The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘jaquaying the dungeon’

Roger the GS over at Roles, Rules, & Rolls posted some interesting thoughts regarding the use of the techniques I described in Jaquaying the Dungeon” in small, one-shot scenarios. This, in turn, prompted me to ruminate on the application of jaquaying techniques on small scales.

Jaquaying isn’t a cure-all. But, in my experience, it does scale to almost any size and it’s almost always useful to at least consider jaquaying as a potential tool even if you ultimately decide against it. (I might even go so far as to say that you should default to it unless you have a really good reason not to. In no small part because, as I mentioned in the original essay, this is actually the way the real world works 99 times out of 100.)

To demonstrate what I mean about using jaquaying techniques at any scale, let me give you an example at an extremely small scale to emphasize the point: A two-room “dungeon” that I just got done designing for an Eclipse Phase scenario.

The “dungeon” in this case is actually a warehouse: The first room is a small security office. The second room is the big warehouse floor itself. Since it’s only two rooms, there’s really no way that we could apply jaquaying techniques, right?

(Spoilers: That’s a rhetorical question.)

Let’s take a look at a few jaquaying techniques:

First, multiple entrances: Skylight(s) on the roof of the warehouse. The loading dock. A door leading into the security office. (From a tactical standpoint, this is infinitely more interesting than just having a single door leading into the building.)

Second, multiple paths: Rather than just having one connector between the security office and the warehouse, what if we include several? There’s the door. A ladder leading to a trapdoor in the roof that gives you access to the skylights. Let’s toss in a trapdoor leading to a crawlspace that’s used for electrical wiring; it’ll let you pop up right in the middle of the warehouse (or maybe in multiple places). (If that crawlspace is actually a tunnel that leads over to the exterior generator we could also add that as yet another entrance to the complex.)

That crawlspace would also qualify as a secret or unusual path (another of our jaquaying techniques).

This obviously isn’t the only way to design a warehouse. (It might even be overkill.) But it does demonstrate how you can use jaquaying techniques even on the tiniest scales can organically create interesting tactical and strategic choices.

Go to Part 1: Dungeon Level Connections

COMBO PLATTER: Elevators that lead to underground rivers. Ladders that take you through imperceptible teleportation effects. Stairs that end in a sloping passage.

Such combinations of multiple level connector types can be as complicated as you’d like: For example, an elevator shaft that has been blocked by the adamantine webs of a lavarach. This requires the PCs to climb down the shaft (like a chute), clear the webs (like a collapsed tunnel), and then reactivate the elevator mechanism (allowing it to be used as such in the future).

ONE CONNECTOR, MULTIPLE LEVELS: An elevator can stop at several floors. A flight of stairs can provide exits to many different levels. A single room might contain multiple teleportation devices, or a single teleportation device might lead to different locations at different times of the day.

INVISIBLE TRANSITIONS: The PCs swap levels without realizing that it’s happened. These can be the result of mundane effects (like a gently sloping passage), but are perhaps more frequently magical in nature (imperceptible teleportation effects). In dungeons rich with minor elevation shifts, the PCs may even baffle themselves by mistaking an obvious level connector (like a staircase) for a minor adjustment in the elevation on the same level.

FALSE STAIRS: In their section on “Tricks and Traps”, Arneson and Gygax refer to “false stairs” without any real explanation of what they mean. I’m going to use the phrase to mean the opposite of invisible transitions: False stairs are features of the dungeon which lead the players to believe they have moved to a new level of the dungeon when they haven’t actually done so. Minor elevation shifts frequently fall into this category, but so can more deliberate deceptions. (For example, an elevator wrapped in illusions to make the PCs believe they’re descending, but which actually releases them back onto the same level they started on.)

MISLEADING STAIRS: Connectors which initially look as if they’ll take you in one direction before actually heading in the opposite direction. For example, a flight of stairs that go up one level to a sloping passage that goes back down two levels.

ONE-WAY PATHS: Teleportation devices are perhaps the most common example of one-way paths, but more mundane traps and hazards can also have the same result. For example, a flight of stairs that turns into a slide. Or an underground river that sweeps PCs away in a torrential current.

REMOTE ACTIVATION: A path that only becomes available once it has been activated from some remote location. For example, a lever which opens a stone panel and provides access to a staircase. Or a teleportation system which must be properly aligned.

Remote activation also implies the possibility for remote deactivation, either stranding the PCs with no possibility of retreat or removing familiar paths that were taken in the past.

