Posts Tagged ‘castles’

by the way… Dubrovnik

September 6, 2013 1 comment

no posts in a long time, and this one’s quick and lazy…

But Dubrovnik’s about as perfect a coastal fantasy fortress town as you could ask to find. And I for one didn’t know about it. Here, have some images and maps (google sat). Just swipe it wholesale; the Croatian tourist authority will probably thank you:


(janettelarobina) The fortifications are intimidatingly huge up close, but overlooked by a cliff, so there’s a catapult challenge.

There’s a straight main street from the harbour to the big gate, suitable for triumphal processions or standoffs between local princes and invading revenants.


The traditional trading circuit takes advantage of currents and also provides a 2-port buffer between the rival principalities. As the old sailor’s saying goes, “Hvar washes away all enmities.”

It dominates an island trading network and maintains an uneasy truce between the Korcula and the Sipangu.


Why do most of those guns face inland?

It keeps a string of vassal forts along the coast and around the islands that would be perfect troublesome gifts for enterprising adventurers.


the amphitheatre and Contesting Pool are useful for public address out of season

It holds annual contests against the King of the Sea, watched by anxious crowds from the surrounding lands, who fear the day that the mer-folk throw off their ancient shackles and destroy the shipping they all depend on.


archaeologists are divided on whether the landship “irrupted” from the soil like a tooth or was blasted out.

It stands guard against the Machines of the Underearth, whose landship thrust out of the ground 1400 years ago and remains, undecayed and indestructible, as a reminder of the contingent nature of human power. The equally undecayed Invasion Bridge has become an indispensable part of the local economy.

And if the PCs arrive as Southern Barbarians, without a Kuna to their name, it offers the infamous Galley-workers’ Barracks for accommodation.


Inmates pay for their food and lodging with labour, and even see a little extra money at the end of the year! It is currently estimated that a galleyman could save enough to buy citizenship after 137 years’ service.

Have two interactive maps and two photo guides for further information/inspiration.


of course, there’s a chain to protect the little harbour’s mouth. The stories of underwater caves leading right beneath the fortress are foolish local legends.

(BTW: on the map kick, check out the change in datasets between google maps’ coverage of post-Yugoslav, kinda-independent Montenegro and weirdo shut-in Albania. One satellite covers the Montenegrin side of the border (with brightly lit river), another has the other side of the river, and a third, older-looking (who knows, really) image takes over from a few miles into the territory. But if you’re short of unfamiliar gaming ground to hexify, just trolling up and down that coast has a bunch of gems for you)

Property listings on Tartary

September 10, 2012 1 comment

In response to Jason Kielbasa’s Constantcon Property Guide

Offered by the Honourable and Trustworthy Al-Misri Brothers:

The Qaghan of Tashkurgan seeks a clean, responsible steward of good character to tend His caravanserai on the Kashgar road.

The buildings are in need of some repair (following the activities of Mongols) but the walls are basically sound and there is space sufficient to a small garrison, so that the site may serve also for an order of border monks or as a winter store for Cathay merchants. The steward must provide shelter and water for all respectable wayfarers, but may charge modestly for other services. Apply to the under-vizier, Hajji Usa ibn-Fars.

Room for one partner in a “tandoor-style” alchemist’s lab, underground, central Otrar. Lab contains flask-shaped kiln (ideal for glass or high-temperature metal experimentation), some living accommodation. Unbeatable location – smoke from kiln is concealed in chimney-forest of the Ilkhan’s palace.

Successful applicant will assist his partner in locating equipment/materials, keep lab tidy, and never use explosives or alcohol on property. Goodwill stipend of 4gp/month required. Apply by poste restante, c/o al-Misri Trading House and Emporium, Almaty.

Following the apprehension of the 26 Thieves of Kokand, their hide-out is now vacant and in need of reliable persons to prevent it from once again becoming a nest of vipers and a plague upon the people and commerce that fall under the hand of the Iron Council. Property consists of a complex of 4 caves situated in a box canyon beside the Andijan-Khujand Trunk Road: secret entrance responds to vocal command.

Any booty discovered within is the property of the Iron Council. 200 dinars of gold, half refundable after one year, when the new occupants have proved their metal.

One third interest sought in brassworks and scrapyard, Bayram Ali i Marw, following death of previous partner.

Scrap collected and repurposed from across the Turkmenabad basin: many unique items, opportunities for artificers working at any scale. Partner must be willing to contribute labor and materiel to annual shipbreaking and decontamination expedition.

