Friday, July 22, 2022

The Reproductive Cycle of Dungeons


Unkeyed map of the Imrani Waste
as explored by my players so far
Created with Hextml
A few days ago, I posted a summary of my "Silver Gulls" campaign to date. (Although I forgot a Ffve-room dungeon.) And I wanted to share something I discovered.

When the PCs stepped into the Teleportation Booth all together and started mashing buttons, I knew that they would wind up in the middle of the desert 20-ish miles from a town and 500 miles away. I drew a hex-bloom of desert landscape around them and roughed-in several locations.

The Facts About Xen

I didn't know much about the region but I had some truisms about the campaign:

  • The Empire of Xen has collapsed four times over 4,200 years, but claims to be the same nation (a dubious claim)
  • Each Collapse has left ruins, often buried and forgotten.
  • The Empire doesn't know its own history very well. 80% of it's cultural past is forgotten.
  • Many of my past campaigns are ancient pre-Imperial history.

With that in mind, I put an oracle tended by cactus-men, a temple surrounded by a perilous cactus forest, a prison colony that is haunted by its inmates and built over a cavern that leads to an underground river and sunken ruins. And an old smuggler camp that once supplied the convicts with contraband. I also knew that there was an oasis to the north of the town.

I also decided that the town would be on a petrified forest and have human petrification problems related to evil in a nearby dungeon.

That was actually a lot for an area they might choose to leave right away. I left details scant.

Xen Evolves, New Facts Emerge

Once my players showed interest in the town I added another rumored dungeon in the area and fleshed out the source of petrification. I decided that the water of the village was tainted by gorgon's breath. And that an immortal gorgon was chained in the nearby mountain by an ancient order of pre-Imperial warrior-monks who drank her milk to gain superhuman strength and health.

I decided to add a tower of an ancient alchemist who came later (When the monks joined the Imperial fold,) to study the gorgon's milk.

This  image by Emms Lasuzka
is the inspiration for my Squorms
Freshwater Cephalopods
created by mad alchemists that
swim in swarms.
image ©️ Emma Lasuzka
I also added in some mutated, semi-petrified animals, and a form of monstrous cephalopod I use in my games called a squorm (taking some inspiration from Stephen Smith's Underground Architect's Guide to Dungeon Ecology, I decided that squorms were bred by the alchemist as food for the gorgon and were found throughout the dungeons and nearby waterways.

This became a fact that informed the nearby dungeons:

  • Squorms are a pest found in water in numerous nearby dungeons.
  • Squorm infestations in the area date back 4,200 years to when Xen was founded.

Later, when the PCs visited the nearby demonic oracle they found the demons there breeding tanks of squorms as food for the new demonettes.

The demonic oracle, I decided, was, until recently, dormant. The region has not been important since the last ice age 2,700 years ago. Which led to another fact:

  • This place was important during the early eras of the Empire, but before the last Ice Age it was a lonely desolate place that attracted magicians.
  • Since the last Ice Age the Carhbadi people moved away and founded new cities hundreds of miles away. Now it is a backwater.
  • Its peak was probably 3400 years ago. 
  • This creates distinct eras 

Both the Frog Demons that
I use and the concepts of
Hot and Cold Hells in the 
Xen Cosmology are inspired
by Chris Kutalik's
"What Ho, Frog Demons!"
Cover Art by Luka rejec
©️ 2018 Hydra Cooperative

I decided that the region needed a name and some history from a different era. So I picked a name and something that fit the dungeon I knew:

  • The region is called The Imrani Waste
  • The region was once important to the rebellion that became the warrior cult called the Red Church.

From there, the fact that there is a name means I have to give it a reason (Imran was just a dude I knew from work.) So I added the facts that:

  • Imran was a city whose ruling class dabbled in dark magic and had powerful connections to the Hot Hells.
  • The fiendish oracle was from the era of Imran.
  • An evil cult ruled the region, until the demigod who founded the Red Church destroyed the cult 
  • The Oasis to the North was probably the city's water source.

These facts let me shape the dungeons that came afterwards in a number of useful ways.

When the player characters decided to raid a ruined fort along the highway, I desperately wanted to use the slammoths from The Vague Elephant Project by Erik Jensen. They are big, brutish creatures with perfect generational memory. Which makes them ideal for things like archaeological digs if they can be bothered to take an interest in recalling human history. Having them working with the bandits to excavate a buried manner under the current fort in hopes of gaining the Lost treasure of a satrap gave a great deal of flavor.

