Designing a Dungeon: Part 4—How it Came to Pass

In the fourth installment of our series on designing a new dungeon crawl adventure for the patrons of the World of Aetaltis Patreon, we dig into the history of our ruins.


  • Step 1: We talked about choosing a map. Maps are really fun to draw, but there are times when you want something that's ready to go. In this case, I picked a cool map from Dyson Logos available in in his map pack on DriveThruRPG.

  • Step 2: We figured out the original purpose of the place on our map. After a bit of back and forth I settled on a dwarven Diplomatic Entrance to a Deepland Hall. After that I decided what all those cool rooms were used for when first built.

  • Step 3: We picked out the major threats our players will face, settling on some kobolds, a party of filthy bandits, and a big nasty troll.

Step 4: How It Came to Pass

We're almost ready to flesh out the rooms, but before we do that we need to do one last thing. At this step we're going to take a moment to address how the ruins got to the state they are in today. As we talked about when we came up with the original purpose of the ruin, knowing the history will be invaluable when we start detailing the rooms.

I realize that this might seem a bit like fluff, and admittedly, the players may never even figure all this out. But if we spend a little time working on this today, many of the rooms will almost write themselves, since their purpose will be obvious based on what we already know about the site. You'll have to take my word on it for now, but I think you'll see when we get to Step 5 that it definitely pays off.

Before I start, I'll often jot down some questions I want answered. After all, I'm as curious about the place at this stage as my players will be! Here is what I've come up with:

  • Why was the place abandoned?

  • If the bandits control the entrance, how do the kobolds get in and out?

  • Why don't the kobolds drive the bandits away?

  • What is up with that troll? Why isn't he eating the bandits and kobolds?

  • For that matter, how did an endrori (the troll) get here in the first place? Normally they are locked in the Deeplands.

  • What sort of hooks can I put into the history that will draw the players here?

OK - that's a pretty good list to being with. With these questions, I get to take on the very fun task of making up a cool history for our site! So...drawing on everything we've come up with so far and this history of the setting, here we go...

History of Boldenkett Gate

Before the Age of Darkness, the Boldenkett Gate served as a key point of entry for diplomats from the surface that desired to meet with leaders of the Deepland city of Undesh Dor. In those days, a stout castle protected the complex's gate, and a small settlement provided services to the castle's residents and its visitors.

The Age of Darkness brought the first period of the Gate to its tragic end. In those dark times, there was no need for a diplomatic entrance to Undesh Dor. Rather, the site served as a fortress retreat for dwarves fleeing the Dark Hordes. When the endrori finally reached the complex, the dwarves collapsed its Deepland entrance and took advantage of the site's relatively remote location and defensible position to stay safely hidden from their enemies.

While the complex never fell to Endroren's Hordes, the dwarves abandoned it sometime around 2 AC for reasons unknown. It remained abandoned until 375 AC, when a band of dwarven Liberators reclaimed it and set to work clearing the collapsed Deepland entrance.

Unfortunately for them, they succeeded in reopening the passage to the Deeplands, at which point three trolls burst through and attacked the Liberators. They killed two of the trolls but the third escaped to the surface. All but one of the Liberators died during the fighting.

The surviving Liberator executed a fail-safe mechanism that collapsed the Deepland entrance once again and fled the site. Despite his best efforts, the Liberator failed to garner the support he needed to mount a new expedition to the site and it was soon forgotten.

Three years ago, a party of wandering kobolds seeking a place to settle discovered the ruins. They set about converting it into their new home. Their changes included flooding the lower rooms to convert them into a fish farm and building a few traps for security.

Shortly after they arrived, however, they encountered the surviving troll. After it fled the Liberator battle, it took up residence in the western portion of the ruins, an area cut off from the rest of the complex.

When the troll and kobolds met, they struck a deal. Neither wished to engage in a potentially fatal conflict, so they agreed to leave one another in peace. The promise of mutually assured destruction sustains that agreement to this day.

A few months ago, however, the balance of power shifted. A party of mercenaries-turned-bandits from the recently disbanded Golden Scythe company stumbled upon the ruins. They recognized the value of this defensible, difficult to find complex and decided to make it their new base of operations.

The fact that kobolds already inhabited the ruins didn't bother the bandits. Thanks to the presence of a wizard in their number, the bandits were more than a match for the creatures.

The bandits took control of the entrance to the complex by force, secured their position, and then demanded tribute from the kobolds in exchange for access to the surface. At first the tax took the form of food and furs, but eventually the bandits demanded gold.

With no source of gold available to the kobolds, the little monsters resorted to banditry.

They've managed to deliver a steady stream of tribute to the bandits by a combination of striking merchant caravans on the Old Greyweave Highway, robbing hunters, and housebreaking in nearby villages. As the frequency and seriousness of these crimes have increased, the harassed locals are reaching their breaking point. Someone needs to put a stop to this! If only a party of adventurers would happen by!

I like it! We have our history as well as some cool motivations for the various residents of the ruin.

Now, to be fair, there were some changes along the way. For example, I tried a history where the kobolds and bandits were allies, but that made the place a bit too dangerous! Having a conflict between them gives them excuses NOT to help each other. It also allows for more social interactions as the players try to strike deals with one side or another.

I also toyed with having the troll just wander in at some point in the past, but that just seemed a bit dull and random. It would also mean there would be yet another Deepland entrance nearby and that makes things a bit too perilous for my tastes. In the end I decided it came up through the entrance right there in the complex.

BUT I needed the entrance to be inaccessible today. Earthquakes and random cave-ins are a bit overused, so I played around looking for something better. I thought about just having the endrori burrow out on their own, but that means they could do it again.

Throwing the Liberators into the mix lets me pull in more of the world's history. What is more, the recent occupation can serve as fodder when I go in to detail the rooms. And finally, it gives us one more potential hook for getting the heroes to the site. Maybe instead of helping the harried villagers, the GM wants to have the last Liberator seek them out to try to reclaim the site?

OK! That'll do for today! Join me next time when we start detailing the rooms of our dungeon!

If you missed Part 3 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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Art & Illustration

  • Illustrations by Mitchell Malloy

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