One legacy of the game’s origins is a dungeon laid out on a grid: A collection of rooms, hallways and doors drawn out on an 11- x 8-inch sheet of cyan lined paper.
Good fun to be certain.
But talk to a geologist. A feature of natural terrain are vertical shafts, carved from the rock by volcanic lava tubes or eroded away by water and gravity. And let’s not forget the activities of human beings, who dig wells for that most precious resource of water and who dig mines for things like gold, diamonds, coal and iron.
Underground, there are a lot of shafts. Yet, it’s a feature that rarely gets exploited by GMs in their dungeon design.
Here are some reasons why using a vertical design can add variety to a GM toolkit.
1. It forces PCs to cope with gravity, defying it with climbing skills or use up magical resources / technology to generate flight.
2. It redefines “level.” Experienced players who’ve grown accustomed to Level 1 kobolds, Level 2 goblins, Level 3 orcs, etc., will have to adjust their thinking. The GM should feel free to adjust the monster mix in a vertical design, using monsters that can navigate the space more easily.
3.Â It’s a treasure-hunter’s delight. The good stuff is at the bottom. And if the PCs think the best treasure can be found collecting at the bottom of the shaft, they can’t be the only ones. Did someone or something get there first?
4.Â The creepiest most awful things lie in the deep dark. Remind players of this over and over and watch their imaginations take flight. Then make their nightmares come true.
5. Cold. Heat. Water. Ice. Lava. Cavern formations. Troughs. Waterfalls. Slides. Dropoffs. Ledges. Crevices. Any and all of these things might be put to good use in a vertical dungeon. Have fun and listen to the PCs groan.
In Rite Publishing’s Up from Darkness one shot adventure set in the Kaidan setting of Japanese horror, 2 vertical shafts for adventurers to escape the dungeon are featured (they begin at the lowest level of the dungeon with no memory who they are…) Part of the shaft includes a ladder, but the remaining portion has no obvious means of climbing it. Virtually half this one-shot dungeon involves moving through these shafts. Of course various horrors await trespassers through these shafts. This is a very deadly dungeon with a twist.
As always with dungeon design I ask myself the question “Who built or chose to occupy this area?” The dungeon should at least partly make sense for whoever or whatever is in it. A lair for bipedal humanoids, for example, is probably not going to have too many steep or vertical areas as they’re hard to traverse. Where they’ve got such structures they’ll be for defense or to reach special resources. Or possibly unexplored by the current inhabitants. Imagine goblins in a cave who are afraid of the shaft at the back and the hungry monsters at the bottom of it they have to placate by tossing down chunks of slightly rotted meat!
On the other hand, if it’s a lair for creatures that travel on 4 or more legs– or slither, or have burrowing movement– go nuts with the steep areas as those creatures can handle it naturally. These types of lairs will immediately feel very foreign and threatening to the PCs.
When I’ve introduced lairs like this the PCs typically realize after a short foray that they are in great danger, as a monster that is otherwise not so strong possesses significant tactical advantage in its home terrain. The group switches from assuming the adventure is simply a matter of “Map the dungeon, kill the monsters, take the treasure” to planning how to draw out or catch the monster on their (the PCs’) terrain. And then, if they’re lucky, get down into that warren to recover whatever treasure is left without suffocating, drowning, or dying in a fall or cave-in.
Another consideration, logistically speaking, a deep underground lair, especially a constructed one, like a dwarf mine or mansion requires some basic facility to maintain proper airflow to facilitate breathing in an enclosed space that is more than likely separate from the entrance gateway into such a complex. I’m proposing the need for air shafts to the surface or to a main tunnel that connects to the surface. These would be the primary reason to include vertical or near vertical shafts in a dungeon complex. It generally wouldn’t be for reasons of egress, but airflow only, yet a viable reason to include shafts in your underdark lair design.
Absolutely. Unless you’re going with that fungus-like plants growing off of strange radiation making 0^2 conceit, then this is a definite must as far as I’m concerned.
Still though, wouldn’t CO^2 eventually build up in the deepest portions? Co^2 being heavier than the other components in air. Ooohh, how about a campaign where things from the deepest parts of the deep are surfacing, just for a chance to breathe?
It’s funny you should mention shafts; I actual drew up a small cavern adventure-thing that’s pretty much nothing but vertical shafts.