Later, when they explored the Divine Oracle nearby, with the intention of destroying it to save the town of Orhan from impending demonic subjugation, it seemed reasonable that the Oracle would be protected against creatures of Chaos and subversion by the evil cultists that once ruled Imran.

Every Other Dungoen starts with
"Beware travellers, for... Oh. You Again."
To that end, I created a sorceress who is a contemporary of Sendivh, polymorphed into a raven, and cursed to forever guard a handful of holy sites around the region. She tests the intentions of everyone who visits, and steers those who seem to be in the service of chaos into danger. Freeing her from her curse allowed me to add a useful side objective to a nearby dungeon.

Eventually, the players decided they wanted to raid the dungeon under the oasis, after I suggested there might be magic weapons that would let them kill the demons they had been serving. And perhaps thereby earn redemption. I knew that the red church had overthrown the evil cult here from previous facts I had settled on. So, it made sense that the dungeon underneath would be a cursed yemple of the evil cult.

On my map I had named this the Oasis of birds for no particular reason. But now, I needed one.

I decided that the evil cult that ruled the region was the darkest and most fantastical interpretation I could muster of the Black Book of the Yazidi. Using the Yazidis' two holy books as my inspiration, I decided that:

  • The cult honored beauty and purity above all.
  • They were obsessed with "pure human" domination  the realm. Anyone who has blood of elves, fiends, or other outsiders is looked down upon
  • They depict their deity, malik, has a peacock or a songbird.
  • Motifs of peacocks, songbirds, especially nightingales, are found all over the ruins of Imran wherever the wealthy ruling class lived.
  • Higher level dungeons would be guarded by fiendish birds p, such as demonic versions of axbeaks, Achaierai, and vrcks reskinned as peacock demons.

I love this goofball monster.
Image from the AD&D Fiend Folio
©️ 1981 TSR Inc.

This immediately let me go about designing the temple. I decided to populate it with glowing birds (that were simply reskinned bats,) Achaierai, and glowing undead spirits. I also reskinned a Hydra to be a giant shoebill stork with five heads and a sonic breath weapon for fun.

These facts also meant that I could shape the encounter tables for the lower levels of several local dungeons without problem. I also knew what kind of motifs I would include. Peacocks would be a warning about nearby fiendish influence.

When the player characters returned to the ruined bandit fort, I decided that because they left dozens of headless, pulverized corpses at the dig site, that something would have tunneled up from below to eat them. And this would connect the dig site to a sprawling chunk of the ruined city of Imran.

I now had enough facts and ideas to go to Medieval Fantasy City Generator, and turn it into a dungeon complete with random encounter tables, themes, and even ideas of what the treasure would look like. This is a possible next step for my player characters as they are only around twenty thousand gold pieces away from restoring their crashed airship.

Dungeons Make Dungeons

Once you start designing a few locations on your original hex map, you begin establishing facts about your campaign setting. If you create even the bearest history of your dungeon, that can help you design future adventure sites.

If you're creating your dungeons at random using mapping and random stocking tables, your first few dungeons might feel scattered, but even they will start establishing facts about the world around you.

For example, if your player characters keep encountering lots of skeletons and zombies, and run into several rooms that seem haunted with cold spots, etc, that might inspire your player characters to start looking into why the Dead seem restless. And, as a result, you can decide that the Dead are, indeed, restless. From there you might create a necromancer cult that has been leaving a curse on the region.

You could add in the necromancer's hideout, a couple of defiled crypts, and a graveyard full of zombies to the environment and suddenly you have a rich, thematic campaign to build. and possibly a randomized countdown until they raise their long-lost Lich Queen.

If you randomly generate your first five dungeons and discover two or three of them are dwarf made ruins, then you have a lost dwarven civilization to investigate, and a couple of Type G treasures buried somewhere in the region. If one of the other five you generated was an abandoned beholder layer, you may have a good idea of what destroyed the dwarves.

From there, you can think about the history of the dwarves to plant seeds of lore. You can decide on embellishments from the Lost culture to place throughout the dungeon. You can create several familiar kinds of traps in magic items that recur. And, you'll want to stock your dungeons with plenty of lesser beholder kin. You might even decide that the one or two true beholders in the region are manipulating local politics, with spies everywhere. And possibly a feud between them.

If you pay attention to how your dungeons are structured, and what facts they offer you, each dungeon creates the seed for one or two others .

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