Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Above Ground "Dungeons"

Even as work proceeds on Dwimmermount, I found myself intrigued by another concept: a vast, ancient, and ruined city stretching miles in every direction, now populated by scavengers, tribes of humanoids, and leftover horrors from whatever cataclysm laid waste to the city in the first place. If it all sounds a bit like Gamma World, that's part of the appeal. It's never been surprising to me that Metamorphosis Alpha (set aboard a generation ship fallen into chaos) and Gamma World (set on a post-apocalyptic Earth) were among the earliest RPGs. After all, the very idea of exploring -- and looting -- the ruins of the past is only a slight modification of D&D's basic premise.

The main difficulty of using a vast ruined city as the basis for a "dungeon" is that it's not constrained geographically. That is, players can very easily move around the edges of the ruin to avoid any tricks or traps the referee might have placed in one area. Now, on one level, that's solid old school thinking there and ought to be rewarded. On the other hand, it's perhaps a bit too easy. Consequently, planning a dungeon of this sort takes some forethought. The simplest approach might simply be to use a ring-like structure, with the outer portions of the ruin corresponding to the topmost levels of a traditional dungeon, while the inner portions correspond to the deeper levels.

Even this approach raises issues, particularly once magic starts increasing player mobility. My general rule, when encountering seeming difficulties, is to embrace them as opportunities. Yes, players will eventually gain access to spells like fly and dimension door that might enable them to "skip" certain encounter areas. Rather than fret about that, why not give them something else to do with such spells? In my campaign setting, the Eld and the Thulians are the two primary sources of ancient ruins. Both were masters of magic, so it stands to reason that their once-great cities were built and maintained using magic, magic that lingers still after all these centuries.

So, I'm thinking my ruined city will have several floating islands associated with it -- former wizard towers and research facilities and other such arcane treasure troves. These will be magnets for mid to high-level adventurers who have access to magic and magical items that enable them to move around more quickly and easily. No, this won't prevent PCs from "upsetting the balance" of the surface ruins, but that's fine. Dungeons are made, after all, to be kicked over and looted by adventurers. The trick is to ensure that, no matter what, the process of kicking over and looting is challenging and that requires a referee who can think on his toes and respond appropriately. That's why I'll probably be a bit looser about the inhabitants of the inner ring of the ruins, so I can change them up as needed. I won't leave the area blank entirely -- that's just a recipe for disaster -- but their strength and numbers can be varied, as can their tactics and level of magical support.

I've often wondered why there aren't more examples in D&D of vast surface ruins as outdoor "dungeons." Other than Ed Greenwood's Myth Drannor, I can't think of any off the top of my head. I feel like I'm missing some obvious ones, though. Can anyone think of some I might have forgotten?


  1. for some visual inspiration, piranesi's prison sketches, il carceri, might be of some use.

  2. The mid-'80s Pool of Radiance PC game from SSI employed this idea to some extent. The ruined city of Phlan was one big dungeon with various humanoid and other monster factions controlling various parts. Not sure if the AD&D Ruins of Adventure module was similar or not. PoR remained my favorite computer game for a long while, and you might have put your finger on why. I think it's a great idea, and seems to allow for a more complex "ecology" than a straight dungeon setting, if you're into that sort of thing.

  3. Dwellers of the Forbidden City? It's a little under-developed (as are many things from that era), but I would think it counts.

    Also, I'm pretty sure that Dave Arneson's City of the Gods was published in one form or another.

  4. The best example of a "ruined city" dungeon is Pavis, but that's for Runequest, so I don't know if that counts for the purpose of your discussion.

    Pavis was an ancient city built by giants and over time repopulated & ruined & re-ruined by various culture/races. The giant sized city walls enclosed miles of ruins with several region controlled by elves or trolls with wandering monsters and various dungeon local inside the city. Outide the old city a new city has grown up - in large part serving the needs of adventurers looting the old city. The new imperial overlords even license and tax looting of the old city.

    Not D&D but definately an extensive take on the concept.

    see here for further info:

  5. The Nameless City, Leng, Pnakotus - they've probably not been explored in D&D, but they've been covered in some way in the various supplements for Call of Cthulu.

    I like your ideas and definitely adding this post to the list of things to Remember. I'd be very interested in seeing how this turns out!

  6. Not sure if the AD&D Ruins of Adventure module was similar [to Pool of Radiance] or not.

    I was a fan of PoR back in th'day, and have the module RoA too. I even tried to run it as a pick-up game for a couple friends back then.

    IIRC, they more or less translated the computer game to the printed page, even down to the square chunks of city. It didn't yield a sterling tabletop experience, but I highly recommend the computer game, though.

    I agree, though, the ruined city as dungeon has great legs. Some of the issues mentioned above can be easily handled. For instance, perhaps players employing flying magic could risk a couple rolls on a special flying encounter chart (and natural fliers will almost always be at an advantage to those using magic).

  7. Bad Archeology is just a damn good time! Who hasn't been inspired by tales of Egyptian pyramids, or other lost city-structures built by the ancients of fact and fiction? There is just so many cases of this happening, and to let players experience something like that for themselves, is a most generous offer (not to mention great fun to create).

    Find the door is an old role-playing staple, and what better way to hide it then in a grand setting such as this?

  8. Man, I can't think of a single D&D city crawl aside from Myth Drannor. All of my references are for other games too, but are neat examples nonetheless of "lost city" type crawls. Parlainth for Earthdawn and Rathess for Exalted

  9. A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity takes place in a ruined city, and informs the game master that many adventures could be had in the city itself. The temple could be described as one "level" of a ruined city dungeon in that respect.

    The dungeons that Conan enters in the REH stories are frequently long abandoned cities. The Slithering Shadow and Jewels of Gwahlur particularly stick out in my mind.

  10. Another problem with cities is increased visibility such as from flying straight up and mapping the whole city from above, or just from being on rooftop.

    Maybe that can work for you if most of the major locations also be landmarks; the red tower you can see from everywhere, the golden-domed temple by the river, the plumes of smoke rising from the humanoid-infested hill. Obvious places that scream "here there be loot". Then exploration can proceed somewhat like a wilderness adventure but with a few important locations already known.

    Of course with an underground city of tunnels and large caverns you can have the best of both worlds.

  11. a ring-like structure
    I'd plead against anything so simple: one of the joys of cities is the variety of neighbourhoods, and I don't see why a ruined city would lack this. Instead, what about cities-within-the-city? Rabbit-warren covered souks, caravanserais, slums, citadels and cloisters forming their own pockets of dunegon-ness? Oh, and underground reservoirs, natch.

    spells like fly and dimension door that might enable them to "skip"
    Might I suggest adding a near-ubiquitous flying threat? This would not only discourage flying spells, it would make open squares and courtyards threatening environments, encouraging PCs to stay in the relative safety and shelter of alleyways and buildings, snatching map-enabling glimpses of the whole city from tower windows - it might give you a nicely claustrophobic vibe that dungeons generally lack. Coupled with a really tight urban fabric, it might make flying not that much of a shortcut. The threat then acts as a gauntlet, restricting your flying towers to higher level explorers, and adding a logistical challenge on dungeon exit: how to get back with all the loot, when the flyers know you're there?

    I was always looking for a decent city setting book and I never found one, although plenty of people tried: I think the problem is the scale - it requires a more procedural approach - advice/tools for making city regions with minimal start information, rather than fully mapped environments, which I think also explains the charm of the dungeon from a publishing perspective: it's a very concrete, specifiable environment.

  12. "Dwellers" is about all I can remember off-hand. It even solves the containment issue by dropping the city right into a big crater, thus restricting access through the populated tradiitonal dungeon areas - although you could always take a swing on the Big Tree!

    If you get serious about this, take a look at the article "Ruin" from Dragon #54. I've used that in the past for fleshing out a ruined city and it comes in very handy when the party starts wandering into un-detailed territory.

  13. ...sorry, the "citadel" link above was supposed to take you to the Bukhara Ark, a bloody great fort-city in the middle of the city of Bukhara, and yet, obviously separate from it.

  14. I like Richard's take, but you could always restrict the availability of flying spells and items til you're ready for the adventurers to have them. Fly may be a 3rd level spell, but nobody says that the MU has to find a copy once he hits 5th level.

    But again, I really like Richard's way of making open spaces scary. How about using pterodons--too big and ungainly to crawl into doorways, but always flapping about int he air, looking for an easy meal.

  15. The only RPG I can think of that worked around a massive ruined city was an experiment by GameWorkshop to explore a small corner of the WH40K universe - in the hive cities of planet Necromunda. This was a number of issues from White Dwarf in the early 90s, and it was called Confrontation. By the mid-90s, the game was end up a skirmish-level wargame called Necromunda. I remember reading the rules books, and being inspired by the art and the idea of exploring dense, urban environments. As a skirmish-level wargame, Necromunda is the best place to fight in. But as a RPG, it can be fun with its dense 3D environments, limited visibility, and lots of nasty, unforeseeable hazards - its like the dame world is one big ass megadungeon!

    I know Necromunda is not really a fantasy RPG (being more of a Mad-Max cyberpunk with elements of westerns and horror), but it was a major influence with my other games at the time.

    If you what a game book that gives good ideas about making and exploring ruins, then I recommend reading The Ruins of Hyboria, by Vincent Darlage. It maybe a d20 book, but its for the Conan RPG, and such books has ideas that goes well beyond rules - often throwing out a lot of cliché high fantasy elements out the window!

  16. Darlene's Greyhawk map lists large ruins scattered across the Flanaess, which I had always assumed were ruined cities since they're located in the former Suloise and Baklunish lands (along with Blackmoor, and the southern jungles). The lost city of the Suloise in the Suss Forest is also hinted at in the folio and boxed set, and is further developed by Gygax in his novel Artifact of Evil.

    Other adventures not mentioned yet include Caverns of Thracia (a ruined city in a jungle sits atop its dungeons) and Necromancer Games' Lost City of Barakus. I can't think of any other specific adventures offhand, but have the lingering impression that some MERP and Harn supplements covered ruined cities quite a bit (Osgiliath, Minas Ithil, and others)??

    Oliver Dickinson's Griselda fiction set in Pavis and The Big Rubble is probably the gaming fiction standard for ruined cities. Also worth checking into is J. Eric Holmes' "In the Bag" short story from Dragon 58, which takes place in a ruined city in/under a forest.


  17. Perhaps the hardest part of a city dungeon would be signaling "level of encounter" to the players.

    One way to force some ground exploration is to make some buildings not accessible from the surface. You need to explore the surrounding buildings to find a tunnel entrance.


  18. As a side-question, what's the origin of the picture used for this article?

  19. I tend to buy every 'lost city' I can. Barakus is just a dungeon. Thracia is a sketchy ruined city over a well-done dungeon. One not mentioned is Lost City of Gaxmoor, a genuine ruined city which uses the concentric circles approach, and has a very nice map. Its 3e stats are wonky but it would make a good old-school (eg 1e) rules ruined city adventure.

  20. Dwellers of the Forbidden City? It's a little under-developed (as are many things from that era), but I would think it counts.

    I feel silly for not citing this one, as it's a favorite of mine. You're absolutely right, although the way it's presented in the module, the impression is that most of the ruins are very sparsely settled as opposed to the somewhat more riotous idea I have in mind.

  21. The best example of a "ruined city" dungeon is Pavis, but that's for Runequest, so I don't know if that counts for the purpose of your discussion.

    Pavis certainly counts. Again, I feel stupid for not having remembered it, but then I was never a huge RQ fan.

  22. which I think also explains the charm of the dungeon from a publishing perspective: it's a very concrete, specifiable environment.

    That's a very good point.

  23. As a side-question, what's the origin of the picture used for this article?

    It's an illustration by Czech artist Tavik Simon.

  24. One not mentioned is Lost City of Gaxmoor, a genuine ruined city which uses the concentric circles approach, and has a very nice map.

    I've contemplated buying it on several occasions, but never have. Perhaps I should reconsider.

  25. It's an illustration by Czech artist Tavik Simon.


  26. I think most of the gaming ones have been hit on above; meanwhile, one of my favourite fantasy cities has always been Nessus from The Book of The New Sun - a city of such size and age that the inhabited part of the city has moved upstream over the millenia, leaving miles and miles of ruins outside - some merely creepy places to visit, some downright dangerous.

  27. I've contemplated buying [The Lost City of Gaxmoor] on several occasions, but never have. Perhaps I should reconsider.

    Troll Lord has it for sale for a dollar here if you hurry.

  28. Gaxmoor - at current prices it's definitely worth getting, if only for EGG's enchanted statues! As a 3e module it's flawed*, but there's a ton of good stuff in it. Re-statted for OD&D, 1e or C&C it could be great. Potentially a very nice above ground 'sand box' dungeon for mid-level PCs.

    *The final villain's stats are hugely OTT. He killed dozens of PCs IMC.

  29. Going from Big Rubble experience to trying to do something similar for D&D, I think the big hangup for me was in trying to think of it as a "dungeon."

    The above-ground ruined city (like the underworld of the Drow modules) is really more of a "wilderness," I think. The degree of difference depends chiefly on how big (especially horizontally)and how ruined it is.

  30. If it's really heavily and anciently ruined it might initially be mistaken for wilderness. These days Merv (once a city of several hundred thousand persons) looks like some oddly regular hills, but the urban fabric is still there, just under the surface, and walking around it you get these weird glimpses into little rabbit-holes in the ground that you suddenly realise lead into rooms and stairwells. The few standing structures have a distinct otherness about them: each one looks like the gateway to, well, a dungeon.

  31. I've continued to think about this lo these weeks. I don't have anythign brilliant, but it did occur to me that you could establish the levels by having the city built on a hill (or multiple hills). The poorer outer quarters, nearest the walls, are the lowest. As you approach the middle, you have to climb the hills--maybe using the ruins of antique, grand, public stairs or maybe having to climb--that signals that you are approaching the harder levels as much as descending in the typical dungeon.

    Also, I'm thinking that pterodactlys haunt the skies, always looking for an easy meal, thus forcing the PC's to hug the walls and avoid the open spaces.

  32. I've been chewing on this for a while too. I love the idea of a city as a mega-dungeon.

    To deal with some of the inherent 'problems' how about:
    * City is in the style of Machu Pichu. Steppes and plateaus on the sides of an incredibly steep mountain side. Some caves are possible.

    * City is located in the river-run canyons of the desert lands, with tall, sheer cliff-sides and narrow corridors. Like in Indiana Jones & Last Crusade (end part)

  33. My thoughts on fly is instead of restricting it, how about enhancing its use. You want your city to previously be home to wizardly types so arcane research labs and stuff floating in the sky above the ruins would be a way to differentiate between the level of encounters you find as well as letting you stock the place with better gear that would tempt player to get there. The floating buildings can also be a way to lead the players to the city by having a crashed building in a town nearby it and tales of the powerful magic found within.