting adventure setting.
Apply The Dungeon Format To Alternative Settings
The dungeon format won’t appeal to every game master; however, it does offer several advantages that make it appealing:
- Map-based. For visual thinkers, maps help tie everything together to making planning and GMing easier.
- Compartmentalized. Each room is a separate entity and encounter, which also makes planning and GMing easier for some.
- Dungeon think. GMs raised on dungeons have the style burnt into their brains. Modifying other environments to be like dungeons helps such GMs run games more smoothly with familiar modes and pathways.
- Game strengths. Some games thrive on dungeon-like environments, and a few are built entirely around this structure.
Pick A Location-Based Theme
Start with an interesting location or environment that will serve as a unifying theme for each “dungeon room.” A good theme will:
- Have strong hooks and cues to feed player imaginations and environment visualization. For example, a cloud-based dungeon where each room is located on a different cloud is easy to picture and potentially interesting to play.
- Be distinct from other themes. Players get great enjoyment when a campaign consists of many and varied environments that don’t blur together.
Bad: “Where did we encounter the dwarf with the map? Was it the grey cloud dungeon, the blue cloud dungeon, or the red cloud place?”
Good: “Remember the dwarf with the map? He was in that crazy garbage dump where the piles formed walls and we had to work through a maze of garbage-fed monsters. That was just before the cool cogs crawl in that giant clock.”
- Offer a variety of ideas, features, and opportunities to make each room different while still following the theme. You don’t want every location to offer the same challenges, puzzles, and rewards. Your theme must provide a rich variety of options to stock your dungeon with.
Offer Clear Connectors
Dungeon hallways and passages serve as connectors between encounters, and sometimes offer up their own encounters as well. Your alternative environment should have connectors that:
- Are clear and understood. You want to make travelling between rooms possible and easy. Imagine if your design was too clever or abstract, and the characters got stuck in the first room because they couldn’t figure out how to leave or where to go next.
- Have boundaries. Dungeons have a flow (i.e. levels, room positioning, pathways) and without connector boundaries any designed flow gets cancelled by random access. In traditional dungeons, passages have walls, floors, and ceilings that funnel PCs along their chosen routes. They are usually opaque to preserve surprise and create a sense of drama and mystery as players wonder what’s beyond each corner or behind each door.
- Aren’t easily circumvented. Don’t hesitate to reward clever gameplay and ideas from the players, but your design should anticipate ways the PCs might bypass connectors and ruin any design effect you were trying to achieve.
For example, the PCs might be in a misty realm of giant lily pads. Each giant pad is a dungeon room, and they are connected by stepping-stone smaller pads. The mist prevents characters from seeing what’s on surrounding pads, though sounds travel well enough to give forewarning or eerie atmosphere.
Your design gets circumvented, however, because the clever priest has a windy spell memorized, which blows away the mist to reveal several of the dungeon rooms from afar. Then the mage casts fly and levitate on party members, and suddenly any lily pad is fair game.
Other Example Alternative Dungeon Ideas
Here are some additional ideas for settings that could be converted to dungeon format:
I’ve also tried city campaigns, but with less success. The characters wandered down streets and alleyways, and fought in courtyards and town squares.
This idea was less successful than my swamp campaign, because my players bypassed entire encounters using Spider Climb to go over buildings (which would have been like passing through a wall in a normal dungeon).
I’d be very curious to see other swamp ideas. I know that mine works, but I bet my players find a way to break it before too long, so any ideas that others have would be welcome.
I’ve thought about aerial environments, but 3D environments seem complicated. A campaign set mostly in the clouds around a giant’s castle might be fun. If the characters had a way to walk on the clouds, the GM could set up caverns of clouds with a castle at the top…though that doesn’t feel very original.
I’ve given thought about an adventure on the plane of Pandemonium. I was reading descriptions of the different planes and one described an area very much like the Ways in The Wheel of Time series, with several clusters of islands connected by bridges, and the up/down left/right axes making no logical sense. This feels tricky to GM…and to map.
Below the sea
An underwater campaign might be fun. Perhaps the lair of aquatic ghouls or aquatic elves, or maybe a black dragon. The GM could use kelp with razor-sharp edges or poison to confine the players to hallways and rooms… though I don’t know how to keep the players from going too far up/down.
Hall of mirrors
As I’m brainstorming, I’m coming up with an idea that’s like a hall of mirrors. Perhaps a dungeon with invisible walls. The monsters know what paths they can take to attack the party, then safely retreat, but the party would be hampered because they couldn’t see the invisible walls.
An idea I played with for a while that worked moderately well was a crypt overrun by giant spiders. I used high ceilings to keep the spiders out of melee reach, and included an element of tainted magic gone awry to give some of the spider’s spell casting abilities. This let me have spider tanks, healers, and buffers.
I designed the crypt, then put in tunnels through the walls, floor, and ceiling that the spiders could use to quickly get from place to place. The PCs couldn’t use those same tunnels because they were lined with webs…and burning the webs would risk damaging any loot and would certainly announce their intended direction of travel.
This idea worked well till I discovered that my players didn’t have a single ranged weapon. They were getting picked apart and had to run.
Another idea I’ve thought of is based on the concept of living walls that we saw in the Aliens movies. But, instead of using a secreted “skin”, I thought of using plant life.
I am considering making a dungeon that is outdoors, or mostly outdoors, where all the floors, ceilings, and walls are covered in plants. The entire dungeon is controlled by a hive mind that knows where they are at all times because it can sense them through their interaction with the plants on the floors, walls, and so on.
I’m considering using ju-ju zombies – living plants – and giving the boss monster the ability to absorb victims and learn to use the victim’s natural abilities. The villain eventually “grows” elements of itself with new features. Thus, if the hive mind captured a live manticore and a live red dragon, it could eventually grow a quadrupedal plant that could throw spikes from its tail and breathe fire.
Reader Request: Dungeon Themes
I was wondering if you could ask readers to offer suggestions for alternate dungeon environments and describe elements to make them effective.
Thanks for your column, it’s great to get input from friends.[Johnn: thanks for the cool ideas, Garrison. Readers, if you have tips or ideas for alternative dungeon themes, ping me at [email protected] – thanks!]
A Brief Word From Johnn
Watch X-Files With GMing In Mind
My wife and I picked up X-Files season one on DVD recently as it was steeply discounted at a local store. I had forgotten that it was such a fun show. Effects are a bit dated now, but I feel it still offers good models and ideas for GMs of any genre.
In addition to the Art of the Evasive Answer [The Art Of Providing Evasive Answers – RPT#136], the show demonstrates good weaving of episodic content with a background arc, cool NPCs, and a variety of locations. It offers many examples of how PCs with massive resources can still be challenged and stumped by clever antagonists, internal conflicts, and manipulative NPCs.
Reader Request: How to Create Postcyberpunk Campaigns?
Here’s a reader request that stumped me as I have not dabbled in this genre. If any GMs out there are familiar with this in their gaming, please let me know if you have any tips:
“I stumbled upon this postcyberpunk article”
It describes the current, evolved form of cyberpunk: (slightly) less dystopian and technologically more realistic. Do you have any tips on how I can properly infuse my game with a postcyberpunk atmosphere (story-wise, event-wise, description-wise)?
Cyberpunk GM tips in general would be great too, as the e- zine hasn’t featured many of those and I know there are a legion of Shadowrun and other game system fans out there.
Cool Idea – PowerPoint Session Intros
Read how one GM uses PowerPoint to kick off game sessions. He creates slides that include campaign information, a theme song, and credits. He even features each PC in “star of the show” type credits. Neat!
