by Mike Shea on 1 May 2017
Ancient monuments are a cornerstone of D&D games. They fill out the "exploration" portions of D&D. They're something weird to investigate when traveling across the lands of old. They're a remarkable feature our players will remember when they think about their journeys. They contain valuable secrets. Sometimes they will have a direct effect in a conflict that occurs around it.
Random ancient monuments are a great way to fire up our imaginations to fill out interesting fantstic locations that the characters will investigate or explore. Rarely will we use a random ancient monument exactly as it comes out of the generator but often it will spawn an idea for us. The random nature helps break us out of our limited imaginations and throw us completely new ideas.
We can take this a step further, however, if we build our ancient monuments around the backgrounds of the characters. We've talked a lot about tying character backgrounds to elements of our story. You can find a big list of these articles in the article Character-Focused Encounters. We can take the same approach with our ancient monuments by tying the monument itself to the background of a character—a monument that a particular character will recognize and potentially interact with based on their background.
Here's a list of some characters and their general backgrounds.
Let's mix up some random ancient monuments with these backgrounds to see if we can come up with six monuments that will actually be important to the characters.
Glyphed altar of Oghma. This altar depicts a robed man sitting in a chair reading a large glyphed tome. The glyphs themselves are imbued with the power of blessings. Trubellah can recognize the statue as a lost marker for the order of Oghma whom he served in Candlekeep and may want to mark its location for the order.
Decorated Drow Fountain of Frost. A relic torn across the fabric of the multiverse has ended up half-buried in the ground, a fountain whose freezing water continues to flow, though it should not. This fountain was once found in the center of the Drow city of Maerimydra until the matron mother's dark rituals split the city in half, one half in the material world and one half in the ethereal plane. Ryld, the storm sorcerer, will recognize the fountain and its strange connection between worlds, like his own.
Pristine Crystalline Geode of Enchantment. This strange floating crystal seems to leave arcane sigils floating in the air around it. Those who stare within its depths see strange swirling arcane patterns. Ymetria will see the abjuration powers held deep within this geode. Perhaps it is a celestial entity mysteriously left in the world only she can see.
The Tree of Ash. Within the wastelands of Anauroch, nearly buried by the swirling sands of the massive desert, stands the remains of a tree. Once, thousands of years ago, it was the lifetree of a lost elven nation. Now it is all that remains of their time on the world. Perhaps it is one of the lost mythals. Ursoc, the wanderer of the high forest, can see the power of this dead tree and, perhaps, hear its lost secrets.
The Corpse of Ovestaar. The ancient silver dragon, Ovestaar, was slain during the thousand year war. The huge skull of the silver dragon lays half-buried in Greypeak Mountains. Ovestaar's silver horns still attract huge blasts of lightning which arc through the skull and reveal the runes carved into the bone. Ryu can recognize this skull and learn of its origin, perhaps channeling the storm that always surrounds the skull or touching the spirit of the mighty dragon.
The Hammer of Lanaxis. Thought by most to be a odd natural rock formation, the Hammer of Lanaxis is actually made of iron and yet covered with rock after tens of thousands of years of erosion. The hammer sits, head down and handle up, in the Spine of the World. When one of giant-blood comes nearby, they might see runes of ancient giant languages glowing on the hammer's base. Sif might be one to see such runes and might have a connection to the long-dead titan who placed it here or draw strength from the mighty artifact.
The Broken Hero. This huge statue depicts the half-orc paladin Damun Bronzeclaw, champion of Torm. The statue has cracked, leaving part of its arm and face in rubble at the base of the statue yet its one remaining eye stares out with determination at the western mountains. Ultar can recognize this champion as one of his childhood heroes. It is said Damun's eye stares at the his lost tomb where his armor and blade rest to this day seeking a new champion. The right oath given to this statue applies the blessing of the hero to all who accept its aid.
Building your own character-focused ancient monuments requires only a few steps. First, and most important, we should have a copy of our characters' names and backgrounds in front of us so we actually know what we should tap into. Then we might use the random generator to give us a few ideas, seeing if any of them are an interesting fit for any particular character's background.
We can use our lazy approach for building fantastic locations by just jotting down three interesting things about this monument we've created. Many times it needs to be nothing other than the name of the thing, but a few notes about features can't hurt. If we want, we can apply some sort of spell effect to the monument that can be applied by a character performing the right sort of skill check. Our favored character, the one whose background is tied to the monument, can make this check with advantage.
This whole process is a great way to help us highlight one character for a particular scene. We can load the monument up with monsters that the character loves to fight. We can include a potential magic item reward noteworthy to that character. Finding a monument, encounter, and reward is a great way to make one of the characters (and, more importantly, one of the players) feel special. Give it a try.