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One of the typical location that is used as an excuse to build a dungeon is The Ancient Tomb (tm).

I often struggle building dungeons that are credible tombs, in terms of rooms disposition and type of rooms contained. It seems to me that either my dungeons are realistic but boring, or they are entertaining but quite unrealistic as tombs.

Is it even possible to build a realistic tomb that is still entertaining for players?

I would like to know if someone could provide some examples/ideas for realistic-but-enjoyable tombs (possibly based on real tombs).

I'm doing a bit of research myself, but I'm not finding workable ideas. Eg, the tomb of Tutankhamen would be rather disappointing as a dungeon:

the tomb of Tutankhamen

This tomb consists of three small rooms and a hallway; this would allow for only a few encounters/traps/riddles. An action-oriented group might find a dungeon like this a bit disappointing. Also, I feel that a small dungeon makes harder to build a sense of mystery and exploration.

Also, since I was asked to better define "realistic" vs "entertaining":

For the purpose of this question, I will say that a dungeon is realistic when its features (room types, room dispositions, the furniture) make sense in an imaginary world loosely based on historical civilizations, or periods and places in history. As an example, it is conceivable that an ancient tomb would contain defenses against intruders. In an imaginary/fantasy world, these defenses becomes traps, animated guardians, riddles, curses. It is coinceivable that an ancient tomb would contain a treasure chamber, and in certain cultures, it is conceivable that a tomb would contain vast amounts of goods that belonged to the deceased in life; in an imaginary/fantasy world, a tomb containing magical items, esoteric and forbidden text, weapons etc. does not break the suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, why would a tomb contain, say, a torture chamber? While it would be possible to imagine more or less elaborate explanations ("this culture believed that torture chambers were needed by the deceased in the afterlife, to punish the intruders, and thus were routinely built inside of tombs), I feel that a torture chamber in a tomb does not readily "make sense" and would break immersion.

A dungeon is entertaining when challenges the players and allow room to build a sense of danger, mystery, and exploration of ancient and forgotten places. In an entertaining dungeon I expect a number of combat encounters, a number of clever traps, several rooms and hallways to explore, and a treasure.

While I asked the question with D&D in mind (I'm currently DMing a 3.5 campaing), I would like to keep the question as system-agnostic as possible.

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12 Answers 12

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Fantasy fiction tends to exaggerate features of the natural world. Instead of spiders, you have giant spiders. Instead of house fires, you have sentient fire elementals.

Similarly, fantasy tombs are larger and more dangerous than real-world tombs. I'd suggest two options if you want to balance realism and fantasy fun like you describe: use a tomb of realistic proportions and make it more intricate, or start with a realistic tomb and enlarge it.

Take King Tut's tomb as a starting point.

Realistic Scale

You can make each room in King Tut's tomb full of detail. The first hallway might be guarded by a sentinel statue, and then in order to enter the front door the party has to solve a hieroglyphic riddle. Then, in the main chamber, once they defeat the naga living there, perhaps the sarcophagus area is hidden by an illusory wall that requires them to enter the first side chamber and placate an ancient spirit, and so on.

Describing details and having interesting objects can make each room feel like more than just a box. A single urn could provide as much interesting gameplay as a whole room if it's intricate enough.

Enlarged Scale

Instead, you could model your tomb after King Tut's tomb, but transform each original room into several fantasy rooms. The initial hallway could have various alcoves and guard posts. You could split the main room into a complex of several rooms. You could have each side room be its own collection of areas, and have the sarcophagus contained in a huge hall instead of a simple side chamber.

This way you're basing your tomb on a real one, but embellishing it to fantasy scale. That way, it's in proportion with your dramatic spellcasters and superhuman warriors.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You could add some additional lore into the reasoning for enlarged scale tombs. Say that kings believed they needed all of their servants killed and buried after them so that they can continue to serve them in the afterlife or some other such stuff. Rich kings could potentially have hundreds of such servants to bury with them and potentially several high ranking personal guards or special attendants. Imagine a tomb for 300 people. \$\endgroup\$ – dphil Oct 1 '14 at 19:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be worth noting that King Tut's tomb was actually unusually small for a pharaoh already, even before applying fantasy scale. \$\endgroup\$ – Salvador Oct 3 '14 at 22:24
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There are several examples of tombs from Ancient Egypt that could serve as inspiration for a D&D style dungeon.

You can check out the Wikipedia articles on each of three sites pictured below. It seems that historically, the labyrinth of passages in many Egyptian tombs were functional (and also may have confused tomb robbers). Tomb complexes housed the remains of the royal family in separate chambers connected by corridors, contained rooms for storage of goods and offerings, and also may have served as a dwelling for the spirits of the deceased mimicking the layout of the royal palace.

