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Tabletop Meditations #4: Dungeons

Skulking carefully through a web-choked and shadow-drowned passage, a thick grey sheet of dust over the flagstone floor and the scattered bones probably those of other adventurers hopefully of a lesser skill, watching where you step and hoping the next is not your last propelled onward by the dream of snatching the promised treasure and escaping with your life.

This should be familiar to any avid role-player even those who’ve only had a cursory experience with the hobby as a description of the prototypical Dungeon Crawl. In these games mazes are crawling with strange and often bizarre beasties for the players to battle and treacherous with traps and pitfalls to impede their progress as well as studded with treasures to tempt them. These mazes are most often constructed of various chambers linked by a confusing network of passageways and corridors not to mention stairwells.

Dungeons, ever present in roleplaying games and sometimes the sole focus of a game, imprison their inmates within a complex or maze of rooms often peppered with an assortment of puzzles/riddles, traps, hazards, treasures, and monsters. In my gaming experience dungeons are always, even if not by intention, a confusing conglomeration of chambers meant to serve as a playing field where characters test their mettle and the players test their cunning against that of the Game-Master or the author of the dungeon.

The well-designed fantasy dungeon demands players work as a team, cause characters to take on the roles to which they’re best suited, and pit the Game Master directly against the players though allowing some distance between responsibility and any lethal results within the game. The modern conception of the roleplaying dungeon is not just the fantasy of fulfilling greedy impulses and living out dreams of glory but the path of its evolution and its pedigree down through history makes the fantasy dungeon much more. It is however, a modern invention inspired and informed by certain historical facts, myth, and ideas presented in fiction.

‘Dungeon’ is a colorful word that delivers certain images, sensory information, and can carry certain connotations by its mere mention. It brings to mind not only the medieval justice system but conjures into the imagination skulking enemies, deep and dark chambers dripping with slime and moisture, and such iconic objects as chains & torture collars and hidden treasures. The word itself begs for at least a brief exploration of its etymology.

The English dungeon has an etymology that rises from the French donjon (which translates to keep or great tower) but is more akin in usage and meaning to the French oubliette which means literally “forgotten place”. It is probable that since an often small and high chamber in the keep was used to house a prisoner that dungeon became, eventually, synonymous with ‘prison’. Fiction and horror movies would later alloy the imagery of the torture chamber to ‘dungeon’ also adding to its connotations and power of imagery further making it inevitable that the word and the ideas/images that it carried would find its way into fantasy roleplaying games not to mention the use of the word as an indictment of a cramped and/or damp isolated room in which many tabletop gamers would be accused of incessantly playing their games in.

Dungeons in roleplaying games seem to encompass three central ideas which are essential to their composition. These basic ideas are imprisonment, puzzlement (like a physical riddle, a travel puzzle), and exploration (what’s around the next corner). These three ideas also relate very closely to the idea of the maze or labyrinth. Whereas dungeons contemporaneous with tabletop RPG’s are a very new idea the concept of the maze/labyrinth dates back thousands of years into antiquity and definitely has contributed to the modern concept of the dungeon.

Mazes themselves do adhere very closely to the three core ideas of dungeons and it is no surprise that many modern dungeons resemble them. The maze as a symbol lends some of its meaning to dungeons and that is the circuitous route of a human life represented in its twisted corridors with dead-ends aptly named.

Inspiration for the titular roleplaying dungeon can be found throughout history and in ancient myth but cannot be pinpointed to any singular instance or structure though several instances carry very obvious components of the modern dungeon. The roleplaying dungeon has its roots in the Egyptian tombs, the European and English hedge-mazes, the myth of the Cretan labyrinth, and the medieval bottle-prison, the oubliette.

