Monday, December 29, 2008

The Dismal Depths

If you're looking to enjoy a long read on dungeon design, sit back and take in the following.

My current project, which has detracted a bit from my blogging, is the culmination of many of the ideas I have been collecting and forming recently as Ulin-Uthor, The Dim Expanse has become somewhat bogged down by its layers of detail. These ideas and sentiments are due in no small part to my ongoing Cover to Cover reading of the original D&D, Volumes I-III.

The Dismal Depths was originally envisioned as an answer to my dissatisfaction with the involved design approach I had set forth for myself with The Dim Expanse. Fear not, The Dim Expanse is still going to be completed, but it has certainly given me an understanding of why there are so few actual honest-to-goodness megadungeons in print.

Perhaps the end result for The Dim Expanse will fall somewhere between its current state, and this new approach used for The Dismal Depths.

The notion of a no-frills megadungeon was the kindling for this project, but what truly pushed it over the edge into actual design process was a comment by one of my favorite odd74 posters, Dwayanu in this thread. For ease of clicking and scrolling, here's the blurb:

I'm trying out an approach of mapping by sectors of 30 x 30 squares. That leaves room on the same page for a succinct "key."
Now, in hindsight I don't think Dwayanu meant for his design process to result in anything more than a handy key on the map, but his words helped me form the approach for The Dismal Depths, a megadungeon with dungeon level maps, tables and room descriptions entirely on a single page.

It sounded like a brilliant idea. We've all seen plenty of similar maps online or in print, but I hope to offer a megadungeon that requires no more than a few handwritten notes on the part of the referee to dive in and enjoy a full-blown dungeon crawl campaign.

The Dismal Depths will hopefully embody the Empty Room Principle; giving referees more than ample creative opportunity, either beforehand, during a session, or afterwards when restocking or altering the dungeon.

My first steps were creating a list of unique, bare-bones monsters, thus I started everything off with The Dismal Depths Bestiary:

The Dismal Depths Beastiary

Amazons(C): AC 4 Move 9 HD 3+1 Women warriors from an all-female ruled nation. Wield silver headed spears and arrows. Amazons pay Dingo-Men for abducted male babies, all other men are slain or captured for ritual castration. Leader has 4+1 HD.

Boglings(C): AC 6 Move 6 HD 1-1 Small, randomly colored chaos-spawned humanoids. Flesh-eating, utterly evil (aside from the deviant Misfits). Wield crude weapons such as spears, clubs and tomahawks. Mortal enemies of the Wee Ones. Leaders have 3 HD.

Brainy Apes(N): AC 5 Move 9 HD 4+1 Smart, gigantic apes with rust orange fur. Prefer to attack with weapons, dealing +2 damage, but can never find armor that fits. Excellent negotiators but limited in languages. Gold is their greatest motivator.

Broodlings(N): AC 7 Move 6 HD ½ Misshapen, three-foot tall insect-men with ant-like strength. Low intellect, very acute senses. Travel in large packs hunting flesh for the nest. Never surprised, excellent ambushers. Scourge of the depths.

Cadavers(N): AC 8 Move 6 HD 1 Undead. Battle-axe wielding zombies immune to all magic.

Corrupted(C): AC 2 Move 15/30 HD 6 Undead. Vengeful spectres. Howl once per encounter, all in 30 feet save or flee in terror for 2d6 rounds. The character landing the killing blow must save or wither from unnatural aging.

Creepy-Crawlies(N): AC 8 Move 6 HD 2 Clean-up crew. Blanket of massed flesh-eating insects. Targets are treated as AC 9, deals 1 die of damage (1 in 6 chance to be poisonous) to all targets in 20’x20’. Attacks deal but 1 damage to it, but fire deals maximum damage and may deter it.

Desiccated(N): AC 7 Move 6 HD ½ Undead. Sword and shield wielding skeletons which take but 1 damage from most physical blows, blunt weapons deal full damage, and missiles do no damage.

Dingo-Men(C): AC 6 Move 12 HD 3 Cunning lycanthropes given to greed and deception. They are the only males able to interact with Amazons, and often lead unsuspecting men into ambushes. Only struck by silver weapons (not even magic ones, unless silver, effect them).

Fallen(C): AC 2 Move 6 HD 3 Outcast and dishonored, heavily armed and armored former Knights of the Order living in recluse in the Dismal Depths. Plotting to overthrow the Order and take control. Leader has 5+1 HD, his Guards have 4 HD.

Lab Rats(N): AC 7 Move 9 HD 1-1 Giant rabid albino rats with pink eyes, escaped from nefarious laboratories, now breeding throughout the depths. Bites accumulate and cause increasing itching unless save is made. One dozen together form a rudimentary hive mind capable of primitive speech.

Mantis-Men(N): AC 5 Move 9 HD 2+1 Giant, intelligent bipedal Mantises. Mortal enemy of the Spider-Folk. Excellent vision and senses, never surprised. Able to make a lightning-quick long-range lunge for surprise attack with their massive barbed forearms.

Mastiffs(N): AC 5 Move 9 HD 3 Enormous, armored trained war dogs employed as ferocious guards by many inhabitants of the Dismal Depths, often found prowling the halls looking for intruders. Cannot be surprised, able to track and find hidden foes.

Misfits(L): AC 4 Move 6 HD 1+1 Lawful Bogling Knights who protect the sacred Tomb of the Truth. Their kind often roams the depths, seeking to induct other possibly like-minded Boglings into their Misfit Order. Leader has 3 HD, Guards have 2 HD, Trainees are equal to Boglings.

Mole-Men(N-C): AC 6 Move 9 HD 1 Small, darkly furry, bald-headed humanoids. Those hit by Mole-Men glow with a pale phosphorescence for 1 hour, add 1 to hit for attacks upon the glowing character. Wield pick-axes and javelins. Mortal enemies of the Morlocks.

Morlocks(N-C): AC 5 Move 9 HD 1+1 Once tech-advanced time-travelers, now lost devolved species of cannibalistic subterranean men. Covered with pale fur, they are extremely sensitive to bright light. Able to slink silently and track foes. Wield clubs and spears. Favorite dish is pickled Mole-Man.

Pirates(C): AC 5 Move 9 HD 2 Really bad guys; buccaneers, corsairs, cut-throats, salty dogs. Leader has 3 HD.

Rotted(C): AC 6 Move 9 HD 2 Undead. Crazed, drooling man-hunting ghouls which, instead of paralyzing, cause targets to save or become wracked with pain, losing all actions for the rest of that round.

Seeping Ooze(N): AC 8 Move 6 HD 3 Clean-up crew. Mass of oozing purplish gunk which leaves a disgusting trail of goop and is notable for its fetid reek. It erodes metal in one round, and devours flesh thereafter at a rate of 1 die per round. Physical attacks and fire deal but 1 damage.

Skellington(C): AC 3 Move 9 HD 7 Tall, gaunt, brooding King of the Undead in the Dismal Depths. Skellington can never be truly slain by normal means, reforming in 2d6 days once defeated. Skellington’s hits cause soul wrack, save vs. death ray or die.

Sleestaks(C): AC 5 Move 9 HD 2 Tall, green reptilian aliens with bulbous unblinking eyes, pincer hands, and a blunt horn atop head. Wield crossbows, nets and ropes. Fearful of fire. Seek to capture men for alien rituals.

Spider-Folk(C): AC 6 Move 9 HD 2 Highly-intelligent, tall but stooped, long-limbed, gaunt race of arachnid men. Create flame-retardant web-homes, eat nothing but blood and body-fluids, have huge, poisoned fang-filled maws. Sworn enemies of the Mantis-Men.

Tainted(C): AC 3 Move 12/24 HD 4 Undead. Silvery-black wraiths with a chilling attack which treats all targets as AC 9, and causes 2 dice of damage.

Thugs(C): AC 7 Move 12 HD 1 Bad guys; bandits, brigands, rogues, robbers. Leader has 2 HD.

Twisted(C): AC 5 Move 9 HD 3 Undead. Withered wights with a berserk inducing touch. Save or attack random targets for 1d3 rounds.

Warped(C): AC 5 Move 12 HD 3+1 Strange, destructive mutated elf-like fey-kind. Random mutation: super-fast, super-strong, super-tough, super-smart, super-pretty, super-accurate, etc. Seek to collect brains for devious plots to overthrow mankind.

