This is a small dungeon, designed to look like an ant nest. Note that this is a side-view of the colony (as though it were in an ant farm); this is not a top-down view. Up means up, it does not mean “north”.
Each square on the grid paper means 10 feet. The black lines indicate zones with very warm updrafts.
When I originally ran this dungeon with my players, I had a mix of Thri-Keen and giant ants inhabiting the tunnels.
This dungeon is intended as stealth mission; get to the queen and kill her without triggering alarm responses from any of the workers or soldiers. This will require out-of-the-box thinking and subterfuge on the part of your players. If you’re running the dungeon as a stealth mission, I strongly suggest that you do something to make it very explicit that there are going to be severe consequences if the ants get angry. I suggest having an ant, covered in some kind of scented oil, attempt to enter the colony and get ripped apart by its sisters.
You can also run this as a fierce battle through waves and waves of rottweiler-sized ants. Or a mix of stealth and slog-battle. Up to you.
Some giant ant colonies foster communities of myconids in their nests. These myconids enjoy the favor of a vicious collective of insectoid guardians, and in return, they tend to the vast mushroom gardens that keep the ant colony fed. Myconids also serve as apothecaries for The Colony; they are experts at applying different fungi towards disease prevention, and they often mix up medicines in case of disease outbreak within The Colony. Symbiotic myconids will usually infect a few dozen workers with a slow progressing, but ultimately fatal, growth of myconid spores. This creation of a hybridized ant-myconid facilitates communication between the two communities, and also serves as a host for the next generation myconids. For the ants, the occasional loss of workers is worth the service that they receive from the mushroom folk. However, Myconids are NEVER allowed to be in close contact with The Queen, or any ants from the breeder-caste.
When I ran this dungeon, I kept my ants very simple. They’re extremely instinct-driven animals that mainly respond to chemical stimuli (pheromones). I had three broad classes of ants; workers, soldier and breeders. You can, of course, go pretty crazy with this, and make many more subcastes. For the sake of my sanity however, let’s stick with three main castes, and three special sub-castes.
Worker: Roughly the size of a large dog. Generally will not attack players, unless provoked. Will voraciously eat mushrooms, sugary substances and anything bloody. If provoked, they will fight back. If injured, they will emit alarm and injury pheromone. If they find something that they consider to be food, they will emit swarm pheromone. The most numerous ant by far.
Special Worker (Honeypot): These are workers that have been overstuffed with food, and act as living food repositories. Their abdomens are grossly swollen; up to 5-6x the size of a normal worker ant. They are fairly helpless and unable to move as a result of their weight. Honeypots hang from the ceiling, and regurgitate liquid, sugary paste at the request of other ants. A single honeypot usually has 2-6 soldiers nearby. Honeypots will explode if their abdomens are injured; this can be very dangerous for anyone that gets the sugar paste on them (Consider the AoE like that of a Fireball spell).
Special Worker (Fungal Worker): These are workers that have been infected with Myconid reproductive spores. These spores grow very slowly, and allow the ant to perceive the Myconid spore-based communication, and facilitates cooperation between the Ant colony, and the Myconid tribe. When the reproductive spores inevitably take over all brain functions of this worker, it will seek out the colony’s Myconid allies. Within a few days, the worker’s body will shut down, and explode as several young myconids emerge from the corpse. Fungal workers can be distinguished by the fungal growths that poke out of their skin at irregular intervals. Fungal workers are NEVER allowed near The Queen.
Soldier: About 2x the size of a worker. Has very large, very sharp mandibles. Will attack anything that smells unfamiliar, or anything that smells like blood. If agitated, it will emit alarm pheromone fairly easily.
Special Soldier (Bombardier): The same size as all the other soldiers. However, its body contains a volatile mixture of chemicals that become very explosive if mixed. Ant will turn their rear end toward the target, and hose the target down with a sticky, burning acid. Assign acid damage as you see fit, I recommend looking at the various black dragon breath weapons for ideas on how to scale the damage. If the bombardier is slain by fire, piercing, or acid damage, their bodies should explode in a shower of indiscriminate acid. Bombardiers are uncommon, and should NEVER be seen near The Queen, or near honeypots. Bombardiers smell faintly of sulphur.
Breeders: Slightly smaller than a worker, and has wings. Will flee from anything that presents a threat. If attacked, they will try to escape and emit copious amounts of alarm pheromone.
Special Breeder (Queen): The Queen is about 5x the size of a worker ant, or about the size of a horse. The queen is fairly immobile, and is usually surrounded by a small swarm of workers and soldiers. She is constantly laying eggs, and eating. If The Queen emits alarm pheromone, her workers will form a tight ball around her, with their mandibles facing out towards the threat. Meanwhile, her soldiers will become extremely aggressive.
Pheromones are how the ants communicate. We can get almost as complex as we want with pheromones, but I decided to just stick to a few basic pheromones/messages that the ants may want to send to each other while your players are invading their nest.
Alarm Pheromone: This is what the ants emit when they are scared, or highly agitated. The scent of alarm will send any nearby soldiers into an aggressive frenzy until the threat is dealt with. Woe be to any players that get caught up in a cloud of alarm pheromone. Alarm pheromone is a sharp, stinging scent that lingers for quite some time.
Food Pheromone: This is a pheromone emitted by workers that have found food. It is a call for other workers to come and help the worker tear apart whatever has been found, and drag it away to the nest. Food pheromone is a soft, musky scent that does not linger very long.
Home Pheromone: This pheromone is emitted constantly by all members of the same colony. This pheromone is how ants identify those who belong, and those who do not. The subtleties of ‘home pheromone’ are lost on non-insectoid characters; it mostly smells like vinegar.
Injury Pheromone: Any injured ant will emit this smell. Soldiers will become very agitated when they sense it; workers will usually attempt to tear the injured ant apart and drag it to the trash heap. The exception to this is when The Queen is injured. Injuries to The Queen will cause workers to repeatedly lick her wounds, and attempt to seal them with salves made of pulp, saliva and earth. Injury pheromone is metallic-acidic smell that lingers.
Royal Pheromone: This pheromone is constantly emitted by The Queen. Soldiers in the vicinity of The Queen will be alert and very active. They will repeatedly run their antennae over any individuals near The Queen, to make sure that they smell like friendlies. Workers in the vicinity of royal pheromone are highly active, seeking something to feed or clean. Royal pheromone smells like damp mushrooms.
Swarm Pheromone: This is a pheromone that is emitted by workers when they want other workers to follow them, or come check out what they have found. A more abstract interpretation of this pheromone would be that it is an expression of curiosity. Swarm pheromone is a very subtle, rank smell and does not linger very long.
These rooms are considered fairly “low-security”. Soldiers will be relaxed, tired and generally inattentive, if your players do not cause too much trouble.
From the surface, entrance A will look like a series of badger-hole sized openings in the earth. Hot, stale air with a vinegar-like smell will be blowing up out of the holes. These are vents that are specifically designed to allow heat to escape the warmer depths of the colony. If the players attempt to dig (or move earth) down through this area, they may create a small sinkhole and find themselves tumbling down into the nest.
Entrance B should look like a very typical ant mound kind of entrance. However, if your players decide to enter from this side, they should be very careful, as there is a 160-foot drop down this entrance. The gravel that comprises the mound around this entrance should be very loose, and it will not offer much in the way of “grip” for pitons and rope. A steady stream of workers and soldiers should be going to and from from this entrance.
This entrance also comprises of a classic ant hill mound made of loose gravel. The tunnel leading down here is slightly curved, and offers the easiest ingress to your players. HOwever, this is the most highly trafficked entrance. Workers and soldiers will constantly be coming and going. Every so often, soldier ants will “scan” passers-by with their antennae to make sure they smell friendly. Entrance C immediately leads to the Worker Barracks, and to the tunnel that leads to the “Shroom Room”.
This should be the first major room that your players stumble their way into. It is a very large, expansive room where workers and soldiers will rest when they are inbetween jobs for the colony. Honeypots hang upside-down from the the ceiling in this room (their mouths face the floor). Hungry workers will climb on the walls and ceilings to tend to the honeypots, and get sugary paste from them. This is a very busy room, with many ants going to and fro; it can be considered “low security”, and even soldiers present here will not be on guard (unless your players begin upsetting the Honeypots).
A large tunnel in the floor of this room will lead down to larvae room 2. At the far end of this room is a series of large, undesignated rooms that are multipurpose. Tunnels leading down to the egg room and larvae room 1 can be found in these undesignated areas.
These are the two rooms directly beneath entrances A and B. The room near entrance A is stiflingly hot, and dry. Room A might be a place where the ants dry out meat, or otherwise utilize the heat that is being vented out of the egg room. Room B is simply a mass gathering room where the ants communicate with each other (via pheromones) before heading out to seek food, water or other resources. Room B is also where food is distributed by workers returning from a find. This room should be should be crowded and smelly.
Security increases here, especially in the Egg Room, and heading towards The Queen’s chamber. Soldiers will be slightly more willing to start alarming in these higher security areas.
