The Bryce Blood Bowl
Bryce Canyon is one of the gems of the U.S. national parks system. Its strange geologic formations, breathtaking vistas, and twisting mazes make it an experience visitors don’t soon forget. Those same features, though, make one spot in the park an amazing template for a gladiatorial arena. The bowl between Liberty Castle and Wall Street has only one way in or out. Its diverse terrain ensures every fight in the arena will feel different. It’s a mile wide with long lines of sight in some places (perfect for sniper battles and stealth), and in others so cramped you can barely swing a sword. Throw a handful of teams in a place modeled on this weird, beautiful blood bowl for a fight to the death, and you’ll have a session the players will still be talking about years later.
This post is brought to you by beloved Patreon backer Justin Moor. Thanks for helping keep the lights on! If you want to help keep this blog going alongside Justin, head over to the Patreon page – and thank you!
Image credit: Ellis Dieperink
How did Bryce get this way? The first thing to understand is that Bryce Canyon is not, in fact, a canyon. It’s a miles-long cliff that’s slowly eroding backwards. Rivulets running down the rock face carve twisting paths that form the weird labyrinths we see today.
Bryce is made of a variety of soft sedimentary rocks left over from when the area was the bottom of a huge lake. Bryce gets a surprising amount of rain and snow for what looks like desert, and it’s also located at an altitude and latitude such that it’s very often above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. All this means a lot of water getting into the soft, erodible rocks during the day, expanding as ice at night (creating cracks), and washing away debris in the morning. This carves thin slots in the cliff face, leaving dramatic ‘fins’ between them. Further frost heaves open holes in the fins, creating arches. When the arches collapse, they leave behind pillars called ‘hoodoos’. Eventually, the hoodoos collapse and the cliff continues to march backwards.
Image credit: Brian Roanhorse and the National Parks Service
We are particularly interested in the stretch of cliff between the features known affectionately as Liberty Castle and Wall Street. As you can see in the map below, the bowl slopes down from the top of a cliff to the west to a forested floor in the east. The long fin of Wall Street stretches in from the north and the Hindu Temples fin reaches up from the south, enveloping the bowl and leaving only one way in or out: a dry streambed.
North is to the right. Click to enlarge.
Image credit: United States Geological Survey
The northern part of the bowl, the Silent City, is the most intricate. Dozens upon dozens of narrow slot canyons, some no wider than your shoulders, carve the looping cliff face into a tight fan of thin fins and hoodoos. In places where fins and hoodoos have partially collapsed, you can step through the arches and gaps from one dark canyon to another, turning the whole place into a labyrinth.
Image credit: Jim Witkowski
The southwest corner of the bowl, by Inspiration Point, is a tiny bowl in its own right. It’s separated from the rest of the amphitheater and further subdivided by a half-dozen tall, fairly intact fins. Since it too only has one way in or out, it’s highly defensible. And if you’re driven back from your position covering the entrance, there’s plenty of room to spread out and lose your pursuers.
Image credit: Carmel Rossen
The east edge of the bowl is a half-mile long, flat, fairly straight stretch of forest and dry creek bed flowing down from the towering Liberty Castle fin at the bowl’s southeast corner. Someone perched on the flank of Liberty Castle has an amazing view and line of sight on almost the entire flat, forested portion of the bowl.
Image credit: chappy14
In addition to the above images, a great way to explore the ins and outs of the site is with Google Maps’ 3D viewer. It lets you get into the nooks and crannies of the area and get a good sense of what’s going on.
Image credit: Oleg Chursin
This self-contained space is amazing terrain for a gladiatorial adventure. Drop your PCs in the bowl along with several other teams of fighters. While your players poke at the map and debate where to go, keep track behind your screen of what the other teams are up to. Have some hole up in strong points like the Inspiration Point sub-bowl. Have others go on the offensive, patrolling the forest along the eastern streambed. Sniper-focused teams might stake out the long lines of sight at Liberty Castle. Stealth-focused teams should lurk in the twisting slots of the Silent City, trying to get behind their enemies before they strike.
There will be plenty for investigative and roleplay-focused players to do too! As the party explores the bowl, they should come across the remains of other teams, giving them the opportunity to suss out who’s formidable and who’s weak. Social characters can cobble together alliances to take on tougher teams, and predict how soon those alliances will fall apart once the hard team is dealt with.
Image Credit: Sven D.
The unusual terrain of Bryce lends itself to unusual tactics. Drones would be powerful here, whether for reconnaissance or attack. In a fantasy campaign, Bryce’s omnipresent ravens could act in a similar role. We’ve already talked about snipers. And because the fins and hoodoos are made mostly of layers of limestone and weak, crumbly mudstone, this is a great place to reshape the terrain with explosives! Blow open routes to get behind entrenched enemies, bury people under rockslides, and seal tougher enemies inside canyons and sub-bowls to come back for later. Regardless of tactics, the varied nature of the terrain should ensure every fight feels different.
Also, readers! I need your help answering a very important question – shanties or ballads?
Image credit: Christian Wagner