RSS

Category Archives: Dungeon Design

Grimtooth

Well, here’s my latest light reading.

As I’ve come to expect from Goodman Games, this is a beautiful book. The cover is lovely, the binding is excellent, and the contents are well restored. It’s a wonderful collection of all the old Grimtooth’s Traps books, including a variety of new material and interviews.

If you’re not familiar, back in the 80’s and early 90’s there was a series of books collecting some of the most diabolical and completely unfair traps ever designed. These were rules agnostic monstrosities that would make Tomb of Horrors traps look like amateur designs.

Truth be told, for the most part they aren’t anything I would use in my dungeon design. Most are too “funhouse” for me, but the pleasure is in the reading. These books are fun.

And if my players were afraid I might actually use them? Well, that was fun too.

Now the entire series is available in an outstanding Goodman Games omnibus edition. The Kickstarter backers are receiving their copies now, so they should be available for retail purchase soon. Keep an eye on the Goodman Games website.

Grimtooth1

You know, I could adapt these for a superhero game. Something involving Arcade’s Murderworld from Marvel Comics. Hmm…

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

At Last!

Stonehell Dungeon is now complete!

MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell is on sale now at Michael Curtis’ Lulu.com site and contains the final five levels for his wonderful megadungeon. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. The first volume, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, captured my imagination when I first saw it. The layout is a very user-friendly style that borrows from the OSR’s One Page Dungeon concept, striking a great balance of content without becoming unwieldy. This is my kind of dungeon, that mixes the fantastic with the logical, with the story of Stonehell unfolding through exploration, always just beneath the surface but not controlling the game. I cannot wait to crack open the new volume and see what waits below.

On Curtis’ Lulu page you can find both volumes of Stonehell in print and .pdf versions, as well as a free sample of the first level and a free expansion. There’s also an inexpensive .pdf with additional adventures in and around the dungeon. You can find it all here.

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on October 27, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy, Gaming

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Demi-Humans and Dungeons, in the Real World

Recently the fossils of a previously unknown species of ancient human was discovered in a cave in South Africa.

That’s awesome in and of itself, but this video shows how they got to the remains to study them, including showing someone squirming into a tiny tunnel. They had to bring in a group of cavers who were small women who were capable of reaching the farthest chamber, which the map shows as being a vaulted 90’+ high cave.

Fantastic. No way an adventurer in plate armor is going through that tunnel.

I have on occasion designed low corridors in dwarf-built dungeons, but this makes me want to hide treasure beyond passages too small for anything but halflings and wood elves to crawl through.

Has anyone else ever put features like this into your dungeons? If so, I’d love to hear about them!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Dungeon Design, History

 

Tags: , , , ,

More Handy Notepads

Now is a good time to visit your local Half Price Books!

As if you needed a reason.

I found another line of pocket notebooks that is just perfect for on-the-go dungeon mapping. Leuchtturm 1917 is a German manufacturer of fine notebooks, and let me add that it pleases me to no end that in an era of cost cutting and digital tablets a company can still exist based on making quality notebooks. That it’s a German company also seems appropriate.

The model I found is a nice 3.5″ x 6″ with a 17×26 grid pattern on both pages. Technically 18 across, but the last column is on the gutter and isn’t easily used. The book has a thread binding, which on the downside means it doesn’t lay flat as easily as a spiral binding, but on the plus side it is sturdy, attractive, and reduces the profile making it fit in your pocket better. There are other nice touches in the design, such as acid free “no bleed” paper, an expandable pocket in the back cover, a built in page marker, and a band to hold it closed. These would be fine journals in any case, but the grid pattern makes them wonderful for gamers.

The US distributor for Leuchtturm is Kikkerland Design and they sell this model for $12.95. When I found them at Half Price Books they cost just under $5 and when I went back for more they’d been marked down again to $2.99!

I now have several Leuchtturm notebooks sitting on the shelf next to my Blue Sky planners.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 8, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Dungeon Design, Gaming, Maps

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Secret of Bone Hill

“Danger lurks in the Lendore Isles. Bands of evil creatures prowl the hills overlooking the town of Restenford, seeking unwary victims.”

