Dungeons and… More Dungeons

During the growing discussion of DNDNext and what it will (or won’t) look like, friend Tracy Hurley made a gentle poke at the idea of Dungeons as D&D adventure locations. This is an old point between us, and I grinned as I replied to her amicable taunt.

It did, however, get me thinking. I am oft assaulted with cries about the unrealism of RPG “dungeons” when conversing with less chthonic game fans. Even ignoring the cognitive dissonance of claiming fireballs are fine but geographically isolated regions of high-danger that include mushrooms that can sustain an ecosystem are not, I think dungeons have gotten a bad rap because so many are run as nothing more than endless mazes of unconnected threats. There can be more to dungeons, and they can make for great gaming, full of as much (or as little) complex roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and exploration as a group wants, in addition to an opportunity to kill an orc and take his pie.

I prefer short, focused delves downward and thematically linked quarantine sites that happen to be isolated (though not necessarily underground) to monolithic puzzles of mega-corridors, but I think limited-access, PC-channeling adventure sites have a lot going for them and can be part of strong, logical narratives. While they are not “dungeons” in the penal sense, I believe lots of good stories use sites any good Dungeon Master can recognize as a place for wandering monsters, 10-foot poles, and trap checks. Often called “location-based adventures” by industry writers (because the action starts not as a result of machinations behind the scenes or carefully timed events the PCs need to be present at a specific time and place to witness, but as a result of the PCs just showing up at the dangerous location), “dungeon-style” storylines are actually quite common in adventure prose and movies.

Inspired by the announcement that the next iteration of D&D is under development, I’ve decided to take the rest of this week to talk about places that serve as dungeons in movies and books, and how similar settings may be useful for fantasy RPG GMs. Since moving pictures are worth 1,000 blog posts to support the case for these dungeons I reference a lot of movies as we now present:

Cities As Dungeons
A dungeon is someplace just beyond, or maybe under, the city, right? Well, not necessarily. If we look at our game-design definition, we find that some cities of fiction qualify as dungeons in themselves, regardless of what lies beyond them.

My favorite example of this is the City of Lost Children (from the movie, The City of Lost Children). Not only is this a great-looking locale oozing with color that, if well described, could keep players enraptured regardless of the plot, it’s a wonderful set-up. The City is an actual prison, a place where the inhabitants cannot escape. Ruled by a mad scientist and patrolled by his golems, the City has traps, oddities, and a “thieves guild” run by an octopus. And a man-mountain of a hero must find his way through all of it on a rescue mission, which isn’t the most typical RPG dungeon plot, and even if it was done this way it would feel fresh again.

New York City from Escape From New York is another good example of the urban-prison-as-a-dungeon, and perhaps unsurprisingly it also focuses on a rescue mission. The interesting thing here is that it basically shows what happens if the Thieves Guild is the also the local government, and there’s very little in this movie that couldn’t easily be transferred to a fantasy RPG. The movie has an alchemist, a warlord, and a treasure map (though the treasure here is freedom rather than gold). It would take very little effort to blend these concepts with more fantasy-oriented ones to create an island or peninsula penitentiary, possibly borrowing elements from the pirate city in Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End. A prince’s yacht crashes on the island and he’s grabbed by the inmates, just days before he’s needed for a treaty-by-marriage…

The 2008 movie Doomsday (the one with Rhona Mitra) is a similar set-up, although in this case it treats an entire countryside as the dungeon, and rather than rescue an individual person it’s a more traditional grab-the-MacGuffin mission. The plot itself could replace the object to be grabbed with anything (lost holy symbol, legendary book, a rare herb needed for a cure that only grows in the cursed land of the mad men), and it’d be easy to replace the Mad Max savages with zombies, or insane cultists (to borrow a bit of In The Mouth of Madness to add to the mix).

There are more examples, but those are enough to make the point. So, what are the advantages of the city-as-a-dungeon setting for a GM?

First, if a game group includes an urban-focused character, this kind of setting allows his skills to shine without requiring everyone else to act like they’re in a city. Some game groups just don’t take well to “civilization,” with characters getting into fights with the guards and wanting to clear out an inn like they would a stirge nest. Other groups perfectly well can run their characters appropriately… but may not want to. Sometimes the whole point of playing a barbarian is to be able to rage and kill something, and “dungeon cities” allow characters to worry less about the repercussions of being anti-social.

Additionally, dungeon cities are a good change of scenery for GMs who want to adapt a traditional dungeon adventure and disguise its origins. Many traditional “dungeons” are more like cities anyway (with different monsters taking up residence in different sections, and often whole tribes living within them), and the ecological questions that bother many people when a group of 200 kobolds lives in a barren cavern just don’t apply when the “dungeon” is turned into an entire valley that was quarantined years ago by blocking the one pass out. Some published adventures actually make more sense in an Escape From New York scenario than in the Mines of Moria. Remapping 10×10 rooms to 10×10 shacks isn’t difficult, and the open nature of a city can give the PCs more room to explore (and explain why the kobold guards in encounter 12 don’t hear the PCs kill the ones in Encounter 11, if you have the encounters now be in different sections of a largely abandoned township instead of 30 feet down a corridor).

