I was looking for a short mini-dungeon to introduce some players to Forge Out Of Chaos - something I could convert that didn't lean to heavily on tropes specific to D&D - and along came Tamás Kisbali, posting up a link to his Eldritch Fields blog where there's a 30-minute dungeon called 'The Golem Master's Workshop.'
The 30-minute Dungeon Challenge was devised by Tristan Turner on his Bogeyman's Cave blog and it goes like this: "I will sit down for 30 minutes and write 10 rooms/encounters for a short mini dungeon ... here are my general guidelines for what I make when writing one of these dungeons: a Hook, General Background, 3 Combat Encounters, 3 "Empty" Rooms, 2 Traps, 1 NPC, 1 Weird Thing To Experiment With, some Treasure, a Magic Item."
Well, that's just fantastic, isn't it? It demands to be done! But first I looked at Tamás Kisbali's contribution and decided his Golem Master mini-dungeon was perfect for my purposes. You can download his original version here or my Forge conversion over on the Scenarios page. SPOILERS AHEAD if you're hoping to play through it because I'm going to offer up a session report and a bit of analysis about Tamás' excellent construction work.
The Golem Master, creator of pricey artificial servants, hasn’t been seen around for some time. His house stands dark and silent. Dare you enter?
Tamás Kisbali's crisp introduction paints an intriguing portrait. Here is a world where golems are made to order by master enchanters. Not the lumbering monsters of D&D bestiaries in their clay, stone, iron and flesh iterations. No, these "pricey artificial servants" are supernatural cyborgs, androids ... simulacrum, as medieval philosophers called them. Strip away the fantasy veneer and this is a SF premise: a robot maker, deep in his mansion, has been making compliant replicants but now something has happened to him. Sounds like a job for a Blade Runner.
But another theme is at work. Read through the scenario and the names jump out: not just golem but Jakov and Boax. The Hebrew (or erstaz-Hebrew) language takes us to the Prague ghetto, the story of Rabbi Loew and the legends of European Jewry. The Golem Master seems to be, not just an enchanter, but a Jewish rabbi, or something rather like one. That means, what unfolds here is a spiritual fable about the gift of life and the curse of hubris. Of course, Blade Runner (1982) merges spiritual fables and science fiction, placing origami unicorns alongside those C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
Sheesh. A one sentence introduction and I'm excited to get inside this one.
An Open Dungeon
The Workshop has the hallmark of the Open Dungeon design: an entrance chamber with no threats but three doors leading out. All directions are possible (but one door is locked).
Rather like the forbidding steps down into Zenopus' Dungeon reviewed earlier. the Workshop's entrance hall provokes the imagination. You leave behind a prosaic street scene of business chatter and market vendors. You enter a place of silence and mystery. The desk ledger bears accounts of golem sales - that's the outside world of banal financial transactions - and the purchase of "of raw clay, for new personal project" - something more numinous. From the impersonal to the personal, the transparent to the mysterious: penetrating the Workshop is a journey away from the orderly and rational into madness and obsession, but also away from the world of consumption to that of creativity. It's a journey into the artistic mind that will conclude with an opportunity for the PCs to become creators and bestowers of life, for better or worse...
The left hand corridor with its mud stains leads to the storeroom where the crippled golem Jakov lies dismembered, but still loquacious. His insane brother Boax can be found in the studio through the other door, pretending to be a statue and protected by his loyal gargoyles. Sequencing comes into play, because if the PCs visit Jakov first, they might recognise Boax for what he is; if they don't have that conversation, they'll be taken in by the mad golem's ruse.
Another room holds a scroll than can be used to incapacitate Boax, but might find more dramatic use at the end of the scenario if the Quantum Golem is animated and runs mad. The locked room hides a great horror moment as clay hands scrabble across the floor and leap for the throats of the intruders.
If the players identify and dispatch Boax before venturing downstairs, the basement offers rewards and explanations. The Golem Master is down here, maimed and quite mad, determined to complete his gigantic Quantum Golem. His patchwork abominations, built to guard him down here, are a concession to necessity, but also embody his fractured mind, magical creations with all beauty ruined. The Quantum Golem, if animated, makes a formidable ally but that scroll might be needed if it runs amok. The players are taking their first steps down the path that the Golem Master has trod before, bestowing life recklessly and bearing the bitter consequences only later.
It's a Rat Trap - and you've been caught!
