Of all the tropes of fantasy, the Underdark of Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting Forgotten Realms is probably one of my favorites. It is a concept I often borrow for my own world building.
My own, loosly defined, fantasy world has an extensive underdark filled with both wonder and horror – a world beneath the world, usually referred to as “The Underside”. While large parts of the Underside is a pitch black, mostly lifeless labyrinthine wasteland, there exists also beacons of life and (to some degree) civilization. It is a vast, dark cosmos in which subterranean societies thrive beneath the feet of an unsuspecting world.
To the people of the above, this place is alien and terrifying and very dangerous.
The underside of the world has it’s own sprawling network of connections, much like the roads of the “surface”. Tunnels stretch for thousands of miles, and are used for trade and travel between the different creatures and settlements of the inky blackness.
One such “road” is the endless tunnels of the Stygian Trail, and to use it means paying tribute to whoever currently occupies the ancient toll houses. It is contested territory – bitter wars and countless skirmishes has been fought over the Stygian Trail and its fortified tollhouses. This map shows one of those toll houses, with enough room to house a small band of humanoid guards and plenty of storage for tribute.
Getting past the small fortress will not be cheap, and the toll master might not settle with gold coins – there are more valuable resources in the dark.
I’m working on a project describing a cult of snake worshipping knights – the Ordo Vipera. Thought I’d share the map of their chapter house, should anyone want to use it for their own campaign in the meantime. There’s much love and labour behind the map, so I hope you’ll enjoy it!
This is (one of the levels of) the underground chapter house of the Ordo Vipera – the Knights Viper. The Knights Viper are one of several knightly orders in my world, and quite likely the one that is viewed upon with most suspicion.
While not necessarily “evil”, the Knights Viper are secretive, non-transparent (more so than other orders) and has many hidden agendas. They rarely intervene openly with politics or the general struggle for power but tend instead to keep a watchful eye from the shadows. They do not have the martial striking capacity of some of the other knightly orders, but knowledge is power, and they use it well. The serpent knights know secrets that could potentially topple kings and queens should they be revealed.
Snakes, especially vipers, are revered by the Ordo Vipera. The inner sanctum of the chapter house is the lair of a large female viper referred to simply as “mother”. Mother is very old and very intelligent. She whispers advice to the knight-brothers, and her offspring forms tight bonds with them. Mother shares her venom with the knights, and they are considered to be the most proficient alchemists in the realm (some would rather call them poisoners, but that is not the full truth).
At any given time there are nine brothers of the Knights Viper (each filling a specific role, such as Master Librarian, Keeper of the arms, Apothecary, etc.) and nine squire-acolytes. Ruling them is the chapter master – the Lord of Scales. The order commands a host of two hundred men-at-arms.
Isometric map of an ancient tomb, holding the remains (and spirits?) of a dark knight. Fill it with traps and treasure (and why not a couple of undeads?) and send your players on a classic D&D grave robbing adventure!
Would you like to draw your own isometric maps? It’s a bit tricky when you first get started, but with a bit of training you’ll get the hang of it. I’ve written a free tutorial on it, that you might find helpful! Click here to get to the tutorial.
The Slaughterpit is one of the entrances to Hell, located deep in the infernal wasteland of Gol. It can be descended to gain access to the domain of the demon lord Byleth. His realm is a vast, dark butchery.
A pound of flesh for Byleth!
Pledge of the self-mutilating cult of Byleth
The hanging witnesses are dead and flesh-less, but sees all who enter, and scream their names.
The eyes are Byleth’s, and if you let him witness you before your descent, his gaze will be on you as you travel the abyss. It could be beneficial, but also very dangerous.
In the cage is Namtar, a lesser demon that angered Byleth, and now serves a thousand year punishment as head witness of the Slaughterpit.
The biggest challenge of getting into Hell is climbing down the great spiked chain. It is long, and slippery with blood. It will take days to descend it.
A vertical map of the lair of the Bloodwood Bandits. Perfect for use with your favorite fantasy RPG!
I’ve always been fascinated by underground tunnel’s and lairs, and as I just recently watched the great documentary “The Vietnam War” (seriously, watch it!) I guess I was somewhat inspired by the guerilla tunnel warfare of the Viet Cong.
This underground bandit lair has a lookout at the top, and several arrangements to quickly seal off tunnels in case of an attack. It has enough living space (and beds) to host the gang of nine bandits, and also a nifty excape tunnel. It even has a lavatory!
Now who doesn’t like a proper inn? It’s a classic staple of fantasy roleplaying games, and rightly so! The inn is a meeting place, perfect for establishing interesting NPC’s, introducing new quests, gathering rumours and making the fantasy world seem a little bit more real to the players and their characters.
Not everything is about fighting horrible abominations in dark catacombs – what’s the use of courage unless you have some place to brag about your exploits? What good is gold if you have nowhere to spend it?
A map of the Key & Tankard. Feel free to download and use for your own campaign. All adventurers need an inn to rest at, and aquire new quests from the mysterious hooded man in the corner.
I’m currently practising drawing overland maps, and I really enjoy hex maps.
Hex maps provide structure when writing adventures. I can concentrate on one hex each at a time, making the effort feel less overwhelming (this goes for when I’m drawing them as well, I can draw one or two hexes, and then give myself a break before coming back to it).
I also enjoy running hexcrawls as DM. It’s just a nice feeling to let the players and their characters loose in a giant sandbox, and see what they come up with. Such campaigns are never boring, and the play style challenges the game master to improvise! One of my favorite campaigns is arguably one giant hexcrawl, Paizo’s Kingmaker for Pathfinder RPG. I ran that bad boy from beginning to end, and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had as a Dungeon Master.
Finally, hex maps really has a special gaming aesthetics to them. It’s not just a fantasy (or sci-fi) map – it’s most definitely a gaming accessory, and I love gaming accessories.
Hope you enjoy this one. I tried to catch the feel of a windy, harsh Brittish coastline – perfect for wreckers, pirates and adventurers. Glynn Seal and his Midderlands setting currently bringin me a lot of inspiration. It’s set in a corny, creepy and funny fantasy England, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Dunkelmoor is a campaign environment written for fantasy roleplaying games. It is fairly subtle, you will find no dragons here, making it suitable for low-to-mid-level adventures.
Suggestion for adventure music: Mortiis – Crypt of the Wizard.
Welcome to Dunkelmoor
Not many people live in Dunkelmoor. It’s not that it’s a particularly bad place to live in – there are definitely worse places in the kingdom. It’s just that it’s a bit “off”. Most people don’t really know Dunklemoor exists, and the ones that do tend to forget about it.
Dunkelmoor is a bit gloomy, and some parts of it is outright spooky. But there are also beautiful places, like the lush Pigwood and crystal clear Blacklake. Evil broods in the woods to the south, but seem to be contained there (at least for now), so the few inhabitants of the only village live their lives like they always have. They are quite content.
The climate is similar to the middle parts of Sweden. Four seasons, winter is quite cold.
Hidden treasure as well as forgotten knowledge exists in several locations of Dunkelmoor.
Three hooks to bring adventurers to Dunkelmoor
News of the vanishing of the knight (see description hex 1 and 12) finally reaches someone important. The characters are tasked to investigate it.
A cleric wishes for the characters to go to Temple Island (hex 9) and observe the new year’s eve rituals as well as document the markings on the stone altar. The cleric is studying different rituals of protection against evil.
A noblewoman, Miranda deTeorin, has tasked the characters to find out what happened to her little brother, Jack, who dissapeared seventeen years ago when their family was visiting the now missing Knight (see hex 1 and 10). She gives them Jack’s old teddy bear, should they find him alive and try to bring back memories of his family.
The world outside Dunkelmoor
Dunkelmoor is a forgotten corner of the kingdom. The people here mind their own business, far away from the gaze of the nearest baron (he has literally forgotten about his legal claim to the land). They don’t mind, as no lord means no taxes. Their lives are humble, and very few Dunkelmoorers ever travel further than the edges of this map.
If you follow the river north, about fifty miles or so, you will find a larger town. A few Dunkelmoorers do a bit of trading with this town, but in general there is little interaction.
To the east, beyond the mountains lay the great tundra. A few nomadic barbarian tribes inhabit it. They do not come to Dunkelmoor.
