A group of very different women, who clearly have all survived horrifying and dangerous experiences, gather to deal with the evils they’re sure are lurking near the about-to-be-opened eponymous cabin.
And this time? They’re prepared.
Ideally this would be “The Expendables,” but with actresses who have survived horror and horror/action movies.
(For example, they all take out million-dollar life insurance policies, and name each other’s friends and families as beneficiaries. But not the group themselves — no one who is going to be at the Cabin is benefitting directly).
“Is that a chainsaw?”
“Yep. Top-handle 16-inch always-start Stihl, with custom grips and fuel gauge.”
“Did you get it from… yaknow?”
“Oh, heck no, he used a stupid-huge, heavy, rusty monstrosity. Bad for combat. I DID salvage some of the links from it’s chain, though.”
“So, you wear full body armor?”
“When hunting, with backup? Fuck yeah. NIJ-certified Level IV. You don’t?”
“No, I prefer stealth and mobility. I have a stab-resistant undersuit. Machete-resistant, too.”
“Tested it against power drills?”
“Haven’t had the opportunity.”
“All right, precheck. Defiled indigenous holy sites or burial grounds?”
“I mean, yes. But no more than anywhere else in this country. None of the surviving original local cultures have any specific warnings for us. I asked.”
“Not that the eco-groups I talked to are aware of.”
“Shipping and power records suggest no.”
“Three recorded massacres, roughly one per generation. Just rare enough for people to forget. Always on a solstice. Like the one coming up.”
“So, cult or supernatural evil.”
“Seems likely. I have silver, jade, white oak, mistletoe, holly, salt, and holy water — in Catholic, protestant, and Eastern Orthodox flavors. And some from a guy named Giles. Oh, and bullets. Lots of bullets.”
“Sounds good, let’s go.”
I specifically wanted a mashup title for this idea, but after expanding a bit I wondered if “Final Girls” would be a better choice. But, it turns out a movie by the title already exists and is just similar enough (it’s kind of Scream via Last Action Hero; an actress’s daughter and her friends get pulled into the actress’s horror movie, giving them a change to use their self-aware trope knowledge to defeat the killer) that I think it’s better not to risk confusion.
If you enjoy any of my various thoughts, ideas, and posts, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!, or dropping a cup of coffee worth of support at my Ko-Fi (which is also filled with pics of my roommate’s cat).
This week seems to be all about previews of some of the material from the ShadowFinder book I announced in my ShadowFinder Is Coming post.
So, what on Earth has gone into my head to lead me to want to write this book? Well… there’s a lot of it.
Appendix A: Inspirations List
This excerpt of Appendix A is not part of the OGL content of this site, and it not covered by any of the licenses this product is published under. It’s a separate, editorial list presented under fair use.
While ShadowFinder is not an effort to duplicate any specific piece of genre fiction, it absolutely does draw inspirations from a wide range of movies, shows, anime, books, and comics. While I simply do not have room (or time) to compile a comprehensive list, I did want to touch on some of the biggest contributors to the zeitgeek I’m trying to tap into. Very few of these represent exactly what I expect a ShadowFinder game session to look like, but most of them have elements that could easily inspire ShadowFinder plots, adventures, and characters.
This is just the film and television parts of the appendix from the book, which also has comics and literature… though wow have I wanted more tv and movies in the past 20 years than read books. 😛
In some cases, I have listed the original source of a franchise, even though something later in the franchise might be the first thing that that inspired me. In other cases, I list some later product, because it stands out in my mind from the rest of its franchise. There’s a reason both Dawn of the Dead movies are listed but not all the related zombie films, and Friday the 13th Part II and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday are the only two Friday the 13th movies listed.
Inclusion here is absolutely not a claim of quality entertainment, in value, theme, presentation, or diversity. A lot of these are bad, and the very fact they are bad sometimes is what caused them to spark ideas in my head. In particular, many of these things now make me cringe when I read or watch them, as they have tropes, attempts at jokes, and stereotypes that should never have been acceptable. Please, check reviews and content warnings before trusting them to be entertaining. There are some great ideas in these, but too often they are mixed with bigotry and bias. I know we can all do a better job when importing the cool parts into our own stories.
Also, a lot of them are horror-themed, despite the fact I don’t consider ShadowFinders to be designed as a horror genre. But modern supernatural stories often are horror, and part of the point is that slasher and monster-in-the-sewer films go differently when PCs get involved.
