Monday, April 23, 2012

Secrets of Myrddin, part 1

Okay, so some folks here and on Google+ have convinced me to let folks peek behind the screen just a bit at the Caves of Myrddin campaign.  I'm going to start with the original caves levels.  I was in a big hurry to start DMing this campaign, but the upper levels of the ruined castle weren't ready to go so we started with these nearby caves.

Castle Dundagel is vaguely based upon the real Cornish ruins of Tintagel, which really does have a nearby Cave of Merlin.  I picked Tintagel as my model because of its Arthurian associations. It's the castle Uther besieges in the first part of Excalibur, where Arthur is conceived.  But the ruins there today were actually built in the 13th century, the century after the Wessex campaign is set, almost as an early example of a lord's architectural folly.  Key changes I made to Tintagel when I made Dundagel:
  • I put the whole thing on a spit of land, rather than an island just yards off the coast.  I didn't want to deal with boats every single expedition.
  • Based upon this photo of Tintagel I decided I needed three 'Merlin caves' rather than the single one I'd read about.
  • Since the modern understanding of Arthur and all that stuff only begins to congeal with Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is alive during the campaign, I decided that much of what we know as the standard Arthur narrative is just plain wrong.
  • To whit, Arthur and Merlin weren't contemporaries.  Merlin (a.k.a. Myrddin) is a generation or two later, as is Morgan le Fay, queen of Tintagel.
  • Also key: Myrddin was an evil wizard and Morgan a benevolent queen.  This got flip-flopped in later legend mostly because the only thing everyone clearly remembers from the period is how the queen used to dress like a tart.
The Caves became named after Myrddin because he used them to tunnel a backdoor into the family crypts below the castle.  The original monsters to move into the dungeons were part of Myrddin's army of evil.  For a time the good guys beat back these creatures and sealed them below, but they only dug more dungeons.  Eventually they dug so deep they reached the uppermost level of Hell.

The dragon moved in three or four generations after all this muck.  The House of Fay had spent its energies and lost many of its bravest sons and daughters trying to contain Myrddin's mess. (That guy was long dead, thanks to a vorpal sword to the neck.  Neither head nor sword have been recovered from the dungeons.)  So the dragon didn't have to do much to seize control and set up shop in a hidden lava-filled cavern just slightly above Hell.  But it got lazy and sleepy and soon it only ruled the monsters in name only.

Later, a trandimensional meteor crashed into Goblin Land so hard that it punched a hole through straight through to level 1 of Dundagel.  But that's not what we're talking about today.  Here's some maps.

Each cave corresponds to a dungeon level in terms of difficulty.  Most of the early parties stayed the hell away from the Wet Cave (see below), but no one ever figured out that the monsters in the Small Cave (pictured above) were noticably easier to beat than the other two.  Notable features include the broken teleporter in area 4 (that circular thingy) which the Gnome Submariners used once and the Spaniard tried to repair, the Stirge Nests in the stalactites of area 6 (the line across the tunnel mouth just south of the 6 is a gate of iron bars, a tar-baby sort of monster was fought there) and the chasm between 14 and 15 which may lead to something deep below.

The Wet Cave is one of my most complicated dungeon levels to DM, because the tide washes in twice a day.  Areas labeled A, B and C flood to different depths based upon the time of day.  I have a turn-by-turn tide chart for this.  Some parts of the dungeon completely flood.  At high tide a bunch of sea water pours into the chasm at area 9.  Other neat features are the magical cloud of poisonous gas (recently dispelled) at the location 5, the sinkhol in area 15 (which fascinated the sea ghouls that previous haunted much of the level) and the small tunnel (big enough to crawl) leading up out of area 3.

Here I must give Special Mention in the Dispatches to Nicholas Mizer and his elf Celumir the Bald, who led the first party into this level.  He did a fabulous job of scouting out the place before time.  It was he who first learned of the Curse of Blue Nellie.

And here's the Big Cave, a.k.a. level 3.  Monsters here were mostly unintelligent beetles, slimes, wobras (winged cobras), etc., with the notable exception of a couple appearances by Joe Mama, the trollish psycho with a chainsaw.  The corkscrew/sprial/whatever of the main corridor really made mapping this level a giant pain in the ass.  The criss-crossing in area 10 is spider webs.  No giant spiders though, just a zillion regular sized ones.  No one knows where the the corridor at the top of the map leads.

I think I got all these maps from Paratime Design.  The Caves/Dungeons complex is a Frankenstein of stitched stuff.  Some levels are entirely swiped from published modules.  Others I just used the map.  One level I use the map from one module with the key from another.  A lot of Dave's Mapper brand geomorphs get used all over as well.

Riffing off of other people's work is great for several reasons:
  • I can recombine stuff for interesting new effects.
  • I enjoy the challenge of presenting old material in a fresh way.
  • I like secretly daring the players to blurt out "Hey, this is level 3 of the Temple of Elemental Evil, you fraud!" So far I've gotten away with a LOT with no one calling me on it.
  • I'm a lazy ass.
  • Besides, there's a lot of good stuff out there.  Why not use it?
Next installment I'll talk about the big vertical geomorph.  I'll even show you some of it.


  1. Thanks for doing this! I'm going to enjoy learning about putting dungeons together from these posts. This one's worth reading a few times over, and I'm sure the rest will be to.

  2. Anonymous3:14 PM

    Very interesting to see. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Thanks for the writeup. I always enjoy overview articles like this. Surprising, too, since I imagined the levels of this dungeon to be much more sprawling, not as compact as these maps show.

  4. Anonymous4:13 PM

    So when are you going to post the Kickstarter for The Caves of Myrddin?

    1. That doesn't seem feasible given the number of other products I rehash.

  5. The view from the players' side is soooo much different than the dm's perspective. Thanks for letting us behind the scenes, Jeff - it's like the Special Features section of the DVD :)

  6. And many people never had the pleasure of playing any classic adventures so its new to them anyways. (Were you kidding about level 3 of the Temple of Elemental Evil?).

    1. Was I kidding? Only in that I haven't ripped off that particular module.

  7. Oh these maps...nice!

  8. Anonymous8:01 PM

    Fascinating as usual, Jeff. I always enjoy your posts - you wear your learning lightly, tend not to pontificate, and emphasise imagination and fun. If only other OSR bloggers followed your example. Brian

  9. +1 for good Morgan and bad Myrddin. :)