Dungeon Contractor: Premise
Crawling around in dank, poorly lit underground tunnels, on the quest for treasure and mindful of monsters and traps: this is THE typical adventure. It has always slightly reminded me of my college years, but that is another story. This prototype has been around for quite some time. The game, after all, is called "Dungeons and Dragons."
Even in games as far from fantasy or Old School gaming as possible, the dungeon remains. Many adventures have a point where, whatever the setting, the situation is basically "go into this highly dangerous area and kill a lot of them," which for all practical purposes is the dungeon. Thus, the phrase, "oh, looks like we've got to the dungeon crawl."
Stereotypical and trite? Maybe. I tend to think of it as a trope, much like the tavern scene. After all, if there is anything more essential to the flow of an Old School game than the dungeon crawl, it is the party first meeting up at a bar. Subsequently the party receives their marching orders from mysterious strangers in bars. Doing so is, contrary to common understanding, not boring and uncreative, at least not solely so. Think about it this way: say you (yes, you, sitting there, reading this) had to get a party of adventures together. Where would you go? The SCA, Soldier of Fortune, the gym, a nearby college ï¿½ all are viable choices. On the other hand, by going to a bar you could get that sort of cross-section all in one place. Besides, the act of going out to a bar is the act of a little sort of adventure, of not knowing what will happen next, as opposed to getting sloshed at home. Furthermore, a bar is where people are supposed to meet, as opposed to your local gun show, and while people at the latter might be more immediately useful it is just as likely that you would meet someone just as talented at your corner pub. So it makes sense.
It is obvious that something social will happen in a bar, the same way it is obvious something anti-social will happen in a dungeon. Bars have a tendency to pop up wherever human settlement occurs. Dungeons are likewise as pervasive, but for a different reason. Like the ways that bars (or some place where people congregate while drinking something) are almost a natural byproduct of humanity, dungeons occur wherever there is a hole in the ground. Show me an underground entrance and I will show you a dungeon, it does not matter whether the hole is natural or manmade. They are dangerous, but in a special kind of way.
Primarily, they are dangerous because dungeons (in my more general sense) are the antithesis of human existence. They are uninhabitable: cold, wet, most importantly dark, oftentimes already occupied by something nastier, occasionally filled with noxious gasses or at least poor air, and generally unpleasant. However there is something special about them because of all these facts. Generally speaking (though this does happen both literally and figuratively in story and reality) we are not taking about people who fall down a sinkhole, but people who voluntarily enter some dark underground place. The dungeon must be entered. Contrast this to being killed dead by some rampaging tiger on the savannah. The latter is perfectly chaotically natural, a random act of violence that makes sense. Dungeons are all about going in harm's way. They are about challenging some part of human nature.
The principles of dungeoning can be explored with Jung, Freud, Plato, Christianity, Post-Structuralism, and even historicism. Perhaps it is more Western/Middle Eastern in spin, simply because they were the societies most concerned with duality and the conscious/unconscious split. Specifically, underground dens represent the unconscious mind, and shadows the light of human knowing never casts away, not to mention the womb/tomb idea.
Lest my topic goes too far astray, the dungeon is not only a junky stereotype. It is a part of the definition of adventure, but also so pathetically clumsy that it cannot be used without self-awareness or a sense of camp. As role players, because of history and all the other things, we are stuck in the dungeon so it might as well be made the most of.
This essay is the beginning of a series on the ecology of dungeons. An article or two on dungeon structure is not anything new, nor will my take be radically earthshaking. Still, it has been a while, and I intend to attack things with that mixture of practical economics and metaphorical poetics that is the mainstay of my style. Now someone get some spare batteries for my flashlight, and get ready to talk about floor tiles.