Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fantasy Vacation

Having just been to Yellowstone National Park and back again on my hobbit's holiday, I find myself thinking about the question of "where do you get your ideas" that others often ask. The simple one-word answer is "everywhere."

While driving and hiking through Yellowstone, I couldn't turn a full 360-degree circle without coming up with something for my own campaign setting. Being a geothermal hotspot, Yellowstone is a treasure trove of awesome wilderness and dungeon concepts based upon real-life phenomena.

Case in point:

This is called the Dragon's Mouth. It is a hillside hole or cave that spews steam before a pool of boiling water that also emits steam. The vegetation around the bubbling pool is particularly lush and there is a stench of sulfur. What local villager would not assume a dragon laired here? What adventurer wouldn't come to investigate? But...there is no dragon in Yellowstone and the entire site is the result of natural forces. Would I put a dragon here? Sure I would. Do I NEED to?

There are so many hazards at a spot like this that a dragon would almost be adding insult to injury for most low-level PCs. Just getting into the cave would be a deadly exploit. Boiling water...scalding steam...possibly noxious sulfurous vapors...an eroding hillside that could collapse at any moment - and don't forget the fact that much of this area has been wracked by earthquakes during its tumultuous history. Let one strike while the heroes are inside! Let the steam and pressure build up until it blows out in a particularly ferocious geyser blast.

By the time the would-be dragon slayers encounter their quarry, their HP totals would have taken a substantial pre-combat hit. And, for an idea of what real natural caves can be like, go spelunking. It worked wonders for my DMing skills.

Watching TV, browsing Google images, and reading books can be fine sources for adventure and campaign research - but nothing beats actually being there. Even if you can't jaunt off on a fully paid vacation to an epic national park, a simple hike through a local park or woodland can spark any number of ideas. You might be surprised to find a number of recreational caves in your immediate area - along with a caving society to help get you there.

Not only have I gotten fantastic ideas for wilderness sites or natural dungeon features, the opportunity to see real animals in their own habitat provides invaluable details for description and monster variants. Besides, the occasional static tourist draw can also stimulate an idea or three.

For example? Don't mind if I do:

A petrified tree.

Would that inspire a slow-but-tough petrified treant? How about a stone-skinned dryad? Petrified dungeon doors would be darned difficult to bash in. Petrified wood golems might provide an unpleasant surprise for unsuspecting adventurers. What about going a bit further and creating giant petrified mushrooms?

Endless possibilities? Just about. Get out there and find them for yourself.


  1. I feel the same way. Inspiration can strike in the "most grand" or "most wierd" of places.

    PS: I want a sticker that says "WWND" (what WOULD Nestor do?)...

    Carry on.

  2. We don't have any recreational caves in this area (damn you, Atlantic Coastal Plain!!). What we do have are miles-upon-miles of evergreen forest with sandy soils and shrubby undergrowth, long sandy beaches, swamps, marshes, inlets and barrier islands. Just a few miles drive in any direction is either a small, decaying, inbred town straight out of a Mid-Atlantic Lovecraft story, or the ruins of a failed industrial operation (mostly bog iron furnaces, food-product packaging plants, etc.). Plenty of good opportunities for above ground adventuring. I especially like the 'Most Dangerous Game' scenario, of being hunted through a pine/cedar forest at night, by an intelligent and hungry predator.