The Map Mine: Cultist Lair

The Map Mine: Cultist Lair
Every Wednesday Alex will walk through a map he's created and discuss some of the design choices behind it.
Cultist lair

Welcome to another edition of The Map Mine! This week we're going to be talking about cults. Well, at least the kind of cult you'd find in a medieval fantasy setting. Think "servants of an eldritch evil" moreso than "multi-level marketing scheme".

There are two particular topics I wanted to cover this time:

  • Traps
  • Linear vs Circular Map Design

I'm going to hit both of those topics in order and go around the map like a big circle to hit that second point.


What dungeon crawl is complete unless there are a couple of traps for our stalwart adventurers to come across? As it happens, I believe you can have a complete adventure where there are no traps. In the previous post I talked about subverting expectations - and sometimes placing a trap where it wouldn't make a lot of logical sense, or telegraphing that there is a trap when there is none can be extremely effective. However, it's critically important to not overuse that tactic - you'll either make your players extremely paranoid (potentially slowing down the game while they're poking every portion of the floor with a 10-foot pole) or lull them into a false sense of security.

In both cases, you also want to ensure that your players are making full use of their abilities. If they succeed on a perception check and there are legitimately no traps let them know that, e.g. "While that hole in the wall looks like it could fire darts, you can tell that there's nothing in there, it's clearly just for show."

Now, if you want a trap filled dungeon I'd recommend you go read the Tomb of Horrors and its sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors (wikipedia links). They're both classic dungeon crawls with some of the most fiendish traps imaginable. Return to the Tomb of Horrors is one of my favorite general modules and adds several extremely interesting locations onto the original book that are less trap-oriented but still have a lot of interesting trap designs on them.

Trapping the Front Hallway

So, for this map I've used one of the items from the Sigil section in OSRaon Icons to signify a particular kind of trap, one that was present in an AD&D module Requiem - the last entry in the Grim Harvest series. The basic premise is that the main entries to a temple have a symbol scribed on the floor which, when crossed, killed the victim and immediately reanimated the body. An extremely nasty trap when there's very little to indicate that is going to happen. Requiem did this for plot reasons, if the party happened to all fall to it then they would be returned to control shortly thereafter (I don't want to spoil it - go read it).

For my map, I'd do something slightly less sinister - I would have this magical trap keyed to whether or not the character is wearing a symbol or other trapping of the cult - something that a cultist would need to know or carry. Otherwise, the trap could damage the players, make a loud noise, or (my personal favorite) leave a mark on their person that shows them to be trespassing while they're in the room. This allows you to set up adventures designed in a bunch of interesting ways: Do they need to attend a cult ceremony while it's in progress? Alarm or Mark. Do they need to sneak in when the head priest is sleeping? Damage would be less devastating to their progress.

It's also worth noting that this is a highly obvious trap. In Requiem, this was partly to telegraph that something was very very wrong, without giving it away. For our purposes this is to give the party a problem they need to surmount. If they see cultists crossing it, they might or might not think there's a problem - if they don't check for magical auras they're in for a bad time if they're trying to sneak in with a group, and they are missing the "key ingredient" to keep the trap from going off.

Trapping the other side of the Secret Door

There's a trope that is done semi-commonly that I happen to love and have encoded in the map here. If you go counterclockwise and look past the 2 secret doors leading off of the main entry corridor, you'll see an open coffin.

You see, friends, the leader of this cult is a secret vampire. This explains a couple of things about this room. First off, the top half of this room contains a normal bed - larger than the ones the normal cultists use. This is the place where the vampire cult leader heads to deceive the rest of the cult. He's totally sleeping in that bed (and probably messes up the sheets to maintain the illusion). Meanwhile, during the day he actually sleeps in a secret coffin - concealed behind the secret door to ensure that he doesn't run into any trouble if adventurers come a-knocking. He of course explains the diurnal nature of his sleep pattern due to the all-night rituals he has to perform regularly.

He has a quick entrance via the secret corridor, in the event that he's caught outside of the complex, he can quickly seep around the doors as a mist and get back to his coffin. But! He does not want anyone else exploiting that entrance, so there is a spiked pit trap right on the other side of the secret door. This would be basically impossible to see from the west side of the door, unless upon opening it the party stopped and thought to prod the floor - an unlikely proposition if they're chasing a ball of mist back to its coffin. So, it's highly likely that they're going to rush past the door and be greeted by a pit. A problem that, the vampire hopes, will be insurmountable while he lies helpless in his coffin.

Linear vs Circular Map Design

Switching gears, the other thing I wanted to talk about in map design is something that my friend Ary clued me into - an article in Knock! magazine issue #2 titled "The Anatomy of a Dungeon Map" by Gabor Lux (also known as Melan). It's a great article and I recommend you read it, but among other things Gabor discusses the "the general decline in mapping quality in tabletop role-playing games" - essentially that maps had become extremely linear with the "illusion" of choice. He posits that a good dungeon includes several features, including

nonlinearity, aided by branching and looping elements;

I personally think that good adventure design can include linear map design - but Gabor's discussing a very particular genre of dungeon design - classical dungeon crawls in particular that need to evoke a sense of exploration, and well - "dungeoneering experience".

It's really hard to include all of the elements that Gabor would consider a good map in such a small design, but I did want to point out one element of it in this map - and that's the looping structure. The ultimate focal point of the map is a hidden room at the back, where the vampire lairs. You have to work to find this room, but there are context clues around that it exists. And, like a Skyrim dungeon, it provides quick egress once you've reached the "last" room.

Ultimately though, it's still a linear representation - there's a point we're trying to get you to, and there are two ways to get there. That it loops back on itself is designed to drive the party to that point. So, for this particular design, I do not pass the "nonlinearity" test, because even though there is a loop it's still there to drive you to a particular point on the map.

Gabor/Melan has another great article which outlines in detail what he considers good dungeon map design, and he does differentiate between the classic dungeoneering map design vs storytelling design. I generally land in the "tell a good story" category of adventure design - with a sprinkling of more classic map design mixed in. When I release The Fortress of Kelnor I hope that I've struck a good balance that you all enjoy.

Other Points of Interest

The rest of the map has some elements of "spice" to it - in particular the main ritual room has a focus on the altar on the western wall, and a number of features that could be used in a mundane way or as traps. The four fountains could easily be part of the ritual - perhaps one or more of the fountains are pouring out blood or some other red liquid that the cultists must imbibe during the height of the ceremony. Perhaps that liquid is also a mild poison.

Likewise, there are statues flanking the entryway. Golems in particular can also be programmed to spot folks who are not supposed to be there (by the presence or the absence of visual qualities); or they could just be regular statues. Or they could be secret flamethrowers! (Okay that last one is a bit over-the-top even for me).

The other two chambers are supporting elements for realism. There's a bedchamber for some cultists, as well as the "master bedroom" that I mentioned in the trap section. Both of these serve the purpose of adding to the overall design by providing cover for the vampire and a legitimate place to sleep for the living cultists. Just don't ask where they're going to the bathroom. Maybe I should have added a bucket.


I hope you enjoyed this installment of The Map Mine. We're back on regular schedule next week, wherein we'll make a dungeon that tries to live up to a Melan-style dungeon crawl - light on the icons, heavy on the branching paths.

As always, if you liked the icons used in this map and would like to make your own, check out the OSRaon Icon Pack over on