Death to the Dungeon

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 27 September 2010

Dungeon from from & Dragons creates its own culture and language through the extensive use of fantasy tropes such as Vancian Magic. To at least some of the uninitiated, these bits of shorthand form a wall between them and the game. For instance, a spellcaster forgetting a spell after casting makes no sense to me and still breaks my suspension of disbelief.

However, in my mind, that break is nothing compared to dungeon design. I'll admit up front that I'm no fan of dungeons. I realize it's part of the game's name and that many D&D veterans love them, but big dungeons full of monsters around the party's level and of untouched treasure lead me to, well, call shenanigans.

I realize I'm not the first, and will by no means be the last, to say this. But I think as we try to bring new people into the hobby and try to encourage them to do some role-playing in addition to roll-playing, we need to consider that sometimes the disconnect might not have anything to do with whether or not fighter has a daily "power." For some new players, it's near impossible to connect with a place they've never visited[1]. For instance, I've never been to the desert so I have a hard time placing my character in a world where the sand stings her eyes as she feels the intense heat radiating off the ground. I know those things happen, but I have a harder time feeling them.

On the other hand, throw me into the middle of the woods and I know what to do. Tracking something? I'd like to look for footprints in the ground, animal droppings and broken twigs please. Want to trap a wild boar instead of chasing it around? Great, let's get some rope, a young tree and set up a snare, or dig a pit, weave together some thin branches and throw a bunch of leaves on top. I'll have it for you in a jiffy.

The difference is I've seen and interacted with the forest before so I have a much better idea of what is and isn't possible in that world and, thus, feel more confident that my ideas have a chance of working. As I gain that confidence, I'll be more willing to role-play in a foreign world, such as a dungeon. At this point, some may say, well you've read and seen the Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels. While that's true, I think a big gap exists between consuming these stories and feeling engaged enough with the typical fantasy world to create your own.

So, while I agree with Rob Donoghue that dungeons might be a good tool for newer DMs, I would like to suggest to more experienced DMs that they look outside of the dungeon for adventures for newer players. The key is to still limit or make clear the options the new players have, lest they fall to analysis paralysis. Give them some clear call to action but let them explore areas that have echoes to their real world. Find out their backgrounds, are they city or country folks and what are their favorite books? What games did they play as a child and what stories did they like to act out? Create a world out of the elements they know the best, give them adventure hooks that easily feel real to them, sprinkle in elements they know how to play with such as fruit carts, and create a safe environment for role-playing.

1. This issue is brought up a fair bit in education policy. Many critics state that some reading comprehension tests are unfair to disadvantaged groups because they often cover topics foreign to those students. For instance, an essay on a person's first fishing trip may be unintentionally more difficult for many inner-city youth since not only do they have to complete the normal reading comprehension questions but they also need to figure out what fishing is if they've never done it.


That's an interesting and good point about dungeons although from here my view is a little different. As a British geek I've been to many castles and the dungeons beneath them. As the son of parents heavily involved in the Scouts I grew up camping and making rafts and rope slides. My back garden growing up backed on to the local woods that I walked through on my way to high school growing up, so most of these locations are very close to my heart even though I live in London. Although living in London means being close to some of the most horrific locations in the UK, top of which is the Tower of London; which is pretty but has a past full of death and torture on a par with the Spanish Inquisition. I know what dungeons smell like and I know how cold they are but most of the ones I've been to are tiny, more like a delve than some of the sprawling dungeon zoos of my youth. I suppose it's like the fantasy pyramids full of rooms when the real pyramids had a half dozen chambers at most.

However, I do get your point. It is much easier to imagine places and situations you have experienced. For new DMs though I'd stick to Delves I came back to D&D with 4th ed. after over a decade away from RPGs and Delves struck me as the ideal tool for new players and DMs, they aren't long so you can get more involved with each encounter and as you learn each other's likes and dislikes you can add or subtract according to your group.

I love delves. A couple of rooms, some monsters that make sense given the ecology and setup of the location, and we're good to go. But the long drawn out affairs still found in many published adventures just stretch my suspension of disbelief to a point that doesn't make sense. Why would someone spend so much time and money moving that amount of earth just to have something underground? :)

There were entire cities in the ancient world built below ground. One of the most notable examples, at Derinkuyu in Turkey, was at least eight stories deep and may have conservatively housed upwards of 20,000 people, several times larger than London during the same period. Your typical D&D dungeon is paltry by comparison. Dragon published an article on Derinkuyu in January '94 (available on the author Allen Varney's site here). Also, check out the History Channel series Cities of the Underworld for some other examples (and inspiration).

That being said, I do agree that dungeons in D&D, whether they're actual dungeons, or sewers, crypts, tombs, mines, whatever, do often seem static and unrealistic. If they're inhabited, they should seem inhabited, not just repositories for treasure to be looted and creatures to be slain...

Why would someone spend so much time and money moving that amount of earth just to have something underground?

There's an argument to be made that if you can't find it in yourself to dismiss this question as irrelevant, you've got nonnegligible problems stretching far beyond genre matters like Gygax's loopy 'dungeon.'

There's also the central matter of the historical role the 'dungeon' (basically a cave system) has played in the evolution of D&D/Zork-derived fantasy games.

The dungeon, as it's evolved, is a particular thing that signifies in a particular way. D&D isn't a portal to another goddamn dimension; it's not supposed to correspond to our spatial/environment experience, nor is supposed to comfort your tortured belief-suspension apparatus. It's a game that presents a very specific experience in a characteristic, idiosyncratic environment.

Trying to wish that away is a bit silly.

I agree that dungeons of the type evoked by the example picture - standard 10'x10' corridors, wandering monster tables, unrelated encounters - are an anachronism.

However, like so much else in fantasy gaming, they've evolved considerably from there. All sorts of environments can qualify as a dungeon, so even if you've not gone down a mine or explored a cave, locations like abandoned mansions or ruined temples easily fit into the format. Dungeons are also shorter and more story-driven than they used to be, which are also changes for the better.

Well I agree that dungeons feel contrived and often are alien to people, they do provide one very handy function that other locales don't: isolation. Assuming for a bit that dungeons are relatively distant from towns (say, a day or two's trek), a player can go into a dungeon, slaughter everything, and no-one will know the wiser, other than the local merchants who suddenly have a whole lot of rusty old kit to buy and shiny stuff to sell for some suddenly rich adventurers.

In a forest, if you kill too many predators (bear/wolf/etc.) animals, you screw with the ecology. And make the druid in the party sad. And if you use fire, better hope you can keep it isolated, for only *you* can prevent forest fires (or so I'm told).

In a city, this ramps up even further: politics, drama, every actions - to be quasi-realistic - has a social reaction.

So while I agree that dungeons feel a little hard to connect with in terms of getting players to connect with the world, they certainly do act as an excellent "tutorial" area - to learn the mechanics, to learn a few of the tropes, to get comfortable with their characters before you introduce them into the story proper.

Yet, we often fill dungeons with societies of critters, goblins, orcs, gnolls, kobolds, groups who would be more than willing to cause trouble in the nearby town after seeing their friends and family massacred by the "heroes." Yes, we normally accept this as just "part of the game" but it's important to note that we do that.

Maybe you're right - I mean, the tradition here is that the heroes go in and slaughter all the fighting-elements of a dungeon, thus ensuring that repercussion is limited (though I keep on meaning to throw the moral dilemma of orc-babies at the party) - but even assuming that *is* the case, and the dungeon is going to send a force to attack the town in vengeance for the party's attack - either the party will have unwittingly moved on (other, more important places to save/loot/etc.), or they will have another story arc - defend the village. The time it takes for the enemy to put together a raiding/vengeance part of any significance, after the PCs killed their warriors and took their valuables, should not be insubstantial. The disadvantage of urban/forest games is that you feel the repercussions *now*. You kill the wrong guy from the wrong faction, and when you go to sleep tonight, you won't wake up because he burns the inn down around you. You raid a dungeon, you get some free exp and an interesting fight in three to six months time.

I think you're blaming the dungeon for problems in the rules. All the things you suggest you might do in a forest are things that the rules support, so sure they're good ideas to already have for actions, but that's only because they happen to line up with what the rules allow you to do. If you go with, say, an urban area, everyone will still know what their general options are, but the rules won't really help them. I want to take over leadership of this gang. I want to expose corruption in the guard.

If the rules are concise enough for players to start reading easily, and if the rules make it clear when they come into action, a strange situation isn't so strange. Now you know what you can do, and how to do it.

D&D's rules don't really make it clear what you can and can't do, so of course they're intimidating.

