Monday, September 14, 2020

The Problem with Dungeons

Volume 3 of original Dungeons & Dragons famously includes a section entitled "Maintaining Freshness."
As monsters inhabiting the rooms, spaces, and corridors of a level are killed or captured, the level will become drab and dull. Coupled with this problem, players will have made fairly accurate maps of the level, so it will be challengeless this way also.

Dungeon restocking tables  are one response to these concerns and a good one in my opinion. They're a simple way to ensure that a dungeon is not static but rather a living place. 

A problem remains, however, and it's possibly a big one. It's a problem I've been grappling with lately and I have yet to decide whether it's inherent to the very concept of dungeons or if it's only a consequence to the way most of us conceive of them. The problem is this: what prevents someone with a great deal of power and resources from clearing out a dungeon in a massive, organized way? Think about the stories of how Rob Kuntz's character Robilar successfully defeated The Tomb of Horrors but on a more massive scale. 

I ask this question not specifically from a practical perspective but more from a narrative one. Yes, yes, I know, "narrative" is a bad word in some old school circles and the mere utterance of it is blasphemy. More seriously, though, my point rests on trying to imagine how the existence of dungeons would affect the world in which they exist. Unless the player characters are the first people to discover the dungeon and keep their knowledge of it secret, wouldn't other adventurers soon flock to the site and overrun it? For that matter, if a dungeon has existed for centuries, why wasn't it cleared long before the player characters were even born?

There are ways to address these questions, of course. For example, a dungeon might have been magically barred from entry until just recently, making the player characters the first outsiders to plumb its depths in some time. That doesn't wholly resolve the matter, since the question of why a dungeon isn't rapidly swarmed with adventurers remains. That's not to say no answers are possible, only that they rarely seem to be in my experience. Instead, most dungeons operate under a kind of "script immunity" in which they simply exist solely for the benefit of the player characters to explore and no one else.

If you read Dave Arneson's The First Fantasy Campaign, you'll see, in his brief descriptions of the dungeons of Blackmoor Castle, that he did in fact address some of these questions, albeit in a slightly whimsical way.

As you can see, a group of Elves have taken it upon themselves to guard the entrance to the dungeon, both to prevent monsters from inside it escaping and to limit the number of adventurers entering it. They even charge admission and sell souvenirs, giving it the feel of an amusement park. That's not the approach I'd take myself and indeed I find it somewhat silly, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it. M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel campaign had its own approach to these matters, which I plan to discuss in another post later this week, and they're instructive. I wish I knew more about the conduct of Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign with regard to its dungeons, since I suspect it'd offer additional insights.

Ultimately, my point is that it's not enough simply to think about what happens inside a dungeon; equally important is how a dungeon affects and is affected by the imaginary world in which it's situated. Given the centrality of dungeons to old school fantasy campaigns, this isn't an idle question but in fact a foundational one.


  1. If, as I've argued, the Dungeon is actually a malevolent NPC whose goal is to lure adventurers to their possible deaths, and that it can react to the way adventurers are interacting with it by slowly changing the physical layout of the Dungeon itself, it would be very easy to conceive that in response to an army, the Dungeon would simply make entering into its depths impossible. Thus, the only way to combat the chaos that spews forth from the Dungeon's bowels is the adventuring party.

  2. Just to say, thanks for your blog, I love your work! For some reason the 'comments' section wasn't available to me until now, hence this rather random message. Didn't realise how much I like the community aspect of blogging until I couldn't participate in it. Typical of us humans, eh?

    1. FWIW, I only re-activated the comments section a few days ago.

  3. Oh my god, you’re back. I only discovered this blog about a year ago, and gradually read through the whole thing over about a month while wasting time at a job I already decided to quit. I had recently starting trying to get back into Dungeons and Dragons as an adult, and your blog helped crystallize exactly what I was finding unsatisfying about the games I found through I was riveted by the Dwimmermount updates, and delighted to find discover afterwards that it was an actual product I could buy. I ran a little bit of it with ACK for my daughter and her cousins and uncle last summer, and it was a far less frustrating and more satisfying experience than I ever had as a kid.

  4. The guys over at "GrogTalk" have scored a series of high-profile interviews, recently. Totally essential listening.

    Anyway, in their interview with Lew Pulsipher, I was taken by Lew's reason for dungeons in a fantasy world where magic works - namely, that castles are virtually indefensible. Hence, strongholds must be dug into the ground, and can become as busy as an anthive.

    1. Why aren't there other adventurers exploring the dungeon? There are. That's why "Character" is an entry on every Monster Level Table in the DMG except level 1 (on the level 1 table "Character" is a subtable under "Human").

      Why has the dungeon not been cleared out? If it's a megadungeon it can't be cleared out, not completely or permanently. Even a smaller dungeon, given the right location or connections will have evil seep back into it unless it's continually guarded, walled up, or collapsed. All 3 of those things take money, manpower, and/or other resources, so they don't often happen. So the (non-mega) dungeon might have been cleared out before the players were born. Maybe more than once. But Lord Stoutheart's son Lord Wastrel discontinued the regular patrols, and orcs broke through the bricked-up entrances and move back in.

  5. Your suggestion is pretty much out of the nearest isekai manga comic. In many such manga, the Adventurers Guild controls access to dungeons. Some have actual people in control of the upper levels, others just control access to the adventure that leads to it so if the PCs fail, the Guild bumps the minimum level up to a higher adventurer level, and someone else gets to explore-and pick up the scraps left behind by dead PCs and NPCs.

    1. Guilds are great campaign frames. Also, it's not an isekai specifically, but Dungeon Meshi is a fantastic dungeon crawl manga with its own fun take - the megadungeon's first floor has been "cleared" and is now a flea market for adventuring supplies.