[H2]Film and Television
Alias. Created by J.J. Abrams.
Alligator. Directed by Lewis Teague.
Angel. Starring David Boreanaz.
Angel Heart. Directed by Alan Parker.
Assault on Precinct 13. Directed by John Carpenter.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Directed by John DeBello.
Attack the Block. Directed by Joe Cornish.
Battle Royale. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku.
Belphegor, or the Phantom of the Louvre. Directed by Claude Barma.
Big Trouble in Little China. Directed by John Carpenter.
Black Dynamite. Directed by Scott Sanders.
The Blair Witch Project. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.
The Blob. Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
The Blues Brothers. Directed by John Landis.
The Boondock Saints. Directed by Troy Duffy.
Brimstone. Created by Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris.
Bubba Ho-Tep. Directed by Don Coscarelli.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
The Cabin in the Woods. Directed by Drew Goddard.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Directed Ken Hughes.
C.H.U.D. Directed by Douglas Cheek.
Cool World. Directed by Ralph Bakshi.
The Craft. Directed by Andrew Fleming.
Creature from the Black Lagoon. Directed by Jack Arnold.
The Crow. Directed by Alex Proyas.
Dark Angel. Created by James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee.
Dark City. Directed by Alex Proyas.
Darkman. Directed by Sam Raimi.
Dawn of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero.
Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Zack Snyder
Death Valley. Developed by Eric Weinberg, Curtis Gwinn, and Spider One.
Deep Rising. Directed by Stephen Sommers.
Demon Knight. Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson.
The Descent. Directed by Neil Marshall.
Escape from New York. Directed by John Carpenter.
Equinox. Directed by Robert Day.
Evil Dead II. Directed by Sam Raimi.
Five Deadly Venoms. Directed by Chang Cheh.
The Fog. Directed by John Carpenter.
Friday the 13th, the Series. Created by Frank Mancuso Jr. and Larry B. Williams.
Friday the 13th, Part II. Directed by Steve Miner.
Fright Night. Directed by Tom Holland.
Fringe. Created by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.
From Dusk till Dawn. Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Game of Death. Directed by Bruce Lee.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Directed by Jim Jarmusch.
Ghostbusters. Directed by Ivan Reitman.
The Golden Child. Directed by Michael Ritchie.
Halloween. Directed by John Carpenter.
Happy! Created by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson.
Hellraiser. Directed by Clive Barker.
Highlander. Directed by Russell Mulcahy.
Highway to Hell. Directed by Ate de Jong.
The Host (Gwoemul). Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
House II: The Second Story. Directed by Ethan Wiley.
House on Haunted Hill. Directed by William Malone.
Howard the Duck. Directed by Willard Huyck.
Hudson Hawk. Directed by Michael Lehmann.
In the Mouth of Madness. Directed by John Carpenter.
Infinity Train. Created by Owen Dennis.
John Dies at the End. Directed by Don Coscarelli.
John Wick. Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch.
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Directed by Adam Marcus.
Jurassic Park. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Directed by Stephen Chiodo.
The Kingdom (Original title: Riget). Created by Lars von Trier.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. Directed by Gordon Hessler.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Creator Jeff Rice.
Kung Fu Hustle. Directed by Stephen Chow.
L.A. Story. Directed by Mick Jackson.
Labyrinth. Directed by Jim Henson.
The Lair Of The White Worm. Directed by Ken Russell.
Lake Placid. Directed by Steve Miner.
The Last Dragon. Directed by Michael Schultz.
The Lost Boys. Directed by Joel Schumacher.
The Lost Room. Created by Christopher Leone and Laura Harkcom.
El Mariachi. Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Midnight, Texas. Developed by Monica Owusu-Breen.
MirrorMask. Directed by Dave McKean.
Monster Squad. Directed by Fred Dekker.
Mortal Kombat. Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson.
National Treasure. Directed by Jon Turteltaub.
Near Dark. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Neverwhere. Created by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry.
Nightbreed. Directed by Clive Barker.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Directed by Chuck Russell.
Night of the Lepus. Directed by William F. Claxton.
The Passage. Created by Liz Heldens.
Pi. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
The Prophecy. Directed by Gregory Widen.
Predator. Directed by John McTiernan.
Prince of Darkness. Directed by John Carpenter.
Pumpkinhead. Directed by Stan Winston.
Puppet Master. Directed by David Schmoeller.
Quatermass and the Pit. Directed by Roy Ward Baker.
The Quiet Earth. Directed by Geoff Murphy.
Raiders of the Lost Ark. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Rawhead Rex. Directed by George Pavlou.
Re-Animator. Directed by Stuart Gordon.
REC. Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza.
Repo Man. Directed by Alex Cox.
The Return of the Living Dead. Directed by Dan O’Bannon.
Salem’s Lot. Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Sleepy Hollow. Created by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Phillip Iscove, and Len Wiseman.
Special Unit 2. Created by Evan Katz.
The Strain. Created by Guillermo del Toro, and Chuck Hogan.
Stranger Things. Created by the Duffer Brothers.
Streets of Fire. Directed by Walter Hill.
The Stuff. Directed by Larry Cohen.
Supernatural. Creator Eric Kripke.
The Swarm. Directed by Irwin Allen.
Them! Directed by Gordon Douglas.
They Live. Directed by John Carpenter.
The Thing. Directed by John Carpenter.
Thirteen Ghosts. Directed by Steve Beck.
Trancers. Directed by Charles Band.
Tremors. Directed by Ron Underwood.
Vampire Hunter D. Directed by Toyoo Ashida.
Vampires. Directed by John Carpenter.
Warlock. Directed by Steve Miner.
The Warriors. Directed by Walter Hill.
The X-Files. Creator Chris Carter.
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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.
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.
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.
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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Marvel Movie Pitch
Victor Von Doom is a young rebel fighting against The Baron, a petty warlord who rules the small nation of Latveria. Victor is not a hero, but a rebel leader fighting a war, and he knows it. He uses sorcery learned from his parents and science he gleans from constantly reading tech specs from AIM, Stark Industries, and Roxxon.
(Get Roma writers, actors, and directors to include good Roma depiction and representation as one of the groups within Latveria)
Victor deposes the Baron, and steps back from being in charge afterward to allow the people of Latveria to create a democracy. Now free from war, and somethign of an international celebrity for his fight for freedom, he receives a scholarship to Empire State University in New York. Here he meets Reed Richards, who becomes his natural rival, and Ben Grimm, who thinks Victor is a bully and war criminal.
Reed is working to build a rocket to examine cosmic rays well beyond the atmosphere. Victor is building a machine to allow him to speak with the dead, in the hopes of using it to help Latvarians recover from war losses. Each sees a flaw in the design of the other, and neither believes THEIR calculations are wrong.
Afraid Victor is the one who is right, Ben Grimm sabotages the Doom Projector, expecting it to just short circuit. Instead it explodes, badly damaging Victor’s face. Victor is expelled from the school and, no longer a student, his visa to stay in the U.S. is pulled. (Yes, I get why some people hate this. But Ben sabotaging Victor is, currently, comics canon. If we want to move away from that, some OTHERstudent could sabotage him.)
Angry and scarred, Victor goes to Tibet to find the Ancient One, who he has heard can heal him. He fails to find her, collapsing on a mountainside, and is rescued by a secretive group of sages who strive to blend magic and technology, but wish to do so without the rest of the world finding out. Victor joins their order, and becomes a master of this technomancy. He begins working on a suit of armor he claims will be the “mystic equivalent of Iron Man,” thought the process takes a long time and the armor takes days to cool. The sages, impressed by his acumen, grant him the doctorate degree he was denied by ESU.
News arrives that suggests Latveria is collapsing into near civil war, unable to cover its international debts and having no institutions or traditions to support building a democracy. (In the background, another news piece suggest Reed Richards is lost in space with friends during an unauthorized spaceflight.) Victor anonymously begins a grassroots movement over the internet and via astral projection to bring peace to Latveria.
His efforts are stymied by Prince Rudolf, who claims to be the rightful monarch of Latveria, and who controls the sorcerous Mephistopheles Guard. In a techno-crystal ball conversation between the two, Victor warns Rudolf he will not allow some faker to take over the country. Rudolf warns Victor he is not as safely secluded as he thinks.
Then the Mephistopheles Guard attacks the Tibetan sages, their sorcery and modern weapons firing magic bullets too much for the sages’ defenses. Victor rushes to put on his technomagic armor to save the sages… but the last piece, the control system mask, has not yet cooled. Gritting his teeth, Victor puts it on anyway, and we hear searing and smoke, but no cry of pain.