Unfinished tomb in need of some restoration, necropolis of Bokhara. Excellent city views, cool breeze from north. Original crystal casket still available on demand. Offers from 90 dinars of gold. Apply to Koschqai Of The Citadel.

Well-appointed trading palace in Kashgar available for rent. In need of extensive maintenance due to long absence of proprietors, who left 22 years ago on an exploratory mission to Rum. 14 rooms, courtyard for showing wares and half-below-grade warehousing for at least 800 camel loads available. Usufruct of orchard included. Housekeeper and gardener speak Persian, Rumi and Greek. 70gp/month, payable to the Municipal Trust and Fortress of Kashgar. Some obligations expected.

Watchtower requires guardian, Urumchi-Ulaanbator corridor.

Would suit independent type, capable of dealing with mountain folk, repairing battlements after recent unrest. Ideal applicant will speak Mongol and Uighur.

Warehouse units in Shymkent: from one to one thousand camel-loads! No alcohol, qat or explosives, please. 5cp per camel, minimum charge: 1sp/month.

Underground monastery, recently abandoned in the Ihlara valley.

Total extent unknown. Some representational frescoes in upper galleries. Close to watercourses, game: hidden gardens provide pears, cherries, ducks. To be auctioned on the first of the new year, in 40 lots or to a single buyer, depending on interest. Apply to Housers-Royal of the Sultan of Malatya.

On the ship as megadungeon

July 11, 2012 4 comments

So now everyone’s on the science fantasy tip, I’m going Atlantean. Here, have some ghost ship encounters, underwater weapons and similar trouble.

Edited to add: +Brendan Strejcek of Untimately kindly pointed me to this awesome other ship-as-megadungeon post. Metamorphosis Alpha on the Styx sounds like my kinda nightmare.

Microwave guns: requires two emitters carried by different characters: where you cross the beams, the water gets locally boiled (leading to battlefield “smoke” of a cascade of bubbles). Range: up to 100 yards, damage: 1d8 per round, doubling every round you fail to move.
Bubble gun: blasts air bubbles at the target, but these ones are sticky: if they attach they lift you up. If you can form a big bubble around your enemy’s gills you can suffocate them. Anyway they totally destroy battlefield visibility and sonar.
Concussion Grenades: does what it says on the tin. 4d6 damage over a 10′ radius sphere, 2d6 for the next 10′
Depth charge: or shallow charge, for the benthically inclined
Phosphor flares: cause burns, blindness (or light up the depths, depending on your orientation)

Ghost ships: a survey of sources (in French)
giant ships
(big as kingdoms) such as La Grande Chasse Foudre, from 1917
French survey, including derelicts.

naive map from a round the horn oceancrawl

Charlatan has of course been on this kick for a while. He got me to say this:

Encounters: what about the classic siren call and/or illusory voluptuous form concealing the dead thing below?
Or the illusory ship, that lures greedy characters into the deep (but maybe only after they take something off it, echoing those stories of mutineers who loaded their pockets so with stolen gold that when they made to swim away they sank instead)?

What about the ship that sails right up over land to exact its revenge, like in the legend of Cruel Copinger, carried off from his bedroom ashore by a revenant flying ship?
Fire ships that conceal their flames below decks or which burn down from the mast-tops in mockery of earthly gravity (and St. Elmo’s fire, either a ward against undead or in the hands of the damned as a weapon).
Or ships that constantly re-enact their wrecking – in which case the hazard is immediate if you’re on board, or may come from an unexpected angle if you’re still on your own vessel, and the ghost ship drives you onto the rocks.

Monsters: Davy Jones’ shellfish crew was one of the things I liked most about the PotC films. In a similar spirit, how about:
– multiple-amputee undead like the man-of-wounds but adapted to the perils of the sea – with hooks and peglegs and whales’ teeth and sharkbites?
– poltergeists armed with a chandlery of shipboard stuff – handspikes and blocks and strangling ropes and sail-darning needles and boathooks and flensing spades and, worst of all, anchors? The poltergeist could operate in creepy-everywhere mode or could cobble together a walking, wheezing form out of on-deck junk to wave the characters off.

And finally, I promised you a ship as megadungeon. Apart from the decidedly Miyazakiesque Grande Chasse Foudre (great lightning chaser, that is), what about:

The hollow iceberg: up top it’s just a hollow in the floating ice that keeps going down. Below it’s an ice-crab warren of passages, all transparent and refracting like a hall of mirrors, that keeps getting darker as you descend. Your torches, alas, will get extinguished by meltwater if you don’t keep moving them.

