The family and I went to Sequoia National Park for a few days of camping. On our second day there, we took the Crystal Cave tour and for the first time, I got to actually creep through a dimly lit cave complex.
I’ve always wanted to go caving or spelunking. I love the idea of exploring places that have been locked away for a million years, the dark, creepy environment, the opportunity to see something unseen by human eyes.
Well, I didn’t get to do much of that at Crystal Cave near Sequoia National Park. I did get to go inside a Marble Karst Cave and walk through the winding passages for about an hour.
The Crystal Cave tour left me with some impressions about natural caves. Obviously this has nothing to do with man-made dungeons, but the for winding, natural caves that adventurers might stumble upon, there might be some information here that could prove useful or lend a little more authenticity to a game.
Caves Are Cold
Barring geothermic activity, caves are cold. This particular cave was a constant 48 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. At the cave entrance, as we waited for our tour to begin, there was a constant blast of cool air coming out of the entrance. It was refreshing, and I’d imaging visitors there in August might find it life-saving.
Crystal Cave (and caves like it) are formed by water that’s mixed with carbon dioxide that slowly dissolves the bedrock (in this case, marble) over thousands and thousands of years. They start out entire filled with water, and as the water erodes a way out, the water within recedes and exposes the cave.
The gist of this is that these caves were filled with small streams and pools of water. They’re everywhere. As we wandered through the complex many of us were constantly getting dripped on with very cold water.
When Water Carves Caves, It Does It in Three Dimensions
This is a map of Crystal Cave. If you click on the image, you can see the original size map from the National Park Service.
The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a mess compared to the maps most of us make of cave complexes. That’s because this cave was designed by water, rock and gravity.
The tour I was on only went through a small part of this complex (there are other tours that take you to different areas), but I was astounded by how many little crevasses and passageways there were at all sorts of weird angles.
On more than one occasion, there was a passageway that wound up from the ceiling of another passage way. Most of them led to another section of the complex, but taking them would require climbing gear (and a diet in my case).
Now, this would be kind of a nightmare to run in a game, especially if your players insist on mapping, which they should. Had I been exploring this cave by myself, I would have left myself markers indicate from which direction I came, so I could find my way out, and that’s because …
It’s Very Easy to Get Turned-Around
I like to think I have a very good sense of direction, and on the surface, I do. Much of this is probably because I subconsciously keep track of the sun and certain landmarks as I travel. All that goes out the window once you’re in caves. Five minutes into the cave, I had no idea which was North was anymore. Not a clue.
There are no straight lines. Every passage way curves and bends constantly, so that your’e constantly changing direction.
Furthermore, I found it very easy to lose track of how much we were ascending or descending, as those elevation changes happen all the time as well.
Sound Does Not Travel Well
Having looked at the schedule when I purchased tickets for the tour, there was a group of about 50 or 60 people in the caves 30 minutes ahead of us and even more behind us by 30 minutes. That means for the first 15 minutes of the tour and the last 15 minutes of the tour, there was a group of people as large as ours.
I never heard them. Not even a peep. At one point very near the end of the tour, when we entered the Dome Room, our guide turned out all the lights and asked everyone to be as quiet as they could be. During this time, we could hear the distant dripping of water, but we couldn’t hear anything of the group that was 30 minutes behind us. Not a peep.
It’s probably the irregular surfaces and constant bending of the passageways, acting as diffusers for all the sound waves. Hearing that small band of goblins arguing three passageways away? No chance. But at least they won’t hear you either.
Oil Lanterns are Shit for Light
During that same time in the Dome Room, while all the lights were off and we were in total blackness, he turned on a small flashlight and covered it with his hand, moving his fingers to simulate the flickering of an oil flame.
He told us that this was about how much light the people who first discovered this cave had. Here we were in one of the most magnificent rooms in the cave, and we could barely see any of the formations, let alone the wall opposite of us. The guide told us the first explorers to the cave noted that this room contained “nothing notable.”
Remember that when the thief is looking for traps or secret passages by lantern light.
Certainly having had this experience is going to change the way I’ll handle caves in my game. It will change my narration, to include the temperature, the eerie silence, the absolute blackness when the lights are out, the winding passages. Combat within a cave by lantern light should be truly terrifying. You’d be lucky to get a good look at what your fighting, and people walking in front of the lanterns would bathe everything in front of them in darkness.
Definitely not what I pictured when I played by first dungeon crawl.