Welcome back, Outlander, for some further musings on dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons, making sense of the functions of dungeons and dungeon exploration in D&D, plus some of the interesting worldbuilding implications tied in. Part 2 here explores dungeon delving cultures and their fantasy world assumptions, and Part 3 will discuss the dungeon’s narrative and meta functions. Dungeon Masters and worldbuilders, enjoy!
1. Dungeons Fit Stories, Not Simulations
-Signal & Static in Storytelling
2. Dungeons Exist in Adventure-Friendly Worlds
3. Dungeons Fit Heroes, Not Hordes
-LOTR As Archetype
-LOTR As Template
4. Dungeon Delving, Dungeon Crawling, Dungeoneering
5. Dungeons Have Histories & Cycles
-Continuums & Cycles
6. Dungeons Have Ecologies
-Detritivores & Decomposers
7. Dungeons Have Upkeep
-Upkeep For Storehouses & Facilities
-Upkeep For Ruins
-Upkeep For Caves
8. Dungeons Shape Economies
-Ren Faires of Doom
9. Pirates, Privateers, Professional Soldiers in Dungeoneering
-Contracts & Contacts
10. Dungeoneering Means Codes & Omens
-Codes & Counter-Codes
–Shadowmarks from Skyrim
-SCP Field Codes
-Dungeon Master Mapping Key
1. DUNGEONS FIT STORIES, NOT SIMULATIONS.
Signal & Static in Storytelling
You know the animation in a cartoon? It doesn’t have every single detail of a real image, every wrinkle and crease. Most likely, it just has the necessary and relevant details to depict its subject. An imaginary reality with just the essential details to invoke subjects and spaces and symbols. Now, just as with roleplaying game mechanics, the dungeon spaces in tabletop RPGs, at their core, function more for story than for simulation. Like, no one wants to play with ALL the muck in the sewer, we’re really there for the kobolds. No one wants a game with all the radio static, no matter how much “realism” it adds, we just want what we do have to hold some logic.
This simplification and streamlining allows game designers to keep gameplay rules fair and fun without getting too boring, and allows worldbuilders to push toward verisimilitude, the appearance of realism, without having to run overly complex physics systems like in video games. It also aims at making a setting internally consistent from its fictional assumptions. If you have a world of magic wands, larger urban areas probably have wand repair shops. These simple impacts promote the willing suspension of disbelief, and they ripple outward in ways players can interact with as touchstones, contributing to a more immersive fantasy world. Verisimilitude differs from strict realism in that it does accept fictional assumptions like heroes and villains exist, consistent exaggeration of just-so and just-in-time actions, compressed storyspaces with more dungeons than DMVs, all of which build meaningful playspaces and stakes, story tension and dramatic resolution.
So, let’s look at how we can add some verisimilitude into dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons.
2. DUNGEONS EXIST IN ADVENTURE-FRIENDLY WORLDS
- So, what kind of assumptions do dungeons hold for cultures? And why do common merchants in D&D sell things like adventuring gear anyway, how many people really buy all those crowbars? Well, based on the premises I’ve just outlined on signal and static in storytelling, and of fantasy fiction verisimilitude, we can identify another indispensable premise: dungeons exist in Adventure-Friendly Worlds. To put it bluntly, the RPG fantasy fiction world has to support, well, adventurers, the same way that questions like, “wouldn’t petrol have made steam-power obsolete?” do have a certain logic, yet the Steampunk genre demands otherwise, to the point that certain “what if” assumptions have to exist as axioms.
- What does that really mean for D&D in practice though? Well, compared to real life, RPG towns must more prominently feature locations like Guild Halls and Training Halls, Taverns and Temples, Magic Shops and Medical Facilities, Armories and Smithies and Item Shops. We’ll talk a bit more about all that later, but for now we have to take a step back and look more at what dungeons mean for storytelling, their fundamental scope.
3. DUNGEONS FIT HEROES, NOT HORDES
- Contrasting Scope
Ok, check this out. RPG adventure fiction, in books and movies and gaming alike, essentially distills down to a contrast between the harrowing storytelling intensity of the mass battlefield on the one hand, and on the other: the drama and allure of individuals and small groups trying to overcome much larger, seemingly invincible social forces. People have come up with strange explanations for why adventuring parties make any sense at all, like the meta-trope of the Conservation of Ninjutsu, but really it boils down to supporting story settings with conflict beyond just conventional warfare, and highlighting the contrasts between the microcosm and the macrocosm.
- LOTR As Archetype
For example, if we look at a prime influence like The Lord of the Rings, we see the perfect illustration. We see the Fellowship embodied in the adventuring party of four Hobbits, two Humans, an Elf, a Dwarf, and a Wizard, nine heroes standing against nine Ringwraiths. See, their actions highlight the smaller scale, contrasting with those of the mass legions like at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields during the siege of Minas Tirith, with 130,000 orcs marshalling like a sea of wrath.
- LOTR As Template
As I discussed previously, historical wargaming began to emphasize small unit tactics roleplaying. This storytelling scale duality defines a basic but rarely articulated premise: armies almost never raid dungeons, because dungeons, for the most part, work on a wholly different storytelling scale, that of the band of heroes, not of the horde. Perhaps The Lord of the Rings’ most important contribution to D&D’s approach to dungeons, Balin’s and Frodo’s expeditions into the Mines of Moria storylines, shows the progression perfectly, with a daring band of adventurers descending from the open overworld into the closed underworld, facing confined spaces and narrow passages, gaping pits and endless abyss.
- Now let’s bring it back: where do influences like LOTR take dungeons in D&D?
4. DUNGEON DELVING, DUNGEON CRAWLING, DUNGEONEERING
- Lifestyle Choices
- Guess what? Some people use their hard-earned coins to bounce from tavern to tavern, spending their downtime on drinks and shenanigans. Other, far more reckless individuals spend their scant hours and wealth outfitting horses with bags of dry gruel, tinder, and steel, to plumb the depths of haunted sewers in search of lost gems…because apparently magical cultures haven’t developed better hobbies?
- We call such fools
ratcatchers“adventurers”, and these series of excursions — the action side of them — either Dungeon Delving (meaning self-contained explorations) or Dungeon Crawling (meaning a series of explorations). Now, the philosophy side underpinning them, “Dungeoneering”, actually became a Variant Skill in D&D 3.5e, covering knowledge of “aberrations, caverns, oozes, spelunking”, and even became its own Skill in D&D 4e, covering how “to gather knowledge about an underground environment or to recognize an underground hazard or clue”, as well as survival foraging in dungeons. Let’s look more into that.
Dungeoneering as a philosophy essentially covers how to explore a dangerous underworld for passage, quest items, treasure, or secret knowledge, using skills and gear to overcome monsters, puzzles, obstacles, and boss fights. Different cultures would approach this uniquely; a dwarven stoneworking culture likely would not approach dungeons the same way an orcish raiding culture would. Now, doesn’t the existence of a whole philosophy around dungeon exploration have profound implications for the fantasy fiction worlds that characters occupy? Let’s look at that more closely.
5. DUNGEONS HAVE HISTORIES & CYCLES.
- Continuums & Cycles
- Last entry, I wrote that dungeon adventurers can kind of break down along a Pirate — Privateer — Professional Soldier Continuum, and that whether Stateless or State forces prevail shapes a fantasy world’s social norms, modes of exploration, and power structures. Pirates in my sense may for instance approach dungeon spaces as spaces for festival or raves, whereas Privateers may see things as business, and Professional Soldiers as strictly a dominion and war-based concern.
In practice, if we also combine that with my Dungeoneering Cycle Model from the previous post, we see a sort of evolution where dungeon histories and dungeon cycles, meaning successful versus struggling settlements, arise as various settlers, scavengers, and squatters gain and lose territory over time. And those occupants may well mean monsters.
- Indirect Exposition
We can reveal all this not just through stories told in-game, but through indirect exposition based on dungeon environment. I had mentioned the significance of adventurers encountering buckets of shovels and hammers and seeds, versus well-stocked cellars, versus withered stocks. Let them also find converted statues and blasted monuments, torn signage and layered graffiti, cutaway walls or works in progress with construction ladders and scaffolds around unfinished structures.
- What subtle messages might adventurers encountering clean robes, polished bronze, clear waters, and fancy art suggest, versus stumbling upon broken locks, scratched walls, drag marks, and blood trails? Dungeon features can bear characteristic marks of new occupants expanding over the old occupants (or living within their shadow): simple aesthetics like the decor of fellowship, the fixtures of business, or the trappings of war, each adapted to a dwarven, an elven, an orcish, etc cultural vantage point. Bring those dungeons to life!
But wait…how does anything even really live in a dungeon in the first place, does that make any sense?
6. DUNGEONS HAVE ECOLOGIES.
- Food Chains
Equally, what do wandering monsters eat? Functional dungeon ecologies should have some sort of Food Chain, including abiotic energy sources and primary producers, predator-prey relations, plus detritivore and decomposer roles. Most basically, the primary producers become the food chain’s foundation, species subsisting on abiotic energies like light, chemicals, or perhaps raw magic. Various consumers eat them, and sometimes each other, or their remains. But what does that actually look like for dungeons?
- Abiotic Energies
Well, common fiction tropes like magic crystals and soulstones, arcanothermal vents and planar energy confluxes, actually do give some verisimilitude. Chiefly, fantastic creatures can extract nutrients from fantastic sources (and of cryptic natures), so feel free to sprinkle all over your dungeons some abiotic arcane fuels with weird local names: from dungeon deposits, crud, and gunk, to dungeon juices and gases, to dungeon fluorescence and flares, to dungeon bacteria and ectoplasm!
- And hearkening back to the first entry, making these at least partially toxic to outsiders helps account for why some dungeons continue to exist unconquered, and also what makes adventurers to special.
- D&D 5e Creature Types Related to Abiotic Energy Roles: Celestials, Constructs, Elementals, Fiends, Undead (Corporeal), Undead (Incorporeal).
- Primary Producers
So what eats all that stuff? Most generically, this could look like dense mats of dank fuzz, the dungeon equivalent of pond scum. A substrate for wandering monsters to subsist upon. Local variants — potentially arcane in nature — of dungeon moss and algae, dungeon plankton and kelp, dungeon flesh and fungi. This stuff doesn’t have to be boring…quite the opposite in fact. For instance, you can bet your lucky dice the players’ interest will pique upon noticing skeletons mining an overgrowth of “the Meatmoss of Mordor” from dungeon walls using oversized, humanoid cookie-cutters.
- D&D 5e Creature Types Related to Primary Producer Roles: Aberrations, Oozes, Plants (Non-Fungi), Plants (Fungi), Undead (Corporeal), Undead (Incorporeal).
- Predator-Prey Relations
Now remember, we want stories, not full simulations, so we don’t have to go into full depth here, but knowing which keystone species exist for different ecological roles can add a lot of meaningful detail. You can pick the most important apex-predator or scavenger, and a couple prey species to add to your dungeon ecology. Or, just work backward and think up what your big baddies can subsist on. Put all those monster tables by environment Wizards of the Coast makes to good use.
- D&D 5e Creature Types Related to Predator & Prey Roles: Beasts (Non-Bugs), Beasts (Bugs), Celestials, Dragons, Fey, Fiends, Giants, Humanoids, Monstrosities, Plants (Non-Fungi), Plants (Fungi), Undead (Corporeal).
Detritivores & Decomposers
Finally, somebody — or something — eats a dungeon’s organic wastes…and maybe even its treasures! Or, maybe those oozes the dungeonkeepers use as roombas also shed gold!
- D&D 5e Creature Types Related to Detritivores & Decomposers Roles: Beasts (Bugs), Constructs, Dragons, Monstrosities, oozes, Plants (Fungi), Undead (Corporeal).
7. DUNGEONS HAVE UPKEEP.
- Upkeep For Storehouses & Facilities
As you can imagine, all this ecology means dungeons require a lot of maintenance. So who refills all those treasure chests, and why? And who resets all those traps? Well, Storehouses, from the simple hideout to the complex vault, all have obvious explanations, which we don’t need to cover. In the case of Facilities, dungeon bosses may have a dungeon groundskeeper that restocks them, as with stocking fish in artificially-managed fishing ponds. Imagine it like this: they study adventurers, trying to lure them in for robbery, ransom, or “research”. You know like organ harvesting, forbidden experiments, and the like...
- Upkeep For Ruins
- At first it sounds like an oxymoron, but Ruins actually do require upkeep…inhabitable ones at least. In fact, they might require a lot of it: after all, who has more collapsing walls, ceilings, and tunnels? Who has more leftover hazards and neglected deathtraps? In this sense, upkeep for Ruins may require a special team for salvaging materials, repurposing makeshift structures, and essentially minesweeping.
- Upkeep For Caves
- Moving on, artificial caves require maintenance for earthworks like platforms and passages. So the adventuring party could actually have a maintenance contract: re-dig collapsed tunnels, clear out the excess oozes disposing of all the wastes and threatening to harm treasure, and return heirlooms in exchange for wages. Whereas natural caves just do their own thing for the most part. Disposal sites like sewers have obvious recurring inputs, whereas excavations like mines, quarries, and fossil digs require some creativity, or have a more temporary nature. Or perhaps they have magically-renewable resources, or unfathomably vast depth…
- In any case, all this upkeep implies economic impacts we might want to consider.
