“You’re led through city gates where armed guards train crossbows and ballistae at you suspiciously from every medieval wall hole. Your guide takes you through a vast metropolis into a huge castle, knights and men-at-arms train in the courtyard. You’re lead through the castle into the audience chamber of the King, now flanked by his Praetorian elite body guard.
“I need you to go into the place and find the magic thing” says the King.
“Why not send some of your million fecking mooks?”
“Because you are great adventurers, mighty heroes”
“I mean, thank you, but we’re not better than a hundred trained soldiers with crossbows, shields and spears, and siege weapons. They would really shit us up”.
“Oh, fair enough, I’ll send them then, I mean I already pay them. Smart move. Good talk.”
I’m going to recommend to you a solution for this narrative problem with something purely mechanical. It’s something which you see all the time in dungeon design, I’m not claiming to have invented it, but its role in solving RP issues may not have occurred to you. It is the airlock. Not literally, though maybe literally.
The problem I’m talking about, for those of you who didn’t quite get the point of the masterpiece of literature above, is you could solve a lot of problems in D&D by sending an army to deal with them, so why is anyone sending a handful of expensive but squishy adventurers?
Why in a setting with dungeons and caves and abandoned towers full of gold and gems and magical items all over the place does a king, or queen or even mayor of a mid sized town not just equip a bunch of people to go clear them out and take the loot? Why not? Lots would die? Sure, but there are always more mooks. It’s not worth it? Come on, how rich do your characters get? Theres plenty of gold down there?
Now faced with this story based problem you may be tempted to come up with a story based answer, why can’t you send the army? Because the generals do not trust me. Because only the true hero can do the thing. Because this is a secret plan for secret people.
That’s cool. But it can lead to overwriting on the part of the DM. Generals that kings can’t trust don’t stay generals very long, they either die or become king. You don’t have to write yourself out of the problem all the time. You can solve it much more simply.
“They won’t fit”
“Pardon my lord?”
“They won’t fit down the hole. You see as soon as I heard about a cavern of great riches near my city I sent the captain of the guard with one hundred men to go and get the loot”
“Well it worked great for a bit, then they came to a room where the back door would only open if the front door was closed and only five of them could fit in at a time, and holy shit, whatever was on the other side of that door really went to town on those guards, I mean wow, like a goblin remake of Leon, oh man.”
This is the airlock. That part of a dungeon which strictly limits the number of characters that can progress on from there. And it can take any form you want, a portal, a room, a ferry or gondolier, maybe a zeppelin if you are feeling steamy. Actual Airlocks can be interesting during play so if you doing something Sci-fi the go ahead and stick one in.
They make sense too, if you had ownership of a dungeon/castle/crypt/temple you wouldn’t want your enemies rocking up mob-handed and giving you the bum’s rush. If you’ve ever visited an actual castle you’ll have noticed that they are large and imposing on the outside and full of tiny passages and spiral staircases inside that make it very difficult for more than one person to go charging about.
My real point here is that airlocks can solve the narrative problem of why a small group of adventurers are going where it would seem more profitable to send a large group of soldiers. More people wouldn’t fit. Consider this when designing your dungeon, you can even use it as a way to leave behind NPCs who your players rely on, maybe it is the end point in a chase with a monster the party couldn’t hope to match. Just put one in. Airlocks. AIRLOCKS!
What do you guys think? Do you put airlocks in your dungeons or do you prefer a narrative option to answer the “why not send the army” question?. Comments, as always, are welcome.