Last Thursday I delivered six locations for GMs to insert into their campaigns that celebrated the fantastic. You could argue that at least one Wonder Of The game-World should reflect what is unique about that particular campaign, and that by leaving a slot free, I achieved the mythical seven; but that presupposes that each of the Wonders that I proposed is suitable for every campaign. They won’t be.
And it would be incredibly dull if every campaign out there used the same six wonders. So this time I’m going to offer some more, that I simply didn’t get time to write up for the previous article. Choice is good. Choice implies permutations and variations. The assumption should be that each GM will populate his game world with as many Wonders Of The Known World as he can think of, focusing especially on those aspects of the world that are unique to his campaign, and drawing apon outside sources only to top up the list.
So, without further ado…
1. The Pyramid Of Reason
A squat four-sided pyramid lost in the desert heat-haze until you are almost on top of it, which appears through the vagarities of natural illusion to appear from the tip down as you approach. The top is three-fifths the length of the base, accurate to the tenth of a millimeter. There are two towering obelisks alongside the entrance which tower to exactly nine-sevenths of the length of the base – or would, if the top of one had not broken off somehow. Eleven different types of stone form the multicolored, multi-textured entrance, accessible after climbing thirteen stairs. Within the pyramid are seventeen chambers protected by 19 doorways, the path illuminated by 23 window-slits hidden within the walls. To reach them, there are 29 different changes of elevation. The base of the entrance side of the pyramid is constructed of 31×31=961 stone blocks of perfectly equal size (not counting the eleven that line the entranceway); the side to the clockwise (when viewed from above) consists of 37×37=1369 stone blocks; the side opposite the entrance, 41×41=1681 stone blocks; and the base on the fourth side, 43×43=1849 blocks. In total, on all four sides, the number of stone blocks that are visible is a multiple of 47×53=2491. It has been calculated that in its total construction, 59x61x67=241,133 stone blocks were used. Within the pyramid, those 29 changes of elevation involve a total of 71 steps. The first chamber is tiled in a complex pattern employing exactly 73 tiles; the second, exactly 79; the third, 83; and so on, through to 157 tiles in the 17th chamber. Detail after detail reflects an obsession with incorporating – somehow – the next prime number into the construction. One section of corridor is covered in 163 red tiles and 173 gray tiles (167 is used elsewhere).
And no-one knows why it was built, when it was built, or who built it.
But legend has it that strange things happen inside…
It’s the excessive, even obsessive, attention to detail that makes this place special. Throw in as many other mathematical concepts and universal constants as you can think of (the value of Pi, for example), going as overboard as you possibly can. Stretch a point if necessary (exactly 25-thirds of the value of pi?).
Now, here’s the fun part: Are the legends true, and if so, what are the strange things?
Everything you’ve ever read about pyramid power, or that you can think up, is true in this place. It does preserve the dead – in one chamber. It does preserve fruit – in another. It sharpens blades – in a third. Purifies water, sharpens the intellect, purifies the spirit, heals the sick… If it weren’t out in the middle of nowhere in some almost-impenetrable desert or other, wars would be fought over it.
With such obvious powers, the question becomes more about “why put it here” than “why build it this way” – the answer to the latter is completely obvious.
If the pyramid has no obvious powers, then the GM has more room to be subtle and sneaky. You can throw as many purported functions at the pyramid as “pet theories” as you like, and let all of them be true – or none. A doorway between worlds – sometimes, or between times. A prison for an extra-planar greebly. A pan-planar survey marker. A lost civilization showing off its mathematical and engineering capacity. Maybe the entire culture that built it is folded in space within, ready to emerge when the desert blooms again. Perhaps its true purpose is simply to serve as a source of inspiration!
Size has been left vague, but if it has 17 internal chambers linked by corridors, it’s going to be monumental. Map the interior and use that to establish the length of the base in whatever units you find convenient – whoever built it probably won’t have used those units, so it doesn’t matter how big the place actually is.
