Home > Uncategorized > Maps of some classic dungeons, 3: Ramses’s linear psychopomp

Maps of some classic dungeons, 3: Ramses’s linear psychopomp

Continuing the series on real-world dungeon types leads us, inevitably, to architectural narrative sequences, or railroad dungeons.

valley of kings tomb schematic
Tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings. What it lacks in Jacquaying it makes up for in pedagogical clarity. 

The ancient Egyptians were really hot for linear, narrative structures. Their temples and tombs have one way in, one destination, and a series of lessons to be learned along the way, so that the architecture serves as a tour guide to a state of mind, to priestly initiation, and to Egyptian cosmology.
nut goddess of night
That’s Nut, goddess of the night sky, vaulting over a sarcophagus. The walls are covered in the Pyramid Text – a Baedeker’s Guide to the Egyptian afterlife, which is itself a kind of railroady ur-campaign. More of that later.

Here’s Ramses III’s memorial temple in Luxor – not the biggest or grandest of the Ramessea (Ramses II’s the Mos’ Grandiose) but one of the best-preserved and clearest in plan:
ramesseum iii top down photoEntering from the Main Pylon at the top of the frame, note that there’s an unbroken axis through a series of lined-up doors all the way to the back room, where the portrait of the dead Pharaoh is located.
Here, another view where you can see the commanding bluff wall and majestic-but-still-exclusive doorway of the Pylon:
Screen Shot 2020-03-16 at 11.24.09 AM

The purpose of this arrangement is to allow the architects to pull several tricks – first, they can tell stories on the walls, knowing that you’ll progress through the structure in the sequence they want (and that you only get to see the punchline if you’re the right level of priest). Second, they can arrange information hierarchies off the main axis – stop at particular points along the way and you can learn the stories of Ramses’ wives and forebears, all subordinate to the main axial narrative, like hyperlinks off the main article. Third, they generate a very narrow, straight beam of light from the front entry all the way back to the holy of holies, so that if the priests open all the doors on just that one special day each year that’s sacred to the Pharaoh (which wasn’t a cliche back then), then the sun can shine all the way down the axis to the portrait on the back wall. If the temple tells the story of progressing from Earth to Egyptian heaven, where Ramses resides, then on this special day, His reflection travels back down the arduous path to spy on His people. Also, stick a load of gold and glass in that portrait and you can have it light up the whole back room, so that the special secret stories carved in there are revealed in the radiance of the Pharaoh’s visage. Theatrical stuff.
(OK I cheated, that’s from Ramses II’s tomb at Abu Simbel, but the principle is the same, or would be if robbers and earthquakes hadn’t screwed up RIII’s special moment)

My point here is that the Ramesseum, typical of Egyptian temples, limits visitors’ choices in order to expand its narrative possibilities and concretize its hierarchies. The Grand Axis points to the point of the building – it tells the faithful about the Pharaoh’s divine journey, lets them relive it as they progress inward, and tells them where they should stop, appropriate to their appointed level, in order to pay their finely-calibrated respects. Side chapels and structures are side-quests – lower in status, therefore more accessible, they appease secondary gods, hold the remains of minor wives and functionaries, and fill in bits of myth from distaff sides of the royal lineage that don’t quite merit a place in the main story or the regular attentions of a priest.

The Ramesseum offers a physical map of the structure of New Kingdom Egyptian religion, which is to say, of New Kingdom Egyptian society.* It also offers a campaign frame for Pharaohs and their subjects, with character class-specific goals:
Pharaoh: command your country well enough that you can build a temple and tomb with all the systems working, plus a mortuary services caste (mummifiers, mourners etc), to give you gear on your journey through the afterworld;
Wife: get enough favour and influence that you get a story spot close to the back room, giving you gear and protection on the afterworld jaunt;
Priest: level up far enough that you get the right to go into the back room, where the deepest mana stores are held;
Tomb-robber: collect inside knowledge that you can use to Indiana Jones it into the treasure room without getting riddled with darts/ghosts.


Architecture is a communicative art.
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.43.04 AMprada rotunda
It tells you what the owner of the building wants you to think about their status and your own. It tells you where to stand and what roles to assume, what you should and shouldn’t do, where you should and shouldn’t go.
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 12.23.16 PM

Buildings are maps of institutions.
5 military branches, 5 stabby points on the Pentagon. All equal in the eyes of God if not in funding or status. Yes I know there are serious problems with this facile example, but they’re such intriguing problems…**

Buildings are very often theme parks of their institutions’ concerns and neuroses. Where the institutions support communities, they teach their inmates how to behave, what they can and can’t do, who’s in charge.
workhouse plan

There are lots of directions I could go here. Private houses in the era of psychoanalysis becomes maps of the mind – insights into the soul of the person who shapes them. Hence the haunted house, i.e. haunted family (thanks Jack Shear!). It’s no accident the protagonist of Inception (that celebration of memory palaces) winds up in the basement.  Hence also the Romantic trope of Bluebeard’s Castle, with its doors onto a bloody treasury and a sea of tears,
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 12.29.41 PM
and Poe’s explanatory palace of damnation and illusions in Masque the Red Death.

But today it’s the canalisation of architecture I want to talk about, and how it pertains to (railroad) campaign design. Railroads get a bad rap, especially in the OSR, because nobody wants to be pushed to make choices that are no choice at all, and nothing makes players rebel more than having their motivations assumed for them. And yet there are whole genres of play that depend on/exult in railroading. What is a Call of Cthulhu campaign but the serial unlocking of doors, leading to ever-more-horrible doors?

All plots are railroads, inasmuch as they progress through stages and there’s already something happening when the players show up. The key to good railroading is to reconstruct your pushes as pulls – goals rather than herding – and to intersperse the choice-limiting pipework with tasks that involve free invention.

The Pyramid Texts painted all over the walls of the Ramesseum offers one method – it’s a list of directions, which you have to pass through in sequence to get to your ultimate destination. So it’s a railroad with continual teases: just follow these instructions exactly and do not deviate from the path and you’ll be OK. With, of course, obstacles designed to tempt or scare you off the path. The same basic vamp is visible in Early Christian labyrinths,
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 12.51.34 PM
where the walker is invited right up to the edge of the holy center for an early look at the goal, before being directed away again, to walk around and around it, sometimes toward and sometimes away from their target, knowing what it is and therefore why they have to jump through whatever hoops and tests of faith are necessary to get there. (Note how it’s not a maze – both medieval and classical labyrinths are unicursal: single involuted paths, designed not as puzzles but as meditations.)

This is the basic structure of any Rod Of 7 Parts type campaign: once you know you need to assemble n parts, it’s up to you to figure out how to fetch them and what the best sequence is to try (hint: do the lowest level one first). It’s absolutely a railroad, and often one where the players have to construct parts the track. Its saving grace is that the players have some freedom about how to do it, maybe digging new tunnels into the final room or fooling someone else into passing tests for them – it doesn’t necessarily matter what they do in an episode as long as they follow the bigger rails of the episodic structure.

If you really sell them on the goal, though, you can get them to hew ever closer to the intent of the railroad. I can hear DMs breathing through their teeth from here, but bear with me.

Torii avenue
Torii gates mark the boundary between mundane and sacred spaces. Which is why they tend to work like stationary TARDISes in anime.

The point of ritual journeys is not so much to cover distance as to change the people undertaking them – to adapt them to the system of an institution. Often they require special cleansing and passages through death and so on in order to allow access to the Sacred Space where the Final Adjustment can be made. That’s why trespassing in Pharaoh’s tomb is so dangerous – partly because you trip the security systems, sure, but mostly because you’re not the right level to be there, you didn’t bring the right passes or armour. According to this scheme, Howard Carter and his friends didn’t know what they were missing, so they punched a crude hole in the cordon sanitaire between worlds and as a result started leaking secret juice. They had to be scrubbed from the mundane for structural reasons. (The way Grim Fandango presents this is rather disappointingly Christian, but maybe it points to a deeper level of initiation: the development team are not Aztecs!) And if you don’t take the long, strait way? Then there are options for dramatic moments of sacrifice – you can’t enter the garden, but you can help someone else go in and bring the paltry gold out, while leaving the mystery inside. Someone purer, more deserving. Maybe your next character. It’s your choice.

Ars Magica has a deracinated version of this Sacred Precinct idea in its regio – a higher level/excited state of a mundane location that only opens on midsummer eve or when you’re holding the hand of a fairy or if you’ve collected the 7 seals. It’s a neat mechanism for putting the end of the campaign right on top of the wizards’ home, where they were always brushing their hats against it but couldn’t access it until they were properly initiated. It allows Ararat to exist simultaneously as a literal lump of rock you can climb to get a nice view, and as a holy mountain, gateway to heaven etc. But it fails to address the bigger point of such sacred-other-spaces: by having to go on the full ritual journey to get there, the players get to understand the significance of whatever’s sacred in the campaign – the stakes, the terms of success or failure, the structure of the game.

Most great epics save this moment of realization for the end because it was what they had to say and once they’ve said it, you should be free to read something else. But as a DM you only have to stop there if you can’t think of anything the players might want to do with their secret knowledge. Effectively, it’s leveling up. If you have another campaign set in the world as it is after The Change, then congratulations, your players will be totally excited to get on with it, having sunk all those costs into being Stage 1 shlubs.


Huis ten BoschThe late 17th century Dutch palace known self-deprecatingly as the Huis ten Bosch offers a neat little map of the political society that built it. It has the same basic structure as the palaces of Louis XIII and XIV, and contemporary English lords, and a whole load of other monarchs, but this one has a geometric purity that makes it all so clear. 

As a 1st level shlub (not a 0-level commoner), you might get invited to a big do in the Grand Ballroom:
and you’ll probably feel like that’s a great and special reward, but it’s only the first step on a long staircase of initiations.
floor plan – the ballroom’s the big cross-shaped space in the middle. Pretty awesome!

Out of the throng of courtiers in the ballroom, only a lucky few get invited up the stairs to the voorkamer – which can afford to look less impressive because the people there know how much more powerful everyone present is. From there, a precious few get to meet the monarch (well, stadhouder) himself, in his bedroom! Which is sweet indeed but nothing compared with being invited into his closet behind it, from which hardly anyone at all – just grand vizier level true intimates – get invited into the little closet behind that.

Leveling up here means smaller scale, deeper secrets, a different view of the realm. To be called for an interview in the little closet and subsequently to leave, unnoticed, via the back stairs means not only that you have the ruler’s full confidence but also that you are yourself secretly a member of the select band of cognoscenti – and anyone who knows it (ie only the useful few) will hang on your every word, attentive as a courtier, ready to fulfill your secret needs. To inhabit this level of society is to pass through a city outside that others do not see, but that they may be able to sense clinging to you.

The initiated recognize you as a regio.

tl:dr –
1. don’t neglect the communicative powers of architecture. If you set your dungeon up to speak to the players about the secrets they can uncover, you will supply them with a line of mission briefings that can support years of play, that the players actively want to unlock.
2. it’s tempting to keep your secrets secret – everyone loves uncovering them and writers (less often, players) love having their expectations overturned when the Big Cheese does a face-heel turn or it turns out it was aliens all along. But those kinds of secrets are only powerful at the moment of revelation. Letting them slip early makes them active parts of the campaign in anticipation. It lets you pile significance onto setbacks and shortcuts, it encourages the players to try to find ways to “cheat,” i.e. find creative solutions.
3. depending on the degree of buy-in your players are feeling, they might be up for a not-cheating path, in order to maximize their initiation level. If that’s the case you can get them to submit to all sorts of arbitrary limitations that will make the game harder and more interesting. What if using violence makes them unclean and locks the doors? What if they have to train a new generation to pass the final lock? What if only someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for can find the key? The hard part of all these tricks is getting the players to really understand them. The fun part is watching them figure our ways to fulfill the requirements.

* OK fine, not the whole society, just the political class.
** This obvious reason is, of course, spurious. Probably. After all, in 1943 when the Pentagon was designed, there were only 4 branches. People who are too smart for this trap often say that the Pentagon is a pentagon because it happened to be built on a 5-sided piece of land, but this was (a) a strange accident, in Pierre l’Enfant’s rigorously geometric plan, and (b) no longer true by the time of construction. It suggests to me that FDR probably knew an Air Force would be set up eventually (optimally after the war, to avoid confusion mid-conflict), but didn’t want to spill this destabilizing plan before it happened. So the building is prophetic – those that had eyes (or clearance) to see, could read the future of the military in its plan.


  1. March 17, 2020 at 1:21 am

    I love these posts because after I’ve read them, my mind feels like the doors slammed open and a wind rushed through and cleared everything out.

    This is probably going to impact my next campaign. My players will hate you. Thanks.

    • Richard Grenville
      March 17, 2020 at 7:19 pm

      thanks! That’s great to know! I find that writing the posts really clarifies my thoughts, too. And feel free to blame me to your players.

  2. Dark_Tigger
    March 17, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    Never thought about that way. I just thought it was a reference to old five ray star fortesses.

    @Huis ten Bosch
    I once saw an documentary about an french palace/mainson, that some noble build as an posible country residence for some 17th century french king (no king ever visited it). It was really great, some things I remember:
    1) It looked really symertic. But the left wing(the woman’s quaters) had four windows instead of the 5 the right wing had.
    2) First floor were the quaters of the nobel, second floor where the quaters of the King.
    3) The floor plan with the increasingly private quarters were similar.
    4) (Not drawn on any oficial blue print of the building) There were something like 30 stairs in the building, that connected the sleeping quaters of the servants under the roof with the kitchen in the cellar.

    • Richard Grenville
      March 17, 2020 at 7:31 pm

      Symmetry and distinct complexes of apartments get stronger and more elaborate from the 16th through 18th centuries, especially in France, and there’s a whole system of etiquette about where the host meets visitors and then talks to them – if they come out of their apartments to meet you in a common room of the palace, that’s bad. If they refuse to budge from their private rooms so a footman has to come get you, that’s good. Such an interesting inversion of courtesy as understood in the 20th century (I feel like all this stuff is in such rapid flux right now that it’s not really safe to say what counts as good form this year).

  3. March 17, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Cheers for this
    As I base my designs on history and my dungeons are full of art I will no longer feel bad when ppl tell me im not Jaquaying and therefore wrong. How it came to be mandatory I will never know.

    • Richard Grenville
      March 17, 2020 at 7:45 pm

      Someone once opined that it wasn’t good for players to get stuck on one room, so there should be multiple ways around. This is good hospital or airport design but not _necessarily_ what you want in a puzzle-driven environment…

      Since I was talking about long series of doors, I nearly went off on a digression about rooms in “enfilade” (doors lined up like a shooting gallery), for which I would have showed Catherine the Great’s palace: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/e2/a8/0c/e2a80cfd02c590fc9b66eedf24427e14.jpg

      Not really Jacquayed, either. And such a weird structure – what could we read from this plan about the functions and communication of this building? The symmetrical facade, the asymmetrical use of space inside, the wings a fair cannon-shot apart…

      It always feels to me like the Russians only ever half understood what everyone else was using this form for. Or, more likely, that the idea of “international Baroque culture” keeps us from understanding what the Russians wanted in particular.

  4. Arnold K
    March 20, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Fantastic post.

    • Richard Grenville
      March 24, 2020 at 1:58 pm

      thanks! I never know if these long essays are worth it.

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