Node-Based Scenario Design
Gamemastery 101

This was originally written as part of the main sequence for the “Jaquaying the Dungeon” essay, but it rapidly grew to a size which proved disruptive to the essay as a whole. Nevertheless, I think it remains a useful resource and so I present it here as a separate addendum.

Many of the Jaquays Techniques deal with elaborating, enumerating, or complicating the transitions between levels. So let’s take a moment to consider the many different ways in which levels can be connected to each other.

STAIRS: The very first level connector mentioned in all of D&D. They feature prominently on the “Sample Cross Section of Levels” dungeon map provided on page 3 of Volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures in the original 1974 ruleset. (A map which also featured sub-levels, divided levels, multiple entrances, and elevation shifts.)

SLOPES: Similar to stairs, but without the stairs. Sounds simple enough, but in the absence of stairs long, gentle slopes can transition PCs between levels without them realizing that they’ve shifted elevation.

CHUTES: Vertical passages that cannot be traversed on foot. They require either climbing or flight.

LADDERS: Like a chute, but with a climbing aid already onsite. Variants of the ladder include ropes, poles, pre-driven pitons, and antigravity fields.

TRAPDOORS: Trapdoors may lead to stairs, slopes, chutes, or ladders, but they may also taunt PCs from the middle of a ceiling. Or drop down directly into a lower chamber.

WINDOWS: In Dark Tower, Jaquays gives us a window looking down into a lower level of the dungeon (with something looking back up at the PCs). One could also imagine a vertical dungeon in which PCs could fly up to a higher level and find an alternative entrance by smashing through a more traditional window.

TELEPORTS: Teleportation effects allow for rapid transit through larger dungeon complexes, but also have the potential to leave PCs disoriented until they can re-orient themselves at the other end. Teleports can be either one-way or two-way.

TRAPS: Pit traps that drop PCs into an underground river three levels below. One-way teleportation traps that leave them unexpectedly stranded in a far corner of the dungeon (or staring at a familiar entrance). Greased slides that send them shooting down to lower levels. Moving walls that shove them off subterranean cliffs.

Traps that force the PCs to enter a new level are usually designed to be one-way trips. But sometimes resourceful characters will find a way to reverse the journey nonetheless.

MULTI-LEVEL CHAMBERS: Large, vertical chambers can contain entrances leading to different levels within the dungeon. For example, one might imagine subterranean gorges and cliffs. Or an obsidian pyramid squatting in a massive cavern, its steps leading to a burial chamber connecting to an upper level.

ELEVATORS: In their most basic configuration elevators are chutes with a self-propelling means of passage, but taking a page from Star Trek’s turbolifts and Wonka’s Chocolate Factory suggests that elevators don’t always have to be limited to the vertical plane. Others may require the PCs to provide the means of propulsion. (A grinding wheel? Magical fuel? Blood sacrifices? Mystic keys?)

Gygax and Arneson also refer us to “sinking rooms”, reminding us that fantasy elevators don’t need to feel at home in the Empire State Building. And may not exist to serve the interests or comforts of their passengers.

BASKET AND PULLEY: These are similar to elevators in their operation, but have the distinction of allowing their passengers to directly observe their surroundings for the duration of their trip. (The small size of a “basket” might also serve to suggest that entire adventuring parties may not be able to take the journey at the same time.)

ETHEREAL TRAVEL: Sections of the dungeon in which normally solid obstacles (like the floor) can be moved through by way of the Ethereal Plane (or similarly transdimensional/non-Euclidian egress).

RIVERS: A natural variant of the slope. If the river runs flush with the walls, however, getting back upstream may require some tricky swimming. (And if it runs flush with the ceiling, navigating the river may require some deep breaths.)

UNDERWATER: In the real world, the fluid level in any connected system has to be the same, which means that underwater journeys will be most useful in moving PCs across divided levels, nested levels, or to sub-levels on the same horizontal plane of the dungeon.

However, magic, alchemy, and steampunk technology can provide any number of airlocks and semi-permeable barriers allowing for underwater dives to the depths of an otherwise dry dungeon.

Or possibly the PCs will be responsible for flooding those lower levels. (In a minor way if they just swum down a stagnant, submerged shaft. Or in a major way if they dump an entire subterranean lake into the 8th level of the dungeon.)

