Building a Dungeon: The Isle of Omen

Surprisingly enough, I have only built one dungeon other than last night’s dungeon, so this is actually something I have little to no experience with. Usually my quest lines take place in a city or out in the wilds and there isn’t much to consider as far as ecology and mapping. It’s definitely easier to stick to the abstract terrain model of 13th Age in these settings. But what about dungeons? Dungeons are the staple of fantasy role playing, it’s where everybody wants to run around because they often have the best loot and the meanest baddies.

When my players decided they wanted to go to Omen to save Crysx’s father, Eitger Greymane (see the Ald Sotha: Unfinished Business Part 1 post) I was a little worried that I wouldn’t do the island justice for its potential. The first thing I did was consult the back of the book:

“The giant island at the center of the Midland Sea was originally much smaller. It used to be the Wizard King’s main administrative center, but it became overgrown with forest and jungle when the Dragon Emperor pacified the waters. Later, living dungeons freely popped to the surface, expanding the size of the island. Omen looks green from a distance but as you get closer, you see there’s a profusions of ruins lurking beneath the green. Living dungeons are endlessly piling upon each other from below, causing the island to swell until a chunk of land breaks into the sea and it shrinks in size again.  – – Before the Wizard King, a serpent race originally inhabited the island. They built endless tunnels made for people who have no legs,  using ramps only with no stairways.”

13th Age, pages 276 & 277

This little snippet of information alone sent my head whirring into a hundred different directions. I very much liked the idea of the lost race and wanted to incorporate it into the dungeon. So taking this idea, I started to build my story…

But this isn’t about the plot that I had in mind, what about the dungeon itself? So the PC’s found the entrance, but it was more of a sneaky little hole in the ground than an entrance. They crawled through the hole with a DC 20 dex check, those who failed were hurt by the wall as it collapsed in after the last player caused it to capsize. the room they were in was this grotesquely shaped room that was but a mere shadow of what it once was. From earth piling up on top of it over the years, and the movement of  a living dungeon below it, the room became squeezed into this parallelogram shaped thing. It was made to make the players uncomfortable, it looked like it was going to cave in on them at any second. The doorway, which had its door decayed by time long ago, had been squeezed into this narrow slit that they could barely fit through. No skill check, just the flavor to make them uncomfortable and to set that pretense for the rest of the dungeon.

Before I tell the rest of this, I have to admit that I may have made a mistake. I only mapped enough of the dungeon to fit the session time of the night, rather than mapping out the whole thing. This meant that we had a finite end for the night, which is sometimes important perhaps. I wasn’t happy with that this time, though. I wanted to let them keep going and was disappointed in how I had nothing more to give. However, the flip side is that I’m not rushing myself to complete the dungeon. I can take the time and make it loads more interesting.

The hallway after the crushed room was one of those long winding ramps that replaces a staircase for the serpentfolk. I really loved the image and the slight confusion that it would bring to the players. To further implement the sheer strangeness of this dungeon’s origin, the walls were carved with all these glyphs and magical symbols that our wizard could kind of relate to, but not read or use them like he can with modern glyphs and magical symbols. Then there was the mural: The image of a great being; the lower half a serpent, the upper half similar to that of a man. It was holding a staff up, lines carved in the wall to suggest it was emanating some sort of light or energy. The other carvings had been affected by time and erosion because they were smaller, but they seemed to depict some sort of other beings being vanquished. The top of the staff, after the wizard used prestidigitation to clean it off, revealed itself to be a fist sized ruby. Of course, the second they saw it, they wanted it. Good! because it related to a puzzle!

Something magnificent I read online gave me the idea for my first puzzle. I can’t remember exactly where I read it, so to the person who may have posted it give me a link and I’ll be more than happy to put your thread in here. But in the post it said that you shouldn’t make an actual puzzle that the players, not the characters, have to solve integral to moving the story forward. I hadn’t thought of it until I saw that but it made a lot of sense! If your players aren’t particularly clever or you give them a really tough puzzle, it’s going to bring the session to a screeching halt. Brilliant, so I designed my puzzle to give them something that’ll help the main story outside of this dungeon! They can ignore it and never gain the boon or they can wrack their brains trying to figure it out before they leave.

What I did was take the original Tomb of Horrors gargoyle puzzle and put a twist on it. Each of the three still attached arms had a riddle on them that the players have to figure out where the appropriate piece goes to make the gargoyle say its piece, and then they have the task of figuring out how the last arm that was broken off works. I apologize for this being really vague, but some of my players read this.


I also took the pillar room from the Tomb of Horrors, because it was without a puzzle and plopped a combat into it. The darkness of the room made for a really interesting fight, where a Sparkscale Naga (from page 144 of the 13th Age Bestiary) lurked in the shadows while the haunted skulls  (page109 & 110 of the Bestiary) that it magically created floated around and gave the players a headache. It actually worked beautifully, the haunted skulls lasted way longer than they should have, being weaker by leaps and bounds than my level 6 PCs. They focused on the naga, so that the skulls were able to slap some ongoing damage and other nasty effects on them to make their lives difficult. The Naga stayed in this room because it liked the magical energy that the orange gem that was in the corner gave off, this gem also pertained to the gargoyle puzzle.

So overall, not a bad start to my second dungeon ever. I started constructing a map for it as I was writing the arc within, but we’re not stressing it in play. It’s more just a reference for me to keep my story straight, and so far it’s working. In short:

  1. Crushed room that looks like it’s going to collapse to make the players uncomfortable
  2. Long, steep ramp with murals on the walls to tell the players a little bit about the culture of the dungeon and provide the first piece to the OPTIONAL puzzle, a large ruby
  3. Two doorways, left or right.
  4. Left room is the Gargoyle puzzle that they will eventually have to come back to.
  5. Right room is the pillar room with the Naga combat.

Any ideas to give me? Feedback? Use the hashtag #HMGMOmen on twitter with your suggestion or leave a comment on the facebook post, I’d love to hear what you guys think!


Stay Metal \m/

2 Comments on “Building a Dungeon: The Isle of Omen

  1. I recommend looking at classics, especially from Paul Jaquays. That man made brilliant dungeons that may be hard to read if you aren’t super into dungeon design, but they have intersecting rooms, multiple paths from point A to B, and all his dungeons are very subtly themed.

    You learn a lot about design simply by looking at well-designed dungeons.

    A more modern example might be the way Curse of Strahd’s stronghold is mapped out and how encounters are arranged within the castle. That is also excellent work.

    Liked by 1 person

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