Game Culture Four: Dungeons … and why I hate them

The DNA of the roleplaying hobby has a few things that are baked hard into it and one of them is the concept of ‘the dungeon’. Traditionally, it is some sort of sprawling subterranean labyrinth, with multiple layers of increasing difficulty, stock full of traps and monsters and treasure. Sometimes, it’s a sprawling tech-based labyrinth. Hell, I have even seen a sprawling supervillain-inspired submarine labyrinth. And it’s hard-baked in too, from the very first printings of D&D, where we were told about ‘dungeon adventuring’.

As presented in the archetypical dungeon, it makes absolutely zero sense. None. Nadda.

(And that’s where the caveat for this article lies, I think – this is about my dislike of the old-style dungeons that I grew up with. I’ve seen and GM’d dungeons that are far more of my liking from newer games and adventures. But the old rubbish still bleeds through sometimes)

The Alpha Dungeon: Moria

Let’s consider the source of the dungeon – I reckon it’s Moria in Lord of the Rings. Big sprawling labyrinth? Stocked with monsters? Quite a lot of environmental challenges – especially in the film. Moria is, in my mind, a perfectly good setting for a D&D style dungeon adventure. I can’t easily come up with another inspiration for the trope. However, most dungeons as presented in games are nothing like Moria.

Moria has a purpose – it’s a dwarven city that has fallen. It should be recognisable as a city, with all of the features of a city. (OK, I’m not sure which city has those tall, unprotected stairways – probably the same genre-traveling designer who made the barrier-less walkways in the Romulan ship in Star Trek (2009)) Moria has monsters, but they aren’t random. They’re the goblins that have invaded the city and their beasts of burden, like the cave troll, and of course, the other denizen of the depths of the city, the Balrog. Moria has traps, but they are environmental challenges that are created because of the decay of the city. Moria has treasure, but the real treasure is finding out what the fate of that dwarven city was, and the impact that has on Gimli and the other dwarfs of Middle Earth.

The Beta Dungeon: In Search of The Unknown

Now, contrast that to your typical D&D dungeon of yore? The rooms seem to be randomly generated without any real nod to architecture or even spurious in-game logic. There are a load of monsters, all living on top of each other with a higher population density than most towns, without conflict, waiting patiently for adventurers to come and execute them. And they live amongst the most nefarious traps ever devised and never trigger them despite also carrying a fair few magic items but not having the brains to use them. And, inevitably, the further into the depths you go, the threats are neatly stacked in terms of difficulty. Oh, and these places are huge. Huge, multi-leveled underground complexes packed with monsters and magic just waiting, statically, to be found and looted.

None of this is new, I know. I remember reading ‘How did that dragon get into that room on the seventh level of that dungeon?’ question in Dragon when I was a kid. And I know, for some people this sort of game is exactly what they come to RPGs for, and really, I salute you. I’m not raining on your parade at all. It’s just not for me and the games I run.

My Seven Rules for Dungeons

If I introduce a ‘dungeon’ – or really, some sort of explorable, confined setting – into a game, it has to adhere to these six rules

  1. The structure makes sense

The mapping has to make sense for the structure. So, if it is a temple, it looks like a temple and if possible is modelled off the layout of an actual real-world temple. Similarly, castles and palaces and yes, dungeons. And it doesn’t have to be huge either. A small 6-8 room structure can easily provide a night’s play. So keep it ‘realistic’

2. Say no to traps, say yes to environmental hazards

For many reasons, traps are my most hated part of any game. In the next installment of Game Culture I’m going to write about the difference between player vs environment and character vs environment, and traps are a big part of that. However, just their existence in most dungeons makes no sense. The traditional pit of spikes, swinging blade, flying darts etc. style trap makes little or no sense in a structure that was made to be populated by actual people. What sort of lunatic puts a pit of spikes between the kitchen and the dining area? Or a series of swinging blades on the way to their throne room? So unless they make absolute sense – like some monsters creating them to protect themselves after they moved into the dungeon, they go and they go fast.

On the other hand, environmental hazards are perfect. I love a dodgy floor, collapsing roof or even a full of blockage that cuts off an exit completely. If the structure is under sand, the classic ‘sand flooding into the area’ set-piece is almost mandatory isn’t it?

3. Less is more when it comes to monsters

Make the opposition make sense within the ecology that it exists. Take a monster ‘type’ – so say, goblins? Now extrapolate what might be with them? Wolves? A hobgoblin leader? A gnoll shaman? Maybe a couple of ogres used for muscle? Some for of beast of burden? Goblin riding yaks? Yeah, I can go with that. Livestock?

OK, now fit that in and around your dungeon. You need somewhere for the goblins to sleep, eat and socialise. You need storage areas. You need a latrine. You need an area for the wolves and the Wolf-Keeper (ooh, what would a goblin Wolf Keeper look like?). You need a yak enclosure, and food, and maybe a separate area for the Yak Herders, smelly to even goblins. You need the Ogre pens, and the Shaman’s quarters, open to the elements somehow … and of course, you need the lair of the Hobgoblin Lord, served by his servile goblin masses.

Hey, look, it makes sense at first glance.

