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!