Welcome back, Outlander, for some musings on dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons, making sense of the history, types, and roles of dungeons, plus some of the interesting worldbuilding implications tied into that. And Part 2 will explore dungeon delving cultures, with Part 3 covering the dungeon’s narrative and meta functions. Dungeon Masters and worldbuilders, enjoy!
1. What Even Is A Dungeon?
-Dungeons in History
–Dungeons As Urban Wilderness and As Underworld
2. What Types of Dungeons Exist?
-Four Main Dungeon Forms
–Facilities Overview & Sub-Types
—Typical Facility Features
—Facilities Furnishings & Occupants
—Storehouses Overview & Sub-Types
—Typical Storehouse Features
—Storehouses Furnishings & Occupants
—Ruins Overview & Sub-Types
—Typical Ruins Features
—Ruins Furnishings & Occupants
–Caves Overview & Sub-Types
—Typical Cave Features
—Cave Furnishings & Occupants
3. Worldbuilding More Coherent Dungeons.
-Dungeons in Space and Time
-What Dungeons Must Do
–Dungeon Social Implications: Weak States Settings
–Dungeon Social Implications: Steady States Settings
–Dungeon Social Implications: Strong State Settings
–Three Types of Dungeon Delvers
–A Dungeoneering Cycle Model
1. WHAT EVEN IS A DUNGEON?
- Dungeons in History
Historically, we associate dungeons with royal dungeons: a castle jail and torture chamber, with prisoners held in underground cells. Often, dungeons proper came in the form of “bottle dungeons”, accessible only from a hatch or hole in a high ceiling, easily keeping those below captive. Roleplaying games started with that, but definitely didn’t end there.
Dungeons As Urban Wilderness and As Underworld
So, in RPGs, we often divide zones into settlements or battlefields, wilderness, and dungeons, with dungeons usually blending aspects of the two. Dungeons can essentially act as urban wildernesses, little hybrid adventure zones like sprawling sewers and maze-like mines. We can of course find notable exceptions, both since the term “dungeon” has generalized over the years, and because many other spaces clearly still constitute dungeons in gameplay. Some buildings on the one hand, and pure natural caverns on the other. But between them, we find a common bond. The subterranean. The underworld. The delve.
Actually, if we look back to some of D&D’s influential moments, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first released Wilderness and Underworld Adventures in 1974, and there we can see a first major progression away from the open battlefield, toward other zones of gameplay. In tabletop wargaming history, “dungeon crawls” began with roleplaying an invading force infiltrating underground sally ports beneath a fortress’ dungeon. Now, for gameplay exploration purposes, these spaces began to connect networks of other subterranean castle infrastructure: latrines or sewers, cisterns or cellars, barracks or vaults. Specific categories evolved over time.
2. WHAT TYPES OF DUNGEONS EXIST?
- Four Main Dungeon Forms
- D&D 3.5 attempted to identify four main dungeon forms, looking something like this:
- 1. FACILITIES
Facilities Overview & Sub-Types
Actively inhabited buildings housing personnel, like functional fortresses, prisons, headquarters, temples, academies, laboratories, workshops. Potentially an Evil Overlord’s Lair.
Typical Facility Features
Well-constructed infrastructure, especially doors, walls, and passages, emphasizing strong barriers, such as gates and guard systems, which potentially require authorization to enter. Notably, traps here can become too high a liability for underlings, so aside from near superior’s quarters, they exist largely as obstacles to slow down, rather than quell, large breaches.
Facilities Furnishings & Occupants
We commonly find various Humanoids and Giants here instead of wandering monsters, with extensive and culturally-appropriate furnishings, decor, and supplies. Though any creatures sufficiently intelligent and social can develop Facilities, whether Extraplanars like Celestials, Fiends, and Elementals, or else the more intelligent Undead, like Liches and Vampires. Beasts and Plants, Constructs and Oozes can all serve industrial purposes here too.
Storehouses Overview & Sub-Types
Safe storage housing valuable goods, from a simple cellar, to a full-fledged vault. Archives and armories. Towers and tombs. Warehouses, treasuries, and crypts. Potentially even zoos.
- Typical Storehouse Features
Significant barriers and obstacles, hazards and traps, mazes and wards, and often non-living guardians or summoned extraplanar guardians These have gates and guard systems like with Facilities, but a higher chance of being hidden.
- Storehouse Furnishings & Occupants
Sparse furnishings and decor, as supplies become the focus. Very low chance of wandering monsters, and likely occupants include Humanoid or Giant workers and guards, as well as Undead and Construct guardians, sometimes Celestials or Fiends or Elementals as well. Storehouses may feature fearsome intelligent creatures like Dragons. In an alternate take, the valuable goods in question could be specific Aberrations, Beasts, or Monstrosities themselves.
