I came across an article about the Yucca Mountain waste facility and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) when the warning labels that they are trying to put in place for radioactive waste jumped out at me. This could be the label sitting over the enclosed domain of a lich or a warning for a great evil. It’s started to make me very interested in these ideas of how to best keep people out of an abandoned, and dangerous, facility. This is a very realistic but grim view of how people design these facilities.
I normally dabble as a GM in Star Wars, but this is the first thing that has really pulled my interest to a dungeon crawl. How can things go horribly wrong for the players and what things could someone with a larger budget do. With the D&D 5E monster manual we have the cute idea of area effects for enormous monsters and minor gods. This is cool, but we have several dungeons and dungeon ideas that could be trying to keep a great evil underground. I think of a sealed in Cthulhu-esque entity even though I only know the derivatives of this.
WIPP is trying to figure out an exclusion zone that will survive several apocalypses and cultural changes that seem inevitable. From actions that go beyond simple landscaping to creating redundancies within the facilities themselves, the designers are looking to ward away people until the site is safe to go into. The care that is being taken to create and seed the area with the idea that it is deadly and no one should go there for thousands of years is interesting. Especially since, in the last two centuries, no one has been able to stay away from virtually any location on the planet.
This brings me to the idea of a dungeon intended to keep the world safe from the ultimate evil, or the galaxy safe from same. For an in universe example let’s use Exar Kun and how he was first shown to us by Kevin J Anderson. While I have no love for this series (his style of camp isn’t mine) it’s a great look at how sites lose their meaning. These vast Sith temples were abandoned after a war and there were good reasons to ban travel to these locations, but after centuries people have forgotten and the buildings themselves have become useful for the fledgling rebellion and subsequently the eponymous Jedi Academy. No one knows that there is a danger lurking within the walls of the temple, the warnings are written in a long dead language, until it’s too late and the sole Jedi master is knocked out. Kyp Duron has stolen the Sun Crusher from the heart of Yavin and is going around blowing up stars.
The question that my mind keeps coming back to is: How I can use this in my adventures, especially for historical artifacts or sites?
The obvious way to do this is have ancient tablets at the entrance to a dungeon, and every couple of rooms deeper in, that the players can attempt to read at a fair bit of a negative modifier. Each one pointing out that this is the resting place of a great evil and shouldn’t be disturbed. The deeper the players go, the more dire the warnings become until they get to the point of being almost comically grim, such as “beyond this doorway is death” with a gruesome skull.
Another way that this can be used is as a battle between cults, such as a group of protectors that start off shooing people away from a location and then escalating until either they are the primary aggressors against the party, or willing to join, depending on the party’s point of view in dealing with the other cult. The other cult would be bent on opening the location’s vaults to let out the Big Bad that the players eventually have to deal with. This is very much from the same mindset of the original Brendan Frasier Mummy movie.
If the dungeon was an item reliquary, such as the real life crypt that I’m riffing on, it could have been going on for years; allowing many items to be placed there but forgotten by the general public or the minor city nearby which allows it to function. This could be an oasis town that the party travels through and is quickly sucked into a plot as a villain has designs on conquering the town and using the stockpile to conquer other nations. This can be a great avenue to bring in all the over the top items. Let the players feel their epic uses as they can use these things to defend the town, with the usual caveat that you shouldn’t give the players (or the villains) anything you don’t want them to keep.
The last tangent I’m tossing down is that a few of the WIPP proposals have a zone of exclusion around them. This is fairly cool and has precedence in D&D 5E mechanically with area effects of legendary creatures. Making the outside of a dungeon as creepy as what they’re going to find inside can add greatly to the theme and give foreshadowing to the long term end of the campaign. The thoughts of a dead forest surrounding the entrance to a dungeon with a plaque in ancient Elven, Dwarvish, Halfling, Hobbit, Shyriiwook, and Klingon saying that “there is only death here, escape with what little honour you have left” is a little chilling.
These are all fairly basic adventure seeds that can be used to jump off into creating an adventure or anything up to a long running mega campaign, but the thought of using the forward thinking ideas and how a society is trying to implement them at my table is one that I like to dwell upon.