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One Way to Frame a Dungeon – Disaster Dungeons

September 26, 2022

I’m not new to “anywhere can be a dungeon” with the premise being mostly the combination of “exploration + danger + treasure”, however the thing I’m finding myself doing for Errant, is setting them up as active disaster zones.

Why a disaster zone?

Disasters allow you to include all the cool stuff that goes into a dungeon without having to think about equilibrium, economy or ecology*. Do you want to include NPCs? They’re stuck, trapped, trying to escape or pull some hijinks while the disaster unfolds. Is there treasure? Sure! People didn’t grab everything, things got forgotten, left behind, etc. “How do people get around?” you ask with the bridge and the stairs crumbled? No need to answer, they haven’t figured out how to get out either.

It also explains the other usual question to dungeons: why hasn’t someone come along and raided this place for treasure yet?

Now mind you, as we’re living in the era of horrible climate change disasters, I’m talking primarily about sci-fi/fantasy disaster zones; a zombie outbreak, a dragon appears, someone became a lich, etc, not the depressing reality of disasters, since, unfortunately swinging a sword or throwing a fireball at those things doesn’t really fix them.

(“*What about mythical underworld type of dungeons? You don’t have to think about those things in those either?” For me, I don’t care for those in these types of games. If I’m going to deal with an underworld built on symbolism, I want to play a game whose system deals with that, instead of, movement rates, armor types, and weapon reach.)

A lot of media to pull from

Tons of action, sci-fi, and fantasy movies and videogames pull from this trope and you can get a lot of good inspiration; Resident Evil, Prototype, Dark Souls, most of your shooter games, and many RPGs will have at least a level or two of active disaster space to play with.

The main thing I look to these for are the fun ways in which environments or terrain are shaped – things like main paths being blocked while the players have to crawl through broken gaps in walls or knock over something to use as a bridge.

Things like “red key for red door” are not interesting but finding tools to open paths or access ziplines or whatever tend to set up fun situations. (especially bc unlike videogames, players may find other solutions to get around any kind of obstacle).

PCs are in a heist movie, NPCs are in a horror movie

Finally, the NPCs. In the traditional dungeon, if you have NPCs you also have to explain how these NPCs survive and live in this place of danger over a long term. In a disaster, you just have to explain how they managed to stay safe for a few hours or days, which is a lot more reasonable.

Which brings us to another point; the player characters are here to get treasure – they’re in a heist movie… but the NPCs are mostly trying to escape with their lives – they’re in a horror movie. (If you’re playing a more heroic game, the PCs are in an epic fantasy… but the normal NPCs here, are generally still in a horror movie).

So now it’s very easy to set up motivations for NPCs – they want to be safe and/or escape, along with friends and family. A few NPCs who are very dedicated to a goal, will want something else and risk more danger. This sets up a point of leverage and negotiation between the players and NPCs – players want info about the area, they want resources, the NPCs want safety, healing, a way out – maybe to rescue some other NPC. And in dealing with all this, the PCs leave impressions, make allies or enemies that set up longer term play issues.

Disasters Cooling Off

Of course, most traditional dungeons originate in some disaster or another, but the longer it goes, the more the situation has to settle into an equilibrium and stable state, which… means more thinking and a little less “random danger” and of course, generally less NPCs. (I mean, folks do think up dungeon communities and towns in these spaces but then there’s other logistics questions to think of… and more work.)

The way I’m framing these disasters are “a few days ago, a few weeks ago, or a number of years ago” and each changes up the situation accordingly. The important question to answer as time goes on is – why has this place been abandoned TO the disaster?

Maybe it’s a monster threat that’s too tough to deal with, or perhaps the political power doesn’t think it’s worth chasing (or they’re suffering rebellion or a coup and too busy), or maybe the main reason to be there is gone (“Well guys, the lake drained out through a hole, so no lake no fishing”)

The next question is – who’s still around? Why? How do they get by? It’s easy to imagine a few survivors, or some folks with powerful magic and/or adventuring skills finding a way to keep going. Or maybe they live in some isolated space with access to water and food? But generally the worse an area is, the less people will be around and harder it is to survive.

You can also decide most people fled the danger, in which case you could have a group of folks outside the dangerous area, who have formed a temporary camp. This sets up a “town” to retreat to, and you can easily excuse why they have X resource or lack Y resource because… well, people fleeing grab what they can and sometimes that’s pretty random.

Designing a “Disaster Dungeon”

As always, start with a concept. What is the place, and what is the threat? It’s good to look for 1-2 themes to build all the problems on.

It’s one thing to have a dragon attack a town; it’s another when you find out the reason it’s attack is that a necromancer cult was doing magic with one of it’s relatives. So while the dragon is the reason there’s an active disaster, the necromancer cult provides a LOT of encounter options as well. Maybe it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane that just happened to fling a lot of violent fishman seafolk into the town and now you’ve got both a hurricane and raiders. The more high fantasy your game goes, the more magical weirdness can be the cause of the disaster or perhaps, increasing the effects of a natural one.

You can take a normal town map, or an isolated outpost, or a small noble’s manor, or a mining work camp… then start dropping obstacles onto the map. Things that obstruct movement and view, and of course, things that are broken open and toppled over and can now be traversed where they were not accessible before. The goal is not to make impassible “walls”, but to have the party have to navigate the area in a way that is not typical and maybe sparks some creativity as well.

Likewise “traps” are less “built” and more all the problems that come with a disaster; sinkholes, crumbling walls, ceilings, floors, rickety stairs, fire, deep mud or water in unexpected places, sharp & pokey rubble, etc. In a high fantasy setting, the problems might also be magical; runaway elementals, spells gone awry, etc.

Threats

How did the monsters get here? Are they things that rushed to this location, things that were summoned or brought here, things that broke free of some containment or obedience effect, or things that someone mutated into? Are they the cause of the disaster or did the disaster cause them to show up somehow?

How well does the monster move in this space? Are there things they pursue or feel safer being around? Things they would avoid?

Treasure

What’s fun about a disaster is that you can put treasure just about anywhere. If it’s in a place where it already makes sense, you don’t have to do any work, really. If it’s in a place that doesn’t quite make sense, you can probably assume people were trying to move the treasure and got interrupted/killed. Or, in some disasters, objects might have been washed down with a flood, blown by a hurricane wind, or somehow flung into unusual places.

If you are running the sort of situation where NPCs might gift or give things to PCs, it can make a little more sense why they might do so; the 10 year old kid whose (now dead) brother gave him his magic sword, is still not up for fighting – but he might give it to a PC who shows they would actually know what to do with it.

“Clearing” the Disaster Dungeon

Context is everything here. Maybe there’s a monster threat or a magical threat and when it is dealt with, the disaster will end. Maybe there’s some very important person or item you have to go in there and rescue before leaving the place to burn to the ground. Maybe this disaster is just in the way of your travels – if you want to get to the other side of the pass, you better get through the city that fell to a werewolf curse frenzy.

Finally… if the place CAN be saved, and the party gets too beat up to do it, you can certainly say another group sends in troops and finally gets it under control (or part of it) and re-establish the area in a new way. I would only do this after significant play and the players saying they’re not so interested in grinding it out, or if they took care of the major problems.

Anyway, hopefully you’ll find some fun ways to put these into your games.

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