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 � 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.

What is so wrong with archetypes (because I don't think a Dungeon is in itself a stereotype). All RPG's have their archetypes: the mysterious vilain, the cult temple, the lair in the depth of the sewers, the tower, the huge star base, the runnaway droid/juggernaut/monster, the experiment gone wrong, the innocent in distress, the broken hero, the abandonned fortress/temple/mine, etc.

All these can be treated with originality. Expecially if you make it come alive and turn the Dungeon into a place where the monsters live. It then becomes something more than a kick in the door, kill the monsters, loot, rest, kick in the door, kill... adventure, which eventually becomes quite boring.

I'm not saying that a dungeon's entire history, ecology and architecture have to be extreemely well defined, just that there should be some more detail to it. I think the trick for the DM is to prepare and define the details that will hook the players. Don't bore them with architectural details if they find it boring.

Adding local criters (crickets, spiders, rats, birds, cats, etc) that some of the players hate, fear or love can also make the dungeon more alive, especially if the criters have no impact on combat.

In fleshing out a dungeon, I try to answer some basic questions: How do the inhabitants react to attacks? What strategies will they devellop to counter hit and run tactics? Where do the inhabitants sleep? When do they sleep? Where, what and when do they eat? Where do they get and store the food? What is the interelation of the inhabitants (the basic political alliances and ennimities).

By the way, remember "the Lost City" (an old D&D module from the "basic set" if I remember). The part that bugged me most was that this HUGE temple stuck in the middle of a desert was devoid of anything to eat but its monsters and the heroes and there were almost no living areas for a module so filled with monsters (not to mention wandering monsters) that I vowed never to create such a stupid environment for one of my adventures.

But event then, that adventure was a blast (just like the original Temple of Elemental Evil) in spite of its stupidity.

Cthulhu Matata

I put the "dungeon crawl" in the same category as chainmail bikinis and Wizards that strangely "forget" their spells each time they are used. It's fantasy. The moment four pairs of hairy hobbit feet went tramping through Moria it became a part of the genre.

Of course, the logic and legitimacy of a dungeon goes from the absurdly silly to the expertly appropriate. A simple hole in the ground populated by monsters waiting to be killed by organized groups of humanoids is certainly of the former group. Hopefully, one's GM is interested in pushing his adventures towards the latter.

I appreciate the points on campaign flavor you illustrate on The Tavern and on The Dungeon. I do think there are more practical reasons for their ubiquity though.

Starting the story in the tavern, with a mysterious stranger, in my opinion, is laziness. Now, that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In a "pick-up" game that stands apart from a fleshed-out campaign, where you just want to get to the door as fast as you can, then perhaps we can forgive the cliche. If our goal is to skip the preamble and kick in the door of the tomb as fast as possible, then why bother with the unbiquitous tavern encounter? Why not make up a more compelling raison d'etre and simply offer it in the opening exposition narrative. Something like the opening scrawl of a StarWars movie, that sets the stage, the settting, and a credible personal stake for the characters? Do you really need to roleplay your acceptance of the task?

The best beginnings in which I played or DMd tied the characters personally and emotionally to the locale - someplace small and humble, reflecting the characters themselves. They were teens in a villiage that attacked. Their families suffered. The granary burned. Their relationships to each other, as villiagers or traders etc were agreed in advance, to skip over the silly introductions parodied in the SummonerGeeks. Moreover, we were given a taste of normal village life as well. Rather than heaping on the darkness and gore, we were able to establish in the context of the narrative what a "normal" life is, and give our characters something to fight for, or to avenge its loss. Emotion is a more compelling motivator than money, because it can be felt by the player at the table. She wants to see the villain defeated and order restored. The more they play, the more of the normal world they see, in addition to the dungeon. Local flavor in a campaign gives players a sense that their characters have lives, rather than simply waiting in Valhalla for a horn to blow, and materializing at a dungeon door. In my campaigns, I try to think of what it would take for me to strap on a sword, leave my home, and risk my life. A bit of money or a thirst for adventure is not it - at least in the first adventure of a campaign.

The Dungeon. It is useful in a game because the geography limits player choices and environmental choices into something that is manageable by a single referree. The players and DMs have a range of possibilities when dealing with NPCs and monsters, but ultimately, they can only go right or left, and they can only decide whether to open the door or not open it. The physical environment of the dungeon answers for us the questions of

"Why don't they just go and get help from the army?"
"Why don't they just leave?"
"Why don't they go around it?"

It helps build tension by creating an environment that is hostile and uncertain, while at the same time rewarding players with the constant discovery of what is behind the door.

It forces players to overcome challenges to achieve more, rather than just avoiding them. It confines the game to a locale that is manageable and that can be anticipated, with little chance that they will "wander off out of bounds," forcing a DM to improv to create the world as they walk, inventing some excuse to bring them back to the events or scenarios that will once again engage them in the plot at hand.

Good outdoor adventures can do the same, but extra care must be taken to ensure that choices and NPC motivations are clear, and that players are aware of them. It's much easier for them to wander out of bounds and leave the story altogether, following some wild goose chase. Or, as is the case with the terrible adventure "Speaker in Dreams" they can short-circuit a game by visiting an obvious encounter site too early to make sense of it, or too early to handle the challenge it contains. The nature of the dungeon is that it prevents premature revalations and encounters, while still offering a range of choices for players to take. It is a good compromise between pure story and a purely tactical game. In my mind, this is what makes an RPG different from a game of Chess or a night at the improv.

On March 5, 2002 06:46 PM, Jubilex said:
I put the "dungeon crawl" in the same category as chainmail bikinis and Wizards that strangely "forget" their spells each time they are used. It's fantasy. The moment four pairs of hairy hobbit feet went tramping through Moria it became a part of the genre.

Of course, the logic and legitimacy of a dungeon goes from the absurdly silly to the expertly appropriate. A simple hole in the ground populated by monsters waiting to be killed by organized groups of humanoids is certainly of the former group. Hopefully, one's GM is interested in pushing his adventures towards the latter.

You're not going far enough into history.
Moria? The progenitor of the dungeon?
Even J.R.R.T. himself openly admitted he didn't start "fantasy", so surely we can find the dungeon elsewhere, no?

Try Beowulf.
Every (American at least) High School graduate has read this.
It's the oldest known English-language epic.
And it's got more archetypes than you can shake a stick at. Including the good old "dungeon crawl".

Just for the record, I'm an American college graduate, and I haven't read Beowulf. Well aware of it, yes. Read it, no.