Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Home brewing a "High-Level" "Dungeon"

So, one of the comments on my post on How I Homebrew a Dungeon, I was asked If I could do the same for a dungeon for characters 6-9th level. My short answer to the question is: No.

I have never been a fan of high-level play and neither were most of my friends. We loved those low-level campaigns and usually accomplished something earth shattering by 6th or 7th level. Indeed, I have only ever gotten one character from 1st to 9th level in my entire career as a player and have only ever seen one character survive to 9th level from 1st as a Referee. Both characters are retired.

In other words, by the time my players have advanced to 4-6th level, they have accumulated enough power and influence that the focus of the campaign shifts from that of dungeon exploration to politics, clearing out wilderness areas, and spending a bunch of money on building stuff (this is nicely encouraged by the Arneson rule where 1 xp = 1 gp spent).

So, I have never really had to homebrew a 6-9th level dungeon. As predicted by Cook’s Expert edition of D&D, by the time my players’ characters get to 4th level, I am usually designing wilderness areas, encounters, and lairs — not dungeons.

That doesn’t mean I can’t or I won’t, especially since folks seemed to find my last outing useful. This endeavor, however, does come with a major caveat. What I have in mind doesn’t really qualify as a dungeon…it is more of an elaborate lair. For me, the word “dungeon” is indicative of the Mystic Underground where no matter how deep you go, there is always something else deeper and more dangerous and the place itself is trying to kill you, not just the monsters.

There are two main reason I am choosing this particular path. First, without the previous 5 levels of a megadungeon and a campaign to riff off, doing the 6th level of such a place is both too daunting and too boring. Secondly, I’ll probably never see a day when I’d actually use it in play. By going the route I am, this will go into my folder of stuff I can pull out on a moments notice to fill a need in an ongoing campaign.

Since this is to be a type of lair, I need to figure out what monster lives there before I go to making or finding a map. So, I pulled out The Tome of Adventure Design and rolled up a person associated with the place, the last significant event that happened there, and the original purpose of the place.

As an aside, when I use random tables (especially one where a d100 is concerned), I freely read the dice in as many ways as I am allowed in order to give me more than one option when it comes to results. This allows me a bit a wiggle room and the ability to be inspired.

For example, I wanted to keep my options open on this one to see what kind of stories might emerge from the random rolls. The person in question was either going to be an Assassin or a Cleric and the place in question was either a place of guilt or a place of burial. Music was involved and it created something that would be dangerous to intruders about 10 years ago.

I then rolled an original purpose and who built it: that was when things began to crystalize. I rolled up a Scriptorium that was built by a unique type of Giant.

The Cleric no longer made much sense, so I went with the Assassin and I ended up using both a place of burial and a place of guilt.

This place was built by a blind giant who was a scribe and a scholar. He needed a way to record the research he had done and so came up with a writing method akin to Braile (note to self, Read Magic is necessary to interpret his writings). For this purpose, he needed someone to dictate various texts to him so that he could study and record his findings.

This role is taken up by an Annis Hag and the two end up falling in love with each other. Whether or not the Giant’s love was voluntary at first or not, the important part here is that the Annis Hag ended up in love with the Giant because he saw past the ugly exterior.

This love story, however, has an ugly underside because the Annis Hag still had an appetite for human flesh. When she made the mistake of lunching on a local prince, an assassin was hired to take her out. The killing blow, however, fell upon the Giant who sacrificed himself for his love.

Among the things and knowledge collected by the Giant was the True Name of a demon and a magical harp that would summon it. In a fit of anguished rage, the Annis Hag used the harp to summon the demon and commanded it to torture the assassin as long as she was alive. Unfortunately for her, summoning the demon destroyed the harp. Caught in the magical explosion, she suffered grievous wounds which have never fully recovered. In order to make sure the assassin suffers as long as possible and to guard her own life, she has since drawn a protective circle around the demon and its prey. At this point the demon is kept at bay virtually by will alone.

In the meantime, a group of hobgoblins have taken up residence. According to my own calculations, hobgoblins are eugenicists who love to experiment with breeding techniques.

Thus, they see value in the knowledge found in the Giant’s lair, the demon trapped there, and the hag that keeps it at bay. They have turned the lair into a house of horrors and feed the rejects of their experimentation to the hag to help keep her alive. For her part, she is grateful for every day the assassin is tortured.

So here is the challenge for the players: this is the location of a McGuffin. Whether a magic item in possession of the assassin, a particular piece of information on one of the Giant’s “scrolls,” or something else, it is inside the protective circle keeping the demon at bay.

