Today I finally got around to reading a post from a couple of months ago over at an RPG blog called Semper Initiativus Unum about “megadungeons and artifacts.” As is generally the case when I write this kind of post, a relatively throwaway line caught my eye and my imagination.
It strikes me that the deep levels of a megadungeon are possibly the most natural resting spots for artifacts. After all, if the Invulnerable Coat of Arn or the Sword of Kas is just sitting within 600′ of the entrance point of a dungeon, why hasn’t someone already come along and taken it? If there are a dozen layers of dungeon and monsters between it and the surface, well, that makes a bit more sense.
[Emphasis mine.] The question is presumably meant to be rhetorical. But if playing Microscope has taught me anything, it’s that taking this kind of question at face value and trying to come up with a workable answer can be very fruitful. So, as it says above: Challenge accepted. First, a couple of definitions in common RPG terminology.
- An “artifact” is a supernatural object of incredible power. A “normal” magic item might be a potion that heals you or a ring that turns you invisible. In contrast, an artifact would be a fountain that restores the dead to life and the wounded to perfect health, or the One Ring forged by Sauron to control all the other Rings of Power in the world (and also turn the wearer invisible). A sword that never rusts or dulls is magic; a sword that can cut through any substance in the universe is an artifact.
- A “dungeon” is an adventuring location, generally an underground complex of caves, rooms, and tunnels, filled with monsters and treasure. A “megadungeon” is a very large one, often going down many “levels” underground and containing hundreds of rooms filled with foes and traps of increasing danger and rewards of increasing value. In traditional D&D play, a megadungeon can provide enough material for dozens of gaming sessions and carry multiple characters from their first steps through to a rich retirement (or ignominious death).
It’s easy to see why the lower levels of a megadungeon would be a logical and appropriate place for an artifact: a powerful tool is both commensurate with other treasures in a high-reward area, and can help the players overcome the equally difficult challenges they encounter. Also, almost any band of fools can waltz a few hundred feet into a dungeon and make it out alive with the first shiny treasure they see – so why wouldn’t an artifact only a short dash away from the entrance be taken away almost immediately? Well, here are some possibilities….
- The artifact might not stand out. In a cavern full of rocks, the Philosopher’s Stone may register as just one more piece of debris. Only a seasoned adventurer who has spent hour after hour poring over arcane texts would have a chance of recognizing the signs that this is no ordinary rock.
- The artifact might be secured against casual looters. If Kusanagi is inside the body of a great serpent which most adventurers avoid (and which tends to devour those who don’t avoid it), then only those powerful enough to defeat the beast can claim it. If the Armor of Invincibility is on the body of a hermit who lives in the cave, then nobody can take it without finding a way to defeat or trick the hermit or convince her to give it up.
- The artifact might require supernatural conditions to claim. Like above, but with a magical rather than merely logistical impediment. If Excalibur can sit in a town square and resist all attempts to draw it from its stone until the rightful king of all Britain lays hand on it, then it’s not even a leap to imagine an artifact that will only allow itself to be possessed by one who has faced their own sins personified, or parleyed with genies and dragons, or beheld the light of the False Sun and lived.
- Taking the artifact might be dangerous. All of the above assume that getting the artifact in your possession is the tricky part, for one reason or another. But it could also be the case that any schmuck can pick it up, and the hard part is surviving long enough to get it back to town. A golden egg might be guarded by a gauntlet of Indiana-Jones-style traps, tempting the foolish to their doom. The Crown of Shadows might be just sitting on a dais for the taking… surrounded by the petrified corpses of would-be claimants who couldn’t endure the joyful embraces of their new subjects. The Ruby of Fire might be 2000° Kelvin to the touch. The Sacred Bone of Whence may be hunted down and taken back by the gibbering goblin hordes of the Labyrinth.
All of these are viable, and have several advantages (in my mind) over an artifact hidden in the depths. (Not that there aren’t potential downsides as well, or advantages to hiding an artifact down deep and planting clues about it in the upper levels. But I feel like the “artifact dash” approach could lead to some unexpectedly rewarding storytelling moments.)
If adventurers pass by a shiny reward every time they adventure into the dungeon, it should provide a more concrete goal for them to pursue than mere rumor would. In some cases, clever and careful (and lucky) planning and execution could allow the party to “sequence break” the dungeon by gaining the artifact earlier than expected, giving the players a huge feeling of accomplishment and driving the entire adventure in unexpected (and therefore potentially very entertaining) directions. Alternately, a party could ignore all your warning signs and try to steal the artifact long before they’re ready to deal with the consequences, leading to several minutes of panic followed by a fresh start with a new, more alive party. Assuming the players are good sports about it, this should be very entertaining and provide a memorable story to re-tell long after the game has ended. In the case of an artifact hidden in plain sight, the moments of realization and triumphant retrieval should also provide a memorable play session.
In the end, the image that sticks with me is the one that inspired the title of this post: a big, shiny, irresistible artifact on a pedestal in the middle of a cyclopean hallway under the earth… and a band of adventurers just picking it up and sprinting madly for the exit as the darkness comes alive all around them with danger.