The Egyptian influence especially where it comes to traps and maze-like tombs is nearly self-evident. The ancient Egyptians employed false rooms, secret doors, and simple traps such as concealed pits, hematite powder (if inhaled it shredded the lungs causing the tomb-raider to drown in their own blood), and used huge granite blocks to secure tomb entrances occasionally inscribed with a death-curse, mostly for effect. The Egyptian tombs fit perfectly in with the idea of Exploration and add a sense of danger and risk to the idea of the fantasy dungeon due to the traps laid for and the cyclopean security measures as proof against tomb-raiders. Not to mention such history-based stories as the Curse of Tutankhamen in modern myth contributing an air of mysticism and mystery to the sense of danger.

As Egyptian tombs carry the idea of exploration, hedge-mazes bear the idea of puzzlement, and the medieval Oubliette carries the core idea of Imprisonment. In the Black Tower of castle Roumeli Hissar, built probably by Alexios Comnenus about 1100 A.D. – “[a] dark passage near the head of the stairway leads to the crown of a deep circular oubliette, which is constructed in the thickness of the wall and has no window or any other entrance than this passage. [A] prisoner impelled along the passage and pushed through the opening would fall in utter darkness to the bottom of the chamber 13 ft. below. This is probably one of the earliest examples of a true oubliette, of which there are very few.” [Toy, Sidney. 1939. Castles: Their Construction and History, 1984 Reprint. New York, Dover Publications Inc. pg.83, Emphasis Mine.]

These rather infamous “bottle-prisons” so named due to the bottle-shape of their interiors were probably historically used more for storage than serving as imprisonment as most medieval justice involved execution or fines rather than prison sentences.

“Important prisoners, such as members of the nobility, were sometimes held for ransom […] in a castle’s dungeon.” [Cantor, Norman F., ed. 1999. The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Penguin Putnam Inc. Prisons and Punishment]

As a prison these could serve as pretty inescapable cells though they were dirt floored and situated at the base and in the foundations of castle towers making tunneling somewhat impractical.

Hedge-mazes, a particular example being that which figures in the English myth of Fair Rosamond, which existed in Europe and England for hundreds of years, also figure into the evolution of the idea of the modern fantasy dungeon. Though most archetypal RPG dungeons are subterranean and built of stone the maze that was used to keep King Henry VI’s indiscretions with Rosamond hidden from his jealous queen is considered (probably mistakenly) as a maze of evergreens but the fair treasure, often symbolized by a rose, at the center is a key idea which has carried over into the modern concept.

The hedge-maze brings with it the puzzle aspect, a puzzle that must be solved and the established goal reached. That English maze concealed not only a prize as it were but also served to keep a secret only available to those who were either cunning or treacherous enough to solve it. Of course, Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, did eventually solve it using a spool of thread to the doom of his young and beautiful mistress very much like Theseus in the maze of the Minotaur but there it was the triumph of the hero and the death of the beast.

The Cretan labyrinth, that which contained the Minotaur, probably served as the core inspiration and model of the English myth as it like King Henry’s maze was cleverly built by a master builder, Daedalus but who unlike Louis of Bourbourg, the architect of the English maze, was later forced to escape from a tower prison with his unfortunate son, Icarus. These labyrinth-myths bring to the modern concept the idea of a central prize and that of an occupying monster.

Inspired by history the roleplaying dungeon has been equipped with the imprisonment capability (and escape fantasy) of an oubliette, the complexity of the Cretan maze, and the deliberate dangers of an Egyptian tomb with the puzzle and the game aspect of the hedge-maze. However, it is apparent with a little investigation that the current concept of a roleplaying dungeon is inspired by history but historically a ‘dungeon’ was not existent in its current form even as a prison cell and most probably originated in the Italian Renaissance becoming synonymous with torture chambers and being shaped into the archetypical medieval prison in the gothic novels of the nineteenth century. It seems a modern idea which evolved within the context of the roleplaying game, at least the idea of the treasure-trap laden monster haunted gauntlet certainly is.

