Villa Catacombs, Part 1: Brainstorming Background

Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.

This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM.

This essay was originally written for the June 2014 RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Fitz at Moebius Adventures. Fitz described the Carnival topic as “What’s in the hole?” Here I walk through the initial process of creating an underground complex in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign. An underground setting, such as the archetypal dungeon, is essentially a big, inhabited hole. The latest subterranean setting for the campaign was a network of catacombs. This first essay focuses on brainstorming the background to the villa catacombs.

The Playtest Interlude

The story of these catacombs began with the playtest interlude I ran for the new version of HeroQuest Glorantha. This Interlude introduced the catacombs to the Players as a flashback, to set up the next quest for the Heroes in the main campaign.

The basic premise for the interlude was four factions who all converged on the catacombs to search for a sword called the Xiphos of Fate. So, “the Xiphos of Fate” is the simple answer to the question “What’s in the hole?” This legendary sword had been brainstormed previously as part of The Scholars’ Game sequence at the start of the campaign.


The Features of our Hole

Before we explore the contents of the hole any further, it is worthwhile considering the hole itself. It is all very well knowing what is in the hole, to use it as part of the story in an RPG, it is necessary to have more than just a basic name. I already labelled the hole a catacomb, but we need more details for the game.

To generate the features of the catacombs, and the surrounding landscape, I opened the process up to the Players to collaboratively generate some location aspects. This proved as fun and productive as ever. The first pass at setting creation focused on the Villa Tanicius, another product of the pre-campaign Scholars’ Game. This Villa was the surface building which served as the entrance to the catacombs. One trait of the Villa was Connecting Catacombs at Medium.

Now our hole has become one in a series of holes. As the rating was only Medium, then there are only likely to be a few connections between the catacombs and other types of holes. Clearly, one of these connections would have to be to the Villa Tanicius itself. Later brainstorming determined that the local valley exports gems, so there should be a link to the mines too.

Must the catacombs link to the mines? No, of course not. Yet, following the principle of Chekhov’s gun, if the gem mines have been generated in one set of brainstorming, then I ought to link them up with another part of the setting. This helps keep the gem mines relevant to the story by folding them back into the plot. After all, the catacombs need to connect to something, and why not make use of what we already created?


Hole in a Landscape

By linking the catacombs to the mines, I try to fix the location into the wider landscape. As the Players already helped brainstorm Evercloud Valley, the location of the Villa Tanicius, then other features of the wider world could influence the design of the catacombs.

The brainstorming for the valley created these interesting traits:

Thick Pearlescent Cloud High
Abandoned Bio-sorcerous War Machines Very High
Commune of Earth Cult Gnomes Very High

The nearby town of Tanicium was brainstormed to have the following traits:

Trade – Gem Mines Medium
Trade – Hallucinogenics Medium
Outlaw – Commune Leader High

Finally, the Villa Tanicius was given these traits during the Interlude:

Thick Walls High
Loyal Garrison Low
Connecting Catacombs Medium


Brainstorming the Catacombs

So, beyond being connected to the gem mines, what other features do the catacombs possess? As part of the previous Interlude, we brainstormed three location features for these tombs. The nominated features were:

Full Tombs Medium
Shelves of Servant Corpses Medium
Clockwork Mechanisms Low

After rolling higher ratings for the landscape, the dice were less enthusiastic about the traits of the catacombs themselves. This is not a big problem, but suggests many of the environmental traits will make themselves felt in the catacombs.



Every GM turns holes in ground into adventures in different ways. I hope you enjoyed reading about how I built the background to the catacombs. This involved a large degree of Player input, from the collaborative brainstorming to their desire for a longer underground adventure than normal.

Next week’s essay presents a more detailed summary of the catacombs themselves. In the meantime, what sort of details would you have picked out from our brainstorming? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy Gaming

For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.

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