The Hawara site was a vast above ground mortuary temple that Herodotus described as a "labyrinth", and does indeed resemble a palace.

The Pyramid of Djoser contained eleven vertical shafts leading to horizontal passages which perhaps were constructed for the royal harem.

Any one of the chambers in these tombs could contain mummies and their undead servants guarding the royal treasures, pit traps to thwart thieves, and other dangers.

The Black Pyramid at Dashur:

The Black Pyramid

Djoser's Step Pyramid:

Djoser's Step Pyramid

Djoser's Step Pyramid 2

One proposed reconstruction of the Lost Labyrinth at Hawara (now in ruins):

Hawara Labyrinth

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    \$\begingroup\$ Catacombs are another example of complex, real tombs. \$\endgroup\$ – djechlin Oct 3 '14 at 2:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ This "first robbers passage" reminds me; it's also great with an ancient structure to ponder events over time and what changes may have come along. \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood May 14 '15 at 20:52
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@RobertF's answer with its pictures of Djoser's pyramid was intriguing... After looking more into that, I found that the pyramid itself is part of a larger funerary and religious complex. So, while the areas under the pyramid (the "tomb" proper) are relatively small and simple, the entire complex consists of large open areas, tight maze-like corridors, big courtyards with multiple small edifices, false doors, a second tomb on the south side, and various niches and platforms.

Here's a drawing based on an older excavation.

And here's a 3D model from Wikipedia:

And a photo of the complex today:

And here's a massive multi-part study of the complex and various features and history... likely cribbed from elsewhere.

This place is ripe for a tomb-robbing adventure! :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Awesome answer, +1 and welcome to the site! If you haven't, the Tour is well worth taking a look at, and once you reach 20 rep (halfway there!), feel free to join us in the Role-playing Games Chat! \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 2 '14 at 21:38
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In short, D&D-style tomb-dungeons are not particularly realistic. But that doesn't mean you can't make them seem like they are.

Many prehistoric cultures (such as the peoples of pre-Roman Britain) used burial mounds rather than "tombs" to bury their dead. These mounds where not always used to bury a single individual either.

Multi-burial Mound

In addition, they were not always simply burial sites for the bodies but may have contained additional chambers and many of these chambers may have been linked either by tunnels or by roads/trenches that have since been buried. Recent imaging of the area around Stonehenge provides an excellent example.

Stonehenge Ground Radar(source article)

However, this covers an incredibly large area. As far as "realistic" (real world) burials go, although the monuments associated with the tomb may be grand, the actual burial site tends to be a rather practical thing offering just enough room to hold the body and whatever accouterments the relevant society dictated be buried with it.

On the other hand, in relatively modern societies you often see crypts, tombs, and mausoleum holding the remains of multiple generations of a single family. Although once again these tend to be rather spartan affairs it is not inconceivable that this concept could be applied to the more elegant styles of burial to create multi-chambered tombs.

Finally, another relatively modern example the "Catacombs of Paris" may be exactly the sort of tomb you're looking for. These catacombs include many tunnels and underground rooms, largely because they host the remains of roughly six million people and include several centuries worth of expansions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I also wouldn't forego the option of having the tomb itself be one of several simple encounter spaces, rather than a dungeon unto itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Wesley Obenshain Oct 1 '14 at 18:16
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I think we have similar lines of thinking. Looking to the real world not only is a great resource that can be inspiring, sometimes drawing a map lends itself to grid-based 2-dimensional thinking. D&D maps are also grand in scale and as you and others have pointed out, with the focus on what's fun. I too think this can backfire when suspension of disbelief is harmed. Fun is the top priority, but it isn't fun when players find something ridiculous and lose interest, although some players get around it much easier than others.

A fun dark sun project I did a few years ago combined two "real" tombs. The 3 dimensional aspect (similar to what other posters demonstrated) is natural from some structures (pyramids, ziggurats, mounds). In one of the maps, in order to relay that information on the game table, I actually built it out of foam. Back then, I was using a projection system, so I just projected the images onto the foam. I used to have a nice post on it, but it looks like the gallery where i had the pictures posted is down. Fortunately, I found them in an old camera backup :)

just the foam

with the projection

The original source maps came from

kom-el-shukafa via latina

I even found someone else who used the same map :)

You can find the adventures here, including several images for the players from actual catacomb and tomb images. Prelude to Freedom - Lost City

Also, if you are interested, I just doctored the maps using GIMP and RobA's dungeon map maker scripts and map tool

And here's the map tool campaign file

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    \$\begingroup\$ this is awesome on so many levels ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Dennis Christian Oct 6 '14 at 8:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ The "Vialatina" map link gives a 404 error. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 29 '18 at 1:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast - That's the problem with linking a file from another site. In hindsight, should have downloaded, then uploaded. I found a pinterest pin that was OK resolution, but not as good as the original. File is nowhere to be found at the catacomb society now. :( \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Jan 2 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Wyrmwood: RIP. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 3 at 0:32
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In addition to excellent examples provided by Robert and Wesley, I think it bears mentioning that it is worthwhile to make the distinction between "realistic" and "realistic in a fantasy setting".

Most real-world cultures would build their tombs on the assumption that the stiffies are not going to get up and walk away on their own (barring some resurrection event, but then you usually don't need to keep them entombed any longer). If you work off the same assumption, then a single, or even a family tomb requires little more than some space to keep the body and maybe some belongings - the dead require no facilities and there is no need to even build access corridors unless you want to keep piling them up.

In the end, what you're going to end up with is some space to store the bodies, maybe a storeroom for belonging and if you absolutely have to have an access corridor, then that, with maybe some security measures to discourage grave robbers.

However, if undeath is a concern (and I'm going to go ahead and assume it is, or why else would you want to set an adventure in a tomb), then things can get a little more interesting. You have to add some security to keep the walking dead from getting out (a labyrinth, for instance), plus maybe additional security to try and keep evil wizards from breaking in and making minions out of the undead bodies of your elders.

Still, if you're working on the scale of at most a family crypt, this is hardly going to be big enough to make for an interesting dungeon. Which leaves you with basically two options:

  1. Mausoleum - essentially, a tomb that many other people are expected to visit. If you have a ruler with enough of an ego to want to be worshiped even after death, he can have something like this built for himself and/or his family. Imagine something like the Tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, except underground and appropriately sinister. You can combine it with a temple where dark priests perform vile rituals to keep the dead ones in a particular state, or alternatively have the bodies of the ruler's guardsmen interred as well to provide an eternal bodyguard (think Terra Cotta Army).

  2. Necropolis - literally a city of the dead, where a civilisation will store their deceased. It will be gradually expanded as there is demand for fresh capacity (making the irregular and twisty because of a lack of central planning), and may contain the aforementioned labyrinths or various charms supposed to make sure the dead stay that way (which the heroes may unwittingly disturb for further excitement). The catacomb of both Paris and Rome would belong here, as well as the various mound-and-tunnel complexes. You could also make these a catacomb system under a local church (for added protection against the undead surfacing).

So there you go; if you want to dungeon-crawl through a tomb, figure out the purpose for which it was built and add an adventure hook. You can have some dark cult trying to resurrect an ancient wizard entombed in a barrow/mausoleum, or the builders of a necropolis could have accidentally dug up something that makes the dead restless. Or if you just feel like some random tomb raiding, you could go the Skyrim way and claim that the dead are supposed to be walking around doing their stuff, and do not appreciate the intrusion.

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One strategy, if you want to base your dungeons on real tombs, is to use more than one tomb. Imagine an ancient culture that buried its kings in a single complex for many generations. Rather than using a common crypt as other noble families might, each king expanded the complex, carving out his own separate tomb from the others. A single tomb might look much like Tutankhamen's, but the complex sprawls out over many tombs, creating a more classic experience without necessarily sacrificing realism.

There might at first be a single entrance room -almost like a sort of lobby- off of which all of the tombs branched. But it wouldn't take many generations before there was no longer any room in the lobby to do that. The next king would have to build a hallway off of the lobby, branching out into an open space (in whatever way the term "open space" applies to solid earth) where there was room to excavate his tomb. This gives you your first corridor, and time will ensure that it is not your last. Over subsequent generations, kings might find that due to the placement of their predecessors' tombs, they had to branch the hallways out in different directions, creating an organic and only semi-planned look not unlike that of many classic dungeons.

Deterring grave robbers is a common concern among royal tomb-builders, but ultimately the grave robbers always come. The tombs of the first kings, which would also be closest to the dungeon entrance, might already be picked over if hundreds of years have passed. As later kings delved deeper (and the state of the art in dungeon defense got better), they would need stronger defenses to deter against the better-equipped thieves that made it to lower levels. This gives you a chance to vary your defenses and ramp up the challenge as the players go deeper.

Such a complex would also be an archaeologist's dream, because it could paint a vivid picture of how the culture changed over time. The first king might have been buried with many slaves (or proxies for them, like the terra cotta warriors), only to have that process diminish and eventually die out as the players reach the tomb of the king who abolished slavery. There may be a point before which kings were not buried with their immediate families, only to have that practice become more important later on, or the reverse might happen. Dynasties that fell on hard times might have more austere tombs, or they might throw the trappings of wealth into the tomb even more strongly, or they might use false trappings (gilded candlesticks instead of golden ones, etc). Sudden shifts might come as the crown is overthrown, and the last king of the old dynasty is not buried there, but the new king built off of his intended tomb while marking it in the style of the new royal house. You might even track developments in language, as wars and other interactions with foreign lands made their mark in the inscriptions on the walls.