The Marie Celeste as dungeon – first there’s sheer scale: the giant deserted ship represents a massive treasure, but only if you can bring it to shore. But what about the wood-bound world of the ship that reveals a mythic underworld below decks? Mysteriously much larger than it should be, leading into a stinking orlop dungeon, with gardens of valuable plants and arks of animals and everything else you find in bottled worlds – including collectors.

Sometimes the cargo is not just the treasure, it’s also the monster – the most famous example I guess is Alien, but ships often carry dangerous goods that shore kingdoms won’t tolerate (plagues and vermin and other causes for quarantine, to say nothing of political prisoners, weapons or pharmaceuticals). So your adventurers break into a barrel and they see this strange hairy blue fruit inside, and they don’t realise until too late that it requires sunlight to activate it, and before you know it the deck’s awash with these:

thanks, Original Edition Fantasy. When’s this coming out?!?!?

You know how ripening bananas release a hormone that ripens all the other bananas (and everything else) nearby – an exothermic process that leads sometimes to ripening room fires? In 6 hours the smell and heat become overpowering – sweet, alcoholic, headachy. In 12 hours you have a temporary army – they run amok, then fall down after 2 days and seed themselves in the ground…

But it’s maybe best simply to multiply the number of decks below the waterline, for a slow-release cumulative horror realisation that the players are getting in too deep – every level is just as claustrophobic as the last (say, 150′ long by 36′ wide), but they get progressively stranger as you keep going down.

It could go all psychological like Bluebeard’s castle* (after all, if the house is a map of the mind, the ship is, as Foucault said, both a womb and a psychopomp for going beyond the horizon), with rooms of bizarre purpose. Bartok’s version starts simply with a torture room and armory, but goes on to reveal a “sea of tears” and chambers of mysteries too terrible to be sung about.

Or it could simply be unreliable – the bottom planks so rotten that when you step on them they break and let the sea in, the ladders twisted and rat gnawed, so you risk falling down them, the spars and rigging just waiting to fall on your head, every cask and box in the cargo hold a trapped chest containing god knows what.

* the Blackbeard/Bluebeard clash suggests a Battle of the Beards that I find irresistible: legendary devil pirate vs. psychological suppressed violence auto-horror – FIGHT!

So Chris Kutalik asked for an underworld layer

June 12, 2012 Leave a comment

here. And I REALLY REALLY need to be working on something else, but then I figures “better to get it out of my brain and down on paper instead,” so here it is.

Disclaimer: Where I say “Ark” and “Noah” please substitute your own fun – Baldur would be fine, or Dave Bowman or Turkmenbashi or whatever you like. Even Noah, I guess. I kinda like the conceit of the Other Ark, with all the creatures that we don’t see around us.

The ark project – a multi-level “open menagerie” – was either a miserable failure or too successful. Point is, there was never a good moment or method for letting the animals out – things got pretty hairy in there after the second generation of forced evolution. So it was sealed up tight behind a combination lock, the key to which was buried with Noah, and a complicated system was made for controlled release of the animals or for drowning the project altogether… one day.

Millenia passed, the complex fell into ruins, and a few critters have escaped – they roost in the ruined machine halls (blue on the map) around the Ark itself. Now those escaped beasties make the whole place dangerous – especially around the Great Lock in the old entrance hall, which links multiple floors in a big open court. The smarter beasts know what will happen if that door is opened, so they keep a watchful eye on the Lock and try to stop anyone meddling with it.

The machine halls can be flooded individually or the whole complex can be flooded, using the still-working pump houses (green on the map) – to neutralize the threats of beasties in one set of halls or another. Some halls get soak occasionally by malfunctions, though: they contain sea life (giant anemones, nautili and such) that’s dormant unless you flood them back to life. If the whole complex is flooded, folks up on the surface will first notice the level of the river sinking abruptly, then once it’s all flooded, the central Ark piece will break loose and rise up to become a new island in the river.

Treasure can include ancient tech tools and gewgaws (eg “jewels” that are really light-up plastic buttons), knowledge (especially about ancient species/maps of long long ago) and the critters, if they can be captured.

Each of the machine halls is an extensive dungeon complex, as is the Ark itself. Pump houses consist of only a few rooms and are uniformly some stories above the galleries: A is particularly inaccessible: reaching it from any direction involves an arduous climb.