To the south, the woods extend for as far as most people know.
To the west, the moor stretches on for about thirty miles and then meats the ocean at the cliffs of Byrne.
Hex 1 – The Tower of the Missing Knight
A few years ago, the knight who was appointed to govern Dunkelmoor dissapeared together with his retinue when out questing. The servants of the tower waited for a few months, before abandoning it, returning to their families in the north. The servants took what valuables they could find, but there are still treasures hidden here. The most valuable one is a blessed relic hidden in a secret compartment in the knight’s bedchambers (the finger of Saint Erebus).
Records found in the tower reveal that the knight and his retinue (his squire and five men-at-arms) travelled to the southern woods, but never came back. No search party was dispatched.
It is not a tall tower, but it has underground levels worth exploring.
Hex 2 – The Gallow Hills
Although no one have been executed in Dunkelmoor for decades, this place is still known as the the Gallow Hills. The knight in charge of Dunkelmoor fifty years ago was a draconic ruler, who hanged people for the pettiest of crimes. Therefore many men and women has ended their lives on these hills. Some of them are still haunting this bleak area.
A ghoul has its lair in this hex. It is likely to attack anyone setting up camp and spending the night here. The ghoul has some treasure stashed away in its lair, including a cursed dagger.
Hex 3 – Northtop Peaks
These mountains are, like the ones in hex 7, steep and very hard to climb even under good weather conditions. Where hex 3 meets hex 7, there is a mountain pass where one can travel east on foot (although the terrain is too hard for normal horses to travel in).
There are several natural caves in the mountains, a few of them lairs to monsters. The most dangerous monster is a white, ape-like brute. Some caves run deep into the underdark of the world.
Hex 4 – The Cloister Ruins
An old monastery is situated on a hill on the moor. The monks left longer ago than any Dunkelmoorer can remember, nor does anyone know why. The ground level of the monastery is little more than an overgrown rubble, however there are plenty of underground catacombs where an adventurer could possibly search for ancient tomes and parchments (most of which has decomposed long ago). There are some sealed areas in the catacombs, that has not been explored by anyone.
Hex 5 – Pigwood
Many wild boars live in Pigwood, hence the name. It is also a fairly safe forest, at least during the day (no Dunkelmoorer would be foolish enough to spend the night in any forest). People go here to hunt, forage (there are plenty of mushrooms!) or do a little bit of logging.
The most dangerous creature in Pigwood is the enormous boar matriarch, nicknamed “Bertha” by the hunters. She weighs close to a thousand pounds and is extremely territorial. Everyone stays away from her.
A few benevolent fey live in Pigwood, they usually stay close to a crystal clear pond in the middle of the forest.
Hex 6 – Dunkelmoor Village
The village of Dunkelmoor is small, and consists of a gathering of twenty-seven houses. It does not have a wall, but the villagers have been working on building a wooden palisade for some time.
The villagers are a bit withdrawn, but friendly. They live a fairly decent life in Dunkelmoor, with an abundance of fish in the river and plenty of game in the Pigwood. Every month or so, keelboats arrive from the north with merchants trading grain and potatoes for salted fish and pork.
There is a small inn called “The Hearth” which is the natural meeting place. The inn has two rooms for rent, although they are rarely used, since few people from the outside world visits the village.
Dunkelmoor village is a safe place, and provides a good base to rest and stock up on gear (however, few people in the village has need for, nor money to buy treasures brought here by adventurers). There is a blacksmith, and a general goods store.
The village leader is a gray-haired woman called Elsbetha. She leads a council of four, the other three members being the blacksmith Grun, the innkeeper Beata and the (only) lawman Oscar.
Hex 7 – The Silvertips
The peaks of the mountains are rich with visible silver ore that reflects sunlight. On sunny days they shine brightly, lending the mountains their nickname. However, the mountains are way too tall and steep for anyone to manage a mining operation, and no one has tried in fifty years.
Many mountain goats live on the slopes, as well as several large, silver-furred mountain lions that hunt the goats. The lions are quite intelligent, and their matriarch can speak broken common. They generally avoid humans, but could possibly be negotiated with.
