Dungeon Design Examples, Part 1 – Ithal’s Tor
By Dwip March 30, 2011, 6:00 pm Comments (10) RSS Feed for this post

So I made a comment in the Neverwinter Nights 2 discussion offering to take one of my Dungeons and Dragons dungeons, take it apart, and talk about it, then relate it to building for Oblivion. It’s a good enough idea that I think I’ll do it twice, since I have two dungeons that do two things that I think are worth some consideration.

As always, more after the jump.

For reference, here are a bunch of map images. These are pretty large, those with bandwidth quotas beware. I’ll be referencing all of them throughout this, so you’ll probably want to keep them open in some other tabs. The ability to view them at their full size is going to be pretty much mandatory, so make sure that you can.

Ithal’s Tor – Exterior
Ithal’s Tor – Upper
Ithal’s Tor – Lower
Ithal’s Tor – Caverns
Ithal’s Tor – Temple

As you’ve probably guessed by now, this is Ithal’s Tor, a dungeon I created for my Forgotten Realms group in mid-2006. If you’re at all interested, the tale of that group is told here, but it’s not wildly important to our discussion here, except insofar as I want to talk first about what was going in the game and how Ithal’s Tor came to be.

At the genesis of the game, the party had been sent by their lord to go investigate some troubles back home, which turned out to be a large marauding band of hobgoblins (Oblivion folks, think bigger, tougher goblins) laying waste to the countryside. After defeating some raiding bands, the party tracked them back to their base – Ithal’s Tor.

Story Justification and Function:

The first thing I decided, then, when creating the dungeon, is what justification it had in story terms. In the case of Ithal’s Tor, it primarily needed to set up the hobgoblins and their boss, an evil half-demonic hobgoblin priest named Gralok as being tough, worthy adverseries. I knew that there were on order of 30-40 hobgoblins at the Tor, far too many for a low-level party to take on, and I also knew that I wanted this to be only part of this particular story arc, the climax of which I wanted to be a desperate battle where the PCs defended their village against a massive hobgoblin attack.

What I decided would be appropriate was to have the hobgoblins capture the party, then to allow them the opportunity to escape the Tor. That would either mean building a large cave complex or the like full of hobgoblins to fight, or to come up with some other dungeon layout that would facilitate escape. Since I knew the players were going to be fighting tons of hobgoblins later, I opted for the secound route, and decided to populate it with monsters that weren’t going to be such a big part of the story (remember all that stuff I was saying about varying things up so the players wouldn’t get bored?).


Having decided why I was building the dungeon, I then had to decide how to build the dungeon. What was it’s story? What kind of ecology did it have?

What I ended up deciding was that once upon a time, Ithal’s Tor was a village in the ancient Shoon Imperium a thousand years ago that was partially buried by magical cataclysm. This let me escape the usual “It’s a series of caves!” dungeon while allowing for some hooks for other interesting things to happen.

If you look at the Exterior map, you’ll see that the outside area centers on a wooded hill (Ithal’s Tor), at the peak of which is a large manor house with the ruins of a village below. Slightly to the east of the manor (near the 70′ label) you’ll see a broken circle, which is the peak of a spire we’ll come back to later. You’ll also see, at the top and bottom of the map, two pieces of purple text denoting cavern exits, which will again make more sense later.

Now check out the Upper and Lower maps. These are for the manor house, which was once a two-story affair with a bunch of rooms that have been fixed up and excavated by the hobgoblins. The Upper map is what used to be the upper floor of the manor but which is now the ground floor due to the fact everything got buried by the magical cataclysm. As you can see by the labels, this is primarily where all the hobgoblins live, and is filled with bedding, cooking fires, etc.

Stairs lead down to the area depicted on the Lower map, which is mostly storage, plus a room for the prisoners and a pit leading down to the caverns. Few hobgoblins are here, which is meant to facilitate the party’s eventual escape after they’re taken prisoner. Once upon a time this used to be the ground floor of the manor (note the two-level grand entry hall and staircase), but now is completely underground, with loose rock and dirt spilling in through the windows and doorways.

