Sunday, 25 April 2021

Dungeon Process: Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep (Part 1 - Theme)

Start of a Series

This is Part One of a six-part series documenting my full dungeon-writing process. The dungeon is called Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep. You can check out all six parts on this page here, and keep reading for the first post: Theme!


Lately, I have been dungeon-obsessed. I spent a few months working on the Cherry Crypts, the largest dungeon I've made since probably high school. I ran my group through the majority of the rooms in four sessions (and had lots of fun). 

I have been reflecting on the lessons learned from designing and running that dungeon, and applying them to new projects. I made some one-pagers for my setting Penrod. I have also been very slowly outlining my eponymous megadungeon, The Lapidary City (post impending). 

Full Dungeon Process

And now I am working on a new project, which I will present in this multi-part series. Each post will deal with a step in my process. I am also using this as a way to think about the process itself: how should I make a map, what is the best way to write the key, what comes first—general or specific? Part of what I hope to accomplish is standardizing some of the things I do, making it easier for myself to write large dungeons. Goals for the finished product include:

  • High-quality layout
  • Original maps (of sufficient quality; I am no Dyson Logos)
  • Unique and evocative writing and content
  • Concision
  • Build on the successes of my previous work
  • Learn from the shortcomings of my previous work

This first post is about Theme. Dungeons, for me, are easier and more fun to write if I have a strong theme to work from. This theme can be complex and multi-layered, and also simple. For example, The Cherry Crypts were themed with druidic crypts, mad wizard leftovers, and the ice age. Definitely some disparate elements, but it provided me with touchstones as I wrote out the details. Not every single room and monster has to fit the theme; it just provides structure. 

Check out the other posts in this series here. 

Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep

Unterbranch Keep sits atop a rocky promontory overlooking a backwater village and valley. It is common knowledge that the Keep has been abandoned and deeply haunted by slime and spirits for 33 years, ever since the Lady Unterbranch went missing. At the last new moon, some brigands thundered into the valley, brigandized the innocent country folk, and retreated up to Unterbranch Keep; they have not been seen since.

Encounter with a black pudding (Pixie Bledshaw, The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Judges Guild, 1978)


The first thing I did when starting this new dungeon was to try to think up a location. I decided on an abandoned Keep with a dungeon underneath. A haunted manor type dealie but with a more early-medieval castle instead of a Victorian manor home. I searched through some art until I found a picture I liked, and used that for inspiration sketching out a map. 

Art by Florent Lebrun: 

Then I decided I was doing this all backwards, and I needed to create some theme(s) for this dungeon. I'm much too map-focused when I create dungeons, which results in me doing thematic and narrative backflips to fit things around my maps. A shortcoming from which to learn. 

I brainstormed a list of ideas/encounters/touchstones to draw from: 
  • Ghosts
  • Goblins
  • Slime
  • Skeletons
  • Slime skulls
  • Slime growing in the dungeon and making things come alive
  • Trapped tombs with treasure
  • Puzzle tombs
  • A hundred skeletons with 1hp
  • Ghost haunting
  • Vampire haunting
  • Haunted suits of armor 
  • Dark spirit trapped somewhere and it wants to get out so it's throwing a temper tantrum
  • Dusty clothes, cobweb dining dishes, vampire eels living in the privy, giant Spider in the kitchen, huge rats in the larder, etc.
  • Water is dripping from somewhere to down below, allowing slime to grow
  • Locked cells with prisoner skeletons
To sort these ideas (and new ones) into a useful format, I took inspiration from BAATAG and their post about The Grand d666:

"Whenever I start a new RPG project, once I’m done sketching out the big picture stuff I make myself a d666 table to use for inspiration for when I get down to writing up actual content."

They use the tool for designing a whole setting, whereas I just want it for a single dungeon. No need for such a large table. Let's do something more like a spark table from Bastionland.  

Unterbranch Keep Theme Tables
1. Ghost
2. Goblin
3. Slime
4. Skeleton
5. Brigand
6. Animated Armour
7. Animated Object
8. Cursed Object
9. Trapped Dark Spirit    
10. Feral Animal
11. Overgrown Plant
12. Suffocating Rug
13. Green Stone
14. Vaulted Ceiling
15. Prison Cell
16. Black Knife
17. Sorcery
18. A Great Warrior
19. Empty Room
20. Creature
1. Repeat Something
2. Repeat Something
3. Repeat Something
4. Haunted Environs
5. Decrepit Nobility
6. Nighttime
7. Trapped/Imprisoned
8. Anger
9. Murder and Blood
10. Spirit Lashing Out
11. Black Sorcery
12. Revenge
13. Useful Tool
14. Lore
15. Bulky Treasure
16. Puzzle
17. Trap
18. Dusty Clothes
19. Altar
20. Tapestry

Now this is something I can work from. Some entries are specific objects/enemies, and others are themes. Some are more meta-entries, like "Repeat Something." I chose to use that as a way for me to keep continuity moving throughout the dungeon, where I would take a previous element and repeat it with a twist. Some entries are also very similar ("Sorcery" and "Black Sorcery") so maybe next time I'll put more work into a better table set. Oh well. 

I kept adding more specific ideas to my brainstorm list ("Upside down crown, a spirit is trapped inside and when you wear it it speaks through your mouth") but I will use these grand theme spark tables when moving deeper into writing the background and map key for the dungeon. 

The Series


  1. Fantastic list of challenges. Happy to find this blog via carnival!

    1. Hey thanks! I appreciate your time to read my stuff.