- 3. RUINS
- Ruins Overview & Sub-Types
Formerly inhabited facilities like collapsed or abandoned structures, still potentially featuring scavengers or squatters. Mysterious remnant and rubble left behind by the Ancients. Like what? Failed fortresses with fatal flaws, raided storehouses, or wasteland buildings destroyed by disasters of natural or arcane or divine origin. Usually either very conspicuous in barren lands, or else very concealed, perhaps even buried or overgrown..
Typical Ruins Features
The traps have mostly already sprung, but hazards, and even curses, can appear more common. Expect landmarks like collapsed structures, overrun gates, and breached barriers.
Ruins Furnishings & Occupants
Minimal or damaged furnishings, decor, and supplies. Ruins do however become the domain of all manner of wandering monsters, with Beasts and Plants quickly overtaking these spaces. Ruins differ enough in origin and function to potentially sustain any of the various monster types, albeit in lower population densities if not the various Extraplanars, Constructs, Undead, or Elementals, which have less sustenance needs. Very strong Aberrations, Dragons, or Monstrosities could in fact have contributed to the formation of the Ruins in the first place, turning them into lairs.
Caves Overview & Sub-Types
Natural cavern complexes (which I’ve explored at length elsewhere), as well as artificial underground paths like tunnels and sewers, and even excavation sites like mines, quarries, and fossil digs, can all fit in here.
Typical Cave Features
Labyrinthine tunnels and corridors, cave-ins and chokepoints, scant doors, and many hazards, but few traps. These may intersect with other subterranean dungeons. In an Underdark setting, Caves can display various fungi and crystals, whereas disposal or excavation sites may have relevant wastes or resources.
Cave Furnishings & Occupants
Minimal furnishings and decor, with supplies mainly found only for artificial sites, though potentially that means useful tools and caches, whether for maintenance and extraction, or sustaining a hideout. Natural ones very commonly features wandering monsters, but artificial ones may have laborers too. Standard Cave occupants mostly include Aberrations, Beasts, Constructs, Dragons, Elementals, Humanoids, Monstrosities, Oozes, Plants, and Undead.
3. WORLDBUILDING MORE COHERENT DUNGEONS.
Ok, now that we’ve looked at form and function, as well as some historical origins and gaming history, let’s look at the actual worldbuilding considerations of dungeons. What actually creates dungeons? How do dungeons actually make any sense in fantasy worlds to begin with?
Dungeons in Space and Time
Ever played an RPG? To start with, these types of fantasy worlds, dungeons seem to just magically and inexplicably appear out of nowhere…and unreasonably often. Maybe magic residue creates a living dungeon, a powerful mage gradually terraforms and carves out a landscape, or an otherworldly rift has momentarily spawned a pocket dimension.
Further, some dungeons seem to only reveal themselves or become accessible after natural disasters like great thaws or tremors or tornadoes — or else powerful earthmoving magics — alter local landscapes. Others may have powerful wards preventing them from appearing outside of rare windows of time, like seasonal solstices and equinoxes, or even rarer celestial conjunctions, oppositions, and eclipses. This all seems to have no rational basis, but it actually makes a little sense in terms of certain gaming logic and tropes. It makes sense when we ask ourselves, what does the ideal dungeon do, from the viewpoint of its occupants?
What Dungeons Must Do
Given any level of consistency, magic in fantasy worlds completely change modes of production, communications, and logistics. In essence, defensively, the ideal dungeon must manage successful strategies not just toward wandering wurms and warbound hordes of bloodthirsty orcs, but also enact material or magical defenses against the potent powers shaping the meta level of a magical world: Scrying, Locate, and Teleport magics, as well Portals and Gates. Specifically, Facilities and Storehouses must function as fortresses or hideouts, and artificial Caves must function as working infrastructure, or else a takeover can happen, or these become Ruins. In response, dungeon-strategists likely make clever use of Abjuration and Illusion magics as countermeasures. In any case, all this suggests very important, top-level social implications for worldbuilding.
Dungeon Social Implications: Weak States Settings
Now, if we want to add any level of verisimilitude into our worldbuilding, the actual existence of dungeons accessible to adventurers has several important implications. First, it seems likely that State-level organizations like kingdoms and empires must be weak enough to allow for adventurer expeditions in the first place, otherwise we’d see mainly the organized annexation of territories through armies, and the like. In a way, the sheer commonality of wandering bands of parties and bandits implies fewer professional soldiers, at least outside the urban core. (And more on that soon enough.)