Wee Warriors(N): AC 5 Move 9 HD 2 The fighting Wee One. Diminutive winged fey-kind, greedy, devious, uncaring and opportunistic toward mortals. Heavily armed and armored to the point of non-flight. They wield daggers like swords. Despise Boglings above all others.

Wee Warlord(N): AC 4 Move 9 HD 3 The Wee One Leader. As above. All Warlords wield a Wee Sword (treat as a Dagger, +1 vs. Men, +2 vs. Boglings and Broodlings) which is enchanted with a duration of 1 game session.

Wee Wizards(N): AC 7 Move 12/24 HD 2 The spell-casting Wee One. As above. Typical spells include Sleep, Charm, Invisibility, ESP and Knock. Wee Wizards will have 1d4-1 spells at their disposal when encountered. Will use flight to avoid melee if possible.

Whisper-Wind(N): AC - Move -/6 HD 2 Clean-up crew. Large misty, damp mass of shimmering mystical air, up to 30’x10’ in size. It dissolves all flesh, bone and metal which it envelops at a rate of 1 die per round. Immune to physical attacks, spells or flaming oil will damage it.
You will notice that many of the new monsters simply replicate the statistics of standard D&D fare. For example, Broodlings = Kobolds, Boglings = Goblins, Mole-Men = Orcs, Morlocks = Hobgoblins, Sleestaks = Gnolls, Brainy Apes = Ogres, etc. The undead, which orignally had names such as Twisdead and Taindead, are simple homebrew alterations of the standard D&D undead. Toss in a few completely new creations, such as the Warped, Wee Ones and Spider-Folk, and a solid collection of new monsters is detailed in but two pages.

Next, I designed Level 1A, The Tunnels of the Mole-Men. A 30 square x 30 square map which encompasses the north-west corner of Level 1:

This was then scanned and cropped after filling the map in greater detail:

The rest of my time has been spent working with scanning, Photo-shop, and Word. I cropped, pasted, and played with all the various Word settings to produce this first draft version of Level 1A:

While I haven't typed in the Room Key just yet, the end result will be something limited to what I can type on a single line, maybe like so:

3-The Laughing Idol. Four shafts with ladders leading down. Mole-Men (7), Silver (300), Gold (50).
With just simple text, a referee could invent details on the fly, and still have the basic text for future use in order to jog his memory on how he handled the room in the past.

My immediate plan is to complete four maps for Levels 1-3, resulting in a dozen such maps. If I am happy with the finished product, I will expand the Bestiary, and continue with Levels 4-6, 6-9 and 10.

So, in case you're wondering, posting continues at a slow pace as I learn the ins and outs of making a dungeon in this manner. I'm still not entirely satisfied with the scan results, perhaps I need a better scanner, but considering the draft version is a scan of a scan that was emailed (the scanner is on my Wife's computer), it's not half bad.

I'll come up for air after I finish Level 1. The really cool thing about this type of dungeon is how I can share it here in its entirety. Hopefully The Dismal Depths will provide some entertainment for my readers who are willing to take on a referee style which begs for on the spot creativity.

Lastly, I want to add "Zulgyan's Hit Point Method", found here, somewhere in the Bestiary. If you're not familiar with it, go read that tidbit of genius.

Oh, and Happy Holidays! I Wish everyone a safe and entertaining New Year's Eve.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

The Cornell Graph paper here gave me similar thoughts. But, more towards city bldgs/neighborhoods than a dungeon.

Instead of scanning and all that, you could create a template with blank map. Draw a "rough draft" on graphpaper, type up the key, print out with blank map, then copy (by hand) your dungeon onto this map.

Sham aka Dave said...

That's an outstanding suggestion. Instead of all that scanning and cropping, start with a template which includes the 30x30 or so graphed section, and just draw the map onto the actual 'finished' document.

I'll have to play with that and see if I can sort it out. It would be a real time saver.

Thanks, Norman!

Scott said...

Dave, this is fine work.

I firmly believe the notion that every location of a dungeon map has to be keyed in full descriptive detail is an artifact of published modules, and one we're better off without. It's natural that folks who grew up on modules would design their own adventures in the same way, but you'd be able to knock me over with a feather if any of the original Old Guys designed or ran their adventures that way.

These days I gravitate to what you're doing, which is similar to the 1st edition of Tegel Manor -- a very detailed physical map, with a line or two for each room and a bit more for set pieces. Lots of uninhabited space and a detailed wandering monster table.

I feel the same way about monsters. A line of descriptive text and a stat line are all you really need for gaming, and I provide a bit more when I blog. Again, I suspect the hyper-detailed monster descriptions arose because that's what you need to sell a product.

Running something this way may require an adjustment in the way you present tricks, concealed treasures, secret rooms, and so on ... if you're making things up on the fly, players may naturally be less detail-oriented and gloss over a lot of stuff thinking it's "flavor text."

Conversely, they may dwell forever on some stupid little throwaway detail you wish you hadn't mentioned, thinking it's the Key to Everything.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but may require adaptation.

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks, Scott. I'm realizing that if given time, I could write pages of text on nearly every aspect of my campaigns, but these words are simply messages to myself. I enjoy writing my thoughts and ideas, but perhaps the focus should be on the actual play and less on the frills. Thus I've been pursuing the notion of an economy of words for dungeons, encounters and monsters. This is a major departure for me.

After fooling with this for the past few days, I'm afraid I cannot quite get everything to my liking. I might scrap the single page idea, which I do believe has great merit but requires better computer art skills than I command (and perhaps better equipment and more time), and revert to a single map but maintain the bare-bones room descriptions. I'd simply merge the proposed four quadrants per level onto a single map. This would require multiple pages of text to describe the greater number of rooms, but I could actually get back to drawing maps and stop scanning, copying, pasting, cropping, coloring and making tamplates.

Maybe this is simply a neat idea, but not so easy to implement and master.

More on The Dismal Depths later.

Michael Curtis said...


It seems that more times than not, I swing by here and end up kicking myself for not coming up with an idea you've laid out here sooner.

I'm going to be watching the development of this style with keen interest. I might have to try a test run of it with the next level of Ol' Nameless I flesh out.

Sham aka Dave said...

Mike-thanks! My troubles with the entire scanning, cropping, lay-out have forced me to scrap the initial plans, BUT I am moving full steam ahead with the project without the one page approach.

I'll update the project once I have the first map done, but the gist of DD will now be detailed, involved maps with bare-bones room descriptions and monsters.

In essence the same approach, but no longer limited by the quadrant, one-page template.

I hope someone with more computer skills can take up the torch.

K. Bailey said...

Really, really like the rebranding of the generic D&D fodder.

Anonymous said...

Love the map, Dave. And Sleestaks!

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks guys. I think the spirit of the project will live on even though the presentation might be altered slightly. I hope to start drawing Level 1 later today. Since this will be a map-centric dungeon, I might try my hand at actually inking the damn thing this time. More to come soon.

tim h said...

I love your monster descriptions, and I'll echo the "less is more" sentiment voiced above. Brainy Apes and the group think Lab Rats are my favorite.

I have a question about how you present your monsters: Do the players ever learn the names you assigned the critters? The names wander between folksy and a little funny, the latter possibly spinning the game in an unwanted direction.

I'm mostly thinking of my own experience and how much it jars my imagining when a hard and fast GM name is assigned to something.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Dave - I really hate it when someone hits my "McFly" and challenges me to do something for the furtherance of my geek-fu.

Anyway, I've created an OpenOffice Document with a 30x30grid (6 lines per inch) and the same "layout" you had. I've not tested it with an example, but here's how it would work... you could sketch something out to get the basic rooms, write it up in OO, then print, draw the actual map and you've got it done. If you wanted it to really be one stop shop, you could scan the map and using OO Draw, copy/paste it back into the ODT (document) I suppose.

Anyway, if you're curious, this is really rough alpha doc right now, I need to play with it... but drop me an email ( and I'll shoot you a copy.

I'm off to go terrorize my wife's PC now in Zenopus's Tower. >:-)

Sham aka Dave said...

