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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Dungeons are a mixed bag.

Troll bait title right ? right ?
OK maybe it is , but I mean it.

As a caveat though I need to add that does to mean I don't love dungeons, I do! Like I might love a kitten with a lazy eye, I love the holy hell out of them. I run dungeons, I have mapped dungeons. I just think that the concept is kinda dated and  well...stupid.

Another Caveat: Before someone jumps my shit and says, "I used such and such a mega dungeon and my  group loves it and  I'm certainly not stupid ~!RAWR OLD SCHOOL! RAWR!~"
I agree. You are not stupid and  Dungeons are fun, old school is awesome, and  lets calm down and here have a drink.

Let me spell out thoughts on dungeons, as I think of them.

Many of them are ungodly huge and full of stuff. I mean who digs these things? Who stashes their shit in them? Designers go to great length to explain how these things came to be and I think real world examples of truly mega and old underground areas are pretty sparse. Sure the New York subway system is underground, multi-leveled, full of giant rats, and sprawls all over the place, but I want to stick with  fantasy tropes for this post.
One good example would be the massive french  catacombs, and  limestone mines that lie under Paris. It's a fantastic example that really crazy under ground  Dungeons and dragons style locations can and do exist.
holy shit...
The Kremlin is said to be built over a vast network of tunnels and holes dating back to the establishment of  Moscow. Legends of lost libraries, torture chambers, and who knows what abound about the place.

K5 in The valley of the kings is by far the biggest tomb found in Egypt, with over 120  chambers and hallways it's the closest thing I can think of from Antiquity that qualifies as "A lost mega dungeon." 

However usually underground construction built in that past for reasons other than mining were not on that grand scale.
The Colosseum in Rome had a complex underground system of room and chambers under it's floor. But it was not something a man could get lost in for days at a time before being dissolved by a gelatinous cube.
Most other Egyptian tombs were more on the  scale of  30 chambers or less, and the  famous pyramids do not exactly contain mega dungeon levels of passageways and chambers.
11 rooms? Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer would point and laugh.
My thought here is that underground construction is incredibly expensive. Digging a huge hole, filing it with  walls and traps and what not. It just all seems like an awful lot of trouble and expense, not only in money but in resources and time.

It makes more sense to me that if players get involved in a  true mega dungeon it would be something more like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. A natural cave  hundreds of miles long that some villain has usurped a section of for his own evil purposes and  treasure storage needs. Or smaller a tomb that has broken into either another tomb (I used this gimmick in the game documented by my pod cast,) or breaking through into some larger natural feature. 

Above ground ruins are far more prevalent than below ground  labyrinths and can make interesting places to explore in their own right. For goodness sake Cappadocia in Turkey is basically an above ground mega dungeon. With  building upon building carved into  volcanic mounds. You get your rocky chambers and  some fresh air to boot. 


Any  of the Pre-Colombian  ruins in South America could be locations for a mega-scale adventure without having to fall into the same "dungeon" pigeon hole.
Hey look, A mega dungeon with the lid blown off!



Another game trope is, "wizard builds unimaginably huge dungeon the dies. It lies forgotten for years taken over my  monsters until heroes show up and get eaten."

This is cool stuff and I love it, I'll use it again some day, especially of the  "And the mad wizard left behind his greatest artifact The Iron Sausage of Fisting  in the depths of his  labyrinth!" Variety.

However my better judgement says if some old wizard dies it would not take before his  help or the locals he was lording over would loot the old bastard. Now we have explain traps and magical seals and what not that the old guy put on his labyrinth so that the butler can't go steal all his stashed gold, his cursed rings and healing potions.

Wait a second, if the butler can't get in to do the looting how does the local monster population get in over the next few years? Oh alright there is a monster generating machine in the basement that the old wizard looted from Castle Grey Hawk, fair enough. Why don't those bugbears set off the traps, and what do they eat down there in the dark?

You can see what I'm doing , I'm playing  a devils advocate and  asking all the questions that someone that does not have all the  role playing game tropes ingrained in them would ask.

You see, if your  dungeon  introduction contains the  word "ecosystem" I don't want to play your dungeon.

That's not because I'm not impressed but because I have embraced all those old RPG tropes. I can answer any  strangeness in any in a game I'm playing with the epithet  "cause D&D" and then move along, perfectly happy. I have never looked a desert settlement in and RPG and said, "Where the hell do they import their food from?"

I would  never be one of those guys dancing around a Worldcon hall chanting  "The Ring World is unstable." I have no desire to de-suspend my belief and shoot holes in things.

There is a subset of gamer out there however, WHO LIVES to shoot holes in things.
The idea of a huge lost construction project under the abandoned tower of a once powerful figure, who apparently had the resources to build   this big ass underground lair, gives them  a huge balloon to poke at with intilectual tooth picks.

If all this is off about dungeons in fantasy games why do we keep kicking the door in  and searching the  door frames for dart traps?

Tradition is a big part of it. No one can doubt that. Advanced dungeons and dragons module A1 is "Slave pits of the Undercity." Which  finds players in a sewer fighting Salvers and insectoid ass holes. That story arc by the time the players hit A4 find them stuck under a volcanic island, In the  "Dungeons of the slave lords." Dungeons are how players got introduced module wise to The World Of Greyhawk it was from the underground up. A1 was published in 1980, thirty four years ago, and we're still seeing allot of game worlds from the  basement up.

I got this From Here so who the hell knows how accurate it is but  I think it sums up the tradition  aspect of using  dungeons as locations pretty well.

According to Gary Gygax (in an interview with Dungeon #112), the first dungeon crawl was part of a wargame in which the invading force entered the enemy's castle through a former escape tunnel dug from the fortress's dungeon. The group had so much fun with this scenario that it was repeated over and over with increasingly complex dungeons until the wargame aspect of the game was dropped in favor of exploring the dungeon.



Tradition aside dungeons frame action well.
The gm can describe the walls the floors the  interior elements and all the other flotsam and jetsam inside a dungeon room to effectively frame the action. If a gm's plot is a railroad the traditional dungeon provides the  best possible track. Yes your party can blow up walls, dig tunnels, and what not just as perfectly described in Dyver's recent post found here.  Even still  if the  crypt you are looking for is at the bottom of that 24 level dungeon, the gm has plenty of time and locations to create problems for the party to solve.

So do I love or hate dungeons?
Both
Here's my  final summing up:
Dungeons as we have come to know them, as the  RPG trope, created at the dawn of the  hobby and with no real touch stone in the  natural world, make zero sense.

As a designer do I think the  dungeon as a part of fantasy game design has been dragged around  more than enough by more than enough writers as to make it pretty much the most redundant feature in most fantasy games? Yes. Should the  concept of dungeons be re-looked at, shaken up, and slapped around when ever possible? Yup, absolutely.

As a player and a GM though I don't give a shit what that stuffy designer says.

There are few better places to  set an adventure , few theoretical locations that can offer a way to not only contain the players but still provide the a series of problems and challenges before they reach a goal.

Few places that can be creepier or stranger. I find that I need to just need to loosen up, suspend that reality and not worry about how that  8 foot around beholder got to the bottom of a dungeon made from 5 food wide 6 foot tall stone hallways.

Dungeons kick ass in ways a forest or a desert have  a hard time kicking ass.
Dungeons come with a preconceived sense of dread. (how any times have you seen players go nuts checking every door and  every  hall for traps when there's nothing..nothing at all. It only takes one smashed skull from a falling  rock to teach them good habits.)
They have history that has wormed it's way deep within the  psyche of  Role playing gamers.

Finally they have a place in our hobby other locations just can't take.

As always Thank you for reading ,
Comments, shenanigans......
and blue dungeon maps welcome in the monkey barrel below.

*This post was edited for clarity based on a fine bit of editorial work done by a reader. Proving 2 things, I'm no writer  (obvious) And discourse is possible on the inter-webs (rare.)