Wednesday 29 April 2015

One Page Dungeon: Antonius Abducted

The richest place in my formative years was the lending library in my well-funded, open-minded suburban hometown. It was there I laid hands on the Arkham House Lovecraft volumes, everything Tolkien and post-Tolkien, science fiction novels I wasn't even close to understanding but enjoyed anyway, the Holmes edition of D&D, the Monster Manual.

Of these weird materials, some promised a regulation or explanation of the fantastic world - D&D, of course, laying down the rules of fantasy in a way that the heroes of Pratt and DeCamp's Compleat Enchanter series did, with arcane mathematics. The world of Shannara proved nothing more than a post-apocalypse, and Larry Niven's fantasy world was physics by another name.

But I also read Lovecraft, Borges' book of imaginary beings, Dunsany, Brian Froud -- fantasists who made no excuses or explanations. Tying them all together with a visual language of strangeness were the great coffee-table volumes of art where I became acquainted with Hieronymus Bosch. His devils drew from Church iconography, but there was the fantastic and even science-fictional in his ceramic-like architectures, his mutant creatures, flying farragos and garish colors. In my imagination he was as much an illustrator of weird tales as Sidney Sime or Lee Brown Coye. What matter that those tales were not written -- not yet?

Which brings me to my undying fascination with the central panel of Bosch's Temptation of Saint Anthony. Here it is (it gets really big when you click it, and click again).

It hasn't got the symmetries and tapestry-like coverage of the Garden of Earthly Delights, or either of his Last Judgments. There is dynamism, scene, progression, the varied freaks converging on a parody of a Mass laid on a dicing table. Others join the haphazard choir underfoot, or flit overhead. There is that bizarre ruin with its mess of perspective; the disasters in the background -- fire, war, demons -- while nonchalant or dazed washerwomen go down to the filthy water.

Weird symbolism abounds and, as with Bosch's other works, has prompted all sorts of theories about his hidden message: alchemical is it? more broadly esoteric? or politico-religious? nationalist? If his figures illustrate proverbs and expressions that have faded with time, perhaps this is just another form of random generation to create compelling monsters, like the tree-archer with his gauntlets and brace of armored hounds.

Me, I see an adventure here. The first stirrings of this in my gamemastering career happened a couple of years ago when I populated one level of my custom upper works for Castle of the Mad Archmage with a collection of Bosch's creatures, mostly from the Temptation, and somewhat differently imagined than presented here. The Muleteers have had several run-ins with them, all terrifying but none decisive.

As this year's One Page Dungeon Contest approached its Walpurgisnacht deadline, I started to consider adapting this level, which uses a standard maze of rooms and passages. But after thinking I ended up favoring the original outdoors setting with its bulbous ruin, its convergence of monsters, its holy man looking serenely if a little desperately out of the frame, as if to say "Look! These are no figments of my fast, no color trails from ergot-laced crusts! You see them too!"

I set the action a few minutes before the scene in the painting. A tactical problem, asking for the various approaching demon-groups to be defeated in detail or confronted as they appear in the main action. Antony needs his crucifix to be of any use, so that's an action task to retrieve it on the scene. There wasn't really space on the page for a random table with all the skulking lizards, birds, demonlings and flying menaces you see in the art, but the water holds a few such perils.

Well, there you have it, with a little help from my long-dead friend. It'snot strictly one page but I am toying with the idea of taking the other panels of the triptych and expanding them into a GM's screen idea ...


  1. Excellent post. I've been pondering for a few days on how to start off a Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, and this is a perfect fit. The thought of 12 bumbling villagers stumbling around dealing with all these creatures makes me giddy.

    Just a quick, likely stupid question. The keywords provided on many of the fiends (fragile, impales, etc.), are they a reference to a previous post, or merely inspiration for building my own mechanics?

    1. Just inspiration, there isn't room for more on the one page and I was trying to be system-neutral within the general idea of "power level". I am hoping that people pretty much can come up with their own mechanical effects.

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