It’s taken as gospel by many fantasy roleplayers that in the bad old days, all campaigns were about dungeons. Characters left the dungeon and returned to town only for healing and to replenish supplies. They might have a few random encounters between the town and the dungeon, but those were nothing more than distractions from the main event, which took place entirely underground.
This is a nice myth, but it’s a complete distortion of the truth. Right from the beginning, DMs set adventures everywhere: dungeon, wilderness, town, city, undersea, in the clouds, and on alternate planes of existence. The evidence is right there in the title of the third of the three “little brown books,” The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.
So why does the dungeon loom so large in roleplayers’ imaginations?
To begin with, let’s acknowledge that it’s the very first word most people hear in reference to this hobby. Dungeons receive pride of place in the title of the granddaddy of the genre, DUNGEONS & Dragons.
That still begs the question of how dungeons earned that lofty position. I see two reasons. One is that the underworld has a timeless, primal hold on human imagination. The other is that the dungeon setting is uniquely suited to adventure games.
The heroic journey into the underworld is so common in mythology that it has a name: katabasis. Osiris of Egypt, Orpheus and Odysseus of Greece, Gilgamesh and Inanna of Sumeria, Hermóðr of Scandinavia, and countless others descended into an unearthly realm for one reason or another. Usually that was to rescue a loved one and bring him or her back to the surface world. Sometimes, as in the case of Hermóðr, it was to retrieve a sacred relic or a legendary weapon. Both of those should sound familiar to fantasy roleplayers: “one of the villagers has been kidnapped by goblins” and “somewhere in the caves outside of town lies the mystic Sword of Kings, just waiting to be found” are the two most common quest hooks in RPGs.
Influences beyond mythology are also easy to find. In literature, we can point to Red Nails by Howard, The Nameless City by Lovecraft, the city of Nan Madol from Merritt’s The Moon Pool, innumerable crypts and catacombs from any Hammer film, and the Mines of Moria, to pick out just a few among many. Real-world inspirations are just as numerous, from Egyptian pyramids and burial chambers in the Valley of Kings to medieval catacombs all over Europe to smuggler’s caves on the coast of England.
Despite all those influences, nothing truly like a D&D dungeon exists in mythology or in fantasy literature before the publication of D&D. The dungeon is a unique construction: a subterranean multi-level labyrinth combining natural caverns with man- (or monster-) made excavations, home to hostile creatures of every sort, peppered with complex mechanical traps designed to kill, maim, and ensnare intruders, and spiked with enough riches to lure the brave and the foolhardy alike into the danger space of those monsters and traps.
In short, it would seem that D&D wasn’t invented so adventurers could explore dungeons; rather, dungeons were invented so D&D adventurers could explore them. The dungeon is uniquely suited to an imaginary excursion. It’s limited in scope, so the game master can plan it in detail. It’s alien to our everyday experience, so it can contain all sorts of surprises. It’s dark and claustrophobic, so it triggers all those instinctive human fears of dismal, confined, unknown spaces. And it’s underground, where we humans have planted so many corpses—who knows what they’re up to?
Fantasy adventures shouldn’t be limited to dungeon settings, but no GM should overlook the dungeon’s unique qualities.
Ultimately, I think that we fantasy adventurers are drawn to the dungeon for the same reason that as children, we’re drawn to take a flashlight and explore dark places. From the back of our parents’ closet and the far corner of the basement, to the damp, echoing storm drain at the bottom of the hill and the steam tunnels beneath the university, to the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky and the monster-filled Caves of Chaos, the allure is the same. With nothing more than a lantern, 50 feet of rope, a stout cudgel, and an entryway that plunges into darkness, you’re set for the adventure of a lifetime.
About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!
12 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Respect the Lowly Dungeon”
I have heard a story where Gygax was playing a miniatures game where he was attacking a castle, and in order to get in,had a small group of his soldiers try to get in through a tunnel, which ended him up in the castle dungeons. He then found exploring this dungeon to be as much fun, if not moreso, than the game he was playing, thus inspiring him to create a game based upon the experience.
Andrew; I believe the scenario you described was Dave Arneson’s, not Gary’s. It was, AFAIK, one of the very first, if not THE first, proto-roleplaying adventures ever conducted, even before anyone realized that they were onto something new.
@Steve: These articles are gold! Thanx for exploring the myths, history and tropes of RPGs with equal parts research and experience.
My first game was (like many folk, I’m sure) B2 Keep on the Borderlands, my brother’s friend’s mum was the DM (how she made use of the DMG for our Basic game bith puzzles and impresses me to this day). The Keep, the wilderness and the lizard men, the hermit picture… all of this hooked me well before the dungeon. But largely, the “dungeon” Caves of Chaos was where most of our early sessions took place… And the delves didn’t stop there…
BTW: is there a link to a discussion of this seminal “proto-roleplaying” experience of Dave Arneson’s? Would be good to have some “lore” enshrined…
I pretty sure Andrew is right. I think Dave Arneson, David Wesley and company had already done Brownstien, and perhaps started Blackmore, but I’m pretty sure Gary says that is how he started. They used to do miniature battles on a sand table, and one time he had the participants sneak into a castle to open the gates from the inside.
It’s refreshing to see someone defending RPG classic ideas like the dungeon this way. Very well-done article, and nice use of legendary and other real-world references.
I never cease to be impressed with Earthdawn’s take on this. In the past the world was overrun with horrible monsters. Civilized people retreated to underground fortresses to wait out the invasion. It ended and people emerged back onto the surface world, but some of these underground fortresses had fallen. The monsters kept underground did not die off and the heroes need to go in and clear out the monsters.
“In short, it would seem that D&D wasn’t invented so adventurers could explore dungeons; rather, dungeons were invented so D&D adventurers could explore them.”
And I like it!
I was fortunate in my gaming days to have a DM (my brother) who mixed in a good portion of wilderness and urban, but I always liked dungeons the best!
I think the backlash against dungeons is the early lack of a dungeon ecology. Why is this here? How do these creatures interact? Who build this darn thing and how? Modern dungeon design takes great pains to explain all these things, as crazy and convoluted as they may sound. I recall this new design philosophy through the 80’s and 90’s in Dragon magazines.
At the same time, modern dungeons can feel pre-programmed far more than the old school dungeons. The AD&D giant series, for example, feels pretty darn organic in that edition, but try to convert that adventure into 3.x and you’ve got an enormous, free form, death trap (AKA, it’s no longer a game and probably not fun).
I just got hold of a copy of “AFVG2”, it was an incredible magazine for the miniature wargamer from the early 70’s. The issue had an extensive article by Gary Gygax about how to build a sand table for wargaming. The date was 1971
I think that, in the Dave Arneson-run game that people have mentioned, they were ‘in the dungeons of the castle’ ie in the area underneath it, and ‘dungeon’ then became their general word for underground adventuring areas.
PS This might be the game that I and others are thinking of: