Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Mascaron

The middle of the alphabet is rich in architectural dungeony things. There are almost as many good M's as L's, like Madhouse, Malt House, Mall, Mantel, Martyrium, Mastaba, Mausoleum, and Maze.

Mascarons are stone carvings of grotesque faces—some human, some beasts, and most a mix of the two. The majority of mascarons in a dungeon are ordinary (if unusual looking) stone carvings, but some are magical.

This mascaron's eyes rove continually, wildly, and not in the same direction. It will jibber and try to bite anyone or anything that comes close:

This one truthfully answers one question posed by any Lawful character:

This one tries to loudly spit on anyone passing below (then look innocent):

Animal noises emanate from this one, although it never moves:

This one hurls foul insults (in a long-forgotten language) at anyone who passes. If the PC's somehow manage to communicate with it in its own tongue, it will reveal the location of treasure in exchange for the PC's telling it salacious stories. When it doesn't know any more real treasure locations, it will invent treasures to keep the PC's interest. It leers, and ogles any female party members regardless of their charisma.

The Creative Commons images above were created by wallyg, takomabibelot, Landahlauts, and Xavier de Jaureguiberry.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Library

There are so many great L things that I could almost do a whole month of them: Laboratory, Labyrinth, Lamp-Post, Lantern of the Dead, Laundry, Lavatoire, Letterbox, Lich Gate, Lighthouse, Loculus, Lookout, and Lunatic Asylum.

I've tried to pick lesser-known architectural features in previous entries, but today it's Library. I'll take this opportunity to compose a table I've been meaning to write for a long time: random generation of library books for inquisitive PC's.

Optional supertitle:

  1. History of
  2. Natural History of
  3. Encounters with
  4. Mother's
  5. Some Observations on
  6. Encyclopedia of
  7. Dictionary of
  8. Illustrated
  9. The Truth About
  10. First-Hand Accounts of
  11. The King's
  12. The New
  13. Jokes for
  14. Almanac of
  15. Back to Basics
  16. A Lady's
  17. A Gentleman's
  18. Diary of
  19. The Big Book of
  20. The Art of

Part the earlier:

  1. Northern
  2. Southern
  3. Eastern
  4. Western
  5. Misleading
  6. Revised
  7. Condensed
  8. Elritch
  9. Night
  10. Collegiate
  11. Rapid
  12. Surefire
  13. Zero Tolerance
  14. Preventing
  15. Foundational
  16. Childhood
  17. Equestrian
  18. Naval
  19. Incomplete
  20. Culinary

Part the latter:

  1. Wars
  2. Birds
  3. Stars
  4. Apprentices
  5. Navigation
  6. Bottling
  7. Brewing
  8. Grammar
  9. Sewing
  10. Worthies
  11. Rules
  12. Anecdotes
  13. Test Preparation
  14. Success
  15. Etiquette
  16. Mating
  17. Travels
  18. Cities
  19. Flowers
  20. Faith

Optional subtitle:

  1. Explained
  2. (A Life)
  3. For Beginners
  4. Yearbook
  5. In Conversation
  6. In Style
  7. For Little Ones
  8. In Brief
  9. And Other Adventures
  10. A Structural Analysis
  11. And Other Secrets
  12. Avoid The Pitfalls
  13. Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible
  14. Bilingual Edition
  15. On Parade!
  16. In 24 Hours
  17. Making It Pay
  18. A Journey of the Spirit
  19. A Space Odyssey
  20. Like A Pro

Find more lists in my forthcoming book Jokes for Northern Wars.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kura

A kura is a Japanese storehouse for valuable things, built to be fireproof. Mundane things like rakes and bicycles would be stored elsewhere. Japanese homes have limited storage, so things that aren't used everyday—prized items like wedding china or family photo albums—go in the kura.

That's a position that makes a kura somewhat interesting when transposed to a fantasy setting. Perhaps the orcs in your dungeon live on a subsistence level, owning barely enough to survive. They wouldn't have to worry about precious keepsakes. But maybe they're a few steps above subsistence.

What can the PC's find in the monsters' kura?

  1. Stone box adorned with narrative carvings
  2. Urn filled with ash
  3. Garishly colored robes
  4. Ancestral weapon (broken, unmendable)
  5. Religious icon
  6. Locks of hair tied in silk ribbons
  7. Sacred wine
  8. Skulls of enemies
  9. Porcelain vases
  10. Festival masks
  11. Delicate, impractical furniture
  12. Small box containing a fine brush, a small glass bottle of dried-up ink, and a block of sealing wax

The photo in this post was dedicated to the Creative Commons by Kenchikuben.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Jacquemart

A jacquemart (also spelled without the "c") is a brass figure that moves by clockwork. Typically these figures appear in pairs—one on either side of a bell, which they strike with hammers.

If one was of a mind to put jacquemarts in one's dungeon, the obvious thing would be to make them some sort of golems or ambulatory automatons to attack the PC's. That's a bit too obvious. More interesting would be for the players to see without being able to immediately reach one or more jacquemarts. Soon after first seeing them, the players discover or deduce their terrible mechanical function.

The exact nature of that function is up to you. Perhaps some twirly-mustached villain has bound the princess helplessly to the bell, soon to be pulverized by a dumb jacquemart hammer unless the PC's reach the works in time. Or perhaps the clockwork has been in motion for centuries, slowly chipping away at the lock imprisoning a Great Eldritch Horror.

Though the players can see the inexorable, pitiless progress of the clockwork from some distance, it will take them time to fight their way up the mountain or across the gorge. Melodramatic? Yes, but it might be fun.

The above photo was dedicated to the Creative Commons by Jean-Louis Zimmermann.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Infirmary

In the most general sense, an infirmary is a place for the sick, but a dungeon infirmary bears little resemblance to a modern hospital.

Creatures without a society, or whose existence in the dungeon is mostly solitary, may simply crawl into a crevice or little-used corridor to sicken and die.* To social monsters (or, if not social per se, then those who tend to horde together in some numbers) sickness presents a different challenge. Those intelligent enough to understand the dangers of infectious disease kill or isolate the victims. Such infirmaries are more oubliette than hospital ward.

Adventuring parties stumbling across dungeon areas that appear significantly less traveled than neighboring areas—particularly sub-levels distinguished by bricked-up portals and unburied bodies—should exercise caution.

  1. Fungal infection†
  2. The Rots†
  3. Bubbling boils†
  4. It itches!†
  5. More of them grow than the normal/original number†
  6. Insect bites transmit it, then bleeding fissures—ouch†

* The carcass remains infectious for 1d6 weeks after death.

† Symptoms manifest in 1d6 hours; death occurs in 1d6 days.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Hearse

I admit that my selection for H is driven more by etymological interest than utility in a dungeon, but a hearse is a fine thing still.

Hearse originally meant just an iron grating, such as any gate or portcullis. The word comes from the Old French herce (a rake or harrow) because of the spiky ironwork. Eventually, the meaning narrowed to refer to a fence around a tomb or a temporary iron triumphal arc erected over a coffin, usually draped in banners and affixed with candles.

Our contemporary sense of the word dates to the seventeenth century.

(Incidentally the Old French herce might be traced back to the Latin hirpus for wolf, because of the resemblance to sharp teeth. I think it's a nice poetical image—the coffin resting inside a wolf's maw.)

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for Ghat

A ghat is a kind of quay or landing found along rivers in the East, particularly India. Unlike a Western pier, a ghat is a long set of steps that extend into the water, usually with a fortification-like buildings at their head. They're used for arrivals and departures for water travel and cargo, and as community gathering spots.

Imagine a long ghat flanking the underground river in your dungeon.

McKay Savage licensed the above photo under the Creative Commons.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for Favissa

Cults of many ancient cultures, including the Syrians, Phoenicians, Israelites, Greeks, and Romans, disposed of their sacred sundries in Favissae. A favissa is a cellar or pit beneath a temple, in which cultists dispose of votive offerings and worn-out ritual objects like broken clay figurines. Often objects that had fulfilled their ritual purpose would be intentionally broken before being discarded in the favissa. Discarded figures are believed to represent the deity associated with the cult. Archeological evidence suggests that such practices date far back into the neolithic period.

[...] archaeological finds reflect three major types of figurines that appear simultaneously in all assemblages, just as we have seen at Dor: an adult male, represented as a king sitting on a throne or standing, or as a warrior on a horse; a fertility goddess holding her breasts or a child and sometimes pregnant; and young boys.

Occasionally, a find will point to a particular cult practice. For example, from Greek sources we know that the Phoenician cult practiced sacred prostitution. In the first Dor favissa, we found an almost intact figurine of a naked woman with swollen belly and drooping breasts, seated with legs apart and smiling. This figurine is unique in Palestine, although two similar, but not identical, figurines have been found in Kharayeb, farther north on the Phoenician coast. In the Kharayeb examples, the woman sits with her legs apart, one hand on her knee and the other pointing to her genitals.

What we have been describing might be called the official cult, associated with sanctuaries where priests doubtless officiated. But side by side with this official cult was a popular religion or “popular cult” [...] Archaeological remains from this popular religion include such items as demonic figurines and masks [...]*

So, add a favissa to the temples in your game, and stock it with broken ritual objects—objects which could provide information for the characters and flavor for the game.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Big Maps

The big map blog has some great historical maps, and it looks like they're available for download at fairly high resolution.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Excubitorium

"Opposite the front of S. Crisogono, standing a little way back from the street, are the remains of a very interesting excubitorium (50 c.), to which a flight of about 30 steps descends. The floor of the court is covered with black and white mosaics of marine monsters, a polypus, and other animals, surrounded by the sea. Each of the centaurs holds a torch, one of which is alight, the other spent—supposed to indicate the firemen on and off duty. [...] In the cenre is a six-sided cistern. On the right is a species of temple or lararium, richly decorated in moulded terra-cotta, once picked out with coulour. At its entrance are Corinthian pilasters, with entablature and pediment; the painted walls are covered with graffiti; and in the apse is a marble statuette of Mercury. On the opposite side of the court are the guardrooms, sleeping apartments, kitchen offices, and a well; and on a pier to the left are graffiti of greater importance (cir. 225), showing that the edifice, once a private 2nd century house, had been let or sold to serve as an outpost (excubitorium) for a detachment of the 7th cohort of the Roman vigiles."