Location has also been left for the GM to decide, but it’s deep within a desert; half the exploring parties that set out for it should fail to arrive, it’s that hard to reach. The more difficult it is to reach, the greater the mystery that surrounds it, because it represents a greater effort on the part of the constructing civilization.
Plot Potential is difficult to pin down, and depends on what the place actually is, and what it is believed to be. If you choose to go with option two, you have lots of choice, and perhaps the greatest plot potential is as a means of engaging your players’ paranoia about what its significance might be.
Above all, though, strive not to have the real purpose seem anticlimactic if the PCs ever discover it. An alien horde of jackal-headed warriors from the past – that works. Cthulhu’s prison cell? That works. A periodic gateway between worlds, planes, or times? That works. The only fixed point in the multi-planar cosmos, used as a reference during the construction of the universe? That works, too.
2. The Caves Of Rockbeard
(You may want to rename this wonder to reflect Dwarven naming conventions in your world).
Named for the discoverer, an eccentric Dwarven miner and prospector with a penchant for striking out alone in pursuit of some theory of his own about where new mineral deposits could be found; although he got lucky in a small way from time to time, these remain his most notable discovery. A system of vast caverns with smoothly regular dimension, uniform in size, illuminated by vast spires of floor-to-ceiling quartz-like material that seem to trap light from somewhere and release it slowly, also perfectly formed and cut, each a meter across with eight-sided cross-section, and linked by hundreds of leagues of perfectly-carved tunnels, also of uniform size. Since their discovery, hundreds of expeditions have attempted to map the tunnels, without success, because they never seem to lead to the same cavern twice. Every attempt at being clever – trailing lines of string, or keeping a second party in line-of-sight with the first – has failed. It’s rumored that Rockbeard himself is lost somewhere in the tunnels that bear his name.
Time seems to pass differently within the tunnels and caves. In places it crawls, and in places it speeds. Expeditions are constantly turning up to discover that they have traversed hundreds of miles in impossibly-short times (as counted by the surface world) – or that they have spent decades underground which seemed to them like only a few days. The only constant is that their personal calendars cannot be reconciled with the passage of time as measured by anyone else.
Attempts to mark passages by means of writing or carving on the walls suggest that there is only one tunnel of finite length that loops and curves back apon itself, reaching a destination only when the tunnels “feel like it”. A troop of explorers may carve a marker on a tunnel wall, walk for a week, discover the same marker, and shortly thereafter emerge into a cavern located hundreds or thousands of miles from where they set out. Others report walking in a straight line for a day without deviation from that straight line – only to find themselves reemerging into the same cavern from which they departed by a completely different entrance on a completely different alignment.
If the tunnels were in perfect condition, this would be a curiosity and nothing more. They aren’t; in places, the walls have collapsed, and all manner of underground-dwelling creatures have found their way into the tunnels through these breaches. These pose a constant threat to travelers, but more significantly, sometimes find their way to the surface to emerge near a populated location. Similarly, surface creatures sometimes emerge many miles from their natural terrain – mountain creatures near desert oases or isolated farmsteads, desert creatures in swampy marshes, and so on. It is rumored that occasionally creatures can enter caverns in another plane of existence entirely and emerge on the prime material plane, or vice-versa.
Most of the caverns contain great Dwarvish enclaves, though some have been claimed by Drow or other underground races. New caverns are being discovered – and being lost again – all the time. There are indications that the caverns themselves migrate, relative to the surface world, from time to time. A Dwarven community can spend a hundred years as neighbors of a particular surface settlement, establishing trade links and relations – and discover, one day, that the passage to the surface now leads to a completely different community hundreds of miles removed from where it had been.
