Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Isolation, Desperation, and Cthulhu Avoiding the Creepy Town!

Recently I was thinking how to create a story where the PCs feel isolated. You know the kind of story I’m talking about, where the PCs stumble upon a long, forgotten village in the middle of nowhere to find shelter from a storm… Really I was thinking about how to avoid this tired old trope and build an “isolation session” not built around a lost village or seaside town like in H.P. Lovecraft‘s novels.

My process started with a simple question: What does isolation mean? And I ran with the first three things that came into my head – confusion, helplessness, and no exit. Now let’s explore these three factors.

Confusion. This is the state when the PCs have no idea where they are, how they got there, and why they should stick around.

So what could it be? A prison? Why not. Maybe the PCs had a wild party that got out of hand and they woke up in prison. It would be the perfect start to a dungeon crawl if you add something like a Minotaur or Alien-type creature and turn it into a bit of a “survival horror” story. But who imprisoned the PCs? And why are there no guards in the dungeon? Was it a crazy nobleman? Maybe it was a group of cultists who want to sacrifice the PCs for some ancient ritual or as food for some monster-god?

But this quest to survive the dungeon and figure out who imprisoned them could be a very cool, short adventure.

If not a prison, then what? Maybe they’ve been kidnapped. Same basic story: PCs wake up bound in a caravan of slavers. No dungeon, but a vast desert… wherever they look all they see is sand. Their guards don’t speak any known language (known to the PCs anyway), but don’t really have to guard them much. The guards know their slaves will die if they try to escape into the desert.

During their travels perhaps the PCs learn from other slaves that they will arrive in three days to be sold at a slave market at the heart of the desert. Will the PCs wait until they reach the market? Will they try to escape earlier? How will they survive? Do they know which direction to run?

Helplessness. Tough one. PCs are in a situation where all their efforts end in failure. It’s a situation of constant, repetitive defeat. Could be hard to play and keep the adventure fun in this kind of setup. What can we do? Force the PCs to be fugitives with a whole army in pursuit? No chance to stand and fight…

Maybe the PCs are sick and slowly dying from some strange disease (or turning into mindless zombies). No cure, but there is a mission to finish (like escorting a princess immune to the disease back to her home).

Minotaur at center of labyrinth, on a 16th-cen...

Minotaur at center of labyrinth, on a 16th-century gem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another thought is to let the PCs run their quest and then suggest to them that they will be five minutes (or seconds) too late to save the princess. No matter what they do, they won’t be able to save the day. What will they do?

No exit. This one can be really funny for a game master. Imagine the same dungeon from earlier (in “Confusion”), but without any way out. A never-ending labyrinth. The only key to the exit is in the hands of the noble or cultists who imprisoned the PCs. How will they run away? Or maybe there *is* an extra exit, but it’s extremely well hidden. Perhaps the PCs have to become “friends” with one of the creatures hunting them in the dungeon?

Maybe the desert isn’t a real desert, but the PCs have been magically thrown into a small glass orb full of sand. And this orb is in the hands of a child who received it from his father, who bought it from a magician in the marketplace. If the kid shakes the ball, a sandstorm appears. Can they escape? Can they figure out what has happened? Will they try to communicate with the god-like kid? What happens if the kid breaks the ball? Are the “guards” also prisoners in the orb?

Maybe the PCs are lost in the mountains, traveling a route where they only exit has been blocked by a landslide. The route is long and the weather is changing, causing the PCs to travel in circles after a few days of travel. How can they escape? Who will help them? Local crazy old dwarf? Or maybe the dwarf is a psycho killer who has trapped the PCs and plans to attack when they are exhausted?

Ok. Enough… Do you like playing with isolation? Do you have any more ideas? Make my day and share them!

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