When is the last time one of your characters bothered to own a horse in a D&D game? How long has it been since anyone soared over the mountains on the back of a roc or traversed the underworld on a lizard or giant worm? Has anyone ever even seen a chariot?
The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear until the first expansion. Try playing the game for a while without a character who can pick locks or disarm traps and you’ll see why thieves were needed. (In some recent, nostalgic OD&D sessions, a common joke was when a character would muse dreamily about a far-off, mythical land called “Greyhawk” where there existed people known as “thieves” who could somehow open a lock without hacking it into ruin with an ax. It was even said that if they pressed an ear to a door, they could sometimes actually hear sounds on the other side!)
In an earlier column, I looked at ways to keep a road trip interesting. That article was about a standard walk in the sun. A different type of journey with problems and possibilities all its own occurs underground.
Any fantasy world worthy of the label is practically hollowed out by a network of caverns, tunnels, and subterranean grottoes that would make terrestrial cavers wet themselves. Regardless of what it’s called—Underdark, Khyber, Svartalfheim, or just “the underworld”—a journey through that landscape must be a different sort of undertaking from walking or riding between Riverdale and Midvale. Players should never be able to forget that their characters are moving through a dark, alien landscape.
Like the Scarecrow, I believe that one of the greatest rewards for having a human brain is the ability to think deep thoughts. To imagine the big picture. To envision a grand machine in your mind and then command its wheels to turn and its gears to mesh. It’s the joy of invention, of imagination, of pure creation.
Arenas, Temptations, and Movement: Providing a Memorable and Challenging Environment
Another idea to borrow from Diablo 3 when it comes to boss battles is to crank it up to 11 when it comes to the arenas in which they are fought. Despite the game’s dungeon-crawling heart, you’ll find some truly breathtaking scenes that take place far from subterranean lairs. Cliffsides, cityscapes, and even a battle in heaven take center stage. So, how does this play into our D&D games? Have you ever pitted your players against a corrupt demon invading the Astral Plane and duked it out in that unusual environment? Take some time to add some unusual visceral elements to the locations in which your combats take place, and you might just have your players talking about that combat for years to come.