Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Temporal Dungeon

The dungeon that shifts in time is an exciting possibility to me.  I remember being thrilled when C.S. Lewis had Cair Paravel visited hundreds of years after it was abandoned.  That really made the world seem real to me.   Letting players explore the differences the passage of time makes on a place really makes that place a location too, rather than a one shot plot.  The best way to do this would be to let the natural flow of campaign time effect things.  This is difficult though, you aren't often going to get a campaign with generations of pcs that can revisit a place 100s of years later.  So, time travel.  And a dungeon designed specifically to be explored and enjoyed through time travel.

If I'm learning anything, these focused dungeons should probably be smaller, if not just a few rooms.  I'll assume here that we have about one dungeon level, maybe 10-12 rooms.  Remember, like the tumbling dungeon, the effective room number is multiplied when you apply the special effect.  In other words a dungeon of 10 rooms and four time periods is really 40 rooms.

How to Travel Time
If the dungeon is designed to be visited through time then there should be some way to travel on site.  You could have a mobile means of travel, say a ring.  That would mean players could flick back and forth through the ages while standing right in front of a feature that they want to investigate through time.  That seems interesting and convenient, it also seems like a pretty damn powerful item to let loose on your campaign.  Every battle might be subject to a rewind.  So I will settle on time travel through an unmovable location at the dungeon site.  You might think, should we limit its affect to the dungeon itself to avoid that kind of havoc time travel might play on your campaign?  I'm thinking no.  If you put the dungeon in a remote enough place and the players want to travel all the way back there to try and use time travel to save a hireling or stop an assassination or something, well that sounds awesome to me.

The Time to Be Traveled
Something I managed to get right with my one previous go at time travel in my campaign was that I didn't let the players choose the granularity of their travels.  In other words, they couldn't twist a dial and move back or forward 5 minutes.  I used our game sessions as a unit of time.  I think that idea of you the DM controlling where the party will be dumped in time is essential to this working, otherwise you basically have an infinite sandbox with no real way to prepare.  It will also be too easy for players to just jump around obstacles instead of having to think.

So, I suggest limiting the time in our dungeon to be traveled to 4 eras.  I'll name them after four stages of human age: infant, child, adult, aged.  And I'm going to have to get to work so now some quick brainstorming on what things might be cool to have in each age:

  • The architect of the place, can be persuaded to make some changes
  • children to be saved that will apear later as traders or helpers
  • places to plant seeds ala Ocarina of Time
  • Completly different fauna, the beasts that had to be cleared out to build the dungeon.
  • Some basements and parts of the structure started
  • a real need for certain structures like bridges or stairs in a cliffside
  • most rooms built, with furnishings, new and shiny
  • people living here or using it
  • perhaps the ruler of the place to interact with
  • maybe different fauna besieging the place
  • machines or contraptions that may break later
  • fountains and magical devices that have very clear uses in the context of their time, baffling later
  • the default time, first encountered by players
  • just abandoned, broken furniture, ransacked
  • stiff doors, bandits or unsavory types to interact with, hiding here
  • different fauna, maybe vermin and parasites
  • hard to reach spots behind portcullises or bricked up walls
  • centuries after the place was being used
  • ruined- ceilings collapsed, areas under water
  • different fauna, maybe undead or those things that live in stark, barren places
  • places difficult to reach without messing about with things back in time like shoring up ceilings or asking the architect to put in secret trap doors
  • maybe a powerful hermit to interact with


  1. This reminds me of one of the puzzles in an old Infocom game - I think Zork Zero. As I recall, at one point you play part of the game in either a flashback or a vision of the past, and you have to change something that effects the environment when you are back in the "real" game in the present.

    There's also a pen and paper game called "How to Host a Dungeon" by Tony Dowler that's sort of a map-making game that gives you a vertical cutaway map and a nice evolved history for a randomly generated dungeon when you finish. Point is, you play that game in "ages" and it would be neat if you could somehow travel back to those eras to essentially affect the way it will develop.

    Anyways, neat idea. :)

  2. yet another awesome idea! consider it stolen.

    i am not sure i want the players to have any control. think warhammer, chaos, tzeentch-induced time warping here. maybe there will be items that allows them some influence, but i basically would want the changes to be random.

    have you thought about that by any chance and if you did, what problems do you think that might cause? :)

  3. Castles Forlorn was a Ravenloft boxed set mostly centered around a castle presented in several different eras. The mists around the castle could transport the players around through time, if I remember correctly. The boxed set came with some AWESOME maps that depicted the castle in its various incarnations.

  4. Thanks a bunch.

    @Omega: I missed out on most of the Infocom stuff, that's cool to hear about. I don't own HtHaD, but I am a big fan of Tony and his maps. Maybe his next version he can implement a time travel mechanic.

    @shlominus: Thanks. I hadn't thought of that because I sort of like the idea of the different ages as different places for pcs to explore, so if they come along randomly it would be like a dungeon that teleports you all over randomly. But that could certainly work for a Chaos place. How would time shift occur? If you're really shooting for Chaos, I'd probably make a random chart of effects (frog rain, purple haze) that happen to form as a sort of signal and transition for the time shift. One possible problem is players might get stranded in spots by time shifts (the bridge crumbles in ruin before their eyes), but presumably they could hang around until it shifted back again. Wait, I hadn't thought of time shifts affecting the pcs, because I was envisioning them walking through a door or something, but with these random shifts imagine fighter aged by 40 years, weak and afraid, and wizards now filled with arcane knowledge, that would make for interesting challenges.

    @Carl: Okay, I'm going to have to find that then. I have been planning a ruined Alabaster Tower for a while now and I love the idea of locations warped by various things time, fire flood. Thanks!