-The Secret of Bone Hill, front cover

If you ask an old Dungeons & Dragons player what module best represents the game you’ll get plenty of answers. For many it’s The Keep on the Borderlands, home of the iconic Caves of Chaos. Others will say In Search of the Unknown, or The Village of Hommlet, or maybe even Tomb of Horrors. These are fine choices, but for me the answer is module L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.

Written by Lenard Lakofka and published in 1981, Bone Hill has a dose of everything a D&D party could want. The module is designed for 2-8 characters from levels 2-4, which makes it suitable for adventurers with some experience under their belts, looking to face bigger challenges. It provides a modest sized wilderness area with several different locations containing both random and set encounters. There are some dynamic threats for the DM to use, such as a group of brigands and a pack of gnolls, and places weird and fantastic that may provide aid instead of danger to a party that minds its manners.

There is the town of Restenford, which is well mapped and completely keyed out, rivaling the village of Hommlet for completeness. All the townsfolk, including the inhabitants of the baron’s castle, are given names and stats. Only a few are given descriptions beyond this, but it’s easy to build motivations on top of what the Dungeon Master is given and if the DM is inclined towards intrigue then it won’t be hard to incorporate into the lives of the townsfolk. Restenford is an archetypical D&D fantasy town, mostly human with a smattering of other races living alongside them. Magic is also not too uncommon, with several magic-users living within the town and more than one person armed with low powered magical weapons and armor.

Then there is Bone Hill itself and the ruined castle looming over the countryside. There is a good mix of standard and new monsters lurking within its depths and two factions that have an uneasy coexistence. This is a well realized dungeon site, not very large but well thought out and stocked with a generous amount of treasure for those who survive its dangers.

The module also uses plenty of old school concepts in its design. Most importantly it makes no assumptions about the party’s motivations, beyond that they seek adventure. There are no quest givers with exclamation marks hovering over their heads, waiting to tell the players what needs to be done. It is up to them to explore Restenford and its environs and it is up to them to unearth the stories that will lead them into danger.

That’s not to say the adventure doesn’t give them some direction. In true old school fashion Bone Hill has an extensive list of rumors that the party can hear during their interactions around the town. How much they can trust those rumors is another decision the party will have to make and a wise group will be cautious about what they believe.

One related detail that I enjoy is that a few of the illustrations depict scenes from the rumor table that are not true. It makes me wonder if these rumors are based on things that happened in the author’s gaming group.

There are two other details that I appreciate about The Secret of Bone Hill. The first is that the castle of Restenford is completely mapped out and keyed, with rumors around the town that the ruling family’s wealth is secured within. As I mentioned, the module makes no assumptions about the adventurers’ motivations and the castle is not simply a place to go and receive quests from the baron and baroness. A group may prefer to try their luck at robbing the castle instead of risking the horrors of Bone Hill.

The other detail I love is found at the ruins on Bone Hill. The history of the ruined castle is not told within the module, but a lot of its story can be discerned from the map and the location descriptions. The remains of siege engines can be found outside of ruined walls. There are areas that show substantial fire damage, including burn circles marked on the map. Many skeletal remains can be found around the siege engines and within the courtyard, telling of a fierce battle between bugbears and humans. We don’t know the details, but the clues to the castle’s history are compelling, all the more because they are told through what the party sees and can deduce.

If there is one criticism I have it’s that the main threats lack an element of the fantastic. There is no dragon, no demon lord, no alien monstrosity that strikes terror into the players when their characters come face-to-face with it. Nothing that is epic by its existence alone. This can be remedied by developing the personalities of the intelligent villains and making them a more aggressive threat to the characters and the region.

Of course, you can also add a horrifying threat of your own.

The Secret of Bone Hill encapsulates what I think of in old school Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a small sandbox where low-to-mid level characters can make their own way, free from any expectations beyond their thirst for adventure. There are mysteries, there are opportunities for role playing, there are unforgiving threats, and a wealth of treasure to be discovered.

The Secret of Bone Hill is available in .pdf format on dndclassics.com. Give it a look, you won’t be disappointed.