Tim: Those types of names work well with my gaming group. We take a fairly light-hearted approach. As the levels get deeper, the element of the whimsical gives way to the sinister, but I always maintain a certain controlled gonzo feel (I don't go overboard with silly or gonzo, thus it can retain its value).

Eventually players do learn the names, but with all "new" names for the DD, I'd handle this differently and keep them guessing as long as possible. Some of the more common ones, like Boglings or Broodlings, might be well-known for their surface world raids.

Chgowiz: Happy Gaming! As far as the doc you're working on, don't go overboard with it. I'm not convinced I'll return to the one-page method (although you're intriguing me with this news). I'll shoot you an email, though. :-)

Anonymous said...


This is great stuff. I wouldn't let the technical issues get in the way -- I'm sure those can be worked out with some experimentation. Perhaps just having a blank single-page template and writing everything in by hand?

The approach I've been taking is that I want to get all my DMing stuff into a single binder (if possible) Because I had an old Franklin Planner binder from about 10 years ago, I'm using that. It's 1/2 the size of regular paper (5.5x8) so I can either cut paper in half and add it, or use their paper. So far, I've printed out things like "City Encounters" for Swords & Wizardry and a few other things that will be handy to have at game-time.

For my megadungeon, my plan is to use their graph paper pages (because I'm too lazy to punch holes when I don't have to) Its a smallish square size, but its 32x64 squares on a page. I can use that to make a small section of the dungeon and then - on the opposing page when the binder is laid out - I'll put the single line key.

Here's a link to their graph paper:

Its not too far off from what you're talking about and hopefully keeps things under control - both the design process and the playability at the table.


Sham aka Dave said...

Paul - that's a really cool idea, too. In a binder that small it replicates my goal of minimizing page flipping and note-keeping space required by the referee. I've never considered using Franklin sized stuff for a dungeon before!

Thanks for the encouragement. As it turns out, Chgowiz used his powers of computer-shui and put together an awesome doc that I think I'll be able to use for my original plan.

More on this later today after I do a test level, and a big thanks to Chgowiz!

Alex Schroeder said...

Some time ago I tried this with a map I gotnfrpm somebody else. The goal was to take a single page to the game and it worked for me.

Sham aka Dave said...

Nothing new under the Sun, as they say!

Appears you nailed the concept with that one. I assume it's Map_001 (the link didnt copy but took me to the site).

Great example of the minimalistic approach I am adopting for this project, Alex.

It looks to be more crammed with info, too! Good stuff, may I link to that when I update DD next time?

Alex Schroeder said...

Sure you may. :)

Alex Schroeder said...

Got to play Labyrinth Lord on January 1. What a great start into the new year. I had some printed dungeon maps without a key along. Back home I added some stuff for the rooms the players did not visit and posted it.

Sham aka Dave said...

This is good stuff, Alex. Glad to see I'm not the only one pursuing the minimalist, single page style. Do you bring a laptop to game? Using that link and a laptop seems like a no-brainer. I like your dungeon style, thank you!

Alex Schroeder said...

No, I never take a laptop to the gaming table. When I'm well prepared, my notes are written ahead of time and take an entire page (instead of just half a page); when I improvise, I have about a fifth of a page.

Sham aka Dave said...

Nice! For the past 15 or so years, as I transitioned to typed notes, I've felt compelled to write more than needed for running my games. Now I am finally getting back to my rudimentary style, the roots of adventure writing which I normally used for the same games. You don't need tons of text to run fantastic adventures.

The other night, when running a solo game for my 14 year old, I actually had to tell him "hang on a sec" as I had to read a few paragraphs to remember the details of a particular room.

This was a defining moment. A situation which I wish to avoid at the gaming table.

Thanks for sharing all of this!

Noumenon said...

That dismal bestiary has a lot of really creative monster ideas in it! If I ever want to surprise with something not in the monster manual, I'll pick something off that list. You could have made it its own post...

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks Noumenon! I hope some of it useful for your games.

Anonymous said...

I keep going back to The Dismal Depths, it's triggered so many ideas this year but it's still great in itself.

Sham aka Dave said...

Thank you, Sean. My creative free time has been severely limited the past few months but I have been quietly working on a Dismal Depths related project.

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