Tag Archives: Dungeon Design


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.


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


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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!

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


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I love It’s been my go-to site for checking out urban legends since the 1990’s and I’ve referred to it more than once here in the belfry. It’s full of interesting ideas that provide gaming inspirations and while for gamers it doesn’t matter if the legend is true or not, it’s neat to look into a story you’re sure is false and find out that it is actually true.

Case in point, the idea of a large underground complex beneath Kansas City, Missouri called “Subtropolis”.


With the prominent FedEx truck and the primary colors on the signs, I thought this was a Photoshop job. Imagine my surprise to find out that SubTropolis is a real and long-established center of business, the world’s largest underground industrial park built into an old mine and founded in the 1960’s.

It turns out that there are a number of real-world benefits for businesses in SubTropolis; energy costs are low as the temperature is consistently comfortable and the humidity is low. Low enough that the US Postal Service uses it for storing postage stamps. With no weather to contend with office space can be build without a roof or walls. On top of all that, or perhaps “under” is the better word, space is readily available. According to a profile in The Atlantic, SubTropolis consists of 25 million square feet of space with another 45 million available for future development.

It’s enough to make me imagine Thorin and Company in business suits. Maybe have Bilbo driving the FedEx truck in the picture.

Underground complexes are a staple in gaming genres including fantasy, secret agents, superheroes, post apocalyptic, and science fiction. In the modern, real world we’re used to seeing it in military complexes like NORAD, or ancient times like the underground cities of Cappadocia, but with the exception of the mining industry we’re not used to seeing such complexes used for mundane business purposes. That basic nature of its business makes SubTropolis all the more interesting as a kind of practical, modern dwarven city.

The Snopes entry can be found here. Profiles of Subtropolis can also be found in The Atlantic and this story in Bloomberg Business includes some excellent photographs from within the complex.

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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming


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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.

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


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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 Give it a look, you won’t be disappointed.


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


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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.

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


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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.


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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.


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One Page Dungeons

I don’t hear much about One Page Dungeons these days.

They’re still out there and the annual One Page Dungeon Contest continues to rock along each year, but there seems to be less attention on them than there used to be. For a while you couldn’t open your RSS feed without seeing posts discussing the format or showing off the latest offering. Maybe that’s the way of things, maybe everything worth saying has already been said.

Still, the OSR is all about revisiting the past, including its own.

When One Page Dungeons first showed up on the scene these small adventures had a big impact, and with good reason. They demonstrated that you could strip a module down to the essentials without draining away the sense of adventure. In many ways they represent a lot of the Old School Renaissance’s attitudes; do it yourself, less is more, and unburdening creativity through simplifying.

I was skeptical of the format at first, they seemed too small. I still have big dungeons stuck in my imagination, the kind we ran back in school where we’d play for eight hours every weekend. However the flexibility of the format won me over thanks in no small part to three particular adventures.

The first One Page Dungeon that made an impact on me was Dungeon From a Distant Star by Stuart Robertson. This fantastic (in every sense of the word) pay-what-you-want adventure shows the amount of creativity and fun you can pack into a single page, presenting a game suitable not just for D&D retro-clones, but any genre you want to toss a little sci-fi into, from Mutant Futures to Delta Green. It’s perfect to pull out for a one shot game and it will present your players with a truly alien realm to explore and dangerous challenges to face. I used Dungeon From a Distant Star for my first session of Stars Without Number and it was perfect both for letting me get a handle on the session and for setting the stage for my players.

The next offering that won me over is Dyson’s DelveThis “mini-megadungeon” is the product of the OSR’s Patron Saint of Maps, Dyson Logos, who literally took the format to the next level. Taking advantage of their compact nature Dyson stacked them on top of each other creating an 11 level dungeon crawl. Dyson’s Delve is a free offering and there is plenty of adventure packed into it’s tight space. Dyson’s Delve would be excellent for sporadic games or as a good sized secondary site in a campaign with a tentpole dungeon.

The triumph of the One Page Dungeon format is realized in Michael Curtis’ spectacular Stonehell Dungeon. While it does not use the One Page format in its pure form, the influence is clear. Stonehell is my favorite of the new megadungeons and a great deal of why is the innovative presentation that has its roots firmly planted in the One Page format. To get a glimpse of Stonehell take a look at the free sample, Level 1A: Hell’s AntichamberMy love for Stonehell runs deep, as deep as the dungeon itself will be once volume two comes out.

Which I’m waiting for.

Patiently. See how patient I am?

We wantsssss it. Precioussss megadungeon….

The One Page Dungeon format has several advantages. It allows a DM to pack a lot of game in a little space. They’re good for quick pickup games or to seed adventure sites through a hexcrawl region. They can be built on to make larger games or left to stand on their own. They’re also great to mine for ideas, letting the DM pick up gems from different sources to drop into their own dungeons. The One Page Dungeon format is also accessible, particularly for a novice DM, by allowing him or her to focus on getting the essentials onto the page.

Have you seen any new One Page Dungeons that you really liked? Any old ones that captured your imagination? I’d love to hear about them.

Dungeon Distant Star Cover


Posted by on November 5, 2014 in Fantasy, Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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Handy Notepad

*Update* See below for corrections

I’ve been wanting to do more mapping lately. Specifically dungeon maps.

To do this I wanted to find a notepad that was more portable than my trusty 8.5″ x 11″ graph pad. Something I could toss into my laptop bag or a jacket pocket. I found a few promising candidates online, but nothing I wanted to pay shipping on. Having tried several art and office supply locations I’d just about given up hope.

Then while going through Wal-Mart I came across the perfect solution.

A company called Blue Sky produces a line called ProNotes that could have been custom designed for gamers. The books are 5.5″ x 8.5″, comfortably fitting into the cargo pocket on my jeans and the spiral binding lets me clip in my pencil. The notebook is designed for mapping out projects, so when you open up the left hand page has a 12 x 22 graph while the right hand page has a ruled section for notes. You could practically market these to the OSR community as One Page Dungeon planners.

You can order them directly from Blue Sky’s website, the product page is here and the cost is $7.99 per booklet. Refills are listed as available through various retailers but I do not see them on the Blue Sky website. The notebooks I picked up at Wal-Mart were about half the price. I’m not sure if they were on sale or priced at the refill rate, but I snapped up the only two they had.

If you are looking for a portable dungeon sketchbook, keep your eyes peeled for these.

*Corrections* I stopped at another Wal-Mart and discovered a few things I had wrong. The pads I picked up are 4″ x 6″ and under the “Notes” line instead of “ProNotes”. This line doesn’t appear on Blue Sky’s web site. I found them on the shelf in the same section as the regular pads of paper and they retail for under $5.


It would be fantastic if we could get these branded for Labyrinth Lord or Dungeon Crawl Classics!


Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Dungeon Design, Gaming, Maps


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