BoneHillCover

 
1 Comment

Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure

“The module you are about to read contains the basis for one of the most difficult adventures that my character, Mordenkainen the Mage, ever underwent.”

-Gary Gygax, Special Preface to WG5

Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure was co-written by Robert Kuntz and Gary Gygax as module WG5 of the “World of Greyhawk” adventure series. It was meant to be a stand-alone adventure set in the ruins of Maure Castle, not far from the Free City of Greyhawk. The module is based off an adventure created by Robert Kuntz when he took on the role of co-DM for Gary’s original Greyhawk campaign.

“Primarily, although not exclusively, I created my Castle, ‘The Ruins of El Raja Kye,’ from which this dungeon is derived, for Gary Gygax, who deserved an opportunity for some extensive play because of all the judging (in between all the writing) he had done for the players in his Greyhawk Campaign.”

-Robert Kuntz, Introduction to WG5

I love getting glimpses like this into how the Lake Geneva gaming group worked. It’s a wonderful reminder that Dungeons & Dragons was created by gamers just like us, with the same concerns at the table that we still have today. These were our people, or perhaps I should say we are their people.

It’s also nice to see that Gygax wasn’t the only one who had a fondness for long, comma filled sentences.

The OSR has talked extensively about many classic modules, but Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure seems to be mostly overlooked. This surprises me, because it has always been one of my favorites. I ran it several times for my first gaming group (remember re-running modules?) and used it again with my first university group. I suspect that its late arrival on the scene is why it doesn’t receive more attention, 1984 being beyond what many gamers consider to be the golden age of D&D.

Which is a shame because WG5 is a classic dungeon in every sense. The maps twist and turn and it’s three levels are dense enough that careful cartographers will be able to spot hidden areas. There are tricks and traps aplenty, some quite deadly while others can despoil the characters’ hard won treasures. The dungeon is largely a hack & slash with few options to negotiate with the dungeon denizens, but that’s not to say it doesn’t require thought. Adventurers who simply kick in each door and start swinging will have a harder time than those who use tactics and caution.

WG5 can be classified as a “funhouse dungeon” but not a completely arbitrary one. There is enough story to tie events together if the players pay attention to the clues. The castle was a legendary center of magic before it fell into ruin. Since then a powerful and evil wizard named Tomorast has taken up residence in the dungeon and surrounded himself with minions, apprentices, and the demon-cult he has formed. A cult whose numbers have been dwindling due to Tomorast’s penchant for using them as sacrifices to the greater demon Kerzit. Kerzit is a guardian demon who Tomorast has summoned to protect his greatest treasure, a grimoire known as the Tome of the Black Heart. Tomorast has used the dungeon as a laboratory and storehouse for his magical experiments and now his own deadly creations have mixed with those remaining from the castle’s history.

There are many other things about WG5 that I like. The adventure opens with a two-page section called, “The Adventure Begins,” which guides the players through their journey to the castle ruins and describes their initial decent into the dungeon. It’s clearly written assuming that the players are using the pre-generated characters and feels forced, which I normally wouldn’t like. However the pre-generated characters are legendary figures from Gary’s campaign, Mordenkainen, Yrag, Bigby, and Riggby, and it feels like this is based on what actually happened when Gary was a player.

That feeling is certainly worth a short railroad.

The dungeon itself is well laid out in the classic style. It’s three levels deep, which makes it large enough to pack in plenty of adventure but not so large that it takes over a campaign. Though by its nature there are plenty of options for the DM to expand it on their own. Each section begins with a short description of the general feel of that level including notes on the construction, which helps the DM to describe the environment and provide some clues on the dungeon’s history. For example the stonework on the third level is noticeably more recent, indicating that Tomorast has been expanding the dungeon to suit his needs.

That’s not to say the module is flawless. There is only one way to descend from level one to two and it is hidden behind a secret tunnel. I tend to look at designs like this with a practical mind and the dungeon’s creators wouldn’t have put up with such a difficult design. I’d add a more accessible way to reach level two, but I might bar the second path with a magical gate that can only be opened from below, or perhaps have it filled by a tunnel collapse. There are three paths between level two and three, but they don’t line up on the map correctly. It’s so far off that I wonder if it was intentional, indicating some kind of magical teleportation such as you find in the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but this is never stated.