Have a game-full week.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Three Levels of NPC Creation
From Todd Hill
I have found that three levels of detail help quite a bit when deciding how to create my NPCs:
- Fleshed Out
- Major Personage
The Basic NPC
This level is boiled down to what the players see: the physical traits. I use this level for general NPCs who don’t have a real place in the current adventure, but may have more face time later. After all, not everyone is the same.
Generate a few lists of names, traits, and small descriptions to make each NPC stand out. For example:
Names Trait Description
Gunthar Loudmouth Small scar on chin
Lydia Impatient Lazy Eye
David Braggart Stiff Leg
Once the players meet an NPC you can quickly throw together a distinct description by randomly pulling an idea from each list.
Gunthar – The loudmouth braggart at the bar turns to look at the characters when they enter. At least, it seems he is looking at them – one of his eyes seems to be looking more to the left.
Fleshed Out NPC
This version adds background to the NPC. From the previous example, Gunthar has a lazy eye. Why? This level tries to figure out why the NPC looks the way they do, or why they are in their current situation.
Gunthar is a loudmouth. At one time he was a low level adventurer, but his mouth got him in the end. Mouthing off to a cleric on why his way was the correct one, the offended NPC cursed Gunthar with a lazy eye. The curse has effectively removed any further thoughts of adventuring from Gunthar’s mind, which has left him toiling in a menial job in this town. Gunthar is an angry and vindictive person now.
This fills out the NPC’s background even further to define what motivates the NPC to do what he/she does. Let us take Gunthar a little further.
Gunthar had a father who was a hard man. “Strength is power,” the old man would always say, and Gunthar would get beaten whenever he showed weakness. Over time, Gunthar would boast he could do anything, and since he had some skill with a sword and gone on a couple of adventures, the townsfolk would often cower before Gunthar. His ego swelled.
Then a cleric passed through town on a pilgrimage. Since the cleric was of a different religion than Gunthar’s, Gunthar decided to tell the cleric how wrong he was. After an argument, the cleric cursed Gunthar with a lazy eye. The townsfolk, tired of Gunthar’s bullying, did nothing to the cleric, which Gunthar has resented ever since.
Since the “Lazy Eye” incident, Gunthar has slowly become more and more angry at the townsfolk, but will be grateful to anyone who can remove the curse. This will not get any thanks from Gunthar, other than that he will try to help the PCs in the future, and he will go back to bullying the ‘lesser’ people in town that stood by and did nothing in the past.
Let PCs Set Their Own Traps
From Tim Roberts
Some groups have people who prefer creativity over dice- rolling, but unfortunately aren’t too good at the creativity. To satisfy this urge and give them a sense of achievement, the GM could set up traps for the PCs to use to their own benefit. The GM could add certain things to the environment to be used against enemies, such as spikes on the walls or a catwalk above a chandelier that allows PCs to cut the chandelier down and fall onto unsuspecting enemies.
How To Make Your Players Paranoic
From Eduard Pascual
If your players think there is a secret hidden somewhere, they will pay much more attention in the game. So, this is my way to make them paranoic:
1) Use a table screen. Some people think it’s not needed, but a screen gives you privacy and creates mystery. It will be even better if you put a lot of sticky notes over the screen. I mean a lot. Put so many notes you must move one to look at another. During gameplay, search sometimes between these notes, as if you had a surprise prepared. Your players will think you are hiding a lot of stuff there.
2) Someone said once: “dice are only for making noise behind the table.” Probably he was saying a master must ignore rolls that could break the story. But there is another meaning: you must do dice noise behind your tables. If the players hear you rolling dice, they will be sure something is happening.
3) “Are you sure?” “Yes…why…?” “Ok, ok, don’t worry.” A dialog like this, followed by a smile and some hidden rolls will awake the interest of any player. Also, write something on a new sticky note.
4) Description. When your players get a new item, enter a new room, or interact with a new game element, choose a detail of that thing. Make your description, as usual, but give a lot of information about that specific detail.
For example, the characters enter a room, and in a wall there is a blood stain. Even when this stain has nothing to do with your adventure, give a very detailed description of that stain. This will make the players worried a lot about the stain.
