It should come as no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about the dungeon. As my attempts to fully document that which lies within the halls of the Dungeon Still Not Named™ continue, it’s quite easy to tread upon imaginative ground that I’ve already worn into a muddy rut. The challenge is to keep adding things that are fresh and interesting to the party, rather than Storeroom #47b located behind Iron-bound Door #277.
I’m beginning to see why the classic megadungeon complexes dating from the wild and woolly days of D&D were of the “funhouse” variety; a style of dungeon that is often maligned by post-modern gamers. It’s quite easy to design a “realistic” dungeon when you’re confining yourself to only a level or two and intend it to be ventured into but a single time. When you’re looking at a much more massive construction, one that will fill ten levels at the minimum and clock-in at over 1000 rooms, it’s quite a different story. It would be very easy to attempt to maintain a realistic approach to the design, but in shackling oneself with the restraints of realism and rationality, you’re also running a high-risk of your players growing bored with the whole thing very quickly. The only rational counter-measure to this is to embrace the irrational from time to time. It has taken me a bit of time and effort to break my ingrained habit of kowtowing to realism. I’m not quite free from that habit yet, but I’m getting there. And to be quite honest, I’m having much more fun reveling in the freedom that that has allowed me.
It is with this new-found sense of irrational creative energy that I present six unusual doors for inspiration or outright theft for your own dungeons. They sure as heck beat yet another stuck wooden door for your players to run across.
1) The Storm Door – This door appears to be of incredibly odd construction. Either made from or sheathed in copper, the surface of this door is covered with a jumbled mass of tubes, metal wires, crystals, unrecognizable stone, and box-like protrusions. Four thick metal bolts keep the door tightly fastened. There appears to be no keyhole or lock visible if examined.
This door is actually a bizarre techno-magical construction. It allows access to the rooms beyond it only when the magical battery encased in its surface is fully powered. Once the battery is at full charge, the four bolts shoot open and the door swings in on its hinges. When found, the battery in the door is dead and requires the application of electricity to function. If the referee is feeling generous, it may require only a single jolt of juice, such as that produced by a shocking grasp. For doors that guard more substantial rewards, the battery might require a much higher voltage of power before it becomes operational. This could range from anywhere between 5 dice of electrical energy (like that generated by a 5th level magic-user’s lightning bolt) to 30+ dice of electrical energy (which would require multiple applications of spells or magic wands to generate). The party will of course not know how much energy is required before the door opens. The referee might also decide that the magical battery can only contain so much electrical power before discharging the excess in a 20’ radius, or perhaps exploding in an electrical conflagration that destroys both the door and those standing too close to it.
2) The Door that is a Jar – This door appears to be an immensely secure portal, bound in iron and secured by many locks and bolts. Just by looking at it, the party can guess that it’s going to be a chore for even the strongest of men to pry open. A knock spell has no effect upon this mighty barrier.
This is because this door is a fake. It is set firmly into the wall and provides no access to the rooms beyond. The purpose of the door is to delay any attempted trespassers and to cause them to exhaust their magic and resources in attempting to open it.
The real door to the room beyond is a simple barrel, urn, large amphora or similar container, which is usually hidden in plain sight amongst others of its ilk in the room. That container is enchanted with a permanent version of dimension door that functions like the nature ability of a boggle (q.v.). Anyone entering through the open mouth of the container finds themselves exiting a similar container located on the other side of the false door, granting them free access to the room or rooms resting there. The container will radiate a magical aura of alteration magic if detect magic is cast, but other than this there are no obvious clues to how to breach this massive portal.
3) Door of the Dead – Created from some flat black metal, this door is cold to the touch and hangs from bone-white hinges. It often bears bas-relief decorations of skulls, bones or funerary rites on its surface. There is no visible lock or means of securing the door shut. A simple handle of carved bone is attached to the face of the door.
This door is secure against most attempts to open it by the living. It cannot be forced or broken down. A knock spell will function as normal and incorporeal creatures may pass through it easily. The only relatively easy way to open this portal is to have the dead do it for you. The door swings open easily and silently if any undead creature places its hand upon the handle. For most parties, circumventing this door would require the presence of an animated skeleton or zombie under their control. The referee may opt to make the door slightly more passable for a low-level group of adventurers. In this case, even the touch of a dead humanoid’s hand – say one hacked from a recently slain goblin – would allow the party to pass through.
