November 21, 2011

Or download the Phantasy Cave pdf here.

All that’s missing the voice of Werner Herzog narrating!  (Click here to see the trailer for his Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

If there’s one thing in the Fire in the Jungle supplement that I’d like to revisit or change, it’s the Ant Tunnel System. My original intention of that system was as an extension of the Jungle Event System…the discovery of an ant tunnel entrance would spice up jungle exploration.  The idea was that a series of dice rolls using the Ant Tunnel System could quickly play out an exploration of the tunnel.  The PCs would dive in, pull out some loot or clues, and then resume their jungle journey.

Somewhere along the line I started to envision the ant tunnels as a vast network of tunnels touching all corners of the jungle and reaching down to unknown depths.  So the Ant Tunnel System tries to do two things at once: quick delves into an ant lair and open-ended exploration of a mythic underworld environment.  It turned out okay, but I wonder if it could have been better if it only focused on one or the other.

Phantasy Cave is a re-visitation, re-engineering, and re-skinning of the Ant Tunnel System, focusing on the mythic underworld concept and detached from a jungle setting.  Simply stated, it’s one page of house rules and charts to help me improvise fantasy rpg adventures in a map-less cave environment.  The charts are mostly cobbled together from other sources…an assortment of ideas to jumpstart a DM’s creativity.  It’s the house rules that cement the charts together and help fulfill my primary goal for Phantasy Cave:  enabling fast-paced “pick-up games” of D&D while preserving the essential tension of dungeoneering…explore deeper or get out?

I put together the Phantasy Cave sheet for my own reference, so some parts probably need further explanation to allow others to make sense of it…

The basic idea is to roll on the Exploration chart each turn to determine what is encountered.  Because a delve into Phantasy Cave is meant to be fast-paced, something of interest is found each turn, be it a monster, obstacle, or just cave scenery.  The Depth factor is added to the Exploration roll to represent the increasing risk and reward of going deeper and deeper into the cave.

The risks are meaner monsters and darker darkness.  The hostile blackness and shadows of the lower depths enable monsters to ambush PCs more frequently.  And there is always the danger of getting lost, too.  The essential problem of being lost is that the PCs don’t know if that passage in front of them leads to a more dangerous area or not.  Being lost may not be a big deal to full strength PCs just exploring, but can put them in a bad situation if they are beat up a bit and trying to get out of the cave.

Cave adventures, like any other, need a variety of obstacles and monster encounters.  When an obstacle is discovered, roll on the Obstacle chart to determine what it is (the first thing listed on each line), then make things interesting by rolling on the chart again to add a Complication (the second thing listed on each line).  Go ahead and roll for more obstacles or complications to mess things up even further.  Or the DM can decide that the obstacle is just cave scenery and not something blocking the way or with a dangerous complication.

The DM should judge what will be the consequences of failing to overcome an obstacle.  If the PCs chicken out and backtrack instead of attempting to pass the obstacle, the Depth factor should decrease.  Poor planning or bad luck while attempting the obstacle could cause damage, getting lost, torches extinguished, sliding down to dangerous depths, etc.  On the flip side, a DM may offer benefits for successfully passing an obstacle.

Create three lists of monsters that could be encountered at various depths in the cave.  Monsters should get bigger in the deeper levels of the cave. Using the Reaction, Disposition, and “What are these monsters up to?” charts can give the DM plenty inspiration to improvise unique monsters encounters.

Whereas the malevolent darkness of the cave can enable monster ambushes, in other situations I like to allow PCs to often have “surprise”.  I don’t mean surprise as in “you get one free attack”.  I mean it as “Okay dudes, you detect some uglies up ahead. What’s your plan?”  Provide opportunities for the players to get creative and maybe gain an upper hand in an encounter against tougher monsters.

To encourage the players to risk extended exploration, I created a house rule a little like “healing surges”.  After each combat or obstacle where a PC took HP damage, the player can choose to heal all hit points by making a roll on the Injury chart.  Penalties received on the Injury chart can only be cancelled or healed by magic.  A trip into the Phantasy Cave should scar a character for life.

I like riddles.  I understand that some DMs or players prefer not to use riddles in their campaigns, but it’s my Phantasy Cave so I added a special encounter on the Exploration chart called “Magic Mouth Riddle”.  Replace it with “Obstacle” if riddles would confusticate and bebother your players.  A Magic Mouth appears on the cave wall and speaks a riddle.  If the PCs answer correctly, the mouth opens wide to reveal a passage into a random Special (d8).

(Get your d30 ready…I put together a sheet of my favorite classic riddles: download here.)

What is a Special?  It’s the whole reason to go adventuring into the Phantasy Cave!  It’s were the good stuff is.  The baubles, shinies, delights, and magnificent loot.  This is the part of Phantasy Cave that the DM should customize and prepare ahead of time.  Make a list of twenty special chambers or encounters, arranging them in order of least valuable to most valuable treasure.  (The dX notation on the Exploration chart indicates which die to roll on the Special  list.  Better chance of richer treasure at deeper levels.)  Some Specials may have complex descriptions, but I prefer ones that can be vaguely but colorfully described in just a few sentences.  The weirder, the better.  For example:

A beanstalk rising through a hole in the ceiling and a man-sized metal pipe going straight down into the floor.  The beanstalk extends into the clouds and the pipe leads to a surreal treasure room.

