What Does a Roleamster Dungeon Crawl Look Like?

This is part of my looking at first adventures. The most clichéd of all clichés must be the basic dungeon.

The challenge for rolemaster GMs and players alike is wound management in a dungeon. You may survive your first fight but you could carry a lot of penalties into the next fight.

Traditionally, or should I say instinctively, I think of dungeons starting with weak foes and then as you progress in they get tougher and tougher until you meet the final challenge, the end of level boss to borrow from video gaming.

In Rolemaster that really is a death sentence. None of your players characters will be functioning by the time they met the big bad evil guy.

Wounds are not the only consideration.


I am trying to write these for all version of Rolemaster and here another big difference becomes apparent.

A RM2/RMC spell caster is going to have 1 to 10 power points. I know 10 seems a lot but that is how many my Lay Healer had at first level. I used one background option on Skill at Magic and rolled an extra Power Point per level, a second BGO got me a boost to my presence bonus and I used a background option to boost my Presence. The GM uses the optional rule that your Power Points are based on your Total Stat Bonus, not your stat. So I am wandering around with 5PP.

There are other BGO that serve as spell adders and spell multipliers and you can of course roll of a special item. So with naturally boosted stats, bonus PP and special items you can get as high as double figures but that is extremely unlikely.

A RMu pure spell caster is going to have double, triple or more the power points of a RM2/RMC spell caster. They also are likely to have a greater number of lists and a greater number of spells available on those lists. Using RM2/RMC RAW it is possible to have 5 spell lists if you roll like a devil.

0th level spend 20 ranks learning one list automatically and a few ranks in a second which you then fluke the roll for. Then repeat for 1st level and then again when prespending 2nd level DPs. This gives you 4 learned lists and you automatically get the 1st level spell on the list you have 20 ranks in.

So RM2/RMC characters will have less spells and less power points than RMu spell casters.

Martial characters in RMC are more competent than RM2 and both are more competent than RMu. I don’t want to discuss this point as it is ongoing on the forums right now. I believe that this will be fixed.

So is a dungeon crawl viable?

I think it is but only if we think beyond combat. As a starting adventure we want to challenge all members of the party. Throwing monsters are the party will certainly give fighters and the healers plenty to do but the rest are more limited.

I detest the Sleep V spell. I know that putting everything to sleep and then cutting their throats is very pragmatic. Keeping one or two alive to interrogate is also a perfectly valid option. It is also kind of boring.

It is when you see the players of the fighters and rogues just roll their eyes and put their dice down when the magician announcing that they are prepping Sleep V that you realise that the spell just robs three quarters of the party of their reason for existence.

By the time you are sending foes sufficiently tough to not be affected by Sleep V then all the essence casters are throwing Sleep X around just as easily.

In my ongoing campaign I had two characters that used Sleep V as their go to spell. They ended up with so many mass combats, not because they were particularly heroic, but because I factored in enough foes to still have the number I wanted active after the spells went off. I also used waves of foes so that they could only put the foes to sleep that they could see, not the ones arriving a round later.

So combats are not good for starting level dungeon crawls. Too easy to put starting monsters to sleep and with the lack of places and time to rest the attrition is likely to prove fatal to a starting party.

RMu To The Rescue

In all the adventures I have written this year I have picked monsters that existed in all versions of RM. This time is no exception. I am going to build a dungeon using Daedhel. These are perfect. What makes them perfect is that they come fitted with a Fear Aura as standard. They also come in pairs. I would suggest that one is presented as a false end of level boss and then mid way through the final battle the second one arrives and joins the fight as a fresh foe.

I am seeing a throne room type location with two thrones, one Daedhel the dias. Battle ensues and then Daedhel number two arrives. The players then think, oh yeah, he said there were two thrones, D’oh!.

Daedhel also come with 14PP (Chan/Ess) according to the RMu CrL. So there is no reason for these guys not to animating skeletons or fallen PC/NPCs as zombies. There is nothing wrong with them making good use of things that they find lying around their lair.

Completely new players are likely to assume that demons are not going to be effected by Sleep spells. Also if the main defenders they have fought so far have been undead, who are also not effected by mental attacks by the time they reach the BBEGs they are unlikely to use it as their ‘go to’ attack.

Skeletons and Demons don’t eat so that whole thing of what do people eat in this dungeon is a non-question. The skeletons are explained by the presence of undead creating demons so that is coherent. The Demons can actually serve as an edventure hook in their own right. In truth the real BBEG is not in this dungeon, the two Daedhel are simply higher up minions. They were put in the dungeon and told to start building an undead army. To do that they needed bodies and that is why they are in an out of the way place, peace to work, and have been killing people, for the undead and as an adventure hook.

The characters in clearing the dungeon derail the plans of the BBEG and save the nearest villages, Hurray!, and make an enemy of the BBEG, Boo!