So, who holds these States, who likely wield massive magical power, in check? Rival powers, factions, or creatures? Revolts? Deities? Resource scarcity? Perhaps “dungeons” as a category make the most sense in terms of post-collapse scenarios, where State power retreats and withdraws itself from territory it normally would conquer. Consider revolutions, plagues, and invasions culminating in the decentralization of power and population density. Perhaps disasters like crop failures have pushed desperate commoners to become adventurers, undertaking dangerous delves normally unthinkable. Perhaps rising tides of revolutionary expropriations, or organized crime, have fueled dungeon delving, as trespassing and looting by non-State actors normalizes.
Dungeon Social Implications: Steady States Settings
Now, we can also consider Steady State scenarios. Perhaps the States in question do have their might, but the prevalence of defensive arcane and divine magic, the intensity of druidic magic protecting wilderness areas, or the current nature of magical warfare, limits these States to regional influence, rather than hegemonic power. The arcane arms race has given no party ascendancy…for now, and so States cannot reach far to plumb the dungeon depths outside their locale.
Dungeon Social Implications: Strong State Settings
In contrast, we can also imagine Strong State backdrops. Various lords promoting dungeon delves as settler-colonial occupations, and the outright eradication of so-called “undesirables”. This can take place not just through militias, but also softer guises of cultural dominance, like combining dungeon delving with formally organized events like scavenger hunts and sports, pastimes like archaeology and tourism, or even land speculation.
Three Types of Dungeon Delvers
Ok, so what’s the takeaway here? Well, beyond just wandering monsters, we have essentially three main social forces delving dungeons and holding one another in check: Pirates (Stateless forces), Privateers (State-authorized forces), and Professional Soldiers (State forces). This forms a sort of continuum, with each approaching the concept of “the dungeon” differently. For worldbuilding, choosing which force dominates dungeon delving will significant shape your fantasy world’s social norms, modes of exploration, and power structures.
If so many dungeons amount to little more than failed fortresses that couldn’t make the cut against sieges and invasions, why would any dungeons with valuables be left, anyway? Maybe more than just high risk and the very rational fear of monsters keeps dungeon delving in check. For starters, social stigmas and superstition. For example, Matt Colville mentioned before that to most townsfolk, adventurers come across as either pitiful ratcatchers chasing wealth in undignified ways on the one hand, or as honorless sellswords always bringing danger on the other. So why would most commoners associate with those adventuring folk anyway, particularly when they seem to always do things like use the work of the devil, and kill for coin?
And more than that, let’s also consider diseases and curses. We can easily envision setups where the adventuring party members have rare natural immunities to certain common wilderness and dungeon diseases, which others do not. This could create two interesting scenarios: party members with immunities experience high demand as adventurers, or party members face harsh stigmas for being seen as immune yet still infectious, causing them to become outcasts. (I explored this angle in more detail in the “Germs” section of Gritty Gaming For D&D 5e.)
When we add to risk and superstition and social stigmas the barriers to entry, like expensive supplies and specialized training and navigational requirements, it does actually begin to make sense why most people would not take up the adventuring life.
A Dungeoneering Cycle Model
We can examine the logic of dungeoneering even further. In fact, we can imagine a Dungeoneering Cycle, starting something like this: a dungeon Settling Phase, of reaching and constructing and occupying dungeonable spaces, and from there, as this inhabitation prospers or fails, phases of Succeeding or Struggling. Success follows the metrics for what, defensively, a dungeon must do, as I explained earlier. Still with me? Now, if the settlement fails, a Scavenging phase ensues, where the dungeon occupants must forage for resources and potentially abandon the dungeon long-term; other creatures may also come to scavenge the dungeon too. And once largely scrubbed of valuables, eventually a Squatting phase resets the cycle, as new occupants try their hand at settling in, perhaps short-term or seasonally at first.
Each phase has characteristic rhythms, which Dungeon Masters can clue the players in on with indirect exposition, little dungeon dressing hints mentioning, for example, buckets of shovels and hammers and seeds (Settling), well-stocked cellars (Succeeding) or withered stocks (Struggling), burnt door planks in the night watch’s fire (Scavenging), or mismatches of dwarven stonework with elven locks (Squatting).
Identifying which phase your dungeon denizens currently experience within this cycle, as well as the composition of your cultured occupants, in terms of the Pirate – Privateer – Professional Soldier Continuum, can help grant your dungeon some much-needed verisimilitude. It can bring your dungeon to life. It will help make your dungeons more internally consistent. More organic, more grounded, and more dynamic. And in Part 2, we’ll look at how to take this even further.
I hope you enjoyed these musings on dungeons! Give this a share if you liked it, and let me know in the comments if you have any feedback. I publish new posts on alternating Tuesdays. 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, KRR, Rudy, and Tom. Thanks for your support!