THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.
What’s This One About?
One of my favorite dungeons ever is the Lost Tomb of Kruk Ma Kali—a 3rd ed module that was just a good, dangerous, interesting dungeon crawl. I wouldn’t say it did anything greatly special, it just did it straightforward and well.
One of the features of that dungeon was the rooms upon rooms where there were different doors. By itself, no great thing, but many (maybe 1 out of 5) had nothing behind them at all—but traps and symbols of (fear/insanity/sleep/etc). The door, itself, would very often be either very, very difficult to detect as a trap (imagine a tiny string on the otherside of the door, tied to a small nail, when the door opens then a pot of acid tips over being pulled forward off the shelf against the wall not even 6 inches past the door (DC Search 30) or impossible to detect (mundanely) as a door to a wall with a symbol on it.
Anyhow. It wrecked my players’ peace of mind and made opening any door a laborious nightmare. None of the traps were terrible, usually just a little something here and there—hard to find, but not terribly damaging. Just designed to wear everyone down.
The symbols were a bigger problem.
So, I wanted to expand that to absurd levels. And then marry that to awkward movement and non-intuitive dungeon layouts to really shake up a party.
The Hole could be a gnomish creation. Some long forgotten architect of their people known for the elegant design of the structures he planned—it was the Dwarves of the Mountains who came, with a wagon of thick rolled coins and fine, polished stones to tempt him in to building a place they could punish and remove those elements of their society they were most threatened by. Dwarves have traditions, and its one thing to kill a clan-mate—most right thinking sorts would agree that you tempt a hell with it even if rightly done—but, quite another to lock them away in the dark.
The Hole, despite being much rumored and talked up in folklore as a dreary dungeon beneath the mountain, is really a finely and expertly crafted relief in the otherwise rock and unforgiving surrounding terrain. The entrance is a hatch, a door of solid bronze as wide as a grown man’s span on great hinges surrounded by immaculately cut granite out-of-place amongst the outcroppings and windswept debris of the mountain around it. A team of draft horses are walked up the lonely path to pull the chains that creak the massive slab open. It’s nearly 50ft. straight down from there—no ladders and perfectly smooth (even enchanted to prevent spider-climbing and the like), the cursed and abominable are lowered down, the hatch lowered, and they’re left to the dark.
Nothing has ever left The Hole—despite legends about this or that menace escaping. In truth, the practice is a brutal ritual, one the dwarves don’t speak about to others. It is the most orderly and cold of prisons. You are removed from the world, and ultimately your fate is outside of its concern after that. Doubtless, those down below die and quickly. Starvation, sure. But most likely thirst. Some might find creatures in the dark down there to nourish themselves on, but madness would soon set in and frailty. In centuries past even small “civilizations” of prisoners might have existed where there’d been overlap of internments, but those no doubt ended in bloodshed. Brutal dwarves beating and gnawing each other in the dark.
There are no plans for The Hole anymore. No living creature knows anything about its construction beyond the legends and common knowledge amongst the priests that condemn the criminals to it—the last being thirty years ago, Enwox Thatchard Docker, who murdered his own blood and kin, three young ones, and ate of their flesh and painted wicked things on his body from their blood. Too mad and dangerous to live, but a dwarf of the clan and thus condemned to The Hole.
Rumor has it that The Hole is a palace underground, though, in its architecture. Neither caverns nor dripping stones in the dark, but perfectly hewn granite blocks and bricks smartly fitted together and polished to a shine. Perfectly rounded and perfectly squared stones, seamless construction, all built to a uniformity and precision any craftsman would dream of. But, that’s rumor, and age might have changed much of it.
What’s The Business?
Maybe the PC’s need to recover bones or something. Maybe the clan has evolved over time and want to de-commission the whole thing. Maybe there’s an item of significance at the bottom or maybe the Cleric’s God sends portents of an evil down there that needs smiting. Either way, its down The Hole we go.
Every surface is perfect. Glossy and smooth and polished. Every corridor is a perfect 10ft by 10ft. in height and width and depth. I imagine a random collection of Tetris blocks (no cleared lines) all uniformly stacked and yet irregular. Gaps. You go down 50 ft. No light. Perfect dark. To the right is a corridor that goes 20ft. and then down 20 ft into another corridor down there that goes perpendicular. All grid-like, but irregular. No stairs. If the hall drops 10 ft and continues, it’s a 10 ft “jump”. Climbing is very, very difficult due to how smooth things are (though a climber’s kit would be safe and helpful). Lots of rope needed. Smart PC’s would be building and hammering spikes and making rope “bridges” and “guideropes” all over. Light would be a big help because even Darkvision only goes so far and not all PCs have it. Food, water, etc. all need close attention.
