This is RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.
On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan. The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title
Game Ideas Unlimited: An Amusing Dungeon.
Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players. After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me. I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting. But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one. One of those was that dungeons had to make sense: there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built. And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.
The story I invented was fairly simple. Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren. It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction. The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy. The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.
The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others. The newcomers made changes, making this their homes. Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.
Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers. They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts. A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes. One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age. Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.
And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries. For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.
It was an amusement park.
It wasn’t difficult to design. I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion. There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs. Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.
Some of these were very straightforward. There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display. Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear. A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one. A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat. And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked. I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin. But there was so much more.
The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive. The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi. The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level. The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters. And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.
My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl. The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south. The room had a thirty foot ceiling. There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front. The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall. A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning. As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall. Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them. This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall. But then the truly terrifying happened: the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below. They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun. Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop. One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon. Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth. But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.
But their favorite was probably the roller coaster. This began as a bench at the end of a hall. If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall. I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them. But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant. Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them. The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another. I think one of the players may actually have screamed. I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.
I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember. They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried. Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had. Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.
I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work. It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map. Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war. This was just part of the show. What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.
A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined. This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon. I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality. I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions. The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical. By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.