What do you call a dungeon without any walls?
One of the best bits about being a GM is dungeon building. Are you gonna make a trap filled death pit? Is it filled with smart baddies who have a sword in one hand and a puzzle in the other? Is the dungeon set within a castle, with keys that open the dark and dingy cellars, wherein the captured prince resides? Does your dungeon even have walls? Wait, what? No walls? How can that even be a dungeon? Let me tell you…
One day, while picking through my Bestiary for monsters to use, I came across the Treant and fell in love. I fancy myself a bit of Druid, despite the phone, car, laptop etc. And having a huge forest guardian was a great fit for my campaign. Some nasty low-level Goblins had moved in and needed removing before the main town could be considered safe. The problem originated with the Treant – bored and curious, they had taken up root from their enclave and gone wandering. This allowed the Goblins, by chance, to find a large, hollowed out, well-protected area to move into. Good for the Goblins, bad luck for my PCs!
So after a meet and greet with the Goblins, our next session began with the town boss showing our heroes a “friend of his” outside. Out the front of the bar was a huge shadow, and looking up they found a Treant, dazed by the sky and very slow to react. Their mission for today was simple: escort the Treant home. The trouble? Treants love nature, and this was the longest nature walk in the history of fantasy!
So how does that constitute a dungeon, you ask? The events were railed roaded quite a bit, and each ‘room’ or event couldn’t be progressed past without the Treant, thus the Treant itself was ‘the walls’. Sure the PCs could have abandoned the quest and done anything else, but the Goblins would come back, in stronger numbers, and the Treant may be lost or killed itself. As strong as it is there still exists a number of Goblins that could overwhelm it. News of such abandonment would get back to the town, and the town may end up evicting the PCs, end of story?
I’m not writing about what if’s, but more how to’s. This outdoor dungeon involved walking the Treant through various groves, and each one presented a unique challenge and skill set to overcome. The first danger was nature itself, wherein the fresh roses and birds flying about were a distraction, so a simple Diplomacy check convinced the Treant to continue on its way, but only if the Elf Cleric would hold his hand. This meant the Treants pinky, but the idea worked.
Second, we came across an open grove, with Bugbears trying to assassinate the group! A simple fight took care of them, and honestly when you’ve got a Rocking throwing monster how can you really lose? The events kept getting bigger and bigger though. At one point we found a huge river, and the Treant immediately leaves their side to go for a swim. Distracted again, and even with the entire group trying, there was no Diplomacy good enough to get the Treant to bathe later. The PCs had to wait through an hour of Treant song and joy, before the Treant was ready to get on with things.
Misunderstanding, thanks largely to size differences, the Treant couldn’t understand why the PCs weren’t just crossing as he did, and it wasn’t until the Cleric rolled a successful Intimidate check that the PCs succeeded. Sort of. Genuinely scared the Treant grabbed the PCs and threw them across the river, literally “get us across the river NOW!” They all cleared the expanse but took damage as if a rock throw had hit them. Bloodied but across the river, the Cleric warned the Treant NEVER to do that again, and taking hold of his pinky once again they continued.
The next grove featured a group of birds that loved Treants, but Treants hated equally as much. One little bird, of course, flutters right into our Treants face, who, in panic, summons more trees to help him. The entire adventure so far had been close calls with the Treant, as it took everything the PCs said very literally, and many had come to actual blows intended as playful punches, so imagine my PC’s faces when two more trees join in the fun! When our Treant told them about the “dangerous” bird however they lumbered off just as quick as they appeared. It was up to the PCs to scramble all over the Treants body to capture the bird and allow our Treant to continue unmolested.
There were many more areas to navigate, but I think you get the point by now. You can have a dungeon without walls, and set it outside in the clear and open day, fields of grass and everything. The dungeon itself isn’t necessary – what was important was that the PCs still had trials to overcome and danger that could injure them. Intrigue existed in wondering what would be around the next set of bushes or trees, and once they found out what it was how could they deal with it?
A huge part of why I run and play roleplay games at all is the mystery, and uncertainty of what’s going to occur. Even as a GM I don’t know what the PCs answers will be to the situations that occur. As a player I don’t know what the GM has cooked up, I just pray I can deal with it, and if not, at least hope it’s a good fight. So when I first chose to put a Treant in the game, but within a dungeon context, I was immediately stumped (no pun intended) as to how you’d get a Treant inside a dungeon built for Medium characters. And then I realized I had it all wrong, the Treant was in its natural dungeon, and the PCs whole problem was that they were in a Treant’s dungeon, built for Huge characters. That’s a lot of damage to take, “for such small creatures as yourselves.”
Join me next time when I talk about the mystical flow within us all (and how to let your sessions flow one into another…)