Dungeons. Dragons. Graph paper. Funny dice.

Tekumel-style underworlds

While doing some megadungeon research, I re-read a couple of Planet Algol posts about Saturday night specials (1, 2) that include this EPT quotation:

Here too, the role of the “Saturday Night Special” cannot be overemphasized. Aside from the deliberately or randomly determined “normal” contents of Underworld areas, it is interesting to develop large complexes inhabited by special beings. These should have special histories, and players should hear legends of their existence on the surface. Their abilities and treasures should be individually devised, since these add interest and spice to the game.

So, I dug into the Petal Throne PDF, and found this:

An Underworld should consist of a number of levels of passageways, rooms, catacombs, shrines, tombs, etc., etc. Each level is drawn on a sheet of graph paper (10 squares to the inch provides sufficient room to develop large temple or tomb complexes). Levels are interconnected by stairways, sloping passages, chutes, vertical shafts with or without ladders—etc. Levels need not be exactly one on top of the other, nor need they all join neatly: i.e. one may have a level off to one side which is approachable only by a stairway down from some upper level and which is not connected to any further upper or lower levels, Thus, the Underworld of Jakalla has a very extensive first level, drawn on a 17” x 22” graph paper. Stairways and other types of passage lead downwards from this to other levels, but those levels themselves are only occasionally interconnected. Certain passages branch off to tie in with still other Underworld complexes; some of these connector tunnels run for miles, being survivals from the ancient pre-cataclysm underground transport system.

And this:

It is much more realistic and desirable to have an Underworld developed upon logical, “scenario” lines, with large complexes of tombs, temples or other contents carefully worked out. These can be cut off from one another, of course, by empty labyrinth areas or by randomly selected regions.

Further, about scenarios:

Countries, parties, Temple factions, nonhuman races, etc., etc., all will have objectives of some sort, and the referee should sketch these in… Thus, players will encounter members of different factions within the Imperium, various foreign agents with schemes of their own, individuals with a variety of plans and goals, nonhumans, and other beings.

This makes a Tekumel underworld sound very different structurally than an OD&D dungeon (or, at any rate, an OSR megadungeon):

  • a HUGE first level — drawing on 17” x 22” graph of 10 squares per inch
  • a limited number of lower levels
  • most lower levels connect directly to the huge first level, with only limited connections to each other
  • long “trunk” connections to a network of other dungeons

More interesting to me is the classification and arrangement of different types of spaces within a single level:

  • Saturday Night Specials, which consist of:
    • rumors or legends the characters hear before finding the special
    • a unique monster or monster type
    • a large complex
    • unique treasures with a history
  • Scenario areas (where factions pursue their goals)
  • randomly generated or empty areas that divide the Specials and Scenario areas


John L, November 23, 2011 at 6:33 PM

The dungeons under cities in Tekumel are from the city being covered over and then a new series of surface buildings built on top of the old ones every several hundred years or so. The first level is certainly huge, the same as the surface city, but the other main levels (rather than sublevels) could be about the same, maybe slightly smaller (assuming the city has grown slightly between “renewals” (I forget the Tsolyani name for the process of burying the old city to build a new one on top).

As for how many lower levels there are, in Tekumel that depends on the age of the city - a recent one (five centuries old) could have only one or two levels, but a really old city (4,000 years) could have between eight and twenty cycles of covering and rebuilding - and that many main levels.

It’s a weird idea, because of the cost and effort required to almost rebuild a city, but if the population and rulers are motivated enough, then it offers some seriously awesome dungeons.

Rob L, November 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM


It makes sense perhaps as a job creation measure although and adittedly excessive urban renewal.

The first level should be as large as the city at the last Ditlana, which is probably smaller, as most Ditlana only occurs every several centuries, and many are overdue.

Other levels may be bigger or smaller as the city surged or ebbed. They can be interconnected in any way. On level could be miles from the others if the city moved due to a change in the riverbed, etc.

Melan, November 24, 2011 at 3:31 AM

I built the Undercity of Khosura: City State of the Four Mysteries (Fight On! #10) with these ideas in mind, although on a much less vast scale than Prof. Barker. Themed sub-complexes connected by a general dungeon environment which allows for exchange, infiltration and subterfuge; limited degrees of connectivity and accessibility. The maps are found at Unlike Jakkalá, the “main level” is not a single plane but distributed over multiple levels (the eastern side of LVL I/A and II/A, the southern side of III/A, the whole of III/B and the eastern side of III/C), with branches to the side, up and down.

In practice, the dungeons worked fairly well, although we found that the generic parts were less interesting than the “specials”. So, in my new City of Vultures campaign, which has stronger Tékumel influences (and which I originally started with another group in 2009 but never got far with), I am going with an Undercity composed almost entirely of specials and with fairly limited/obscure/hard to traverse underground connections. Instead, a lot of new sections will have to be found by navigating the “social space” of the Upper City and tracing threads of conspiracy to physical locales which lead underground.

richard, November 24, 2011 at 6:09 AM

@John L: building atop your previous city is common pre-modern (and maybe modern…) practice - mostly the old city just fills up with trash so you move upstairs. It leads to distinctive, defensible “tell” or “tepe” forms across the ancient world. When the Normans colonized Britain they constructed artificial ones under their forts called mottes.

A while ago somebody around here asked about big unwieldy maps and suggested that dungeons could be cut into sections that fit conveniently in a book page, with linkages to other pages marked clearly (just like an A-Z). To me that seems like (a) good practice (I don’t want to hunt forever on a giant unconcealable map for That Room mentioned on the rumours table), and (b) maybe a great creative design constraint - like a geomorph tile, suddenly you have a format that cries out for something interesting or tricksy on every page. And maybe the inter-page spaces or connections could promote some sneakiness of their own, in the overall shape of the dungeon, rather than just a big sprawl.

Theodric the Obscure, November 24, 2011 at 10:03 PM

I’d love to see more stuff inspired by the Jakallan underworld. Apparently, building over the old city was an important part of Edinburgh’s history.

migellito, November 25, 2011 at 11:49 AM

Thanks Paul! I always appreciate any distillation of Tekumel info :)

Paul, November 25, 2011 at 12:39 PM

Milan’s Khosura maps are great.

[…] fairly limited/obscure/hard to traverse underground connections. Instead, a lot of new sections will have to be found by navigating the “social space” of the Upper City and tracing threads of conspiracy to physical locales which lead underground.

That’s interesting. Like Theodric, it reminds me of a couple of documentaries I’ve seen about Edinburgh — labyrinths opening into otherwise unremarkable cellars, catacombs lurking below causeways, etc. Also, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May mysteries always seem to involve the hidden world bubbling below London.

richard, November 25, 2011 at 1:29 PM

You’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Underworld? Or my favourite sewerland novel, Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates? Also, Roles, Rules & Rolls had a post some moons ago titled “why is there a dungeon under my city?”

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