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Quick Tips: GMing with Taste, Touch, and Smell

One of the most challenging jobs of a GM is to serve as the describer of everything the PCs experience in the fictional game world. This is especially true when the GM wants to convey information through those descriptions–it’s one thing to say a tavern smells stale, and another to say the stale mix of herbal sachets on the walls and sawdust and straw scattered across the floor can’t quite cover the lingering coppery scent of spilled blood, watered-down mead, and urine that permeates the main room.

Lots of advances in gaming have been made with visuals and soundboards. Between being able to do internet searches for interesting visuals and great sound-effect programs designed specifically for ttRPGs (such as Syrinscape, who I love but have no association with), it’s pretty easy for a GM to be able to skip needing to describe sights and sounds. But what about taste, touch, and smell? Just a single extra description for each major element of an encounter can go a long way to both adding immersion, and conveying clues the PCs have a chance to pick up on. If you link any unusual sensation to a specific element within your game, players will often pick up on it and use it as another clue to use to experience and understand your world.

Taste: The most obvious time to describe taste is when PCs eat or drink something, and many ttRPGs have more than enough potions, oils, and magic cupcakes to make this a useful sense to think about in advance. A GM can make the identification of some potent potables easy by deciding healing potions all smell like honeysuckle and mint, or that ungol dust has a distinctive acidic bite in the back of the throat. If the GM doesn’t want to be that easy and consistent, it can still be fun to add taste elements to specific kinds of potion — perhaps potions made by clerics tend to have a strong medicine taste, those made by druids are usually overwhelmingly herb-flavored, and those made by alchemists tend to have a powerful saccharine-sweetness to them. That doesn’t tell PCs exactly what a potion does, but it does become an interesting piece of information that can help the game world feel more well-rounded.

The other fun use for taste is for things that impact the PCs to impact their sense of taste without being directly connected to eating or drinking. Maybe a mummy’s curse makes you constantly get a taste of dust in your mouth, or getting a serum of invulnerability injected into your system causes you to feel like you are licking oiled steel. Powerful smells can be tasted as well, so the rotting meat scent of the zombie bloom may also cause those near it to taste raw mushroom flavors in the air, or the choking smokebomb actually tastes like black pepper.

Touch: PCs don’t often rub their bare skin against adventure site walls and monster hides, so things like smooth, rough, sharp, fluffy, and sticky may not come into play often. But touch can also express things like temperature, and feedback from hitting things with weapons. One of the most successful descriptions of a foe I ever gave noted that while the creature seemed to be a hunched humanoid under a ragged veil and cloak, when a PC hit it with their sword, it felt like chopping into green woo. There was give as the blade chopped into the creature’s flesh, but it was far tougher than any human or even monstrous skin, muscles,and tendons.

Similarly, if touching a glowing sword makes a chill run down a character’s spine, or grabbing a Xorarcan plasma-lance makes any other humanoid’s fingertips tingle, that can be great descriptive information. If a character makes a saving throw against a gaze attack that makes their eyes itch, the player has reason to suspect a failed save results in blindness. If even approaching the stone archway covered in glowing runs makes it seem like the ground it tilting away from you, it suggests the gate may be tied to movement of some kind.

Smell: In many ways smell is just taste at a greater range, so all the taste notes apply here as well. But smell is also one of the most powerful senses for evoking primal fears–we evolved to know that the smell or rot is bad, the smell of blood is dangerous, and the smell of smoke calls for caution. Smell can be used to give clues to some kinds of deception–the high ghoul illusionist can make herself look like a human, but needs to use heavy perfume to cover the scent of the grave; the stench coming from the locally feared Troglodyte Clans Cave is bad, but not THAT bad; the bandits in the tavern smell like chili peppers, ebcause they infuse their boots with pepper oil so guard dogs can’t follow their scent.

Smells can also be fun because they can carry varying distances depending on local conditions, and what they promise is not always what they deliver. If the scent of fresh-backed pastries wafts tantalizingly through the woods, are the PCs about to stumble on a halfling village, or a giant baker that literally grinds human bones to make his bread? Is the smell of honey just a pleasant spring scent, a warning sign of giant paper wasps moving into the dense wilderness, or the smell of an undead mellified man about to round the corner and attack?

Conclusion: You don’t have to go crazy with secondary senses, but adding the description of a single noteworthy taste, touch, or smell in each major encounter can help round out the sense of what your game world is like.

Patreon: Okay, I admit it does not taste like honey or smell like nectar, but if you support by blog writing by joining my Patreon, I’ll certainly think it’s sweet!

Quick Tips: Designing Adventures Backwards

If there’s one thing I think is most likely to trip up new GMs when they design their own adventures, it’s that they tend to design them front-to-back. That is, most GMs (and adventure writers) I see who begin creating adventures from scratch for the first time want to write the first encounter first, the second encounter second, and so on.

Now, that makes a lot of sense on the surface. That’s the order gamers encounter other people’s adventures in, so it’s a familiar pacing. Also, it means that if you plan to have 4 game sessions worth of adventure, you only have to do the first 4 encounters of work before you can run the first session. No need to design more than you need for the next game night, right?

Well…

Look, that works great for a lot of GMs, and if it works for you, more power to you. There are absolutely advantages to that system, and lots of ways to make it work to your advantage. But for many GMs, it means they introduce a problem and the mystery and the clues… before they know what the mystery is, or what the clues are supposed to be pointing to. That often works fine when you first introduce elements — everyone has seen the stories where the map has a big blank spot, or the detective finds mud they are sure is important, or the prophecy only makes sense after it’s fulfilled. So if you tell the ranger that yes, the site of the bandit attack has lots of wolf and goblin footprints, but on top of all of those are sharped bits of wood, as though from a whittled stick, which was done 2-3 hours after the bandit attack, players will file that away as an important clue for later.

Which is great–if you ether have a rough idea what you are doing (so you can make up clues that’ll fit in) or are good at bringing things together in the last few chapters even if you had no idea what you are doing when you leave a clue. But if you’re GREAT at coming with evocative and intriguing set dressing, but terrible at connecting them together after-the-fact, the end game of your adventures may be much more stressful and dissatisfying than you’d like.

For such GMs, writing your adventure backwards can make things much easier.

For example, let’s say you decide the end villain of your adventure is an evil ranger, who riles up local wilderness threats, directs them at farms and villages, and then charges those settlements money to “solve” the problems he’s creating. You give him a couple of personality quirks — he’s arrogant, handsome, and can whittle small wooden symbols that anger specific kinds of wildlife. You want a fight with him to end your advneture.

You want some investigation in town to happen just before that fight. So you create an event rh PCs could investigate once they are suspicious enough. You decide the ranger runs a protection racket, but a newcomer bard was becoming suspicious. So the ranger poisoned a local goblin tribe with herbs that make them battle-mad. Then he faked a note from the goblins to the bard making it seems the goblins wanted to tell the bard something important. When the bard went to where the note indicated, the herb-maddened goblins killed the bard. The ranger came by after the battle, whittling more of his magic traps, and stole the bard’s gear.

