Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Best Mysteries Are The Ones Never Solved

One of the better dungeons - in terms of map, context, and content - is in DL8, Dragons of Despair, about midway through the much maligned DL series of modules. Of course, the plot that runs through this particular installment of the DragonLance modules is as horrific as any of the others, but the maps of the High Clerist's Tower illustrate again that, at least some of the time, the locations of these modules are worth pulling out and using even if you loathe and despise the plot hammer hanging over your head. The tower is big, convoluted, full of little traps and, if actively defended by an organized military force, an absolute terror to an invading party.

But that particular dungeon is not what this post is really about, at least not primarily.

Earlier today, I was chatting with a fellow in the office about DL8 and the High Clerist's Tower and how it was a great set of maps when he made the comment that (paraphrasing) "it's a shame because out of the context of the module, no players will figure out the mystery about the dragon traps on the lower level." My response (exact wording) was "so?".

Sometimes, there are mysterious things in dungeons, or in worlds, that may have nothing at all to do with what's going on, but they attract interest all the same. A great joy of mine as a DM would be having the players walk into the High Clerist's Tower and spend time and effort trying to figure out the nature of the dragon trap rooms, whether or not it actually mattered in the context I was using the dungeon. It gets them engaged in the goings on in the universe on a level greater and deeper than looking for the next ambulatory XP baloon to bust. It gives me an opportunity, even if there really is no mystery at all and that oddly shaped room at the end of the corridor is nothing but an oddly shaped room, to throw in some of the background material that I've put together by this time. "You've heard of Kethric the Mad, High Architect to Emporor Kabori, and that he used to build strangely shaped structures that were rumored to obey eldritch and arcane lines of force . . ." It might not have anything at all to do with Kethric, but if I wanted to add that story of the architect in, this is the perfect time to do it, a time when the players are more apt to actually listen to it and retain it for when Kethric becomes much more important somewhere else.

I think a great way to get the players to sit up and pay attention now and then, especially if their attention is starting to wander, is to throw in something wierd or strange: some fixture of the dungeon or a sound or a nameless monument that just begs for investigation, but is, in the end, nothing at all.

Of course, it could all go wrong and you could end up coaxing your players into spending three hours of valuable game time poring over a nothing, but players tend to do that anyway.

Some possibilities:

A standing stone at the approximate center of a meadow. Any dwarf or other stone crafty individual can tell that it is of a type of stone not found in this region for a hundred miles or more; it was obviously moved purposefully to this location long ago.

Deep within a labarythine dungeon, an imposing statue of a minotaur or other humanoidsh being points dramatically in a random direction, perhaps at a wall, or back down the corridor the PC's just entered by.

Every twenty feet or so, the color of the flooring of the corridor or room changes from a typical matte grey to a shiny ebony. No readily discernable pattern is evident, but who knows what can be discovered with an extended survey?

A large rectangular room with two foot square tiles arranged in a pattern as a chessboard.

As above, except tiles are set poorly in sand so that when one is stepped on it depresses while others around it rise up. (gleefully stolen from Kenzer's version of B2)

A gurgling sound, remeniscent of a bubbling stream or other running water is heard periodically. No such water source can be discovered with cursory exploration.


  1. Ursulav's Gearworld - dungeon as giant inexplicable thing containing room after room of inexplicable things.

    The ice fawns are personal favourites.

  2. Definitely agree with you as to this. :D