As mentioned previously (here’s Part 1, and Part 2), my players are exploring Saint Cuthbert’s on the Rock, a megadungeon I’m building for Expeditions in the Northlands, my homebrew campaign setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG.

It’s been hard.

Saint Cuthbert’s on the Rock isn’t meant to be merely a dungeon crawl, it must add to the overall story of the Northlands. The megadungeon must have a mix of creatures, traps, puzzles, mystery, and atmosphere. Especially atmosphere.

Furthermore, the spirit and intent behind Dungeon Crawl Classics encourages Judges to make their adventures unique, different than standard D&D fare. When it comes to monsters, the players should always guess at the powers and abilities they possess. Variety is key.

Hence, to make (and keep) Saint Cuthbert’s on the Rock interesting, I’ve self-imposed the following rules.

  1. No empty areas. Each area must contain something, even if its pungnent air and some bones on the floor.
  2. No repetitive or standard monsters.

Most of my players in the Expeditions in the Northlands campaign are D&D veterans. They know the standard monsters and their abilities by heart. So I’ve either removed most of the standard monsters (like orcs and goblins) or reskinned them but used the same stats and somehow fitted them into the campaign history.

For example, when the players encountered a small horde of kobolds in the lower caverns of Saint Cuthbert’s on the Rock, I ran them like the Fallen Ones from Diablo II, complete with shamans with ressurrection powers and fire bolts. Afterward, when they had slain the kobolds (whose bodies crumpled into chunks of brimstone and rotten earth), somebody asked: What are these things?

So had them roll ad hoc Intelligence Checks (DC 13–I think–with a +2 bonus for any character with a scholarly-like occupation or who was a dwarf. About half the party made it, so I told them what they knew:

According to miscelleneous folklore and certain teachings from Virtoaanism, four types of monsters exists in the world: Dragons of the Air, Giants of the Mountains, Goblins of the Woods, and Demons of the Earth. The party deduced these were probably Demons of the Earth. Then I told the dwarf that there’s some kind of connection with dwarves and these creatures, but he didn’t remember what (he didn’t roll high enough on another ad hoc intelligence check). The dwarf then deduced that the basilisk, which they had slain on a previous expedition in the lower caverns, may have been keeping these Demons of the Earth in check, underground. So the party ventured onward to find the source of these Demons.

Not bad, if I say so myself. I took kobolds and redid them in the spirit of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Illusration from the AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual

Later on I violated rule #2 when they encountered piercers. I got lazy.

A cavern with stalactites. No stalagmites. All the veterans in the group immediately metagamed and said: piercers!

They explored other areas before returning.

See, on the other side of piercer cavern was a low ledge which seemed to lead somewhere. So they shot arrows at the piercers with limited success.

I figured they wouldn’t spend too much time on some cheesy monster from the early days of D&D. But they did. Finally, one character tried to rush across the cavern, died. Pierced three times. His companions hastily retrieved the body and left the dungeon.

Why piercers?

I’m not a fan of them. They’re part of a family of critters called Gotcha Monsters. You might know the type: rot grubs, mimics, lurkers above, lurkers below, throat leeches, and the rare but vicious ear seeker. They’re like living traps, and can be seen as cheap shots.

To my knowledge, piercers have been left out of any official D&D product for almost 20 years–I think Frog God Games may have done write-up, but I’m not certain. Newer players might not be familiar with them. (Forgive me if they’re in Pathfinder or D&D Fifth Edition–as I haven’t kept abreast of the either games’ teratology.)

Too many Gotcha Monsters in a megadungeon will ruin the megadungeon. They’re almost worst than a massive death-trap dungeon. In fact, I’d argue Gotcha Monsters make PC paranoia worse.

Piercers even defy my dungeon’s atmosphere and tone. They’re silly monsters if you think about it: mollusks clinging to the roof of a cavern to fall on prey, pierce them, and then right themselves so they can eat their victim. And while their on the floor their practically helpless.

At least I didn’t violate Rule #1.

To keep the attention of the players in a megadungeon, there must be something in each area, and it must be somehow different (if ever so slightly) than what came before.