Victor defeats the remaining attackers, but nearly all the sages are dead. The few that remain thank Victor for saving them, and pledge their loyalty to him.
Victor goes to Latveria, where he blasts his way into the Royal palace, and confronts Rudolf. Rudolf promises that defeating him is pointless, his diabolical master will just recruit another pawn to take control of the country.
“Let them come.” says Victor. “And they, too, can meet their Doom.”
Von Doom sits on the throne. He orders Rudolf’s political prisoners released. They come to the throne room, and suggest Von Doom should step down and let them establish an autonomous collective. The politicos begin to should louder and louder, until Von Doom silences them.
They have clearly failed Latveria, Von Doom notes. He shall not. He will modernize, protect, and get to the root of who was behind Rudolf and possibly the baron’s, supernatural plots.
And no-one, notes Doctor Doom, shall stop me.
End Credit Scene. We see the last few seconds of Doctor Doom’s taking over speech on a TV, which is surrounded in Egyptian iconography. There’s a date listed (day the movie is released).
There are two voices.
“So, we jump to before this moment, and stop him?”
“No, too risky, We’ll have to travel to just after this, and see if we con convince him to see things out way.”
I think one of the things that made the original Trilogy very successful (and makes everything sine much more divisive), is that the original somehow manages to be wildly different things to different viewers. And depending on what lens we view those movies through, we want very different things from one another for expansions or continuations of our version of Star Wars.
The Last Jedi was not a perfect film, but I enjoyed it very much.
It means that for the people who made it, they have narrowed down how they see the original films, and that’s fine. I can see what they see, and be really happy with it.
It also means that there are different movies in my head, which are the 8th movie for different Star Wars original trilogies that, realistically, may also have only ever existed in my head.
And I’m okay with that.
(For those who want to support my posting my thoughts on geekery when i have them, check out my Patreon.)
This is a cinematic sci-fi timeline, and effort to create a rich history of advancing technology and the issues, heroes, and morality tales that lead to a moment rich for player character involvement. That moment might be at the end of this progression, or at any point along the way the GM finds interesting.
This isn’t an effort to actually jam all these differing stories into a single continuity, and I am not claiming RUNAWAY is actually the precursor to RoboCop. I am also aware that some of these do have official crossovers (half of then through Dark Horse comics), and I don’t care if I invalidate those either.
Nor am I trying to fit ever science-fiction movie in existence into a single reality. Just a specific subset I feel have some themes and throughlines in common that make for an interesting potential universe.
This is just a thought experiment, designed to place actual inspirations into slots where a pastiche of each *could* form a logical continuous timeline with just a little tweaking.
Each movie includes the year the movie was released, for clarity. No specific set time is suggested for when these movies should occur, but I assume the timeline runs roughly 200 years from 1970 to 2170. The timeline movies forward with each italicized breakdown of how the listed movies represent the events of that point in the timeline.
The Timeline (1970-2070)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The governments of the world come to accept that alien life is real and travelling the stars, but keep the information from the general public.
Crucial moments in the development of the world are impacted by a very small number of time travelers, resulting in multiple, overlapping alternate timelines, proof of some variant of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The Fury (1978)
Perhaps as a step in evolution, perhaps as a response to the first cases of time travel and alien contact, verifiable psychic phenomenon begin to sporadically manifest. The governments of the world alternate between exploiting and just killing such talents, but needless to say thigns often go poorly.
Aliens continue to visit Earth in small numbers and without the public learning, but such visits are not always friendly.
As technology advances, the wealthy and powerful begin to realize it can be used to control the lower classes, to focus even more power in the hands of the few.
As society groans under the need to provide for an expanding population and worsening natural resources, autonomous robots become increasingly common in advanced societies. Something they go rouge, and must be put down. Sometimes an increasingly tech-savvy criminal class makes use of them.
Suspect Zero (2004)
The number of individuals with psychic powers grows, and organizations begin to form to deal with them exclusively.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Predator II (1990)
The pressure on society begins to lead to the collapse of institutions and social norms. As the middle class ceases to exist, the underclass becomes increasingly violent and hard to control. The tiny sliver of the wealthy and powerful, and their increasingly independent corporations, seek to control the masses through any means. This is a rich environment for a small number of alien visitors to exploit conditions for their own amusement or gain.