This is a long tunnel that leads straight down from Room A into the Egg Room. The Ants sometimes block this tunnel with collections of debris, and mulchy-paper-saliva glue so that the egg room can be warmed. Usually, the tunnel is open, and gusts of hot, damp air blow up this tunnel and out of Entrance A. Your players may attempt to climb down this tunnel, but it may be difficult if the updrafts are particularly strong. They may also find that the tunnel is blocked with logs, branches and insect paper. Unless workers are actively working to block or unblock this tunnel, it should be free of ants.
This room, like the egg room, is kept very warm, but the temperature is not as highly regulated as the egg room.
In this room, hundreds of larvae squirm about on the ground, or in alcoves in the wall. Workers bustle about the room, feeding the increasingly hungry larvae, and eating the cast-off pupae that the larvae leave behind. Depending upon the different foods and pheromones that these larvae are exposed to, they will develop into a different specialized caste. Once the larvae are about the size of a small dog, and have begun their final pupation, the workers will take them to Larvae Room 2.
In this room, ant pupae are stacked wall-to-wall, awaiting the emergence of the final, adult form of the young ants. This room is filled with a damp, earthy smell coming up from the “Shroom Room”. Young worker ants that only recently pupated will be put to work in the shroom room. This is a fairly low-security room; soldiers do seem to care very much about what is going on in this room. However, the players may encounter recently pupated soldiers who edgy, and not particularly well socialized.
This is one of the more expansive rooms in the colony (z-axis people!). In this room, the ants cultivate a small forest of mushrooms to keep the colony fed. The entire floor of this room is a mix of compost, which fosters the growth of favorable fungi. If you are so inclined, you may populate this room with a small tribe of myconids that are living in a symbiotic relationship with The Ants. If there are myconids in this room, there should also be several “fungal workers”, in various states of growth progression. The Myconids will not be hostile to the players, unless they percieve the players to be a threat to the colony. If a threat to the colony is perceived, the Myconids will attempt to halt the players at all costs. It should be noted that the Myconids and the Ants are incapable of direct communication without the help of a fungal worker. There is large hole in the “Shroom Room” that leads to the colony’s trash heap. There are dozens of vents that allow warm air to flow out from The Queen’s Chamber into the Shroom Room; these vents are small enough that only a “Small” or smaller creature might fit.
Variant: You might have a faction within the Myconids that wish to be free from the rule of The Ants. They may aid your players into reaching The Queen.
The Trash Heap, Egg Room and The Queen’s Chamber are down here. Nobody cares what goes in/out of The Trash Heap, but the Egg Room, and The Queen’s Chamber is are highest security areas of the colony. Players should expect vigilance and apprehension from the soldiers here.
This room is a gigantic pile of refuse, offal and discarded ant corpses. It is extremely low-security. It may be inhabited by injured/dying ants, oozes, or fungal ants that have become infectious, sterile and aberrant. Depending upon the CR level that you wish to run, this refuse heap may be inhabited by a Roper, Nothic or other cave-dwelling aberration. There should be no healthy ants inside the trash heap, but streams of workers on their way to deposit trash may be found.
This is the room where newly-laid eggs are incubated. Clusters of football-sized eggs are glued to the walls, floor and ceiling by ant saliva. This room is swarming with workers who clean the eggs and tend to compost heaps that generate heat to warm the room. The ants are very particular about regulating the temperature of this room, so as to foster optimal egg growth. There is a very large vent-tunnel in this room, that is occasionally blocked with debris, or held open, to adjust the temperature of the room. Soldiers in this area would be highly suspicious of anyone who approaches a cluster of eggs. When eggs get close to hatching, workers will take it into Larvae Room 1. Because this room is so close to the Queen’s Chamber, soldiers will be somewhat on-edge in this room. If players approach the tunnel leading towards The Queen’s Chamber, the soldiers may become agitated and curious about what the players are up to.
In the game I originally ran with this dungeon, this tunnel was home to a Thri-Kreen raiding party that was hiding out in the ant colony. However, if you wish to just run a straight-up ant colony, then this tunnel should be packed with Soldiers. It is extremely high-security, and they will not allow anyone to enter The Queen’s Chamber if they do not smell like a worker. Additionally, if the players have any lingering scents of Myconid on them, the soldiers will become highly agitated, as Myconids are NOT allowed near The Queen. There should be a steady stream of workers carrying food into The Queen’s Chamber, and eggs out of the chamber.
This is the room where The Queen is kept. This room is kept very clean, so as to minimize infectious agents near The Queen. Workers and soldiers constantly swarm The Queen, cleaning her, feeding her and carrying away the eggs that she is constantly laying. The swarm of activity keeps this room very warm, which is why the walls are pockmarked with vents that lead into the Shroom Room. Soldiers in this room will constantly scan workers (and the players) with their antennae, and attack anything that smells amiss.