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Dungeon Delve: The Crypt of Mighty Lord Thule

My alter egos have spent much of their time tromping about dungeons in search of fabled artifacts and glorious adventure. It's the setting of some of my fondest imagined memories.

That is, I'm sure, what moved me to try my hand at creating my own miniatures game, Dungeon Delve. The last time I had a chance to play test my home-brew dungeon crawler was March and April 2017 (overview). In the interim I had the chance to play some skirmish games at Historicon and Fall In using a variety of other rules, including the great Ares rule set from 1999, inspiring me to completely revamp my game's core engine, incorporating and blending a variety of mechanics from those other inspiring games. It took much more time than I tricked myself into believing to rework all of the cards (about 160+) and multiple tables (magic items, terrain features, etc.). I spent a month restatting dozens of encounter profiles, trap cards, etc. and then rejiggering quick-reference sheets to mirror the new mechanics.  I then, of course, had to reprint everything. I'm still at the stage in this hobby where I'm spending more time in game prep than actual playing (whether it's writing scenarios, making terrain, or statting up warbands), but it's all fun. I'm guessing that eventually I'll have enough backlogged material that I'm happy with that the prep-to-play ratio will invert.

Originally the Second Saturday Scrum Club (our local gaming gang) was going to play Star Wars Armada, but the number of players who could make it to Saturday's game kept fluctuating right up until the last minute, so we decided to go with a play test of Dungeon Delve, which I was more than happy to get on the table after spending so much time re-engineering the whole thing.

Jared, John, Francesco, Walt, and Walt's son Garrett joined me for an evening of friendly fighting across my dining room table.

Dungeon Delve: The Crypt of "Mighty" Lord Thule 

My aim is to design a set of core mechanics that can be used for a multitude of scenarios. For the play test version I have developed a scenario in which parties of adventurers explore the crypt of a long-dead despot named Thule. My hope is to marry some of the best aspects of miniatures skirmish gaming with the exploration of an unknown "dungeon" setting more typical of traditional role playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. A key goal in my game design is to create an experience in which players are in competition with each other but nobody needs to play the role of game master/referee. I've tried to design an experience in which, to some degree, each player fills both roles. In addition to each player controlling their own little adventuring party, they are also responsible for playing their opponent's encounters in the crypt. This hopefully eliminates problems with vanilla AI for the monsters; an actual player controlling an opponent's monster encounters makes them less predictable and, frankly, smarter and more strategic in their actions. The challenge to such a design approach is finding mechanics that strike the delicate balance between loosely pre-programmed encounters/events (monsters, traps, interactions with items in rooms, etc.) against enough randomness and player discretion to sustain re-playability and keep the game from feeling like it's "on rails," leading to a predesignated outcome.

To that end, rooms are randomly generated within certain parameters (size, obstacles, decor/features, encounters/monsters, etc.) for adventurers to explore. Those explorations, though, can have a variety of outcomes so that choosing to take a drink from a fountain in one play-through of the game can have very different results in the next game if that same fountain is even encountered again. 

All of these variables are expressly thematic, which is to say that all of the encounters, rooms and their decor, wandering monsters, traps, etc. are of a piece, and something one might logically experience in an ancient crypt. And all of the details are suffused with the backstory of this character, Lord Thule, who is buried in this scenario's crypt. The intention is that eventually other adventures can be written with different objectives using the game's core rules/mechanics (e.g., a hill giant's keep, a mad king's prison, etc.), but until I settle on those mechanics, Lord Thule's crypt is the stomping grounds for foreseeable play testing.

So, here's some scene-setting background that I provide the players before the game...

The Valley of Kings

A large craggy valley cradled between two sizable mountain ranges was seen by the ancients as a suitably secluded spot for the final repose of the region’s kings. Many renown dynasties built expansive and sometimes interconnected crypts and tombs in which to house and honor the remains of these royal lines. The valley’s reputation grew as a sacred site, which meant it also drew unwanted attention, so existing tombs were sometimes retrofitted and redesigned to ensure they remained undisturbed and unmolested by fortune seekers and defilers. Wars and the wrath of the gods eventually erased from the land many of the kingdoms whose rulers found final repose in the valley, but the reputation of the valley as the burial ground of the area’s mighty rulers persisted through the centuries. Eventually petty warlords and those with dubious claims to royal lineage craved the associated notoriety that came with being buried in the Valley of Kings, and so constructed their own sepulchers, as elaborate as their means and might would allow.

The old dwarf clans cared not who was or wasn't buried in the valley (as it wasn’t their kin), and in a pique of entrepreneurial ambition carved wide tunnels through the two mountain ranges shouldering the valley in order to facilitate better trade between their eastern and western clans. Within a few decades, a couple of settlements also sprung up along this new route to facilitate these mercantile activities; with time, these outposts thrived into small towns.

Though much of the lore about the valley was relegated to whispers and dubious rumor, the persistence of the area’s reputation still attracts the occasional shifty tomb raider from neighboring lands who usually stop at one of the valley’s towns to provision themselves before embarking on an expedition. Enough of these fortune hunters over the years have even returned with ancient treasures and harrowing tales of night creatures and other madness encountered in the craggy recesses to give credence to the idea that the Valley of Kings might truly hold vast wealth for those able to find and return with it alive and sane.

Your band has lucked into credible information that pinpoints one of these burial sites in the valley, the Crypt of the Mighty Lord Thule. It’s located just a few hours from the town you’ve chosen to stay in while preparing and planning for the final leg of the journey. Tomorrow you will begin your delve…

Here are the three parties that entered Thule's crypt last Saturday in our game (I worked these up that morning)...

Played by Walt and Garrett

Played by Francesco and Joe

Played by Jared and John

After choosing a party to play, each team rolled a d6 for their starting room. Incidentally, I came up with this idea a year ago, so I was surprised last week when I cracked open my 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide for the first time in about 30 years and discovered there's a random dungeon generator appendix that has the exact same mechanic (likely lodged in the deep recesses of my memory). 

The Usual Caveats

Rather than try to provide a blow-by-blow recap of the three different team's delve into the crypt, I am going to simply share a bunch of photos with sporadic commentary to provide a flavor of the game. All of the photos are by my wife Ellen (barring fewer than a dozen contributed by me and Jared). She enjoys popping into our games for about a half hour at some point in the evening and snapping pics of the miniatures, terrain, and us having a good time. Hopefully you enjoy this glimpse her photos provide into our evening!
 Click on any photo to enlarge.
Took Scratchbottom and Holford Stoutfellow

Archimedes the Grey

Hell Hound!

Meet Sophia Irongrip, leader of the infamous Crypt Raiders of Felinore!

A corner of the crypt.

Oranth the Oblivion-Gazer warming himself by the fire while the damned dance in another room...

The Shank Gang!

You don't want to know what was at the bottom of that blue pit! But feel free to ask Grouse Shank sometime why he is now blind in one eye after investigating it and see if you get a truthful answer.

Whenever a character goes to open a door, there's a chance that it will be locked, or worse, trapped. If the character fails to detect the trap, a card from the "Door Traps" deck gets drawn, like the one above.

What's in that fountain? Are you going to go up and check it out?

While exploring the corridors, Stank Shank of the Shank Gang (played by John) stumbles upon a wandering monster: A couple of Querulous Trolls. The opponent (in this case, me and Francesco) reads the top text to the player having the encounter, but keeps the rest of the card's text to himself (especially since the trolls had a special attack--projectile vomiting--and treasure). John and Jared eventually killed the Trolls with a series of flame-based spell attacks. The mundane item roll gave them a holy symbol, which has applications under certain circumstances in the game (exorcisms, for example).

