Friday, 4 December 2020

Dungeon Palimpsest: reusable dungeon mapping

A Palimpsest is a piece of parchment which has had its original writing scraped off or otherwise erased, so that the parchment could be used again. A common historic artefact. Also might mean a grave which has been exhumed in order to be used again. Generally, a palimpsest is a vessel which has been emptied for reuse. I want to use this for dungeon mapping. 

This is not an original idea. In January, Dyson Logos posted a remastered version of a map that Frank Mentzer purportedly reused over 30 times. A couple months later Sly Flourish linked to that same map, and expanded on why it is a good use case, plus provided some more examples of reusable maps. If anyone has leads on other bloggers or cartographers who have written on this subject, I am very curious to learn more. 

But I also want to make my own dungeon palimpsest—a simple map that I can use over and over. 

Sly Flourish listed some criteria important to them for making a reusable dungeon map. Many of them are inspired by such dungeon creation essays as Jaquaying the Dungeon from The Alexandrian, but others are they're own personal preferences for a "single versatile map." Here are my personal criteria:

  • Loops and non-linear shape
  • Some spatial tricks up its sleeves, but nothing so unique that it's immediately noticeable as the same dungeon
  • Easy for players to map on graph paper using theatre-of-the-mind descriptions
  • Small enough to be cleared in 1-2 sessions
  • Doors and traps fixed in place on the map
  • Able to fit on a single sheet of paper
  • No drawing on the map necessary: everything can be conveyed through the key

So, time to get into the cartography!!

Draft 1

My first instinct was to make the map fit inside a square, and to be 20 rooms deep (to match a d20). My first attempt looked like this:

Dungeon Palimpsest Draft #1

Here is my trial key. I was inspired by some blog post (I forget where—if you know, please tell me) that mentioned keying a dungeon with each room as a haiku. So I took the classic haiku theme of cherry blossoms as inspiration.

Cherry Blossom Haiku Dungeon

1. ENTRY. Twixt cherry roots lies/entry to a dark chamber/stacked stone walls, roots, moss. W - oak | E - oak | N - arch

2. TABLE. Long oaken table/scent of faded cherry meals/no chairs, no sounds, dark. W - oak | E - oak | N - cherry juice stains (secret door)

3. PIT-LINGS. Two pit-lings sparring/cherrywood clubs and knives/guarding cherry wine. Pit-ling: animated cherry pits, covered in dark red gunk, shaped like little muscly devils. Cherry Wine: potent, fragrant, 6 bottles worth 50sp each. W - oak | E - oak | S - oak 

4. CHERRY PITS. Piles of cherry pits/dried, fresh, small, large, not moving/blank scroll stained with juice. W - oak | E - oak | S - oak 

5. CASKS. Dozen oak wine casks/freshly cooped and aging well/workbench with pitter. E - oak (trapped w acid juice spray above handle) | N - oak 

6. BEETLE. Lattice roof of roots/sunlight streaks, a beetle shrieks/blue bull beetle strikes. Blue Bull Beetle: gnashing mandibles, smells like rotting wood, hungry for fruit and wood. Shiny carapace worth 100sp. E - oak | N - oak 

7. WAVE ICON. Wooden wave icon/room will flood from north, SPIGOT/if the icon moves. E - oak | N - arch | S - oak

8. SPIGOT. Tall iron spigot/water pours to WAVE ICON/if the icon moves. E - oak | N - oak | S - arch

9. SALT DEVIL. Door jamb line of salt/Little devil trapped inside/Will bargain with gold. Devil Gold: 20 gold pieces. W - oak, salt line

10. FORGE. Iron anvil lies/amongst ash and scattered tools/cold forge, big bellows. E - oak | S - oak

11. OVEN. Brick oven, Pit-ling/Buried in ash, emerald/Wood pile and kindling. Pit-ling: animated cherry pits, covered in dark red gunk, shaped like little muscly devils. Emerald: worth 100sp. W - oak | E - oak

12. GLUE. Floor is shiny glue/Rocks fall if you step/You can climb the stacked stone walls. W - oak | E - oak

13. CENTIPEDES. Dozen centipedes/Their bite calms prey, could be you/SAVE to shake it off. W - oak | N - oak | S - oak

14. PRISON. Iron prison cells/Two rows in the room’s centre/Rusty locks and keys. W - oak | N - oak | S - two stone doors

15. CENOTAPH. Old war cenotaph/“Here lies our Kingdom’s soldiers”/Skeletons arise. Skeletons: as many as PCs, wielding spears and shields.  N - stone door

16. CRYPT. Ancient captain tomb/Ruby sparkle in the air/Enter, your mood shifts. Mood Spell: roll d4. 1=rage, 2=gall, 3=fear, 4=betrayal. N - stone door

17. MURALS. Fading red murals/War camp, fruit grove, dusk sunshine/Summer turns to fall. N - oak | S - oak

18. GLASSWARE. Shelf with stained glassware/One clean glass, damp rotting crates/Crystal goblet set. Juice Pit Trap: touch the one clean glass, a trapdoor opens to 10ft sugared cherry juice pit. Crystal Goblets: matching set of 6 dirty glasses (cleanable), 120sp. W - oak | S - oak | S - square-shaped mold (secret door)

19. VAULT. Moldy sacks of grain/Dripping ceiling, smell of filth/Nine copper bars. Copper Bars: 100sp total. N - secret door

20. PARLOUR. Giant ferret with/three heads and dragonfly wings/Cherry wizard corpse. Ferret: three bite attacks, climbs walls, flies, furious at its own existence. Cherry wizard: ragged red robes, 3 potion-infused cherries, clay salt pot, spellbook (1 random spell, 1 cherry spell), weather journal. W - oak | E - oak | S - obvious secret door

Pretty satisfying exercise. But I'm not sure how much I could reuse this map. It felt a little large and I'm not satisfied with the flow of the dungeon. I also ended up hating the square shape, and every room felt exactly the same. There were also no proper corridors so it felt like it didn't make sense. Every room led to more rooms; how would anyone use this space for something?

Draft 2

I tried again without defining myself to a square, and with only 12 rooms this time. That felt like a better smaller number (which also coincides with my d12 table for randomly stocking dungeons). 

I also wanted to make sure it had a clear exit deep in the dungeon. This doesn't necessarily be an exit: it could be a second entrance, a staircase to a deeper level, or a connection to a separate dungeon. If you decide to use the palimpsest in a way that doesn't require one of those things, simply ignore it. 

Dungeon Palimpsest Draft #2

Here is my attempt at a key. 

Goblin Temple

  1. FOYER. Wet stone, black banners with smiling goblin face with five eyes, scratched oak armchairs. Locked wooden door. 
  2. ANOINTING GATE. Wooden arch with copper pipes running from chugging machinery. Constant spray of water dripping from the arch. It senses non-goblins and sprays them with boiling water as they pass through. Goblins receive cool holy water. Locked wooden door with poison needles trap. 
  3. ANTECHAMBER. Smelly cushioned bench. More black banners. Two goblin seminary students discussing the scripture of the Holy Five Eye and smoking. Wooden doors. 
  4. PARSON QUARTERS. Locked wooden door to enter. Bedroom stuff: bed, chest of drawers with goblin priest vestments, chairs, etc. Office stuff: desk, papers, quill, etc. Giant copper-pipe PA system, complete with microphone and little diagram with switches for each room. One can make their voice boom from speakers in all rooms, individual rooms, or any combination. Secret door behind a bookcase. 
  5. SECRET SHRINE. Small shrine to the goblin rat God, Rattotatogobagobo, a shameful secret for the parson, no doubt. 
  6. GROTTO. Room is half carved and half natural cave. Torch burning in scone. Brass offering bowl filled with 25gp, 40sp, and 100cp, plus one ivory button and a small diamond. 
  7. RELIQUARY OF SAINT AR. Banner depicting St. Ar, an ancient goblin saint who planted so many mushrooms that she accidentally died of spore lung disease. Offering bowl with some valuable rare mushrooms, plus a potion of Speak with Fungus. Clay box of bones. Five farmer goblins praying to the saint, wearing overalls, smelling of manure, and welding pitchforks, hoes, picks, etc.
  8. RELIQUARY OF SAINT SNAILBONE. Banner depicting St. Snailbone, an ancient goblin saint who ate fifty rats and barfed onto his jailer, thus enabling his whole clan to escape indentured servitude. Empty offering bowl. Clay box of goblin bones. 
  9. CHAIR STORAGE. One hundred chairs. Locked wooden door to the north. 
  10. HOLY BRANDY. Locked wooden door. Shelves with hundreds of bottles of Holy Goblin Brandy (very valuable) plus three Brandymaker goblins playing cards and testing (drinking) a new batch. 
  11. MURDER ROOM. Locked wooden door. Black stone floor, black banners on the wall, iron rings for chains and shackles. Ten goblin Priests ritualisticly murdering an 11th goblin, who cries for help. 
  12. TEMPLE SERVICE. East door is trapped with poison needles. Black banners, many torches in sconces, dusty floors in rows where chairs obviously used to be (they're packed away in room 9). Big black dais and lectern with some discarded sermon notes. Big statue of the Holy Five Eye with rubies for eyes. If any rubies are pried out they release sleeping gas or poison gas. Exit to sewer tunnels. 

This 12-room one is a much more manageable size. I would have to make a few more and run some players through to really get a feel for it, but this is a good start. 

Do you have any dungeon maps that you have re-used and re-keyed?


  1. It's an interesting idea. I would like to start from the other side - with the key, not the map - to be able to generate, erase, remake multiple maps from the same seed.

  2. The haiku dungeon idea might have come from this post: