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This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The only thing more fun than creating a dungeon is destroying one, which is a rare opportunity that I never pass up. It's like watching a villain's hideout blow up at the end of a Bond film. For the past few weeks, the Wednesday night group has been exploring a crashed flying citadel a dungeon buried under a mile of glacial ice. The citadel crashed long ago on an arctic island ruled by the white dragon Calderax. To make a long story short, the heroes offended the dragon by slaying one of her brood and took refuge behind hundreds of feet of 10-foot-wide corridors, thinking the colossal dragon wouldn't be able to reach them. Thus, the players were surprised when I started erasing large sections of the battle map and widening all of the corridors as Calderax plowed through the crumbled labyrinth, breaking up narrow passages with her claws and great bulk. The map transformed before the players' wide eyes, and with each chamber the dragon burst into, it became increasingly evident that no corner of the dungeon was safe. And so the PCs withdrew into an extradimensional space created with an exodus knife and let the dungeon bear the brunt of the dragon's wrath.
Acererak is a powerful archwizard who transformed into a demilich, and in this bodiless form he dwells in the depths of his most terrible creation, the Tomb of Horrors, waiting for unwary adventurers to stumble upon his remains so that he can feed on their souls. In short, he isn't a very nice guy. I'm resurrecting him here not because he appears in my campaign (he doesn't) but because this week we're talking about DUNGEONS. As evidenced by last Wednesday's game, I'm the sort of DM who breaks his dungeons, much like some children break their toys, so I'm always on the lookout for awesome new ones.
Acererak's trap-ridden tomb ranks as one of the most iconic dungeons in D&D lore. It has claimed the lives of more adventurers than any other dungeon, and perhaps as many as all the other classic dungeons put together. This week, I'm breaking format to showcase the winning entries from our recent Best Dungeon contest, but which mad architect will win the dubious honor of being Acererak's apprentice? I'll let this week's poll answer that question. As for me, I'm going to leave the voting to the experts and instead discuss what I find appealing about each of these labyrinths; dungeons should be explored, after all. Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry!
Dungeon of the Sleeping Dragon
By Kirk Wiebe, Lincoln NE
Kirk writes: An ancient eladrin known only as Starfire built a dungeon to conceal his most prized treasure: a sleeping dragon. As mysterious as he was brilliant, Starfire created a series of bridges and walkways that formed an underground dungeon with parts of it "floating" over the darkness below. Secretly, the floating rooms rest on the back of the dragon. Best be careful not to wake it!
Memorable dungeons, like memorable NPCs, have secrets. Starfire's dungeon has one of the coolest secrets I've seen in a long time: part of it was built on top of a sleeping dragon. The fact that the dragon is the dungeon's "treasure" is another nice touch, and far more interesting than a sarcophagus full of gold pieces! Add a few oddly shaped rooms and some cross-hatching around the walls, and we end up with a dungeon that really stands out.
Tomb of the Brothers
By Ian Stewart, Boston MA
Ian writes: Claresta Moonfall, "Flint" MacGuintly, and Bertrum McHammerSlammer were adventurers renowned for their accomplishments and known by the self-given moniker: the Brothers of the Elemental Chaos. They weren't from the Elemental Chaos. They weren't even brothers! They weren't even the same race or gender. Their quirks and eccentricities are reflected in their tomb, which was never intended to serve as their final resting place. They filled it with traps and monsters, placed power weapons in their individual crypts as bait, and dared other adventurers to plunder what they'd left behind. Each challenge was put there to instill in any who entered the tomb the three things the Brothers believed made a hero above all else: strength of body, cleverness of mind, and fearlessness in the face of death. And if you pressed Bertram McHammerSlammer, he'd tell you there was a "secret" reason why they created the tomb: it was really FUN!
The Brothers of the Elemental Chaos managed to capture three important characteristics of Gygaxian dungeon design: (1) asymmetry, (2) oddly shaped rooms, and (3) a layout that defies conventional logic. Characters can easily become lost in the tangle of corridors and chambers, and the lack of symmetry only adds to their unease. All three traits testify to the architects' madness and make players afraid for their characters' lives, for this sort of dungeon gives double meaning to the phrase "dead ends." And yet the map's conformity to the grid makes it easy for DMs to replicate—a virtue not to be underappreciated!
The Fortress of Despair
By Rob Waluchow, Hamilton ON
Rob writes: The infamous Fortress of Despair was constructed by the mad lich Xygarien. In order to protect the only means of his true destruction, the paranoid wizard designed this forlorn dungeon to confuse, confound, and horribly maim any would-be heroes.
It's amazing what you can do with digital tools these days! This beautifully rendered map DARES me to throw adventurers into it! It also has a particular quality important to truly Gygaxian dungeons: a complex arrangement of rooms and corridors that doesn't relegate trespassers to move in one particular direction. Many dungeons bore interlopers because they don't offer even the most rudimentary of choices—which direction to go? The Fortress of Despair has no such flaw. (Also, brownie points for the carnival title font, which evoked memories of 1st Edition.)
Maiden of the Blighted Steppes
By Sersa Victory, Joliet IL
Sersa writes: Decades ago, a clan of refugee medusas petrified a stargazing titan queen and chiseled her body into the likeness of their beautiful foremother, Euryale, in an attempt to seduce a living comet to come to the planet and wipe out their former masters. The catacombs beneath the 20-story "maiden" once served as living quarters for the medusas, a fane for their astrological rituals, a gallery for their dying culture's heirlooms, and a shelter from the cataclysm they sought to bring upon the world. However, the wayward clan has disappeared, leaving their wealth and secrets vulnerable to those who would seek to claim it.
First of all, what an amazing story! I love the idea of a dungeon built by an apocalyptic cult of medusas with a petrified titan queen as its "centerpiece." The incorporation of astrological symbols into the dungeon itself helps reinforce the dungeon's theme and explains that weird comet-shaped room to the south. I found myself entranced by the map's many curiosities little doodles and flourishes that make me want to roll up a character and explore the dungeon the way it was meant to be explored!
Kaladish the Dwarven Stronghold
By Jamie Rickard, Kingston ON
Jamie writes: Kaladish was the grand stronghold of the dwarven High King Kilric Stonehammer, the last of the dwarven high kings. Stonehammer wanted Kaladish to bring the dwarven clans of Volshar together and end the petty feuding between them. The unification held for nearly a decade after the end of the first Dark War but final broke apart following the high king's death. Several of the clans kept Kaladish as their home, but in the hundred years since the end of the war, all contact with Kaladish was lost and no expeditions sent to Kaladish returned. Kaladish faded into legend, its location forgotten.
Kaladish isn't a Gygaxian dungeon per se, but one must appreciate its scale and ingenuity. Huge hexagonal compounds, each one capable of harboring an entire clan of dwarves, encircle a multi-leveled stronghold that features recurring geometric shapes and chambers that are exceptional in their simplicity, as befits dwarf architecture. As I kept zooming in, I was struck by the dwarven propensity for defensive fortifications. Woe to any goblin army trapped in Kaladish's corridors! The only thing missing is the grid.
Colossal Dragon Carcass
By John Prenot, Rockford IL
"DMJohnny" writes: The carcass of this colossal black dragon was made into a lair by a young black dragon and his kobold minions. This young dragon, a distant relative of this colossal dragon, was searching for the dead dragon's hoard when it discovered the remains and decided to make a lair within. The passages are choked with vines and roots, and the kobolds have learned to bungee jump and attack with the vines.
You had me at bungee jumping kobolds.
By analyzing the things I like about these winning dungeons, I find it easier to talk about the shortcomings of many other dungeons I've seen (and created!) over the years. Here are the things I tell would-be Dungeon magazine contributors to avoid whenever possible, like the sphere of annihilation that greets visitors to the Tomb of Horrors:
Dungeons that offer only one route from beginning to end are dull. Players like to make decisions, and even simple decisions such as whether to go right or left can be fun and potentially rewarding.
Dungeons that rely too heavily on symmetry are dull. Perfectly symmetrical dungeons lack surprise and character, although partially symmetrical dungeons are OK because a sudden break in symmetry can itself be surprising.
Dungeons that DMs can't easily replicate on graph paper or redraw on a battle map are annoying. The best dungeons torture the players, not the DM, so think twice about including a nine-sided room when an octagon will do.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,