In the northernmost part of the hex, there is a mountain pass where one can travel east on foot (although the terrain is too hard for normal horses to travel in).
Hex 8 – Westshore
The western shore of Blacklake is rocky, and has many great fishing spots for perch. It is also a favorite spot for birds such as herons, mallards and common coot.
This is a nice place. No monsters. Let the adventurers rest and do some fishing.
Hex 9 – Eastlake
This part of Blacklake is very deep. Fishing is quite good, especially for large pikes.
The island is called Temple Island by the Dunkelmoorers. There is an old, altar-like arrangement of stones on it, and people go here on new year’s eve to light fires and pray for protection from evil spirits. It is not mere supersticion, the stones are actually divine in nature, and the prayers charge the monument, allowing it to protect the village of Dunkelmoor from the infernal beings in the woods to the south
Hex 10 – Crag Forest
This hex contains mountainous forest terrain, rich with life. Large amounts of deer live here, as well as moose, bears, badgers, wolverines and many types of forest birds.
A tribe of thirty (give or take) goblins live in a lair in the mountains of this hex. They are cowardly, but might attack if they believe they would be able to surprise and severly outnumber their opponents. They are currently led by One-eyed Jack, the finger biter – a human that was kidnapped as a child by the goblins. He can be both bought (with silver) or bullied (by show of force). Jack and the goblins know much about the cave systems in the mountains of hexes 3, 7 and 10.
Hex 11 – Hermits island
In a hut on a Blacklake island lives the old hermit Agnes. She is quite kooky, but kind. She does not mind company and rows her boat to Dunkelmoor Village twice a year to get drunk at the inn.
Agnes looks frail, but she is a 6th level fighter. She knows a little about the Kandarian Knight in hex 12, and will advice adventurers not to go there or to the woods in hex 11. The vile retinue and the knight is unable to set foot on her island due to several protective runstones carved and erected by the hermit.
The woods in this hex are of similar characteristics as in hex 12.
Hex 12 – Darkest of woods
This is where the missing knight went on his quest. He found an old, sealed tomb in a hill. As he broke the seal and entered the tomb, he was posessed by a Kandarian demon – an ancient infernal spirit of the woods. He slew his retinue in ways most abominable, and brought them back to unlife as insidious fiends that now haunt the woods in hex 11 and 12. The vile retinue is intelligent, quick, stealthy and sadistic. The retinue consists of six wights. They will bring any prey they catch to the Kandarian Knight who spends most of his time brooding in the tomb.
If the Kandarian Knight is slain, the demon will attempt (and likely succeed) to possess another living human being, likely the bane of the knight. Divine magic will be needed to fight this foe. Records of such spells can be found in a hidden, underground chamber of the cloister ruins in hex 4, as well as descriptions of how the demon was once imprisoned some four hundred years ago.
This is not a nice part of the forest. It was dark and spooky even before the Kandarian demon was set loose, and more so now. There is little in terms of animal life in the forrest, save scores of insects – most notably a species of large, gray-black moths. It is hard to travel due to excessive undergrowth.
And that’s it! I hope you and your players will enjoy adventuring in Dunklemoor. Please leave any feedback you might have in the comments.
I drew the image of the keep some time ago, just as a small sketch in a notebook. However I found myself returning to it as I took a liking to the idea of a small keep in the middle of a deep and dark forest. Just recently, I decided to draw the maps of the keep, should someone want to use it as an adventure location. At some point, I might just flesh it out a bit more and add it to an adventure.
I’m not a great adventure writer, and certainly not in English (it’s not my native language) but I do try to give my adventure sites descriptive names, and I hope they can provide some substance to the place.
In this case, I’m picturing an elderly ronin-type knight, his master killed or disgraced. The knight is living out his last years as a recluse, not participating in whatever game the outside world is playing. Perhaps the player characters need to convince him to take part on one final quest. Perhaps he is a keeper of great secrets and has information the adventurers need. In any case, just finding the Knight Hermit could very well be an adventure in itself.
As DM, you could act out the Knight Hermit a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi from the early Star Wars movies. If you want a more corny character, perhaps slightly mad from the isolation, you could base him on Yoda.