The fantasy RPG dungeon’s history can be followed and is somewhat well-documented. The idea itself evolving with the early years of roleplaying games emerging at around the same time as fantasy gaming from the War-Gaming hobby where an opposing army would mine its way under the fortifications of the castle they are sieging into unexpected lower chambers and storerooms which then developed shortly into deliberately constructed gauntlets for heroes to traverse.

At about the time of the evolution of roleplaying games from the primordial soup of war-gaming the idea for dungeons began and one of the major influences of course was popular literature especially that authored by J.R.R. Tolkien, namely Moria the Black Chasm.

“Some spoke of Moria: the mighty works of our fathers that are called in our own tongue Khazad-dum…too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear. Long have its vast mansions lain empty since the children of Durin fled.” [Tolkien, J.R.R., 1994 (1966 ed.), The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Company, SFBC edition. pg.234]

No doubt mines have become a type of dungeon within the modern incarnation of roleplaying games among others but they definitely, at least in my mind, are an early inspiration in the development of dungeons in roleplaying.  Of course, that comes with the popular knowledge that Tolkien’s shadow looms large over the early roleplaying games not exclusively involving dungeons and the trend in fantasy fiction of that time (the early to mid-1970’s) so it should be no surprise that the mines of Moria could have added to the concept at its earliest stages.

“[T]he creators of D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] were inspired by the empirically detailed fantasy texts of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lieber and others[.]” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press. pg.101]

“One of the peculiar developments in the past few decades has been the rise of the “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Magic” industries. These role-playing games are derived directly from epic fantasy. They owe everything to the original writers like [Robert E.] Howard and Tolkien.” [Moorcock, Michael. 2004. Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. MonkeyBrain Books. pgs.146-147]

The evolution of the roleplaying dungeon can be marked as beginning within the game of Blackmoor written by Dave Arneson.

“Arneson…shifted the game from the battlefield of traditional war games into large indoor settings such as castles, caverns, and mines. In one of Arneson’s most successful games, the characters were sent to infiltrate Blackmoor Castle through its sewer to open the gates. … To reach the gate, the character had to traverse the castle’s dungeons, which were full of various guards and monsters. … Similar scenarios became standard for fantasy roleplaying games. The indoor environments of the games were known as “dungeons” regardless of the actual nature or purpose of the space. In 1972, Arneson attended Gen Con in Lake Geneva and ran his Castle Blackmoor scenario for convention goers.” [Laycock, Joseph P. 2015. Dangerous Games. University of California Press. pg.41]

Soon after its debut Dave Arneson would refine and expand his design.

“The second issue of the [Blackmoor] Gazette [and Rumormonger], which details events of the late spring of 1972, provides the first mention of the counterintuitive but seminal notion that the “dungeons” beneath Castle Blackmoor were a place where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” By this point, [Dave] Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.” [Peterson, Jon. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. 2012. pg.68]

Not soon after a participant in a Blackmoor game would take the idea of the RPG dungeon and run with it.

“[A] Minneapolis local named Louis Fallert attended one of the University of Minnesota Military History Club meetings and there joined a Blackmoor dungeon expedition. […] After playing in Blackmoor, Fallert felt an irresistible urge to adapt and reinvent it for his own use[.]” (Peterson. 460) Mike Wood, who attended the meetings where Fallert unveiled the Castle Keep game writing a commentary of the foray he witnessed: “[He] was directing […] a couple [of] people in a game he’d just put together, sort of a simulation of intrepid heroes wandering around in a dungeon seeking to find treasure and avoiding death at the hands of trolls, orcs and other perils.” [Peterson. 460-461]

Again the idea would course down to other players within the gaming community and begin to spread as rules were codified and roleplaying games began to roll out. Craig van Grasstek was one of the three original players that Louis Fallert let into his Castle Keep in 1974 in Minneapolis. Grasstek decided to write down a set of rules, his Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974).

