Many years ago, when I worked underground, I had a bumper snicker that said: It’s not a Dungeon. It’s a fortified Underground Defense Facility! Then, It was particularly funny (at least to me), because that’s pretty much what I worked in. There was a reason it was located where it was and why the doors were locked. But, why Dungeons? Dragons are obvious…western myth of these powerful fire-breathing creatures abound. The are powerful and terrifying and a great evil for hero’s to slay (yeah, right!). But where did the labyrinthine compounds built beneath the ground come from and why do orcs live over there, next door to the rust monster, just upstairs from the poison spore fungus, that the gelatinous cube leave be?
The dungeon, as far as I can tell, does have at least a bit of provenance…however tenuous…
There are the Mines of Moria, and The Labyrinth. (You know, from Crete? Built by Daedalus?) But since they were included in the name of the Grandfather (D&D) they can be found in almost all fantasy games and many games that are NOT fantasy!
(←Kudos to those who recognize that map!)
Hmmm…I have several hundred slaves, a lot of shovels and a bunch of doors, but no stone masons or brick makers…what can I do???
For the evil overlord who has the manpower, but doesn’t want a crenelated tower spoiling his view of the countryside, digging an underground complex might be the answer. What other reason could a person have for building the monolithic multilevel complexes of hallways and separate chambers?
From a GM point of view, Dungeons are a great mechanic. You know that the players are limited in their actions…(unless they decide they are just going to leave…but there are ways to counter that! Ask My Lady wife about it!) Almost all action that take place there are mechanical, rolled on dice, and it can become a great limit on resources…do they drop the latest treasure, or keep another week of food? However, most settings just leave the dungeons in place because of these benefits. They litter the countryside, and are filled with myriad creatures to challenge your players. But then we get back to the question above. Why? A fortress? Well, why not build a fortress? You never have to worry about cave ins, and you can grow food, and save a huge amount on your torch bill! A hidden fortress? Better. Why do you need a hidden fortress, and why doesn’t magic, or technology, work better to keep it hidden? Do you have an army of underground builders who don’t know how to stack stones on top of each other, but can mold stone like clay? Very good reason…how do you get water? Air? Food? Light? All of these are questions that would push people away from using the traditional dungeon full of locked doors and death traps. Are there any reasons to?
Earthdawn, one of my favorite settings, has a perfect reason for dungeons to exist: Horrors. The very short version of the great back story is that evil creatures exist that are unstoppable except by building magically protected cities beneath the earth. With that setting, you have a great reason for dungeons, with built-in Big Bad at the end! However, it is not the only reason. What if the surface of the planet is hostile, so denizens all live beneath the surface, with an inverse strata…those farther from the surface are the wealthier, because they are more protected from the inimical surface hazards. Lost paths, or those that had sprung a leak to the surface…Instant abandoned (or recently re-inhabited) dungeon! With only a little thought, you should be able to determine if dungeons will work in your setting or not. But, maybe you can use dungeons that aren’t a series of man-made or natural caverns. What about a badlands made up of canyons and gulches, that are generally to steep and unstable to climb…or that the hostile Indian tribe watches the surface and shoots anyone who comes out? Perhaps they get into an office building…no windows on the first 5 floors, security you understand. And the door that they entered cannot be opened from this side! They need to find a way out…and of course the robots that patrol the corridors don’t recognize the intruders…
All right. You have decided that you can use dungeons and so you begin throwing Orks over here, giant centipedes in this hall. Skeletons down these stairs, and giant spiders in the other room over there. That should prove a challenge! Well..yes, it does…a challenge to the suspension of disbelief! When keying (or populating) your dungeon like complex, think about why it is here. You obviously know you are going to use it…but why? Is it an abandoned Dwarven stronghold? Why did they abandon it? Is it a maze with a minotaur at the center? Is it an ancient kaer in which the citizens have forgotten why they buried themselves and degenerated into a dog eat dog stratification? Once you have thought out why it is there, you should see some obvious current inhabitants. The ancient bane of dwarves is the goblins! So, mostly what you find is goblins or goblinoid creatures…and don’t goblins often set traps? Do they keep pets? Wild boars for food, and for cavalry? or maybe they eat large spiders! “But Refmentor! When can I put in the dragon?!! Well…There wouldn’t be a dragon in this complex. Unless it is what drove out the dwarves. And if that is the case, will the goblins still be hanging around? Not likely. It is possible that a few scroungers have taken up residence well away from the dragon, but they are either very cunning, or completely stupid…and fighting might well rouse the super senses of the main resident. (We will talk another time about when to use such creatures in your settings).
Dungeons do Not have to be part of every story, but the can definitely be used for certain purposes. But, as this is an “Ecology of…” article, there is one final consideration for your fortified complex (Underground, overground, or where ever) and that is…ecology! What do your resident eat? Do they need water? What about waste? Where do they live? Why is there a magic pool, not alone a dozen in one room? Although you can create a food web, and then determine what the byproduct of that web are, how things decay, or degrade and so on, or, like so many other things: think about it. You can be very detailed, or general. Flora generally needs soil, light and water. There are real world exceptions, so there is no reason you cannot have exceptions…Giant leathery mushrooms that absorb water from the air, and actually blacken and weaken in sunlight…not very tasty, but full of nutrients! They naturally occur, but are often cultivated, but the glow ball fungus never grows with them, and always on the edge of running or at least not-stagnant water…OK…You have a basic food source and even some light. A particular breed of cave pig is bred to eat these fungus, but they are eaten as well, and their waste can be used for fuel for fires! OK…Now you have food, light and fuel…now place things that raise/eat them…with a “Bottomless pit” that is used to get rid of waste…bones, feces, dead grandma’s…
With a bit of thought, you can have a relatively believable location with reasonable encounters…It might take a little more investment than you had hoped, (ARE there undead that spontaneously generate?) but as with most everything else, the more you put into it, the more the players get out, which give you more back!
Well, That’s the story. Take it, or leave it. My trucker buddies, they believe it!