View Full Version : Making a Dungeon that is also a Jail - tips?

2015-09-15, 11:33 PM
My D&D party has done a lot, but something they've yet to do is have a good old-fashioned Dungeon crawl. The upcoming storyline is going to focus around the BBEG empire recruiting conscripts for an army to fight the PCs off from a prison that was more than willing to sell their prisoners to turn a quick coin in a struggling economy. Those who comply will be stripped of their free will and suited up for war. Those who aren't interested will find themselves landing a hot seat in the guillotine for insolence.

I can't say how any of this will play out, but there's more than a strong likelihood that one of the PCs will find themselves in this prison for any number of offenses - namely because one of my player characters killed the king that ruled there not too long ago. The nobles have been calling for her to be executed for months now, but she herself fled and sought asylum in a larger, more powerful kingdom. She's only being called back on the wishes of her friend, who has asked her to investigate a number of strange occurrences around the area, not knowing that she's being set up so that they can bring her to trial for her crimes.

That said, I have no idea where to start as far as designing the prison goes. It's likely that there might be a riot, a breakout, and anything in between, but I need the prison to have a good layout to ensure that it pans out well. I have an idea of the design: There's gonna be more than one floor to the prison, for sure. I'm thinking 3 - 4: Low Security, High Security, Solitary(probably don't need this one but I thought it might be cool?) and then a whole floor dedicated to torture and execution. I have no idea how prisons are normally laid out, but I'm pretty sure even 3 floors is kind of extravagant.

I can absolutely do prisoners and staff on my own, but I have no idea where to go as far as the prison's design and layout, the internal details, and how things would work and run inside of it. Can anybody who's either good at building dungeons or have a lot of knowledge about prison design(esp. Medieval prisons and/or torture chambers) give me any help and insight? Anything I can get is helpful, even if it's just encouragement on the endeavor.

So, is there anybody who can help me out?

The Fury
2015-09-16, 10:04 AM
Going by the prisons I've seen in movies and TV shows, I'd suggest giving the cell block entrance an antechamber-- maybe with a small desk for checking in inmates and visitors. The idea is that the doors to the antechamber can only be opened from the outside by the guards posted there. If you want to exit the cell block, you'd need to knock on the door, (because there's no handle or keyhole from your side,) have the guard let you into the antechamber, knock on the exit door and have the guard let you out of the cell block. Sure, it's kind of a pain to do it that way but the idea is to make an escape a lot more difficult.

2015-09-16, 10:31 AM
I've read that municipal prisons in medieval/renaissance cities were a lot less secure than they are now. There would be different wards depending on how much money you could pay them when you went in. If you were really rich you might have more privacy, windows, maybe even linens or something to sleep on. Poor folks probably stayed in communal cells with few or no windows. Prisons didn't provide food or medicine to the inmates, prisoners relied on families or other outside support to bring them necessities. If you had money, you could probably pay a warden or guard to bring you stuff. Sometimes, inmates were even let out to beg, which is the only way some people got food. The prison was usually located right in the middle of town, where families could easily get to it and also close to church, because inmates were allowed or required to attend mass and participate in religious festivals.

Some prisons divided prisoners by the type of crime. Women were always separate in their own ward, because there were usually few of them. Murderers and violent men would be together in the worst or lowest section, thieves and beggars in another area, men that defaulted on debts or couldn't pay taxes were in another area. Of course, wealthy or more aristocratic prisoners probably got better accomodations regardless of the crime, which was probably the area that got the most light and fresh air.

2015-09-16, 10:50 AM
How about reversing it, and making a jail that's also a dungeon? Maybe there's a dungeon that someone wants clearing out, and anyone convicted of a crime gets sent there. The top level is relatively safe - petty criminals can serve their time here, but anyone can potentially reduce their sentence by going into the deeper levels and doing things (recovering items, clearing areas and so on). The better they do, the more time they knock off.

Or maybe that's the only way they get fed, or generate enough money to buy their freedom.

You'd just need to make sure the prisoners can't turn on the guards in any meaningful way.

2015-09-16, 11:26 AM
Prisons werent really a thing in the dark ages. If you were holding someone they were probably a political prisoner or awaiting trial. Actually holding someone against their will for a long period f time takes a lot of resources and sentencing people to death of various amputations makes an example and doesn't cost anything. If you want an example of something that may work, look up the Tower of London, or the eastern state penitentiary in Philadelphia

2015-09-16, 11:30 AM
In a medieval setting, a high-security prison could be a reconverted castle. (This is definitely not historically accurate, but that's not the point.)

The inmates would be kept inside the towers around the upper court, with all floors cut off from the stairs by a sturdy door. Some floors would house a dozen or more prisoners in a single large room, others would be divided in several individual cells. Maybe the keep would serve as a higher-security area, with guard rooms on the lower floors and torture chambers in the basements. The upper court would be where the prisoners are gathered when needed, or maybe just to stretch their legs once a week if the head warden is kind like that. The cuisines, guardhouse, armory, and office of the head warden, along maybe with lower-security prisoners in more comfortable accommodations, would be around the lower court, where guardsmen would drill and such.

An interesting consequence of the prison being a reconverted castle is that castles were designed to favor defenders, i.e. people coming from inside. Doors can't be braced from the outside. Stairs wind in such a way as to put someone going up at disadvantage to fight. And so on. So while infiltrating the prison might be difficult the castle will probably have cliffs on all sides except the front an armed break-out would be facilitated.

This is not a dungeon in the traditional sense of the term, but it can be an interesting setting for the party to fight their way through. Bonus point if they arrive just when the imprisoned PC is about to be executed in front of all the other prisoners in the upper court and a riot breaks out.

2015-09-18, 10:41 AM
Just wanted to give an update: I fleshed out the Meat of the story arc, and I think a refurbished castle is a good fit - it can be the old castle the king lived in, for added flavor. I think segregating the women might be a bit ectreme, but I will definitely split it up by crime, as I think it lends way to flavorful encounters if a riot breaks out. It can retain the dungeon basement and have two floors- one for petty crimes and one for serious/repeat offenders. So, what are some architecturally built in defenses that both prisoners and the jailers can utilize? Moats, murder holes, etc. ? Ans what kind of traps could you set up in the castle? Any and all input would be appreciated. Thanks for everything so far, guys. This is already shaping up to be a great story.

2015-09-18, 11:04 AM
If you care less abour your prisoners well-being than maximum security, the following design might be used.


The iron grid that leads to the guard room at the top of the tunnel can be opened to insert a prisoner with the help of a rope that is retracted afterwards. The prison ceiling cannot be climbed without equipment, and even if a prisoner somehow reached the iron grid, the lock that holds the grid down would be beyond the reach of an arm reaching throught the grid.

2015-09-18, 11:39 AM
Fun fact : most of these "oubliettes" were not actually cells, but underground storerooms (why build stairs when you can just put a hatch in the ceiling ?)

However, it is a good cell design. And we left historical accuracy behind some time ago.

2015-09-18, 01:09 PM
One reason that fortresses were used as prisons, besides the obvious, is that forts take a lot of manpower to build and maintain. Often prisoners were locked up under the guard of the military so that they can be forced to labor on the fortifications.

For example Fort Jefferson: