Welcome back to "Eberron Under the Glass," a column that looks at how staple themes of D&D adventure can be handled in an Eberron campaign. Whether it's a search for a lost artifact, unearthing lore in an old tome, or dealing with a goblin uprising, Eberron campaigns do things a little differently. Eberron Under the Glass helps Eberron players and DMs get the right feel in the setting.
This article examines the role of dungeon exploration in an Eberron campaign.
Campaign Themes and Dungeons
In a 'typical' campaign, the dungeon is the location for much of the campaign's adventuring. Some campaigns ignore everything outside the dungeon and start each adventure with, "So you're at the entrance to the dungeon...." A dungeon can be an old mine, lost dwarf-hold, or tomb of ancient evil creatures, and everything living in it (with the exception of a few caged prisoners) is something you're expected to kill as part of the adventure. Random encounters keep the danger level high, the PCs are the only explorers in the dungeon, and they can return home victorious when they empty all the rooms.
Not so in Eberron.
Search Slow, Fight Fast: Much of a typical Eberron adventure can be about getting to the dungeon rather than wandering through it. By "getting to the dungeon," we don't mean fighting lots of random encounters while on the road. The dungeon may be known only as a rumor and its location hidden so that the heroes must investigate to find it. That investigation can include library research, locating and then interviewing sages or Last War veterans, bribing wizards and bureaucrats, unraveling puzzles, retrieving maps or keys, and then combing the likely location to find the actual entrance. The dungeon itself is the culmination of the search, the final scene in a series of escalating episodes. When characters get there, the serious action should start quickly and reach a climax quickly. Because the entire dungeon is the climax of what may have been a long and arduous search, dungeons in Eberron are often small enough that the final mission can be resolved in one foray rather than a drawn-out series of incursions and retreats.
Excitement and Danger: Heroes of Eberron get involved in adventures because they're the only people who can do the job. Spending half the game fighting rats in a sewer isn't heroic, even for a 1st-level party. Rat control is a job for the city guard. To reflect the heroic nature of Eberron characters and highlight the deadliness of a small dungeon, focus on a smaller number of tough challenges instead of many weak challenges. For example, instead of staging four EL 1 encounters with eight CR 1/8 rats, try two EL 2 encounters with five CR 1/3 dire rats followed by a final battle with their CR 3 wererat master. That's more dangerous, more exciting, more to the point, and more memorable.
Things Are Rarely As They Seem: Just because you meet an NPC in a dungeon doesn't make that character evil. A corrupt cleric of the Sovereign Host working on an evil plot probably has non-corrupt (and non-evil) clerics and adepts working for him under the full authority of the church. A wealthy guild of thieves and assassins can employ a dragonmarked heir of House Ghallanda or House Jorasco for cooking or healing. Harming these minions because you find them working in a dungeon is no more appropriate than killing the butler you find in an evil merchant's mansion!
Stories Don't Always End Well: If the heroes emerge from a dungeon battered but carrying the item they were sent to find, only to be ambushed by a rival adventuring party that takes it for their own, it shows the PCs that other forces are at work in the world and gives them an excuse to hunt down their rivals and take back their hard-earned loot. The PCs may not be the only ones exploring a particular dungeon; in a scavenger hunt adventure, two or more groups could be working through opposite ends of a dungeon trying to get to the goal first. This adds time pressure and encourages the heroes to press on rather than rest between encounters.
Sharn: This city is worth a separate mention because it offers unique opportunities for dungeon adventure. In addition to the lava-heated Cogs underground (which offer traditional, abandoned-mine dungeons), the lowest levels of the aboveground towers are a unique place to adventure., Some of these levels have been sealed off for tower stability or as health risks; what sorts of creatures live there? They could be degenerate, inbred humanoids that don't know the Last War is over, secret cults trying to undermine the city's foundations, or the dregs of civilized folk trapped in (or drawn to) these locations. One neat thing about these "dungeons" is that if the heroes get in serious trouble, they can escape by breaking out an exterior wall (assuming the fall to the ground doesn't kill them). It's also possible to make classically pulp, heroic rescues by breaking into these dungeons.
A dungeon adventure in Eberron is more than just "kick down door, kill monster, take treasure." Dungeons can be homes to people as well as monsters -- people with agendas and allies. Make every fight an exciting one, and remember that the end of the dungeon isn't always the end of the adventure.
About the Author
Sean K Reynolds lives in Encinitas, California, and recently left his job at a video game company. His D&D credits include the Monster Manual, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and Savage Species. You can find more game material at Sean's website.