My spouse is the best GM ever. I’ll provide three dungeons she’s sprung on me in our one-on-one game as evidence. Each one takes a look at the tropes of fantasy gaming and turns the dial up to eleven. By all means, toss them at your own players, too!
- Dungeon LARP! Not your players, mind, but their characters. The dungeon was built by a demon with a sense of humor and a flair for drama. At the start of this dungeon, each member of the party got a slip of paper with a role on it, such as “Gruff dwarven cleric” or “Human paladin with a dark past”. A brief amusement park cart ride went past some murals poking fun at the tropes of fantasy adventure gaming before turning into a dark roller coaster, a la Space Mountain. Upon disembarking, the party encountered a linear dungeon with an illusory princess, a villainous troll, and a labyrinth full of red herring switch puzzles. The illusions were so over the top that we were encouraged to ham it up ourselves. Our “dwarven cleric” (whose role was, luckily, filled by an actual cleric, if half-aquatic-elf) cast spiritual stone on some of the setting dressing: styrofoam and papier-mâché, like a cheesy ’60s show or a Disney World ride, with humorous results. You can get fairly Willy Wonka with the setting descriptions when you use this on your group. At the end, after a series of riddles posed by tropes like the cloaked figure and the none-shall-pass knight, the party was graded on a five-star system based on how well they played their roles. Instead of gold, each character was rewarded with one rank per star in a skill rolled from a table (or a chance for a free feat with a 5-star rating) – or, better yet, just give your party points in Perform (acting). 🙂 On the way out there was a graffiti wall with a Sharpie hung nearby. Past adventurers had left their scores, remarks, jokes, and philosophical ruminations (e.g. “Kilroy was here”).
- Ghost house! Generally, we follow the right-hand rule in a dungeon: always follow the right-hand wall, including entering doors on the right hand side of a hallway before continuing the rest of the way down (or sometimes we switch it up and go left-hand instead). What my spouse did with this dungeon was take that technique away from us. She put us in a circular building with doorframes spaced down the hallways which acted as teleporters. Line of sight followed the teleport path as well, so it took a while before I caught onto how the system worked, even though I understood fairly quickly that we were being zapped about. But new layers of complexity were layered on as we went in, until we were eventually contending with an infinite hallway with Scooby-Doo doors that led one to another, an illusory wall collapse hiding a holographic projection of a ghost designed to drain our resources figuring out how to defeat it (though I got lucky on the Perception check to see the emitters), a chasm puzzle with red herring devices nearby that instead required an element from elsewhere in the dungeon to solve (and since this dungeon was nonlinear, we could easily have come across the chasm before discovering the necessary equipment), and a fantastic iron golem obstacle.
I want to talk about this iron golem for a minute, because it was excellent. Our party is pretty tough, but we don’t have a lot of optimized damage output or adamantine weaponry, so there was no way we were going to stand up to that thing in a straight up fight. We snuck by it invisibly at first. Unfortunately, our objective in this dungeon was to extract a group of noncombatants, and we realized that our return journey would have to go back by the golem. We didn’t have the resources to make nine civilians plus our six-person party sneaky enough for a repeat performance. Instead we rushed the civilians through the room on the periphery while a few of our number kept the golem busy. When the last of the civilians was out of the monster’s reach, we engaged in a fighting retreat before outright fleeing. One thing I appreciate about my spouse is that she gives a good mix of beer & pretzels fights and encounters that require quick, tactical thinking.
- The abandoned monastery. Instead of a stone cloister full of cobwebs and crumbling statues, this dungeon was suffused with the history of the setting. My spouse first designed it as a working subterranean monastery, down to the number of monks it would have housed and its relation to the local geology. She then ran it through a war and a period of abandonment. Then she imagined it after it had been taken over by gnomes who used the water table as a power source for their machines. Finally she let it be abandoned again until its most recent residents, a group of skum, took it over. All of that was present when we walked in the door. The descriptions of festival murals intersecting with copper and bronze gearwork, all layered over with slippery algae, gave a real sense of history-all-at-once that you’ll recognize if you’ve ever been to an archaeological site which served more than one society over the centuries. We fought a few fungus monsters living in the algae and spent most of our time skating around and landing on our butts in the muck. There was an enormous metal machine taking up what had been a dormitory which had become disconnected from its water source and had rusted; its purpose remained unknown to the party. My character was able to negotiate with the skum for safe passage rather than fight them, though they only let one party member through to retrieve the objective and kept up a threatening appearance the whole time. One of the truisms of the world is that the party is not the baddest group on the planet, and we have to talk our way through more often than fight.