Quite recently I overheard two of the players in my group discussing how my dungeons seem to go on for ever without any connection or theme to them. While this didn’t surprise me greatly, I tend to plan my games as they are happening, it did concern me a bit. Making scenarios up on the fly works great for me, generally speaking. The majority of my games are politically focused, free form, and open world. I actually relish when players do something unexpected, go down the ‘other’ corridor, assassinate the wrong target, steal the wrong gem eyes from the statue. This way I am as surprised as my players are when we are around the table. The one place this free form games mastering style doesn’t work, it would seem, is when you’re battling through a dungeon.
I’ll confess straight away that dungeons, be they ruins, caverns, sewers, etc, don’t figure much in my campaigns. When they do, however, they are often a bit of a surprise to me. I haven’t been expecting them and they are rarely planned. After hearing my players joke about my game prep, I decided to plan something out.
The first step was to find a tool to create the map. I tossed up whether to hand draw the dungeon, or use software. Hand drawn, I decided, was too prone to mistakes, and would be harder to edit later on. A software solution would have icons for dungeon features and allow me to edit and change things as required as I went through the process. After trying a large number of different pieces of software, I settled on Dungeonographer by Inkwell Ideas. Their solution is the easiest to use and, when using the traditional old school black and white option, produces quite attractive maps.
The premise for my design was a corrupted catacomb. A local monastery had fallen on hard times and did not have the resources to do anything about a malevolent force moving in. A letter from one of the player character’s dad to the abbot was enough to get the party roped into helping. The nature of the corruption was not well known, but that didn’t matter. A bold group of adventurers would surely be up to the challenge!
Research in the monastery’s library suggested that a small statue of the evil brother of the god that they worshipped may be at fault. A specially and blessed box was provided for the group to use to seal the evil (the GM can decide when the time comes whether the box is big enough or not). The group is led out to a chapel in the centre of a large cemetery.
An old path leads from the back of the monastery to the cemetery. The mist from the morning has stayed in the air, giving the rising tombstones and ancient walls a haunted look. As you approach you can see vines crawling up the stone wall. The abbot leads you up the old, rusty looking, gate. It opens with a clang and scraping sounds. Crows in the nearby trees thunder into the morning sky, cawing their disapproval at being disturbed.
The time worn path meanders between old and forgotten tombs, past fallen headstones and past mausoleums. Eventually you arrive and a centuries old chapel, locked against any who would venture in. With slow ceremony, a key is withdrawn and the locks of the reinforced door are opened. With a heave, the door gives, to reveal a dusty and decaying room. Tattered tapestries covered in green mould hang on the walls. Metal bars cover each window. In the centre of the room is spiral staircase down.
“When you have retrieved the statue, ring the bell.” The abbot gestures toward a rope hanging down a wall. “We will come and let out those of you who remain.”
With that, he walks through the door and locks you in.
A point with regards to what follows. It is very easy to kill the mood by having lots of fights and action in what should be a spooky place. It is much more effective to just have a few things ‘of’. For example, have a knock come from a coffin. Once investigates, there is nothing in there of note. Have a fleeting figure be seen walking in through the shadows up ahead only to not be found after a chase. Save the fights for the second level of the catacombs, and use the first level to truly terrify your players.
Catacombs Level 1
- Entrance way to the catacombs. A locked door prevents entrance to the catacombs. Set the mood by describing a scratching sound on the other side while they’re trying to unlock the door. Once open. Nothing.
- These two rooms are ceremonial. They will find evidence of recent use (no dust, fibres, human hair, etc).
- Three chests sit against the wall in good working order. No traps are found, but on opening the third, a single clear crystal bell will be heard in the distance. The chests contain boots, robes and hats in that order. They are important for room 10.
- This is a ceremonial washing room. Describe an overpowering stench filling the air. Flies and maggots on the floor. The back room is a privy that has somehow overflowed filling the room with a thin layer of shit. There is a single chest in the room that contains sweet smelling incense and a skull incense holder. If the incense is burned in the skull a crystal bell will sound once in the distance.
- The torches are lit in this room. No, they are not magical or special. This should be the first real clue that these catacombs are still in regular use. There are two altars facing each other. On the top of each is a ewer with fresh water, a washbasin and a small jar of sweet smelling oil. If they drink the water they will be healed 1d3 HP. If they place the oil on their bodies, flies will flock to them from room 2A trying to get into every orifice or their bodies until the oil is washed off. In a few weeks, the players will have an issue with maggots.