Click for print-size version

Telecanter wrote an unbeatable one-line campaign pitch. I stir in Central Asia

February 14, 2012 7 comments

So Telecanter wrote this typically inspiring post, the final line of which is undiluted adventurous expectancy:

A city of ancient magic users so corrupted that mages only visit it through constructs and familiars.  Constructs battles constructs for glowing relics.

Oh sure, you say: sounds like ASE or Encounter Critical! or even the fabled city of Carcosa itself, rippling uncertainly out there past the blasted plain McKinney gave us to wallow in. With a dash of Battletech.

I say it’s all of these and more (notably, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace*), mixed up and plopped down on one enormous hex map. I say I may finally have found my very own dungeoneering rabbit-hole right here, my League of Extraordinary inter-genre gates. And alas I only have 30 minutes to write it up today. But I’m going to, because (a) I promise to return to this topic, so this will be the umbrella post (tag: Baikonur) and (b) I’ll be too busy to post at all for the next 2 weeks, so I want to leave you with something evocative and links-rich rather than something ranty or scattershot.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to run a game in pseudo-medieval Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I like it there, but you guys have it covered. No, my go-to place for Anomalous Shenanigans and Excitement is Khorasan and Mawarannahr, known to its current divested imperialist overlords and satraps as “Central Asia.” Partly because it has an immensely rich and mostly ignored (in English) history of its own, partly because it has suffered apocalypses and post-apocalypses the like of which we prefer not to dream about even in our fantasies, but mostly because as a benighted western Orientalist I can imagine really wild things happening there (like Lovecraft placing Leng in Tibet – where it gets a flavour he couldn’t have written into it himself).

And pancaking its whole history into one unbaked brick gives us a fertile ground for an actually coherent, flailsnailulous genre-hopping campaign world. Because the cities of pre-modern CA – like Samarkand, Khiva, Kashgar – are Arabian Nights points of light: walled citadels in the desert, fed by hanging gardens and watered from hundreds of miles away by underground networks of pipes. Mutually suspicious, they each struggle to develop their own technologies hidden from the others. And the landscape is pretty much the Platonic ideal of wilderness, whether you want it to stand in for the Western’s Painted Desert, for icy tundra or for the steppes (which it mostly isn’t, actually). It is, after all, where the prototypical barbarians came from. But mostly because in that landscape there is a multitude of weird anti-oases, from constantly burning gas craters to dried up seas and stranded ships to… exactly those things Encounter Critical is on about. Peasants scavenging rocket boosters to sell their ultratech alloys – because the boosters were dropped right on their goat pastures and nobody else seems to want to go near them.

Which brings me to Telecanter’s one-liner. A city so corrupted that the mages will no longer go there in person, but send constructs. And, of course, hapless and desperate adventurers. Because at the blank heart of this blank space on the map we find Baikonur (hedged about, natch, by false Baikonurs…)

Which may or may not be so bad in reality, but in our fantasy Central Asia it takes on shades of Pynchon‘s hallucinatory vision of Peenemunde – maybe even becomes part of an unholy trinity, together with Pripyat and Berzengi, Empty Palace of the Mad Archmage. These are the hot sites – the ones still too toxic to have been picked clean. To get to them you have to pass through their outlands – their Leng plateaux and mutagenic caves, where you can pick up some dinosaur-riding sherpas who know the way to the edge of the glass plain, unless you can hitch a ride on the villaintrain or swipe a patrol vehicle.

Of course, even the long-dead cold sites might still be hot – and have pickings – underground. Which brings me at last to Merv. From 1050 to 1150 (ahem Wessex) Merv was one of the brightest centres of the enormous and technologically vibrant Seljukid Empire, ruled by a series of double acts featuring Conan-type Barbarian Kings “assisted” by ingenious, obsequious Persian Viziers. Until it was utterly destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. After that it became pretty much exactly Beedo’s Black City – a massive ruin with a little living settlement clinging to its side – a megacity megadungeon collapsing into the scrub. Later interpreters have scavenged it for those things their ancient books and scrolls have told them about – things which may themselves turn out to be rather hallucinatory** –  but they haven’t known what to do with the buildings that they can’t classify. Which is most of them, and definitely all the craziest, most fun ones:


Check out especially recent digitization work on the Greater Kyz Kala (translation: “big fort-like thing we still don’t know what it is”) and the ice house (for keeping ice, for your refreshing sherbets, obviously, for when it’s 110 degrees F outside).

Finally, in case you were bored by that whole thing, here: fighting pirates with airships. For reals. And for the Cthulhu-minded, I see the Russians have just drilled into an underground lake in Antarctica in hopes of finding a “truly alien” environment. Countdown to Shoggoth starting… NOW.

* check out this gallery of localisation covers for the novel. I like how everyone conforms to their stereotypes: America predictably goes with the image of the car turned horse carriage, the French are doing something vaguely sexy that I don’t remember in the book, and Russia goes typographic (I mean, really, with this material?) but it’s the Serbian edition that wins.

**mmmyeah, ask me about that another time…

AD&D modules. Also: Wargamer Heaven in Paris

February 6, 2012 1 comment

First, this is a mighty handy resource: a list of not a few OSR AD&D (1e) modules you can get for free or close to it. Imagine you picked up the reprints of the original AD&D rulebooks that WoTC will be distributing in April, and you say to yourself, “well, what do I do with this crazy game?” Here. Also entries and winners of the One Page Dungeon Contest, here.

Second, this is pretty much wargamer heaven. It’s a huge, gorgeous show of “relief maps,” on at the Grand Palais in Paris right now (nicely made website).


Relief maps sound pretty boring, until you realise that they’re those models of cities under siege that Louis XIV, Napoleon, Peter the Great etc. were always striding around on, moving their troops about, like this. Photos on the official site aren’t great – these are better and more navigable – but the site does have a bunch of 3D digitizations of excerpts from the models, made in partnership with Google Earth, and navigable by google map.

The relief maps are interesting for a bunch of reasons – first, they’re documents of the state of cities and their surroundings at the time the models were made – and some of them date back to the 16th century. There are very, very few records of urban fabric out there for periods before the 19th century, so that makes them important historically. Second, they show how good military surveying was at different periods, and how carefully French kings prepared for war, building models of their own cities against the day they would have to defend or retake them, documenting farmhouses and watercourses and walls between fields, all relevant for hiding the movement of troops or placing guns to cover battlefields – making them relevant to recent discussions of war and its rat-bastard, planning-related attractions. They’re also just plain incredible – obsessively detailed, beautifully finished, intricately jointed together.

Finally, they show ideas of good and bad fortification, and what rulers were willing to do in the name of defensibility – there’s a great story about how Louis XIV’s chief military engineer, Vauban, was flabbergasted by how bad the defenses of Embrun were. He threw his hands up and said he could do nothing with them. So Louis gave him permission to build a new fortified town, closer to the enemy (Savoy in this case), wherever he thought made the best military sense. The result was Mont-Dauphin – an exemplary cannon fort, straddling the river, with superb sight-lines and command of the territory and all that. Sadly, though, while Vauban was a military genius, he was no urban planner. Mont-Dauphin made no sense as a town, nobody wanted to go there, and 30 years later they still hadn’t got around to putting up the modest set of buildings inside those exemplary walls which Vauban had placed in his model.

So what use is all this to the harassed DM? Well, models and sympathetic magic are old dungeons standbys, but as a form of non-magical scrying these also suggest all kinds of espionage plots to me – agents could break into the model library and steal or mess with the contents, feeding the enemy false information with forged model components – or they could mess with the landscape itself if there are means to do so, screwing up the advance of the Great Automata Legion by deviating the river right into their obvious attack path or blocking off that all-important street that’s perfect for cannonfire or cavalry charges. Or they could discover plans there – for ready-made forts or flying islands, even, which would make or break a strategic advance. Does Ming the Merciless reduce his subjects to miniature scale – as punishment or to collect trophies of great conquests? Could you steal such a miniaturized town and restore it to full size – on its original location or somewhere more or less convenient? In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Strange moves chunks of the Spanish countryside around to baffle the enemy and screw up their logistics – maybe the model-map room allows a similar power, letting the Supreme Overlord lego his domains together in whatever configuration suits his schemes of the hour.

Unrelated oldie but goodie: how to get to Ninan M’nath. Love it.

Coelomia: island of secrets. For the Sea of O’Sr

January 17, 2012 7 comments

From a ship, Coelomia looks like a low, rocky sandbar or reef, or possibly the mouth of a crater, with a shallow warm water lagoon in the middle.


It could easily be mistaken for the South Pacific island of Tabuearan. Outside the ring of visible land there’s a steeply-shelving, fairly smooth undersea reef that prevents large ships from approaching closely. Small boats or Viking longships with shallow draft, however, can row right into the lagoon, where the water is warm and the bottom is soft and sandy.

The only building on the island is a bamboo-and-palm-thatch hut, belonging to a crazy, muttering, Ben Gunn type castaway wizard. Apart from sunning himself on his balcony and unsuccessfully trying to brew potions out of kelp, the wizard tends a set of wide, shallow rock-pool-botanical garden of coastal and aquatic plants behind his house.

The wizard is harmless, and once he’s got over his fear of the adventurers he’s a mine of information about the island. The first thing he’ll tell the PCs is that he wants to rescue his friends but he can’t. Then he’ll show them some giant snail shells with membranes over the openings – these can store a couple of minutes worth of air, and allow for deep-sea diving. Then he’ll want them to try his potions (hoping to find one of water breathing). Finally he’ll get around to telling them the island’s secret, the reason why he and his friends came to it.

The island is actually a giant mollusc, or maybe two molluscs joined together.

The “lagoon” is a mouth with a ridge of stony, barnacled, tree-lined shell around it. The lagoon’s sandy bottom is the body of a giant snail-like thing loosely covered with sand and seaweed. This snail thing is connected to another that combs the sea floor for curiosities. The creature passes any indigestible curio it finds on the sea floor (bits of shipwrecks, Atlantean kingdoms) up to the mouth to get washed out by the waves, or to be rifled through by opportunistic murderhobos. Like the wizard and his friends.

So you could pan for treasure! But there’s a couple of complications. First, there are the crab-men – strong, violent and beautiful, with pearl-encrusted shells. They look like Kabutops, but covered in mother-of-pearl. Mechanically they’re like these guys. Those crab-men have taken to swiping all the treasure that gets washed up in the lagoon. The wizard has an uneasy truce with them – they let him live on his end of the lagoon, but they won’t let him in their end, where the floor of the lagoon shelves down into an opening deep into the mollusc shell – where they’re keeping the treasure.

And there’s another complication. The wizard came here as a member of a party of adventurers: where the others came for the gold, he had heard legends that an ancient and wise creature lived on the island, a creature that knew the way to paradise. The wizard brought a bunch of tools with him for exploring the island, including potions of water breathing, a diving bell, and a working magical submarine. He had to stay topside to power a ritual, to pump air into the sub. The rest of the gang went deep into the shell. And never came back. The wizard’s confident they aren’t dead – he tried casting Speak With Dead and although he got plenty of responses, none were from his friends. So he wants to know what happened to them, what they found, and what they did with his sub.

What the wizard doesn’t know is that deep inside the shell there’s a series of chambers, some filled with water, others with air. His friends did indeed make contact with the mythical creature – the mollusc, natch – in a small chamber right in the centre between the two great bulbous shells, where they found strange tubes that allowed them to mind-meld with it, and they are slowly being coccooned in pearl themselves. Mind-melding with the mollusc has some advantages – it allows you to control the crab-men telepathically, it feels really good, and it lets you into the mysterious and very slow-hatching plans of the mollusc, and of the party, who are now part of the same mental entity. It’s also very dangerous: breaking someone out of the mind-meld can hurt them, and anyway they won’t want to come away because they’re happy.

Indeed, the wizard’s friends are happy, and peaceful as long as nobody offers them violence, and willing to talk to strangers. They don’t care much about mere gold and jewels and rayguns and what have you. They’re looking for some special magical treasure, which the mollusc has been slowly amassing for years. They might be persuaded to help get the submarine for the PCs (using the crab-men), or drive the island to some useful location, or whatever you want. Maybe someone could try to mind-meld long enough to steer a crab-man to the sub, and then try to leave the meld to take control of the sub. But they emphatically do not want to be rescued, and they don’t want the wizard to join them in the meld – maybe they suspect he has some ulterior motive, maybe they realise their condition is a curse as much as a blessing, maybe they just don’t like him.

Past the mind-melding chamber there’s a narrow squeeze – too narrow for the previous party’s abandoned diving bell, but not too narrow for an unarmoured adventurer and a bag of potions of water breathing (emergency supply in the diving bell, which is probably still in the next chamber just past the squeeze). Beyond and below that, the chambers open out again into a crab-man settlement, with a whole city of crab-men hanging in ropy pearlescent strands off the bottom of the lower shell.

And tangled in the strands, the sub. Getting to the sub has one more complication – pressure.  The bottom of the shell is deep enough to cause serious pressure problems for human divers (I don’t know how deep that is – look it up. I’m going to say about 100 feet).  You could polymorph into a squid, perhaps. If you were confident crab-men didn’t love them some tasty squid. Or you could try to get to the sub quickly, since high pressure diving is all about time.