I think the real key to introducing new players to RPGs is drawing out character motivation. The bigger issue with an adventure in a dungeon or a forest or wherever is 'Why do I care?' If a new player's character has things they want, the new player can pursue those goals, with the rules happening as needed. No matter if it's a dungeon or a forest, if the character they're playing is more than a set of abilities, they'll have something to do, if they understand the setting or not.

I disagree that the rules are better equipped to handle the forest versus an urban area. I think the problem is more that actions such as "I want to expose corruption in the guard" are too broad. However, if those actions get broken down, let's say into "I want to follow someone I think is corrupt and watch for a sure sign of corruption" or "I want to break into the headquarters to find the second set of books," those work quite well with the rule set. And since those are common solutions to problems, found in genre's other than fantasy, they may be a bit more approachable.

Rules do not govern storytelling. They are mutually exclusive.

There are some good ideas there, though I disagree with the basic premise. I've responded much more in depth at

Updated link ->

I too dislike dungeons, but for different reasons.

Dungeons kill plot. There are no external forces at work in the dungeon. No matter how much time you spend building up a dynamic world of NPCs, they don't affect the game when the players are underground. You can't put your PCs in a hole for 6 weeks and expect them to remember the plot, nor can you expect the world to be in the same state it was when the players left it.

Yikes, I love good old dungeons. I think they have a very important role in FRPG. You can do amazing things with dungeons if you take the time, including immerse plot-lines. It takes crafting, Dungeoncrafting, but you can absolutely create a fun and exciting time for your PCs.

I have to admit I find myself completely baffled by the attitude that people would be more attracted to RPGs if they involved doing stuff just like the stuff they do in real life. That seems to defeat the entire purpose and strength of RPGs to my eyes: The act of playing a role that is someone other than yourself.

It's an escape, so I feel you've hit the nail on the head. Unless a totally random and cool dungeon opens up outside my house, I'm going to have to hold out for doing so in D&D ;)

"For instance, a spellcaster forgetting a spell after casting makes no sense to me and still breaks my suspension of disbelief."

You're not forgetting the spell. You're releasing the energy you stored when you prepared the spell. Maybe the spell would normally take hours to cast as a ritual, so the preparation each morning allows you to spend that time then, so that later, you can finish the spell/ritual and release all the stored energy.

Looking at Vancian casting as the above allows it to make sense. Just forget what you learned about Vancian casting and re-learn it. It'll make sense. :D

VancianApologist spoke a little about his model of how Vancian Casting works. I have my own model, which I use in my campaigns. If you've never bothered to create such a model, one that takes the rules as written into account, then of course it's not going to make sense. It can't. That's axiomatic.

In the culture of D&D there is the trope of 'dungeons', just as there is the trope of Vancian 'fire&forget' magic. Getting rid of them if you don't like them is perfectly up to you. However since most people don't seem to mind about such things, they are unwilling or unable to divorce the concept of 'dungeons' within the context of playing D&D. Dungeons don't necessarily need to be underground of course, and we all know that the adventure can take place is whatever setting you can imagine. However most games are played on a board, or with cards. Some sort of structure/concept that isn't as free and open as D&D, or any other table-top RPG out there.

Once I was running my own D&D games I would try and stir away from the tropes just to keep the game different and fresh. But of course, the players' experiences and expectations have a lot to do with this. Afterwards though, I stopped avoiding them, reintroduced them and presented them to my players in new and interesting concepts.

Seemingly random rooms and passages all built underground? For what purpose? Who would go to all the trouble, time, effort to build such elaborate structures? Coming up with concepts, stories and answers to these questions, it brought new levels of detail to my game. Who built this dungeon? "Well, originally it was a dwarven hold." I play around with a map drawing and come up with something simple with large rooms and wide hallways. "After the dwarves abandoned it, goblins took possession sometime afterwards, building new rooms and bringing their own unique architecture and building style to the table, since goblins/kobolds/whoever are known for constantly building superfluous hallways in seemingly random patterns."

If there is a reasonable explanation for something in-game, anything is possible. Certainly some people would rather roleplay entire campaigns and never see the inside of a dungeon. After all, who wants to go grave-robbing to plunder some tomb risking life and limb? If you constantly throw dungeon after dungeon at the players, with no rhyme, nor reason, or even good story to accompany and explain things, then it just is going to erode the gameplay.

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