Dungeon Design | Dungeons are Angry Houses

I think a lot about dungeons. I have written several things about the nature of dungeons, it’s a subject that fascinates me, and I constantly read things that make me think about them from a different point of view, or that allow me to complement the ideas I already had.

This time I came up with an idea that sounds both absurd and intriguing: dungeons are angry houses.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met nearly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

An uninhabited house (or castle, or fortress, or wizard’s tower) begins to present anomalies. Houses don’t belong to nature, they’re human creations to be inhabited. An uninhabited house begins to dream, and given enough time, the house loses its sanity and its dreams begin to present anomalies: the dream of the house invades reality in an attempt to replace what it’s missing.

Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left itchillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction afraction less than the barest possible tolerable length”.
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

The things of the dream that invade the reality of the uninhabited house modify its structure. The house longs to be inhabited, thus becoming a beacon that attracts strange things, both from the dream side and from worlds that do not belong to human reality: monsters and madmen.

The very structure of the house begins to change. With no human presence to control it and direct it at its convenience, the house changes by itself, in a cruel parody. Labyrinthine corridors separate rooms that should normally be joined, narrow corridors link chambers that should never touch.

After enough time, an uninhabited house loses every characteristic that once defined it as a house. It is now something else, something uninhabitable (at least by humans; at least by humans with a normal mind), a labyrinth, a tomb of horrors, a dungeon.

What happens to a house when it is left alone? It becomes worn, and aged. Its paint peels, its foundation begins to sink. It goes for too long unlived in. What does it think of? What does it dream? How does it look on those creatures who built it, brought it into existence only to abandon it when its usefulness no longer satisfies them? They grow lonesome. It stares for long hours into the darkness of its own empty halls and sees shadows. And they jump as they think, here, here is someone again I’m not alone. And each time it is wrong, and the hurt starts over. It may haunt itself, inventing ghosts to walk its floors, making friends with its shadow puppets, laughing and whispering to itself at the end of some quiet culdesac. It may grow angry. Its basement may fill with churning acid like an empty stomach, and its gorge may rise as it asks itself through clenched teeth, “what did I do wrong?”. It may grow bitter. It may grow hungry. So hungry and so bitter that its scruples dissolve and its doors unlock themselves. While a house may hunger it cannot starve. And so in fever and anger and loneliness, it may simply lie in wait. Doors open, shades drawn, halls empty. Hungry.”
-Kitty Horrorshow, Anatomy

Artist: Mutartis Boswell

Gone mad at last, the house begins to attract (or develop) strange technologies: traps, riddles, tricks. Now she dreams of taking revenge on those who abandoned her, but… how to attract them? How do clams attract men?

The house produces treasures; the anomalous inhabitants of this house are not interested in these treasures, but the humans are, and whether they decide to go themselves for those treasures they intuitively know are in there, or they send a group of adventurers willing to risk their skin for a handful of silver coins, the house will be waiting for them to attempt their annihilation or to lock them within its walls, forcing them to inhabit it again. Angry-mad houses long to be inhabited again but their longing is perverted.

And what happens when someone stays long enough locked up in an abnormal house? The house changes him. This is why a large number of dungeons are inhabited by “things” that were once human and are now just a decadent shadow of themselves, crazed and hungry, or desirous of companionship, of someone to make their doom more bearable. Robbed of their agency, they seek to impose what little power they have left on others.

And he shall look at the lesion. Now, [if] the lesion in the walls of the house consists of dark green or dark red sunken looking stains, appearing as if deeper than the wall…”
-Leviticus 14:37

More time has passed. The structure of the uninhabited house goes from bad to worse. If at first the structure, although changed, maintained a semblance of reality or conformed, at least in general, to the laws of physics, after some more time these same laws begin to mutate inside. The house is completely sick, the house now looks like a teratoma.

Visitors (invaders) feel confused or disgusted when contemplating the stained walls of these rooms and corridors, stains that seem to float off the wall or to be embedded at a deeper level than the wall itself.

Perceptions are affected and it is not easy to know if it is due to the “psychic force” of the house, or if one is really immersed in a non-Euclidean space, or even outside space itself. The most sensible thing to do would be to destroy this anomaly, to set it on fire, to eliminate it from reality.


Dungeon Design | Elements that a dungeon must have

There are three main motivations for an old-school player, and all three must be fulfilled in a dungeon:

  • Explore and find things
  • Gold and treasure
  • Fighting with something

There is a fourth motivation, but I consider it secondary to the previous ones:

  • Talking to someone.

Exploring and finding things

Some players are more interested in exploration and discovery. Give them something interesting to discover and they will be satisfied. Ancient or alien technologies; murals and clay tablets depicting the origin, evolution and decay of an extinct race; a microscope with lenses of an unknown crystal that allows you to observe an entire universe in a drop of water; a glimpse into an entirely new reality.

Gold and treasures

Perhaps the easiest motivation to satisfy, but it doesn’t have to be boring. Yes, gold and silver coins are fine, but a library of incunabula is better; other options are: works of alien or perverted art, weird biological samples for a scientist or a magician, the only existing portrait of the last king of Atlantis, a set of silver and jewelled weapons and ornaments that seems to have been used in a ritual eons ago.

Fighting with something

What makes a violent encounter different from any other violent encounter? A) What’s at stake. The adventurers have already found the treasure and discovered the secret origin of the human race, but these bandits stand between them and the luxurious revelry and glorious fame that awaits them upon their return to the surface. B) A new monster. Something that could only inhabit these dark corridors lost in time, something that the adventurers do not know how to defeat and that forces them to use their wits and any available resources. C) The terrain. A dungeon is not a city, it is not a forest, nor is it a castle; the terrain can be used to your advantage, but it can also be a risk: if a room contains fungi that produce gases, can it be used to make the enemy go boom?

