Layering Historical Radiation on your Dungeon

‘No one likes a story that starts off, “Millions of years ago shit happened that no one cares about, no one remembers but it is very important.”’

*- Luke Crane

These aren’t meant to be a timeline or a history but a way to take a dungeon and inject it with historical radiation that will make it stranger and more rich. Don’t take these eras and wars as gospel but use them as inspiration, adding color to a battered dagger, tying the treasure to some olden struggle that still plays out in the world and echoes across your maps. They didn’t happen in a neat order but bled across one another in confusing ways that confound historians to this day.

Let your giant ants uncover the lost shrine of an Old Power. Have the mad vampire duke build his kingdom on the foundations of a dwarven fortress meant to keep a watchful eye on an elven forest. The ruined wizard’s tower holds relics from the Wizarding War and was a barracks for alien soldiers who once invaded this world before their empire abandoned them.

These aren’t meant to make the game, only spice it, add a bit to the dungeon stew.

Old Ones’ War, Primordial War, The First War

Some say this is just a myth, a series of parables about the Old Immortal Lords and how the world was made but the truth is far more frightening. The truth is this was a petty war driven by powerful hubris that nearly unmade the world at the hands of Justice, Law, Chaos, Murder, Shadows, Light and Magic Incarnate.

Treasures: Even the most minor weapon or utensil that remains behind from this era is a brutally powerful artifact capable of changing the face of the world. Holy scrolls from ancient religions whose traditions none dare continue.

That said, there are more humble remnants, such as bronze daggers blessed by the hand of an Immortal Lord, one of the Old Ones, centuries ago, somehow still sharp.

Dungeons: Tombs where avatars of primordial forces are buried and Temples to gods from days when humans attempted to petition primordial forces with prayer and sacrifices.

Heroes’ War, Death of All Saints, Young Lords’ War

When the First War ended and the world began to rebuild, heroes led the way and these heroes became the first of the Young Immortal Lords. This first wave of Young Immortal Lords have mostly ascended further, joining the primordial forces they represented as minor avatars, saints and godlings.

A false doctrine caused this war, convincing many of the Young Lords that there were finite places in the heavens.

Treasures: Weapons once wielded by gods when they were mortals. Armor from holy armies and spellbooks from the first wizards.

Wizards’ War

In an era of Sorcerer-Kings, Warlock Emperors and Witch-Queens, it was only a matter of time before an arcane war raged across the world.*

Dungeons: Towers destroyed by brutal spells, laboratories with arcane experiments still pulsing with unlife and tombs that hold some of the finest wizards, sorcerers, witches and warlocks to ever live.

Items: An array of weapons designed to combat magic and those who wield it, campaign spellbooks - treasured arcane tomes that the warring wizard-lords brought to the battlefields.

Far Realms Incursion

The Wizards left their mark on the world and eroded the borders with realms best kept far away. Gates opened, allowing demons and far worse entry to the world. Empires from worlds undreamed of marched and citadels fell as if they were made of thin parchment. Nothing in our world had been built to keep out beings who do not live by the rules that bind us to earth, life and death.

Some say we rose to the challenge and sent the armies of the Far Realms back, others say it was the gates that failed or that the empires crumbled from within. There are scrolls that warn against hungry dead-eyed empresses from worlds with starless skies and councils of dead kings who lead the damned waiting to march against us.

Treasure: Gems, coins and all manner of mundane instruments from other worlds. Weapons made from dead gods’ bones, spell books whose spells are alive and items made to communicate with a slumbering empress in the astral depths.

Dungeons: Alien castles and keeps designed to defend gates that no longer work or pieces of geography not important to our eyes.

Grief and Greed Era, The Hill and Glade Feuds

While humans built their first walled cities, elves and dwarves feuded with one another, one side remembering slights from when the world was sung into existence and the other coveting the other’s beauty and grace. These acts of violence have stopped and now simmer in a Cold War, always threatening to boil over but neither side has forgotten and it is a rare valley that doesn’t have a dwarven axe-head in a stream-bed or an elven arrow-head in the soil somewhere.

Treasure: Broken blades, lost weapons caches, buried treasure or drowned etharchs and princes still wearing their people’s riches.

Dungeons: Remnants of centuries old battle-grounds that are haunted, deserted keeps designed to keep a sharp eye on a dark forest or a cold mountain pass or the tomb from one side or the other, proclaiming a great victory won or the treachery that caused the death (often both).


Don’t forget about the Now! Don’t have all of the wonder and magic be in the past. The world need not be moving on. These are layers under the Now, not ways to replace the Now with something that happened centuries ago because that was when cool things happened because now sucks…

Now doesn’t suck, now is compounded with centuries of odd, wondrous monsters devouring and defecating all over the world.

Perfect notes, my friend. Fits right in with the dungeon-building philosophy in the rule book!


I had written something like it a while back but TB made me want to take it out and sharpen it a bit.


I’ve heard about How to Host a Dungeon a few times since posting about this thread. I love Tony Dowler’s work and will definitely pick it up soon.

Thanks! That video was keen.

There’s a free version available on the web as well. It’s very much worth checking out, and it’s a great way to give a dungeon history (besides, it makes side-view dungeons, which I love).

No worries Judd! :slight_smile: I Love those vids.
I’ve been using HTHaD a lot lately, especially with 1e D&D and Dungeon World, and Its so awesome for giving that depth to your input as GM. I also like Mike Shea’s idea to roll twice on Dungeon tables to inject a layer of history. The first roll is the ‘current’ use or description or inhabitants… The second is the original designed function. Its works wonderfully and quickly for injecting a layer of depth to your dungeons and situations.

For example, the party may enter a dungeon chamber. It is furnished as a (rolled a 3) set of dungeon cells but, looking deeper into the room’s past, you see it was once, many centuries ago, a (rolled an 8) library. Beyond the iron cages in the corners of the room, the room contains (rolled an 8 on the details table) statues that appear to be weeping in the alcoves and (rolled a 13) rumbling counterweights behind the walls. In the center of the room is a (rolled an 18 on the room effects table) serpent statue, eyes gemmed with brilliant rubies. Poison drips from the statue’s mouth. Before you can investigate further a band of (rolled a 3) goblins bursts through the opposite door. The statue begins to spit acid while the goblins rush in!