Every team gets a pool of eight pillars at game's start to draw from and place in their opponent's rooms whenever a new one is revealed. The pillars are a way to create some minor obstacles and give cover to monsters that may be in the room.

Clem the Monk faces off with the Orc Captain in the doorway. After finding himself at the pointy end of the orc's spear a couple of times, Clem realizes he might be in over his head.

Felonious Fist in front of a secret door found when the room was searched.

Roughly two-thirds of the map....

Walt and Garrett preparing to give me and Francesco a rough time with some orcs we stumbled upon.

These bedraggled orcs took shelter in the crypt to get warm and dry off.

I created some cube markers for the common conditions that need tracked in the game. In this instance, my monk
borrowed ("B") an action from his next turn.

When generating this room, the dice indicated there was special terrain to contend with, in this instance the floor was scattered with bones that slowed movement by half and, if any character spent both of their turn's actions in movement, resulted in enough noise to require a wandering monster check.

These are the custom dice I made to determine all of a new room's features (prompting the drawing of cards for encounters, etc.). The dice here indicate that the room is 8" north/south, 6" east/west with two doors that are broken (and thus must be cleared), a special room feature (drawn from the proper deck), and an encounter (drawn from the encounter deck). Roll these six dice, draw a couple of cards, and you have a randomly generated (but thematically coherent) room!

Garrett drawing out the next room on the Chessex mat.

Sister Shank

Grouse Shank

The Plot Thickens!
Major Encounters can start to occur any time after every team has explored at least one room, at which point there is about a 1-in-10 chance (dice willing) of each new room resulting in a Major Encounter.  
Like most cards in the game, the player's opponent receives these encounter cards, reads the pertinent information to the player having the encounter (the top text), but keeps the rest of the details to himself.

Unlike the randomly generated rooms, the Major Encounter cards specify a room's size and specific features. This card provides the dimensions, victory points for resolving the challenge, and extra information, like falling into the Hell Pit!

Here are the stats for the endless stream of undead that start climbing out of the abyssal pit. Note the infinity symbol where the quantity should appear: These skeletons are going to keep on coming every turn until that pit is closed.
Overhead shot of part of the crypt near the end of the evening. We were very close to connecting up various parts of the explored crypt, which would have put our parties of adventurers on track for crossing paths and duking it out.

Quietly creeping through the room's bone-littered floors... 

Tools of the trade.

You need a lot of doors of various types (wooden, stone, double, portcullis) ready at hand for this game.

Note the "Ulterior Motive" card. Every team started by choosing one and getting an opportunity to look at another (to replicate a rumor they might have heard while in town about the crypt). The mechanic works so that there's some chance, but no certainty, of knowing what your opponent's ulterior motive may be.

The wizard with the unpronounceable name!

Part of developing the narrative for the scenario involves discovering "Major Encounter" rooms (there are four total in this scenario). Why are there so many undead revelers on this room's beds?

The special feature in this room was a grotesque floor mosaic that caused one of the characters to vomit (and thus roll for a wandering monster). Walt decided the likeness of this weird dolphin was the grotesque subject artfully rendered in the mosaic's tiles.

Initiative cards: Every character and monster gets one each turn.

The further down the game gets into the Room Encounter deck, the higher the chance of running into more fearsome foes (shuffled in randomly in the bottom half of the deck). Hopefully you picked up a magic item or two along the way before crossing paths with the tougher encounters deeper in the crypt.

The following are Ellen's pics of the crypt's inhabitants that didn't get encountered over the course of this evening's game. These were all hidden on a side table under a sheet to maintain some surprise and suspense for the other players.


(clockwise from top): Walt, John, Jared, Francesco, Joe, and Garrett.
"A retro fun fest!" is how Walt described the evening's game, which was exactly what I was going for. The whole endeavor has been inspired by my desire to recapture some of the mildly transgressive thrills and old-school gonzo flavor that characterized my very first encounters with D&D in the late 1970s, especially on the occasions I got to play with the "older kids" in tournaments in Dayton, Ohio. The bookshop in the suburb I grew up in kept all of their D&D books behind the counter right next to the porn magazines, and you had to ask permission to walk around the cash register and go back to peruse them. The store had all of the White Box supplemental books back there, as well as the more recent AD&D 1st edition hardbacks. Between the covers and interior art for the Dungeon Masters Guide and Eldritch Wizardry (which I eventually worked up the courage to take to the counter and plop down my $5 allowance money to buy), there was lots of nudity and the whiff of something dangerous and forbidden to the game back in those days. It only added to the mystique that James Dallas Egbert was from the same little Dayton suburb and had disappeared right around the time I was introduced to D&D. In fact, his parents owned the optical shop directly across the street from the bookstore where I bought my D&D books. Those were heady days for a kid like me with a hungry imagination. (Incidentally, back in the late '70s and early '80s, the only place you could buy actual miniatures in my suburb was at a hardware/variety store named Throckmortons...imagine me and my friends' surprise when we saw those D&D Grenadier boxed sets on the shelves across the aisle from where my mom was buying gardening gloves. It was definitely catch-as-catch-can back in those days!)  

I sold 90% of my game collection after my divorce in 2007, but I could never bring myself to part with these, picked up at Throckmorton's in Huber Heights, Ohio in the early 1980s with lawn mowing and birthday money.

I was glad to get a chance to beta-test Dungeon Delve with the new core rules engine and retrofitted cards. Each new pass at the game refines it a bit more to my liking. My game is really designed for two teams (with maybe up to two players per team), though I had one other time stretched it to three teams (one player per team). Bumping it out to three teams with six players started to stretch the game at its seams, and it occasionally bogged down a bit, especially around combat. I also learned that players tend to get so eager to explore new areas that they often split the party, which I also think slowed the game down a bit. I may redesign the initial rooms each team starts in to reduce the number of exits. Some starting rooms had as many as four doors/archways, tempting folks to send characters off in all directions, which was fun, but with this many players meant a lot more work for everyone.

Three teams also begs for either a larger map or (perhaps more prudently) smaller room sizes. This will require me to create a second pair of dice for determining room sizes, which isn't a big deal (I bought several dozen six-siders and the stickers are easy enough to print and cut out). With three parties pushing into the crypts from different directions, rolls that generate rooms in the 10" and 12" per side range feel huge and slowed the pace of exploring new rooms.

So, I'll make a few more tweaks, and I maybe won't put the game on the table with this many players unless I find a formula that allows a fluid way to bolster the strength of the monsters to match larger parties of adventurers. The game is currently designed on a point system in which the party composition should roughly total up to 300 points, and all of the encounters are designed with that point value in mind. Allow each party to add more characters under the current design, and the game is likely to go a bit lopsided. So, I guess that presents another fun little game design challenge to wrestle with...

But in the end, not much of it really matters because the ultimate goal was achieved: We all had a fun time hanging out together on a Saturday night pushing lead men into battle and in and out of harm's way.

And I got to wear a new t-shirt I bought just for the occasion.


Read Walt's take on our game at his cool blog, Third Point of Singularity.


  1. I remember Throckmorton's as well. They had that whole row of Avalon Hill games and D&D. I got all my D&D stuff at Books & Cards next door though.

    1. Whoa...another grognard from Huber Heights! Huber Heights Books & Cards is where I bought my first D&D sets, books, magazines! Remember how you had to ask to go behind the counter to look at the D&D stuff, which they had sitting next to the porn magazines? My mom actually worked there for a few years in the late '70s through around 1980. Would love to know who you are, in case we might have crossed paths! Feel free to reach out to me at joseph dot procopio with the usual 'at' gmail dot com. It'd be fun to compare notes!

  2. Great stuff. Are you using Ares rules?


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