“The problem seems to have been one of standardization: “since there are so many different mazes, run by so many […], there are bound to be many discrepancies and idiosyncrasies among them,” Grasstek writes in his foreword.” [Peterson. 485]

Not long after the standardization of the roleplaying dungeon was a fixed play space within the imagination of gamers everywhere. The idea also began to expand into other game realms which were themselves in their infancy. The precursor to all computer adventure games, Adventure, merged spelunking with the maze and elements already codified in the early roleplaying dungeons alloying the meaning of the word in most gamers if not people’s minds. It was developed in 1975 and 1976 by Will Crowther for the enjoyment of “non-computer people”. He created it as a fantasy recreation of his caving; he was an accomplished caver, mostly as a game for his daughters. It was influenced by “some aspects” of the game Dungeons & Dragons which he had been playing. [Montfort, Nick. 2003. Twisty Little Passages. The MIT Press. pg. 10]

“[I]t requires the exploration of a secret dungeon (which most likely would force most players to take up cartography to navigate) where one defeats adversaries and escapes with treasures.” [Peterson, Jon. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. 2012. pg.620]

Will Crowther was however heavily inspired by a roleplaying game titled Mirkwood Tales as told by Barry Gold in an article entitled “Computers and Fantasy Gaming” for Alarums #30 in January 1978 [Peterson.616]. The Mirkwood Tales roleplaying game was a Tolkien themed variant of Dungeons & Dragons authored by Eric S. Roberts around 1977 set in the world of Middle-Earth and adapting the races found in the Lord of the Rings as Player Races: elves, dwarves, and hobbits though “Tolkien is relegated to the second credit” in the Acknowledgments section of the game manuscript.

“It moreover relies on underworld exploration, combat and treasure to drive an engaging narrative.” [Peterson. 617]

Of course with the codification of the modern idea of the dungeon it wasn’t long before those that were too well designed or deliberately made to be unfair to players became common enough to garner the moniker ‘Dungeons of Death’. A Dungeon of Death being a “dungeon that is considered extremely difficult, in which few characters survive.” [Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press. pg.29]

Even with these bumps in the road dungeons infiltrated and soaked into fantasy roleplaying becoming ubiquitous even in fiction. They could be found everywhere with any kind of subterranean environment becoming a dungeon.

“Dungeons are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. […] If the Dungeon is a pit of the type called an oubliette, on the other hand, you are justified in slight melancholy.” [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. Dungeons]

Roleplaying groups are often wont to find and discover dungeons to explore sometimes exclusively setting out to crawl through such constructs in a style of play referred to as “delving” or as “delves” as in dungeon-delving or more commonly engaged in what is called a Dungeon Crawl.

A ‘crawl’ can refer to anything from breaking into a tricksy guild-house (esp. thieves’ or assassins’ guilds), a mages’ tower, invading a dragon’s lair, or wandering through a cave system. It presents the players and their characters with a challenge which begs to be met as well as granting them bragging rights after meeting that challenge and (hopefully) conquering it. Within the context of a roleplaying game a dungeon serves a couple of major purposes.

The first is to provide a pretty straight forward thrill-packed section of a game campaign. The other major purpose of a dungeon is to provide a stretch in the game which can endure anywhere from one to many sessions where the Game Master just has to rely on the material (hopefully) already written giving them a little break other than running the game itself and having to deal with off-the-cuff bits which dungeons accomplish, mostly, by limiting the wandering scope of the player characters.

“Arneson explained: A dungeon is nice and self-contained. Players can’t go romping over the countryside, and you can control the situation.” [Laycock. 41]

While the running of a dungeon has certain advantages when it comes to the GM’s role they also come with some caveats on the GM’s part as well.

The designing of dungeons demands a particular set of skills and an eye for detail. The Dungeon-Master must know the players that will be entering the dungeon (their ‘delvers’), be familiar with the design of mazes, and a penchant for engaging the delvers within the dungeon. The design of a dungeon requires a certain level of cruelty, ingenuity, and the ability to come up with or adopt details and puzzles that are appropriate to the player group.

The minimum components required to qualify as a ‘dungeon’, at least in my opinion, are a few passages twisted about at least a single room with a minimum of one tricky door, a single trap, and a single monster with maybe a puzzle or riddle thrown in for good measure. Note also a well-designed dungeon should have a balance, but not a particularly predictable, scattering of traps, hazards, obstacles, treasures, monsters, and puzzles which are hopefully not beyond the ability of both the players and their characters.

There are plenty of pre-generated dungeons out there in the ether for purchase or free, known as “Dungeon Modules” taking the hassle and fairly involved work of designing and generating a dungeon off of the GM save for the minor alteration usually needed to work the module into the current campaign and maybe even some modifications to fit it into the game system that the GM may be using at the time especially with those modules written for specific systems. Of course there are a lot pre-gen modules that are “system neutral”. Actual dungeon design is a time consuming endeavor with map-making only the tip of the ice burg though I find that it works better to begin with the map.

Initially you should probably decide on a rough number of rooms to work with and try to keep the number well within that you are confident you can spend the amount of time needed on the design (and decoration) of each depending on the level of detail required per individual chamber. It can get pretty boring when the players are wandering around from empty room filled with detritus to empty room with a pile of rubble or trash strewn over the chamber floor.

Not diminish the use of empty rooms especially when the players have become justifiably paranoid and finally happen upon an empty chamber then take painstaking measures to be careful while making their way through it not to mention the expressions on their faces after they’ve gotten through and have realized it was indeed just an empty room. After deciding on how many chambers you’re going to use you should also know already if the chamber for any reason will require a specific shape or modifications on the map especially when it comes to areas or other rooms outside of that chamber.

This is very necessary when dealing with Trap-Rooms, rooms that are designed as giant traps which are often elaborate and should be used sparingly as these can be particularly deadly. Other map considerations are the support systems and architecture required for certain features such as pools of various types of liquids which would require a source and a drain along with some valves somewhere that can be opened or closed as well as pipes/piping but an inlet and a drain are the most necessary in this particular situation also when dealing with flooding chambers or passageways which also require the addition of an air vent for the escaping air.

Also do not discount mechanical and gear-box areas on the map that may be located above, below or adjacent to a trap/trap-room as well. There are also other considerations that could come into play such as air-vents, sky-light type openings, the floor which can be stone, covered in tiles or flagstones, or be compacted soil etc. Support pillars are a minor consideration but can be useful when there are enemies adding in nice places for cover and to use for ambush and should be placed where it’s obvious that they may be needed for structure but when it comes to a fantasy dungeon the latter use is preferable as you don’t need to be an architect to draw a dungeon map unless the details start to knock on the delvers’ suspension of disbelief.

The second step in this process would be to draw the map and arrange the rooms in a way that serves your purpose maybe even making use of labyrinth or maze logic when it comes to the passageways connecting the individual chambers. You should after or just before this stage figure out the obstacles you’re going to throw in the way of the player characters especially doors, collapsed areas, and large bits of detritus, and simple traps which should be mapped. Of course simple traps and doors could be placed in afterwards if they don’t require complex mechanics or support structures that influence the area on the map around them.

Doors can be simple roadblocks, such as a locked iron door or a barred wooden one, or be somewhat complex with special traps and devices built into them. Another thing to keep in mind even while drawing or building the map are the monsters/enemies found wandering within the dungeon and/or occupying certain chambers. Unless there are special circumstances (namely magic, special devices, or super-science) they will need living quarters and the necessary amenities: food, water, etc.

Probably why most dungeons, even those that are not tombs, have a lot of undead and golem type monsters wandering about them as well as the seemingly ever-present rodent and insect-based creatures whom can be relied upon to provide for themselves in the filth of the place also don’t overlook monstrous fungi which may be feeding off of certain bits of the structure of the dungeon itself not to mention the remains of its victims.