There’s plenty of treasure for a violent and uninquisitive party to take out of the island, but most of what can be reached easily is not very convenient: you could kill and loot the crab-men for as much mother of pearl as you can handle, provided you don’t mind it coming in foot thick slabs – that sort of thing. The crab-men also have a few valuables squirreled away in the top couple of interior chambers, hidden in a mighty tangle of everything the sea bottom could possibly provide. But to get to the sub, or the major treasures of the crab-men’s city, you’d have to get inventive. And to unlock the real potential of the island you’d have to get friendly with the mollusc.

Different campaigns will want the sub to have different possibilities and limitations. I picture it like a small version of the Nautilus from the classic Kirk Douglas 20,000 Leagues – big enough for 5 adventurers and their equipment, and capable of operating just as long as the wizard can sustain his continuous-air-making ritual (supplies enough fresh air for the crew and to power a small turbine for propulsion. The ritual must be conducted under an open sky – which is why the wizard can’t go aboard – and has a maximum range of 1 league).

Regarding the challenges of underwater adventuring, Harry Potter provided several magical solutions (gillyweed, which provokes a partial Deep One polymorph, outright polymorphing into some seaborne species, bubble-head charms, buddy-breathing with mermaids*). If needed the wizard could have developed anything from potions to a really long rubber hose. He does have a collection of diving-bell-like apparatuses around his hut, which he has grown out of nacre. These all have the disadvantage that they’re nearly impossible to move on land, being extremely heavy and having rough outer surfaces. Once in the water they become more tractable.

* OK, that last one is not canonical HP. But I bet there’s a fanfic.

How megadungeons interact with the campaign universe

December 6, 2011 2 comments

I cannot improve on the title: ‘Brinicle’ ice finger of death filmed in Antarctic.

That, right there, is how I see megadungeons metastasizing through the underearth.* I don’t know if the trapped starfish are earth elementals or potential monsters or what, but I do know it’s the creepiest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Sorry I can’t embed it – crazy custom BBC player.

Alternatively, you know about the WIPP, right? And how they were going to build some crazy spiked pyramid thing but they decided that would make it too attractive so they went with off-puttingly dull (good choice, actually)? The video up top is what I imagine the WIPP doing after it’s been left alone for 2000 years or so, in order to suddenly turn Earth into Gamma World.

ETA –  d’Nereverri has another theory too delicious to keep quiet: dungeons are fungi, and the monsters are their spores. See, a monster settles down, digs itself a hole, and the dungeon just kind of grows out behind the hole producing more monsters along the way, until it reaches maturity and sends out hordes of monsters who, after rampaging for a while, settle down and dig new holes for new dungeons. Adventuring parties are basically harvesting some of the dungeon flesh to feed the surface human communities. (I suppose there are also some opportunistic creatures who live symbiotically in the dungeon, but I expect those are relatively rare.)

Chartporn chaser: this year’s Christmas card. Or possibly the schematic map for your next Saturday Night special.

* relevant discussion point –

me: What if the surface, where men live, is really an interface zone between two different planes – locally “over” and “under”? Monsters (and treasure) are produced by interaction between the planes, like nylon – and any interplanar boundary is liable to produce its own distinctive
phenomena – while the “interiors” of the planes would be largely inert. Until interacted with by, say, an adventuring party. If that’s the case then delves into the underworld should spawn their own threats and treasures, like fulgurites. And lords and kings – who are all, remember, retired high-level dungeoneers – send lowly apprentice adventurers off into caves not to empty them, but as catalysts – controlled reaction surfaces – to populate and extend and define them, ready for subsequent looting. (Whether multiple unrelated adventuring parties provoke different, overlaid or malleable underworlds by their separate actions and experiences is left as an exercise for the reader.)

So why, then, do bigger monsters-and-treasure cluster at lower levels of the underworlds? More reagent is available, for one – it’s not already being taken up with thousands of micro-events topside. But maybe there are also pockets of super-reagent to be found below the surface – intra-planar whorls of concentrated adventure-potential. Probably the laughing magician would know ways of dowsing for them, and would send his best victims agents to poke them vigorously check them out (I note in passing that his jokes are frequently described as mordant – ie both bitingly painful and capable of fixing fugitive colours to stable fabric).

cdk: perhaps the reaction happens at the interface, but the best products are predominantly of one plane or the other, and either sink or float. Or maybe it’s more like this and a catalyst from one plane intermingles with a flow from the other plane and sinks down where it reacts with the rich, previously inert [lower depths|upper reaches].

