This is PHANTASY CAVE
November 21, 2011
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.