COLLAPSED PASSAGES: A variant on any chute, stair, shaft, slope, or passage. Or, rather, where there used to be a chute, stair, shaft, slope, or passage. Its former existence may be obvious or it may be obfuscated, but it’s going to require some excavation before the passage will be usable again.

A common variant on this theme is the doorway which has been deliberately bricked up or plastered over. It’s not unusual for such passages to be obvious from one side but not from the other.

TRANSPORT: Think Charon on the River Styx. Harpies willing to carry women (or men disguised as women, their eyesight is very poor) up a shaft. A PC being sucked bodily into a fist-sized ruby which is then carried aloft by a silver raven. The form has an essentially limitless variety, but the basic idea is that the PCs are being transported through the agency of an NPC or monster.

BEING SWALLOWED: “The cave is collapsing.” “This is no cave.” Esophageal jaunts to the lower reaches of the dungeon should probably be used sparingly, but will certainly be memorable when they are employed. (The vomitous method of ascension is less pleasant, but no less memorable.)

BRUTE FORCE: Tunneling through walls using a stone shape spell. Levitating or flying through “unreachable” vertical passages. Using gaseous form to traverse “impassable” air vents. Blind or scry-prepped teleports. Casting ethereal jaunt to phase through solid stone. Basically this is a catch-all for PCs finding paths where no paths were meant to be. This isn’t really something you can plan for (although you might be able to encourage it by giving the PCs maps as part of their treasure), but you should try to keep in mind that they’re not cheating when they do it. (An attitude which may be easier to hold onto if the dungeon already has multiple paths to success designed into its non-linear structure.)

Part 2: Tips and Tricks

Go to Part 1

We started with a linear dungeon:

But after jaquaying the Keep, the result is this:

Note that we haven’t changed the actual key to the adventure: We’ve just restructured the environment in which those encounters are placed.

I’ve also prepped some detail-light maps to make the changes a little clearer. You’ll want to cross-reference with the maps from the original module. (The original Level 2, which is now Level 3, is unchanged, so I didn’t re-map it.)

I’ll take a moment to note that this isn’t the only way we could have done this. Other things we could have done:

•    Put a secret door at the bottom of the pit trap in area 1 (leading to one of several possibilities on the second level).
•    Have the kruthiks tunnel from area 10 down to area 15.
•    Put a teleport in Sir Keegan’s tomb keyed to a matching crypt on the second level.
•    One of the prisoners in the torture chamber dug a hidden escape tunnel leading to area 6 (where he was killed by zombies, the poor bastard).
•    Could there be a connection between the pool in area 11 and the water-based trap in area 16?
•    Could the access to area 15 north of area 16 be a secret door, with a more obvious entrance leading from area 17 (allowing meticulous PCs to potentially bypass the trap)?

The particular revisions I’ve made simply struck me as either the most interesting or the most appropriate or both.

But the point of performing this revision on Keep of the Shadowfell is not only to salvage another aspect of this adventure. My primary goal is to demonstrate how easy it is to implement these techniques in your own dungeons. If we can take an existing, linear dungeon and fundamentally transform it in just a couple of minutes using a handful of jaquaying techniques, then the effect can be even more dramatic if we were to design a dungeon from the ground-up using those techniques.

Here’s a quote from a recent interview with Paul Jaquays over on Grognardia:

The core inspirations for Caverns of Thracia were threefold. The first was to ally the various “beast” races of AD&D as a unified force. The second was to build encounters that took place in multiple levels of a cave, where the open upper areas were situated above open lower areas. The final inspiration (that I remember) was the rather primitive, but unique plate armor used by Mycenaean soldiers. These became the human guards of the upper reaches of the Caverns.

Of particular interest here is Jaquay’s second inspiration: I can personally testify to the effectiveness of these open caverns in transforming the typical dungeoncrawling experience. They immediately force the players to think in three dimensions, while their ubiquity significantly contributes to the memorable layout of the dungeon.

But the important revelation to be had here, in my opinion, is the effectiveness of clearly delineating a small list of concrete creative goals before beginning your dungeon design.

Building on that point, notice that Jaquays only specifies a single non-linear design technique in his list of creative goals. (And it’s actually a very specific variation of a generalized technique.) And although that is not the only non-linear technique employed in the Caverns of Thracia, Jaquays’ riffs on that theme are a definitive aspect of the module.

Here’s my point: Earlier in this series, I listed a dozen jaquaying techniques. Next time you’re designing a dungeon, don’t feel like you need to cram ‘em all in there. Instead, pick one of them and try to explore it in as many ways as possible while you’re designing the dungeon. (If you want a more focused experience, follow Jaquays’ example and try to narrow your design theme down to a specific variant of one technique – just like multi-level caverns are a specific form of unusual level connectors.)

Jaquaying your dungeon is easy. It’s also fun. And this applies to both the designing of the dungeon and the playing of the dungeon. Nothing is more exciting for me as a GM that to sit down at the table and know that I’m going to be just as surprised by my players as I hope that my players will be by me.

And when it comes to dungeon design, that’s the unique and exciting experience that jaquaying unlocks.

Addendum: Dungeon Level Connections
Addendum: Jaquaying on the Small Scale

Go to Part 1

This is the complete map of the Keep of the Shadowfell, taken from the adventure of the same name. (The red arrow indicates the dungeon’s entrance. The black arrow indicates the connection between Level 1 and Level 2 of the dungeon.) At first glance, this dungeon may appear quite complex and interesting: There are lots of twisting corridors, and the PCs appear to be given an immediate and meaningful choice of three separate corridors upon entering the dungeon.

But as I mentioned earlier, when you straighten out all of those twisting corridors the overwhelmingly linear structure of the dungeon becomes quite clear:

The only legitimately interesting feature of this dungeon, from a cartographical standpoint, is the loop of encounters in areas 1 thru 4. Everything else in the dungeon has been designed to proceed in an essentially predetermined fashion: The DM sets up the encounters, the PCs knock them down, and then the DM sets up the next encounter.

What I’m going to do is take a few simple jaquaying techniques and use them to tweak the Keep of the Shadowfell in order to make it a more dynamic and interesting dungeon. By changing the macro-structure of the dungeon, we’ll be able to unlock the full potential of the “local interest” in the map (all those twisting corridors and mini-loops) and the encounters themselves.

To do this, I’m going to suggest making four slight adjustments to the dungeon’s design.

SECOND ENTRANCE: As described in my original remix of Keep on the Shadowfell, add a second entrance to the dungeon. About a half mile to the west of the keep, up in the foothills of the Cairngorms, there’s a natural cave that leads, more or less directly, to area 10 of the Keep.

(This is how the kruthiks and rats got into areas 9 and 10. As described in the remix PDF, the PCs can discover this entrance either by scouting the area around the Keep or by researching it in Lord Padraig’s library in Winterhaven. If this entrance is found before the PCs enter the Keep, it’s a nice reward for their cleverness and preparation. If it’s found during their explorations of the Keep, it can provide a valuable avenue of escape or allow them to sneak back into the complex after a guard has been raised at the primary entrance.)

ADDING A STAIRCASE: Add a staircase leading from the Torture Room (area 2) to the antechamber of Sir Keegan’s tomb (area 7).

(My primary motivation here is to remove some of the dead ends from the dungeon. By linking two of the dead ends together, I’m creating a dynamic loop. Note, however, that I’m actually linking the loop in just before the actual dead end of Sir Keegan’s tomb in area 8. This is partly due to the internal logic of the adventure – it doesn’t make any sense for a hallway to pass straight through Keegan’s tomb – but it’s also practical in terms of design: By leaving the branch into area 8 intact, we’re providing a flavorful navigational choice to PCs entering area 7.)

ADDING A SECRET PASSAGE: Add a secret passage leading from area 6 to area 15.

(This provides a second connection to the lower level, providing the dungeon with important multiple connections between levels. By properly positioning these connections, we can turn entire dungeon levels into looping structures.)

MOVING A STAIRCASE: Move the staircase leading to area 12 from area 5 to area 3.

(The primary reason for this shift is to open up some real estate between the primary and secondary routes leading to the lower level. Admittedly, this is a problem that only exists because of where I chose to put the secret passage. But this also allows the goblins to reach the lower levels without passing through undead-infested halls, thus correcting a problem with the original dungeon’s design. And by hooking a level connector into the far end of the adventure’s original loop we’re layering the complexity of the dungeon’s cartography.)

Finally, in order to make these changes fit into a natural, logical geography, I’ve simply inverted the entirety of areas 6 thru 8. With this change, these areas, which were originally a minor elevation shift requiring the PCs to descend a staircase from area 1, become a true “second level” to the complex, passing directly beneath areas of the first level:

(Level 1 is highlighted in red. The “new” Level 2 is highlighted in blue. And Level 3, the original second level, is now highlighted in green.)

Next: Jaquaying for Fun and Profit



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