Red Lights (2012)
Slowly, the scientific community begins to publicly study psychic powers, though skepticism remains high.
Governments begin to collapse and corporations gain more power. This leads to efforts to have corporate-controlled paramilitary forces, and to use cybernetic technologies to enforce obedience on a soldier-servant class.
Event Horizon (1997)
The strain humanity is putting on Earth is clearly unsustainable. The oligarchs and mega-corporations experiment with ways to spread to other worlds, though their reckless willingness to attempt anything that might succeed leads to horrific failures.
Total Recall (1990)
Thanks to advanced in space travel, humanity begin to move to new worlds, though all still within the solar system.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
The need for cheap labor leads to attempts to uplift other simians. But if we made apes intelligent and independent enough to serve as slave labor, they are intelligent and independent enough to rebel. Such efforts are outlawed.
Solent Green (1973)
The world is in near collapse. The upper classes have literally fantasy worlds to play in with their nearly unlimited wealth, while everyone else fights for scraps and is distracted by death sports. Early cyborg technology begins to advance to primitive androids, though these require fairly regular maintenance and human-augmented control.
(If society does totally collapse, a new timeline forms here, with Damnation Alley, Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, and so on, eventually reaching Thundarr. Our timeline doesn’t go that route.)
Minority Report (2002)
The existence of psychics is publicly accepted, and they begin to be integrated into the government and corporate efforts to control a growing population that is increasingly dissatisfied and dangerous.
Blade Runner (1982)
The total collapse of human civilization is prevented by creating autonomous androids to serve as the ultimate slave labor force, while humanity begins to truly move to the stars. But only those who are healthy and talented are chosen my megacorporations to be shipped off Earth, and it turns out intelligent and independent android slaves have many of the same issues intelligent and independent ape slaves did.
Silent Running (1972)
Robots begin to be replaced by androids in most tasks, though simpler robot technology is more stable. Though some governments have gone to the stars, it is the corporations who have the money and resources to push the boundary of the final frontier. What they find doesn’t always go well for the corporate employees who find it.
Blade Runner 2049
Back on Earth, things still boil (details left out as spoilers for the movie)
Colonization becomes standard, and most android behavior issues are solved. But as humanity’s sphere of influence spreads, so does its interactions with other alien life.
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I saw Blade Runner 2049 with some friends.
I think it does a wonderful job matching the style and world and storytelling style of Blade runner.
This despite doing some things I normally think of as terrible ideas for sequels. But in this case, they were good calls.
I also think it was full of thematic and philosophical nuggets that are more interesting in conjunction and contrast with the original than they would be alone, but going into detail would be spoilers, so I’m not doing that yet.
In any case, I’d be happy to watch Blade Runner 2079 when it’s released in 2052.
(And for the record, I LOVE this movie!)
10. Despite what it says in the encyclopedia, a glaive is not a single-edged, bladed polearm but instead a 5-sided throwing boomerang that not only returns when you throw it, but also makes multiple passes as a gesture-guided weapon.
9. Death and power are close cousins. And they’re from Arkansas, so sometimes they make out.
8. Moving a giant rock castle across the galaxy with no obvious propulsion? Easy. Designing reloads for three-shot blaster lances? Beyond the means of most evil tyrants.
7. Johnny Cash makes a kick-ass, if odd-looking, cyclopes.
6. There are kingly virtues other than bravery. Courtesy is one of them.
5. If you’re running across a bridge with no railing while invading an enemy castle, and foes from above start shooting at you, and you have no cover, and one of your friends is shot and falls off, the polite thing to do is come to a full stop, watch him fall and die, and then keep running. (See point 6.)
4. Some marriage rites culminate in smearing cake on your spouse, and some turn him into a flamethrower. Don’t get the two confused.
3. An ex-con killer who can only keep a single member of his small-unit army alive is a prime choice as Lord Marshal, even if he’s decided to wear manacles for the rest of his life.
2. Although the hill people “lack the power to do harm,” apparently becoming a frakking tiger and ripping things apart gets in through some sort of loop-hole.
1. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get out the word “Slayers!” when being ambushed. If you notice them first, just keep sputtering and pointing until you choke out their name. No one is going to pay any attention until you actually say something, and the slayers will wait for you to be done before they attack. (See point 5.)
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