Your best guess is that you’ve found the place. The peddler warned the entrance was going to be peculiar, and the rotting, gaping mouth of a giant elephant makes the warning an understatement. There is no ease in entering the underground laboratory – you have to squeeze through on your stomach. Your feet don’t immediately touch ground as you choose feet first, and suddenly you are holding onto the throat of the beast as you dangle above the floor below some 15 feet down. Suspended from the ledge, your eyes are filled with an array of hues from liquid filled bottles boiling around the room. An older man is hunched over a book as he writes while referring to a chart nearby. His back is turned, so you deftly drop down, leaning a bit to land on the cushion of a cot. Your choice is to backstab the man before he can unleash the power of the Nine Hells upon you….at least that is the plan.
I almost always begin work with a notepad. I seldom use a computer for note taking because it feels too organized for this stage. I’m not wanting to get an essay down; I just want to drop as many ideas as I can, often writing all over the page to cram as much as I can on one sheet.
With the initial structure concept, I wrote lighthouse, home, courthouse, warehouse, tavern, windmill, mausoleum, sanctuary, and circus. I simply envisioned as many buildings as I could think of in a few seconds and wrote anything down even if it wasn’t something I was wild about. Usually after I have my list, there is one or two that have already jumped out at me, and in this case, it is the lighthouse. I like the concept, and since they are typically very simple in style, it gives me an opportunity to come up with something very unique to make this lighthouse one-of-a-kind special.
The next step for me is the general concept of this building. What makes this thing so unique? Is there a gaping portal on the ground of the main floor? I visualize an ordinary interior lighthouse and begin randomly inserting things that usually don’t associate with a lighthouse like giant mirrors, guillotines, dark portals, caged animals, water tanks, aviary, small shopping center, a library, wine cellar, potters lab, tentacles, and innards of a living organism.
How big should this lighthouse be? I don’t want a traditional lighthouse because many of them are nothing but a spiral staircase up to the observation deck. This will include a few floors with a tight, wrought iron staircase that pierces the center. I don’t want it to wind up feeling more like a wizard’s tower, so it will have 4 floors including the ground floor and observation deck. Really I could have just increased the thickness of the lighthouse and refrained from having so many floors, having each floor contain more square footage, but multiple floors will allow for different themes or environments.
What is the light source at the top? Open flame? Magical electric lantern? An eye…no. A holy symbol? A gem? Pure energy? Perhaps the fountain below has a tube that pierces the spiral staircase (or the stairs attach to the tube for anchor support), and gently erupts at the top floor, its falloff landing in a collection tray to be pumped back down to the fountain. Add a saucer-shaped reflective piece of metal behind the flame and you have your reflection.
Should the building be made of brick? Stone? Crystals? Perhaps it is made of flesh and part of a living organism? The lighthouse could be merely a protrusion of a colossal beast that lurks under the surface in a 1000 year slumber. It doesn’t have to be perfectly constructed either. Rickety, uneven floors with an off-center z-axis vertical (meaning it isn’t perfectly straight up). Does it have to be a solid form? Can it not be made of a thick enough gas that constantly swirls around its outer walls, yet you can reach out and touch it, giving a somewhat gel-like texture. For me, the lighthouse itself isn’t what’s unique. It’s the location and what’s inside (that counts).
Locations can be on a remote mountain range deep in the snow overlooking a valley; floating on a piece of granite that is neutrally buoyant in air; on the back of a moving creature such as a dragon or giant; in a huge cavern; or it hangs upside down from an overhanging cliff because there’s no room for it on top.
I like the concepts of the dragon as well as in a huge cavern. The dragon could have ransacked a village that had the lighthouse, barreling over the structures, and by simple luck the structure fused onto its back with the various pieces of stone being peppered into the air. The heat from his breath could partially melt the stone or metal to its scales. Does it have to completely be accurate to science? Of course, not. It’s a dragon…
The cavern is also a nice touch. It gives the area more life and offers a sense of volume with the need of a lighthouse. It need not be there to warn ships of nearby rocks. It can provide the general illumination for an entire city much like the sun would. And why not combine both concepts? It is important to not allow what you know in the real world hinder your imagination. Don’t think of caverns as the kind people explore that are confined. Caverns could be miles wide, dozens of miles wide. Large enough for a dragon to fly in. The type of evil dragon who knows he has the only major light source strapped onto his back. When it suits him, he flies around and provides the much needed energy the lighthouse produces in order to grow the crops. Now we are getting somewhere.
Enough Brainstorming, Let’s Get To Work
So we have our idea down for a building to flesh out. I’m going with a traditional look comprising mostly of large stone blocks with reinforcements of thick lumber that wraps around the outside and forms a sort of lattice to secure the stone further. By now the structure should have some organic pieces melded into the construction for being on the back of a dragon for so long, so a mixture of scales and a few claws protrude from the walls. Should this dragon be an ancient red dragon? You betcha. We will flesh out his role in the lighthouse in the next segment with the other NPCs, but for now, we’ll focus on him being a part of the structure and treat him not as a living object.
