Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Lost in the Dark

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

L is for Lost in the dark. Or should I say, The Dark.

There are a lot of great “L” words I thought about choosing: Leprosy, Lunacy, Larceny, Liege Lords, etc. But all those topics pale in comparison to that of being LOST.

I’m sure that most of us have been lost at some point or other in our lives. For many people, their earliest memories of real fear come from being separated from their parents as a child in a shopping mall or department store. Nothing quite echoes the feeling of helplessness and isolation that comes from being alone, in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by strangers…I know that as a child, I would occasionally have nightmares of being “lost in the department store” even years after the first (only?) time it occurred to me.

As an adult, it’s hard to feel the same sort of emotions when lost. I mean, it’s easy enough to get lost driving around an unfamiliar city (or even an unfamiliar part of your own city!). But even being “lost” in such a way carries no fear of danger…all we really need to do is find the main road, highway, or bus line, and from there we can generally navigate our way home.

I HAVE had the chance to experience fear as a (semi-) adult once. As a seventeen year old spending three weeks in Japan with a group of students, my buddy and I got lost one night in the streets of a Tokyo suburb looking for a laundromat. Having a rather poor command of the language and being young, dumb gaijin, it took us several hours of panicked wandering before we were able to find our way back to the motel where we were staying. It was fairly awful at the time…we were in an area where there weren’t people out-and-about and the cabs we hailed would shake their heads and drive away when they saw we couldn’t speak Japanese (this was 20 years ago, understand…). By the time we found the place, the motel was already closed for the night, but the rest of the class (and teachers) were in the lobby organizing a search party to come find us.

Anyway…since that time I’ve travelled to many countries in the world, often places where I don’t speak the language, but I’ve learned to keep track of landmarks and buildings (and carry maps!) so that I’ve never gotten lost again. Or if I have, I’ve never gotten so lost that I panicked or couldn’t extricate myself from the situation.

Now imagine being lost underground.

That’s probably why a film like The Descent touches such a frightening nerve with most people. We CAN imagine being lost and trapped underground…and how utterly helpless and horrible such an event would be (with or without hungry troglodytes pursuing you). I can remember being a kid and reading Tom Sawyer and thinking Injun Joe’s end…starving to death, lost underground, in the dark…was a pretty grim way to die. It IS. Most of us are NOT like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, seeking the bowels of the Earth to escape the glare of the sun in the sky. Most of us ENJOY a little sunshine every now and then…and being cut off from it for any length of time longer than the normal “nighttime” period is going to be a bit freaky.

Not that people can’t do it (remember those Chilean miners from last year?), but it takes a certain degree of mental fortitude…or discipline and leadership…to keep from losing one’s shit after a while. Think of the old TSR modules D1-D3…the Underdark is a vast and terrible space, and probably the craziest-coolest thing Gygax ever came up with. Forget the legendary megadungeon “Castle Greyhawk;” the Descent into the Depths of the Earth, the Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and the Vault of the Drow modules are about the most amazing scenarios ever devised for Dungeons & Dragons. Whole campaigns can be run in those adventures with nothing but the notes there…and if one builds off the subterranean tunnels (as is suggested), the game can simply extend on and on and on…deep beneath the surface world.

‘Course, the “underground highway” set-up makes it easy for the characters to not get lost…but a random cave-in or such could make it a LOT harder to regain the surface.

And THAT’s what I’m trying to get at in a roundabout, tangential way. Being lost, in the dark, beneath the surface of the earth should be a REAL and TANGIBLE concern/fear for the player characters. Going into the cave mouth should not be as ho-hum as “going to the office.”

No one tries to kill you (usually) in the office break room. And you can’t starve to death looking for the restroom.

Since the earliest editions of the game, the rules have suggested one player be designated as “the mapper,” ostensibly to help the PCs better visualize their surroundings (“what’s an 30’ semi-octagonal chamber look like?”). But for my money, I can’t help but think the mapper may be the most important component of the adventuring party…how else is the group going to find its way out of the place?

Oh, sure, sure…I, too, have hand-waved the “getting out” part of the dungeon expedition. “Oh, you guys are ready to leave? Well, so, you get back to town…” This is obviously a mistake…getting out of the dungeon can very well be as perilous as getting in! Why do you think “iron spikes” were added to the equipment list (got to keep those doors open!)?

Haven’t you folks ever played Dungeon Quest (*ahem* Dragonfire Castle *ahem*)?

The Cook/Marsh Expert set provides rules for getting lost in the wilderness. The only reason I can think of for not providing rules for “getting lost” in the dungeon is the assumption that parties are going to include a map-maker…and the additional assumption that the map will be accurate (such is NOT always the case). I say, let ‘em get lost. Especially in mega-dungeons and deep subterranean “wildernesses” (like D1-D3), characters should have MORE chance of getting lost than they would on the surface world. Trying to navigate by torchlight just cannot be as accurate as navigating by the sun in the sky and surface world landmarks!

Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

  1. Never give the party cardinal directions for their mapping. “The corridor veers left.” “The exit from the room is to the right of the door you came in.” “The tunnel kind of curves around at a weird angle.” Etc.
  2. Unless they’ve brought along assaying equipment, never give parties dimensions in actual measurements. Perhaps they can count “paces” if they want to be really anal retentive (assuming they never end up running for their lives). “The chamber seems pretty square, and you can count it’s about 11 or 12 paces long on each side.” Or “After walking 15 minutes you realize you’ve lost count of how many paces you’ve taken.”
  3. Make players use ALTERNATE means of finding their way around…have ‘em bring chalk or paint or do the Hansel & Gretel thing, leaving a trail of shit to follow out. Have ‘em use the old Theseus ball o’ twine trick. If they insist they’re actually “mapping” make sure they are buying writing gear and have someone else carry the torch next to the person making sketches (the mapper has no “hands free”). Force the mapping player to draw the map on the back of the player in front of him.
  4. Give your players verbal clues to help them visualize their surroundings. “Oh, your back in the room with the busted piano.” “Through the shattered door you recognize the kitchen area you passed earlier.” “These stairs aren’t covered in slime like the earlier set you descended.” You can, of course, also give clues based on other senses. “By the smell, this is the corridor your party used earlier as a latrine.”
  5. For extensive underground delves, remember to keep track of food AND water…any film I’ve ever watched about survival showed people having to be careful with water rationing, and again this often gets glossed over. Bad water and lack of food should be just as dangerous to characters (at least) than the spears of goblins…moreso, for high level characters (who can fight off hordes of goblins but require the same amount of food and water for survival as a 1st level character).
  6. Make dwarves useful! Allow dwarves the same chance of “reorienting” underground as they do detecting new construction, etc. (in other words, 2 in 6 if you’re playing B/X). Reorienting can mean knowing the direction of north-south-east-west, or just a knowledge of the direction in which the exit (or up stairway) lies. Dwarves should be useful even in high level (Companion or 15+ level) adventures, and this is one way to ensure they stick around. Ha! “Protect the dwarf! He’s our only way out of here!”

No more free passes in the underground. There’s a reason adventurers get “paid the big bucks” for their delves…make ‘em work for that gold, dammit!
: )


  1. That was a brilliant five minutes. A lot of good things to take away. Doing away with precise measurements, having the torch and map together and drawing on the back of another player are basic in a sense, and could cause a lot of trouble - read fun.

  2. Hey, long time reader, first time commenter, I think. I always read your blog after checking Grognardia, love it here. Keep up the good posting!

  3. I'll still give precise measurements, but I've never used north, south, west, east, etc.. Most of my recent maps are mazes that change shape based on the whims of the inhabitants; it doesn't seem fair to make it any worse. Also, I'm going to tell them the length as they move, but make them wait to map it until they pause.

    Capcha: Hophip. Some weird form of music?

  4. Oops. Meant to say "Capcha: Hophip. Some weird form of music? A strange type of drug user?"

  5. The only picture in the players handbook that freaked me out as a kid is the one with the party leaving a line of string out behind them, and then around the corner behind them a troll is spooling it back up to get to them.