4) Painted Door – This is a secret door and must be found accordingly. The door is in a wall that has been partially covered by an unfinished mural or fresco. This door is located in a part of the wall where the painting has yet to be completed, although the areas nearby have been decorated with images. The only mundane way to pass through this portal is to finish the mural over the space where the door is located. Once the painting is completed, the door swings open to reveal that which lies beyond it.
Depending on the referee, the party might find the tools and materials needed to complete the painting in the same room or in another section of the dungeon. He might alternately rule that the painting supplies are not available within the complex and must be purchased back in town. Once the party has the means to finish the painting, they must do so in a manner that meets the aesthetical standards of the original artist. There are few ways of determining if the party has the artful skills needed to finish the painting.
The referee might rule that anyone possessing the Secondary Skill: Limner/painter can successfully finish the mural, or if using proficiency rules, has the Artistic Ability non-weapon proficiency. Another option would be to allow one character to make a modified ability check. I’d recommend using the character’s (Wisdom + Dexterity/2) to represent their talent with paint and brush. A third, and more interesting solution, would be to provide the players with an unfinished drawing – perhaps a simple line sketch found on the Internet with part of it erased in a paint application – and have one of them actually finish the drawing. This might give a player who has some actual artistic skill a chance to shine at the table. Of course, the referee will have to make a qualitative judgment of the player’s artistic skill to determine their success or failure and some referees might not be comfortable in doing such.
5) Puzzle Door – The puzzle door, if found unassembled is nothing more than a doorframe embedded into the stones of a wall. It leads only to blank stone an inch beyond the frame. It might initially be misidentified as a bricked-up doorway. Nothing can be detected on the other side of the brickwork by either magical or mundane means. This doorframe has a matching door that fits within its confines and allows access to the extra-dimensional space that lies beyond. The problem is that the door lies in several pieces and has been secreted in other parts of the dungeon. If all the pieces of the door are found and reassembled within the doorframe, the door glows briefly with a white-red light, then swings open to reveal a 10’ x 10’ x 10’ extra-dimensional room. The door remains intact as long as it is left open, but once closed, it separates into its multiple parts again.
The smallest number of door pieces on record is three, the largest twenty-seven. The pieces are often of odd shapes and angles and require some thought and practice to assemble correctly. A referee with a penchant for props might wish to construct a miniature door from cardboard, styrofoam or wood, and then cut the door into multiple pieces with an x-acto knife or jigsaw. He may then distribute the pieces to the players as they are discovered during the exploration of the dungeon. Once they are able to reassemble the door, they are able to use it in the doorframe.
Since the door returns to its separate parts once closed, it is possible to trap a creature within the extra-dimensional space if the door is closed with them still inside. In most cases, this dooms the creature to a slow death by dehydration and starvation. Not all creatures are subject to such a fate, however, and the party who assembles a puzzle door might discover something on the other side of it that has been imprisoned for a long, long time…
6) The Repulsive Door – This appears to be a simple wooden door, having only a handle and latch and no lock. It is never locked, barred, or otherwise secured, and could normally be opened without effort. However, there’s more to this door than meets the eye.
A repulsive door possesses some sort of rudimentary intelligence, imparted upon it during its arcane creation. The door can read the thoughts of creatures within 30’ of it as if it was employing the 2nd level magic-user spell ESP. As long as no creature wishes to go through the portal, it simply stands in its frame, content with its simple existence. Should a creature wish to pass beyond it and moves towards it, however, the door protects itself with a repulsion field that mimics the 6th level magic-user spell repulsion. The door ceases the field as soon as the creature stops attempting to approach it with an intent to open or pass through it. The door can generate this field an unlimited amount of times each day, so bypassing it will be problematic. A knock spell will cause the door to open, but attempting to pass through the portal will cause the door to slam shut and activate the repulsion field.
The only way to bypass a repulsion door is to shield one’s mind from the door as outlined in the spell description for ESP, to possess the key for the door, which negates the effects of the field, or to pass through the door unwittingly. This third method is difficult to do, but circumstances might occur that allows this to happen. An example would be using telekinesis on an unsuspecting creature and hurling them at the door. If struck hard enough, that creature might serve as a living battering ram and bash the door open. A repulsive door that has been successfully open by physically touching it is unable to generate a repulsion field until it is closed again. The door must also be located within its doorframe to function. If removed from its frame in some manner, it loses all of its enchantments and special abilities.