A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


1Jun/11Off

The Architectually Unsound Fortress of Evil

While I was attending college at the University of Miami I worked as a lab tech on the School of Architecture's computer lab. While there I had access to all sorts of neat things, such as AutoCAD 10 (it was 1990... Humor me, OK?).

Let me clarify that I am not an architect: I'm a computer programmer. While some students were creating thirty story buildings with enough digital detail to impress Frank Lloyd Wright, I was thrilled creating empty 10'x20' rooms with extremely blocky furniture. Students around me were designing the Chrysler Building while I was designing a residence that looks like a shipping container. I spent four days designing a desk.

But even then I assumed certain things about designing a building: leave no space unused.

Bartoneus over at Critical Hits wrote an article called "The Architect DM: Negative Space in Dungeons", which mostly talks about dungeons... But what if it's not a "dungeon", at least in the classical sense?

One area of my campaign is a residence of sorts, a rather large keep or castle in a remote location. I began to design it as a normal residence would be designed: bedroom here, laboratory of death there... All with thin walls, almost as if the entire building was drywall on the inside. Then I went to look at other similar modules for research, and saw that quite a few modules had walls at least five feet thick, even if they were outdoor ruins (I do have to admit, the official Wizards of the Coast modules I looked at are pretty proper in this regard; the walls on their single story buildings were actually thin). Granted, quite a few structures were still "dungeons" in that they were carved out of solid rock, but why would a free standing building - a hovel, for example - have such an absurdly thick outer wall?

In a way, it makes sense in large structures and fortifications: you're designing a building that is meant to last and would have been built in a time similar to the Middle Ages. They didn't make buildings out of reinforced cinderblock, concrete and steel. There was no such thing as "drywall". Walls were solid stone, meant to support the massive building above them. Outer walls that were five feet thick were probably conservative (note: The moathouse near the village of Hommlet  has an 8' thick outer wall I believe, at least according to map scale), and anything smaller and without some serious internal support would collapse under the weight of the giant fortress of evil built on top of it.

I looked blankly at the structure I designed, trying to imagine how a four story building of solid stone with paper thin walls would hold up. It did not bode well.

There's also some other things I noticed... Think about what you have in your own home. The "home" I was designing had no kitchen, which is just as well because it had no food storage, or a dining room for that matter. It also had five residents in it... but no bathrooms (when I posed this concern to someone else, their simple solution was "add a chamber pot in each room". Ew!). And, in what is apparently typical in D&D lair design, it had an easily activated death trap where pretty much anyone can trigger it.

The residents wouldn't last a week. They'll either die - painfully - or resort to cannibalism and eat each other. And, if they do survive, they'll be quite... uncouth.

But if I add a kitchen, I encounter the other problem prevalent in D&D campaigns: every room has a purpose, right? A kitchen can't just be a kitchen; there has to be a monster in it, or a trap, or treasure, or a major plot element... something! No? It's Chekov's Room, right? (WARNING: That's a TV Tropes link! Click at your own peril!) It must be important eventually!

All you DMs out there... Try to think of how many times you'd have to repeat to your players "it's just a kitchen" before they'll move on somewhere else (if you say "only once", you're lying). No matter how many times you tell them there's nothing in it, I bet you still had to roll at least one Perception check because the PCs requested it (or, in some cases, they rolled it themselves... "31! So what's really in this... 'kitchen', hmm?"). If they insist, I'm tempted to put a Sphere of Annihilation inside the stove just to "reward" their persistence.

The other option is to either make the walls out of unobtanium or infuse the structure with arcane power. "What prevents the building from collapsing under it's own weight?" "Uh... Magic!"

I haven't modified the area yet - it still has paper thin walls - but I'm seriously considering it.

And now I know why ProFantasy's Campaign Cartographer has about fifteen different clip art elements for a chamber pot.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, Design, DnD, Maps, RPG Comments Off
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  1. It’s held up by the sheer evil of the villain, of course. It’s what we refer to as a “load bearing boss,” as when they are slain the whole place comes tumbling down.

  2. Dunno what to say about the walls, but there’s a great technique to resolve the whole “kitchen” thing: If the players investigate and are sure they found something, say “yes, there is something off about this place. What is it?”

    Now this takes a great deal of improvisational skill, but it’s actually pretty awesome, because:
    1) The characters’ actions are meaningful.
    2) Players get to add their own element to the story.
    3) They make “your” kitchen somewhat more awesome.
    4) Some players actually hate it when this happens. If your group is like that, maybe they’ll stop teasing you about things too much just in case you’d make them invent their purpose.


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