With that in place, it’s easy to see how the Ps get involved. Locals think the attacks are getting worse, and that the ranger isn’t enough to deal with them anymore. They hire PCs to help, but the PCs keep finding evidence of an unseen figure behind the attacks. You can have them fight some maddened animals the ranger sends after them hoping the PCs will be killed, have them ask folks what might have riled the animals, get told the new bard asked similar questions before being killed by goblins, seek ut the bard’s hidden notes because the bard was already onto the ranger, get pointed at the ranger, want to find the bard’s loot so they search the ranger’s hut and find it, then confront the ranger. Easy.

It may not solve all adventure problems, but often working backwards from the end is the easy way to decide what clues and story beats the PCs will find as they move forward through the adventure.

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PF2 Hero Point Feats

I’ve been playing a lot with Hero points in d20 games recently, having looked at some alternate Hero point rules for PF1 and a whole set of Hero point rules for Starfinder. Now, I turn y gaze toward PF2.

PF2 already has a strong, integrated Hero point mechanic, and an extensive and flexible feat system. What it lacks, oddly, is any Hero point feats. Especially given PF1 had Hero point feats in the APG, this is an omission that calls out for a 3pp patch.

So, here are my conversions of the three PF1 Hero point feats to work with the PF2 game and Hero point mechanic.

BLOOD OF HEROES
[General]
Prerequisite: Hero’s Fortune, Luck of Heroes

You seem destined for success, even when the odds are against you. Whenever you spend a Hero point to reroll a d20 roll, of the result on the d20 is a 1-10, you gain a +10 bonus to the result (making it effectively an 11-20, though not a “natural” 20 for game mechanical purposes).

HERO’S FORTUNE
[General]

Even a miraculous escape from death doesn’t use up all your good luck. When you expend all your Hero points to avoid death, if you had 2 or more Hero points, you get to keep 1 or them rather than spend them all.

LUCK OF HEROES
[General]
Prerequisite: Hero’s Fortune

Luck never completely abandons you. Once per game session, if you end an encounter with no Hero points, you may choose to gain one Hero point.

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Hero Points for Starfinder

Hero points are a mechanic that allows players to “edit” the events of an encounter and the rules of the game to a limited degree. They give heroes the ability to do the amazing things heroes do in scifi fiction, but with specific rules for doing so, and they encourage players to make the sort of choices fantasy heroes do in those stories, in order to get more Hero points. This set is based on an article I did on alternate Hero points for Pathfinder 1e, tweaked as needed for the differences between PF1 and Starfinder.

A GM decides where or not to use Hero points, and while it’s most common for that to be done on a per-campaign basis, it needn’t be. A GM could allow Hero points only when the PCs are involved in something they have strong feelings about, or only in climactic plotline-ending scenes. Alternatively, a GM might use Hero points when a player can’t make it to a game session, to give the remaining characters a power boost, or use it for day-in-the-life game sessions when combat and life-or-death situations are unlikely but the GM would like to encourage players to get involved in telling social stories.

(This is an Extended Post, with additional material including rewritten versions of the Hero Point Feats from the APG made available exclusively on my Patreon, for my supporting Patrons.)

Hero points are a pure power up for characters, but they are also a way for the GM and players to have a rules-based back-and-forth with what moments each consider important to the ongoing story. Some groups like having some ability to edit events to be closer to what they want, while others feel it takes focus away from the risk-and-reward feel of the game rules. The most important thing is to find what a GM and their game group are comfortable with, and do that. These Hero points are based on those from the M&M game and those presented in the PF1 APG.

HERO POINTS FOR STARFINDER

Players start each game session with 2 Hero points. During the adventure they get opportunities to earn more Hero points. Unspent Hero points don’t carry over to the next session; the heroes start out with 2 points again. Use them or lose them!

USING HERO POINTS

Unless otherwise noted, spending a Hero point is a reaction that takes no action (thus not restricting your other reactions). You can spend Hero points for any of the following:

EXTRA ACTION

You can spend a Hero point to gain an additional standard action on your turn (this is an exception to the rule that Hero points are normally a reaction), or to gain an additional Move action at any time. You cannot combine multiple extra actions into a full round action.

IMPROVE ROLL

One Hero point allows you to re-roll any die roll you make and take the better of the two rolls. On a result of 1 through 10 on the second roll, add 10 to the result, an 11 or higher remains as-is (so the re-roll is always a result of 11-20). You must spend the Hero point to improve a roll before the GM announces the outcome of your initial roll. You cannot spend Hero points on die rolls made by the GM or other players.

REUSE

You can spend a hero point to recall a spell you have already cast or to gain another use of a special ability that is otherwise limited. This should only be used on spells and abilities possessed by your character that recharge on a daily basis.

INSPIRATION

You can spend a Hero point to get sudden inspiration in the form of a hint, clue, or bit of help from the GM. It might be a way out of the villain’s fiendish deathtrap, a vital clue for solving a mystery, or an idea about the villain’s weakness. It’s up to the GM exactly how much help the players get from inspiration and how it manifests, but since Hero points are a very limited resource, the help should be in some way significant.

RECOVER

You can spend a Hero point to recover faster. A Hero point allows you to immediately remove an asleep, bleeding, burning, confused, dazed, dazzled, fascinated, fatigued, flat-footed, off-kilter, off-target, prone, shaken, sickened, or staggered condition, without taking an action.

Spending a Hero point to recover also lets you convert a cowering condition into frightened, panicked into frightened, frightened into shaken, exhausted condition into a fatigued condition; convert a stunned condition into a staggered condition, or convert a nauseated condition into a sickened condition.

You can also use a Hero point to overcome the limitations of the blinded, broken, deafened, encumbered, energy drained, entangled, grappled, overburdened, or paralyzed condition for 1 round. This does not end the condition, and you cannot move from a spot the condition roots you to, but you ignore all its other effects until the beginning of your next turn.

You can spend a Hero point to automatically gain one success in saving against an affliction.

You can spend a Hero point to have healing that would normally only apply to Hit Points to heal Stamina points instead. (You can divide the healing as you wish between HP and SP).

RESOLVE

If you are out of Resolve, you may spend Hero points in place of Resolve points. You may spend a mix of RP and Hero points if you need to spend more Resolve points that your current total, as long as you leave yourself with no RP after the expenditure.

MINOR SCENE EDITING

A player may offer the GM a Hero point to make a minor edit to a scene. For example, if the player wants to use Barricade, Amplified Glitch, or a junk spell in a scene where the GM has ruled the materials needed don’t already exist, the player might offer the GM a Hero point in order to add a pile of discarded electronics cases in an alley. Minor editing should always make sense, should never bypass an encounter entirely, and is entirely at the discretion of the GM. If the GM does not edit the scene as requested, the player retains the Hero point.

