Maybe it's just me, but the thought of a treasure-filled dungeon sitting right outside the village is a bit dissonant; if all that treasure is nearby, why hasn't someone else taken it? If the monsters are so dangerous, why haven't they eaten the villagers? It goes to the question of verisimilitude; lost tombs and ancient ruins are remote, and it's hazardous to get to them. When the dungeon is on a frozen island in the arctic circle, fraught with a perilous sea journey, it stands to reason not everyone would even survive the journey to the island. Else the place would have been plundered long ago.
I realize there are interesting alternatives to the remote dungeon; the idea of a newly opened dungeon, with adventurers flocking like gold miners to the site of the latest gold rush, is rife with possibilities. The island of Thule, where the Black City is located, is distant, dangerous, and has the mystique of a gold rush. The player characters are only one group amongst the dozens and dozens of competing adventuring parties trying to wrest wealth from the recently discovered ruins. Fellow adventurers are often more dangerous than the monsters.
I did consider the idea of making the trip to the island itself something less than an automatic success for players, weighing the concept here: Game Mastering Dilemma: Sinking the Player's Ship. I ultimately decided to start all new parties at the island. Nonetheless, our last game gave me a chance to observe what it's like when someone dies randomly on the way to the dungeon.
I greatly enjoyed a recent post over at Noism's place, lauding the way bathos and absurdity create stories that are often far more interesting than crafted narratives: On Bathos. And so, I proffer to you a vignette from our latest game, Black City Session 7, featuring a moment of absurdity.
The Black City consists of miles of tumbled cyclopean ruins choked with ice, extant spires, and misty vales. Eager parties of excavators head off amongst the towering basalt blocks, many never to be seen again. Despite the vastness of the surface, the players have been obsessed with the under city. Beneath the ruins, a network of wide subway tunnels connect distant complexes beneath the city. The players have cleared one mini-dungeon and found two others, exploring only a fraction of the tunnels.
Here's the problem: the main subway passage they follow is split by a chasm, requiring one to jump into mid-air, grabbing a rope swing, and swinging across to the other side of the 10' chasm. This is no mean feat, wearing mail armor, carrying a shield and weapon, with a fully loaded backpack. Characters have to roll a twenty sided die, with a 5% chance of missing their grip and requiring a saving throw to avoid the chasm. Strength bonuses apply.
This time around, Molnar, one of the group's priests, rolled a natural one when it came time for his jump attempt. His 5 strength proffered no assistance. The table grew silent as the player picked up his d20, and all waited with solemn anticipation as Molnar failed his saving throw, and the other characters watched with horror as the cleric plunged into the abyss, lost forever.
Understand, there are options. The players have frequently discussed hauling lumber into the tunnels and building a bridge across the chasm. They've used harnesses in the past, but the risk of wandering monsters while carefully tying and untying each member to cross the chasm convinced them to use haste; you may recall a nail-biting scene some weeks ago when half the group made it across, but then a trio of moaning shamblers staggered out of the darkness behind the stragglers, killing multiple characters left behind before Mustafa took care of business. Their current solution is to find an alternate way to descend into the dungeons from the surface, so they don't have to walk miles in the under city; they've been tantalizingly close at times to finding such an alternate entrance.
Be that as it may, the player handed me Molnar's sheet, promoted a retainer to full player character status, and marched onward. It's only a game, after all, and the luck of the dice and the randomness and absurdity of survival are very much inherent to the allure.
This report is waxing long, so I'll cover the rest briefly. I often feel there is a direct relationship between player carelessness and the number of players at the table; the larger the group, the less careful the players are when they're exploring. Small groups are hyper-focused on their own survival. We had our full crew this time, 7 players, and the guys were nonchalant while searching some dismembered corpses, rudely surprised when the corpses started ankle-biting as hungry gjenganger. They sent the dwarf into one tunnel of an animal's nest, neglecting to guard the other two tunnels (from which the remaining giant shrews swarmed out at them). They made camp in one of the rooms near the first junction, but left all traces of a recent battle right outside the room, alerting a hunting party of berserkers to the presence of their encampment. And so it went. I don’t mean to sound so critical, as the only character lost on the evening was Molnar down the chasm. Anyone else feel like larger groups are a little less focused and careful?
Here was an interesting development, though; the group camped in the dungeon. For the first 6 sessions, they were so careful to start and end every adventure on the surface, making their way back to Trade Town and their ship. A popular rumor in town was that anyone who stayed in the dungeon could be affected by "dungeon madness", and the psychotic berserkers they met deeper in the dungeons were the remnants of groups that stayed in the dungeon too long, succumbing to the place's malign influence. Such men never returned to civilization again. Let's see what happens to the players next time when they finish their night's rest, shall we?