Designing a Dungeon: Part 2—Fantastic Archaeology

Welcome to Part 2 of my Designing a Dungeon blog series. I'm working on a new dungeon crawl adventure for the World of Aetaltis Patreon Patrons, so I thought I'd bring you along as I do it.

In yesterday's post we chose a map to use for our dungeon. As I mentioned then, I love drawing my own maps, but for the purpose of this blog series I'm using one of the incredible maps created by Dyson Logos and available in his map pack on DriveThruRPG.

Step 2: What Was This Place? (AKA Fantastic Archaeology)

Before I start coming up with the current residents of our dungeon, I want to have a clear understanding of the original purpose of this place. As you'll see in later posts, knowing the background and origins of a place make everything I do afterwards much easier. It also helps to provide inspiration when I get to populating the rooms.

Know the World

If you're designing in a specific setting like Aetaltis, you can draw on the history of the setting to figure out why someone might build a structure like this one. In Aetaltis, and in many traditional fantasy sedtting, the dwarves built most complex underground structures. We'll take the logical path and assume this is a dwarven creation.

The Elephant in the Dungeon

At this point I look for one feature that stands out over all the others. This feature, whatever it is, represent something we won't be able to avoid describing and might make or break any theories on what this place was.

The feature that stands out to me is that long hallway with the four pillars in it. I don't feel like a military outpost or even a village would bother with a big empty hallway like that. It's not wide enough to be a common room, but it's too wide for a standard hallway. And with relatively small hallways leading into it, clearly the intent isn't for large vehicles or anything like that. And those pillars aren't positioned like load bearing pillars, so that suggests they are decorative.

So what is it? In real life, a big long hall like this is typically used to impress people. You bring them in and march them down it to show off something - maybe your might or your wealth.

What would dwarves want to show off? The dwarves of Aetaltis hold their ancestors in high regard. What if this was a place to highlight dwarven ancestors and their accomplishments? Maybe it was a hall of heroes of some kind? By marching guests through this hall, the dwarves could bolster the visitor's appreciation of their accomplishments, their ancestral legitimacy, and their wealth.

Perfect! So we've got a Hall of Heroes.

The Logical Conclusion

Things get progressively easier from here. What sort of a complex has a Hall of Heroes to impress visitors? A trading post might want to impress someone they are negotiating with. Or a wealthy dwarf might want to show off in front of her guests. Or maybe a military training center that wants to honor past graduates?

But none of these really work for me. That entrance is too small to bring wagon loads of trade goods into the Deeplands. And the layout just doesn't feel like a residence to me. As for a training center, I'd expect a few larger areas, maybe a gymnasium of some kind, and I don't see that here.

I do notice that there is a staircase leading down. What if this were some sort of Deepland entrance? It isn't a trading entrance, we know, but what if it was for welcoming diplomatic guests to a nearby Deepland hall? I'm liking the sounds of this one, so let's go with that!

Filling in the Blanks

If this is a diplomatic site, perhaps some kind of ambassadorial entrance, I can begin to guess what sort of rooms I need. I go through now and begin sketching in purposes for each of the rooms.

There we go! We've got a cool dwarven Ambassadorial Entrance to a Deepland Hall. We can just imagine a party of elven dignitaries arriving at the formidable castle that once guarded the entrance. Picture their dwarven hosts escorting them down the Hall of Heroes, describing the accomplishments of the great dwarves represented in the paintings hung respectfully on the walls. It's all taking shape now.

But sadly, all things end, and from the looks of this place, it's been a long time since it welcomed any ambassadors.

In our next post we'll talk briefly about what happened to the site and then start to sketch out what sort of dangers our heroes are likely to find there when they visit the ruins today!

- Marc

If you missed Part1 in this series, you can find it here.

Marc Tassin is the creator of the World of Aetaltis and the founder of Mechanical Muse. He's been gaming since 1985, and he's also a published author and game designer. He's had the opportunity to write for some of his favorite RPG products over the years, including Shadowrun and Dragon Magazine. You can find him at Gen Con every year, usually lurking about near the Exhibit Hall or the Writer's Symposium rooms! To support his Aetaltis patreon, just click here!


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