Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Black City - the Well of Woe, the Sunken Vaults, and the Maze

The Black City is a ruined alien city in the frozen north that I'm building out as a campaign setting for eventual publication.  You can follow the project here.

The Well of Woe
A The Well of Woe
If a group follows the trail from Trade Town along the fjord they'll reach the sprawling ruins of the Black City, entering near the Well of Woe (letter A on the city map).  The Well was the first entrance found by the early explorers that accessed the sub-levels below the city - it's nothing more than a large, 30' across steaming hole in the ground, surrounded by rubble.  Descending the hole by ropes or ladder will place the group on dungeon level 1 (Well of Woe area) in area 1.

Last year, Bergfinn's Bashers created a small checkpoint to guard the hole.  They have a defensible shack made of rubble walls and a hide roof.  They keep a few ropes and rope ladders handy, and throughout the season send a crew of 4 guardsmen and a sergeant each morning to assist groups in and out of the ruins for a small fee (effectively 1gp per person, paid up front).  The detachment keeps a small fire going at the shack and also acts as an aid station.

The leader of the detachment is one of Bergfinn's veterans, a weathered seaman named Bluenose.  Bluenose tends to look disdainfully at new visitors to the ruins, and has an oft-repeated message for first-timers:

Failure to follow these simple instructions will cost you extra.  When you're coming back up, make a light so we can see you down there, bang your shields so we can hear you, then we'll drop the ladders.  Anything else is extra.  If we have to drop a torch to see you, it's extra.  We don't take chances, we drop rocks on anyone we can't see.   We don't do extractions - if we have to get involved in a fight, it's extra.  We don't get involved in disputes between parties, either - if we have to get involved, it's extra.  Any questions?  Good, no questions - answers would be extra.

Bluenose's crew will drop rope ladders for any paying customers seeking entrance to the dungeons via the 30' deep well (they don't allow non-paying customers to use this dungeon entrance at all while the shack is manned).  When a group returns to the Well from below, they'll need to make a loud noise to alert the guards to drop the ladders again.  Each evening, Bluenose and the crew haul the ladders and similar gear back to Trade Town.

Bluenose and his men are an excellent source of rumors about the ruins, as they see many adventuring groups firsthand, and they try and keep tabs on where some of the groups are going.  Of course, getting rumors out of Bluenose will cost extra.

C The Sunken Vaults
The vaults are a series of massive voids in the ground.  The holes themselves extend deep beneath the surface - some of them are 100' deep - but are almost entirely filled with ice.  Even the warmest arctic summers aren't enough to melt more than a few feet of surface ice, forming wet pools on top of the ice.  There's a series of 8 such vaults in the area.

Groups will be able to find stairs and walkways leading down around the outside of some of the vaults, leading to observation decks that allow some visibility into the murky ice through a translucent glass-like plastic.  On sunny days when the light reaches deeper into the ice, it's possible to see the shapes of large behemoths frozen in the depths.

D The Maze
There was a point in the city's distant past when this area passed for what would be meditative parkland to the ancients - a sprawling, black walled maze with periodic open areas set for reflection.  Used for instruction, the walls of the maze were covered top to bottom with the ancient Grey dot-matrix style writing, describing magical rituals and alchemical formulae for study by students.

Now the maze is strewn with rubble - many of the glossy black rock surfaces are chipped, cracked and ruined, and it's hard to find complete tablets amongst the rubble, but there are a few.  Each wall-sized tablet recovered from the maze is either a new spell or an improved version of a basic spell , but a group would need serious rock-moving equipment to move one of the 2-ton slabs out of the rubble.  Alternatively, they could camp in the maze and attempt to transcribe the new spells right at the dig site.

'Improved' spells have a 25% greater effect than the standard spell, but will be the same level.  An example of an improved spell would be an improved magic missile that does 3-9 damage instead of 2-7 (d6+3 instead of d6+1).

There is a drawback to using an improved spell that won't be immediately obvious to players.  Repeated usage of improved spells will slowly reduce the character's spell slot capacity, effectively removing one of their level 1 spell slots for each 5 improved spells they memorize and cast.

Unknown to the players, each improved spell carries in its spell formula a mental virus that leaves behind spell fragments in the caster's memory; after 5 such fragments are left behind, the fragments recombine into a new spell.  When this happens, the character will know a new spell has formed in his/her memory but will have no idea what the spell does; it's a viral implant put there by the ancient master that crafted the improved spell in the first place.

There is a simple chart for determining what actions some of these viral spell implants perform; note that the effects of some of the viral spells might be of a higher level than the character would have been able to memorize on his own.  The character may eventually choose to cast the unknown foreign spell just to clear his memory and get the spell slot back!


  1. I love that picture, and the idea that some (or many) poor schmucks had to carve all that while hanging from ropes.

  2. The ancient trapped spells are a great idea. Generally I have much appreciation for Black City - it seems like you're going for a feeling similar to my Apollyon with the horror aspects, and I like the way you do it. I will continue plundering your ideas.