Monday, July 25, 2011

The Lure of the Dungeon

Today's article is a response to a question from reader Shawn, who asked the following:

...this section got my interest "dungeon/underground/location-based adventuring." Maybe because I did not come into the hobby through D&D, dungeon crawls have never had any real appeal to me. The average description of them just sound boring to me and very repetitive. I would like to see a blog from you on the appeal of dungeon crawls, if you're interested.

Of course! Great topic! I'll be honest, I like a mix of both dungeon-based and overland/city-based adventuring. Probably if all my games did was muck about in dungeons, we'd all get pretty bored pretty quickly.

I think when some people think of dungeon crawls, they think of open/bash down the door, fight orcs, and grab loot as all there is to it. In one case, yes, dungeons can just be obstacle courses set up for your player characters to navigate; games such as X-Crawl excel at this line of thinking. But although a dungeon can be simply a maze or series of obstacles, to have it stop there is to really sell it short.

A dungeon is not just a place where each level exists independently of each other. The Lizardmen on Level 2 will allow you safe passage...for a price. Meanwhile, the gnomes who are conducting excavations on Level 3 just want to be left alone, but they've been harassed by a family of rust monsters, which have been forced out of their lair by the Lizardmen. The Hobgoblin in the secret passage in Level 4 hate everyone, but they want the Evil Blood God Cult down on Level 7 gone, just like everyone. Just like a hamlet or village is full of the interlocking parts, rivalries, trade, and opportunities that make it come to life, should should a dungeon be as well.

If your dungeon isn't functioning as a living, breathing, interactive place, then you might be missing out on the part that really brings it to life.

In addition to that, there's a reason we're fascinated about stories such as the trapped Chilean miners. The interior of the earth, even in a fantasy world, is one of the last great unknowns, and holds a vast potential for fear. It's associated with tombs, fey folk, and even the supernatural underworld itself. It runs the gamut from Orpheus to the Mole People. It's the idea of dying somewhere with thousands of tons of earth pressing over you, away from the eyes of man and god alike. When your band is traipsing through the wilderness and they enter a dungeon, they're on the frontier of the frontier.

Really, dungeons can be as exciting and as unique a location as you want to make them. In fact, if your dungeon is safe, unremoved from the world, or predictable, it's no wonder you have little appetite for them.


Z.L said...

One thing I encounter quite a bit when playing in games is that people forget that if something lives in a dungeon, it needs a way to eat and survive in general. If the things in the dungeon are stuff like Kobolds/Bugbears, then they are going to have some form of structure at some point in their layout. You should find sleeping rooms, kitchens, storage areas, etc.

It feels unnatural to enter a kobolds lair and find a bunch of empty hallways, some traps, and kobolds running around with no rhyme or reason.

guttertalk said...

Having a living dungeon is important, I agree. I've enjoyed even caves and small dungeons, which can still have a living atmosphere. But the draw for me is the environment itself. You can have a network of different creatures above ground, but it's not the same.

Part of it is that being underground is primal. Even simply talking about caves makes my wife squirm. Still, it's worth setting up the dungeon itself--the low ceilings, the slippery floors, the faint echos, the sudden drafts of cool air.

This might seem like a dumb idea, but recently we went into the Cathedral Caverns in Northern Alabama and turned out the lights at the very end. We held our hands in our front of our faces before the lights went out. When it went dark, we could no longer see our hands. Far to the rear of the cave, we heard faint noises that at first sounded like water but then began to sound like someone whispering so faintly.

The idea is this, which works best at night, of course: Before the game starts, the GM has everyone stand, tells them to imagine being in a cave or dungeon and to close their eyes. Then, the GM turns off the lights and tells them to just listen and make no noise. In the right setting, I think it could well set the stage for a dungeon crawl.

Mitch Featherston said...

The dungeon is a classic fantasy rpg setting, and always will be. As someone who was brought into rpg's with D&D, I really like dungeons as settings... enormous possibilities for encounters... hallways, pits, traps, crumbling architecture, and, of course, monsters!