The abandoned mine as a role playing location

Last week I did a bit of writing on how one can improve the scare factor when running a horror game, and thought I would continue the train of thought a bit further in that direction by looking at a great place to take your players if you want them to fear for their lives; an abandoned mine. For this to be effective, you game world first has to include a society that would mine, and for sake of ease all the information presented here will be based on real world post-mechanisation mining, as this is something I know a little bit about after interning one summer at the English National Coal-mining Museum.

There are hazards by the bucket load once you start working underground, even more so when you’re hundreds of feet below the surface. So many in fact, that I doubt I will even have to touch on some of the supernatural shenanigans that had my players stiff with fright last time I took them down a mine. A huge threat to consider, since it’s a slow creeping death, is oxygen supply. That far underground, there’s nothing producing oxygen (we’ll get to the other gases in a bit), so the characters will need to carry their own – in back pack respirators – or make absolutely certain that the ventilation in the mine is working. Although the GM can ask for an easy repair roll to get the fans turning, the fun comes with all the doors that need to be the correct combination of open and closed to keep the air going where the adventurers need to be. This can be a great little puzzle, and if they get it wrong, the first time they’ll notice their mistake is when they start getting light headed, far away from the daylight. There may be a point when you decide to knock realism on the head here; it would be almost impossible to change the doors from inside the mine, and totally impossible to move them by hand. Vacuums are created when dealing with the air pressure necessary to keep fresh air pumping that far and that deep, and if a player gets caught between a door that wants to close and the door’s frame (due to another door getting destroyed for instance) they will be crushed to death or have limbs severed in seconds. Fun, huh?

As mentioned, there’s plenty of other gases down there. Stuff that could lead to suffocation or massive fireballs of death. I’ve found it’s best to be fair to your players when it comes to this, as just walking down the wrong passage could be death in a matter in a seconds from suffocation. Be fair, but don’t feel the need to go too easy on them. If they’re going down a mine, they should be warning signs everywhere about the gases they could encounter, so if they choose not to take precautions, that’s their own problem. What they should expect to find are Davy Lamps. These are handy bits of kit that contain a small flame that can be watched to show differences in oxygen levels or the presence of fire damp etc., that they will want to keep a very close eye on. There are more high tech ways of doing this these days, but we are talking very recent inventions, and they’re far from quick to learn to use, or to use when you’re down a mine. Best left in the hands of professionals really.

Now that the characters are down there, and breathing safely; they’re still far from safe. As mentioned, flammable gas is a big risk. Nothing that could cause a spark was allowed down into a mine at the pit head. The miners were very careful about this indeed, but would your players be? If they have guns, then letting them off just once could be the death of them. A horribly painful, drawn out death. Firearms aren’t the only source of sparks though, so keep a close eye on the characters, and watch what they’ve brought down below. And don’t feel like you have to TPK for one slip up; if the group are spread in a line, only one needs to feel the full lick of flame, and even that doesn’t need to be fatal. One would think that it happening once would be enough to make sure that they’re considerably more careful in future. This next bit probably goes without saying, but fire needs oxygen to burn, and since that’s already a problem in a mine, just imagine what could happen if a lot of it gets quickly burnt away?

Fire brings us neatly onto another huge problem; collapse. Even in modern mines with pneumatic roof supports, the sheer amount of rock being moved can bring down miles of tunnels in one collapse. In an abandoned mine, the risk is even greater, as the supports will have been left without any maintenance for as long at the mine has been left empty. The older the mine, the more likely that it’ll come down when disturbed, and this can be all kinds of fun and terror. Once again, don’t kill the lot of them – unless you’re bored – but have them stuck behind the rubble. This becomes an interesting survival situation as air, water, and food all become very important. Don’t get too worried about the Chilean miners and having the players down there for months; there should always be a secondary draft that will allow the characters to get out. This will mean walking the entire way back up on a one third incline, once they’ve found a way to it of course.

Now, I also had some fun with ghosts when I subjected my players to a Victorian era mine, so feel free to add in anything you like to these little snippets, and if you want to get an idea of just what it’s like down there, find a mining museum that offers underground tours, and wait for the bit when they tell everyone to turn their lights off…


8 thoughts on “The abandoned mine as a role playing location

  1. My grandfather was a miner and I’ve been fascinated by mines for a long time, I’ve been underground in mining museums and abandoned mines a couple of times. My grandmother used to tell me about mining accidents like the one in Lengede Yes, I was a weird child. But the words alone were enough to create stories in my mind: Alter Mann (old man, abandoned shafts) or schlagende Wetter (beating weather, firedamp).

    Mines are terrifying places. I think it would be awesome to have only as much light at the gaming table as the characters have, it you can arrange it.
    Dust explosions are another danger in mines, especially in combination with firedamp.

    Mines play a huge role in Terry Pratchett’s book Thud! and i can only recommend reading it for some great mining history (as always with Pratchett, much of it is fact).

    • I have read Thud, being a huge Pratchett fan, and had the pleasure of re-reading after my internship so could see how much thought and research he’s put in. In all honesty, I never thought of dust explosions, but you’re right to mention them, as they’re just as deadly as the other things I mention.

      I enjoy playing with light around a gaming table, and know that LED head torches aren’t that expensive… I feel a gaming session coming on.

  2. Hey, SM
    Try using stress effects (basically getting tired) in your mine games. We’ve been using them for cave exploration games. It creates tension because the players know they’re not at their peak and it creates a travel barrier. The players have to rest to alleviate the strain periodically so they know they can’t just run out of the mine. Now their mindset changes. They cannot escape quickly without becoming exhausted and thereby nearly defenseless. It changes the attitude of tactical gamers and scares the pants of gamers that can’t estimate what effect the stress will have on them.

  3. It’s all a very good point. So many underground adventures don’t take into account the pressures and the dangers of actually being underground – but if you’re not going to do that, what’s the point in going underground at all? Might as well stick to nice safe structured castle corridors!

  4. Great stuff. I had honestly never given the real risks of going deep underground much thought, but this is a lot of great inspiration. I, personally, probably tend to under-utilize survival challenges in my games.

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  6. I’ve always loved mining and caving adventures. I did a caving adventure that I wrote up on my own blog involving an Earthbound although it was more a network of monster-carved tunnels than true caves. I have had a mining adventure in mind for awhile now, though.

  7. Pingback: October RPG Blog Carnival – Surfing the Surfeit of Horror « Casting Shadows

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