- There is a large pool of water in this room. Three hand sized gems light the room with an eerie blue light. If the water is investigated it will appear to be almost unnaturally still. If the water is disturbed in anyway, the twisted souls of the deceased will be seen writing in a orgy of agony just under the surface. If any player jumps in to retrieve the gems, you have a number of options. You could go for a big fight with evil spirit beings, Liches and the like. I’d suggest instead go with a form of madness. If only one player jumps in, have them transported (mentally) to a dark forest where they are surrounded by these evil ghouls. If they lose the fight, they lose their mind.
The gems are extremely hard to remove with breaking them. If they do manage to retrieve them it should release the spirits which will chase them out of the catacombs.
- This is one of the poorer sections of the catacombs. Members of the lower classes who can afford a niche will be laying here. They will still be in the clothes they were interred in, with all their heads turned to face the players who have walked in. Describe how one of the bodies’ eyes still glints and reflects their torchlight. Maybe a slight smile can be seen on the face of the body. Was it there before? Did it just twitch?
There is a secret door at the end of the room. It is not hard to find and a low passive search check should reveal it.
- The poor, decrepit and dissolute are buried here in a large common pit. The entrance leads to a platform with stairs leading down from each side. At one time, theses stairs must have led down quite far. Now they only go ten to twelve feet till they hit the large mound of rotting dead. There is a real danger here for the party. You have two choices in running it. Ghouls could be feasting on the dead here or the evil statue could be causing some of the bodies to animate. Pick which one suits the level of your party. Start with some twitching in the mound. Maybe a cough or sigh. The light of their torches playing on alive and winking eyes. That should spook them. Then attack.
- Two adult sized coffins and a small child’s coffin are in this room. A monk, slumped in his habit with the hood covering his face is sitting in the corner on a stool. He doesn’t move and doesn’t make a sound. When the players approach him, he will slowly raise his head. His face is pale, gaunt and hairless. Tears are running down his face. Slowly, his jaw will drop down too far and he will scream soundlessly. The jaw dislocates and swings from his face as he leaps to his feet running at them with a strange lope. If the party kills him (again, I guess), they will find a large pendant on him. They will recognise it as the reversed symbol of the monastery’s religion.
- A large wooden throne on a raised platform sits at the end of the room. This room was used for ceremonial purposes. The floor in the centre of the room is trapped (something about not approaching the king directly). If the party walk across the floor they will trigger very hard to find pit traps. There are three of them in a row. You will be able to quickly ascertain the intelligence of your players by how many they fall for.
A VERY difficult Religion check will warn the players of this is if they ask to make one. There will be chests containing significant party level appropriate riches on each side of the chest. They are not trapped and open easily. If any of the party take any of the coins or gems they will feel a tremendous burden of guilt. Any enemy fighting them in the catacombs will have advantage attacking them as a result of this.
- This is the only main catacomb chamber on this level. It has a very large number of bodies interred here. Use it to spook the players, however there really isn’t too much going on here.
- Torches light this room along all sides. Down the far wall are, what appear to be, statues of monks wearing cloth habits. If the party investigate, yes, they are stone. Their eyes are surprisingly realistic and they will give the party a feeling of being watched, or malevolent hatred. If the party walk through the room, the statues will glide toward them.
There is a large statue of a weeping woman at the end of the room. As the players approach she will lower her arms from her face and beckon the party toward her. If any of them touch her she will attempt to take their spirit straight away. Save vs Wisdom will save the player. Give them advantage if you feel it’s a bit rough to insta-kill a player (and then go read Temple of Elemental Evil).
Important caveat: If any of the players are wearing the robes from room 2A, or the medallion from room 7, none of the above happens.
- A large alter sits to the North of this chamber. It contains a jewelled and gold plated skull, a gold knife and a goblet filled with blood. A successful religion check will identify these objects as part of the burial ceremony for the monastery’s religion, although somewhat antiquated in its current form.
- This is the spiral staircase leading down to the next level.
- A burning brazier is in the centre of the room. A secret door (hard to find) is in the Eastern wall.
- The altar in this room contains similar objects to the one in room 11. It is a normal part of the ceremony (Religion check average). A hard to find secret door is in the Eastern wall.
- This room used to be part of the treasury of gifts and riches given to the monastery for preferential burial. If the party takes the time to dig through the caved in ceiling they will find numerous level appropriate riches. These will come without the burden of guilt that room 8 had.
The second level is up to you. I found that my group took about 4 hours to go through this scenario up to this point. If you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know in the comments.
I found designing the dungeon thoroughly to be quite a rewarding experience. I was surprised to find that it sparked ideas and plans for how it would play out. On the day, a lot of the stress of coming up with all the necessary descriptions and encounters had been largely mitigated. Perhaps the most rewarding part of the process – the player who first made the comment said that this was the first time a dungeon of mine seemed to have purpose.