It occurs to me that I should probably title these posts better. Depending on the length of this series, we could get up pretty high and if I’m looking through old posts and see “Part 19” I’m not going to know what that is at all. So, I’ll probably add a subtitle or something the Monday before the post goes up, trying to tie everything together that I work on that week.
Which is a nice little segue into theme! That’s where I’m starting this week. The theme of a dungeon, or an adventure, or a game, is important (to me.) Like I’ve already mentioned, it’s a good way to make design decisions and fill spaces.
One of my favorite books that talks a bit about theme is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. In the book, Truby talks about how theme can strengthen a story, because it makes it more than just a series of events and surprises that the audience experiences.
So, what’s the theme? Well, answering that’s a bit tougher, because theme can be so broad and encompassing. So before I nail down the theme, I’m going to wax a bit about the skeletal outline of what I imagine the dungeon to be.
First, it’s a large space that the players are stuck in. They are lowered into the dungeon and cannot escape. This doesn’t mean that there’s no safe spaces, and that they need to try and find an exit to the dungeon immediately or perish. No, they’re lowered into a makeshift, ramshackle town that has been created at the base of this hole.
The players, and everyone inside the starting “town” are political prisoners, and this is their punishment. This gives all the players a little bit in common at the start, if that’s required, but also ties them to everyone inside of this little village that’s surviving. It doesn’t matter if the characters are guilty or not of whatever crimes they’ve been accused of. They’re down here now, and that’s permanent.
It occurs to me that instead of a failed career, there could be a random roll here for a convicted crime.
So, that’s the literal start of the dungeon (and game, theoretically) — the players are inside of a large cage, lowered down into the pit by their captors. At the base of the pit, they arrive in the town, where they’re unshackled and essentially given free reign. This is not a small pit. The cage being lowered takes some time. The light at the top begins a tiny pinprick, until it’s sealed shut once again.
The town is located somewhere in a large, expansive space. It is defended, and filled with smaller splintered factions that are all vying for something down here. When the players arrive, they’ll be approached by the main factions, an offer to sign up. Depending on which faction each player chooses, that essentially becomes their “class” and they’re gifted starting equipment appropriate for it. I’m going to avoid as much system talk in these posts as I can, so I’m not going to elaborate much more on this, other than to say, after signing up, they’ll be essentially free to explore the dungeon. They’ll owe each of their factions a debt that will need to be paid.
If I start thinking about theme now, something rudimentary is beginning to emerge. I could do something like revenge, or vengeance, or retribution. This place is filled with political dissidents at this point, without any easy way to get out. I don’t think I’m quite there with theme, so I’m going to expand outward a bit and continue exploring.
Musing Over The Space
This town (I should name it ASAP so I can refer to it easier) should be somewhere in the center of this starting region. The region itself is going to be wide open. I want a space that feels expansive to the point that it’s simply impossible to explore everything. The scene in Fellowship of the Ring, when the party arrives at Moria proper, with the massive columns that seem to stretch on forever? That’s the vibe.
I’m sure there’s a way to represent that with a standard map and ruleset, and one Ava mentions is “elastic turn lengths.” It feels like the standard turn in an OSR game is somewhere around 10 minutes (don’t quote me I don’t have references) but there’s the possibility that instead you just… stretch the time as needed. Spending 1 turn, but maybe that turn lasts an hour as you explore a wide open space. The next turn, you might spend 1 turn messing with the stuff in a burial chamber. I think that’s a really solid way to approach this, and “stretching” the length of a turn feels like something I’ve already been doing in games for years, but never really thought of it. It should be more common, though.
I don’t think I’m going to go with that method, though. I’ve been chewing on Ben L.’s post about Using Landmarks in Wilderness Travel and it started to spark some ideas. Ben talks about it using the structure of a hexcrawl, but I’m wondering if I can adapt the idea for a less defined space.
The landmarks are going to be statues.
In fact, this entire place—this wide space that the TOWN is situation in is going to be a sea of statues. Thousands. People, things, scenes, everything. There will be human-sized people, but also giants, and animals, and everything in between. At this point, if you’ve read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, my inspiration will be obvious.
So, a vast open space with thousands of statues. A forest of them, with the TOWN near the center.
Forgive the crude mock up, but I really want to try and visualize the space. Everything on the “disk” is the forest of statues, which is the region the player is starting in. This is all underground, remember, a massive chamber that the players are lowered in from some great elevator above. I imagine it’s pitch black, but that’s still kind of unclear right now.
The edge of the disk will lead to new regions. I have a feeling that the concept of a forest of statues is pretty neat, so it may be more of those, but it might be something else. There will also be more classic style dungeons littered throughout these areas.
Perhaps it’s best to think of this area as an underground wilderness area, instead of a dungeon?
The concept of trying to navigate a forest of statues still feels quite dungeon-like to me, however, so I’m committing to it. Where I think the landmarks come in is here—the largest of the statues, the ones you can’t miss, they’re how you navigate. So if you’re trying to get somewhere, you might get directions: “head east until the Archer, than turn west and go until you find the Bull, then it’s sixty steps to the northeast.”
You will not start out knowing any landmarks. You will need to go out there and find them, make a note of them, and use them to connect your paths in your journey further out into the forest. I feel like perhaps I need to research pointcrawls again, because that’s sort of what this feels like it’s becoming. I think I could hard design swing to hexes, and put landmarks in the center of them, or I could instead structure this as a pointcrawl where you’re lost without the points.
Remember what I said last week about this being a series of jewelbox dungeons in a massive dungeon space? This is what I’m talking about, I think.
Spending a few days off and coming back into this, and I’m more and more sure that these large spaces should use some kind of procedural generation method to fill them out. My first instinct is to use a depthcrawl, similar to things like The Sygian Library and Gardens of Ynn by Emmy Allen. The basic set up would be a list of places and encounters that can be discovered as you delve through the sea of statues.
One change I would make would be solidifying the game space as you explore it. So, while we use a depthcrawl to move through the statues, once you discover a landmark, you place that on your map. The connections between landmarks would become known paths, that the players can return to and navigate quickly.
This means that when a landmark is placed, you’ll need to note what depth it’s at, so that players can break off from that and explore new avenues as they delve over and over again.
The space is going to have 4 factions, each of them relatively hostile to the others. The first faction is the town of convicts that the players arrive at. (Which itself has multiple sub-factions inside of it.)
After the town, the 3 remaining factions will be spread through the sea of statues, and each one will control “territory.” If you move into their territory, you’re rolling on a new depthcrawl table, designed specifically for them (and containing their faction’s more real-space dungeons that can be explored.)
To move between faction territory, you’ll need to dive through the “main space” territory, until you reach a special landmark that acts as an entrance to new territory. Once you’re inside the new territory, you roll on the new table, and the headquarters of that faction will be quite far down on the list of locations/landmarks.
If we visualize it in a flowchart, a crawl might look like this:
Town → Regular Landmark → Entrance Landmark → Orange Landmark
Moving to the orange territory means that the depth score will reset, but locations and encounters in orange territory are probably ranked a bit more difficult. I also think that each faction territory should have cuts where you might move directly from orange to red, for example. That would represent a front, of course, where there might be higher concentrations of each faction, fighting over that space.
Back To Theme And The Lack Of A Conclusion
Alright, I feel like something is beginning to emerge here, so let’s dive back into theme a little bit. If we’re dealing with a forest of statues, with political dissidents trying to survive in the center, surrounded by hostile factions… what’s the theme there?
I don’t know! I think history sort of fits, especially if the statues themselves are scenes from the world gone by, or of heroes long forgotten. I’m not sure if history is enough though, to build a dungeon on. It seems very broad.
Stone, paralysis, and forest are all possibilities as well. It does lead me down an interesting path, of why the statues are here. Is there some kind of Ur-Basilisk down here, bigger than a dragon, that slumbers? Has this always been a place where the enemies of the ruling class have been taken, to become petrified reminders of a thousand different rebellions?
If this is history, and these statues are actually the people and the places and the scenes from the past, who put them here, and why?
I don’t feel like I have an easy answer yet! Do you? Reach out and help me, I beg you!
For now, as the time on this post draws to a close, I’ll have to keep noodling on the ideas. I think next week will be a brainstorm in regards to the other factions that exist out there, and by working on them, hopefully some clarity might emerge. But, this is the raw creation from me, a sort of fumbling and thinking and backtracking, so all of this meandering is okay. If it’s not entertaining to read, that’s understandable, but hopefully at the least it’s illuminating towards my process!
- Part One, Introduction
- Part Two, Procedural Spaces
- Part Three, Factions
- Part Four, Settlement Factions
- Part Five, Main Landmarks
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