EARNING HERO POINTS

The GM can give any player a Hero point to edit events in a way that goes against the player’s character without allowing die rolls, and in contravention of the normal rules or action order. For example, if an adventure calls for a villain to escape, and a PC has the villain grabbed, the GM can grant the player a Hero point and declare the villain wriggles free and dashes out of sight. If a PC manages to kill a major foe in a single blow, the GM can give that PC’s player a Hero point and state the foe miraculously blocked the attack at the last second.

A GM can also offer a player a Hero point as an inducement to have the player’s PC make a poor choice. This is always voluntary—the player decided whether to accept the Hero point and make the bad decision. For example, if a sketchy old man offers the PC an apple out of nowhere, and the player obviously rejects the iffy fruit, the GM could offer the player a Hero point if the PC takes and eats the apple instead. This should only be done in furtherance of the adventure, and obviously not if it means permanent negative consequences for the PC.

These options should never be used to make a character look incompetent or stupid, unless the player encourages that as part of their characterization of their PC.

If a player does something especially heroic, awesome, funny, or helpful, the GM may grant them an extra Hero point in response.

PATREON

There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

ALTERNATE HERO POINTS FOR PF1

Hero points are a mechanic that allows players to “edit” the events of an encounter and the rules of the game to a limited degree. They give heroes the ability to do the amazing things heroes do in fantasy fiction, but with specific rules for doing so, and they encourage players to make the sort of choices fantasy heroes do in those stories, in order to get more Hero points.

A GM decides where or not to use Hero points, and while it’s most common for that to be done on a per-campaign basis, it needn’t be. A GM could allow Hero points only when the PCs are involved in something they have strong feelings about, or only in climactic plotline-ending scenes. Alternatively, a GM might use Hero points when a player can’t make it to a game session, to give the remaining characters a power boost, or use it for day-in-the-life game sessions when combat and life-or-death situations are unlikely but the GM would like to encourage players to get involved in telling social stories.

Hero points are a pure power up for characters, but they are also a way for the GM and players to have a rules-based back-and-forth with what moments each consider important to the ongoing story. Some groups like having some ability to edit events to be closer to what they want, while others feel it takes focus away from the risk-and-reward feel of the game rules. The most important thing is to find what a GM and their game group are comfortable with, and do that.

These Hero points are based on those from the M&M game, and are intentionally more common and generally more powerful than those presented in the APG (though explicitly excluding the Cheat Death option, since having that tends to discourage Hero point spending for any other purpose). Even so, you can look to the APG rules on Hero points for more ideas on how and why you might use them. For example, these rules are not designed to be used with the Hero’s Fortune feat (APG), but you could combine them with such a feat if you wished.

(This is an Extended Post, with additional material including rewritten versions of the Hero Point Feats from the APG made available exclusively on my Patreon, for my supporting Patrons.)

HERO POINTS FOR PATHFINDER 1E

Players start each game session with 2 Hero points. During the adventure they get opportunities to earn more Hero points. Unspent Hero points don’t carry over to the next session; the heroes start out with 2 points again. Use them or lose them!

USING HERO POINTS

Unless otherwise noted, spending a Hero point is a reaction that takes no action (thus not restricting your other reactions). You can spend Hero points for any of the following:

EXTRA ACTION

You can spend a Hero point to gain an additional standard action on your turn (this is an exception to the rule that Hero points are normally a reaction), or to gain an additional Move action at any time. You cannot combine multiple extra actions into a full round action.

IMPROVE ROLL

One Hero point allows you to re-roll any die roll you make and take the better of the two rolls. On a result of 1 through 10 on the second roll, add 10 to the result, an 11 or higher remains as-is (so the re-roll is always a result of 11-20). You must spend the Hero point to improve a roll before the GM announces the outcome of your initial roll. You cannot spend Hero points on die rolls made by the GM or other players.

REUSE

You can spend a hero point to recall a spell you have already cast or to gain another use of a special ability that is otherwise limited. This should only be used on spells and abilities possessed by your character that recharge on a daily basis.

INSPIRATION

You can spend a Hero point to get sudden inspiration in the form of a hint, clue, or bit of help from the GM. It might be a way out of the villain’s fiendish deathtrap, a vital clue for solving a mystery, or an idea about the villain’s weakness. It’s up to the GM exactly how much help the players get from inspiration and how it manifests, but since Hero points are a very limited resource, the help should be in some way significant.

RECOVER

You can spend a Hero point to recover faster. A Hero point allows you to immediately remove a bleed, confused, dazed, dazzled, fascinated, fatigued, prone, shaken, sickened, or staggered condition, without taking an action.

Spending a Hero point to recover also lets you convert a cowering condition into frightened, panicked into frightened, frightened into shaken, exhausted condition into a fatigued condition; convert a stunned condition into a staggered condition, or convert a nauseated condition into a sickened condition.

You can also use a Hero point to overcome the limitations of the blinded, broken, deafened, energy drained, entangled, grappled, flat-footed, or paralyzed condition for 1 round. This does not end the condition, and you cannot move from a spot the condition roots you to, but you ignore all its other effects until the beginning of your next turn.

If at 0 or fewer Hit Points and dying, you can spend a Hero point to stabilize. If at 0 or fewer hit points and stable, you can spend a Hero point to become conscious and have positive hit points equal to half your level (equal to your level if you have Toughness or Endurance, equal to 1.5x your level if you have both).

MINOR SCENE EDITING

A player may offer the GM a Hero point to make a minor edit to a scene. For example, if the player’s character is set on fire in the middle of the street, the player might offer the GM a Hero point in order to add a trough of water to the street, so the PC can jump into it and extinguish themselves. Minor editing should always make sense, should never bypass an encounter entirely, and is entirely at the discretion of the GM. If the GM does not edit the scene as requested, the player retains the Hero point.

EARNING HERO POINTS

The GM can give any player a Hero point to edit events in a way that goes against the player’s character without allowing die rolls, and in contravention of the normal rules or action order. For example, if an adventure calls for a villain to escape, and a PC has the villain grabbed, the GM can grant the player a Hero point and declare the villain wriggles free and dashes out of sight. If a PC manages to kill a major foe in a single blow, the GM can give that PC’s player a Hero point and state the foe miraculously blocked the attack at the last second.

A GM can also offer a player a Hero point as an inducement to have the player’s PC make a poor choice. This is always voluntary—the player decided whether to accept the Hero point and make the bad decision. For example, if a sketchy old man offers the PC an apple out of nowhere, and the player obviously rejects the iffy fruit, the GM could offer the player a Hero point if the PC takes and eats the apple instead. This should only be done in furtherance of the adventure, and obviously not if it means permanent negative consequences for the PC.

These options should never be used to make a character look incompetent or stupid, unless the player encourages that as part of their characterization of their PC.

If a player does something especially heroic, awesome, funny, or helpful, the GM may grant them an extra Hero point in response.

PATREON

There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

Letting Dead PCs Die

I have had my fair share of dead PCs get returned to life in ttRPGs. Often they are dead so briefly, and with such little consequence, it doesn’t really feel like they died at all. Brought back by spells within 6 seconds of joining the choir invisible (not even enough time to see if they are an alto or soprano among the spirits), given reprieve by a GM retcon, or just having their life restored off-screen as part of treasure division, some characters’ deaths have no more impact on their narrative than tossing out the laser pistol they carried during the nightmare invasion of Ragesh III for a more expensive model that does 1d8 instead of 1d4.

