Dungeons as a Location-Based Adventure Trope
This article is now a decade old. I never put it all in one place before, and it likely needs some updating with a decade of new thought. But for the moment, this is its current state, all in one place.
Dungeons as a Location-Based Adventure Trope
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… assuming you have a justification for doing so you are happy with.
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.
So this is a 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.
The Usefulness of Dungeons
A big part of the usefulness of “dungeons” as adventuring sites is their natural pressures and restrictions on the actions of the players. There are a few tendencies common to modern people than many gamers fall back on, which make perfect sense in the real world, but aren’t much fun from the point of view of adventure RPG sessions. The biggest two adventure-killing “reasonable” tactics I’ve encountered over 40 years of gaming are calling for help, and falling back.
As a modern society, we are trained to call for help. Our phone systems have special numbers that let us call for help quickly, alarms on homes and cars and even smart phones are designed to make calling for help more effective. Even the foam-weapon LARP groups I’ve been involved with insist players carry a whistle with them so if they fall and hurt themselves, they can easily call for help. But calling for help isn’t nearly as much fun for players in an RPG, even when it might make sense. If the PCs are young heroes working for the powerful wizard El Magister, or the politically savvy dragon Doneitagain, or whoever, it may well make sense from the character’s point of view to call for help when they get in over their heads. After all, if their patron is a powerful being and it’s sent them on an important mission, surely it’s better to call for back-up than fail, right?
Falling back is a similar issue, and it leads into the resource-management issue often known as the “15 Minute Adventuring Day.” A lot of RPGs balance powerful abilities by limiting how often they can be used. Different players may well have a different mix of moderate powers they can use a lot vs powerful abilities they can use more rarely. As a result, players often want to use their very best abilities in the first few encounters they run into each day, then stop and wait for their best powers to regenerate. While that’s good tactics from the characters’ point of view, and there are plot-based ways to avoid players doing it all the time (like having a mission be set against a ticking clock), allowing players to use it as their default tactic can skew balance between characters, and make it difficult for a GM to run anything but maximum-risk encounters without the players treating everything as a cake-walk.
Dungeons can help with both of these behaviors. By putting PCs somewhere inherently dangerous and far away from “safe” civilization, the GM encourages players to deal with problems themselves (since help is too far away to reasonably call for), and can push players to pace resources (since even if they stop after a few encounters, there’s no guarantee their resting place will be safe if they can’t get out of the dungeon easily), and may even be able to reward them for pushing on (if genuinely safe locations to rest exist – but are spaced several encounters apart). Dungeons don’t make the “modern” behaviors impossible, but they do change the strategic dynamic to make them less common, and do so in a way most players find intuitively understandable.
So, let’s look at some types of “dungeons.”
Cities and Prisons 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).
Though more noir than fantasy, 1998’s Dark City is absolutely another great example of a city-as-dungeon, with the added twist that characters aren’t initially aware they are in a dungeon. That same idea is shown in a very different light in the original Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” Arguably, even the apparent fake world of The Matrix is little more than a digital dungeon, which is interesting given how the whole rest of the “real” world in those movies come closer to a traditional underground dungeon, albeit ones so big you can fly airships through them.
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).
It can also be a potential answer to the question of why going into someone else’s home and killing them to take their stuff is “adventuring” rather than “murderous colonization.” If the penal-city-as-dungeon is a prison for offenders so violent they cannot be kept anyplace else, the GM can reasonably have them attack PCs on sight (and any prisoners who don’t do so immediately suggest maybe they should be talked to). If the PCs are sent in to save someone who has been captured and is being threatened (again, Escape from new York), they have a better justification than greed for undertaking their adventure.
Of course, this can also skew rapidly into touching on real-world prison injustices, which isn’t any better. It’s always worth asking yourself if, seen objectively by an outsider, the actions of the PCs are heroic, or monstrously criminal. I’m not telling you how to run you games, but it’s good to be aware what your themes are really saying before you put a lot of work into fleshing them out.
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.
One interesting variant of the dungeon adventures travel into intentionally, is the dungeon that grows up around them without warning, so entry into the dungeon adventure is sudden rather than pre-planned by the PCs. In some cases, the GM can get characters to happily put themselves someplace isolated, and then have it turn into a deathtrap after their arrival. This trick needs to be used sparingly (because otherwise PCs refuse to go anywhere, or at least treat every trip as a possible fight to the death and slow down play with endless, needless precautions), but as a change of pace this can be a good surprise.
A good example of this kind of “sudden dungeon” is the airplane from Snakes on a Plane. Actually most movies that take place on an airplane treat it as a dungeon, but this is the one with the most obvious examples of wandering monsters, coupled with a surprising number of traps and environmental hazards. (Flight of the Living Dead is another good example… if you happen to be a fan of very cheesy zombie movies). The most interesting part of this from an adventure-design point of view is that in neither case did the protagonists expect to be entering a dungeon – the nature of their situation evolved – but was aware that a threat existed (a transported prisoner needed to be guarded). This helps players not feel blindsided – they should have prepared for a fight or trap in any case – but changes the kind of threat they face.
Similar events make the ships in Titanic and Deep Rising sudden dungeons… though I prefer the monsters in Deep Rising (and it’s another example of character who knew some sort of danger was to be involved, just not that they were about to be in a constant running fight in a sinking ship with bloodthirsty mercenaries). These movies also all have the theme of turning a convenience (mass transit) into a drawback (things go wrong too far from civilization to get help). They obviously work best as very short-term adventures, but dungeons that are short as five rooms can be compelling single nights of fun.
