Solo dungeon crawling in the quarantine: The Sunless Citadel

Sunless citadel image

Just getting this out of the way now, I don’t really know how to play Dungeons & Dragons correctly. I played a couple of times when I was a kid, and I’ve messed around with my own kids a couple of times. So there – no comments about how a 1st level whatever shouldn’t be able to cast doomahickey.

However, I saw this cover last summer as I was puttering around:


Guys! Come on. That’s just good art. Intrigued, but no use for the book, I passed it by. It inspired me to shoot for a little more grotesque imagery in the art I was putting together for the Salt Mystic game though. Like this guy:

Isolated storyteller

I listen to a lot of nerds on Youtube when I go running though, and came across a terrifying dungeon the game’s creator, Gary Gygax, concocted back in the day called ‘The Tomb Of Horrors‘. I guess Gary’s idea was to put veterans of his new game in their place and make it pretty much impossible to survive the adventure due to traps and false endings and tricks. Honestly, such a cool guy, that Gary! You should hit up Youtube on that sometime to hear stories of guys who were there at those early cons trying to survive Gary’s machinations.

When I came to realize that tomb had been reproduced in the same book that had caught my eye, I added it to the Christmas wish list and lucked out. My wife is pretty cool that way. And it sat looking cool on the shelf until now. Quarantine for COVID19 and, to be honest, no real connections out there that play the game anyway.

I was thinking recently, though, about how to take solo adventures between conference calls. It struck me that without a real clue on the rules and without a dungeon master telling the big story, that this would be hopeless and sad. I tried some random dungeon generators online and found them repetitive and lifeless.

So I cracked open the ‘Tales Of The Yawning Portal’ and read up on the basics of the game from an old starter set laying around. There is a starter adventure in there called ‘The Sunless Citadel”, designed for newbies to level up quickly.

I’ve just finished a wild ride that, if I’m honest, went places I hadn’t expected and took crazy turns…was kind of nerve wracking at times…and ended in an interesting place with popping tension for a follow-up. I might write it up and post it here as a pdf just to make my point that this really wound up looking like something I’d planned when I absolute had not.

(Update: I totally DID make this an illustrated ebook, available for download at the top of this article.)

I didn’t even cheat. Much.

Anyway, the point of this post is really to share some guidelines I came up with to re-engineer a packaged adventure from Wizards Of The Coast intended for group play facilitated by a dungeon master into a solo adventure that’s surprising and interesting.

Sunless citadel map


  1. Carefully build the character sheet with all the spells, inventory, and weapons you intend to use without cheating and adding things later when you need them
  2. Since you won’t have companions (at first), think through what challenges you’ll face and add items and skills to deal with them (I figured I’d need to pick locks, so brought along tools for that)
  3. Pick an adventure that has decent maps and plenty of rooms to explore, with a story that adds purpose to what you’re trying to do
  4. Don’t read ahead in the book, only the description for a room or corridor after you’ve decided you’re entering based on the map and the story
  5. Once you’ve entered, deal with whatever you came across without cheating (I accidentally reanimated some skeleton archers and almost got toasted)
  6. If the adventure doesn’t already require it, find a roll table for encounters (on-line or in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) and make the occasional surprise roll
  7. Follow whatever side adventures are offered (I wound up making a daring raid into the goblin side of the citadel to recover a little dragon they wanted back) and be willing to deviate from the original plan
  8. If a character offers to join you, let them. You’ll need help when things get rough.
  9. Try and get in your new companions’ heads and determine what they might actually do in these circumstances, then deal with that (one of my guys would more logically say she was joining me but turn her back on me as soon as she could).
  10. Journal out the entire story, including dialogue if you can. Things get muddy and dull unless you can reflect on where you’ve been, what you were thinking, and you lock things down tangibly.
  11. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat. The rolls are the rolls. If the lock won’t open, the attack doesn’t hit, even if you’re killed. Don’t cheat.

So maybe give it a shot yourself, if you’ve never tried. In my case, the final scene was a cliffhanger: I suppose the mission was accomplished, but the little dragon is furious with me, the lead of the kobolds is chaining me up, and my other companion is missing. Plus, there are some pretty ticked-off goblins who are probably coming for all of us.

And also those weird noises coming from the lower levels…

Be safe, guys. Till next time.





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