The adventure is designed for characters level 9-12, which I like. It’s powerful enough to be epic but still within the range of what most gaming groups can legitimately reach through regular play. Danger is present from the moment the characters enter the dungeon and the module doesn’t hold off on true peril, with one of the most deadly (and spectacular) challenges found on the first level. Treasure abounds within, including potent magical items, but most of these objects are designed to be interesting and cool rather than overpowered.

The Tome of the Black Heart itself is no simple spellbook. Instead it’s a manual with instructions for creating objects and summoning powerful otherworldly beings rather than simply providing more spells for the wizard’s arsenal. I particularly like this, as this makes obtaining the Tome feel less like the completion of an adventure and more like the opening of several new quests.

This concept is reflected throughout the dungeon and fires the imagination of both the players and the DM. Every quest completed, every great treasure obtained, is just the key to the next adventure.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 13, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Gaming, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Speaking of Isometric Mapping

One of the things I love about the OSR is that it’s allowed people to create and spread unique ideas and products.

Case in point, my post on G+ asking about isometric mapping was replied to by the author of the blog Blue Boxer Rebellion. He happens to make isometric dungeon tiles and sells them on Drive Thru RPG.

Dungeon tiles are nothing new, I got my first set in the 80’s and I know there were sets available in the 70’s. I’ve seen countless 2D and 3D sets, but I’ve never seen an isometric set before now. It’s rare that I can look at a gaming product and say that I’ve never seen anything like it. You can see his products on his store front here.

I love the optical illusion effect the tiles generate and the hand drawn black-and-white fits my preferred old school art preferences. You can get a good look at a sample on his blog here.

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Isometric Mapping Thoughts

I posted this on the G+ OSR community as well.

Question on mapping. I’ve been looking at some wonderful examples of isometric maps.

Aesthetically I like them, but here’s my question. Do they have any effect from the player’s point of view? Would players realize that a map was done isometrically if the DM doesn’t tell them? Maybe it helps the DM express changes in height better, but otherwise I’m not sure.

This isn’t a knock on the design choice, I love them. Wish I could draw them better. I’m just wondering because I’ve always looked at them from the DM’s point of view and never thought about how they do or don’t change things on the other side of the screen.

 

Tags: , , , ,

Free This Week – Sketchbook Pro

I have returned from Pennsic War!

It was my first Pennsic for a while and it was a ton of fun. I’m still getting my feet back on the ground at home and work from the time off, but should resume irregular updates shortly.

In the meantime, Sketchbook Pro is the iTunes free App of the Week!

I’ve talked about this app a few times in the past. It’s an inexpensive drawing program for your iPad that works well for drawing dungeon maps.

It’s worth a look, and this week you can do it for free.

Happy mapping!

IMG_0343

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Dungeon Design, Maps

 

Tags: , , , ,

The Adventures, My Friends, Are Blowing In The Wind

Here are some adventure ideas based on last week’s post about windmills on medieval maps.

1. Murder Mystery – The town has suffered a rash of thefts and vandalism; Windows have been broken including the stained glass of the church. Jewelry taken from bedrooms while their occupants slept. Small mirrors vanishing. Silver and gold pieces plucked from counter tops when nobody is looking. The incidents seem random and no suspects have been identified.

The old windmill on the outskirts of town has been abandoned for many years. Stories tell of the miller going mad and murdering his workers, whose souls are said to still haunt the place. Two nights ago a watchman noticed flashes of light glinting from the mill as the sun set, its blades glittering in many colors. Investigators approaching the windmill will see that the tattered cloth sails of the blades have been replaced with a thick mass of black feathers with all manner of shiny objects, including broken glass and the stolen items, woven into the bizarre tapestry.

Stranger still is the enormous flock of crows gathered around the windmill, silently watching the investigators. As the setting sun’s rays begin to glint off the illicitly adorned windmill’s blades the entire flock begins to beat its wings, creating an unnatural wind. The sails begin to turn, causing a hypnotic glare to be thrown across the town.