Dungeons are more than monsters in a house

The secret to a really good low level dungeon crawl is the environment. The undead do not need to see so there is no light, they do not eat or feel cold but the characters do. The Daedhel do eat, they are carnivores, but I do not see them as either house proud or tidy eaters. Add on top two more factors. The place is used for storing dead bodies and has a number of animated corpses in it. Daedhel have the Distinct Odour talent/flaw.

As a GM we can use the senses of the characters against them. How about a failed or partially successful perception check combined with some dead bodies and flickering torch light? The question is “Are they moving?” or did the character only think they twitched or flinched?

Opening doors should be accompanied with waves of putrid air but places where the Daedhel have recently been should have the taint of something altogether ungodly.

That smell can be used to warn inexperienced characters that the Daedhel are coming or at least nearby. A Daedhel covered by an unseen spell may choose to simply observe the invading characters. They would certainly have enough time to have created some mindless undead to serve as their undead army.

The fear aura is about more than a resistance roll. Whether that is passed or failed will of course change the capabilities of the party but there are loads of role play opportunities that go with it that we can use as GMs. Things like hairs standing up on the backs of you neck. You can just describe those for the atmospheric effect.

In my next post I will write this up as an adventure. I also have something really cool to add to it that I have not touched up here. I think you are going to love it.

16 Replies to “What Does a Roleamster Dungeon Crawl Look Like?”

  1. I play in a 1e game on Mondays alternating with my own MERP campaign. That DM runs a truly Classical game straight out of the 70s. The campaign is a single dungeon.

    It’s not designed to be crawled through right up to the Boss. At the end of every session, and sometimes multiple times throughout a session, we players leave the dungeon to Heal and regain our resources. Whenever we reach this decision point within the session, the adventure becomes a question of whether a Wandering Monster or some other dungeon element is going to complicate our retreat. (Our party is not the original party, probably not the second party; we’ve had at least two TPKs.)

    This sort of dungeon play also might be a matter of style. Recently a friend ran two sessions of 5e for us old skoolers. At one point: “I don’t know, guys. Maybe we should go back. I’m out of spells.” “Yeah. Maybe we can get the town guard to check this out.”

    DM: “Suddenly you hear a woman’s frightened scream from somewhere in the dungeon.”

    We players look at one another. Oh, we are supposed to play this through. So we do.

    I agree that resources and conditions can be taxed much more swiftly in RM, though. I can see an “adventure” where the PCs have to hobble back to town immediately after entering every room. But, as you say, there are things besides Monsters and Traps in a dungeon: weird things with which to interact. Puzzles. Even some Monster encounters can be resolved through roleplaying. It might be boring for the Fighters, but I do believe that true player skill is revealed through the ability to resolve encounters without combat. In RM, this might be essential.

    1. My only problem with the ‘leave the dungeon and heal’ idea is that any villain that made it past 2nd level will rip the typical party to pieces when they return. It doesn’t take a lot of you have a location to defend to stockpile resources, especially magical resources. Every single undead that they killed the first time, unless the burne the body will be back on its feet and fully fit. The demons will have activated as many bodies has they have to boost their defences.

      Healing in RM can take days and weeks and the villains will know that.

      The location I am looking at for this is only a dozen or so rooms. It is a starting adventure after all and I want them to get out alive. But it is going to be hard.

  2. In my RM2 experience over so many years, I can say this: A RM dungeon crawl… isn’t. I started in 1989 and I can count on one hand the number of dungeons my PC has been in and that I have sent my group into. I’ve sent them into caves, but it wasn’t a crawl, it was only a stop along the way to the end.

    More accurately, one could say what does a typical RM adventure look like? D&D was designed around the dungeon crawl. It’s in the name. LOL. It works very well in a dungeon and it plays like a board game. In fact, I have the D&D board game and it’s pretty fun. There are a couple of things that don’t make sense in it, but hey, it’s a fun family game.

    But this isn’t about D&D, it’s about a crawl for RM PCs. This was a very detailed post, so in no real order, here are some thoughts.

    — The trek into the dungeon does not have to start with low level baddies, gradually working up to a tough boss at the end. For RM PCs, they may not earn enough XP along the way to level up to be on par with the BBG in the end. The lingering effects of injuries will still be present. Something everyone seems to forget is that the healing process for broken bones and heavy bleeding wounds is “…no appreciable movement…” A bone shatter, even with magic healing, still requires time to set and no appreciable movement. Casting shatter repair on the tank’s arm is fine and dandy, but he still can’t use it to fight for several days.

    The trek into the dungeon could continue to be low level NPCs throughout but in varying numbers, different tactics, different obstacles. One group of NPCs could swarm a single player (5 vs 1) The Mage would have to cast the spells at the NPCs as well as the PC. The NPCs could use nets and bolas. I’m fond of using this tactic, especially if the NPCs are hunter/scavenging types like orcs. Narrow hallways reduce the effectiveness of the PCs, and give the level 1 NPCs advantages. Arrows work very well here! It’s still fairly easy to kill off the NPCs, but the party needs different tactics.