Also, if the dungeon city isn’t destroyed by the adventurers, a prison colony is obviously re-stocked as its parent empire convicts more criminals. If the GM wants to re-use his maps and do a “Return To” kind of adventure, all is needed is enough time to pass for a new wave of convicts to be thrown over the wall/across the river/down the road into the prison/quarantine/exiled land.

Dungeon cities also give some interesting options for development later. If a villain met within the city later escapes, he might come hunting for the PCs. Or a GM could borrow a page from Dune’s Sardaukar (troops who are renowned for being the toughest in the universe because they come from a prison planet) and either put the PCs up against an army drawn from a dungeon city they once explored, or face the PCs with a threat so severe only an army of the dungeon city’s prisoners can oppose it.

In short while the advantages of a simple location-based adventure remain intact, a dungeon city changes the setting, and allows for development options lacking in more subterranean options.
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at an entirely different kind of “dungeon.”


About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

Posted on January 10, 2012, in Adventure Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Even ignoring the cognitive dissonance of claiming fireballs are fine but geographically isolated regions of high-danger that include mushrooms that can sustain an ecosystem are not, I think dungeons have gotten a bad rap because so many are run as nothing more than endless mazes of unconnected threats. There can be more to dungeons, and they can make for great gaming, full of as much (or as little) complex roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and exploration as a group wants, in addition to an opportunity to kill an orc and take his pie.

    Actually, this was part of my point about dungeons. As a constraining mechanism, dungeons are a great tool for DMs but the locale doesn’t have to be underground in order to pull that off. We can think of the term dungeon outside of its traditional fantasy trappings to provide the structure we need as DMs will providing something players might find more relatable. If you’re a DM and a bunch of your players are looking around lost because they don’t know how to (and don’t want to learn) or don’t like to dungeon delve, get them the f* out of the dungeon. 🙂

    And some players like a level of logic that’s somewhere between complete chaos and complete realism. So, mushrooms sustaining an ecosystem may work, but hungry monsters in a room next to a room full of easy to kill and yummy other monsters is harder to accept. Why didn’t they just open the door and feed away? I think that trips up some people in some dungeons. In that case, it might make sense to provide a sense of ecology to the dungeon or make stuff up, like trolls taste like bubblegum.

    Also I’m sad you didn’t put in my best dungeon remark ever.
    You: [The circus in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy] It’s a geographically limited area with wandering monsters and traps. That’s a dungeon.
    Me: your mom is a geographically limited area with wandering monsters and traps.

  2. I remember dungeons. One of my best experiences occurred in a dungeon.

    I was playing a magic user (yes, that long ago) and he ran into a chute going down to the 20th level; where you found 20th level monsters. And here’s me, all of first level.

    So here I am wandering around and I run into a dragon’s lair. The dragon wanted to know what I was doing, so I told him I was looking for stairs up, so he told me where I can found some.

    A bit later I ran into a balrog’s lair (we’re talking real long ago). The balrog also told me where I could find stairs up, and then I, on impulse, told the demon, “You know that dragon down the hall?”


    “He said you’re a wimp.”

    “He what?”

    “He said you’re a wimp.”

    “Wait here.”

    I stayed as he headed off to the dragon’s lair, where he proceeded to knock the stuffing out of the wyrm. When he returned he told me, “Thanks.” and slammed the door on me. I went back to check on the dragon.

    And found him one hit point from death.

    Being a kind hearted soul I used my trusting dagger to dispatch the dragon, then gathered up as much of his treature as I could carry.

    As I’m leaving the dragon’s lair for the second time I hear hearty dwarven voices. Seven of them. Seven seventh level dwarven fighters (seventh being the highest level a dwarf could reach, it was a long time ago) coming up the corridor chanting “Death to dragons.”. They come into view, and upon spotting me want to know, “Is that the dragon’s lair.”

    “Ah, yeah.”

    “And how is the dragon?”

    Nonchalant, “Oh, he’s dead.”

    “Who’s responsible?”

    “Ah, I am.”

    There I was, a first level magic user with, I think, two hit points (we’re talking way long ago), enough magic to open my own emporium, and seven seventh level dwarven henchmen. And the rest of the party is back up on the first level, muttering things like, “that lucky son of a bitch.”

    The moral of this story? It helps to show initiative and creativity, and to have a DM with a sense of humor.

  1. Pingback: Dungeons and… More Dungeons « Owen K.C. Stephens | Nearly Enough Dice

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