The dungeon is for many D&D fan the epitome or the centerpiece of that particular roleplaying game. Exploring lost tombs or labyrinths is search of hidden treasures, fighting monsters and villains and, finally, returning victorious with troves of magical items and gold. The deadlier the dungeon, the bigger the bragging rights.
Crawling through some sort of dungeon has always been a huge part of playing D&D. No matter if it was a vile and disgusting tomb of an undead lich, the alien lair of a beholder, a gothic and dusty castle of a vampire or even the Underdark itself. Looking through lists of best D&D modules of all times, this becomes even more evident, Ravenloft, Keep on the Borderlands, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Temple of Elemental Evil, Tomb of Horrors just to name a few. Even modules for younger editions often evolve around a dungeon or dungeons, e.g. Lost Mines of Phandelver.
Tomb of Horrors, written by Gary Gygax, is by many veteran D&D players thought to be the paramount of dungeon crawls. The tomb is not only filled with deadly traps, e.g. a trap containing Sphere of Annihilation, but houses many extremely difficult opponents and finally a demi-lich of immense power. There are of course those who see the Tomb of Horrors as an unfair sport, designed solely to kill as many PCs as possible, and some of them see surviving the Tomb a great feat, which gives you a bragging right for at least a fortnight.
But there are a few dungeons out there that are as equally deadly as the Tomb of Horrors, as difficult to crawl through and can earn you just as much bragging right. Here are two of them, both of them offer players a chance at terrible traps, difficult puzzles and deadly monsters. If you’re a player, hungry for playing this sort of adventures, beware, for there are spoilers ahead.
Nightmare Keep by Rick Swan
Nightmare Keep was published in 1991 and set in the Forgotten Realms. Though the keep was to be in Cormyr and the story involved King Azoun and an undead Rashemen witch, I have to admit that it never felt like a Forgotten Realms module. And to add to that feeling is the fact, that the events of the module are not ever mentioned in any other Forgotten Realms publishing to my knowledge. My guess is that after the module was created it was decided to let it take place in the Forgotten Realms and therefor they added a few tags and renamed some NPCs to make it fit.
In Nightmare Keep the players are sent by the king’s emissary to investigate strange and evil looking insects, found near the Veilstone Peaks. The rewards are great, a mountain of gold and land to build a keep, but so was the danger, for no adventurer had returned from the peaks. A decent hook there, right?
As the PCs explore the surrounding lands they quickly discover that something terrible is happening, and after learning where the insects come from, they move in only to find a horrible maze, filled with undeads, insects and oozes. If they manage to survive long enough, they discover that an undead Rashemen witch, now a demi-lich, called Icelia is the force behind all this, plotting to take over the world.
This module, which was published for AD&D, was designed for characters at level 18-20. This meant that the characters had not only access to high level spells and could deal with almost all threats, but also had many magical items and even followers at their disposal. Still, there were many encounters in the maze that were really difficult and some would say unfair, e.g. a part of the dungeon was covered with darkness you can’t dispel where elder black pudding are hiding to drop on unsuspecting adventurers. Needless to say, it did wonders to the PCs’ equipment…
If the PCs managed to fight their way through zombie dragon turtles, powerful shadows, the puddings and dealing with the many strange traps of the place, they learned Icelia’s plans. On the final level of the maze the PCs found themselves inside the dead husk of an enormous creature and after trekking through it, they finally confronted Icelia and her ghost companion Zhorach. The final battle was extremely dangerous and difficult, even more so due to the elder black puddings.
I’ve run this module a few times, both for AD&D and 3.5. Every time the players show up, eager to test their high level and super-well equipped characters, only to sigh in dismay and gasp in horror as the party slowly starts to lose members and equipment. This is indeed a Nightmare Keep!
Labyrinth of Madness by Monte Cook
Labyrinth of Madness was the final module in the S-series and published to celebrate TSR’s 20th anniversary. Therefor you’ll find that everything in the labyrinth evolves around that particular number.
A temple reaches out to the PCs and begs them to investigate a labyrinth, but a tragic and powerful curse seems to lead to the labyrinth. Many have tried to lift the curse and all have failed. The labyrinth is a terrible, twisted place, and when the temple’s leaders produce a evil looking sceptre, bearing the message: “Disturb not the Labyrinth of Madness again, and live a while longer,” it’s hard for characters of good alignment to resist the urge to heed the temple’s plea. Of course every other character above 15th level with a wisdom score over 6 would wish the temple good luck and decline their offer, after all, you don’t live to see the 15th level by being a fool. Fortunately for the temple, only a handful of players have that high wisdom…
Should the PCs enter the Labyrinth they will find multi-dimensional maze, where they constantly need to backtrack and go through many difficult puzzles. There are parts of the labyrinth that are not only deadly, but also insanely infuriating for the players, e.g. who wouldn’t want to swap bodies with an ettin? No, even better, what two characters wouldn’t want swap bodies with an ettin?
Of course the labyrinth is filled with monsters. Most of them are usually easily handled by a party of 5-6 high level characters, but not in the Labyrinth. The monsters have the higher ground and are prepared for the characters. Beholders, trolls and such evil beings are there only to make your life miserable.
And there are traps too. Some of them easily disabled by the characters, but many of them come in layers, e.g. in one room there’s a trapdoor. If you fall through it, you’ll fall into a gelatinous cube, if you manage to wriggle free from it, you’ll fall onto some nasty spikes. There’s no way getting a rope through the cube, which fills the corridor in which you fall, so if you’re a non-spellcaster with no means of teleporting, you might have to stay down there a while.
Speaking of spells, in the labyrinth is a force called the Lifebane, which distorts and alters many spells, making spellcasting difficult and unreliable. The Lifebane has e.g. distorted an adventuring party that entered the labyrinth before your party, just so you know what will happen to your characters should you fail.
Finally, the lord of this place is a titan. An evil titan transformed by the Lifebane. Do I need to say more?
Labyrinth of Madness is not only a deadly dungeon, but is also very complicated module and it is hard to run it. The fact that the PCs need to find 20 different magical sigils in the correct order makes them go back and forth, constantly backtracking in order to make sure nothing escapes their notice. I’ve run this module twice and both times the players simply gave up.
Aiming at TPK
I don’t like TPK (who does?), but I also don’t like it when things are too easy or when players take their success granted. If there’s no doubt in their mind that they will prevail, where’s the excitement or fun in playing at all?
These modules, along with Tomb of Horrors, and probably many more, e.g. Rappan Athuk and Thoughts of Darkness, are in many ways unfair and difficult. I guess that these weren’t written for any ordinary groups or perhaps some of these were designed to wipe out whole parties.
Still, playing through these as long as the players know that these modules are designed to slay characters and are fine with it, the modules can be fun. After all, if you manage to live through it all and defeat the evil villains, you’ve earned the right to brag about it to your friends.