Top Ten Cinematic Dungeons
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 you can’t have many geographically isolated regions of high-danger that include mushrooms that can sustain an ecosystem, I think dungeons have gotten a bad rap because so many are run as nothing more than endless mazes of unconnected threats. I prefer short, focused delves downward and thematically linked quarantine sites that happen to be 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 a strong, logical narrative. 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.
Since moving pictures are worth 1,000 blog posts, to support the case for dungeons in stories (and offer a little inspiration) we now present:
Top Ten Movie Dungeons
- The Mountain of Power (Conan the Barbarian, `982)
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.
- The City of Lost Children (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 is about as typical an RPG dungeon plot as I can think of, though done this way it feels fresh again.
- 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 – altars 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 Dungeons and Dragons (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 ultimate power or ash of archmage summoning – so style over substance began early).
- LV-426 (Aliens)
Yes, it’s a science fiction setting, but the overrun colonial habitats (and alien hive) certainly qualify as a dungeon by RPG standards. The heroes must search it, avoid being ambushed, rescue prisoners, fight monsters, and find the end Boss Monster. And it’s not hard to envision fiendish ants or otherworldly horrors replacing xenomorphs, or knights and wizards standing in for marines and pulse guns.
Every other movie in this series includes at least one locale that counts too, but I think Aliens has the most adventurous take on the theme.
- The Gameboard (Jumanji)
The game Jumani is a perfect example of a dungeon without walls. It’s all random encounters, and it requires an artifact of major mojo to pull off, but it forces the heroes to go from event to event, and gets to ignore pesky details like the food chain or why encounter 5 doesn’t eat encounter 9 before the protagonists show up. And the end goal is always clearly visible, though you can’t be sure how long it’ll take to get there.
- 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 angle, and granite 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.
- The Apartment Building (Rec/Quarantine)
If I’ll allow sci-fi, there’s no reason I wouldn’t look to horror for good dungeons, and this one (in either the American remake or the original movie) is great. One of the nice touches is that when the characters enter it, they have no idea it’s going to become a sealed-off, tightly-cramped series of rooms with monsters in them. And the story sets up a three-tiered threat: zombies, whatever is turning people into zombies, and the local authorities that won’t let the protagonists out – a great way to keep a dungeon from feeling like reheated subterranean leftovers.
Other horror options include the Machine of the Damned/Haunted House from 13 Ghosts, the land of Freddy’s nightmares, and every camp any teenager has even been beheaded in.
- 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.
- Caverns of the Wendol (13th Warrior)
Announced with a boldly asked question – “Is there a cave?!” – the caverns of the Wendol savages from 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.
- 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, Moria 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 Lord of the Rings movies, from the caves of Helm’s Deep to Shelob’s lair.