In the Demiurge’s memory theatre

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

What do you get if you mashup Zak’s Metamorphosis Amber and the 1e PHB cover?

…deep in the uncharted wilderness the players break through a cruft of goblin nests to discover an enormous, multi-layered gallery filled with tableaux – statues locked in epic combat; miniature cities under attack by squadrons of flying carpets; glittering rooms peopled with uniformed porcelain figures grasping alien devices; cathedral caverns filled with colossal stone elephants and whales. Everything pointing to everything else like some gigantic, ancient explanatorium. Some of the exhibits are made from plain stone or glass, others from huge blocks of malachite or chalcedony, some crafted from gold and gems.

Of course, this buried museum, or art-house, or whatever it is, isn’t uninhabited, it’s just incidentally inhabited with an awful lot of inanimate stuff. And you could prize the gems out and run away and make a fortune. But the real money would be in pulling out whole statues – and that would take manpower, effort, time. And if you did, then the real value would be lost – as some sage will eventually tell you – because it’s only by having all the figures in their original setting that you can read them for their deep, revelatory meanings. So then you should build a town at the entrance to this wonder, and guide sages through it so they can plumb its secrets. And you should replace what you looted, so they can read whatever you unwittingly destroyed.

But it’s only by having all the original parts in place that you can make the ritual work, to bring it all to life and opens a portal to the planes/save the world from boredom/remake the PCs as demigods/lift the curse of endless background.

…so the megadungeon campaign, if the players bite, eventually runs in reverse. First they loot it and sell the bits, then they try to make new bits to replace what they stole, and finally they have to run all over the world tracking down all that stuff they previously hoiked to put it back in its proper place – they become dungeon makers, rather than dungeon despoilers.

And that’s how you get them to go into the Castle of the Mad Archmage, which they otherwise would absolutely never do. To get that last wind-up box.

Top five reasons for breaking open a grave

November 4, 2011 2 comments

Bones Don’t Lie has a serious and sensible list of the top 5 (most common?) reasons for disturbing a burial. It comes down to:

1. getting stuff out (grave goods, bits of bodies*, political capital)
2. keeping stuff in (bad luck, spirits, undead**)
3. investigating the past (includes archaeology)

And in another post, 4. honoring the dead (not desecration but reconsecration).

I’ve never seen (4) in a game. Aside from this list the only thing I think games commonly add is:
4(g): necromancy/raising armies

Surely we can do better than this? If you’re running a tombraiding game, what other reasons could there be for cracking open that pyramid?*** Here’s another 5, but consider this a challenge: there’s a world of possibilities out there. What would nobody else ever have thought of?

1. opening/closing a gateway to another realm (tomb as psychopomp, perhaps, or just wardrobe, or physical dungeon entrance, or hallucinatory dream quest).
2. signaling to some otherworldly entity (includes aliens, time-travelers, seraphim, possessors of the dead, E.A.Poe). Or demonstrating that they won’t be answering such a signal because (a) they don’t exist or (b) you’ve overmastered them (a common wartime propaganda move, BTW).
3. accident, natural disaster or hubristic/archaeologically ignorant building programs. This runs from misrecognition – you thought the tomb was a house or other common structure, up to digging railway tunnels through mass madhouse graves and plague pits.
4. you’re getting out. This needn’t be some lame 60’s mind-fuck trick ending – “oh look, you were dead all along – dead and asleep to your true potential!” Maybe you started somewhere else and the smugglers’ tunnels come out in a graveyard. Or maybe you are (un)dead, following your capture by the pixies/cultists, and now the game takes a strange turn.
5. to get rid of something. The classic version of this is return to the stones to the temple and lift the curse, but what if you really just want to put something beyond reach? What if there’s no Mount Doom to go with the One Ring? What are you going to do now? Maybe the Lich God makes a good guard dog after all?
Bonus 6: to make it your new home. Not necessarily because you’re undead; maybe you want to bathe in the energies of the Ancients, or you’re hiding from foes, or you know the ground better.

* she doesn’t mention the Tonton Macoute practice of taking kneecaps from graves as protection against shooting, which seems like it might cut across a few categories here.
** or less metaphorically/metaphysically, poison.
** check out this megadungeon onionskin: imagine these outlines are buildings actually nested inside each other, the levels increasing as you work toward the central nugget. Or turn the whole thing upside down: level 1 is under your point-of-light village; outer levels are more dangerous, and have doors back to the surface on lands or islands or undersea realms farther away from your home base.