Some locations—the wizard’s tower, the sunken temple, the haunted house—appear repeatedly in stories and adventures. In this series, we’ll explore the archetypal lost temple, playing with or defying tropes, and presenting rules and ideas to bring these locales to life and to set you up for success when putting them into your game.
Fear to Tread
The forgotten temple is often shorthand for iconic pulp imagery of jungle ruins and forsaken altars. These places come with other descriptors too, like “cursed” and “forbidden,” reinforcing themes conjured by these long-lost, once-sacred places.
The archetypal forgotten temple is ideal for explorations of forbidden lore, the life cycle of gods, madness and hubris, and consequences of unearthing things best left forgotten.
Themes of the Forgotten
A forgotten temple can be in any environment and take many shapes. Regardless, these places lend themselves well to particular themes:
Into Darkness. Buried by time and rubble, forgotten temples bear testament to history, to people who once lived and worshipped there. This history can be haunted and forlorn, or sinister and unsettling, but nonetheless reinforces the relentless passage of time. Trappings of life, like old items, graffiti, skeletons posed, etc., present a sense of being a small part of a grander tapestry. Explorers in these places sense they are walking through a history they can’t fully grasp.
Taboo. There’s an innate lure of the forbidden. The promise of power and wealth, and even curiosity, can overpower common sense to leave certain places alone. Forgotten temples may be less “forgotten” and more something the locals wish they could forget. Or these sites may radiate a desolate, foreboding energy. Taboo places present a choice of going past points of no return despite warning, often tantalized by mystery or power.
Everything is Cursed. Places don’t get cursed every day. Either something so profound and terrible occurs that the locale is forever tainted, or a god or other powerful being marks it as a place best left untouched. Sometimes curses are aimed at the locale, such as the dead rising within it. Other times, curses are targeted at interlopers, such as diseases and banes plaguing temple robbers. The perils of old faiths, forbidden magic, and cataclysmic events are the background from which threats emerge.
Terrible Secrets. Some things ought to be forgotten. Mind-warping artifacts, secrets of the great beyond, and imprisoned evils are just some of the terrible things calling these places home. Whatever the reward for braving these forsaken places, consequences are forever. Knowledge can’t be unlearned, events can’t be undone, and adventurers see things they can’t forget. Such things linger long after the temple is behind them, whether as madness or an awareness of more profound dangers.
Forgotten Gods. Temples are places of worship and devotion, and forgotten temples present the dilemma of the forgotten god. What happens to deities who become a footnote? This theme explores the idea of gods also being at the mercy of time, and questions of whether a god survives without faith, or if perhaps it becomes something… else. Explorers may discover a place is not haunted by ghosts, but by the memory of a dead god trying to claw its way back to life.
Nature’s Wrath. Nature is fully capable of reclaiming forgotten places without aid from magic or cataclysm. These explorations revolve around the hazards of elements breaking down the structure, ecologies taking root, and environments where people are unwelcome. In a classic hero vs. nature conflict, these forgotten temples represent the folly of civilization, reminding explorers they are but guests defending against an inhospitable host.
A Tour of Temples
Here are a selection of possible forgotten temples with suggestions skewed toward different themes, easily fleshed into full adventuring locales.
Jungle Temple. Hard to find and harder to get to, these temples are being reclaimed by a fast-growing, inhospitable jungle. Often dedicated to old, powerful, and sometimes bloodthirsty gods, these locations are abandoned because of calamity, either natural disaster or the hubris of the former occupants wielding terrible power which may still lurk. Even the remnants of a dead god, fallen from its divine status, may remain.
Themes: Terrible Secrets, Forgotten Gods, Nature’s Wrath
Desert Tombs. Usually taking the form of iconic pyramids, these tombs are often considered sacred as a temple, with the buried dead here considered divine entities in their own right. Gods of the region are invoked here, and either they or the divine dead have the power to defend their resting places. These vast tombs promise wealth but are guarded by traps, magic, and curses. These places are also snapshots into vast empires, once mighty, now laid low in the desert sands.
Themes: Into Darkness, Taboo, Everything is Cursed, Forgotten Gods
Sunken Temples. Typically found on the coast or islands, these temples are entirely or partially submerged. Plagued by the elements, much of the history of these forsaken places is weathered away. Historical calamity tends to accompany sunken temples: magic gone haywire, a war between gods, or punishment of a deity. And then there are dark and unknowable entities who prefer their temples in the deeps, where knowledge and power waits within mysterious stones of unknown geometry.
Themes: Into Darkness, Terrible Secrets, Forgotten Gods, Nature’s Wrath
Forest Altars. Deep in the woods, altars to primordial entities lie overgrown and untended, ringed with evidence of bones and sacrifices beneath the foliage. Sometimes these are rings laced with fey magic, places of power connected to traffic with those mercurial creatures, while some evidence points to even stranger things. Forests hide ancient mysteries and secrets of power, but the entities and spirits here exact a heavy toll. They care little for worship, only for blood and cunning.
Themes: Taboo, Terrible Secrets, Nature’s Wrath
Frozen Menhirs. In desolate, snowy reaches, rings of strange stones carved with runes stand in arcane configurations providing few answers. The stones emanate power, but also foreboding, as though reaching for power too old and too potent for the uninitiated to comprehend. Barrows underground are cold tombs of ancient warriors and priests, restless dead who test mind and might. The secrets of this place cannot be found, they must be earned—sometimes at terrible cost.
Themes: Into Darkness, Everything is Cursed, Terrible Secrets, Nature’s Wrath
Ready to make your own forgotten temple adventure? The Kobold Guide to Dungeons provides years of insight on the hows and whys of dungeon design. Expert game designers like David “Zeb” Cook, Dominique Dickey, and James Sutter give you crucial detail to make your dungeons more interesting, more challenging, and more FUN.
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