If the players fail to identify Boax, he will trap them below stairs. The Open Dungeon turns into a Rat Trap and events down below become much more fraught. Possibly not understanding what has happened upstairs to block their exit, the PCs explore the basement and find themselves in a tense game of cat and mouse, with the cackling Golem Master in the shadows and his gruesome Abominations leaping out to attack. Someone will fall through the floor into the clay pits, which represent the raw id of the Master's imagination, now stripped bare and exhausted.
A confident DM can make the Master eerie and upsetting, but the Abominations don't pose too much of a threat. The real dilemma is whether the PCs should animate the Quantum Golem in order to break out. If it doesn't go mad, they can use it to smash through the trap door and clobber Boax; if it goes crazy, that magic scroll might incapacitate the creature once it's served its purpose.
There's a substantial treasure trove for low level characters, but the biggest treasure is the Quantum Golem, assuming it stays sane.
Adapting for Forge
The Forge conversion is easy because the monsters are original creations. Unarmoured monsters in Forge are quite vulnerable to being ganged-up on, even if they have a high Armour Rating (AR). To counter this, I've given Boax the partial resistance to blunt weapons you find with zombies and also made the Quantum Golem's stone exterior capable of notching weapons.
I decided on a name for the Golem Master: Belazal nods to the creator of the original golem in Jewish folklore, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.
A significant change I made was the spell scroll. To aim for authenticity, this is now an instruction manual for deactivating golems, removing the empowering magical letters (spelling emeth or 'truth') from their foreheads. It can be used repeatedly, so long as the PCs have Spell Points left. I moved it from the unlocked bedroom to the locked study: I figure if the players break into a locked room and fight grisly disembodied hands, they should be rewarded with something potent, but the 'key' to the scenario shouldn't be left lying about in the open.
The players will need it, because I've intensified the drama downstairs. Belazal will do anything to see his Quantum Golem completed, but, if this is done, will order it to attack the PCs (such gratitude!). The Quantum Golem has to keep making saving throws to resist going crazy every time it is given an order, every round it spends in combat and should Belazal ever be killed. This means the PCs are almost certain to end up fighting it if they reanimate it, but hopefully only have to endure a few rounds of battering from its terracotta fists before it goes on a rampage across the city.
I added in the (incomplete) female golem Lizbjet to explain Boax's rage against his creator. Boax thought that Lizbjet was to be for him, but of course the Golem Master made her for himself (in what capacity, you may let your prurient imaginations loose). Boax's rage is Oedipal: he assaults and castrates his 'father' to assert his sexual autonomy but is trapped by the consequences of his crime, since only the Master can make Lizbjet live, yet if he does, she will love the Master, not Boax.
There's perhaps little the PCs can do to alter these outcomes, but understanding the interpersonal conflicts at play makes the dungeon more satisfying and there might be leverage here if the PCs can promise Boax that they can animate Lizbjet - or make him believe they can persuade Belazal to do so.
So, how did it go?
Two characters (Rammstein, a Dunnar necromancer and a Renny Squirmfoot, a Jher-em warrior) entered the workshop. They enjoyed the puzzle aspects of working out what had happened. They made their way to Jakov first of all, then opened the study to fight the many hands. However, they didn't explore the studio carefully enough to expose Boax and went straight downstairs (though they did drop a gargoyle down there and it went crashing into the clay pit). Once they were in the basement, Boax trapped them down there.
The Abominations didn't cause too much trouble, but Belazal was a fun lunatic to roleplay. The players reanimated the Quantum Golem and were appalled at Balazal's perfidy when he ordered it to slay the intruders. Cat-and-mouse ensued, with the golem crashing after the PCs and delivering horrible wounds but the PCs keeping just ahead of it. When Rammstein killed Belazal, the Quantum Golem went mad, bursting out of the trapdoor, slaying Boax and crashing out into the street.
Poor Renny died from the poisoned door trap but Rammstein successfully used the scroll to deactivated the Quantum Golem, but only after it had caused enough mayhem to make him look like the saviour of the city. The scenario lasted about 90 minutes: a perfect evening of light OSR roleplaying.
It's the sort of premise that deserves a bit more time and a bit deeper consideration. That's to say, it lends itself to a lot of non-fantasy RPG games. It would be great for Call of Cthulhu, obviously, or Kult, with its shifting realities and illuminating madness. Vampire: The Dark Ages would be a fun vehicle for it too. A bigger map and a more sprawling mansion would allow Boax and his gargoyle minions to stalk the PCs. If Lizbjet were to be alive and functional - and perhaps in love with the mutilated Jakov rather than either her creator or deranged suitor - then the roleplaying aspect would be even more dynamic.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..