Since this set-up is kinda mean, I want to reward the characters by providing a lair that could be converted into a stronghold if they so desire. As a consequence, I am looking for a map of a castle with a dungeon. I found that here. As I did with my 1st level dungeon, I proceeded to number each of the rooms:

Between the castle and the dungeon below there are 63 rooms. Using Moldvay’s “Stock the Dungeon Table” we get the following break down:
11 Monsters without Treasure (technically 10.5)
11 Monsters with Treasure (technically 10.5)
6 Traps
4 Trap with Treasure (technically 3.5)
10 Specials (technically 10.5)
18 Empty Rooms
3 Empty Room with Treasure (technically 3.5)
I rounded up on the number of monsters and traps with treasures and rounded down on Empty rooms to make the math work. I erred in the direction of more stuff.

Holmes suggests that it is possible to encounter wandering monsters within a range of two levels up and two levels down. Thus, at 6th level, it would be possible to encounter creatures anywhere from the 4th level through the 8th level. The math would look like this:
2 Level 4 Monsters
5 Level 5 Monsters
8 Level 6 Monsters
5 Level 7 Monsters
2 Level 8 Monsters
I can already sense some confusion because the main monster group I will be using are hobgoblins, which are Level 2 monsters according to Moldvay. This is where S&W becomes really useful. The Wandering Monster Tables found therein are organized according to Challenge Level. Hobgoblins are CL 1; however, Carnivorous Apes (which hobgoblins are known to associate with) are CL 4. The Wandering Monster Tables suggest combinations of different CL monsters and since hobgoblins are interested in genetic and breeding experiments, it opens up a lot of possibilities for higher level monsters:

  • Ape-like creatures like Flying Apes (CL 6), Gorilla Bears (CL 4), and Girallons (CL 6)
  • Thouls (CL 3)
  • Creatures necessary for breeding the above such as Basilisks (CL 8), Cave Bears (CL 7), Ghouls (CL 3), Perytons (CL 6), and Trolls (CL 8) and Cave Trolls (CL 7)
  • Experimental failures represented by Gibbering Mouthers (CL 6)

Following the suggestions from S&W we come to the following totals:
1 Annis Hag (1400 xp)
3 Basilisks (2400 xp)
26 Carnivorous Apes (3120 xp)
3 Cave Bears (1800 xp)
8 Cave Trolls (4800 xp)
1 Demon, Erinyes (1400 xp)
2 Flying Apes (800 xp)
28 Ghouls (1680)
7 Gibbering Mouthers (2800xp)
15 Girallons (6000 xp)
14 Gorilla Bears (1680 xp)
112 Hobgoblins (1680 xp)
3 Perytons (1200 xp)
42 Thouls (2520 xp)
4 Trolls (3200 xp)
Total xp = 34,800
In case anyone is wondering where I am going to fit 117 hobgoblins, remember that this place was built by a Giant. Thus, everything is twice the size a map normally would be — giving me plenty of room to stuff all these creatures wherever I want.

The average Treasure Roll is going to be 2.5, so the base treasure is going to be 87,000 gp. Going by math (because I don’t want to roll this many times), the 100 gp Trade Outs will result in 83 Minor Gems and Jewelry and 4 Minor Magic Items. The 1000 gp Trade Outs will result in 8 Medium Gems and Jewelry and 1 Medium Magic Item.The 5000 gp Trade Outs will result in 2 Major Gems and Jewelry and no Major Magic Items.

Thus, there will be 13,500gp in Minor Gems and Jewelry, 5,200 gp in Medium Gems and Jewelry, 6,500 gp in Major Gems and Jewelry, and 67,000 gp in Miscellaneous treasure for a grand total of 92,200 gp.

There are 18 rooms with treasure. If each has 5000 gp I will have 2200 gp left over to place where I deem fit in the moment (probably with the Annis Hag hidden inside the tomb of the Giant).

There is a total of 127,000 xp available, or 31,750 per character in a party of 4. This should be enough for most characters to go from 6th to 7th level easily.

Now to place all of this stuff in the dungeon:

The Annis Hag will be in Room 1.38, an appropriate place for a bedroom turned tomb.
The Erinyes will be trapped in Room 2.21, being the lowest part of the entire structure.

As for the rest of the monsters, they can be categorized into three types:

1. Hobgoblins and their allies
2. Prisoners used to do breeding experiments
3. Failures

The failures would be the Gibbering Mouthers, which are locked away in Room 2.20, since that is nice and isolated.

The prisoners could all be stored away in Rooms 2.3-2.10. These include the basilisks, cave bears, cave trolls, ghouls, perytons, and trolls.

To fill out the dungeon level, I would place Thouls in Rooms 2.12 and 2.18 as guards.

The rest of the monster populate the upper floor, with the hobgoblins, carnivorous apes and gorilla bears primarily occupying the towers — Rooms 1.35-1.37 and 1.39-1.43.
girallons and flying apes would occupy Rooms 1.1 and 1.9.

That’s 22 rooms with monsters. Also note: I’ll probably sprinkle hobgoblins, thouls, and carnivorous apes throughout the last 20 rooms to demonstrate the basic theme of its current use.