Most D&D campaigns I’ve played in have the concept of a central ‘civilized’ core and a wilderness outside it, with various layers of transition between the two. This takes that concept and throws it away completely. A safe community can have a Drow-occupied tunnel turn up a week from now, without warning. Or a wandering Djinn from the City Of Brass. Anything can be Anywhere, it’s just a question of how improbable it is. All settlements would need to be fortified, and adventure would be anywhere.
This would have a profound impact on military tactics – it does no good holding all the mountain passes if your enemy can turn up behind your lines. Of course, the odds of that happening are low, but terrain no longer offers the same security that it did.
The great temptation that must be guarded against with this Wonder is overuse. Strategic situations are stable, most of the time – but every now and then, the strategic situation changes without warning.
Systems Of Control
Most GMs will tend to want to establish patterns to the shifts, even if these are not understood by the inhabitants of their game world. Most players, on encountering the caverns and associated phenomena, will want to identify “triggering conditions” that lead to the topological rearrangements. The GM should resist establishing patterns for his own use, and resist even more strongly any attempts to make sense of the Caverns by PCs. As soon as any such are established, the caverns start losing their Mystery. The Cavern shifts and tunnel system should remain a perpetual unknown. Unless you build an entire campaign around finding the cause and shutting them down to restore order to the world, of course.
The presence of this wonder makes the game world a less orderly, more anarchic and unpredictable place. Certainty would be regularly undermined by the unpredictable. The notion of ‘Destiny’ would be less believable to the populace, and a more fatalistic attitude would take its place – ‘What happens, happens’. Self-reliance would be emphasized; you couldn’t rely on good relations with the neighbors, because next week there might be Orcish Death Squads roaming through the hills between here and there. This is a world in which adventure comes to you eventually, whoever and wherever you are.
Nothing has been said in the description about who made the tunnels and caverns, but they are clearly artificial in nature. If the GM intends to build a major adventure or campaign around this wonder, deciding who, why, and how will be essential.
In a more prosaic interpretation of the subject tag-line, it might be helpful to know where the idea came from. The initial concept was essentially a set of subway tunnels connecting subway stations – but the tunnels were a rabbit warren, a maze. I stripped out anything that gave away what the source concept of the tunnels – the rails, etc – and supersized the concept to cover an entire continent. Then I wondered what it would be like if it were just one, or a limited number, of topologically strange tunnels – which threw in the spatial distortions and inspired me to supersize the whole thing again, extending it to other planes of existence.
And that might have been the original purpose – to connect all the planes of existence and permit easy passage from one to another. But the engineering, when whoever it was actually constructed the place, could not cope with the multi-planar stains and stresses, and as a result the darned thing has never worked right. Just a theory :)
The Caverns Of Rockbeard are a homogenizer. No place is removed from the frontier when the frontier comes to you. It’s unlikely, but every now and then seemingly-impossible encounters can take place. I’ve you’ve ever wanted a half-Orc half-Elemental hybrid, this is your excuse for doing it. The Caverns give the GM the capacity to completely reinvent the game world whenever he feels like it – within limits.
The big problem with this wonder is two-fold: either it’s new, in which case it loses that aura and mystery and Wonder and becomes a problem with a solution out there somewhere – or it will cast its shadow throughout the campaign background. That’s fine if you’re creating a new campaign, but this just doesn’t work as well in an established campaign.
3. The Rainbow Of Eternity
There is a mountain with a mesa-like flattened top. Long ago, something tore a huge hole through it from West to East. On both sides, there are lakes. There is a river that flows down a taller peak to the north to the top of the mountain, then cascades in a huge waterfall thousands of feet down the eastern face, into the lake below. Each day, as the sun sets, it shines through a notch in the mountains, reflects off the lake, through the hole in the mountain, and through the waterfall, creating the world’s largest and most stable rainbow, whose position varies precisely and predictably with the seasons. It’s the improbability that makes the place so awe-inspiring; in a million years, you could never construct such a thing by accident.