    — Counter the party’s tactics. The mage always uses Sleep V? Use NPCs that have a natural immunity or resistance to magic or to sleep. Use sleep traps on the party. Break the mage’s concentration. I like my fairy races (the annoying ones like pysks, fairies, leprechauns, etc.) to use sleeping, itching, sneezing powders. The powders can incapacitate or stun some members of the party for a few rounds and can definitely interrupt a mage’s concentration. A little extra sleep powder during the party’s rest stage can make 1 or 2 players extremely difficult to wake up, if at all for several hours.

    — Speaking of foetid air and rotten smells, I like to throw a CON check or SD check in there to see if the parties are retching and vomiting from the smells. Don’t forget that even low level undead have natural fear rolls associated with them. A feared party member is a fun party member!

    — Seeing in the dark is overrated anyway. As mentioned, undead don’t need to see in the dark. I use elemental dark that can only be countered by elemental light. Chances are pretty high no one in the party with have that spell (unless they love Elemental Companion) The party will be blind fighting for a bit and in keeping with the low-level-theme, a single level 1 skeleton is very effective against a blind party.

    — Let’s not forget non-combatants like the giant mushrooms with poisonous spore clouds, the will o-wisps that lure travelers into traps. Webs from giant spiders to entangle and to slow PCs are very effective when there group of NPCs chasing them. I forgot the name of the plant, but it’s in Terry K. Amthor’s Tales from Green Gryphon Inn. It emits a fog that causes sleep when disturbed. A sleeping party is an easily looted party.

    * – this is usually when I send in the pysk with itching powder and steal their boots. 🙂

    — The adventure doesn’t have to take place in a dungeon. The crowd sourced adventure we were working on takes place in a walled city and the adventures are in different buildings, open areas, underground cave. For me… this is typical RM dungeon crawl.

    1. Yes, the skeletons were intended to be unaffected by sleep. WE have fear effects from the two intelligent bad guys but I do want the starting characters to survive this. Some of these suggestions are a bit too mean.

  3. I never ran many dungeon crawls (mostly because my groups tended to prefer outdoor adventures), but when I did they tended to focus on areas that had been long-abandoned but were “awakened” by PC actions. The most successful one, which wasn’t a first level adventure but is offered as an example, was an old dwarven trading outpost. The first level was more or less open, populated by a handful of skeletons, rats, and general stuff. The party had to clear a cave-in (intentionally caused by the dwarven defenders centuries before) to move on to the second level. That clearing woke up a second group of undead, and so on down to the fourth level. It was there the party hit a secondary tunnel and the group of chaotic warriors (led by a chaotic commander) who’d been sent by their boss to look for lost ancient treasure (which did exist, but that’s not why we’re here…).

    I used barriers that had to be physically cleared by the party before they moved on as phases in the crawl. If they got torn up too badly they could fall back knowing that the only things they might face were reconstituted undead on the levels they’d already cleared (and by this point they’d gotten VERY good at burning skeleton ‘corpses’). And depending on the undead, some were directed and others were not.

  4. Might be interesting to try and run one of the big megadungeons in Rolemaster – just to see how quickly they kill everyone. Rappan Athuk is lethal in D&D; can’t imagine it gets a lot safer in RM! Castle Whiterock has ample opportunity for D&D players to bite off more than they can chew too (hey, let’s go down five levels in the dungeon!).

      1. Short but sweet if you send a dragon. Either they kill it in the first round with a lucky OE crit and then level up or they don’t and they roll up new characters.

        1. Open ended crits mean that if the characters did get down to the bottom level of Rappan Athuk and went up against the Avatar of Orcus they might have a better chance than D&D/Pathfinder characters of a similar level.

          Of course, above-ground level one has an insta-death trap.

  5. This is one of the good things RMU does I think: it gives starting characters a bit more hits and spell points, so that you can have a bit more of a crawl rather than only a ‘five-minute workday’ (the term most commonly referred to the practice in DnD of blowing all your spells right away and then going out of the dungeon to rest).

  6. Peter your “undead dungeon crawl” sums up a lot of the similar ones I have used in MERP/RM in Middle Earth. If you think carefully about monsters you might meet you are only left with Orcs, Undead, Dragons and the powerful Maia spirits to find in a dungeon. I never did like the idea of a dungeon stocked with a variety of monsters for adventurers to carve their way through. So Orcs need to be there for a reason. Dragons and powerful Maia tend to put off your level 1 character group before you even start. Which really only leaves the undead. Wraiths from LOTR make a really good final encounter and varied levels or numbers of undead skeletons provide enough challenge to explain why the site hasn’t been raided before.
    Having said that most of my stuff has taken place above ground or like Intothedarkness would only be part of a whole series of short encounters.

    1. I have a thing for ancient temples. You can do a lot with them. As buildings any intelligent race can shelter in them and that makes sense. For evil races it makes sense to defile them. There is a good reason why demonic forces may want to subvert them.

      They have crypts, and you always know that going down into a crypt is never going to end well.

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