A different take on the sudden dungeon is the movie (and the video games) Silent Hill. Here a trip to an area believed to be at most moderately dangerous (an abandoned town) becomes a sudden dungeon when it is revealed there is a hellish, nightmare-world version of the same place and characters can be stuck there. Again, a trick like this can’t be pulled too often, but it’s easy to see how characters in an archeological dig, or exploring a ghost town, or trekking through a well-traveled and safe forest could accidentally release something that changed the environment for the suddenly, dungeonastically worse. If a GM does want to use this trick more than once, it can be tied to an ongoing villain (what is Freddy Krugar from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies but a ghost who can turn your dreams into dungeon nightmares?) If combined with the dungeon city from yesterday, you get The Mist, or The Fog, or even Dawn of the Dead.
And of course anyplace you can be stranded can count as a sudden dungeon. While characters knew they were going someplace dangerous in Kong: Skull Island, they didn’t know they were going to be trapped there with dangerous the like of which they had never encountered before. How weird a place you are stranded is can have a huge impact on the tone of the adventure, of course. There’s not initially a lot of difference between the set up of “Gilligan’s Island” and “LOST,” but both how characters deal with weird situations, and what is treated as “normal” end up having huge implications for the feel of each setting.
A place that you go to willingly, but then get stuck in because it is not as you expected, can also make for a great sudden dungeon. Haunted houses are good examples of this. The characters in 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill expected they could leave at their leisure, and were surprised when the houses turned into location based adventures. Of course, most RPG players are canny enough to see the signs of a haunting when they hear the set-up. Even so, there’s nothing wrong with letting player prepare a bit for sudden dungeons, and letting them see one or two coming may well just set the stage for surprising them alter. And not all hauntings take place in houses. PCs going to a friendly temple might discover it had been taken over by an evil cult, who unleashed demons and hellscapes just as the players arrived (perhaps doing so intentionally to trap the heroes). Or an invitation to a party at a local inn to celebrate its 100th anniversary might go south when it turns out it was built on the unmarked grave of a mass-murderer, and his spirit is accidentally also invited to the party. Even tropes players have seen a hundred times can be a surprise if the GM changes a few details.
And once the PCs are in a sudden dungeon, it doesn’t matter if they recognize it. It’s too late.
Dungeons Without Walls
In many cases, it’s possible to set up an adventure with all the good elements we’ve discussed from various dungeons, but do it without having any specific structure or location serve to cause those constraints. While in many ways this looks like the dungeon city or sudden dungeon, it’s different in a few core ways. For example, normally the dungeon without walls is an event (possibly a curse), and the reason player’s can’t “escape” it is more metaphysical than geographical. Similarly they can’t usefully call for help or fall back and wait to power-up because the nature of the encounters they are facing prevents aid or safety from beign effective, rather than because it can’t be attempted.
The best cinematic example I know of for the dungeon without walls is the Game from the original Jumanji movie. 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. If the Game is considered an artifact (anything from a holy relic from a god of adventure or gambling to an actual physical representation of the epic journey, compressed into a specific recreated experience) the issue for the PCs isn’t that they can’t hire a sage or ask a patron for help, but that those allies just aren’t able to suggest anything helpful other than to finish the experience. It’s the trope of “the best way out is through,” which is common in adventure fiction if not normally this blatant.
As an aside, the follow-up movie Zathura, and the two 2000s-era Jumanji movies, are less dungeons without walls, and more sudden dungeons. The distinction here is that in the original Jumanji, the characters have access to their town, friends, shops, and so on. In Zathura, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Jumanji: The Next Level, the characters are wished away and cut off from their normal support options.
Some curse/haunting movies can also be treated as dungeons without walls. The thing to look for is an event that gives the character an opportunity to fight back (so something like Thinner doesn’t really qualify, since the main character was doomed from the get-go, or if salvation was possible it would require an act of penance, rather than an ass-kicking), but no external force can usefully help and there’s no good way to hide from the event. The Final Destination series are fairly good examples of this, as is It Follows. The characters affected have action-based encounters coming at them, but may be able to survive if they make the right deeds. (As with a lot of plots from horror stories, the GM should make sure the threats are actually fair but the core concept is easily reused).
Even more than the sudden dungeon, the inevitable and unstoppable nature of the dungeon without walls should be used sparingly. Indeed, it may work best if characters are given some idea what they are facing and allowed to choose such a fate rather than have it thrust upon them. Perhaps a goddess of fate grants rewards to those who accept the challenge of an interesting life during her holy month, or a town’s curse can only be lifted if a band of heroes face a gauntlet of threats dreamed up by the ghosts who died in a flood early in the town’s history. Once the heroes have decided to have a rough month, they’ll be less annoyed at the GM if they can’t get out of it the easy way.
So, 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.
While they can be placed into the categories above, I think there are a few additional cinematic examples of dungeons that are worth discussing briefly.
LV-426, from 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 apartment building from the Rec and Quarantine lines of movies. 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.
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 and pop culture do you think I’ve missed?
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Posted on February 9, 2021, in Adventure Design, Appendix O, Game Design, Musings and tagged #MovieTalk, Dungeons, Game Design, Gamemastering Advice, gaming, Geekery, Worldbuilding. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.