Talking to someone

Not, of course, with people identical to those found on the surface, in the cities and towns of the human world. What will the snake-man talk about when he is awakened from his 100,000-year slumber? What will the strange formation of mold and fungus that has acquired consciousness after eons be thinking about? What does the King of the Tyrant Lizards have to ask you? And what about that incorporeal voice that seems amazed or amused but not hostile?

So, motivation

This guide is not definitive or absolute, it is just a reflection of where I am as a referee at the moment, a guide for the adventures I have designed and will continue to use for my next adventures.

Art: Brian Allen

Mood Can’t Be Concrete (horror RPGs)

(This article was published originally in Hidden Shrines of Setebos).

Atmosphere, mood, it is essential in any horror story, and horror adventures are no exception. I added a small ​mood​ section in each room.

Mood descriptions are made of abstractions, ideas and symbols. Mood can’t be concrete. Is the mood sad? ​Sad mood​ sounds concrete enough. But what does sad​ mean?

Each of your players will have a specific idea of what ​sad​ is. Of course I could’ve made all the mood entries similar to ​sad​ or ​lonely​ or ​bleak​. These look concrete concepts; they aren’t. They’re just familiar and can only convey ordinary feelings, not the real sense of the weird (weird sadness, weird bleakness), which is what I’m trying to do here.

But the way I made these descriptions is just as abstract and subjective as the ordinary, but much more evocative (I think) and odder, and the Referee can do one of three things here:

  1. ignore my mood entries,
  2. read aloud my mood entries,
  3. describe it with her own words; express her feelings after reading mine.

Either way, their players will have their own interpretations of what a ‘misery curdled, but also ancient and intriguing’ mood means. Personal interpretations are more horrific than whatever I can think of. At least, that’s what all the horror writers I read say, and I like their stuff, so I follow.

Mention to the players what is included in the ​stuff​ section (below mood in every room) as well, and the room should start getting a better shape in your player’s mind. The name of each room is also a tool for evocation, especially the deeper they explore.

Once they imagine the meaning of it, they will have to update its meaning when confronted with ​a Charlotte Perkins Gilman nightmare​. When they realise things are not as they thought they were, that’s where horror lies.

room of angel
A room description from this module

Shelter 15 – Dungeon Poem Challenge

Better late than never. Here’s my entry for the Dungeon Poem Challenge. Map by Dyson Logos, of course.

Shelter 15

An adventure for Death is the New Pink (now on sale) or Into the Odd. BADassery = Strength; Dodge Some Shit (DSS) = Dexterity; MOXY = Willpower.

Why are you here?

  1. The air-purifying device in your shelter has broken and no one knows how to repair it, but it is possible to find a replacement, and the logical thing to do is to look for one in another shelter.
  2. Communications with Shelter 15 were lost a little over a year ago; it’s time to send someone to investigate.
  3. Due to bad behavior, Shelter 13 held a vote. It was democratically decided that you could no longer stay at the shelter, so they gave you some weapons and equipment and “let you go”. The Overseer, in an act of good faith, revealed to you that perhaps in Shelter 15, a few days’ walk away, you might find asylum.

1. Living Quarters

The access door is made of one meter thick steel, and displays the ‘Shel-Tech’ logo. It’s slightly open, allowing passage.

4 abandoned tents.

  1. Rotting blankets.
  2. One shoe. 3 gold bits inside.
  3. Two skeletons hugging each other. On closer inspection, it’s a single skeleton with extra limbs.
  4. The booklet “The March of the Pigs”. It takes 1 day to read. Once per adventure, you can create 1d4+1 Molotov bombs using improvised materials (1d6 damage per round to all inside the area; one extra point of damage to cops, sheriffs, soldiers, politicians and other enemies of freedom).

a) High above the doorframe to the west corridor, a plasma shotgun is pointed towards the floor. A motion sensor detects anyone passing under the rifle, emitting an energy discharge (1d8 damage). If the victim suffers critical damage, they are turned into a green sludge.

2. Cleaning Room

The lock has been melted as if by intense heat.

A shovel (1d8 damage).

A clutter of metal sheets with the ‘Shel-Tech’ logo engraved.

The observer notes that they are made of lead and can protect from some forms of harmful radiance (yes, like laser and plasma weapons).

3. Flowerpot

A pot filled with soil and a healthy-looking flowering plant. Above it, on the wall, a small painting depicting something you have never seen in real life: an autumn landscape. Looking at it for a moment fills you with vitality (either your hp or MOXY are replenished, only once).

Hidden in the pot’s soil, a sophisticated green bronze key.

The key opens the safe box in area 6.

Eat a mouthful of soil and in your next fight your attacks will be Enhanced. Only works once.

Eating the plant has no effect.

4. Latrines

Six holes in the floor reveal the original use of this room; a foul odor escapes from the holes.

Graffiti on the wall reads, “The Overseer is a son of a bitch.”

Roll 1d6

1. 1d4 lurking mole rats, mutated mammals with no fur and a bad temper due to their constant pain. There is a 2 in 6 chance of being hostile and trying to eat one of the PCs (they all attack at once). BAD 10, DSS 14, MOXY 6, 4hp, Bite (1d6).

2-5. Nothing.

6. The huge tail of a scorpion pokes out of one of the holes. A DSS roll allows cutting it without suffering damage (1d6 BAD poison damage). The poison gland allows creating 1d2 doses of antivenom in one day, not while adventuring.

5. Workshop

The room is full of old sawdust and rusty carpentry machinery.

A saw in good condition can be a nice weapon if someone manages to adapt it (1d8 damage).

A ditch was partially plugged with sand and sawdust. Someone buried a body there, only the bones remain but the blue uniform of an Overseer with a white 15 on the back remains intact.

6. The Safe Box

A safe with the ‘Shel-Tech’ logo; to open it, a key is required (area 3). Explosives destroy the box with all its contents and due to its construction, there is no way to pick the lock or use a crowbar.

Inside the box are 2 scrap pistols (they fire nails, nuts and bolts, and all sorts of similar-sized junk, 1d6 damage), a hammer and a sickle with red hilts (when used in each hand, they deal 2d4 damage; separately, 1d6), and 500 gold bits.

1 in 8 chance of encountering 1 aquatic marauder just chilling out here; mutated human with pisciform characteristics and radioactive psyche. BAD 12 DSS 10, MOXY 14, 6hp, 2 claws (2d4), Horrific gaze (1d6 MOXY damage). In water, it always wins initiative.

7. The Underground Stream

Its limpid waters flow towards the south-east.

Drinking the water heals replenishes but causes 2d4 BAD radiation damage; dipping into it, causes 1d6 dame, and other 1d6 each hour you spend there.

2 in 6 chance of encountering 1d4 aquatic marauders, mutated humans with pisciform characteristics and radioactive psyche. BAD 12 DSS 10, MOXY 14, 6hp, 2 claws (2d4), Horrific gaze (1d6 MOXY damage). In water, they always win initiative.

8. The Boat

The remains of a stranded boat.

Among the debris is a human skull apparently made of gold but it’s bone. Its possessor can automatically succeed on a MOXY check, once per day, but also suffer 1d4 BAD damage (it’s radiation!)

1 in 8 chance of encountering 1 aquatic marauder just chilling out here; mutated human with pisciform characteristics and radioactive psyche. BAD 12 DSS 10, MOXY 14, 6hp, 2 claws (2d4), Horrific gaze (1d6 MOXY damage). In water, it always wins initiative.

9. Common Area

A wall is full of notes and messages corroded by time, only three are legible:

  1. Sergei, I left your box key in the geraniums. -Cass (includes a flower doodle)
  2. Sergei, the water filter needs maintenance. -Foner
  3. Everyone, emergency meeting today at 23:00 to discuss the Overseer’s disappearance. -Gyllenhaal

10. The Mushroom Garden

Inedible mushrooms and mildew flourish in this area.

When entering it, make a BAD check to avoid inhaling the spores floating in the environment (1d4 BAD radiation damage each round of exposure).

There are 3 pedestals holding urns.

  1. The ashes of the first Overseer of Shelter 15.
  2. The ashes of the second Overseer. Actually, a formless black sludge. Attacks on “sight”, so DSS check for initiative. BAD 14, DSS 7, MOXY 1, 4hp, Lashing tendril (1d6), Black spit (1d6 BAD damage). Fire deals 1d12 BAD damage to it.
  3. The ashes of the third Supervisor. Among the ashes, two gold teeth and a glass eye.

11. The Overseer’s Office

The door can be opened with either a BAD check, with a crowbar, or with explosives.

  • A successful BAD check reduces BAD by 1, a failed check reduces it by 1d4.
  • If explosives are used, there’s a 1 in 6 chance that the stagnant air in the shelter will react, causing rooms 5, 9 and 10 to explode (1d20 damage, and 1d6 each subsequent round for 1d4 rounds).

In an open locker there’s an anti-radiation suit, an air purifying filter and a rusty key (for room 13).

3 booths with working computers. The only relevant thing is a document reporting that the entrance door of Shelter 15 was designed to not close properly, as part of an experiment that allowed Shelter Technologies to investigate the effects of radiation over time on the population.

In another corner there’s a coffee table turned upside down. The table hides a trap door leading down to room 12.

12. The basement

A human (human?) skeleton holding a revolver, a hole in the skull. It appears to have died defending itself from something.

The revolver is functional but has no bullets.

Dark goo stains cover most of the floor.

13. Cemetery

From the padlocked door, a smell of decay escapes.

The remains of dozens of people lie here, unburied.

9 ghouls wearing common Shelter 15 uniforms, orange and a white 15 on the back, roam here, and will attack immediately. BAD 12, DSS 8, MOXY 6, 5hp, Sharp fingernails (1d6 BAD damage). When killed, they melt into a black goo.

What is a dungeon? | Another take

The nature of dungeons is a theme that fascinates me!

I have written about this subject before. Perhaps it all comes down to a search for meaning. I mean, whenever I make a dungeon, I try to give it a reason, an original purpose, but at the same time I like randomness (also I am not an artist or designer), and I use a random dungeon map generator (although I make changes to the final map to fix some inconsistencies; with Paint is actually easy).

This results in things as strange as a Victorian mansion with a layout that doesn’t correspond to a mansion, but more like a maze.

However, a realistic layout of a Victorian mansion, although attractive to the eye, is boring as a dungeon.

So I make again a weird maze and impose a sense, mainly, to choose the taste, color, aroma and general or specific characteristics of each room.

But I have been thinking a lot these days and I came up with another possibility. This is a dungeon, more or less typical:

Who built it and for what purpose? The answers may be many: a magician, an ancient civilization, aliens!

But what if it was built by a race of antimatter beings? What if solid spaces are the voids for them, and vice versa? From this antipoint of view, the antidungeon would look like this:

I don’t know about you, but it gives me the impression that it makes at least a little more sense as an architectural layout, as if it were a small village with roads and buildings.

If this was not the plan of an underground dungeon but of an open-air village, it seems a somewhat more reasonable map. The white areas are pathways and gardens, the black squares are buildings, and the black lines, only the antigod knows. Perhaps the foundations of crumbled buildings?

Take into account that the subterranean of these antibeings is their “open air”, while our open air for them is a “compact solid”. Perhaps our villages and cities are dungeons they crawl. That would partially explain the presence of ghosts and apparently immaterial beings in our streets, especially during the night, because following our unscientific logic, our night is their day, our darkness is their light.

These meditations were accompanied by the beauteous music of the gods.

1d6 Random Tables

The OSR Weapons Race is back!

The adventurers enter a room. What’s in this room? Roll one d6 and then another.

1) A clay pot

  1. 450 gold coins; 1-in-6 chance (plus your wisdom modifier if you have a valuation, appraisal or taxing background) to realise they’re fake (iron pyrite, aka the fool’s gold, i.e. worthless).
  2. White powder. Inhale and re-roll your HD. The result is your new maximum (and current) hit points. Enough powder for the entire party.
  3. A human eye comes out floating around you, it follows you everywhere, you are now only surprised in 1-in-6. If you’re an elf: sorry, no cookie for you. Also: under bright light (daylight, &c), you are dazzled, suffering a -1 to all of your rolls until you move away from the light (or wear sunglasses).
  4. Some kind of swamp gas. Save vs. Poison or fungal spores penetrate your brain and control you, enpowering your death drive. You get a -2 penalty in all your Saving Throws and your AC. When you die, small, pretty fungi sprout from your head, releasing more spores, and the cycle repeats: everyone in the area makes a Saving Throw, and so on. After a few weeks, there’s an increasing chance of encountering “fungal zombies”, marking the start of the fungal apocalypse, of which you are the sole responsibles. In less than a a year, most of the world (i.e. Europe) will have been decimated.
  5. You release a sentient and friendly flatulence. As a reward, he can guide you to a place where he knows there is an amazing treasure, but he doesn’t know what dangers might be inside: It’s the Tower of the Stargazer. If this is your second time, Uravulon Calcidius has been somehow freed and he’s very angry.
  6. Very old, very strong wine. Drink and you can see goddess Demeter. Is she real, though?

2) Nerd gadgets

  1. Astrolabe. You can determine the position of the sun or stars. If you are a Magic-User, everyday morning roll 1d6. 1: One extra spell of any level you can cast. 6: You can’t cast your highest level spells.
  2. Electric battery. You can mount it to any steel weapon, like a sword or halberd. Roll to attack. 20: Your weapon causes damage as the next better weapon (a d6 weapon deals d8 instead). 1: You suffer that damage.
  3. Shadow set. AC 12. Look like a ninja! It grants you one extra pip in Stealth, a +6 to Saving Throws vs. Poison, and +2 vs. Death. You can’t wear any armor when wearing the shadow set.
  4. A thing with a button. Push the button. A voice comes out: “To release the soul one must die. To find peace inside you must get eternal”. Save vs. Death. Once dead, you hear the same voice: What you found was eternal death. No one will ever miss you”.
  5. Strange goggles. These goggles are attached to the head and cannot be removed without permanently blind you. You have X-ray vision, you can see everyone as skeletons, but also detect hidden weapons and the like. You can no longer recognize people’s faces or general appearance.
  6. A thing with many buttons. Numerals, buttons that say VOL or CH or CC, you really don’t get it. When pointed at someone and a button is pressed, it produces 1d4 effects: 1: An extra combat action every two rounds (first round, one action; second round, two actions). 2: You can make only two actions every three rounds, i.e. round one, action; round two, action, round three, no action. 3: Your character is changed: roll up a new character. That’s you now. 4: You see everything in black and white.

3) The ancient tome

  1. You learn the language of either frogs and toads, or fungi.
  2. You learn how to breed spiders.
  3. You learn useful survival skills (+1 Bushcraft).
  4. You learn everything about the African walrus and its gestation period.
  5. You learn that you know less than you think (-1 Wisdom).
  6. The book is blank. 666 pages of nothing except numbering. If you pass page by page and read each page number (1, 2, 3… 665, 666), Satan comes to you. What does he want?

4) Mysterious scroll

  1. Strange map. It’s the map of 2019 London.
  2. Love letter a married woman you know (maybe a noble) wrote for her peasant lover. How dit it get here? More importantly: How can you take advantage?
  3. Letter dated two weeks ago: “Have any arcane tomes to trade? Bring them to me. Franz von Hatzfeld, Würzburg’s Prince-Bishop” (Better Than Any Man).
  4. It’s 30 sheets of parchment, written in an unknown language and including strange illustrations of things that should not be and unknown astronomical charts. Language rolls and any other intent to understand the content are automatically failed. If a character or player says something on the lines of: “Let’s accept that this text doesn’t mean anything at all, maybe it’s just a joke made by a troll”, his or her character gains one point of Wisdom, because that’s the truth, it doesn’t have any hidden meaning, it’s just doodles or callygraphy exercises or even a prank.
  5. Sheet music entitled “Vanilla Fantasy”. Written for theorbo, when performed the space between the musicians and the audience opens up. All listeners must make a successful Saving Throw vs. Magic or, when the music’s over, be willing to be devoured by the sky, meaning they throw themselves to the opening and disappear. Save vs. Death if you prefer.
  6. In German. Secret Language roll. If the PC already knows German, she still rolls with a +1 bonus, because it’s neither Upper nor Central Geman, but a variation of Low German. It’s a witchcraft recipe to gain 1 point in two abilities or 2 points in one ability. The character has to mix three spoons of ground thistle, mistletoe and aconitum with [successful roll] a spoon of blood of a child or [failed roll] a spoon of blood from the ripped heart of a child. Both versions of the ritual work.

