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Basic Information

A catacomb is essentially an underground cemetery (or, occasionally, an ossuary as in Paris) - a series of tunnels used for burials. Catacombs are frequently constructed when the demand for burial space conflicts with a lack of land inside a city and difficulty creating cemeteries beyond city limits - the Paris catacombs were created when such a conflict coincided with public health problems resulting from the city graveyards being (over)full.

As a system of largely unoccupied tunnels they are traditionally good places for various forms of covert activity as well, either after their original use has been discontinued or whilst it is still in progress.

According to legend, the early Christians in Rome met in secret in the catacombs during times of persecution. According to the Other Wiki, however, most of the Roman Catacombs were built after Christianity was legalized, and the Christians actually used them for burial services, as one would expect. Still, it's a good legend1.

In some cases, catacombs can contain some extensive excavations serving as mortuary chapels, ossuarys and, essentially, underground mausolea. Connections to the surface may be rare, with only one or two entrances, or they may connect to every place of worship in the area for ease of burial. They may also interlink with surface cemeteries, graveyards and mausolea to create a veritable necropolis existing alongside the surface city.

A catacomb entirely confined to one building (usually a place of worship) is usually called a crypt.

Like many structures, a catacomb may start its career as something else - those of Paris were often quarries or other species of mine, used for construction and then buried and subsumed inside city limits. Finding a new use for an existing hole is entirely within the remit of humanity's imagination.

See Also


Game and Story Use

  • Obviously if these become infested with undead someone is going to have to clear them out.
  • These make a useful substitute for the absurdly spacious sewers found under most fantasy cities.
  • Even in non-fantasy campaigns, they can easily fill with resistance groups, urban explorers, criminals and other nuisances. A villain could easily connect his cellar to a series of catacombs as an unexpected escape route.
    • And any route by which he can escape… and more generally, PCs seeking a quick exit from the catacombs may find themselves in all sorts of places.
  • If some idiot tunnels between catacombs and storm drains or sewers, all kinds of nuisance can ensure. This sort of tunnelling would be entirely normal for, say, a religious minority trying to avoid being rounded up and murdered, but also for smugglers and other criminals with their own desires for covert action.
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