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While not specifically a tomb, you might try researching various catacombs. The Paris catacombs are 300km of underground tunnels. They were built up over time so they are twisty not laid out neatly. Maybe mix in some of the Roman catacombs as well. There are Roman catacombs that are 4 stories deep and similarly vast size wise.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Paris catacombs were never designed as a necropolis. They were stones mines that were re-purposed as dumping ground for overflowing graveyards. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Oct 2 '14 at 8:19
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You may consider thinking outside the tomb. Why does the tomb itself have to be the maze? Can it be located somewhere treacherous and hard to reach? You may have it centered in a winding, narrow canyon, which presents its own dangers. Perhaps half of the task is finding out where it is, or its entrance. Perhaps there's some artifact required to breach its thick granitey walls, which requires its own sub-adventure. Perhaps an earthquake has opened a rift, ripping the tomb in two, forcing the party to take a much longer route. Perhaps the one tomb is part of a complex series of tombs, and the adventurers can only work via trial-and-error to discover the one they're looking for. Many of these possibilities will not only extend the quest for your players, but also provide a broader range of challenges for them to overcome and a greater variety of things to experience.

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This depends in part on the design of the rest of your world, but a sufficiently complex set of ruined buildings -- possibly buried, possibly not -- would correspond pretty closely to the classic halls-and-rooms dungeon. I know of one college campus, for example, which is mostly connected either on upper floors or at basement levels, and which has something upward of 17 miles of corridors. Come up with a reason for that kind of complex to have been abandoned, and it might do what you need.

(If you're old/retro enough to have played Infocom's Lurking Horror, they did exactly that by setting it in a simplified version of MIT's campus.)

Addendum: I grant this isn't directly what was requested. But since "a tomb" is poorly defined, there's a lot of room for flexibility here. The word might be anything from a mausoleum complex, to the boneyards of the Paris catacombs, to a one-room vault. You need to decide what the deceased and/or their family and/or their culture could afford and considered necessary, whether this is for one individual or for many generations, what rites were expected (this might be part of a whole temple complex), and so on. The one-room instances are going to be far more common than anything we'd consider an interesting dungeon. Something like the catacombs, or a temple, needs truly exceptional conditions/motivations/power/budget to achieve.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your college campus is a tomb? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 3 '14 at 5:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Let the dam fail and the wooden pilings succumb to dry-rot, and the older buildings will sink into the mud. If we make the unreasonable assumption that they somehow maintain structural integrity as they do and all sink at the same rate... Alternatively, relocate and do the Pompeii routine on it, or put it at the bottom of a valley which gets flooded and becomes a lake and let sediment do the job... (Less seriously: You haven't heard of the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, I take it.) \$\endgroup\$ – keshlam Oct 3 '14 at 13:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not disputing that a college campus could make a fascinating dungeon, buried or not. It's just that the question was specifically about the kind of tomb that's constructed for corpses, and most college campuses aren't. Could you edit your answer to be more relevant to the question? (Incidentally, was Lurking Horror the one where the janitor polishing the floors would occasionally try to kill you?) \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 8 '14 at 2:42
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The main issue is size. D&D dungeons are sprawling mazes. Most real world tombs and dungeons are small, cramped, and relatively utilitarian. The the limited size means most of the fun things in a D&D dungeon just won't fit - you can't reasonably fit exploration, puzzles, hazards, and monsters all in one small tomb - maybe just one or two things.

So, one easy solution is to put the usual entertaining encounters mostly outside/around the actual tomb or dungeon. Getting to the tomb can be full of hazards, monsters, exploration, etc.

Alternatively, you can use areas that are large enough to contain stuff like that, such as the ruins of a city or town, or caverns.

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Most tomb designs these days are for solely the remembrance and housing of the dead, but that has not always been the case.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors had recognized the value of dissecting cadavers as an aid to learning, yet the practice was illegal, prompting the advent of body snatching. This led to competition between body snatchers trying to steal fresh corpses and undertakers, who tried to make coffins and graves proof against the bodies being stolen. Some of the measures taken to prevent bodies from being stolen were quite elaborate, as were the tactics of the body snatchers.

Grave robbery has also been a problem since antiquity, whenever the deceased are buried with valuable goods, grave robbers frequently stealing only items of particular value and desecrating or ignoring the rest.

In a fantasy world, particularly one like D&D where the dead can be animated, a corpse or even a skeleton is a potential addition to a necromancer's workforce, so lots of people who don't want to cremate their loved ones might add safeguards to protect against that. In addition, people might communally invest in a necropolis which has lots of graves and lots of protection for all the graves, though once (if?) a grave robber/corpse snatcher got past that protection, then it would be relatively easy to rob individual graves, though some graves might have individual traps too.

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