2. Drawing Conclusions – The court magician was well known to be a bit off, but he served the king well and his knowledge of unearthly beasts saved the city against the forces of chaos. So when he asked to move from his tower into the city’s great windmill, the king was happy to grant the request.

In the years of peace that followed the magician became more and more absorbed in his studies. He has sent out adventurers to retrieve all manner of arcane objects for him, including strange inks and feathers from increasingly exotic and powerful winged beings. Other magic users speculate that he is researching spells related to the wind, possibly looking to tap into the Elemental Plane of Air itself.

The magician has also begun drawing strange figures on the sails of the windmill, having several more blades installed to accommodate his designs. One of the adventurers or a local bard may remember having seen devices meant to entertain children that have figures drawn on a wheel. When the wheel is spun it gives the illusion of movement to the figures. The magician may be planning something similar on a much larger scale, but to what end? And the figures he is drawing don’t appear to be any creature you’d find in the sane world.

3. Fe Fi Fo Fum – The town has suffered a rash of grave robberies and a reward has been posted for anyone who can solve the case. Investigations of local magicians and surgeons have turned up nothing. A warren of ghoul tunnels may be discovered, but the ghouls within have already been destroyed. Recently by the looks of it.

A new miller has been producing fine flour, which the baker has been turning into a most excellent bread. The bread is so good that it has become the talk of the barony and demand among the nobles has made the miller and baker quite wealthy.

Years ago the miller and baker were clerics in the cannibalistic Cult of Vaprak. The cult was crushed by the baron’s forces and the other clerics tortured and executed for their crimes. The two survivors swore revenge.

The clerics are behind the grave robberies. They are grinding the bones in the mill and using it as flour for the fine bread. The Feast of Vaprak approaches and on that day they will unleash a curse that will cause all who have eaten the consecrated bread to transform into ogres.

4. Winds of Change – The sea walls of the port city are lined with a battery of unusual windmills. These windmills are capable of generating gales powerful enough to swamp ships and through their magic the city has resisted all invaders. The mills also create gentler winds, capable of speeding allied ships on their way. This has lead to peace and prosperity for many generations.

Recently there have been accidents; a ship blown off course, a storm drawn in instead of repelled. Most recently a group of fishing boats were overturned when the mills’ winds unexpectedly surged with power.

The secret of the windmills is that the wizards’ guild summoned and enslaved Air Elementals to power them. Over the decades the wards have begun to weaken as the guild became complacent. There are few remaining who have the skill and power to restore the wards. To do so will also require rare ingredients and adventurers to retrieve them.

If they fail the Air Elementals will break their bonds and wreak vengeance on the city. A vengeance that some would consider justified. Guild spies are ready to eliminate anyone who discovers the secret of the windmills, especially among the adventurers in the guild’s employ.

5. When the Wind Blows – A great mountain towers over the city and at its peak is the opening of a mighty cavern. Smoke has begun to emerge from the cavern’s mouth.

This heralds the awakening of Ashterath, an ancient red dragon of terrible power. Long ago Ashterath’s fire destroyed entire cities and the plunder of kings was taken for his bed. Armies fell before the dragon’s might.

The reign of terror was finally ended when the Goddess of Night Breezes sent four artifacts down to her faithful clerics. These artifacts were large whistles, cast from mithril and adorned with diamonds. The whistles were attached to the sails of a windmill standing in the shadows of Ashterath’s mountain and as the blades turned the whistles generated soothing music that lulled the dragon into an enchanted sleep.

The whistles of the goddess have been kept safe within the vaults of her temple, or so everyone thought. When the vault was opened the reliquary was empty except for a silver ring engraved with the symbol of Dirk Tongue-Lasher, the legendary Thief of the North.

———————————————————————-

Have you ever used a windmill in your game? Do you have any more adventure seeds? I’d love to hear them.

If you’re looking for inspiration, I recommend checking out the 1937 cartoon short, The Old Mill. It’s a classic piece of Disney animation. I would expect Mouse Guard players in particular could get some mileage out of it.

OldMill1

Plus it has bats! I’m kind of partial to bats.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,