Since there are going to be NPCs involved with the lighthouse, dwelling inside for whatever reason, there needs to be both a mundane and magical means of getting off a dragon. Since dragons spend a great deal of time resting and conserving energy, either one of his legs or his tail can have a spiral staircase that wraps around and provides access to the ground. I liked the idea of a magical portal in the lighthouse somewhere, hopefully a sinister one because fun, happy portals are boring. So that will be the magical means of getting to and from the lighthouse. The portal’s sister will be off somewhere hard to find such as towards the top of the tallest mountain on the range the cavern is hidden within. You can get in and out of the lighthouse through magic, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk to do it. There can be even a key and lock to open the portal before use.
So now let’s focus on the lighthouse’s insides. I decided to go with 4 floors, each of which will have a decreasing square footage as I want a conical lighthouse. You could think outside the box here on its shape. A reverse conical would look more like a wizard’s tower, but having a broader top than bottom can be a benefit on design. You’d be able to fit more things on the pinnacle to give it more of a crowning jewel than just a light source. It could be just a giant open bonfire to give the overall look as if it were a torch.
The main floor should have some kind of an entryway once you get on the back of this dragon. Speaking of the dragon, to hold a lighthouse on its back and not look like disproportionate, this sucker is going to have to be much larger than some of the rule books out there like D&D or Pathfinder. Probably triple to quadruple the size of an adult red and we’re getting somewhere. It needs to be big enough that a party can walk around casually on its back. By this size, we’re talking almost the size of a Tarasque. This lighthouse had better be worth getting into. Remember we are not trying to create some huge campaign story here. Just because things are huge doesn’t mean it has to be a part of a long, drawn out storyline. It can be literally a dragon with a lighthouse on its back that has been a total jerk to the community within the cavern and needs to be disciplined.
Back to the entryway. Being a lighthouse that would naturally have rotating capability on the roof, why not have the entire structure rotate similar to a barber’s pole, minus the stripes? It would rotate slowly, and the opening to the main floor would happen once every 10 minutes. Not so long they get bored killing time, but long enough for them to have an encounter outside the building. Once they are inside, the ground floor is going to be measured as diameter rather than square footage since it is round. Although I don’t like tactical warfare in role playing games, I keep grids in mind when designing for others, so a 0’1” grid equally the standard 5’-0” will really make the diameter at least 10 squares to give them enough room to move about a bit. Four characters with 4 monsters take up all but 2 squares, which causes a lot of “I can’t move because you’re in the way.” Let’s make it more comfortable, so it needs to be 15 squares in diameter or 75’-0”. That allows not only for better movement, but it allows GMs to place monsters outside the 60’-0” range that many spells can reach. It also forces players (and monsters) to move at least once before they can engage in melee, which gives the GM more time to prepare.
I want the lighthouse to have a hidden wine cellar below ground floor, which would put it into the dragon’s back, but with it being so large, the scales will be thick enough. A library would allow for rare tomes and spell books that could be highly sought after, so that’s going in the lighthouse. I like the shopping center because it’s very unique for a lighthouse. Nothing to extravagant, just three small set up stalls three individuals sell their services or wares that are extremely rare, valuable or unique. I like the caged animals idea, but the space is going to be limited, and I think it draws away from the rest of the rooms I want to put in, so the portal will be by itself on a floor. I’ll put the market on the ground floor because it has the most room for the stalls. It’s only 75’-0” across, but it will have cobblestone flooring and a tiny fountain in the center. Those selling their goods and services will have access to the fountain, which will be pure dragon’s fire in liquid form to be used to forge, weld, and bind items together. That way they have a reason to wanting to be there.
Naturally a blacksmith will be among the shops followed by some kind of tailor for the cloth wearers. A sage will be available who has an endless supply of knowledge, but he will be found in the library upstairs. You could throw in a jeweler to cover the rings and amulets, but I prefer something more out of the ordinary. Perhaps the caged animals could come back but not be physically there. Instead, the shop keeper has moving pictures hanging on the wall behind him that are touch-portals to summon the creature to you. The last shop keeper will have to do with the dragon’s fire directly. He is the only one who has the secret knowledge to harness the fire into glass bottles that he can blow to withstand the temperatures. The fire can be available to do a number of things such as destroying powerful artifacts, fuse portals together, break down impossible objects, or could be placed in magical items to provide heat or damaging flame.
With the ground floor done, we go up the stairs to the first floor. Stairs will have to be over the fountain for dramatic effect. The heat will be so intense above the flames that travelers will have to have special protection either in magical items sold by the vendors or spells. Reducing the diameter to 10 squares or 50’-0”, we still have plenty of space to build and move around. The first floor will be the library. Here is where the sage comes in. Every great system needs a sage, and this one can provide the right answers for a price. Back in 1st edition AD&D, there was a chart Gygax created that listed to cost of the question asked. I believe they carried that over to later editions. If you really wanted to expand the game to more than just a one-shot adventure, the sage could provide information after they perform a great task such as retrieving a stolen tome for him or documenting their observations on a newly formed entity in the world the sage is not fully aware of.
The books can be literally anything from foreign languages to interactive books that work like in the game Myst that teleport you elsewhere. They can be popup books that animate over the pages. They can project the images onto the walls in the room. The information can be cryptic or plain as day. One book can be triggered to open the circle door on the ceiling leading up to the 2nd floor. A riddle provided by the sage would have the answer in the title of the book. But what else can you do with a library to make it feel less cliché? How about the library is where the ghosts are? That lighthouse was once a part of a thriving community that was decimated by the dragon centuries ago, and they now are bound to the only remaining structure of their past. They long to be released from their imprisonment, which is to put out the light of the lighthouse. There’s a dilemma. Extinguish the light forever to give relief to the ghosts who are in turmoil or keep the flame going so the living community in the cavern can raise crops and survive?
The third floor should contain the portal. Five squares will be the diameter here, so only 25’-0” across, which starts to make things a bit crowded with a full troop. It’s not as important to have a lock and key on this end because you would have to scale a dragon and go through the building in order to reach it. Having to climb mountains bigger than the Himalayan Mountains only to need to unlock a door is a good balance for both sides. The portal could change its sister side as well. The décor could be all that makes the floor unique rather than having important things. Being of nautical in nature prior to becoming a part of a dragon, this floor could have remnants of the original keeper of the lighthouse. Provide a nice mixture of star charts as well as sea charts. These could spring so much future stories. The keeper would be bored living there isolated as he was, so he would have a lot of time to think. Perhaps he had poured over countless volumes of maps and tomes from the library in search of something special to him. A crystal pendant that contains the tears of a long dead goddess that would have provided him the ability to communicate with her in the afterlife. She could have been the goddess of the night who created the stars that he gazed upon every evening, falling in love with her beauty and creation. His desire to talk with her just to thank her personally for all she has done was important enough that he dedicated his life to finding the pendant before dying from the dragon attack or passing away from old age, never to have found it.
He could be a ghost that provides the group with friendly advice. The sage and shopkeepers below could be indifferent to the group, bordering on hatred as they prefer to create than sell and being interrupted. Sometimes dangerous environments should have a friendly encounter to give relief to the stress temporarily. The keeper could be that relief. His romantic attitude towards the goddess might earn the players’ sympathy and wish to help him although it is too late.
At last, the final point, the top floor where the light source is from. It’s the most important part of any lighthouse, naturally, so it should definitely be more unique than a simple lantern. I decided earlier that the building rotates completely once every 10 minutes, so the light source should be directional. From earlier, the flame is being reflected by the mirror circle. Glass created by the glass blower from the ground floor made an encasement around the flame to reduce heat and permit walking around the circumference of the floor, which is open. The walkway will need to be single-file only so 5’-0” max width walkway.
I did just remember the wine cellar I wanted to include that was hidden and accessed in the market. The fountain could be the focal point here for simplicity. There are three hard-to-find indentions with different runes along the base of the fountain. Three vendors wear rings that will fit inside and trigger the mechanism. The fountain rises in a spiral motion revealing an opening that goes down into the cellar. Although it looks like a typical wine cellar, each bottle contains actual miniaturized sailing vessels that have been lost to the rocks. If uncorked, the vessel is released and comes with a fully seasoned crew. However, the ship will scale appropriately to the nearest water source. If only a puddle is around, it will scale to it proportionately as if it were an ocean.
And that’s all she wrote. Five pages of description of a single structure although much of that was brainstorming and explanation. Now we take all that information and conform it into an organized, easily readable format to which we will tack on the NPC and plot to in the near future. Although abridged significantly, the goal is to keep the structure’s description, NPCs and plot/purpose within a single page. Once we finalize the NPCs and plot (which has been decided earlier) it will all be edited to a more efficient document.
The Roaming Lighthouse
This lighthouse was once a part of the seaport city Cascade, but when the ancient red dragon Kalandria completely leveled the community, a stroke of luck left the lighthouse suck against her thick scales and now resides upon her back. Over the years, her scales conformed around the base of the structure, solidifying it even more where it is a part of her body.
Standing 60’-0” tall, its base reaches 75’-0” across and tapers to 15’-0” at the top floor. It is double-walled so the outer wall rotates every ten minutes, allowing entry for a few seconds. There are four floors total with a hidden wine cellar below. The ground floor contains a small market with several vendors. A blacksmith, a tailor, a glassblower, and a summoner (described further below). The first floor contains an extensive library, spanning 50’-0” across and hosted by a sage who enjoys challenging riddles and puzzles for those seeking knowledge. Only by means of moving a specific book will open the circular doorway in the ceiling to the third floor, which contains a mischievous portal. This portal’s sister end randomly changes locations from one extreme location to another and requires a key to access that end. The rest of the room is filled with star charts and nautical maps with various locations marked. These were used by the original keeper in search of a great artifact used to communicate with deities. The top floor’s light source is from a fountain on the ground floor that is filled with dragon’s fire and rises through a tube to gently spout into collecting trays. A reflective disk provides the directional illumination. This fire is used among the vendors in creating their powerful magic. By inserting three rings from the vendors into the fountain, a hidden doorway grants access to the wine cellar, which each contain actual ships that wrecked years ago. Uncorking releases the ship in working order with a crew, but it scales proportionately to the nearest water source.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.