Most people start with a map and then go through some process of “stocking” it. I have no idea what I do, but it isn’t that. Anyway… this is what emerged from my head after pondering Claytonian JP‘s Kobolds and Brian Train’s counter insurgency games. I don’t think system really matters for any of this.
Entrance — There are piles of skulls by the tunnel entrance. They are stacked neatly almost like piles of cannon balls. There is a heavy wooden post with a sign on it that reads, “Welkom hoomans… we hOop U wil mak a kontrabushun.” These are all normal human skulls here, but one of them is cursed. Anyone that aggressively searches the skulls will disturb it and find themselves gassed by an pungent green smoke. The smell is musty and vaguely like rotten eggs and is almost impossible to wash off. Anyone inflicted by it can easily be found or tracked by monsters for a few weeks.
The Caves — There is an elaborate maze of cave locations. (Inspiration: the original Colossal Caves Adventure.) These locations are technically empty, but the players will hear ominious sounds at regular intervals:
- A rock falls somewhere… it’s hard to tell where.
- You’re not sure, but there’s some kind of dripping sound coming from somewhere.
- The pitter-patter of little feet scuffling away. Probably rat-like sounds, really. Is it behind the wall or from above the ceiling somehow?
- Panting sounds of some kind… that occasionally escalate into hyena-like crescendos.
The Other Party — This is the group you’d heard rumors about before leaving town. Their bodies are piled in sort of a side room with only one exit. Their heads are missing, of course. Anything of value is long gone, but careful searching might reveal some sort of clue. But of what…? (Oh… and there’ll probably be a chance for a carrion crawler encounter in this area.)
The Trade — One of the things about the caves area is that there are several locations where sound from a distant spot will sound like it is right next to you. I can’t even begin to imagine how the players might sort out and map how these are all laid out. The kobolds know them all intimately, however. Depending on how the party is marching, it might work out that one character in particular could be singled out for contact. I’m not sure. At any rate, someone will here “psst” type sounds. It they talk to it… only that one character will be able to hear and communicate. It’s a kobold that wants to trade for iron rations, iron spikes, and lantern oil. The initial trade will be for a potion of healing. It will be good… and it will come relatively cheaply. They are to place their items at “the organ” (a large limestone formation that looks like a pipe organ) and can pick up their stuff at the slanting slab. The kobold wants to establish mutually beneficial trade in the tradition of Confederate and Yankee soldiers trading tobacco and corn meal. If the players ever return to the place where communication was initiated, there will be a good chance that the kobold will be there. (And the players may be able to trade for items that can get them past difficult obstacles.)
The Trap — The players will enter a large room and will see a ledge up beyond a steep, sloping wall. This will be the ideal place for the party’s thief to use his special abilities. Assuming he goes up there to do the scouting ahead thing, he will see a sloping passage leading to a twisting tunnel. Does he go further away or go back to the party to report it. Well… if he explores alone, he will see the passage slope down further and twist around. I guess it’s not too scary for what it is, but depending on the most recent noise result, who knows? Anyway… there are actually holes in the walls up ahead. (Check perception or whatever.) And just before the bad stuff happens… he will hear one rock fall. (But they players should have heard that a few times already. It can’t be anything, right?) If he continues blithely on, he will be attacked by three to five spears through the holes. I’m not sure how he’s going get back at his attackers, but he’s more than likely going to end up dying a screaming awful death or else he’d going to be running back to the party seriously wounded. (Hopefully they traded for that potion of healing earlier.) Of course, if they whole party somehow gets up there to investigate, they’re probably not going to be attacked at all. If they can somehow break through the walls with the holes in them… well… it probably shouldn’t work and if they did, the passages are too small for human sized creatures to navigate.
The Lake — The main obstacle between level one and level two is an underground lake. I’m not even sure how the players are going to get across it and descend, but maybe the players can buy a birch bark canoe from their new kobold friend.
And that’s the overall gist of it. This is not a graph paper type environment. It should be represented by a sort of point map like in the old text adventure games. It is my hope that this sort of thing will scare the crap out of players, but who knows? The real dilemma here is that the players will be making deals with the devil, as it were. They will have help from the kobolds to get further in… but it will put the players in greater danger that the kobolds may then be able to profit from.
Anyway, the point of all of this is not to be yet another set of stereotypical encounters. You don’t “clean” this section of the dungeon. No kobold group will fight the players’ party in anything like fair circumstances. They know that players operate by the 15 minute workday principle, so they would rather meet them on the way out than when they are fresh from town. The only time that they are liable to risk a real stand-up fight depends on what treasures the players might have obtained, whether or not the kobolds are aware of its worth, and how fast the player characters are running. Professional adventures may never fight the kobolds. Groups that have spent all their spell slots and have lost half their party and are desperately wounded will face some hit and run attacks at the very least. (When the cave complex is designed, you’ll want to go ahead and set up a couple of good ambush points. The players will see these as useless empty rooms, but this is what they are there for… and maybe they will even notice this as a problem.)
If the kobolds can successfully pick off another player character or two as they flee the dungeon, they will block the main exit with a detachment and have a second group move in from behind to hem them in– but only if the value of what the players are hauling out is worth the risk. Of course, the kobolds are ahead of the game if they can loot the bodies of a few player characters… but they are in deep trouble if they lose half or more of their warriors. So play them that way!