Being the Official Discussion Forum for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea™

Visit us at the HYPERBOREA web site!

You are not logged in. Would you like to login or register?

7/21/2014 9:35 am  #1

Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

I've never run any AD&D modules, megadungeons, or anything in that style, but for the next adventure in our campaign it might be something that works quite well with it. Basically the only objective is to get a small item that is somewhere inside the dungeon in whatever way they consider fit, and bring it back to the village. That's only a bit more specific than "go to that dungeon and do some exploring", so it should be interfering with anything.

The background is that one of the clans ancestors once killed a hag in her lair, from which nobody can find the exit unless they have a magic amulet. The ancestor took the amulet from the hag to find the way out and it has been one of the clans relics ever since. A group of adventurers/treasure hunters/thieves went to explore the caves and got lost. But one of them was not with them and instead asking around for anything the locals might know about the place, and figured out what happened to his friends. So he stole the amulet from the shrine and went to the caves to find the others and lead them out again. The PCs are sent to catch the thief and return the relic, and follow the thief, but don't know about the caves special danger. Unfortunately the thief lost the amulet to another creature trapped in the labyrinth.
How the PCs get the amulet is left entirely to them.

That's what I got so far. And I think I also want an ogre mage as the current most powerful inhabitant of the caves.
How do I make this work? Modules like Keep on the Borderlands seem to arrange rooms and encounters entirely by random. Are there any special considerations that need to be followed to make such a dungeon great?

"Steel isn't strong, boy. Flesh is stronger. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?"

Spriggan's Den

7/22/2014 8:04 am  #2

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

Yora, this is a huuuuuuge complicated question that occupies the brains of many many people, some of whom actually make a living writing these things and are still wrestling with the things you bring up.

So, some advice:


• All the appendices of the original 1st ed. AD&D DMG.
• As much as you can on the blogs Henchmen Abuse (creator of ASE), Dungeon of Signs (lots of cool old-school adventures, several set in ASE land), Hack and Slash, Playing D&D with Porn Stars (Vornheim), False Machine (Deep Carbon Observatory), Roles, Rules, and Rolls, and Goblin Punch.
• Also, Bryce Lynch's reviews at You might not agree with everything, but there is a lot of practical advice about how to set up an adventure for best use by DMs and what is valuable to both players and DMs
• Some of the classic AD&D mods: G1-3, D1-2, B2, X1, X2, B1, WG4, S1-4, L1, L2, N1, I8, I9, A1-4
• The Workshop forum over on Dragonsfoot

I don't know, that's a start. Maybe you've read it all already!

Here's a fun experiment: First, try creating teh dungeon and map by slavishly following the procedure on random dungeon generation in the DMG. After you've filled a page or two, stop. Go back a couple days later and find what's cool about what you have and what you might want to keep and what really doesn't work. Throw out some of each and then make it your own.


7/22/2014 8:23 am  #3

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

Handy Haversack wrote:

Yora, this is a huuuuuuge complicated question that occupies the brains of many many people, some of whom actually make a living writing these things and are still wrestling with the things you bring up.


I would strongly recommend reading Melan's dungeon layout thread, the dungeon design 101 thread and Benoist's megadungeon example thread at K&KA. Even if you are not specifically looking to make a megadungeon, there's a ton of great advice in old school dungeon design in general.

Blackadder23: Insanely long villain soliloquy, then "Your action?"
BORGO'S PLAYER: I shoot him in the face

7/22/2014 10:43 am  #4

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

It certainly isn't true that rooms and encounters in Old School dungeons are entirely random.  What is probably generally true is that Old School dungeons are usually designed to be challenging to play first, and then justified (sometimes very loosely) with a "backstory".  By contrast, post-Old School dungeons tend to first develop an elaborate "backstory" (not to mention an intricate "plot" involving what all of the referee's little Mary Sue DMPC's are doing - because Xathoqqua knows that's the most important thing in the campaign) and then try to justify every aspect of the dungeon according to the "plot".  Basically, the "logic" of an Old School dungeon can (and perhaps should, if you're attempting to achieve a certain aesthetic effect) be looser than what's found in more modern straitjacket-style "adventures".

Last edited by Blackadder23 (7/22/2014 5:32 pm)

Michael Sipe 1979-2018
Rest in peace, brother.

