In the following post I’m going to lay out a foundational structure for using scrabble tiles in two different, but connected, ways. The first is using the tiles as a key to unlock the ancient dungeons in the world, where the more tiles you have the more dungeons you can unlock (and gain more tiles from). The second application comes in a Tears of the Kingdom-esque application of creativity, where your characters can use the tiles to magically modify objects in the world to solve the problems they encounter.
This requires two things to be true about the setting.
There is a fallen ancient civilization in this world, and they’ve left behind their sanctums (dungeons) and all of their lost technology resides within them.
The main bulk of technology left behind are small square tiles imprinted with a letter. Imagine, if you will, a scrabble tile. These tiles are highly sought after and exist as something between prized treasure, keys to the locks, and magic items. Every treasure hunter worth their salt can speak the ancient language—the reason for that will become obvious later.
The sanctums of these ancient creators are locked up tight and the only known way inside them is with the ancient tiles.
Entering the Dungeons
Throughout the world are sanctum entrances that contain the treasures left behind by the ancients. To get inside them the characters must secure ancient tiles and solve the riddle of each sanctum. Doing so opens the door, leading down into the depths, towards untold riches.
To start the game, each player draws three tiles and keeps them safe. The characters themselves have these tiles on their person—hard won, stolen, or handed down from their mentors. If there are 3 PCs, the group has 9 tiles to start.
Every entrance to an ancient sanctum in the world has a riddle accompanying it. The entrances themselves might be hidden and hard to reach, but the riddle is right there in your face.
To unlock the sanctum door and proceed into the dungeon the correct tiles to solve the riddle must be placed into the slots built into the door mechanism. The slots are individually spaced—you know how many letters the answer to the riddle is.
The challenge here shouldn’t be the riddles (those should be rather trivial) but rather the difficulty of acquiring the right tiles to open the door.
Players (and the characters) should be aware of how this works, since they’re treasure hunters after all. This is their bread and butter. Consider the following:
- The word itself is the theme of the dungeon.
- The number of letters in the answer determines the size of the dungeon.
- The final score in the answer determines the threat level of the dungeon and denizens inside it.
- The door remains unlocked for 10 minutes after the correct answer is used.
- You can always exit a dungeon from inside without unlocking it.
- A blank tile functions exactly how it would in scrabble—as a replacement for any letter.
This is a great way to hint at the players what they’ll be facing inside the sanctum. If the answer to the riddle is FIRE, you’re in a fire dungeon. Because of the other vectors, you also know that when you come across an INFERNO dungeon it’s going to be much more difficult.
The Number of Letters
You’ve got options here, depending on what kind of scale you like working with when you’re dungeon-crawling. Personally, for a game like this, I would err on the smaller side—the game is about all of these forgotten sanctums spread across the land. You want to be clearing lots of dungeons instead of spending session after session on a single one. Consider one of the options below and apply it uniformly across all dungeons:
- Number of letters equals number of rooms.1
- Number of letters equals number of distinct areas.
- Number of letters equals number of set-pieces.
My recommendation is the first one, utilizing my comrade Marcia’s bite-sized dungeons. If you need more rooms, smush a couple together.
The Word Score
The scrabble score of the word correlates to the threat level of the dungeon. You can take this a few ways. I do recommend taking one and applying it universally across all dungeons. Here’s some ideas:
- Just the general ‘vibe’ of danger. The players can look at INFERNO and see that it’s worth 14 points, and make judgements based on other dungeons they’ve been in around that same score.
- The score can equal the number of monsters inside the dungeon, down to the exact amount.2
Some doorway tile “locks” are just built different.
- If the grooves are red, double the size of the dungeon.
- If the grooves are blue, double the danger of the dungeon.
- If the grooves are purple, double both.
Building the Contraptions
This is the second part of the post, detailing creative problem-solving with contraptions. Once the characters have a bunch of tiles (and I assume other cool ancient-magic loot) what do they do with them? The answer is simple. Go wild sticking them to things to alter how they function.
Players and characters should know exactly how this works, since they’re the treasure hunters.
- If you arrange the tiles in a way that spells a word, they can be stuck on to anything.
- The object is powered. It now does whatever the word is.
- The score of the word determines how effective it is.
- The number of letters determines how long it lasts.
- After the effect ends, the tiles are consumed.
It’s that simple. If you take FLY and stick it onto the side of a wagon, you’ve got a flying wagon now. If you take HEAL and stick it onto a sword, the sword mends wounds instead of dealing them. If you take INVINCIBLE and slap that onto your forehead, you can’t be killed.
Take the number of letters in the word and use that to determine a universal method for how long the magic lasts. Minutes might be a bit too long, seconds a bit too short. Perhaps the standard six-second rounds?
The higher score the word has, the stronger it is. FLY (9) is good. SOAR (4) lasts longer but is weaker. ASCEND (9) might be perfect: it lasts long and is relatively strong, but ascending is a bit different from flying, no?
Wrapping it Up
Want to break out the thesaurus? Not allowed, unless the characters have secured a thesaurus in the world. It’s an ancient language too, so it’s probably pretty hard to get.
The possibilities are infinite. Once they get into a groove, players will come up with a hundred new ideas a session. Here’s the one piece of advice.
No GM “gotchas.” The players propose a word and what they intend to happen when they stick it to something. You either agree or disagree. If you agree, the word always does that3. If you don’t agree, explain your reasoning and come to a compromise. Err on the side of the players, though. The tiles burn up afterwards, anyways.
And at that point, they’ll need to head back into the dungeons to get more.
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