The Sensible Dungeon

How to Create a Reasonable Dungeon Scenario

It’s dark as a dungeon
Damp as the dew
The danger is double
And the pleasures are few

(Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 (and Odd Jobs), Dark as a Dungeon)

I don’t quite know why, but the scenarios designed by too many novice Game Masters contain only three parts – getting to the dungeon, the dungeon itself, and distributing the spoils. Perhaps the now mythological red boxed-set is to blame, or perhaps the mines of Moria, or perhaps the fact that it’s simply easier to write a dungeon than it is to write any other type of scenario.
And perhaps not. Writing a dungeon scenario may be easy, but writing up a dungeon that is both interesting and reasonable, who’s function is more than a collection of rooms to loot and monsters to slay is a whole different story. In this article I will attempt to bring up some points and pitfalls that should be noticed when creating a dungeon.

The first step in our quest to create a sensible dungeon begins with the dungeon itself. Where did these rooms come from? Is the dungeon a natural cavern, a deserted ruin or an actual dungeon, constructed specially to lure adventurers to their death? If the dungeon in question is a natural cave – how was it created? And when? And if the dungeon is a ruin, these questions only become more interesting – when was the original structure built? For what purpose? By who? When was it deserted? And Why?
The sharp blade known as “logic” will be your greatest ally in your work, and will help you cut away any ideas or thoughts that might diminish your dungeon back to a random collection of rooms and corridors.
Once we have designed the actual structure, the next logical step would be to populate our newly created dungeon. The presence of rats or bats in a damp and dark cave can be obvious, but the presence of more intelligent creatures, or even less local creatures should be explained. Do the goblins live in the dungeon simply because they are too stupid to understand how beautiful the great outdoors can be in an era that has yet to hear about the hole in the ozone layer, or are they simply afraid from the tribe of cannibal Care-Bears who live in the nearby woods?

Next, we should think about the eco-system of the biosphere known as the dungeon. Despite the abundance of long words in the previous sentence, you don’t need a degree in Ecology or even Biology to create a dungeon that would make ecological sense. The logic is simple – calories aren’t created out of thin air, and every living creature needs to eat in order to live. Usually, the ecological pyramid starts with the plants, which are the only natural organisms who can create organic matter out of inorganic materials. However, the process of photosynthesis requires light, which isn’t always available in the depths of the dungeon. Other creatures can survive by eating the fungi and mold which grows on the dungeon’s walls and floors, or more often, the other creatures that call the dungeon their home. Naturally, bringing food from outside the dungeon can also be an option if the residents of the dungeon are intelligent creatures or active predators.
On the same note, the dungeon must have a way for creatures to dispose of their waste products and leftovers. Here too, logic must reign supreme. A super-predator like a dragon (which, for some obscure reason, lives at the end of every third dungeon) will eliminate the entire population of a dungeon in a couple of days, and an hermetically sealed dungeon inside a quazi-plane will quickly be filled with substances better not mentioned here, unless teh dungeon also hosts creatures who can digest these substances.
When intelligence comes into play, the relationships between the different denizens of the dungeon need not be limited to who fills who’s plate. The whole range of social relations that exists outside the dungeon can most certainly also exist within it. For example, the ogres and the kobolds that live in dungeon X can struck a pact after both being driven from their respective homes by the ruthless trolls, while the Water-Elves and the sirens of the underwater dungeon Y can be bitter enemies at war for centuries.

A final point to pay attention to are the traps and snares many Game Masters like to lay throughout their dungeons. Here too, we must use the rules of logic. Even if none of the native creatures are smart enough to lay the trap, they all must be smart enough not to fall into it, or else the area around it would be full of corpses by now. Unless, of course, there is another reason why the natives don’t come to this part of the dungeon…

Even if we designed the perfect dungeon, our work here is only half done. We’ll take care of the other half during the game session itself.
First and foremost, it’s the Game Master’s job to create the atmosphere of crawling through an unmapped dungeon, not a stroll across a series of rooms packed with experience points… em… monsters. The tools at his disposal are known and obvious – the characters’ five senses. He needs only to use them properly.
Dungeons, like all closed spaces, tend to be musty. Fresh air rarely penetrates the dungeon, and unpleasant odors of mold, dampness and dust tend to be the dominant smells in the dungeon. On the other hand a gust of refreshing air can help lead the characters towards the exit.
Sound, as you probably know, is no more than a vibration that passes through the air (or any other medium) and hits the ear-drums. Thinner or thicker walls and an uneven makeup of the walls can make sounds seem nearer or further away than they really are, create deafening roars or simply hide the footsteps of the nearby rats.
Dungeons, especially the subterranean ones, tend to be dark. The native creatures are usually able to see (or at least function) in the darkness, or alternatively, are equipped with their own light sources. Either way, additional light sources wondering around the dungeon, especially if they are torches who also emit heat and a strong smell, will undoubtedly attract unwanted attention to the naive adventurers.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is that a dungeon is a dynamic, living and changing environment, or as Sir Isaac Newton put it so elegantly – “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Adventures wearing full plate mail exploring a usually quiet dungeon will not go unnoticed by its inhabitants. Slaying the goblin patrol will undoubtedly cause the alarm to be sounded when the other goblins understand that their friends are taking a bit too long to write their names on the northern post, not to mention the smell of burnt flesh that usually accompanies the wizard’s fireball.

In conclusion, even a dungeon can be an interesting and challenging scenario both for the players and for the game master, if only given the correct amount of thought.

This article first appeared in issue #17 of The Orc.