Sunday, November 17, 2019

Back to the Dungeon I Go

[EDIT: Please note that this post's content has been significantly improved through editing for concision, as discussed here]

I've been typing away on a dungeon adventure that I may try to self-publish.

Recently, I'm glad to say, I've had lots of productivity on the professional research and teaching fronts, and I've been enjoying GMing a new play-by-post campaign using the old B10 module, Night's Dark Terror. With the teaching semester buzzing etc., that all involves a good investment of energy, however, so I've decided that in terms of writing new gaming content in this season, what interests me most right now is revising a dungeon I created a while ago, and trying to make it even better. 

[Thanks to those who offered feedback recently on Settings with Strata, by the way; your experiences have helped me identify ways that the product doesn't need a ton of work in some areas, and does need more thought in others. That project remains firmly on my personal radar]

Meet Beneath the Burial Wells

This is just one level of the place, and it's the old version; the revised version has a bit more going on. Key design goals are to make something filling a niche like Tomb of the Serpent Kings, playable in a night or two with low-level characters; weird (but not gonzo) fantasy; interactive, rewarding exploration and interrogation of mysteries; non-linear and vertical, with 3D loops to navigate and even multiple possible goals within the dungeon; and deadly in select places, but not a hack-and-slash fest. 

I thought I'd offer a glimpse at some rough-draft content from this current free-time-project. Here's some background info and some recommended hooks for gold-grubbing heroic PCs. Feel free to leave some feedback - in fact, please do! I'd rather learn now if this sounds boring or lame. Everything is still drafty (especially the room description), nothing here is set in stone. At any rate, it's fun to work on. 


For generations, mourners have carried their dead up to silent cliff-side ruins in the high hills above the town Olvad. There at the Burial Wells, where somber carved courts encircle well-like shafts, the dead are released into shafts, back to the earth.

Over those same generations, some in and near Olvad have succumbed to a weird illness, a chronic weakness and literal fading that ends in the near-transparency and then death of its victims. Terrified of this malady, Olvad’s council has banished the afflicted from the town. Today, a group of Fading occupy hovels beside the Burial Wells, as outcast as lepers but still feeding their nearly-invisible dead to the mountain.


Centuries ago, a league of arcane scribes serving the Third Emperor built way-stations — protected libraries where traveling scribes could rest, research, and pass messages through magically secured means. These soon became conduits for secret lore from across the empire, firing the envy and suspicion of rival orders. It was not without satisfaction, then, that those rivals presented the Third Emperor with evidence of a great betrayal. A master of the league’s way-stations, over-steeped in ancient arts, had twisted language itself to create an unsanctioned weapon: a text that could spread like a disease, bind the wills of men, and bring down an Empire. The response was swift and brutal. The league was banned; fire and sorcery purged the way-stations; imperial archivists scrubbed all mention of the league from historical texts — or so they thought.

The Burial Wells above Olvad are actually the top level of a league way-station – the very site where an ambitious master brought down an empire’s wrath. After securing six reptilian fossil skulls which still bore the spark of keen wills older than humanity, the station-master used power forced from these artifacts to animate a written text capable of enslaving minds. Even as the Third Empire’s magical assassins brought retribution, the station-master hid his text on a secure message-wall. It still waits there today.

So do six reptilian skulls, brooding and bitter at their servitude to humanity. Too weak now to project much power, they can only force a few tendrils of spite through the rock around them – just enough to curse a few humans in the area with the fading sickness. Were the skulls ever brought back into the heat and energy of the daylight world, however, their capacity for vengeance would be terrible.


Several different ‘hooks’ might draw your player characters (PCs) into adventure beneath the Burial Wells. Note that the options described below point to different goals within the dungeon; further, some hooks may work better for different play styles (one option may fit more heroic motivations, while another will suit a plunder-and-run expedition). For these reasons, GMs may want to familiarize themselves with the full adventure and consider their desired play style before choosing a preferred hook. If in a hurry, however, any of these hooks should lead to adventure, wealth, and probably trouble beneath the Burial Wells.

1. A rumor is flying: the Bloody Jacks mercenaries have learned the location of an abandoned Third Empire way-station, which may hold lost lore worth a small fortune. As it happens, the PCs are in Olvad when they encounter a drunk, talkative servant sent ahead of the Bloody Jacks to make logistical arrangements…who lets slip that the Burial Wells above Olvad are the way-station! The Bloody Jacks are only days away, but the PCs realize they could clear out the ruins first. This hook works even better if the PCs are heavily in debt to very unpleasant persons.

2. Dame Joran, matriarch of a prosperous merchant house in Olvad, has a secret: her grandson has come down with the fading sickness so feared by the town’s citizens. On pain of disinheritance, Joran has forbidden the family to reveal this situation. Keeping her grandson hidden, she has spent enormous sums investigating everything known about his weird malady. She has realized that known cases cluster more densely near the Burial Wells. On a hunch, she discreetly hires the PCs (paying very well for their silence) to investigate beneath the ruins and determine whether they have some connection to the fading disease. If the PCs can offer clear answers - or even neutralize the curse - they will be paid a small fortune.

3. The PCs are agents of a king or other important patron, who learns that a reptile-worshiping cult seeks the location of a specific Third Empire way-station. Since the patron’s library identifies that way-station as the ruins above Olvad, the patron deploys the player characters to the Burial Wells. They are to find out why the reptile-cult is interested and neutralize any threats.