Even among characters who needed more effort put in by friends and allies to return to the mortal coil, being temporarily dead is rarely an interesting enough part of their story than any of us sit around and recount when we are telling imaginary war stories. Being temporarily dead is mostly a hiccup, a plastered-over accident we erase because we’d all rather keep telling our parts of that character’s story.

It doesn’t have to be that way. When my wife’s cleric in IFGS (live-action foam-sword fantasy D&D-style larping) died, an entire game was written and produced for her closest friends to bring her back. Her soul wasn’t responding to normal resurrection magics, and we had to travel through her most vivid memories to find it and convince it to return. This meant playing through the biggest, most memorable encounters of her previous IFGS adventures, many of which some of us had gone through with her, and recreate he greatest victories (and, in the case of getting burned by one glyph she mis-named, we thought we needed to recreate her failure as well). All that lead to finally finding her in a kind of lesser heaven, happily keeping house, and somehow convincing her she was needed to keep fighting the forces of evil away from a world where the fire was always warm and the baked bread always fresh.

THAT return to life some of us still talk about.

But for my own characters, it’s much more often the ones who stay dead who get their stories told by other players. When the rarely heroic Pallinor flew across the chasm moat to take on 5 apprentice warlocks, keeping them from casting spells at any of his allies so they could fight their way across the bridge, his success ensuring their victory but at the cost of his own magic being snuffed out and plummeting to his death. When the Monitor overloaded the reactor in his powered armor to self-destruct and blow up himself and 7 Sentry war-bots, ensuring the young mutant girl Olivia could escape, and become the leader and heroine Emerald a generation later. Those deaths were never undone, and it made the character’s sacrifices mean more to me, and be notable enough that other people who were there sometimes tell their tales.

Because the ending for most of my characters is that the one-shot game was a one-shot, or the adventure path ended when someone moved rather than when we finished it, or the campaign’s GM lost interest, or schedules changed, or personal quarrels made a group not want to get together for that game anymore.

My fictional characters who lived are rarely as memorable as those who died… and stayed dead.

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Intangible Rewards in the Really Wild West

One of the ways I try to make ttRPG sessions fun, as a GM, is to give players rewards above and beyond just loot and items.

I think of these as non-tangible rewards, though certainly some can be “tanged.”

For example, in my Really Wild West campaign, the players have formed a group known as the Knight Rangers. The Knight Rangers have recently been listed in national newspapers as one of the “Great Posses of the New Wild,” bands of extraordinary adventurers who are making a differences in the increasingly dangerous New Wild West. There’s even a ranking of the Top Ten Great Posses, so the PCs know what their reputation looks like.

Just for fun, they are ranked as follows:

1. Blud-Hexen Bunch

2. Tannerfaust

3. Knight Rangers

4. Sweet Daisies

5. Irregulators

6. Swordslingers

7. Hell-Wranglers

8. The Sawed-Off Seven

9. Snakenails

10. Dragonpunchers

So when it turns out one of the bad guys the Knight rangers killed in a previous adventure was the brother of one of the Irregulators, who calls out the PC who did it with an eye to vengeance, the players all have an idea of their relative reputation compared to the band calling them out.

Similarly, the Knight Rangers have been named “Trustees” of a number of organizations and businesses, who officially trust the group to be both intending and able to help deal with major problems, and thus worthy of giving favors to.

The centaur paladin in the group has learned she is so feared, crime bosses track when she is in town, and reduce the crime level when she is. The soldier with a mystic bent is talking to daughters of death and crow and raven fylgiur. The roboticist technomancer is becoming a renowned expert on Martian tripod technology, and asked to give lectures. The technomancers has been invited to teach at a rebel salon bucking the official theosophy university. The whole group has had conversations with deputies of the supernatural Marshal in charge of hunting down “gravejumpers.”

The trust, fear, and reputation are all things the players can work with, use as tools, or just accept as an evolution of their characters stories. But they are often a lot more interesting than getting another ring of resistance.

Although the Airship in a Bottle IS kinda cool loot.

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Two Specific Options for Data Flow in Tabletop RPGs

In a tabletop RPG, it can be important to find good ways to keep information flowing between GM and players. No one set of best practices is going to work for every game and every group, but there are two data management ideas that have worked well in ttRPGs I play, in numerous different game systems and with lots of different groups.

“On Deck”
For games with an initiative system that puts character and NPC actions in an order, in addition to telling players it is their turn, it can be useful to tell them that their turn is the next one AFTER the current turn. My friend Carl began telling people they were “On Deck,” meaning next-to-launch, after saying who goes right now. That means when he says “John it’s your turn; Owen, you’re on deck” I know my turn is coming up, and I should be ready to take it. It also tells me that the situation is only going to change by one player’s actions, so I can make some educated guesses about what it’ll be like when my turn comes.

“Bloodied”
Borrowing a concept from a game I’m not playing anymore, Bloodied is a condition where a character is halfway to dead or unconscious (depending on the game system we apply it to). Especially in games where tactical play can be crucial and healing during a fight is an option, players often want to know who is injured, and who isn’t. For nearly all the games I currently play, a simple system has been established where you can tell if a given character is uninjured (no damage on them), injured (some damage, but not bloodied), or bloodied (halfway to defeated). Generally players can learn which of those states a target is in without needing to make a skill check of some kind, and when using miniatures we can mark creatures that are bloodied with a magnet or plastic ring. This prevents the game from bogging down as players ask about everyone in an encounter, and allows for quick estimations of who is in one condition.

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Dungeons as a Location-Based Adventure Trope

This article is now a decade old. I never put it all in one place before, and it likely needs some updating with a decade of new thought. But for the moment, this is its current state, all in one place.

Dungeons as a Location-Based Adventure Trope

I am oft assaulted with cries about the unrealism of RPG “dungeons” when conversing with less chthonic game fans. Even ignoring the cognitive dissonance of claiming fireballs are fine but geographically isolated regions of high-danger that include mushrooms that can sustain an ecosystem are not, I think dungeons have gotten a bad rap because so many are run as nothing more than endless mazes of unconnected threats. There can be more to dungeons, and they can make for great gaming, full of as much (or as little) complex roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and exploration as a group wants, in addition to an opportunity to kill an orc and take his pie… assuming you have a justification for doing so you are happy with.

I prefer short, focused delves downward and thematically linked quarantine sites that happen to be isolated (though not necessarily underground) to monolithic puzzles of mega-corridors, but I think limited-access, PC-channeling adventure sites have a lot going for them and can be part of strong, logical narratives. While they are not “dungeons” in the penal sense, I believe lots of good stories use sites any good Dungeon Master can recognize as a place for wandering monsters, 10-foot poles, and trap checks. Often called “location-based adventures” by industry writers (because the action starts not as a result of machinations behind the scenes or carefully timed events the PCs need to be present at a specific time and place to witness, but as a result of the PCs just showing up at the dangerous location), “dungeon-style” storylines are actually quite common in adventure prose and movies.