5) Curiosities

  1. Three astragali. If a character rolls these, the player must roll 3d6 and replace their current Charisma value with the result of the roll. A second roll replaces Constitution, then Dexterity, then Intelligence, then Strength, then Wisdom. A seventh roll and further rolls deduct one point from all six ability scores.
  2. A skeleton holding a silver spoon. The spoon is doubly cursed. 1) While you possess it, you need double food/water rations, 2) You cannot get rid of it, it always re-appears among your possessions. It can be stolen, though.
  3. A portrait of a random PC and a man. It doesn’t seem a painting, it’s too real to be a painting. Behind there’s this note: “I wish you good luck in your adventures. Love, Abraham”. Abraham is your husband, always has been, and you don’t remember finding the picture, you always brought it with you.
  4. The most beautiful mother-of-pearl comb you have ever seen. Comb someone’s hair and it grows 5 cm per night, non-stop. When it’s long enough to headbang to the rhythm of Emperor’s “Curse you all men”, the hair will try to strangle you (Saving Throw vs. Death). If you survive the attack, you have to get rid of it, maybe removing your scalp. Cutting it doesn’t help, it grows like a hydra’s head.
  5. Voodoo doll. If you stick a pin while observing someone up to 30 metres away, make an attack roll for 1d6 damage. It works 1d4 times a day, modified by Charisma (minimum one).
  6. A crystal dagger that grants a +1 bonus against evil orcs for 1d4 damage. Too bad orcs don’t exist in this world.

6) Ancient artifacts*

  1. Bell of Valor. Gold tintinnabulum shaped like a winged phallus. If the bell is hung over the head of a sleeper, he will be visited by an angel in the form of a lion with eagle’s wings and a huge flaming sword. The dream is vague, but the effect is evident: If you go unarmoured during that day, you can wield two mêlée weapons (minor or small, 1d4 or 1d6 points of damage) during combat. You only have to make one attack roll, and if you succeed, roll two damage dice instead of one. During a round, you can renounce one of the damage dice (i.e. only use one weapon to attack) and add +1 to your AC. This must be declared at the start of the round.
  2. Bathory Heart. Eat it. Bathing in the blood of your enemies (or friends) restores your hit points. From the second time you do it, make a Saving Throw vs. Magic, if you fail: 1) You don’t get your hit points back, 2) When you level up, you won’t gain any additional hit points (except those given by your Constitution modifier; god forbid it’s a negative number), 3) The effect of the Bathory Heart dissipates.
  3. White Obsidian Pendant. It belonged to a great hero before he disappeared into the Abyss where he travelled to prevent the Pelagic Darkness from overcoming the world. Might the hero still be there, in an eternal struggle? The possessor of this pendant can travel between the realms of light and darkness: mechanically, she has both alignments: Law and Chaos. Any effect that affects one of these alignments negatively is automatically denied; any effect that affects it positively is accepted.
  4. The One Ring of Invisibility. A gold ring with a strange inscription. Language roll: You know what it says, you don’t know what language it is written in, though: “Invisibility”. The ring becomes invisible when worn.
  5. Hands of Hope and Glory. A girl’s dried and pickled left hand with a candle wick made of her hair, over a woman’s right hand that serves as a candleholder. The small hand is a closed fist with the middle finger raised, with the words: “Paint my name with their blood” tattooed. The light from this “candle” illuminates like an ordinary candle but only for the holder. Placing the lit ‘candle’ in front of a door causes the door to open automatically. When used for the fifth time, the light will spark releasing a smell of burnt mandrake and cannot be used again.
  6. The Coire Ansic. One of four relics of the Thiata Dé Danann. Boil water and stones in this cooking pot and it will produce the best soup you have ever tasted.

*These properties can be partially known with the Identify spell. For instance, you know you have to eat Bathory’s heart but you don’t know the effect until you actually eat it.

Note for referees: Use common sense. Or use weird sense. Whatever is not stated, you decide.

What’s a good trap? + Crown of Negativity

Into the Trap

I’ve been flipping through Grimtooth’s Ultimate Traps Collection, which is huge and full of ideas, just as perverse one than the last, but not as easy to use without some preparation work (some traps are one or two full pages long, and include diagrams; you can’t read that mid-session, you need to learn how the trap works before the game starts).

I also have been thiking about what Chris McDowall means when he says traps should be obvious:

Then he gives two examples:

This means there are no passive rolls to detect traps, but also that the player doesn’t need to actively search for traps (making the referee specific questions) to detect them.

Does it mean that characters in Into the Odd automatically detect traps? It seem so. So traps are fun not because they can harm the characters, are they fun, then, because characters can trump them? I am not sure Chris McDowall implies that, but it’s unlikey he means the opposite.

When I write a dungeon, I always want to add some traps but I always struggle to make interesting traps that are fun not matter if they are activated or bypassed. It’s not a easy job. What’s a good trap?

In this entry, he lists 34 traps and says these are the rules to make a good trap:

  • At least one part of it is immediately visible.
  • It allows interaction and investigation.
  • It has impactful consequences for the victim.

Let’s see a few:

  • Metal sword audibly humming, hooked up to electric charge.
  • Green Devil Face with gaping mouth. Anything going into the mouth is annihilated.
  • A fishing rod propped up and cast into a lake. The rod is covered in fast-acting glue and tension on the line triggers a springboard beneath the victim, casting them into the lake.

If you touch the sword, you suffer damage. To remove it, you should wear special gloves or find a way to cut the charge. But that’s a lot of trouble for a sword. That trap is there just to deal some damage to a character, it’s not a trap you would want to overcome, you simple don’t touch it.

If you enter the gaping mouth, you die. No save vs death roll, no nothing. You die. Sounds harsh but no sane person would enter a gaping mouth like that, right? Well, no sane person would be exploring dungeons, either. This trap is put there just to fuck the players, to teach them you must not interact with the features of the dungeon, or at elast, not with every feature, specially if it is a green devil face.

The fishing rod is another “fuck you” trap.

Unavoidable traps, then. Except, that is not really the case.

This article, and Into the Odd, assume, or at least expect, for the players to inspect the metal sword, the devil face and the fishing rod BEFORE they interact with them.

When a player inspects the sword (At least one part of it is immediately visible), she must explain what her character does, exactly (It allows interaction and investigation). If it makes sense, the referee then grants her the information about the trap. If the character makes something that triggers the trap (“I put a finger on the tip of the hilt”, “I enter the hole and go to sleep; it’s getting late”), she suffers the effects of the trap, electric discharge or sudden and instant death (It has impactful consequences for the victim). No rolls are made, other than damage.

In other words, a trap is triggered automatically if a character interacts with it incorrectly.

Sounds hardcore, but since rolls to detect traps aren’t required, it’s actually pretty easy to spot the trap. That’s not the important part. The important part is choosing between finding a way to disable the trap or just ignore it and move on.

So far, so good. It works well in a game like Into the Odd, which is pretty minimalistic and everything runs fast, and which most people seem to consider better for one-shots and short adventures, not for long-term campaigns (understandable since the game offers little concerning advancement mechanics and benefits).

Does it work for more traditional, Moldvayian (or Gygaxian) games?

Enter BX and Old-School Essentials

OSE, following BX, states that

Using the same examples from before, the sword and the rod are triggered by touching them, and the devil face is triggered by entering its gaping mouth. But traps don’t trigger automatically. When a character makes an action that would trigger the trap, the referee must roll 1d6, and if it comes up 1 or 2, the trap works; otherwise, it doesn’t work against that specific character. Other characters making a triggering action require their own 1d6 checks.

If we follow Moldvay’s steps closely, then there’s another problem:

Let’s obviate for the moment that only Thieves can detect and disable “treasure traps”, which is the name Moldvay and OSE give them, but which not necessarily are traps found in treasure items; Moldvay also simply refers to them as “small traps”, and the example given is a lock.

Anyway. Are these room or treasure traps?

The green devil face is big enough, and should clearly be considered a room trap (so anyone can detect it, 1-in-6 chance). The sword and the fishing rod are most probably small traps because the traps are placed on an item, but not “to prevent it being tampered with or stolen” (the evil orcs are not trying to protect neither the sword nor the rod), but then why?

Still, the three features are obvious, so when the party enters their respective rooms, the referee would state that there is a sword stuck in a stone, or lying on a slab; a wall covered by a big green devil face with the mouth opening the size of a priest-hole; and a lake, next to which there’s a fishing rod propped on and cast into it.

“What are you going to do?”

If a player says he touches either the sword or the rod, or enters the devil’s mouth, the referee rolls the trigger check, and, if needed, also rolls damage. In some cases, it’s stated that a Saving Throw is needed to avoid the effect.

But sometimes damage (or other effect) is automatic. That sounds worse than it actually is, remember that traps are not triggered automatically even if a charatcer interacts with it incorrectly.

Risk can be lowered even further, even if a trap is hidden, simply because there’s a mechanic to detect room traps:

And a mechanic to detect and disable treasure traps (only for Thieves):

There are no mechanics to disable room traps, but that’s just natural, since most traps that fall into that category are not meant to be disabled but bypassed, and it depends on the player’s ingenuity more than on a mechanical standard. A pit in a room can be bypassed by jumping, placing a wooden table as a bridge, by a flight spell, or using a rope to descend and then climb from the other end, each solution requiring its own unique roll, if at all.

Hidden Traps. Something else

Into the Odd disencourages the use of hidden traps. Since there is not a mechanical way to avoid a trap, hidden traps feel cheap and bullshit.

But classic D&D inspired games, with their triggering, Saving Throw mechanics, detecting and possibly dissabling or bypassing mechanics would not suffer from that, most of the time. Instadeath traps first have to be triggered, which is not automatic, and can also be detected and disabled/bypassed, then the player has a chance to avoid death making a saving throw. If he dies, it’s his damn fault.

Crown of Negativity | A (good? bad?) trap

So, this is me trying to make a good trap. But this is also me doing what I like: screw with the (campaign) world and the adventurers. Finally, this is what happens when I listen to Tool’s Lateralus (their only good album, which I must have listened to more than 5,000 times for the last 20 years) when I write.

A room in a dungeon

A boarded door (secret door roll) in a dark hallway leads to this room.

This room is different, maybe it’s dimly lit and there are purple or crimson courtains, while the rest of the rooms are crude and dilapidated; or, on the contrary, it’s ruined and full of dust, while the rest are tidy or sumptuous.

There is an altar, and a medium size wooden chest, chained, barb wired, and locked. A dry skeleton lies next to it. “Someone doesn’t really wanted this opened.”

