Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Wumpus Dungeon

As we all know the OSR regards the concept of balancing a dungeons denizens to the levels of the PCs as being for bedwetters and lightweights. The acme of OSR brilliance is for a group of experienced Grognards to run a party of Level 1 milksops through a dungeon of 15HD creatures and Save versus Death traps and to get away with it.

So, why not a dungeon designed specifically for this style of play?

Here's the idea which has been germinating in the back of my mind for a couple of months.

A dungeon with just one denizen - anything else is just the usual dungeon scavengers, rats and the like. But that one denizen is practically obscene in terms of strength and the idea is for the party to get in, achieve their goals and get out without having to face the beast.

(It's probably an idea to not make the denizen some form of antediluvian uberdragon - heroic players tend to think that offing them becomes their task and we want to concentrate their minds on avoiding it, not playing at being Billy Big Balls).

So the big bastard (which I dub The Wumpus after the single-denizen dungeon of the 1970s computer game) is a total TPK'er - Save versus Death attacks that sort of thing. The party should not be able to get into some form of fisticuffs with it, nor get trapped by it without losing party members.

The trick to setting this thing up strikes me as requiring the following

-A deserted dungeon with plenty of entries on the rumour table .
-The Wumpus, whose puissance is well known to all NPCs who have words put in their mouth by the aforementioned rumour table.
-Something achievable within the dungeon that does not require slaying of The Wumpus.
-Potential to allow the players to use their intelligence to minimize the chances of meeting The Wumpus so that the more intelligence they display, the safer they become. This could a weakness of The Wumpus - for example it can't get through the boreholes less than 6' in diameter that criss-cross the dungeon so the potential is there for the party to plan out their routes.

It doesn't actually have to be a dungeon dedicated to just this Wumpus, it could be a single level within the megadungeon but then obviously the players need to know what they are getting into it. It's no good having the party discover a trapdoor down to a level, entering it with no idea of what will be there and then getting crucified by your Black Dragon/Purple Worm hybrid. When they know it's there in advance and have a reason to go to that level and the information needed to make a proper plan, then we have a Wumpus Dungeon.

Worked Example - The Castle of the Hydra of Two Score and Four Heads

Big old castle. I've been playing Ico HD on the PS3 so it's a titan structure on an unfathomable scale clinging to dizzyingly-high sheer seaside clifs. Cyclopean and all that. The Wumpus is a 48HD, forty-eight-headed Hydra with Save versus Death venom on the teeth of each head. It gets +4 to attack and damage rolls when the Moon is full, or is immune to the blows of mortal Man or can only be struck by silver weapons. Local villagers know this.

(This game gave me vertigo. I don't even suffer from a fear of heights IRL)

Players should soon twig when a villager tells them "The beast has two score and four heads, each drooling steaming venom and legend states no mortal Man may no so much as scratch it's flanks! Now buy me another pint."

The Hydra permanently sleeps dreaming it's black dreams through which it gains sustenance in lieu of food (so it's effectively immortal). It wakes when mortals enter the castle, perhaps because a network of statues set in the walls whisper to it to wake. This is probably known to the rumour table as well.

Apart from the Hydra there are traps, but only really from the hazards of navigation (cave-ins, collapsing floors, general structural crapness and a few one-way doors).

The only real "fighting" threat to the party is the Hydra, other fauna are just rats, spiders, snakes etc. These could be nasty out of all proportion to their size if venomous/diseased. There's also the potential for NPC adventurer groups with conflicting aims to the PCs.

There are plot hooks aplenty

-There are piles of gold and shiny-shinys because such stuff coalesces out of the ether in order to tempt adventurers into megadungeons.
-Somebody entered and presumably died and somebody wants you to recover their remains or an heirloom they were carrying.
-Somebody entered and presumably died and they had something you want.
-Kudos awaits (i.e. xp) he who can sneak into the castle and recover a scale from one of the Hydra's necks to prove the size of his big brass balls.
-A wizard wants something for a magical/mystical gee-gaw that is only found within the castle (plantlife, spoor of The Hydra etc.)

Potential to minimize the risk

-What can we do about statues that alert the Hydra through their demonic whispering?
-An upper level of the castle is broken and smashed and open to the elements and much of the floor is missing and accordingly the Hydra can't reach it. Travel is possible across this but at some point the party will need to descend to the Hydra's level and look for another route back up to the upper level.
-Decoy NPCs, willing or otherwise
-Weakness to silver means that the party might be able to minimize the movement of the Hydra by meaning of silver-plated caltrops or similar.
-Looking for squeezes and crawlspaces that the Hydra won't be able to follow the PCs in.


  1. This is a brilliant idea.

    Have you played the sequel/prequel, Shadow of the Colossus? As the title suggests, it's built around the concept of single, er, colossal foes who cannot be defeated in a straight fight.

    They can be defeated, which is part of the fun of the game, but strip that out and it's a perfect match for what you're talking about here.

  2. Shouldn't the players in a Wumpus dungeons have a couple magic arrows capable of slaying the wumpus if they follow clues and track it?

  3. Kelvin

    I've done the first Colossi but the game hasn't clicked with me yet - I don't find the controls as beautifully intuitive as I did with Ico and in fact find them immensely awkward. Will persevere though as it's on the same disc as Ico HD and it would seem rude not it.


    That did strike me when writing it up, but then I couldn't thing of any other suitable lingo to describe it!

  4. The controls are awkward on Colossus but you do at least get the hang if it later. And the game is well worth it since the visuals and experience are unique and pretty awesome. Beautiful game!

  5. It is indeed a beautiful game. A definite contender for games-as-art if ever there was one.