8. DUNGEONS SHAPE ECONOMIES.
In essence, the combination of dungeon ecology and dungeon upkeep considerations could lead to situations of Dungeon-Based Economies, meaning dungeon treasure and tourism may sometimes provide the backbone of entire town economies. Take the case of monster harvesting, which could yield valuable components for food and medicine, building materials and tools, weapon and armor ingredients. Entire fields of alchemy could arise around the Organ Drops of dungeon flora and fauna, refining them into arcane reagents like Spell Components. Not to mention archaeological aspects, like artifacts and fossils. Or even mining the dungeon material directly, particularly the abiotic energy sources mentioned earlier, or even the dungeon mortar itself. Yoinks!
Ren Faires of Doom
And to reiterate, Dungeoneering would create its own cultural patterns. Maybe bosses hire out adventurers for penetration testing their fortifications, or run delving competitions. Drawing out the economic understanding of the dungeon maintenance aspects could mean some locales have become a more macabre variant of tourist attractions and amusement parks. Imagine monstrous carnivals and deadly funhouses. Haunted houses and labyrinth tournaments. Gladiatorial pits. You get the picture. In fact, let’s dig more into Dungeoneering, looking more at the adventurers’ side.
9. PIRATES, PRIVATEERS, PROFESSIONAL SOLDIERS IN DUNGEONEERING.
- Organized Expeditions
- A lot of dungeon delving would manifest as organized expeditions, complete with routes and waystations, convoys and caches, and specialized exploration and infiltration tools and tactics. We can actually flesh out our fantasy worlds this way: famous dungeons might also have famous roads and folk heroes, hidden fortunes and cautionary tales retold in rumor and legends.
- Backing up a little bit, the standard 5e Dungeoneer’s Pack includes a Backpack, Crowbar, Hammer, Pitons, Torches, Tinderbox, Rations, Waterskin, and Rope. But expeditions with any veterans or financiers would have more detailed supply lists and travel guides in various local styles, advising which locally-known monsters to engage or avoid altogether under which circumstances.
- Veteran Dungeoneers
To illustrate, many adventuring parties would include veterans, and come outfitted with carts, including with everything from cookpots to maps, as well as toolkits able to dig, to sharpen blades, to fell trees, to fix axles. Modest but experienced adventurers would bring chalk to mark passages, and 10-foot poles or small logs to check for traps. Maybe flour to throw on invisible monsters, and mirrors to check around corners or a mouse on a leash to check for medusas.
- Yes, dungeon veterans would bring Vials of Acid for those pesky locks, door spikes or coins to blockade doors to rest while delving, and string or wax to check if doors have opened in one’s absence. Not to mention noise trap alarms from bells, and pitons to use as door jams on ceilings to keep doors open when guards retreat…over ball bearings and grease and caltrops around blind corners…as improvised traps of candles, flour, and oil fall upon them from overhead, of course.
- The most experienced parties would develop variable marching order formations almost like a football team, hand signals and secret meta-speech cues to use within the party while negotiating with strangers, maybe even counterfeit items used for bribery.
- Contracts & Contacts
Well-planned expeditions would have patrons with contracts (maybe even Hero Insurance!), as well as contacts: mutual support networks and local lords whom the expedition can invoke their patron’s reputation on for favors in dire situations. Adventuring parties might even encounter one another on the road, particularly settlers. There might even be raider warbands, chartered companies, and fearsome militias renowned for their delving detachments.
10. DUNGEONEERING MEANS CODES & OMENS.
- Codes & Counter-Codes
- Based on Thieves’ Cant in D&D (as well as Hobo Codes in real life), over time, Dungeoneering cultures will develop exploration iconography, markings scrawled along dungeon walls indicating features like terrain and trails, traps and treasure. Signs detailing local monsters and purported omens, and tips for dealing with dungeon garbage, grime on loot, or germs. At the same time, it works both ways: dungeonkeepers would have a strong incentive to put up false markings to misdirect would-be adventurers, while still maintaining their own blueprints.
Undoubtedly, these graphic elements can help flesh out the indirect exposition I mentioned in Point 5, and also become simple but authentic dungeon puzzles to grapple with, rather than forced-in riddles. Below I’ve added some representative examples: Shadowmarks from Skyrim, SCP Field Codes, Thieves’ Cant, a Dungeon Master Mapping Key, and Dungeon Symbols.
I hope you enjoyed some more musings on dungeons! Give this a share if you liked it, and let me know in the comments if you have any feedback. I plan on publishing a third entry in this series as soon as I can. In the meantime, I post D&D memes and writing updates over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check out my Newsletter Sign-Up to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patrons on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Adam, Alexander, Benjamin, Chris, Eric & Jones, Evan, Geoff, Jason, Joseph, KRR, Rudy, and Tom. Thanks for your support!