Dungeons and… More Dungeons (Part 4)
So I’ve spend a lot of space writing about nontraditional dungeons and examples of those ideas from cinema. But what about traditional dungeons? Are there no good or interesting examples of subterranean complexes with dangerous dwellers and valuable goods? Of course there are… and their place (and function) within their respective stories can be a good guide on how to add dungeons to a campaign without shoehorning them or making them the sole focus of a fantasy setting.
So without further ado, let’s look at some movie dungeons!
The Lair of Vermithrax Pejorative (Dragonslayer)
The fiery lair of the dragon in Dragonslayer has elements to be seen in many RPG dungeons that came after – alters for live sacrifice, hordes of smaller threats, strange terrain (the burning water), caverns with tactically interesting ledges and, of course, a dragon. Given this movie came out in 1981 it clearly is not the origin of the Dungeons and Dragons RPG (despite having both), but it’s fair to say it was an influence for years. Of course those elements are far from the only things fantasy RPGs borrow from this movie (though interestingly it’s the spear and shield seen most often, not the d8 of magic power or ash of archmage summoning – so style over substance began early).
This cavern lair sets the stage for the End Boss Fight, which is a pretty typical use for a dragon’s lair in dungeon construction. However in many dungeon rpg adventures, the dragon’s lair is just the last in a series of caves full of monsters, and that can take away from the impact of creeping into a monster’s lair. Because the rest of the adventure takes place out in the open, the scenes where our heroes sneak into Vermithrax Pejorative’s home clearly mark a raising of the stakes, and the approach of a major confrontation. If a GM’s players seem to be getting bored with dungeon stomping, it may be time to take a page from this movie and adventure outside for a while, returning to cavern settings just for the final conflict.
The Labyrinth (Labyrinth)
Okay, it’s a well-known truism in fantasy rpg adventure design that mazes make for bad adventure settings. This is only true if the PCs are asked to map every T-intersection, 45-degree angel and grant colonnade. If instead the maze is a setting, a vast country filled with its own people, threats and odd encounters and the GM gets the players from scene to scene with no need for hours of dull mapping, Labyrinth shows how to keep the maze as interesting as it was when Theseus was first asked to be delivery food.
Interestingly in this case the labyrinth is not the heroine’s destination, or the setting for the final conflict. She’s trying to get through the maze to the castle on the far side. I rarely see the dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed in adventure design, but it’s one of its most obvious uses. Instead of being something to be searched, room by room, and cleared, the dungeon becomes no different from any other difficult terrain, and the goal is to cross it as quickly (and as little resistence) as possible.
Chinatown Beneath (Big Trouble in Little China)
From a secret door in a wizard’s domicile to random monster encounters (“It will come out no more!”) to mysterious substances (Black Blood of the Earth), trapped elevators, sewer connections, a hidden underground temple, mounds of dead fish, and a floating eye-monster spy, this dungeon setting has it all. It’s also one of the few examples where the heroes are in-and-out of the same subterranean complex more than once, which lends itself well to the way most PCs tackle big warrens of evil.
This is another example of the dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed, but in this case it’s explicitly a back-door. Making a dungeon optional is a great way to provide players the chance to choose it if they’re in the mood, and avoid it if they’re not. And if the up-side of the dungeon route is that it’s so dangerous no one in their right mind would take it (thus ensuring the villains won’t see the heroes coming), the GM has carte blanc to make the challenges within much more dangerous than if the PCs felt they had no other adventure options open to them.
Caverns of the Wendol (The 13th Warrior)
Announced with a boldly asked question – “Is there a cave?!” – the caverns of the Wendol savages from The 13th Warrior begin a running battle that uses more stealth than many cinematic dungeon-stomps. From sneaking past (and/or assassinating) guards to the boss-monster fight with the Mother of the Wendol to the “secret escape” through underwater passages, this is a tightly focused, high-speed dungeon that isn’t emulated enough in many RPG campaigns. It’s similar to the Final Boss Fight, except it specifically isn’t final. In this case the characters are intentionally making a raid, trying to kill one or two specific foes in a complex they know has too many foes to clear out entirely.
The Tombs (Mummy movie series)
Raiding a tomb with traps, undead, and opposing forces of adventurers may seem a pretty RPG-specific idea for a story, but it’s pretty close to the broad plot of all the movies in the modern Mummy movie series, especially the 1999 movie and the most recent The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The important thing to take away is that while the action often begins and ends within the dungeons of these movies, it runs through a lot of other settings as well. If a GM ever needs inspiration on how to bring more city-based and travel encounters to a dungeonocentric plot, these movies can provide some great idea-fodder.
The Mountain of Power (Conan the Barbarian, 1982)
Similarly, the Mountain of Power, stronghold of Thulsa Doom, is another great example of a dungeon raid. Given how popular D&D was with young teen boys in 1982, the orgy scene in this movie may have been a hit with that segment of the RPG crowd more for bare breasts than the thematic conflict of free-spirited freebooter mercenaries against a totalitarian cult regime of nihilistic excess. But it’s still great music, a great fight, and a great dungeon. Unlike the dungeon raid in The 13th Warrior the goal is an extraction (of a hostage that turns out to be hostile), but the objective remains to get it, get one thing done, and get out quickly.
Moria (LotR: Fellowship of the Rings)
I often think of this as THE dungeon, because I suspect it’s literary counterpart is the origin of dungeons in RPGs. In addition to good backstory, a strong story reason for entering, a mystically locked door, hoards of goblins and a mysterious follower, Minas Tirath gives us the Balrog, one of the all-time great Boss Monsters. This entry is also a stand-in for all the subterranean adventure sites in the Lord of the Rings movies, from the caves of Helm’s Deep to Shelob’s lair.
Lord of the Rings is filled with dungeons, and each serves a specific plot need on top of being a great adventure setting. While Moria itself is a dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed, and Shelob’s lair is the backdoor version of the same idea, their main value to GMs are as examples of how to work dungeons into a bigger plot. Instead of having all of the major encounters of the adventure take place in dungeons, Lord of the Rings uses them as interesting set-pieces. This kind of focused dungeon expedition is often actually more exciting than clearing out rook after room of monsters and traps. In many ways rather than stacking different lairs of dungeon atop one another, this set-up scatters those lairs into different locations. One big advantage of this is that a GM can foreshadow how dangerous the latter dungeon levels are, watching players declare :One does not simply walk into Mordor,” well aware that by the time the campaign comes to a close, they’ll have done exactly that.
Okay, that’s the end of my quick run-down of dungeons from the movies, and while I skipped the Circus from Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy as the modern dungeon and Hogwarts as the friendly dungeon, I’ve still hit most of my favorites
What noteworthy dungeons from cinema do you think I’ve missed?