Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Living Dungeons

"The dungeon" is undoubtedly the iconic locale of fantasy gaming and yet I don't think there's a consensus on just what a dungeon is or how it's supposed to operate, both in the game and in the setting in which it appears. Consequently, each referee has his own points of reference and inspiration when imagining a dungeon. Over the years, I've had several myself, but my most recent one, for reasons I'll shortly explain, is the warren beneath Wing Kong Holdings in the 1986 film, Big Trouble in Little China.

There are a couple of reasons why this has inspired me. First, it's a terrific example of a mythic underworld, a term coined by Jason "Philotomy Jurament" Cone in his foundational text on OD&D. On the outside, Wing Kong Holdings is little more than a warehouse, with a tacky reception area staffed by two ordinary (and easily duped) guards. As one delves deeper, past the rows of ceramic Buddhas and other cheaply made Asian-themed souvenirs, things start to get decidedly weirder. There's a Hellevator, a bottomless pit, creepy statues (including a neon-lit demon), streams flowing with the Black Blood of the Earth, ritual chambers, and lots of wandering monsters. 

It's the presence of wandering monsters and the characters' attempts to avoid them that first made me sit up and look more carefully at the environment of this underground lair. One scene in particular, referenced in the image above, struck a chord with me. Jack Burton, Egg Shen, Wang, and their comrades in arms are wandering about, looking for Lo Pan, when two guards in demon armor wander by, swords drawn. Jack and company dive back, out of sight, to avoid alerting the guards to their presence. It was a good reminder of the old school wisdom of avoiding unnecessary fights and wandering monsters are almost always unnecessary fights.

The whole scene also reminded me of descriptions of the underworlds of Tékumel. Section 1200 of Empire of the Petal Throne says this:

Another factor is the custom of Ditlána, the ceremonial "renewing" of many cities every 500 years: cellars and foundations of an old city are filled in and roofed over, upper floors are razed, and then new and more splendid edifices are built upon the foundation. Such earlier buried habitations are now full of burrows and tunnels built by humans, half-humans, nonhumans, and the many parasites and predators of Tékumel who subsist upon man's leavings. Many earlier temples to the Gods of Tékumel – particularly those allied with "evil" – are still maintained in the Underworlds beneath the sprawling modern cities, and it is in these that many of the rich treasures of the ancients are preserved.

I've bolded the most significant portion of the text. On Tékumel, underworlds – dungeons – are alive with activity. Many temples continue to use and guard subterranean shrines and other holy places. That means that, when the player characters are poking around, looking for treasure, they're likely to encounter hidden places that are far from abandoned. While there's a longstanding custom of "what happens in the underworld stays in the underworld," in practical terms one cannot simply sack ancient underground temples with impunity. There will be consequences to doing so and this gives dungeon delving on Tékumel a different character than that of many other fantasy worlds. Exploring the underworld on Tékumel is often as much a social battle as a martial one.

This approach needn't be unique to Tékumel (and undoubtedly isn't), but it took a combination of playing Empire of the Petal Throne for the last five years and rewatching Big Trouble in Little China to hit it home for me. 


  1. Big Trouble is an old favorite. I've had people tell me its a very racist film. I always counter by saying it employed something like 150 Asian actors, stuntmen, experts, etc and didn't stoop to using white actors as Asians in a way it probably would have if it was a huge budget film.

    I always thought of the underworld as a sort of nexus point for the Chinese underworld. Another dimension creeping in. After reading Philotomy's stuff some years ago, its how I approached my more mythical dungeons. Part construct, part alien dimension. I remember my first visit to San Francisco in the early 90's included dinner at a very authentic Chinese restaurant that used dumbwaiters and encouraged you to go next door to buy your own booze and bring it back. After dinner I insisted on exploring the narrow allyways nearby. It was right out of the movie setting. All that was missing was Burtons truck.

    1. It's also worth noting that Jack Burton is an accidental hero who bumbles his way through many encounters while the Asian characters are focused, powerful, and do the bulk of the heroics.

  2. Ah, Big Trouble in Little China, one of the true classics. As random internet nutjob Maddox once said, the number one thing that sucked about The Lord of the Rings was that it didn't have Lo Pan in it.

  3. Barker's explanation is great because it rationalizes both the existence of OD&D-style megadungeons and the reason for so many classed NPC groups on the OD&D wandering monster tables, something that was greatly reduced in later editions.

  4. I've been playing AS&SH and I've used that idea from EPT for dungeon crawling in the under-city of Khromarium. Having all sorts of cults up to no good makes for a pretty vibrant mega dungeon.

  5. Strangely enough, I just picked up the BlueRay DVD of this classic...maybe two weeks ago? Just wanted to show it to my kids.

    I love the film for so many reasons, but I hadn't considered how it fit into D&D in terms of "mythic Underworld." Definitely something I'll have to explore.