7/22/2014 11:26 pm  #5

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

BA23, that's a really good way of hitting the historical differences.

Yora, I'd also, as more background, check out the thread on this forum where Jason Zavoda began reskinning B1 for AS&SH. B1 is a D&D classic and always fun to run. And JZ does a great job of taking and making it even more so--more weird, more S&S, more challenging, more othering for the players.


7/23/2014 12:23 pm  #6

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

I just want to say there is a lot of great links and advice in this thread! Thanks guys!

Níu man ek heima, níu íviðjur,
mjötvið mæran fyr mold neðan.
(Nine worlds I knew,the nine in the tree with mighty roots beneath the mold)

7/23/2014 12:38 pm  #7

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

If I had to give one piece of practical advice for capturing Old School flavor, it would be to include plenty of challenges that rely on player rather than character ability: puzzles, riddles, things that need to be manipulated in particular ways that the players have to deduce, complicated and fiendish traps that must be avoided in difficult ways, etc.  (If you have trouble thinking of good puzzles and riddles, steal some from books and the Internet.)  In stark contrast to the usual stereotype that Old School games are "hack and slash" affairs, in my experience they are mostly about exploring the unknown and dealing with a variety of challenges encountered there.  Sometimes this means combat, but more often not.  As a bonus, focussing on challenges not related to character abilities means you can worry less about "balance" between classes and so forth.  Any player can solve a riddle.  You don't need a particular stat or character "skill".  It keeps all the players busy thinking and engaging with the game, and that's a good thing.

Michael Sipe 1979-2018
Rest in peace, brother.

7/23/2014 5:03 pm  #8

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

I must say, Benoist's mega dungeon thread is absolutely a fantastic read. Very informative and inspiring.

I definitely agree that the first factor in many old school classics is the challenge the party. But remember that many of the old modules were written with tournament play in mind, and intended to play quickly and dangerously. Background story often served as a simple reason for exploring the dungeon (or wilderness). ~ cartography, writing, game design
Author, Forgotten Fane of the Coiled Goddess

7/23/2014 9:01 pm  #9

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

I especially recommend you take a look at -C's DM2: Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design (at the Hack & Slash blog linked above, although, really, all of the linked blogs are well worth reading them).


1/22/2015 4:32 am  #10

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

My advice would be know your players. Do they expect a logical and 'living' dungeons, where air-vents, waste disposal and food are considered and explained; or are they just as happy to wander into a dungeon and explore whatever is down there? If they do not require the former, this then means you can be as creative as you wish. If you don't have to explain ecology, you could have seemingly contradictory beings or challenges nestled in close proximity. For groups where story or 'realims' are desirable, perhaps put more thought into these things.

Including a random encounter table of the area is pretty helpful. Even if this isn't a 'table' as such, having an idea of what threats, allies or neutral beings may be encountered within this area (around the dungeon entrance, or within the entrance) is useful. Maybe it's worth having a wilderness table, a 'level 1' table, a 'level 2' table and so on, or maybe a small list of possible encounters will suffice.

Some old school dungeons feature many empty rooms. Others are seemingly teeming with life. How full will yours be? Flavour? A zany, weird dungeon, or a mostly explainable place?

I find it best to begin small (just like a campaign). Maybe have a think about the surrounding landscapes and settlements. Why might the dungeon be there? Why is it still filled with monsters? Have there been times when it's been cleared? Who/what occupies it now? Why? Then grow it from there. Perhaps the top levels were dug by giant ants, until more sinister inhabitants moved in, reinforcing the burrows, and finally placing stonework. From there, work outwards or downwards. You only have to keep ahead of the players :D 


1/22/2015 4:33 am  #11

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

Oh, and I nearly forgot. If you have The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures OD&D supplement, I'd highly recommend looking through there. It has some great ideas and advice for creating dungeons. 


4/29/2015 10:00 pm  #12

Re: Trying to make an oldschool dungeon

Just fond this, haven't hit all of the links yet, but I'll using this thread as a resource. Thanks!

...before fatidic silver pools on a auspicious night stood a Hyperborean Xathoqquan priestess; stripping naked like a beast crawling in on all fours in supplication...

Board footera

“Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea”, “AS&SH”, and all other North Wind Adventures product names and their respective logos are trademarks of North Wind Adventures, LLC in the USA and other countries. ©2020 North Wind Adventures, LLC.