THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY. THESE WILL BE REVISED IN FUTURE POSTS WITH INCREASINGLY DETAILED MECHANICS AND SHAPED FOR MORE SPECIFIC PLAY. TAKE WHAT YOU LIKE, LET ME KNOW HOW IT WENT.
Reasons Why This Could Show Up
Sometimes, the dungeon crawl experience is not particularly fresh or refreshing. How often can you “go into the crypt” or “go into the hideout” or “go into the temple” or “go into the castle”. I like classic dungeon crawls, but I think they’re even better when they’re not the only kind of things your party is doing.
I decided to make a vertical dungeon. Not a tower. A dungeon that goes up. Remember that movie “Cube”? How physically demanding it was for the “party” to move through an omni-directional environment that’s also dangerous? Climbing. Jumping. Falling. Very tense.
So What Is It?
So, I thought, “if there were a great honking tree–like six hundred feet high overtaken by a glacier eons ago… then, the glacier melts and parts of the tree rot and the ice “rots” and irregularly melts and there are rocky outcroppings and “veins” here and there… you could make a very airy and open dungeon”.
The ground level, you can look up and see through great rotted branches (10ft wide) making paths up there to walk on crossed by ice bridges and natural stone ledges and paths. There are large parts (rooms) and platforms. There are big chunks (house sized boulders or ice blocks stuck or obstructing here or there). There are lots of upward paths to walk (difficult terrain?) and climb or jump from one to another. And the higher you go, the more dangerous it is to fall (maybe not to the bottom, but falling from 100ft icewalk path 50ft. onto a rotted hulking tree limb would still be damage even if you didn’t hit “the ground).
You could see irregularly far upward–so lots of things still “unseen and hidden” or imperceptible. They’re far enough away the monsters don’t aggro or notice the little human/elf/whatever adventurers climbing their way up.
And you can go to the MM and pull all the flying monsters out and have a REAL environment that would make sense to have an air elemental (the free space up and down and left and right is huge), giant eagles, wyverns… etc.
The higher you go, the higher up the supernatural elements get (maybe stirges and eagles and bats and even flying kobolds down here where it’s still a little warm and there is vegetation; but up higher its colder and darker and the more unnatural, you’re climbing the food chain).
Because I never liked meeting air elementals in a dungeon. I always thought it would be great to meet them in a space they would naturally live.
The party would need to adapt to dangers that are in the book, but counter to the natural play most have–thus drama and interesting conflicts.
Climbing kits? Yes. Oh, god yes. Slow movement? For sure. It’d be possible to “run from an enemy” for a PC, but the ways they have available are limited and cinematic. The great stone shard (80ft. long, 5 to 15 ft. wide irregularly) they’re on allows for a forward or backward movement, but there’s an ice bridge 10 ft. to the left and 10 ft. down to jump to!
Cautious party that does the “tie to each other for advantage on balance and in case someone slips and falls STR checks” is also hindered by explosive moments.
Wizards with evocation (so common) are HIGH risk. A fireball here could bring down all kinds of chunks and cause the party problems. But, conjurors? Transmuters? Even Diviners? Very handy. Wizard/Sorcerer maybe kicks themselves for over-focusing on blasting things in a place where that eagle or elemental simply doesn’t need to land THERE.
Have 9 levels that get more open and sparse on the way up. Bottom level. Platforms (rooms) and short walkways. Toward the top its a spiderweb of 5 ft walkways separated by 30 or 40 ft. with one or two “platforms”. Each “level” is 20 to 30ft. high–very airy. By the time they’re halfway up… they could fall 100-150 ft.
Exhaustion is a factor. climbing and hiking and jumping and balancing and all that for so long? Even with “platforms” to rest on (30ft by 20ft? larger? smaller?), the environment is harsh and food is scarce. Clerics are useful, spells for water and warmth and exhaustion-fighting are needed.
Camping is possible, resting is even possible… it’s a vertical jungle. Sure, there are encounters in the night and watches are needed, but this isn’t patrolled by an evil wizard, its a habitat. Staking a tent against the wind, huddling together a tiny fire built and sheltered in a wide open web of paths as far as the eye can see?
What’s at the top?
In an ecosystem of flying creatures, what would live in the highest, coldest, and safest place? Winds howling up there. Temperature well below zero.
Maybe the frozen body of a dangerous undead creature, placed here centuries ago as the only tomb believed dangerous enough to keep it from robbers and ne’er do wells. Maybe adventurers who got stuck here, built a crude stone hut and have survived–barely–for a decade… all old and malnourished and a little mad, lured here by false tales of treasure, unable to leave after their wizard or something died of starvation or cold or something near the top. Maybe a living spell book, with cold and plant and air spells, lonely and subconsciously creating this monstrously gigantic aviary (and if taken from it will constantly be recreating it wherever its taken). Maybe a god (or the avatar of a god) who left the world and has been hiding here, having given up on all the mortals and the material world’s concerns–jaded and angry and hopeless.
From My Game
I actually ran this idea in my game and it was beautiful. It led to climactic moments like the following:
- The brutish cleric saved half the party by leaping from a branch/path–the fall being hundreds and hundreds of feet down save for a narrow branch/path some 30ft below at an odd angle–to grapple a flying monster harassing and threatening the party. In truth, for flapping and flying creatures of size, grapple works–still–pretty well (movement 0 meant that it could only half flap about in place–unable to move in a direction for the scrambling human clenching it). Hand over hand keeping climb checks and beating it while angling to fall on that branch below (and a Dex save to land right).
- The druid absolutely at home in this environment. Using interesting applications of plant growth or other spells to impede the movement of enemies. Turning into a simple flying creature gave him enormous advantage in getting around and allowed him to genuinely play unworried by the danger–making the druid perfectly aloof. A good RP opportunity.
- At least once or twice, the bard had to make a hard choice (air elementals high up were hard to deal with and a thousand foot fall is basically just dying) between doing something common and casual–like attacking (a generic thing)–and making himself safe. So, his shovel (gear he’d picked up) was definitely handy to hammer into the branch and give him advantage on “holding on” in case anything tried to blow him from the tree.
- The Rogue (with boots of striding and sprinting, gloves of swimming and climbing, and his climbing kit) was the most animated. Able to hammer in pins and gather lengths of rope and go spelunking around in complex battles. Lots of high-flying attacks and diving after allies to save them. Lots of fun.
My players wrote a whole collection of great personal stories about their time (about a week or so) climbing the tree. And at the top? Mysteries and portents and an enraged, captured white dragon mad with years of torment from a long-gone BBEG.