Tell the players that a Thieve’s Remove Traps roll is needed to avoid damage from the barbed wire (1d4, perhaps). No other trap is present. If there is no Thief in the party, or if they come up with a different solution, let them try.

Inside there is a black crown, looks like obsidian or basalt, but it’s harder than steel, harder than any material you know. It seems to radiate darkness, or better, to devour the few photons around it.

“What do you do?” Ask them.

“I put the crown on”.

The person who puts on the crown, must pass a Saving Throw vs Spells, and in a failure, disappears completely, the crown falls to the floor, making no sound, as though it also devoured soundwaves.

If someone else puts the crown, it doesn’t trigger its effect, no saving throw is rolled.

Go back to the first one who failed the ST.

When you put on the crown, you feel your body disappear and now you’re falling into darkness. The crown is no longer on your head. There is someone else there, you can’t see it but you can feel it. It is a darkness in the dark.

Its voice speaks directly to your mind: “I can help you get out of here, my child. Just wear my crown on your head.” You can feel that it is handing you its crown, but some afterimages form in your mind: if you wear the crown, yes, you can come out of this well of darkness, but your body will be possessed by that other darkness, whose name, you know as well, is Grudge, who others call Saturn for it habit of eating its children.

There’s no salvation for you. If you leave this well of darkness, your body will cease to be yours and you will only exist as a remnant in Grudge/Saturn’s memory, ignorant to the damage done (but see the next section).

If you stay here, you will prevent that darkness from invading the world, but your only company will be the darkness and the darkness in it, to the lonesome end. Worst part? All this pain is not an illusion.

Hope this is what you wanted.

Hope this is what you had in mind.

’cause this is what you’re getting.

What I did here

There are obvious hints that the trap is there, that it is not a good idea to open the box. The room is concealed behind a secret door. The crown is hidden inside a protected box. The players don’t have a reason to put on the crown, but they still might (the fun in these games comes from experimenting and interacting with the environment, right?) The first character to do so still has a chance to avoid the consequences of the fatal mistake in the form of a Saving Throw.

It all comes down to one bad choice: wearing the crown.

Once a character fails that Saving Throw, he’s as good as dead.

If you want, you can ask for a Saving Throw vs Posion or Death one the player accepts the second, abstract crown. If he fails, he is devoured and his essence no loger exists, only his body, now possessed by the dark god. If he succeeds, though, he will live inside the god, unable to influence its behavior or controlling his own body. He will be the eternal spectator. And you better come uo with a very dark and very bleak and very grim spectacle, please. A world-changing event, maybe light ceases to exist in this planet, and only magical light is possible, but scarce.

If this trap was made with Into the Odd in mind, instead of rolls, everything is automatic once a character interacts correctly with each element. Traps don’t work (and cause disaster) because they follow a series of mechanics and the dice hate you*. Traps work (and cause disaster) because you make the wrong choices.

This trap can’t be disabled, the only way to bypass it is ignoring it entirely. Next time I should write one that can actually be disabled and bypassed by actively interacting with it.

*Magical thinking is bad for you.

One single bad decision. Will you enter?

The dungeon: dumping ground and portal to otherworldly realms

The last time I went down to the dungeon I wondered where so many undead came from. Someone said that Magick-Users had put them there.

At first, that doesn’t seem to make sense. But, as Robert Macfarlane describes it, the underworld is the “repository of nuclear waste sites and burial chambers, both a dumping ground and the portal into otherworldly realms.” In the fantasy (or weird fantasy) worlds of OSR games, there is no nuclear waste, but what we might call “magic waste.”

When a Magick-User cast a spell, hazardous waste remains. Perhaps the ingredients (or components) of its magick, even if they become unusable ashes, retain part of the magical properties that have disturbed the stability of nature by producing their effect*.

A Magick-User does not want that waste to represent a danger to him or, probably, to others (although almost all of them are misanthropes, not all of them actively pursue the destruction of humanity), so the best option is to bury them; this sepulchre is not perfect, but when the harmful effects begin to take place, he will no longer be alive or, if he is, he will take care of the matter.

Many years later, or centuries, when a group of adventurers descend in search of treasures, artefacts and relics, in addition to undead, the place will be plagued by anomalous entities from the deep past and outer regions, which will have been awakened or attracted by the residual energies of magick.

Among the most common anomalies is spatial distortion, which explains why a simple and mundane drainage system or an old underground vault have become the labyrinths of often unconnected or inconsequential corridors and rooms we commonly know as dungeons.

Of course, some very sick people, invaded by the disease of logic (in a game of magic and goblins!), will not find this explanation satisfactory. For them I have no better answer than to suggest that they make an appointment with the Psychoanalyst to keep that OCD at bay.

*This means that magick and its effects cause the sensation of something that should not be, but is. Magick, then, is not an anomaly; it is our conceptions of the nature of reality that are inadequate.

Dungeons & the Undead

Why are there so many zombies and skeletons in the dungeons?

Most dungeons are partly tombs, crypts, mausoleums, hypogaea, and partly ruins of ancient cities or fortifications, and what is a lost city if not a large cemetery?

But the dead don’t come back to life in any cemetery. What do dungeons have that make them prone to this inconsistency of the natural laws of life and death?

Magick-Users, of course

Magick-Users play with “forces” or “energies”, “agencies” or “intelligences” that seem to defy the natural laws of the universe or, at least, human understanding of those laws. We call this discrepancy Chaos, because we can’t see the order or the laws that govern it.

Magick-Users (and Clerics as well) are repositories of such forces (or energies, or agencies, or intelligences… let’s call them “forces”, then, or magick), that is, spells.