Now I need 10 Specials:

Room 1.3 is a magical hall of perfumes. The central section of the hall rains down clouds of the stuff from the ceiling when someone passes through. The stuff is so strong it reduces the chances of surprise to 1 in 6 for 24 hours.
Room 1.5 is a magical hot tub that automatically undresses anyone entering and drying and clothing anyone leaving (with a small percentage of some kind of screw-up)
Room 1.6 is a magical gallery; however, the “pictures” are designed for the blind.
Room 1.8 is a magical music room with various levers and buttons that create various sounds. The music is designed to play throughout the castle, alerting everyone of the player’s presence.
Room 1.21 is a magical kitchen and 1.22 is be a magical ice room for storing food.
Room 1.27 is a library with a device that fetches certain books, but only works if the commands are given in the language of giants.
Room 1.33 is the scriptorium, with a special device used to create the “Braile” scrolls created by the Giant.
Rooms 2.11 and 2.13 are incubating and birthing chambers for the breeding experiments.

Now for 4 rooms with treasure guarded by a trap:
Rooms 1.14, 1.16, 1.30, and 2.2 all suggest themselves because they are dead-ends.

The six remaining traps:

Rooms 1.15 and 1.17 are suggestive because of the portcullises indicated on the map.
Rooms 1.2 and 1.31 are good candidates to alert the hobgoblins in the towers.
Room 2.17 has access to the demon.
Room 2.19 keeps the Gibbering Mouthers at bay.

Finally, I need two Empty Rooms with treasure:

I like Rooms 1.25 and 2.16 for this for no real particular reason.

For the rest, I might note some things to indicate this was once the home to a scholar with servants. Servants quarters, storage rooms, guest rooms, supplies necessary for scholarly work, etc.


Note: I have sprinkled some cool features within this castle that might prove useful should the players ever want to claim this as their own. Consider it an incentive and a reward for putting up with my dark sense of humor.

Also note: The chances of me ever actually using this are not high. But who knows, it may one day prove useful...if not to me than someone out there who wants to take this and run with it.


JB said...

High level "dungeons" can be fairly easily designed in the same manner as low-level dungeons, but they always need a bit of "massaging" to make them sensible (mainly with regard to its locale and what makes sense in terms of the campaign).

I don't really understand why you've included so many low-level monsters in this example. When I design a high-level dungeon, I use a similar approach and I know that there isn't a place for (in this example) creatures like hobgoblins, ghouls, and thouls in the dungeon proper. They may have been there once upon a time (perhaps the gorilla-bears ate them or something), but I'd stay away from anything that didn't fit in the proper level range of the dungeon I was designing (except perhaps as a "special" - some sort of comic relief or maybe a lost wanderer that the PCs could help in exchange for useful intel). Anyway, it seems strangely stubborn to think up "hobgoblins" in the background and then try to shoehorn them into a high level dungeon...much easier to take the good idea (hobgoblin eugenicists) and work it into a lower-level dungeon (where the garillons and flying apes are the pinnacle monsters)...along with the same faction suggestions!...and then return to the high level dungeon and rework its background.

[I realize you're just doing an example here, I just don't get how you came to the conclusion that this is a suitable for a 6th level dungeon. Not trying to offend...if I missed something in the logic, please enlighten me!]

FrDave said...

Gygax includes orcs in G1-3:Against the Giants as servants. I thought it would be fun to turn that upside down, given my love of Hobgoblins and all the ways that the game has suggested that their DNA is at the root of a lot of monsters.

Is this a 6th level dungeon? 7th? 8th? 9th? I don't have a good feel for this in the same way I do for 1st-3rd; however, given that there are a number of creatures that could be negotiated with that are high HD and prisoners...I could see a group of enterprising and creative players make mincemeat of this place.

JB said...

Hmm. I assumed it was a 6th level dungeon based on L6 monsters being the highest number (along with fewer L5/L7s and even fewer L4/L8s).

I’m not sure Gygax operates on any particular “formula” for his adventures. Even so, this thing reads as “hobgoblin themed” (with associated pets and minions) while the G modules still read as “giant themed.” Here, you’d be running into a lot more hobgoblin opponents...and I think high level PCs would make mincemeat out of them regardless of whether or not they’re “enterprising and creative.”

Anyway...I believe one CAN use the normal “adventure design formula“ for doing high level “dungeons.”

(And I also think the idea behind this example is a good one, just more for mid-level than high level characters...I might just swipe it!)

FrDave said...

I think high level PCs would make mincemeat out of them regardless of whether or not they’re “enterprising and creative”

You may very well be correct. As I stated in the post, I am wired for lower level campaigns and it is quite possible that those instincts pulled me in a direction that makes this dungeon something other than "high level."

I agree that the basic construction of a dungeon scales pretty well and note that the only real difference between the methodology on this dungeon versus my 1st level dungeon was the operational order and the choice of monsters.

If you (or anyone else) ever does swipe this (and even replace my monsters with others) I'd love to hear about how it goes.

JB said...

I will be sure to let you know.
; )