4. Ditch the stupid D&D monsters

This is a very personal one, but you can take all of the jellies, oozes, mimics, ropers and other stupid monsters and throw them into a very deep trench in the sea. The only purpose for a mimic is to make players ultra-cautious every time they find a chest. Well done, you have just slowed your game to a crawl for a joke. Congrats…

5. If you’re having treasure, make sure it makes sense too

“Gee,” thinks Grizzold the Goblin as he lies dying “I sure could have done with a Wand of Magic Missiles to fend off those bastards looting my bedroom. If only I had time to retrieve mine from the trapped locked box hidden under my flea-ridden bedroll…grrrgh…”

If you do magic items, let the monsters use them or don’t give them to them at all. If these things are rare and valuable, they’re not going to be scattered about randomly, or worse, left in piles of rags or rubble so players are incentivised to pixel-click everything looking for loot that doesn’t exist!

Sometimes, make the treasure be the knowledge gained about the plot or the setting? Have maps and murals tell a tale that helps the PCs on their quest. In a formerly functional space, there may be libraries and other places that hold valuable information. Use them instead of piles of gold, because remember, we already ditched money, effectively, in a previous entry.

6. Give it a way out or make getting out part of the fun

Part of making dungeons functional is thinking about the flow of people around the place. Traditionally, the ‘high levels further from the front door’ dungeon ends with some sort of ‘boss’ encounter and then? Do the characters teleport home (ala World of Warcraft). Is there a one-way short cut to the entrance? (again, ala World of Warcraft). Do they have to fight their way out of the dungeon?

In a small dungeon, this isn’t an issue, but in a big one, surely getting out may be as much trouble as getting in? The monsters that haven’t been defeated on the way in will surely have heard the screams and explosions and will be coming to see what’s happened to their neighbours. They may even be slightly vexed at the sight of dead Grizzold and want some revenge!

7. Make the dungeon IMPORTANT!

I cannot stress this last one enough – these dungeons should matter. The local population should know about the old temple out on the island, overran by lizardmen and repurposed to their despicable gods. The tower of black rock that towers over the broken plain, home to the dead spirit of the once loyal archwizard, now turned to darkness against her Queen should be a place ordinary people avoid.

When dungeons are just ‘a door in a mountain that people go into the clear out some more stuff and get some loot’ then all of the magic has disappeared. It’s as adventurous as popping down to Aldi on a Wednesday morning.

So what’s the emergent play?

This is an interesting one as I had to think hard for examples to base it upon, such is my avoidance of traditional dungeons.

Rule #1 changes the shape of dungeons – they become smaller and easier to manage, and almost always they are above ground, in recognisable structures like castles and temples and such. It also means that very few of them need to be underground.

Rule #2 essentially removes traps from the game (and good riddance, I say) and speeds things up no end. When players are constantly checking for traps, things slow to a crawl. It also means the environment becomes something that the players start to take notice of and begin to fear a little. Have combat in a semi-sunken room where the foes can swim, but the characters cannot but have their movement hampered, and things become really interesting, really quick.

Rule #3 allows the dungeons to slide into the ecology of your setting and make more sense within their world.

Rule #4 means that players become interested in the room, rather than what’s in it to kill them, randomly, because it’s a deadly chest of drawers or whatever bullshit happens. It also leads to a faster game, like in Rule #2

Rule #5 means that lower level magic becomes more visible and, to an extent, eliminates the tawdry dullness of the detect magic/identify/arcana check merry-go-round. It also makes your intelligent monsters exactly that – intelligent!

Rule #6 means you can extend the drama to the exit from the dungeon (hello, Moria, my old friend…) or have a reasonable thought as to how the shortcut works. It’s a small thing, I know, but it vexes me. In turn this means that characters may have to save resources to get out rather than splurge them all on an ‘end boss’ fight, making the entire venture a little tougher.

(OK, confession – one of the best dungeons I have ever ran was the climax of the Copper Crown adventure for Symbaroum. It had traps in it and required the PCs to get the Hell out of Dodge before they were devoured. As they ran out, they totally forgot about the traps they had successfully navigated and ran through them all in a proper comedy Indiana Jones style, barely escaping with their lives. Sometimes, even I break my own rules)

Rule #7 means that these structures become recurring places in your campaign, rather than one shot challenges. They are reference points for the campaign lore – sometimes they might be returned to, sheltered in, even cleared and populated as a PC ‘base camp’.

Treated with thought and respect, dungeons can make a game but without that respect, they’re just … well, shite.

Next time: The difference between PvP/PvE and CvC/CvE, the British Gas tactic and Middle Aged Middle Class Professional Syndrome.

p.s. Just to add more fuel to the flames, I’m going to take a moment to wax lyrical about my love of the dungeon experience in Vanilla World of Warcraft. Say what you want to about the game, but those dungeons were brilliant. Each had a theme, it was based on an in-genre appropriate premise, even getting to some of them was a mission in and of itself and they felt like an accomplishment to beat. And the one that didn’t – the one that really felt like a ball ache to do (Blackrock Depths, I’m looking you square in the eye…) fell down because it abandoned Rule#1 and just made no sense to move around. But oh, some of the others – Scarlet Monastery? Scholomance and Stratholme, and of course, Molten Core – brilliant stuff.

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