So this is a talk about places that serve as dungeons in movies and books, and how similar settings may be useful for fantasy RPG GMs. Since moving pictures are worth 1,000 blog posts to support the case for these dungeons I reference a lot of movies.

The Usefulness of Dungeons

A big part of the usefulness of “dungeons” as adventuring sites is their natural pressures and restrictions on the actions of the players. There are a few tendencies common to modern people than many gamers fall back on, which make perfect sense in the real world, but aren’t much fun from the point of view of adventure RPG sessions. The biggest two adventure-killing “reasonable” tactics I’ve encountered over 40 years of gaming are calling for help, and falling back.

As a modern society, we are trained to call for help. Our phone systems have special numbers that let us call for help quickly, alarms on homes and cars and even smart phones are designed to make calling for help more effective. Even the foam-weapon LARP groups I’ve been involved with insist players carry a whistle with them so if they fall and hurt themselves, they can easily call for help. But calling for help isn’t nearly as much fun for players in an RPG, even when it might make sense. If the PCs are young heroes working for the powerful wizard El Magister, or the politically savvy dragon Doneitagain, or whoever, it may well make sense from the character’s point of view to call for help when they get in over their heads. After all, if their patron is a powerful being and it’s sent them on an important mission, surely it’s better to call for back-up than fail, right?

Falling back is a similar issue, and it leads into the resource-management issue often known as the “15 Minute Adventuring Day.” A lot of RPGs balance powerful abilities by limiting how often they can be used. Different players may well have a different mix of moderate powers they can use a lot vs powerful abilities they can use more rarely. As a result, players often want to use their very best abilities in the first few encounters they run into each day, then stop and wait for their best powers to regenerate. While that’s good tactics from the characters’ point of view, and there are plot-based ways to avoid players doing it all the time (like having a mission be set against a ticking clock), allowing players to use it as their default tactic can skew balance between characters, and make it difficult for a GM to run anything but maximum-risk encounters without the players treating everything as a cake-walk.

Dungeons can help with both of these behaviors. By putting PCs somewhere inherently dangerous and far away from “safe” civilization, the GM encourages players to deal with problems themselves (since help is too far away to reasonably call for), and can push players to pace resources (since even if they stop after a few encounters, there’s no guarantee their resting place will be safe if they can’t get out of the dungeon easily), and may even be able to reward them for pushing on (if genuinely safe locations to rest exist – but are spaced several encounters apart). Dungeons don’t make the “modern” behaviors impossible, but they do change the strategic dynamic to make them less common, and do so in a way most players find intuitively understandable.

So, let’s look at some types of “dungeons.”

Cities and Prisons As Dungeons
A dungeon is someplace just beyond, or maybe under, the city, right? Well, not necessarily. If we look at our game-design definition, we find that some cities of fiction qualify as dungeons in themselves, regardless of what lies beyond them.

My favorite example of this is the City of Lost Children (from the movie, The City of Lost Children). Not only is this a great-looking locale oozing with color that, if well described, could keep players enraptured regardless of the plot, it’s a wonderful set-up. The City is an actual prison, a place where the inhabitants cannot escape. Ruled by a mad scientist and patrolled by his golems, the City has traps, oddities, and a “thieves guild” run by an octopus. And a man-mountain of a hero must find his way through all of it on a rescue mission, which isn’t the most typical RPG dungeon plot, and even if it was done this way it would feel fresh again.

New York City from Escape From New York is another good example of the urban-prison-as-a-dungeon, and perhaps unsurprisingly it also focuses on a rescue mission. The interesting thing here is that it basically shows what happens if the Thieves Guild is the also the local government, and there’s very little in this movie that couldn’t easily be transferred to a fantasy RPG. The movie has an alchemist, a warlord, and a treasure map (though the treasure here is freedom rather than gold). It would take very little effort to blend these concepts with more fantasy-oriented ones to create an island or peninsula penitentiary, possibly borrowing elements from the pirate city in Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End. A prince’s yacht crashes on the island and he’s grabbed by the inmates, just days before he’s needed for a treaty-by-marriage…

The 2008 movie Doomsday (the one with Rhona Mitra) is a similar set-up, although in this case it treats an entire countryside as the dungeon, and rather than rescue an individual person it’s a more traditional grab-the-MacGuffin mission. The plot itself could replace the object to be grabbed with anything (lost holy symbol, legendary book, a rare herb needed for a cure that only grows in the cursed land of the mad men), and it’d be easy to replace the Mad Max savages with zombies, or insane cultists (to borrow a bit of In The Mouth of Madness to add to the mix).

Though more noir than fantasy, 1998’s Dark City is absolutely another great example of a city-as-dungeon, with the added twist that characters aren’t initially aware they are in a dungeon. That same idea is shown in a very different light in the original Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” Arguably, even the apparent fake world of The Matrix is little more than a digital dungeon, which is interesting given how the whole rest of the “real” world in those movies come closer to a traditional underground dungeon, albeit ones so big you can fly airships through them.

There are more examples, but those are enough to make the point. So, what are the advantages of the city-as-a-dungeon setting for a GM?

First, if a game group includes an urban-focused character, this kind of setting allows his skills to shine without requiring everyone else to act like they’re in a city. Some game groups just don’t take well to “civilization,” with characters getting into fights with the guards and wanting to clear out an inn like they would a stirge nest. Other groups perfectly well can run their characters appropriately… but may not want to. Sometimes the whole point of playing a barbarian is to be able to rage and kill something, and “dungeon cities” allow characters to worry less about the repercussions of being anti-social.

Additionally, dungeon cities are a good change of scenery for GMs who want to adapt a traditional dungeon adventure and disguise its origins. Many traditional “dungeons” are more like cities anyway (with different monsters taking up residence in different sections, and often whole tribes living within them), and the ecological questions that bother many people when a group of 200 kobolds lives in a barren cavern just don’t apply when the “dungeon” is turned into an entire valley that was quarantined years ago by blocking the one pass out. Some published adventures actually make more sense in an Escape From New York scenario than in the Mines of Moria. Remapping 10×10 rooms to 10×10 shacks isn’t difficult, and the open nature of a city can give the PCs more room to explore (and explain why the kobold guards in encounter 12 don’t hear the PCs kill the ones in Encounter 11, if you have the encounters now be in different sections of a largely abandoned township instead of 30 feet down a corridor).

It can also be a potential answer to the question of why going into someone else’s home and killing them to take their stuff is “adventuring” rather than “murderous colonization.” If the penal-city-as-dungeon is a prison for offenders so violent they cannot be kept anyplace else, the GM can reasonably have them attack PCs on sight (and any prisoners who don’t do so immediately suggest maybe they should be talked to). If the PCs are sent in to save someone who has been captured and is being threatened (again, Escape from new York), they have a better justification than greed for undertaking their adventure.

Of course, this can also skew rapidly into touching on real-world prison injustices, which isn’t any better. It’s always worth asking yourself if, seen objectively by an outsider, the actions of the PCs are heroic, or monstrously criminal. I’m not telling you how to run you games, but it’s good to be aware what your themes are really saying before you put a lot of work into fleshing them out.

If the dungeon city isn’t destroyed by the adventurers, a prison colony is obviously re-stocked as its parent empire convicts more criminals. If the GM wants to re-use his maps and do a “Return To” kind of adventure, all is needed is enough time to pass for a new wave of convicts to be thrown over the wall/across the river/down the road into the prison/quarantine/exiled land.

Dungeon cities also give some interesting options for development later. If a villain met within the city later escapes, he might come hunting for the PCs. Or a GM could borrow a page from Dune’s Sardaukar (troops who are renowned for being the toughest in the universe because they come from a prison planet) and either put the PCs up against an army drawn from a dungeon city they once explored, or face the PCs with a threat so severe only an army of the dungeon city’s prisoners can oppose it.

In short while the advantages of a simple location-based adventure remain intact, a dungeon city changes the setting, and allows for development options lacking in more subterranean options.

Sudden Dungeons

One interesting variant of the dungeon adventures travel into intentionally, is the dungeon that grows up around them without warning, so entry into the dungeon adventure is sudden rather than pre-planned by the PCs. In some cases, the GM can get characters to happily put themselves someplace isolated, and then have it turn into a deathtrap after their arrival. This trick needs to be used sparingly (because otherwise PCs refuse to go anywhere, or at least treat every trip as a possible fight to the death and slow down play with endless, needless precautions), but as a change of pace this can be a good surprise.

A good example of this kind of “sudden dungeon” is the airplane from Snakes on a Plane. Actually most movies that take place on an airplane treat it as a dungeon, but this is the one with the most obvious examples of wandering monsters, coupled with a surprising number of traps and environmental hazards. (Flight of the Living Dead is another good example… if you happen to be a fan of very cheesy zombie movies). The most interesting part of this from an adventure-design point of view is that in neither case did the protagonists expect to be entering a dungeon – the nature of their situation evolved – but was aware that a threat existed (a transported prisoner needed to be guarded). This helps players not feel blindsided – they should have prepared for a fight or trap in any case – but changes the kind of threat they face.

Similar events make the ships in Titanic and Deep Rising sudden dungeons… though I prefer the monsters in Deep Rising (and it’s another example of character who knew some sort of danger was to be involved, just not that they were about to be in a constant running fight in a sinking ship with bloodthirsty mercenaries). These movies also all have the theme of turning a convenience (mass transit) into a drawback (things go wrong too far from civilization to get help). They obviously work best as very short-term adventures, but dungeons that are short as five rooms can be compelling single nights of fun.

A different take on the sudden dungeon is the movie (and the video games) Silent Hill. Here a trip to an area believed to be at most moderately dangerous (an abandoned town) becomes a sudden dungeon when it is revealed there is a hellish, nightmare-world version of the same place and characters can be stuck there. Again, a trick like this can’t be pulled too often, but it’s easy to see how characters in an archeological dig, or exploring a ghost town, or trekking through a well-traveled and safe forest could accidentally release something that changed the environment for the suddenly, dungeonastically worse. If a GM does want to use this trick more than once, it can be tied to an ongoing villain (what is Freddy Krugar from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies but a ghost who can turn your dreams into dungeon nightmares?) If combined with the dungeon city from yesterday, you get The Mist, or The Fog, or even Dawn of the Dead.

And of course anyplace you can be stranded can count as a sudden dungeon. While characters knew they were going someplace dangerous in Kong: Skull Island, they didn’t know they were going to be trapped there with dangerous the like of which they had never encountered before. How weird a place you are stranded is can have a huge impact on the tone of the adventure, of course. There’s not initially a lot of difference between the set up of “Gilligan’s Island” and “LOST,” but both how characters deal with weird situations, and what is treated as “normal” end up having huge implications for the feel of each setting.

A place that you go to willingly, but then get stuck in because it is not as you expected, can also make for a great sudden dungeon. Haunted houses are good examples of this. The characters in 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill expected they could leave at their leisure, and were surprised when the houses turned into location based adventures. Of course, most RPG players are canny enough to see the signs of a haunting when they hear the set-up. Even so, there’s nothing wrong with letting player prepare a bit for sudden dungeons, and letting them see one or two coming may well just set the stage for surprising them alter. And not all hauntings take place in houses. PCs going to a friendly temple might discover it had been taken over by an evil cult, who unleashed demons and hellscapes just as the players arrived (perhaps doing so intentionally to trap the heroes). Or an invitation to a party at a local inn to celebrate its 100th anniversary might go south when it turns out it was built on the unmarked grave of a mass-murderer, and his spirit is accidentally also invited to the party. Even tropes players have seen a hundred times can be a surprise if the GM changes a few details.

And once the PCs are in a sudden dungeon, it doesn’t matter if they recognize it. It’s too late.

Dungeons Without Walls

In many cases, it’s possible to set up an adventure with all the good elements we’ve discussed from various dungeons, but do it without having any specific structure or location serve to cause those constraints. While in many ways this looks like the dungeon city or sudden dungeon, it’s different in a few core ways. For example, normally the dungeon without walls is an event (possibly a curse), and the reason player’s can’t “escape” it is more metaphysical than geographical. Similarly they can’t usefully call for help or fall back and wait to power-up because the nature of the encounters they are facing prevents aid or safety from beign effective, rather than because it can’t be attempted.

The best cinematic example I know of for the dungeon without walls is the Game from the original Jumanji movie. It’s all random encounters, and it requires an artifact of major mojo to pull off, but it forces the heroes to go from event to event, and gets to ignore pesky details like the food chain or why encounter 5 doesn’t eat encounter 9 before the protagonists show up. And the end goal is always clearly visible, though you can’t be sure how long it’ll take to get there. If the Game is considered an artifact (anything from a holy relic from a god of adventure or gambling to an actual physical representation of the epic journey, compressed into a specific recreated experience) the issue for the PCs isn’t that they can’t hire a sage or ask a patron for help, but that those allies just aren’t able to suggest anything helpful other than to finish the experience. It’s the trope of “the best way out is through,” which is common in adventure fiction if not normally this blatant.

As an aside, the follow-up movie Zathura, and the two 2000s-era Jumanji movies, are less dungeons without walls, and more sudden dungeons. The distinction here is that in the original Jumanji, the characters have access to their town, friends, shops, and so on. In Zathura, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Jumanji: The Next Level, the characters are wished away and cut off from their normal support options.

Some curse/haunting movies can also be treated as dungeons without walls. The thing to look for is an event that gives the character an opportunity to fight back (so something like Thinner doesn’t really qualify, since the main character was doomed from the get-go, or if salvation was possible it would require an act of penance, rather than an ass-kicking), but no external force can usefully help and there’s no good way to hide from the event. The Final Destination series are fairly good examples of this, as is It Follows. The characters affected have action-based encounters coming at them, but may be able to survive if they make the right deeds. (As with a lot of plots from horror stories, the GM should make sure the threats are actually fair but the core concept is easily reused).

Even more than the sudden dungeon, the inevitable and unstoppable nature of the dungeon without walls should be used sparingly. Indeed, it may work best if characters are given some idea what they are facing and allowed to choose such a fate rather than have it thrust upon them. Perhaps a goddess of fate grants rewards to those who accept the challenge of an interesting life during her holy month, or a town’s curse can only be lifted if a band of heroes face a gauntlet of threats dreamed up by the ghosts who died in a flood early in the town’s history. Once the heroes have decided to have a rough month, they’ll be less annoyed at the GM if they can’t get out of it the easy way.

Traditional Dungeons

So, what about traditional dungeons? Are there no good or interesting examples of subterranean complexes with dangerous dwellers and valuable goods? Of course there are… and their place (and function) within their respective stories can be a good guide on how to add dungeons to a campaign without shoehorning them or making them the sole focus of a fantasy setting.

So without further ado, let’s look at some movie dungeons!

The Lair of Vermithrax Pejorative (Dragonslayer)
The fiery lair of the dragon in Dragonslayer has elements to be seen in many RPG dungeons that came after – alters for live sacrifice, hordes of smaller threats, strange terrain (the burning water), caverns with tactically interesting ledges and, of course, a dragon. Given this movie came out in 1981 it clearly is not the origin of the Dungeons and Dragons  RPG (despite having both), but it’s fair to say it was an influence for years. Of course those elements are far from the only things fantasy RPGs borrow from this movie (though interestingly it’s the spear and shield seen most often, not the d8 of magic power or ash of archmage summoning – so style over substance began early).

This cavern lair sets the stage for the End Boss Fight, which is a pretty typical use for a dragon’s lair in dungeon construction. However in many dungeon rpg adventures, the dragon’s lair is just the last in a series of caves full of monsters, and that can take away from the impact of creeping into a monster’s lair. Because the rest of the adventure takes place out in the open, the scenes where our heroes sneak into Vermithrax Pejorative’s home clearly mark a raising of the stakes, and the approach of a major confrontation. If a GM’s players seem to be getting bored with dungeon stomping, it may be time to take a page from this movie and adventure outside for a while, returning to cavern settings just for the final conflict.

The Labyrinth (Labyrinth)
Okay, it’s a well-known truism in fantasy rpg adventure design that mazes make for bad adventure settings. This is only true if the PCs are asked to map every T-intersection, 45-degree angel and grant colonnade. If instead the maze is a setting, a vast country filled with its own people, threats and odd encounters and the GM gets the players from scene to scene with no need for hours of dull mapping, Labyrinth shows how to keep the maze as interesting as it was when Theseus was first asked to be delivery food.

Interestingly in this case the labyrinth is not the heroine’s destination, or the setting for the final conflict. She’s trying to get through the maze to the castle on the far side. I rarely see the dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed in adventure design, but it’s one of its most obvious uses. Instead of being something to be searched, room by room, and cleared, the dungeon becomes no different from any other difficult terrain, and the goal is to cross it as quickly (and as little resistence) as possible.

Chinatown Beneath (Big Trouble in Little China)
From a secret door in a wizard’s domicile to random monster encounters (“It will come out no more!”) to mysterious substances (Black Blood of the Earth), trapped elevators, sewer connections, a hidden underground temple, mounds of dead fish, and a floating eye-monster spy, this dungeon setting has it all. It’s also one of the few examples where the heroes are in-and-out of the same subterranean complex more than once, which lends itself well to the way most PCs tackle big warrens of evil.

This is another example of the dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed, but in this case it’s explicitly a back-door. Making a dungeon optional is a great way to provide players the chance to choose it if they’re in the mood, and avoid it if they’re not. And if the up-side of the dungeon route is that it’s so dangerous no one in their right mind would take it (thus ensuring the villains won’t see the heroes coming), the GM has carte blanc to make the challenges within much more dangerous than if the PCs felt they had no other adventure options open to them.

Caverns of the Wendol (The 13th Warrior)
Announced with a boldly asked question – “Is there a cave?!” – the caverns of the Wendol savages from The 13th Warrior begin a running battle that uses more stealth than many cinematic dungeon-stomps. From sneaking past (and/or assassinating) guards to the boss-monster fight with the Mother of the Wendol to the “secret escape” through underwater passages, this is a tightly focused, high-speed dungeon that isn’t emulated enough in many RPG campaigns. It’s similar to the Final Boss Fight, except it specifically isn’t final. In this case the characters are intentionally making a raid, trying to kill one or two specific foes in a complex they know has too many foes to clear out entirely.

The Tombs (Mummy movie series)
Raiding a tomb with traps, undead, and opposing forces of adventurers may seem a pretty RPG-specific idea for a story, but it’s pretty close to the broad plot of all the movies in the modern Mummy movie series, especially the 1999 movie and the most recent The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The important thing to take away is that while the action often begins and ends within the dungeons of these movies, it runs through a lot of other settings as well. If a GM ever needs inspiration on how to bring more city-based and travel encounters to a dungeonocentric plot, these movies can provide some great idea-fodder.

The Mountain of Power (Conan the Barbarian, 1982)
Similarly, the Mountain of Power, stronghold of Thulsa Doom, is another great example of a dungeon raid. Given how popular D&D was with young teen boys in 1982, the orgy scene in this movie may have been a hit with that segment of the RPG crowd more for bare breasts than the thematic conflict of free-spirited freebooter mercenaries against a totalitarian cult regime of nihilistic excess. But it’s still great music, a great fight, and a great dungeon. Unlike the dungeon raid in The 13th Warrior the goal is an extraction (of a hostage that turns out to be hostile), but the objective remains to get it, get one thing done, and get out quickly.

Moria (LotR: Fellowship of the Rings)
I often think of this as THE dungeon, because I suspect it’s literary counterpart is the origin of dungeons in RPGs. In addition to good backstory, a strong story reason for entering, a mystically locked door, hoards of goblins and a mysterious follower, Minas Tirath gives us the Balrog, one of the all-time great Boss Monsters. This entry is also a stand-in for all the subterranean adventure sites in the Lord of the Rings movies, from the caves of Helm’s Deep to Shelob’s lair.

Lord of the Rings is filled with dungeons, and each serves a specific plot need on top of being a great adventure setting. While Moria itself is a dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed, and Shelob’s lair is the backdoor version of the same idea, their main value to GMs are as examples of how to work dungeons into a bigger plot. Instead of having all of the major encounters of the adventure take place in dungeons, Lord of the Rings uses them as interesting set-pieces. This kind of focused dungeon expedition is often actually more exciting than clearing out rook after room of monsters and traps. In many ways rather than stacking different lairs of dungeon atop one another, this set-up scatters those lairs into different locations. One big advantage of this is that a GM can foreshadow how dangerous the latter dungeon levels are, watching players declare :One does not simply walk into Mordor,” well aware that by the time the campaign comes to a close, they’ll have done exactly that.

Other Dungeons

While they can be placed into the categories above, I think there are a few additional cinematic examples of dungeons that are worth discussing briefly.

LV-426, from Aliens. Yes, it’s a science fiction setting, but the overrun colonial habitats (and alien hive) certainly qualify as a dungeon by RPG standards. The heroes must search it, avoid being ambushed, rescue prisoners, fight monsters, and find the end Boss Monster. And it’s not hard to envision fiendish ants or otherworldly horrors replacing xenomorphs, or knights and wizards standing in for marines and pulse guns.

Every other movie in this series includes at least one locale that counts too, but I think Aliens has the most adventurous take on the theme

The apartment building from the Rec and Quarantine lines of movies. If I’ll allow sci-fi, there’s no reason I wouldn’t look to horror for good dungeons, and this one (in either the American remake or the original movie) is great. One of the nice touches is that when the characters enter it, they have no idea it’s going to become a sealed-off, tightly-cramped series of rooms with monsters in them. And the story sets up a three-tiered threat: zombies, whatever is turning people into zombies, and the local authorities that won’t let the protagonists out – a great way to keep a dungeon from feeling like reheated subterranean leftovers.

Okay, that’s the end of my quick run-down of dungeons from the movies, and while I skipped the Circus from Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy as the modern dungeon and Hogwarts as the friendly dungeon, I’ve still hit most of my favorites

What noteworthy dungeons from cinema and pop culture do you think I’ve missed?

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Really Wild West “Doomstone” Campaign — After-Action Report (Game Session 8, part 1)

I got a bit behind on posting these due to the holidays, but here’s the after-action report for Session Seven of the Really Wild West: Doomstone campaign. The Knight Rangers have headed out in their converted Martian Excavating Machine, now known as The Armadillo, to the Montana city of Hellgate as part of their quest to find and defeat Professor Barkane Adrameliche, who has become the darkling Lord, the Venom King.

Along the way, they topped in on the family of the ogre ranch-hand and ally Bo Hoss, and discovered the Hoss clan was being forced to labor for a group of Vrock cultists.

This entry is adapted from the notes of my friend Carl, a player in the game, and told from his point of view. My wife, Lj, was unable to play this session. As a result her character, the fenrin operative bounty hunter, was caught up by a twister while flying ahead to scout using DaVinci Wings. Sawyer managed to assure the other Knight Rangers that she’s catch up with them after she landed (and since Lj wanted us to go ahead and play without her, we hand-waved any concern the characters might normally have had over losing a member for a few days).

You can find Session One here: Part OnePart Two.
Session Two here: Part OnePart Two.
Session Three here.
Session Four here.
Session Five here: Part OnePart Two.
Session Six here.
Session Seven here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

If you don’t recognize a reference, it may (or may not) be in a previous session, or at the updated campaign notes page.

May 7, 1891

Travel past Idaho Falls, turning west.

May 8, 1891

The Knight Rangers pass many signs, pointing back to Idaho Falls, which appears to have been called Eagle Rock until recently. Numerous families in wagons are headed East toward Idaho Falls, evacuating the area further west.

Reach Root Hog, Idaho (will someday become Arco). It shows signs of extensive  new construction, Edison and Tesla-based engineering, and numerous Martian tech survey teams

The nearby “Craters of the Moon” was a major Martian landing location, and kind of an initial base for them. When Martians were getting sick at the end of the War of the Worlds, this was a place they fell back too. The town is “Martian wreckage boom town.”

Recently the Army Corps of Engineers has opened up Craters of the Moon battle site to public exploration. The Corp found a lot of stuff, but the mass of public can find more, and even a simple Martian “screw” is worth 2 credits.

As the Knight rangers arrive in the Armadillo, a bunch of people with newstypes (Newspapers printed locally having been received over the Babbage-Bel Grid) approach us and ask us for signatures.

(The Armadillo, the Knight Rangers’ mobile base of operation they converted from a Martian Embanking Machine. Art by Jacob Blackmon)

Headline in the “Lake Hudson Dispatch” reads:  Knight Rangers Threaten Town of Texburg. The coverage is all negative and wrong, along with a negative artists rendition

Headline in the “Gotham Times” reads: The Really Wild West: Martians, Mercenaries, and Magic!, and only mentions the KR in passing

Headline in the “Washington’s Bugle Weekly ” reads: The New Wild: Heroes Arise to Meet Unimagined Threats, and is accompanied by a fairly accurate artists rendition, although the female centaur paladin is depicted as being 12 feet tall. The article is written by “April Raynes,” and it mentions two other groups, the “Swordslingers” and the “Blud-Hexen Bunch”

After about hour, 12 men with rifles who have us artilleryman’s badges and red strip trousers show up. They are led by Sergeant Levy Cooper, a gruff man with a big bushy mustache and beard. He is currently in charge of Martian issues in Root Hog. Wants to see our Martian papers, and to have one of his people go over the Armadillo to make sure its not leaking or going to exploding. We agree.

Locals had more encounters with the “bug gum” and takes some affidavits from us about our experiences with it (the Jerusalem bugs and walking meat).

The engineer mentions “orange goo”  from some Martian tech that makes bugs grow big. Sergeant mentions Tesla was here first, indicates the least constructed building, “they had a really nice headquarters.”

He gives us a whistle that has a specific frequency that his fenrin employees can hear, they use it for emergencies.

They leave a corporal to keep an eye on us. Sergeant cooper says ” people don’t do what is expected, they do what is inspected.”

The closest crossing the Armadillo can take is a bridge which currently has so much traffic, we have to make an “appointment” to cross the bridge with the bridge officer.

In town, the centaur paladin goes for a hot shower, can’t find a shower place big enough, but a place that normally does degreaser for salvaged Martian tech, allows her to wash there. She encounters a large, 6″ wasp and pops it with a towel. It explodes into a green goo that is the same color as the Venom King’s various poisons.

The roboticist mechanic does some gambling, and looses to a professional gambler, “Slyton Seeves” , his friends call him “Sly.” They chat. He seems polite and proper. He wants to buy her (custom built) spark pistol for a lead lined box with a glowing blue dodecahedron crystal, She recognizes it as technological, but doesn’t know what it is. She does identify it as a part of a Martian interplanetary communicator. She makes the trade (and later builds herself a new spark pistol).

The human soldier guards the Armadillo while others are in town. He sees a woman walking about unnoticed on other people’s camps. No one else seems to see her. She then kisses a guy who is wraked with coughs, and that guy dies.

She approaches the Armadillo, and the soldier makes it obvious he can see her. She approaches, and they talk. She is Macha Morriga, basically a psychopomp. They exchange information, she tells him darklings rewrite reality. About 1,000 one got loose in South America, and destroyed an entire empire. She leaves, peacefully.

The cartographamancer half-orc was contact by agent of Tex Tanner. Tanner wanted to hire the Cartographamancer away from the Knight Rangers on a long-term contract, but was turned down. Tex Tanner is clearly paying agents throughout the West to keep track of the Knight Rangers.

(End Part One)

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