If you follow the the pit down, you come to the Caverns map, which is the meat of the dungeon. Remember that broken circle from outside? You can see more of it in the center of the room east of the pit. If you look at the tunnels, you’ll see a bunch of unnatural square areas all over. Flip back to the Exterior map. Look familiar? They’re the buried lower levels and foundations of the ruins in the exterior. You can also see that that little pond and creek outside are actually the end point of an underground river, and provide one of the two exits from the dungeon (the other is at the very top of the map).

Back to that broken circle spire. You’ll see there’s another shaft there that leads down to the Temple map, which in turn has two levels, one of which is a partially flooded undercroft.

Here’s how all of this fits together.

– The man-made ruins are all Shoon Imperium, and provide a convenient home for the hobgoblins, as well as providing a bit of visual interest to the cavern areas.

– The Temple is to Talos, the god of storms and destruction (the Shoon were kind of like that), and holds an artifact that was behind all the destruction in the first place, a gauntlet called the Hand of Talos. This whole area is fairly extraneous to the actual plot goal of the dungeon (get the players all impressed with and annoyed about the hobgoblins), but is integral to the backstory of the dungeon, and provides a hook for a whole subplot (retrieve the Hand of Talos).

– I decided fairly early on that the caverns would have been burrowed out by ankhegs, which are big acid secreting insects. They’re fairly tough, so provided the main challenge for the dungeon. I further decided that, for some variety, I’d have other sections of the dungeon inhabited by giant ants and rats, which were much lower in power and would provide an easier but longer way out.


This is a PDF of my original notes, if having them will help to follow along.

Here’s how the challenges ran:

– The party was supposed to (and did) show up in the Exterior area of the manor, where they were ambushed by the hobgoblins and taken down after a short fight. They woke up a little later in the Lower level, next to a friendly NPC thief, who I added because the party lacked one, and because it was a good opportunity to introduce a recurring character the players would be sympathetic to.

– I pulled the cliche but useful ambush the guard at feeding time trick to get them out and about in the lower area of the manor (if you read the notes, there was actually another way to remove a hinge and thus break the door, but this wasn’t used). As long as they didn’t do anything egregiously loud, I pretty much gave them free reign down here. I left their equipment and a few other things scattered around the storage rooms, and the only enemies were a couple of hobgoblin guards in the pit room, who were watching more for spiders and ankhegs than escaping player characters.

– Other than the possible faulty hinge, the pit was the first minor environmental challenge. It spiced up the pit room combat a bit (one of the hobgoblins got pushed in), and gave a very minor obstacle to be overcome.

– The very first room they came to beyond the pit room was the room with the shaft leading down to the Temple level. At 60 feet deep, this challenge was completely beyond the ability of the players to overcome, but that and a brief appearance by one of the mephits (little elemental flying critters, think Imps for you Oblivion types) were meant to entice the players to say “Hey, we need to come back here at some point!”

As it happened, this was the occasion of the first character death, when one of the players decided to tackle the lone mephit, plummeted the whole 60 feet down the shaft, took almost lethal damage, then was killed in the next turn by more mephits. This was unintended on my part, but certainly served as even more enticement to figure out what was down there.

– The northern route with the ankhegs was meant to be a much shorter, but much more difficult way to exit the dungeon (remember that the goal here wasn’t “fight the whole dungeon” so much as “get out of the dungeon to warn the villagers”). As enemies, ankhegs were slightly more powerful than the characters were easily able to handle (and they were also hampered by the extremely narrow tunnels), but this offered a choice to the players. I also made sure to open up the actual ankheg lair a bit to provide a better tactical experience for the party (and the ankhegs!).

As it happened, the party more or less ignored this entire area and went south.

– The spider lair was there for a couple of reasons. One reason was to provide a bit of ancient Shoon treasure, the other of which was to provide some items that shed light (the party had been more or less in the dark since being captured), which would be critical to the combat coming up.

– I made sure to make the ant tunnels fairly complex, with a lot of branches and side tunnels. This allowed for a much better tactical experience, where the party was frequently fighting in multiple rooms at the same time, and let the party explore a little bit. The whole area was a bunch of little mini fights culminating in the ant queen’s room, which was essentially the climax of the fighting part of the dungeon and also offered a fair bit of treasure as a reward.

As played, this area basically worked as designed. The party had a long running battle with the ants, ending in a big battle against the ant queen.

– The rat warrens were meant as a minor little challenge, a bit of change of pace after the ants, and as an opportunity to provide a little bit of magic help for the set of challenges along the underground river.

– The river and its ledge were the primary non-combat challenges of the area. I made it moderately difficult to stay on the ledge without falling in, and added a 20 foot high cliff and waterfall in one part as an obstacle for the players to overcome. Failure here would lead to a bit of bumping around and possible drowning as the river current pushed the players out into the exterior pool.

I had two additional challenges here – a possible giant centipede attack if I thought they were having too easy a time of things, and some brown mold, a cold-emitting creature that was primarily an environmental obstacle to prevent the players from just walking on out along the ledge.

This played more or less as designed. A couple people failed the climb down the cliff, and ended up getting swept along the river. A few people managed to actually walk out, but ultimately all was well, and the party made it out of the dungeon and back to town, thence to the next section of the adventure.

The challenges broke down about like this:

– Goal 1, investigate Ithal’s Tor, quickly turned into Goal 2, escape the hobgoblins.

– In the lower manor, there were three possible non-combat challenges (take the hinge off and escape the prison, recover equipment, deal with the pit) spaced with two very minor combat challenges (kill the jailor, kill the guards), which were designed to present a sense of tension and possible discovery without being too challenging.

– Once in the caves, there were a number of challenges, spaced like so:

1. Fight the mephit (easy) and find out about the Temple;

2. Fight the ankhegs (hard) or go south and fight the spiders (medium) and get some light to see by.

3. Fight the ants (medium-hard).

4. Fight the rats (easy).

5. Traverse the ledge (easy-medium)

6. Deal with the brown mold (easy)

As you can see, there was a pretty good mix of fighting and problem solving in there. The fights were varied, both in enemies and difficulty, and ramped up according to how well-equipped the party was at the time. I made the non-combat challenges primarily environmental, as befitted the dungeon setting.

Porting Ithal’s Tor To Oblivion:

Physically, the way I’d go about this is to find some appropriate exterior building, probably with a balcony, and stick it into the hill until the balcony door is the only way in. Then fill the windows and such with rocks. The best way to go, of course, is custom assets, but it’s not strictly necessary. There are plenty of existing fort ruin and Kvatch ruin pieces to be had for the village ruins. For the cavern enterances, a regular cave enterance will suffice for the northern exit, and perhaps a double-sized cave exit for the waterfall, or some sort of collection of rocks.

For the manor interior, I’d probably use either imperial dungeon or fort ruin assets, both of which can be combined with cave assets easily enough, given doors, multiple levels, etc. Custom assets are also an option here, but again, not entirely necessary.

The caves can be constructed more or less as-is, with either fort ruin or imperial dungeon assets sprinkled about for flavor. The various parts of the temple of Talos are somewhat difficult, but could be solved with a slight bit of nif hacking or custom construction. For the river, I’d use the cave pit set or the taller cave pieces, then use rocks for the ledge. The waterfall door you’d probably want to make some kind of pass-through automatic door like Faregyl has.

As to the enemies and challenges, I’d substitute goblins in for the hobgoblins, or perhaps orcs/bandits. There aren’t a whole lot of good substitutes for ankhegs, but land dreugh would probably work. The various creatures in the temple of Talos (who translates well enough to Dagon) map fairly well to Imps, undead, and daedric creatures (see the notes), while you could replace the ants with spiders, Faregyl-style, leaving the rats more or less as-is.

The non-combat challenges here are trickier, but surmountable. One could create and script a rusty hinge object that would simply remove the door in the prison, and that first pit is easily leapt down. The option the party used to get down into that temple shaft (go back to town and get ropes) isn’t really readily available in Oblivion, but leaving stuff in the storage room to create a rope ladder is – you would perhaps pick up a rope/rope ladder object via activator, attach it to the cave ceiling (activator again), then climb down (door). The ledge challenges can exist more or less as-is (you’d just jump down), but the swift current may or may not be able to be scripted (you’d need to ask people better than I about it). I’d run the brown mold as a trap combined with a trigger zone – the trap area causes cold damage much like gas traps, while if the trigger zone is hit by a fire spell (remember that one Mage’s Guild quest?), it disarms the trap and makes the mold go away.

There’s also a quest associated with this dungeon, which I would create in the following fashion:

10 – Player gets quest.
15 – Player shows up in village, learns about goblin attacks.
20 – Player kills off goblin raiding party, is in some way clued in to their location (“They came from that way!”)
30 – Player shows up at Ithal’s Tor and gets captured by goblins (I’d use death or low hp scripting for this, other people have done it)
40 – Player escapes Ithal’s Tor
50 – Player runs back and warns village (and here we go beyond the scope of the dungeon)
60+ – Player does various preparatory things before the hobgoblin hordes show up (plenty of subquest opportunities here)
80 – Hobgoblins attack! #
90 – Hobgoblins defeated
100 – Cleanup, reward

# – In the actual D&D game, what happened was that the players ran back to town, warned everyone, holed up in the fortified manor house, and then were attacked by 40 hobgoblins, who eventually broke down the doors and stormed the place while the flying Gralok attacked from above. In Oblivion, you’d probably run this sort of thing sort of like the Battle of Bruma, with waves of goblins attacking, and the player given free reign to defeat them however he will. Assuming they hole up in the manor like my party did, script some break down the door sequences and a “Gralok blows up the window and comes on in” sequence, and for that matter make Gralok some kind of daedra.

Questions, comments, and the like invited. Next up, we’ll cover a somewhat more traditional dungeon with more traditional challenges.

Computer Games - Elder Scrolls Series, Dungeons and Dragons, Gamecraft Comments (10) Trackback URL for this post RSS Feed for this post
Comments on Dungeon Design Examples, Part 1 – Ithal’s Tor
avatar Comment by Hanaisse #1
March 30, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Dude, that was awesome. What’s really cool is how easily it does port to Oblivion gaming.

I assume it’s easy when you start looking at it logically from a ten thousand foot level and not, “omg I’m gonna make a dungeon filled with traps and bosses to kill everybody!”

And maps! Ooo, I love getting out my coloured pencils and making maps. That’s what I started from when designing areas for my MUD. Not so much with mods though. Secret note to Samson – we have to do this.

Oh, and Dwip……why haven’t you MADE this yet??!?

avatar Comment by Dwip #2
March 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm

I kind of forgot to add that part to my summary, but yeah, it does tend to go better if you do it step by step like I outlined. Still took me a day or two to really figure out, but.

I have not yet begun to map, as you shall see.

And so many projects, so little time.

avatar Comment by Samson #3
March 31, 2011 at 1:54 am

That was definitely a very good read. So much creative energy within you that lies untapped to us non-D&D players. But as you say, so many projects, so little time.

Maps. We have so many of those from Alsherok it’s not even funny. And one of us likely still has the even older Shard ones. They certainly do help. There’s probably stuff buried in the pile of old MUD data that would translate pretty well.

avatar Comment by Dwip #4
March 31, 2011 at 2:03 am

I in fact do have a set of Shard maps from what looks like August 1996, which must be very shortly before or after we immed.

Also, Jesus. That was 15 years ago near enough. We’ve been at this a while.

avatar Comment by Sigurd #5
April 4, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Wow, that was a long read. I have been reading these Dwip, just not commenting.

See, I don’t really want anyone to tell me I add too many gribblies and make everything too regular.

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