If the Caves Of Rockbeard are a wonder that increases the anarchy within a campaign, this is a wonder that is reflective order. In essence, it’s a cross between Stonehenge, a sundial, and a rainbow. If the seasons are regular, predictable calendar events, this is a natural Wonder that would become a holy place to someone. If they aren’t orderly and predictable in the same way that they are in our world, then a natural phenomenon that announces midwinter and midsummer each year is a WONDER in big brass letters. Envoys would travel from Kingdoms all over the continent to be present at the key moments, and the place is likely to become the Switzerland of the game world.
There are some very deep concepts embedded within this Wonder. Principles of physics and predictability, of the scientific foundations that undermine how the game world works. If the seasons are not predictable in length, if you can’t forecast the date of an equinox but only measure it when it happens, then orbital mechanics aren’t the cause of the seasons – which means that something supernatural is the cause, and this Wonder measures the effect of that something on the world.
Players might not figure all this out when they first hear about the Wonder, but enough of them will know enough about Stonehenge and like objects and history to eventually put the pieces together. It’s fun watching the eyes glaze over and the jaw drop when that happens :)
Location has been left deliberately vague, but it’s going to be in some Alp-height mountains somewhere in order to accommodate the very specific geographic requirements. A location that’s more-or-less central to the “civilized world” emphasizes the diplomatic function in a supernatural campaign.
The best plots centered around this wonder occur in a supernatural world. There are obvious diplomacy-inspired plots that result in hostile forces coming together in a neutral location. This wonder can also be the starting point for the PCs to explore the supernaturalism – “Midwinter is late in coming, and we desperately need to know why. We’re running out of food, and we know that Korzagg’s army will March when the weather breaks. Will summer ever return – and when?”
Then, you could have an adventure that looks into who and what carved out that hole in the mountain. Forbidden weapons? Forbidden magics? Something crashing to earth through the mountain and carving out a crater that filled with water, forming the other lake (the one the waterfall doesn’t flow into)?
But this wonder generally works better as simply a unique, breathtaking, location, somewhere that just is.
4. The Desert Of Gold
This desert region appears to be dune after rolling dune of solid gold, polished and buffed to a mirror finish.
It actually consists of fine-grained dusky yellow sand, only a few inches thick, atop a layer of rock; the “dunes” are actually the shapes of this rock, wrinkled and crumpled. At night, the water table rises, and the surface becomes waterlogged and then freezes at the surface, giving the mirror-like sheen to the terrain. When the sun rises, the region becomes a golden mirror, which reflects much of the heat back from the surface; the golden finish lasts for hours before the thin layer of frozen ice melts and streams from the tops of the dunes into the shallows, where it drains back into the water table.
Subsurface grass-like plants feed on the water and the nutrients carried from the sand, poor though they are (in agricultural terms), sustaining a natural matting that holds the sand to the dune “surface” and preventing it from accumulating in the shallows. Occasionally, a blight afflicts a dune, releasing the sand, exposing the rocky underside of the dunes and creating a dangerous sand-drift in the hollow to windward. These are the only “flat ground” in the region, and travelers soon learn that if they aren’t climbing up or down a slope, they are in trouble. When the water drains through such drifts, it packs the surface to an unknown depth like a frozen pond, while maintaining looseness in the subsurface; how strong this surface is remains an unknown until you put your weight on it. Will you fall in and sink? Only one way to find out…
Most Wonders are even more awesome close up. This was deliberately devised to be a Wonder that was more spectacular at a distance. Some of the geological/climactic details probably don’t make real-world sense – who cares? But make due allowances, which can break the suspension of disbelief (and the awe & wonder) if a player challenges the mechanics.
The environment poses a particular challenge to adventurers seeking to cross it. Making camp is difficult; it’s hard to drive tent-pegs into rock, and rock is never far from the surface. Tents and sleeping mats will become waterlogged and then frozen. Frostbite is not out of the question. Fires will go out. Breaking camp will be a whole new challenge. And, during the mornings, the thermal extremes suffered by those seeking to traverse the region are extreme. In effect, you receive two or three times as much heat as you would in the desert alone without the reflective effect. That means that the temperature climb is precipitous, you can be roasting even while the soles of feet are freezing, and employing sources of shade is a waste of time. And, of course, the light (especially early in the morning) can be blinding – think of being snow-blind.