(Magick-Users are more or less aware of how they channel magick, manipulating weird forces at will. Clerics are not aware of the same; they believe that their gods grant them their powers, they don’t realize that their prayers are magick formulas, identical [in latent if not in manifest content] to the Magick-Users’ formulas, and that through them, they “steal” their powers from the gods, who are not really gods.)

The frequent observation and praxis of magick transforms the world around it. Over time, the places that were once centres of study or use of magick, such as laboratories, temples, towers of stargazers, fairy rings, necropoleis, akelarres, begin to present anomalies.

This is normal now

One of these anomalies is the disruption of normal, ordered life and death cycles. The dead in the area begin to return to life (or to a parody of life) and roam the place. Probably hungry and angry, and totally baffled.

Another is the appearance of the weird, including monsters and traps. Raw magick sneaks through cracks and recesses accidentally opened by the practice of magick. Unchecked magick has the tendency to produce unexpected effects, such as the opening of gates to parallel, adjacent or perpendicular worlds (or universes?), and these gates are crossed by their inhabitants.

Sometimes, finally, the reality on the other side pollutes ours. That’s why there are rooms with inverted gravity, or full of water, or where magick does not work properly, or of impenetrable darkness, or any other imaginable or unimaginable effect.

But we were talking about the undead.

Another kinds of undead, such as vampires and ghouls, less instinctual and more rational (so to speak) than zombies and calacas, could simply feel more comfortable in an environment with residual magic, for them it’s like going to the beach*. This is why ghosts are so happy in houses where misfortunes and tragedies have occurred.

*I hate going to the beach; if god** wanted us to go to the beach, he would have made us crabs.

**There is no god.

Building a dungeon | James Maliszewski’s guidelines and something else

I followed James Maliszewski’s guidelines when I made Slime Bugs for my Mutants & Mazes campaign. I have failed to follow some of his insightful suggestions ever since, but on creating that adventure I learned a good deal of stuff that I have used ever since.

These are James’s guidelines, I steal them from Grognardia and put them here for quick reference. [I’ll add a few comments between square brackets.]

  1. Environmental hazards — slippery floors, rooms that flood, narrow ledges over steep drops, rooms that are excessively hot or cold, rooms or corridors filled with poison (or otherwise magical) gasses, etc.
  2. Combat encounters should generally be with baseline (or near-baseline) monsters with difficulty enhanced by the circumstances of the encounter (i.e. monsters have set up ambushes, monsters forcing the PCs to fight in unfavorable surroundings, teams of similar (or dissimilar) monster-types working together, etc.) rather than through templates or class-leveling.
  3. At least one encounter that if played as a straight combat will totally overmatch the party, but which can be avoided or circumvented by some clever means.
  4. At least one puzzle, trick, or obstacle that requires the players to figure it out, rather than being solvable by a die-roll. [If they can’t solve the puzzle the adventure should not stop, there whatever is beyond the puzzle should not be essential to complete the dungeon; alternatively, allow a roll but only after they have tried and failed. Also, add clues scattered through the dungeon, including one in the same room the puzzle is.]
  5. At least one item, location, or creature that causes some kind of significant permanent effect (permanently raise/lower stats or hp, permanently change race, gender, or alignment, permanently grant or take away magic items, etc.) determined by a random roll on a table — with possibilities for both good and bad effects, depending on the roll. [Maybe something like this?]
  6. At least one item of treasure that is cursed or has other detrimental side-effects on the owner/possessor.
  7. Some sort of “false climax” where inattentive players will think they’ve won the adventure and either let their guard down or go home, while clever players will realize this couldn’t have really been the climax. [Also, there can be a well hidden chance to end the dungeon earlier, even from the beginning. I used it here and my group discovered how to do it but refused to. It has to do with a sacrifice and an eye.]
  8. At least one disorienting effect, teleporter, mirror trap, [swiveling] floor, or maze like monster, up is down too.
  9. An area where resources are an issue. Wet torches or wind blowing them out. Oxygen low or having to hold your breath to swim [through] a tunnel.
  10. An area that has items of value, but they are too large to transport, or cause someone to have his hands full at an ambush.
  11. A creature that appears to be something it is not. Some examples: Lurker above, mimic, [cloaker], wolf in sheep’s clothing, doppelganger, gas spore (perhaps my favorite), etc.
  12. One encounter (no more, no less) that makes absolutely no logical sense, that the DM completely leaves up to the players’ imagination to explain. [Always a favourite of mine, specially ultra-futuristic science or weird, outer technology.]

One doesn’t have to include all 12 in every dungeon, but consider that each element adds to the final result, and in big dungeons, the more the better (otherwise it can end up repetitive or boring soon.)

Some of these elements can be combined, like a creature that appears to be something it is not and a trick/obstacle for the players to think through it. In the case of Slime Bugs, these two elements inspired me to create the infamous “petrified cube”, or the gasslime trick/trap I included on The Goddess of the Crypt.

Some additions I want to include in (all?) my future dungeons and adventures:

  1. Lots of things to interact with. You know, levers, buttons, ray guns that cause random effects.
  2. Replacement adventurers. Prisoners or lost adventurers than can join in in case a PC dies. I made this supplement for Into the Odd.
  3. Things (traps, tricks, monsters, spells, npcs) that break the rules. You know, monsters that hits automatically, peasants than cast spells without following magic-user or cleric rules, anything.
  4. Things than don’t do a thing but look intriguing and make PCs waste time, triggering random encounters.
  5. Rooms outside time and space or, at least, outside the main dungeon.