Most definitions on the web, and even in a couple of architectural dictionaries, say that an excubitorium is sleeping quarters for city guards, but in actual use it seems to always refer to a firehouse. Fire may not be a major problem in a stone dungeon [see Richard's comment below!], but it was a significant concern for the occupants of Rome, and would also be a major hazard for most ancient/medieval fantasy cities. Roman vigiles kept watch from numerous excubitoria located throughout the city, where they would respond to fires with buckets and axes. They couldn't do much to extinguish a raging fire, so the vigiles focused on early detection and prevention; they were empowered to break into any private property if they suspected a fire hazard.

I think these Flickr photos show the excubitorium described above as it appears today.

The quotation comes from the 1899 A Handbook of Rome and the Campagna, which incidentally has some nice maps in it:

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Door Knocker

Door knockers have been popular since antiquity. Some have abstract or purely functional designs, but many are figurative.

Common motifs include foxes, fish, lions, or fantastical beasts. Lion door knockers typically hold a ring in their mouths, with the mouth used as a hinge, and the ring striking against a plate in the door.

Somewhere deep in the dungeon is a door that can't be opened by any obvious mundane or magical means. The door bears the figurative brass head of a beast with a gaping mouth.

The door will only open if its matching brass ring (hidden elsewhere in the dungeon) is inserted into the beast's mouth, and used to knock on the door.

The thing on the other side of the door is the reason someone went to the trouble of removing the brass ring and locking the door in this manner. Beware!

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Thanks to Richard Kelland, Tim Whitlow, and Ilaria Caterina for creating the Creative Commons photos used in this post.

Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for...

...catacombs? Nah, you already know that catacombs are subterranean burial places where populations shelter during war, smugglers smuggle, and secretive cults conduct monstrous rituals.

Instead of catacomb, let's say C is for chabutro. Chabutros are small, partially enclosed octagonal structures built atop poles or towers. Indian villagers build them to shelter pigeons, and spend idle hours feeding the birds and exchanging gossip. Somebody could build one in a dungeon, right?

What does a character see if she shimmies up the pole of the chabutro?

  1. Bats!
  2. Rats!
  3. Birds
  4. Carnivorous subterranean birds that raid catacombs for scraps of the dead!
  5. Shiny scraps of worthless metal
  6. Eggs
  7. Broken eggs
  8. 2d6 silver pieces
  9. A glowing but otherwise non-magic ring
  10. An amulet cultists use to signify group membership

(I'm finding the pace and artificiality of this A-Z challenge trying at the moment. I'll stick with it as long as real life allows. I should have used Sunday to establish a lead. Oh, well. I'll see how it goes.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for Bath

Communal baths feature in many ancient (and modern) cultures, including Rome and Japan. Consider including one as a sub-level in your dungeon.

Although one group of monsters might secure exclusive use of the baths for a time, eventually various dungeon factions will contend for control over or at least use of the baths. Perhaps one dungeon faction runs the baths as a commercial venture catering to a multitude of dungeon denizens. Politics and intrigue might lure to the water even monsters indisposed to bathe for the sake of hygiene.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for Aedicula

An aedicula is a small shrine within a larger structure. The larger structure might be anything from a church to a private home to a city gate. Some aediculae are large enough that you could walk into them, others are merely niches in a wall.

Aedicula embedded in a Roman aquaduct

Roman pantries included a small shrine to the household Penates, guardians of grains and olive oil and so forth. A shrine to a saint within a Catholic church could be considered a kind of aedicula, such as the monument erected over St. Peter's tomb within the larger Basilica.

Aedicula Random Generation

Approximate Size

  1. Under 6 inches
  2. 1 foot
  3. 3 feet
  4. 6 feet
  5. 10 feet
  6. 15 feet

Central Figure Depicted

  1. Humanoid
  2. Animal
  3. Animal-human hybrid
  4. Plant
  5. Abomination
  6. Scale model of urban landscape
  7. Everyday object
  8. Weapon
  9. Monster of type that last killed a party member
  10. Apparently, the most recently deceased party member

Decorative Motif

  1. Piles of treasure
  2. Flowers
  3. Tentacles
  4. Eyes
  5. Teeth
  6. Fruit
  7. Grains
  8. Musicians
  9. Stars
  10. Mushrooms
  11. Slaves
  12. Diagramatic


  1. Minor adverse magic if offering not made
  2. Minor helpful magic if offering made
  3. Central figure animates after specific trigger
  4. Aedicula "wanders" to different locations
  5. Accepts donations through a coin slot
  6. God missing from shrine; may be located elsewhere

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)