The rapid increase in air temperature means that by the time the reflective effect fades, the temperature is already 100°F and still climbing. The Desert Of Gold is easily the hottest desert in existence with peak temperatures in excess of 130°F – enough to kill unprotected humans and animals. This prevents wildlife from disturbing the delicate ecology of the effect.
How big a region should this be? Too large to cross in a day, and big enough to stretch from horizon to horizon. But not too much bigger. About 100 x 100 miles sounds about right to me – especially remembering that there are no camels and that horses won’t survive for very long. Certainly, no more than twice that. And don’t forget to allow for reduced movement rates across sand when considering the question.
There are several possible plots, but many of them are mutually exclusive. If it is felt that the desert is impassable, you could have someone figure out a way to stage an invasion through the undefended flank. You could stick something interesting in the middle of it, and contrive some reason for the PCs needing to cross it – and having to work out how. Or simply have someone with more wealth than good sense employ the PCs to work out a way to cross it (with secret plans to invade a neighbor that way once the PCs have opened the way) – something that might be a rude surprise to them. But mostly, it’s just there to look spectacular.
If you get challenged on the particulars of the geology/climate, postulate that under those rocky ridges are naturally-occurring unstable passageways to one or more elemental planes, and see if that can’t answer the challenge. Or perhaps they aren’t natural, but are the results of some colossal spell going wrong, or an arcane cataclysm of some sort.
5. The Emerald Falls
For hours you hack your way through the jungle toward the sound of water. As you chop away one final wall of greenery, you see a clearing in the trees containing a pool of deep green water at the foot of a cliff. Colorful birds flit from tree to tree and protest the intrusion as you can do nothing but gape at a waterfall of solid emerald, frozen in place. Awestruck, you advance to examine the phenomenon more closely as chattering monkeys peer between the broad-leafed vegetation.
This obviously belongs in a jungle setting, and a somewhat mountainous one at that. It should be geographically isolated; getting to it should be an effort. It’s also clearly a natural wonder.
What you’re looking at:
The cliff is undercut slightly beneath the lip of the waterfall and covered with a combination of moss and climbing plants that form a vertical carpet. Vines, naturally twisted and knotted, descend from the lip to the surface of the pool, where they are lost from view beneath the giant floating pads. The water is laced with dissolved mineral salts, which contribute to the color of the pool; over time, when the wind blows through the vines, and it’s late in summer when the water flow is at it’s least, some of the minerals have been deposited on the surface of the vines. Year after year, this green crystal has accumulated, until the vines were completely encased in a solid crystal shape running the length of the waterfall. From time to time, a portion of the crystal becomes so heavy that it will no support itself and breaks off to fall into the pool, where it will vanish from sight and slowly dissolve.
Aside from being a gorgeous location in and of itself, there are a couple of potential plotlines for this location.
- Being isolated, it’s a great place to hide out – or to hide something in the pool (suitably protected, of course).
- Where does the water come from? ‘Dissolved minerals’ suggests underground – which in turn suggests that there might be a hidden location in the mountain.
- Similarly, there could be a cave hidden behind that “green carpet” behind the waterfall and you’d never know it.
- Finally, the geography matches the sort of place where you might really find emeralds! Perhaps carried to the surface by the water source? And perhaps, on very rare occasions, one really good gemstone emerges? “Romancing The Stone”, anyone?
Technically, the Blog Carnival ends today – but I have one more article to go, offering some Wondrous Locations for a Sci-Fi Campaign, which I’m going to sneak over the line on Thursday. Next Monday, I’ll wrap up the September Blog Carnival :)