4. Alternately (see Hook #3), the player characters’ influential patron learns that an enemy faction is sending a team to Olvad to recover an ancient “weapon word” lost beneath the Burial Wells. The players are to find and neutralize (or, perhaps, secure and exploit) this unknown weapon before the enemies find it (this is a similar hook to option #3, but the hooks will point to different goals within the dungeon itself).

Here's an example of what a relatively more complex room would be like: 

Room C1. Teleporting Chamber

GM Highlights: A teleportation table allows movement between levels A and C. PCs arriving by teleportation from A9 appear next to the teleportation table here. If PCs linger in C1, they will be attacked after 1 turn by Crypt-Script from C2, unless the PCs have adequate light; if a PC teleports into C1 without an active light source, they are in particular danger. If a PC teleports here without light, do not describe any visual cues from First Impressions; use the First Impressions In the Dark instead. This room has no treasure.

First Impressions: A solid bronze pedestal (with something finger-sized floating above it) stands in a bronze circle on the center of the floor. Four massive long-bones of some giant creature stand as support pillars toward the corners of the chamber. Everything visible has a slightly singed, burned look. Through a doorway to the south, PCs hear running, splashing water; any light source will shimmer off water in that direction. Through open doorway exits to north and east, PCs hear faint whispering sounds.

Special Note - First Impressions in the Dark: PCs who arrive by teleport with no light source active have different first impressions. Everything suddenly goes pitch black! You still feel the solid mass of the bronze pedestal before you, but you now hear the sound of running water somewhere in the dark ahead of you. Behind you and off to your left, you hear moaning and whispering…getting closer.

Looking Closer:

Bronze Teleportation Table: This table is identical to the one on Level A. In the middle of a 6’-wide bronze circle carved with geometric patterns stands a 3’-high, 2’-wide bronze pedestal. The pedestal has a flat top engraved with Third Empire glyphs in a circle, which say: “Behind the Empire of Arms Stands an Empire of Knowledge.” The final glyph – “Knowledge” – is a separate, finger-length piece of bronze hovering six inches above the pedestal. No amount of force will move it to the side or higher than six inches above the table, but it can easily be pushed down. If it is lowered to touch the surface, completing the sentence, any persons on or touching the bronze circle will immediately vanish and teleport to A9. 

Upon teleportation, the Knowledge glyph immediately rises back to its levitating position. A character arriving by teleportation from A9 will feel the pedestal to their front, but unless they have or produce a light source, they will have to feel around in the dark to find the floating glyph (if they tell you they are looking for it!). I suggest a 35% chance per round to find the glyph in the dark, or auto-success if a full turn is devoted to the search.

Crypt-Script Attack: By the end of one turn spent in this room, 1d4 Crypt-Script will have gathered at each of the entrances from C2 to North and East. They appear as wraith-like, black-cloaked human shapes formed from ink-like ribbons of written script, which flow and writhe in the air. They repetitively whisper hateful threats and random snatches of archival lore (1d6: 1-2, “flames took our tongues…give us yours…” 3-4: “flames took our breath, give us yours…” 5: “Lo’at, Court Huntsman begat Su-ripak, Second Emperor…” 6: “Su-ripak, Second Emperor begat Ris-Apan, Third Emperor…”

What happens next depends on whether the PCs have light.

With light: The Crypt-Script come no closer than a few feet to any light source as bright as a candle. If PCs cluster around their light(s), allow each single light source to keep up to 4 PCs safe. If kept at bay, the Crypt-Script will fall back to the shadows and continue whispering hatefully at the PCs.

Crypt-Script may be Turned as 3-HD undead. They are otherwise immune to damage, with one exception. If PCs advance on the creatures with light, they will retreat. If cornered with no room to retreat beyond 5’, Crypt-Script menaced by open light will be destroyed (50% chance) or attack despite the light (50% chance; see below).

Without light: If the PCs are not adequately protected by light, the Crypt-Script will attack. Grant PCs automatic initiative and make it clear that something horrifying is approaching, even if the PCs are visually blinded. If the Crypt-Script catch PCs in the chamber, treat each group of 1d4 creatures as a single, amorphous attacker. Each attack is an attempt to wrap ribbons of dark script around one PC. Their touch is deadly; PCs must Save vs. Death or perish.

Crypt-Script will not move onto water, so flight into the flooded hallway at C3 may save PCs without adequate light. Any PC rushing blindly toward the sound of water will fall down the steps to C3 and take 1d6 damage.


When I ran this dungeon a while ago, one player got himself teleported down into this room. Unfortunately, he had no light. What he did have, however, was ALL the party's rope and climbing gear, which was a bit unfortunate, since the folks with the light either needed to teleport after him or climb down two levels to come find him. But the hireling porter who saw him teleport was shrieking his head off, screaming "He just vanished! He just disintegrated!" So there was not an immediate rush to repeat the experiment. 

The PC did, in fact, rush off into the darkness, fall downstairs into the flooded corridor, and turned out ok in the end. Running this dungeon taught me that sometimes the really really silly thing that the PCs obviously won't do (like setting free a mysterious psychic reptile skull that promises to be nice to you and tell you where to find some treasure) is exactly what the PCs are going to do

 Thanks for reading, and happy gaming! 

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