The whole place feels claustrophobic and quiet and silent—not a drip of water, no rushing air.
And the dangers? Absolutely no animals or creatures. Truly, nothing lives down here—although the big question is “where are all the bodies”? Centuries of criminals condemned and no bodies? As they go down, they see their first “symbol”. 10ft big on a wall, randomly, in blood. Maybe Fear? Hold off on Insanity and Death for now. As they go along, they’ll run into undead dwarf zombies (with that whole “get back up” thing). Lots of them. They drive the party to move and not stay put too long in any one place as the longer they stay in one place the more show up. These show up once they’re far enough down that they run the chance of getting either lost or being cut off from escape. They should really show in small, but constant numbers–all the time–walking dead style. Big numbers make long combats, these just need to be “barely worth it” situations. Another one comes turning the corner and rushing toward them… but just one. Only one. Someone is likely to be more annoyed than scared, pull a sword and chop it up–maybe take a few hp damage at the most. But its enough to keep them always wary.
Symbols… more and more.. freakin’ everywhere.
Avoiding looking at them is hard and disadvantage perception perhaps. They should feel like there is miles of earth above them. Hours of “climbing back up” and even maybe hope of finding other ways up because if they take a corridor drop of 30ft or so down unwisely, there’s not necessarily a good way to get back up that surface. Need more forgiving paths back up. Paranoia. Tension. Zombies. Great scenes of them being blasted apart, but SURPRISE dragging their shattered body along the immaculate stone floor and trying to bite them still.
Symbols make running problematic… turn a corner to position against a horde of zombies and SYMBOL OF HOPELESSNESS… bam. Always the feel that this was a bad idea and they’ll die in the dark where nobody will ever find them. Symbols that hurt. That confuse. That cause madness and have people running off in the dark (bad idea, lots of drops). Hardly any sleep. Lots of exhaustion. No good rest.
The big baddie? NOT the last guy dropped in—too obvious (he was just one of many “called”). An old OLD ass dwarf. He’d been locked away for his arcane horrors and investigations, for tempting the fates and denying the gods. And he learned about The Hole—not just what people have said, in legends, but found real documentation about its constructions.
He got himself caught and tried and got tossed down here on purpose and has spent the last century trying desperately to attain true immortality. Every few years, when he’d need new subjects or people (or even materials), he’d use some of his arcane badassery to visit people in their dreams, enchant the occasional soldier at the hatch.
Many prisoners came down with special reagents or tools, often unknowlingly. His laboratory down here is crude, but private. He’s mastered some principles of undeath and necromancy (clearly), and has sought a way to make himself a true eternal (lich? Something?). The symbols have no effect on the zombies, they’re there largely to protect himself from any that might come snooping (he imagines the dwarves above all know and fear him, that he’s the “big baddie” in the dungeon that all dread… as long as he’s been down here, he doesn’t realize this is a forgotten place and that he’s likely to just die in the dark alone).
Freeing him? Pointless. Killing him? Also pointless, he doesn’t fight. He’s a tired, forgotten old dwarf with dreams of immortality living in a jail surrounded by the dead. He has no wealth. Just a ratty spellbook made from leather and old linen and parchment scraps written in blood, some small books of arcane knowledge, the barest of supplies, lots of reagents and improvised weapons. He’s a sad creature. Given more years, he’ll still never attain immortality. He’s not even sure of how to get out of The Hole—having never tried it.
All the athletic and running and paranoia and turning a corner to a horde of zombies milling about and jumping and SYMBOLS and all that (no “traps”)… and they have to survive leaving.
But Wait, What’s the Payoff?
Does it really need one? Isn’t the potential story just cool? Alright, so the dungeon won’t have money, only death (but honestly, any jail-based-dungeon SHOULD be devoid of riches). XP? Not enough? How about the reward is given by the Dwarves up surface-side? The PC’s have survived The Hole. They have investigated it. They might even tell about the guy down there (only a few older Dwarves even remember the guy’s name).
They’re given The Hole. To do as they wish. The clan is done with it, they’ve moved on (LN to LG now?) from how barbaric it is. The PC’s now have land and a dungeon. An odd reward that might be kinda cool from a story standpoint. Or they can sell it to some brutal neighboring kingdom.
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