After your map is done you can place the smaller components doors, traps, monsters and then come up with the individual matter (writing for the narration) for the chambers which should be a short couple of sentences setting the general atmosphere of the room (scent, sight, and temperature) along with the play components/features within the chamber. Each of those may have a brief description attached to them as well as the general physical description of any readily apparent enemy within as well. Combined together this matter is what composes the entirety of the room description.

A room description is what the GM will narrate to the players when their characters either look into the chamber or when they enter it all based of course on what the characters can logically see at the time based on their positions and point of view. Voila! You have a functional dungeon. The basic steps in designing a dungeon are: Decide on the number of rooms, decide what extra support features will need to be mapped, draw the map, come up with and place the smaller features such as traps/doors, come up with and place enemies keeping in mind the amenities they will need to survive (also known as Dungeon Ecology), and then come up with the details/descriptions needed for each chamber not discounting those for the smaller components as well as enemies. Note also that a well-designed dungeon should have a balanced, but not particularly predictable, scattering of traps, hazards, obstacles, treasures, monsters, and puzzles which is hopefully not beyond the ability of both players and their characters.

Dungeons are a common and even archetypical dare I say cliché scenario found in contemporary roleplaying games and is a mode of play that may also dominate the type of play in which certain ‘dungeoneering’ groups will participate. In roleplaying the term is associated with scenarios involving a map which can be simple or complex with chambers and passages populated with traps, hazards, enemies, and treasures to be had applying to anything from the under-passages of a castle or city sewer to a cave complex, dragon’s lair, or even the interior of a wizard’s tower. Dungeons never quite existed historically in the form the word is now associated with though it still carries some of the historic weight and imagery associated with the word given it by history and literature.

The modern dungeon was inspired and influenced not just by history especially due to the evolution of RPG’s from historical war-gaming but by popular fiction, possibly more so, especially J.R.R. Tolkien and the mines of Moria featured in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The mythological/historical inspirations range from the hazardous tombs of ancient Egypt to the decorated hedge-mazes of 16th and 18th century Europe and Britain not to mention the raging-bull in the room of the Cretan Labyrinth.

In some ways dungeons are directly linked to such ideas as mazes/labyrinths and make use of other ideas with equally as long lineages such as riddles, magic, and monsters. It was developed at the birth of roleplaying games not solely invented by a single person but evolved by the contributions of early roleplayers and their ‘referees’ one of the central figures being a prime contributor to the birth of roleplaying, Dave Arneson.

His Blackmoor campaign is of central interest where concerning dungeons and the refinement and spreading of the dungeon scenario by such individuals as Louis Fallert, Craig van Grasstek, and Will Crowther. Within the context of a roleplaying game session a dungeon can help the GM maintain control by limiting the scope of the game into a finite self-contained space and limit the range of the player characters whose imperative it is to wander. It also adds in some action and thrills to a campaign with little effort due to the nature of such scenarios. For these two reasons the dungeon has become a central part of the roleplaying experience not to mention they can also be fun to design and populate. Designing a dungeon can be as fun as delving and is definitely an exercise in creativity but it can be rather time-intensive. Fortunately there are dungeon-modules galore that can be had for free or purchased via multiple outlets.

A dungeon presents the puzzlement and symbolism of the maze, the potential to trap and imprison like the oubliette, the thrill of exploration as the tombs of ancient Egypt, and the power of mytho-historic imagery and the clichés presented by fantasy fiction stirred into the pot. With it a dungeon drags the connotations of reward and danger as well as the test of cunning to escape and bypass the traps, the strength to overcome resident foes, and the intelligence to solve its puzzles. Even the word ‘dungeon’ itself has the weight of history and color of imagery associated with it that which transcends the gaming table and adds a certain power to any maze-like challenge dubbed as such. Due to the ease of acquirement as well as the ease of design of dungeons along with the fun to be had while delving should leave no questions as to why dungeons are so popular in the current state of roleplaying games.