Stuff like this can be found all over the place on D&D blogs and forums.  (Obligatory links to the Dungeon Stocking table @ Aeons & Augaruries and the Dungeon Alphabet.)  More examples of Specials are in the Fire in the Jungle supplement:  Fire Ant Colony and Weird stuff.

Check out what Spawn of Endra has to say about starvation, foraging, hunting and how they relate to D&D wilderness play at the Lands of Ara site.  Spawn is currently doing field work and dissertation writing in Belize and so has first hand experience with food “in the bush”.  He then treats us to some Mayan gopher stew.

I wrote about starvation in the jungle here:  Making Jungle Travel its Own Adventure.

Funny how I found Spawn’s blog post.  I was reading the comments of a post at the Underdark Gazette and almost fell out of my chair when I saw Mr. Carter Soles mention “Fire in the Jungle” as one of his favorite OSR products.  I clicked on his profile and found that he contributes posts at The Lands of Ara.  I’m not exactly a well-known OSR blogger, so I thank Carter for mentioning my work.

And because I always like to include a pretty picture in short blog posts like this, here’s one with vibrant fecundity…


One of the great things about having my mother-in-law stay at our house for a few weeks is that she does all the dishes each night.  So I get more reading done than I usually do.  Here’s a couple that I was able to scratch off my “to read” list.

Escape From Davao (John D. Lukacs, 2010).  Most Americans are aware of the Bataan Death March in 1942.  A few may know of the Cabanatuan prison raid in 1945.  Even fewer have heard of the escape of ten Americans and two Filipinos from the Japanese prison camp at the Davao Penal Colony in 1943.  This excellent book is the author’s attempt to reintroduce to the world the story of these daring men:  Ed Dyess, Jack Hawkins, Austin Shofner, Mike Dobervich, Melvyn McCoy, Stephen Mellnik, Leo Boelens, Sam Grashio, Paul Marshall, Bob Spielman,  Benigno De La Cruz, Victor Jumarong, and all the men and women who helped them along the way.

The work done by Lukacs in creating this book was extensive:  interviews, travel, pages and pages of references, etc.  Stories from a few of the escapees had been previously published elsewhere, but Lukacs ties all the accounts together and supplements them with his own research.  The result is what will likely forever be the most important book about the only significant escape of American men from a Japanese prison camp during WW2.

Never Say Die (Colonel Jack Hawkins, USMC, 1961).  This is one of the previously published accounts of the escape.  A nice little book, but doesn’t contain much that isn’t found in Escape From Davao.  Notable for its additional details about the Mindanao guerrillas and preparations for the arrival of the Narwhal at Nasipit Bay in November of 1943.

Colonel Hawkins is the last surviving member of the escapees, having recently turned 95.

It was cool to find an inscription in my copy of Never Say Die. And the bookseller's business card made me chuckle.

Where’s the jungle, you say?    The Japanese were thinking “Jungle as Prison“, but the escapees were thinking “Never Say Die”.  They made epic journeys through swamp and jungle after escaping from the prison camp.  Here’s what Hawkins had to say about the wild interior of Mindanao:

The merciless swamp was cutting deeply into our reserves of physical endurance.  Our feet sank far into the clinging mud beneath the thigh-deep water, and each step required a tiring struggle.  The matted grass towered above our heads, engulfing us and holding us immobile, like flies in a spider’s web.  The midday tropical heat was intense, turning the swamp into a vast steaming cauldron which wilted our vitality.  Rest was impossible, for there was no dry place to sit down.

Soon we found ourselves beyond the realm of civilization in a pristine wilderness where time had stood still through countless centuries.  Nowhere was there evidence of human life.  Monkeys peered curiously down at us from lofty perches in the giant trees of the primeval rain forest and chattered in alarm as we passed.   Brightly plumaged birds added brilliant flashes of color to the wild scene, and their shrill calls split the silence in angry protest at our invasion of their domain.

And then suddenly, as we rounded a bend in the stream, we found ourselves face to face with a band of Atas!  We stopped short and stood motionless.  They did the same.  There were more than a dozen of them, not forty yards away.  As we stood transfixed, they began ot advance along a gravel bar directly towards us.  Thoughts of what to do flashed through our mind.  Our bolos, I knew, would be of little use if they attacked with the long spears and bows and arrows they all carried.  Should we run or stand our ground?  It was too late to run.

The strange-looking party moved to within fifteen yards of us and halted, as yet making no menacing move.  They stared at us and we stared at them, both sides in silence.  Never before had I seen such people–short, bushy-haired men with copper-colored skin and heavy anthropoid features.  Their upper lips protruded grotesquely from wads of betel nut underneath, and the blood-red juice trickled down the corners of their mouths, staining the skin.  Except for scanty loincloths, they were naked.  Each man carried an eight-foot spear and a bamboo bow with a quiver of arrows slung from the shoulder.  They seemed spellbound at the sight of us, even as we were at the sight of them.  Probably we were the first white men they had ever seen.

Then, as silently as they had come, they turned and padded away, disappearing in the dense foliage on the riverbank.

Soon we began to pass other Atas who came floating down the river on bamboo rafts–men, women and children.  Like the first group we had seen, they all wore loincloths and seem addicted to the betel nut habit–even the small children.  The narcotic effect of the betel nut possibly accounted for the strange, half-dazed look on their primitive faces.  None of them approached us nor made any gesture of greeting.

Each Ata family lived in a tree-house, separated by a considerable distance from any neighbor.  They never congregated in villages.