Monday, August 10, 2015

New Campaign Ramblings: Castle of Horrors and the Caves Beneath

My online group has been hit or miss this summer, missing quite a few gaming opportunities. We're still cranking through Chaos Scar and Mecha Against the Giants (MatG) if slowly. So I'm writing up some thoughts for our next campaign that won't happen for months at the earliest.

At the end of our last session, +Kevin Smyth mentioned that he had really enjoyed the recently completed dungeon crawl portion of MatG, and that he'd really like to do more with the "modern day people do fantasy dungeon crawling." That sparked general agreement and a fair bit of discussion.

Solving a Problem

+Emily Smirle tossed a bit of a quandary in: she likes the idea of modern day dungeon crawling, but she really, really likes playing tall, ugly semi-monsters like ogres, minotaurs, and trolls. Sadly, ogres and trolls aren't an obvious fit for a modern day campaign. I could have taken the attitude that she wasn't going to get indulged, but it seemed easy enough to solve.

My first, spur of the moment proposal was the District 9 solution: ugly but not particularly bright extra terrestrial refugees arrive on Earth, bereft on their advanced technology. That solved Emily's desire for big, ugly people, while still preserving the modern day technology that the rest of us wanted. The idea was batted around a bit, and quickly evolved into Shadowrun style goblinization: in 2012, some people started shrinking or growing or calcifying or whatever. It's really just a background detail, but it justifies a group of people that are culturally American humans but physically different.

Where to go, what to do

My next and most important challenge as the GM was to come up with a dungeon. As usual in these situations, I dug through my collection of adventure PDFs, and surprisingly did not pick up Keep on the Borderland. I knew I wanted a fairly large dungeon, something that if not a mega-dungeon, at least a kilo-dungeon. I also wanted something with a fair number of traps and physical challenges, as essential puzzles and skill sinks, and to provide more interesting terrain for the fights.

The problem with most published, large dungeons is that they're poorly designed for use as mega-dungeons. They tend to be fairly linear, with a single entrance at the top level, a single entrance to the next level, and so on down through the levels. Often, the opposition is too organized: there's a massive army in the dungeon that should be expected to respond to a small group of adventurers in overwhelming numbers. I'm thinking of Dragon Mountain, for instance, as a terrible example of this.

One published module that doesn't have these faults is Castle Ravenloft. It's a fairly big dungeon: 88 major numbered rooms, with dozens of sub-rooms. It's very non-linear, with several entrances into the first level and then multiple ways to go up and down through the eight or nine different floors of the titular castle. Aside from Strahd, who is surprisingly easy to excise from the place, the monsters are disorganized and isolated, and the large swaths of more or less empty rooms can easily be filled with new, potentially feuding groups.

The more I thought about Castle Ravenloft, the more I liked it. My biggest concern was that other people in the group might know it well, but a quick email discussion showed that to be a groundless worry.

I also considered Dragons of Despair, because I love that sunken city, and Dragons of Hope, because Skullcap dungeon is another interesting multi-level dungeon, but both had organizational flaws. 80% of Dragons of Desolation is an annoying rail-road, but the floating tomb is a very non-linear, multi-level dungeon, if a little too small for what I had in mind. I read through a couple of other obscure early D&D adventures (I4 Oasis of the White Palm and X8 Drums on Fire Mountain) and rejected them, but I probably would have chosen one of them if Castle Ravenloft wasn't available.

Expanding the dungeons

While reading through Dragons of Despair, I noticed the chapel entrance to the sunken city has almost the same shape as the Ravenloft chapel. That sparked the idea that they could be same building, and the caverns of Xak Tsorath are under Castle Ravenloft. Looking at it a bit more, I realized it wouldn't quite work that way, but the concept was strong.

So I think I'm going to put a bunch of the almost-ran adventures as expansion areas under Castle Ravenloft. There's a set of spiral stairs somewhere in Castle Ravenloft (possibly extensions of canonical stairs K83 or K20A) that lead down to Xak Tsorath Hall of Ancestors, and a well on the grounds that lead straight into the Xak Tsorath cavern. Inside the cavern floats the floating tomb from Dragons of Desolation, and Skullcap and entrances to the dungeons from I4 and X8 are on the cavern floor. That gives the players a bunch of different dungeons to try, all reasonably accessible, but lets them focus on Castle Ravenloft to start.

Why not create my own?

I could have created my own kilo-dungeon from scratch. That'd be a lot of work, and requires a certain level of inspiration that I'm not feeling at this time. Cobbling together a bunch of published dungeons and converting them to GURPS is a manageable level of work for me.


  1. You were talking about various swiping possibilities, and I started thinking about the High Clerist's Tower right before you started talking about swiping Dragonlance locales. Say what you will about the series as a whole, but it features some awesome locales.

    My idea needs a heck of a lot of rework, since as I recall, the original really does come across as a (mostly) abandoned building. But I think it hold promise, with appropriate re-theming... and now I'm tempted. Darnit.

    And now I want to do something with Xak Tsorath. So many great locations....

  2. A lot of the DL series has very awesome locales that can be swiped by pulling them out of the narrative.

    I don't know if the High Clerist's tower is one of them. It's absurdly huge, and needs a poster map to get all the levels, which isn't convenient at the table. It's not stocked as a dungeon, so the GM will need to do a lot of work to rewrite it. It does have the multiple levels with multiple ways to access each level going for it, but wow would it be a lot of work to turn it into a proper adventuring site.