When it comes to a traditional dungeon-crawling experience in the “real” world, catacombs may be as close as a GM can get. They’re subterranean, eerie, tight, branching, and quite possibly filled with terrifying monsters or evil cultists. They’ve also got fantastic decor, ranging from the Parisian photo above to simple wall tombs.
If you’re looking to set a mood, catacombs will do the trick. Whether you want to stick to strictly historical examples or branch out with some Weird and whimsy, this into will help you get started.
Origins of Catacombs
The classic catacombs are, of course, under the city of Rome. They were not only used to bury the dead, but for the meetings of literally-underground religious groups such as the nascent Christian cult. Catacombs solve several problems for a large city.
First, they provide a location for the vast numbers of dead that such a city will produce. While we may think of them as neat rows of individual graves, many functioned as ossuaries, collecting dozens of people’s bones in each niche. Second, as they’re underground, they provided a cooler place for bodies to decay, one where the smell might be less strong than in a graveyard near the surface. Romans had solved this problem with pyres and other burning rites, but as Christianity gained sway, people became concerned about the
In Paris, the catacombs were created after the city’s dead became too much for graveyards and churches to handle. The pressure of its remains caused one cemetery to burst into an adjoining basement, spilling charnel charges. Bones were removed and sculpted into artistic formations, which make the catacombs both beautiful and doubly-terrifying.
Where Does One Find Catacombs?
Roman catacombs are what most of us think of when we think of catacombs: multiple levels of graves carved into the walls. Sometimes, below the graves is a more conventional-looking closed tomb which may contain one or more bodies. When space ran out on the sides, some were buried in the floor.
Roman catacombs contain small chapels, meant for funerary rites and the like, spaced throughout the passageways. They may include works of Christian art (or whatever terrifying kind of art you, as a GM, decide to include). There are approximately 40 catacomb networks around Rome.
Did other less-successful cults than the Christians build their own catacombs? Sure, why not? And their dead may take less kindly to being disturbed.
The catacombs of Paris are a far more recent invention, built in the late 1700s within former mines under the city. Their construction solved crowding in the city’s cemeteries and was connected with re-inspection of the quarries, which had proved some danger to city’s residents by being carved to close to the surface.
Initially, bones were just thrown in, but in the early 1800s, the artistic Parisians began organizing them into a more aesthetically arranged ossuary. It has become a tourist destination which you can still visit today, if you’re particularly dedicated to verisimilitude in your gaming…or want to use that as an excuse.
It’s entirely possible that, behind some of these skulls, one may find further subterranean quarries, leading off to–who knows where.
You can also find catacombs in Austria, Czech Republic, Egypt (Alexandria), England (primarily near London), Italy, Malta, Peru, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
There are other places which, perhaps, should have catacombs: Arkham, for example.
What Lives in Catacombs?
One may encounter a variety of monsters in the catacombs, whether generic or specific to a particular city.
Indiana Jones, of course, has the excellent scene with Rats. Whether a swarm or a nest of dire rats, these are a great low-level fight to give your PCs some atmosphere.
Catacombs, of course, are full of Skeletons. All it takes is for some malevolent force to animate them or for them to take exception to your presence. If your PCs are going to be fighting skeletons in any version of the “real” world, catacombs are a great place to do it.
The catacombs may be a welcoming home for a more powerful Lich.
And then, besides residents, there may be others who use catacombs as a base of operations.
Cultists of course, may conduct religious rites or raid graves for the charnel materials their deities require. They may build secret shrines and chapels.
You may find Reptoids under Rome, secretly controlling the Vatican.
And aren’t they a great place for the Illuminati to hang out?
More mundanely, catacombs are a great place for Smugglers and Organized Crime to store materials or to use for secret passage through the city. In this case, the claustrophobia and direction-challenging nature of the catacombs may serve your game best.
(photo by Djtox)