      Fellow adventuring parties aren't an uncommon encounter in the dungeon proper, but it's huge and dangerous so lower levels are still relatively untouched. There are also factions and creatures within the dungeon itself maintaining a kind of ecosystem - it's well worth a read, if only to steal ideas! Very OSR.

  6. "what prevents someone with a great deal of power and resources from clearing out a dungeon in a massive, organized way?"

    Nothing prevents it. The Temple of Elemental Evil was stormed and cleansed by an army. However, nothing prevents evil from returning to the places where it was once strong, as in Tolkien's stories.

  7. I once read an article or blog (can;t remember, and can;t find it) about the place of dungeons in the fantasy world. The idea was proposed of a "dungeon warden", along the same lines of a "forest keeper" or warden. Just as a forestkeeper, the dungeonkeeper should maintain the dungeon, decide each year how many game can be caught or shot, give permissions to parties to hunt or explore. The dungeonkeeper might even have a deal with the inhabitants about when it is permissable to go inside (or for them to come outside).

    The idea was that in a pseudo-medieval society, a dungeon, just like a forest, is a source of income and wealth and should be governed properly. Just letting parties run wild will destroy the dungeon, just as it would destroy the fields or the forest.

  8. Welcome back to blogging James.

    As for the overall point, if one has a developed setting then it make sense to consider why the dungeon hasn't been cleaned out by an organized effort.

    However it is next level detail for novice referee who is developing the experience needed to manage a campaign. So it reasonable to hand wave this away at first and focus on drawing mazes with rooms and populating it with monsters and treasures. With a small wilderness and village nearby.

    But once that experience in gain then by all means take it to the next level so to speak. Several examples from my Majestic Wilderlands.

    1) The Nights Bride Coven is a three level dungeon built into a cliff and home to a coven of evil magic-users.

    2) The Majestic Fastness was a underground dwarven city sacked by a dragon, and turned into a "evil" city under the dragon's rule. However the new city isn't as large as the old so much of the complex is uncontrolled.

    3) The Argent Halls, after the Elven realm of Silverwood fell the King remained behind to give time for the survivors to escape. In his last stand he transformed into a malevolent wraith like creature who continues to dwell in the bottommost levels on the once royal residence. So far nobody has been able to put an end to his existence.

    4) The Plain of Cairns, a series of smallish dungeons underneath barrows. The area is a large area of treeless heather dozens of miles long and wide. Something is acting as a source of chaotic corruption making the dead buried there various active undead. The problem is the sheer size of the place meant that the source hasn't been found yet despite it being a problem for several centuries. There been several major clearing expeditions but within a generation, the undead are back.

  9. I used to struggle with this idea a lot, but eventually settled on more-or-less the approach Gary took to Greyhawk Castle in the Gord story "The Heart of Darkness" - that the dungeon is a known quantity and has already been explored and looted to a large extent so what's left is mostly empty rooms and weak monsters guarding poor treasures and it is sort of a de-facto theme park - hucksters in town and near the entrance trying to sell you gear and maps at inflated prices, guides offering to show you the best areas, etc. - while the "serious" high-level adventurers have moved on to other less-known, unspoiled locations.

    There's generally not a lot of either risk or reward to be found here, and it's at best sort of a training-ground for newbie adventurers. And yet, it's so big, and so changeable, that every once in a while some group of adventurers will still manage to stumble across some "new" previously-undespoiled area. And when that happens it behooves them to keep it to themselves as long as possible, because once word gets out (including when people witness the PCs spending big in town) other adventurers WILL come looking for it.

    This doesn't recreate the dynamic of those first expeditions into Greyhawk Castle in 1972 that I know a lot of people chase after, but I think it probably does match something like what the "mature" campaign felt like c. 1974ish when there were a LOT of active players who had begun to divide into different tiers (the serious guys vs the dilettantes), and the central parts of the dungeon were pretty well known, but rich scores could still be found, and when they were the players had a strong rivalry around them (e.g. Terry Kuntz maintaining a group of followers who would hire out as men-at-arms with other players and then report back to him about those groups' progress so if they discovered something new or interesting he could quickly swoop in on it).

    That sort of jaded environment where all the dishonest merchants and mountebanks in town are as much or more of a danger to callow would-be adventurers than the inhabitants of the dungeons is appealing to me, and feels more like the kind of stuff we see in Leiber and Vance - where you can go out into the Carabas searching for sequins, but it's probably wiser (and definitely easier) to just rob the other guys on their way back...

  10. ASE II. One of the elements that puts Anomalous Subsurface Environment at the top of the "OSR" Megadungeons list is Wetmore's attention to how the dungeon interacts with the setting. One of the key aspects of ASE I is that upon finding and opening the door to the megadungeon it reveals its presence to the world (with spotlights and sirens in a typically gonzo manner). Luckily the PCs have a secret entrance to level 1, unless they reveal it by losing the loyalty of henchmen. All the other entrances though are open to the world. From there things move in a predictable and reasonable way:

    Advice on emptying unexplored low level areas - check.

    Local powers send large military force to "guard" dungeon - check.

    Rival adventuring parties - check.

    Boom Town - check.

    Tax collectors - check.

    It's a shame that only levels 1-3 are available.

  11. Somebody was writing recently (I wish I could remember which blog) about just how hard it would be to use an army to clear out a dungeon. The darkness, the problems of morale, the physical layout making pretty much all the tactics and training they had useless. And iirc that was without going into the problems of soldiers without magic weapons are just ghoul chow.

    1. Might've been this one from Coins and Scrolls: