Monday, May 9, 2011

Dungeon Design Elements: The Portcullis

Those of you that are familiar with Hirst Arts will be aware that one of their Gothic Molds includes an iron gate, that can used as a portcullis feature in your dungeons.

Bruce Hirst, the owner of Hirst Arts, has this to say about the inclusion of the iron gate on one of his molds: "I placed the iron gate on this mold because I thought it needed one badly. Most crypts, graveyards or cathedrals have gated off areas to keep people out of the holy places or to protect relics."

Portcullises and bricked-up passages are two dungeon elements that get nowhere near as much play as they deserve. In those few instances where portcullises are used in a dungeon, they are typically employed as a trap, with a portcullis dropping behind the party after they open a false door at the end of a long hallway.

Few people think to use a portcullis in lieu of a door. In some ways, I think a portcullis is actually superior to a door. It impedes transit in the same way as a door, but entices characters with a glimpse of what is beyond, while frustrating attempts to search or navigate the area. And because there are harsh rules for bending bars and lifting gates, it is more difficult to bypass a portcullis.

Under the AD&D rules, successive attempts to open a door are permitted. Failure simply increases the danger of wandering monsters, and alerts those beyond the door to your presence. A bend bars/lift gates roll, by comparison, can be made only once: failure precludes further tries. This heightens the tension around the table when a bend bars/lift gates roll must be made. The worst that can happen with a failed open-door attempt is that the monsters beyond the door cannot be surprised. With a failed bend bars/lift gates attempt, you may never gain ingress to that area; an area important enough to have a portcullis guarding it.

When including portcullises in a dungeon, it's important to provide some mechanisms to unlock or otherwise bypass them. Dungeon Module B1, In Search of the Unknown, contains just such a mechanism, found in a storeroom filled with implements. As the DM rhymes off the items in the storeroom, she will eventually announce the existence of four hacksaws. I'll bet your party didn't think to bring those into the dungeon, particularly if they aren't listed in the miscellaneous items for sale.

Other options for bypassing portcullises include levers, found elsewhere in the dungeon, that lock or unlock certain portcullises, depending on their position. The important thing here is to allow the resourceful player to bypass the portcullis, either with a pre-determined dungeon element or through the employment of some clever stratagem (think of Pirates of the Caribbean's Jack Sparrow, using leverage to dislodge the door to his prison cell, for example).

If portcullises suggest something worth protecting, walled-off or bricked-up areas suggest something that characters need to be protected from. Ghouls, vengeful ghosts and other undead immediately come to mind. Bricked-up areas can be even more player-maddening that those defended by portcullises. Clearly, those who built the wall were fearful, embarrassed or ultra-protective of whatever lay beyond. With a portcullis, the builders imagined that they would want to eventually access the blocked area. With a wall? That sends a pretty clear signal that the builders have little intention of ever returning to the area so blocked. Are the characters willing to break out the mattocks and shovels, dig through the wall, and brave the potential horrors beyond? A delicious conundrum, don't you think?

11 comments:

Dangerous Brian said...

The portcullis (and it's forcefield sci-fi analogue) has always been a favoured dungeon feature of mine -ever since my old Advanced Heroquest games on rainy summer afternoons in high school.

Wall up areas however? Damn, I really need to make use of those a LOT more

Taketoshi said...

Brian:

Agreed. That is definitely one feature (especially when well-presented) that has not seen nearly enough play in my dungeons. But for no longer!

Roger the GS said...

The whole portcullis versus door thing in AD&D points out the silliness of rolling each time for success; when the guy with 18/10 strength fails, he calls in his 13 strength buddy who gets lucky?

In my game, I roll randomly for how many man-strengths a feat will take for anyone; STR bonuses give an individual multiple man-strengths. It varies how many people can realistically work at the same time; for bend bars, it would be one, I'd think, while multiple people can try to crash or ram a door.

Another thought from your illustration: I'd like to see anyone (even Hercules) try to bend a gate with riveted cross-reinforcements.

kiltedyaksman said...

Spot-on about bricked-up walls.

*runs to blue graph paper*

A Paladin In Citadel said...

kiltedyaksman said...
Spot-on about bricked-up walls.
*runs to blue graph paper*


The question is, how to represent them on the map?

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Dangerous Brian said...
Wall up areas however? Damn, I really need to make use of those a LOT more

Me too. You very rarely see a party breaking through a wall.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Roger the GS said...
Another thought from your illustration: I'd like to see anyone (even Hercules) try to bend a gate with riveted cross-reinforcements.

Break out the hacksaws!

kiltedyaksman said...

For a bricked-up wall, I'd propose a "B" where you'd see an "S" for a secret door. I'm literally making a megadungeon right now and I'm using it :) Great idea.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Awesome!

Joseph said...

I used bricked-up openings extensively in one of the levels of Castle of the Mad Archmage (it was a level full of tombs and crypts, most of which were bricked up).

We ended up using a circle to represent the opening. The DM would then fill in the circle with pencil to indicate that the party had knocked through the brickwork.

richard said...

Speaking of breaking through walls, did you see bldgblog's awesome post on the perforatable city?