5) Give some great surprises to your players. If all the time they worry, it is a false alarm, then they won’t worry more. But if there is any possibility that something is to happen, the players will try to know what is, when will it happen, etc.
Beware! If you use all of these techniques, you are in danger. Your players could become more paranoic than you wanted. I know a player who does no more than to look and listen at every wall in a dungeon now. Use these methods sparingly.
Let Rumors Get Misinterpreted
From B P
It has always amazed me how rumors can be misinterpreted.
One time I had a player who wanted to gather rumors on things that might be interesting to do. Since the world is not going to have only rumors that are level specific, I gave him a number of stories about possibilities – some reasonable for his level, some that (I thought) were to be filed for later.
He made lots of notes on what stories he got over a couple of evenings in taverns, and there were about 10 possibilities in all. Four of them were appropriate for the level of the party.
When he presented his findings to the group, and what he thought they should go after, I did not know what he was talking about. With only one degree of change, with a person taking notes, I could not figure out what plot hook he was even attempting to follow, and that was with one degree of indirection. I had given true leads that became unrecognizable after one re-tell by a player character.
He leads the party to a place I had to prepare on the fly. The place was related to an area for an encounter to be done much later (and he had the info on it given to him), but he had put it with a completely different encounter (sort of – his story was nothing I could figure from anything I had given him).
If rumors that were entirely true were corrupted so much by someone taking notes while getting them, one should not be surprised they have so little to do with the reality in a campaign when one gets them thirdhand instead.
From my experience, a kobold will become an ancient dragon, and an arch devil will become an orc.
Mind you, using this reality makes a DM’s job harder – there should be many rumors about what could be done, and most will be useless. Some will sound level-inappropriate, but they might be. Some will sound right, but will not be. Many will be so confused they cannot be followed.
This is reality. It depends on your DM style whether you do this. Many DMs only give true rumors that are level appropriate to characters, but this is weird from a reality position.
Hope this can be used by someone.
World Idea: Spontaneous Genesis
From Tommi H.H.
Have you ever had trouble explaining why orcs continue to be in your world no matter how many of them your players mince to munch? Spontaneous Genesis might be your answer.
If certain “materials” are present in huge number, their very presence will spawn other types of “materials.”
If a forest has a certain size it will have a certain amount of nuts. If there are enough nuts, there will be squirrels. Enough squirrels will spawn falcons, and so on.
In addition to normal breeding methods, everything has a creation-backup. This backup system might exist because the gods of creation want nothing eternally gone.
If the world is covered with deep forests, a chain of spawning elements might lead to the creation of dragons. The dragons would burn down the forests, creating waste plains, and human settlements would rise from the fertile farmlands. In the end, the plains become plant-covered city ruins filled with ancient treasures, and the deep forests would be back again….
Let this philosophy seep through in a scenario involving mythologies and different stories of how the world came into being, and then in the next scenario, when the players are travelling through the swamplands, they witness an orc being spawned from a combination of fog, rain, and swamp rot. The green lightning-like energy of the gods pour into the wretched creature, and the players can see a short sword take form in its grotesque hands. Then let the thing charge them. They will slaughter it, but they will always remember their first meeting with raw creation.
If you are devious, let someone point out that the PCs themselves might be spawns. Nobody can really tell, because once a spawn is inside the world it will be as if it had always existed, except to those who have witnessed its arrival.
Keep Things Interesting: Try Higher Power Levels
From: Jack the LumberJack If you have been playing a campaign for a while, and your party is getting a little bored of the normal stuff, (goblins, weapons +1, gold gold gold), I think it is a good idea to “beef up” the items and experience a bit. Getting to a higher level is a fun aspect of games, plus it gives the GM more chances to put in bigger monsters and better items. (Monster to make the GM happy, items for the PCs.) This keeps both sides of the game happy, as well as opens new doors to the game by bringing in new elements.