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"Why Dungeons?" Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP24 Aug 2019 9:56 p.m. PST

"This is a question that comes up perennially, it seems, especially (but not exclusively) among newer players to the game. They can't seem to fathom why dungeons exist, and in the sort of realistic-fantasy world they prefer, they simply cannot suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy a proper dungeon-crawl type adventure…"
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USAFpilot25 Aug 2019 7:24 a.m. PST

Dungeons exist because it made playing D&D possible. Without them the rpg is too open ended. The dungeon represents a confined space which you can explore and fight monsters. There is a clearly defined start and finish to the adventure when playing in a dungeon. It was fun drawing your progress on graph paper and making decisions on which way to go at an intersection. The fact that all these dungeons existed in your campaign didn't really make sense, but it was a game mechanism that made the game work.

CeruLucifus25 Aug 2019 10:26 a.m. PST

USAFpilot's answer is the most sensible today from a game design aspect, but the real reason is the literature that inspired D&D's creators had dungeons so they designed a game system that had them as well. The Lord of the Rings, Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, these all featured what today we would call dungeoncrawls.

It's probably better to think of "dungeon" as a plot device where the protagonist must move forward resolving adversaries and other conflicts to achieve the goal of the narrative. This expands the source inspiration to include many other narratives that may not have had literal dungeons but did have similar plot devices.

I think the issue is probably when the larger framing narrative is lacking or ignored; this is when a player trying to roleplay may offer up the "why dungeons?" question that otherwise seems somewhat trollish.

Col Durnford Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2019 3:12 p.m. PST

Because "Roaming around the countryside & Dragons" just doesn't have the same ring?

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2019 3:37 p.m. PST



robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2019 4:37 p.m. PST

I figured this out years ago. Dungeons are actually the trails of Burnt Sienna Hulks, which are 10 x 10 when fully grown, and who eat rock. Larger chambers are the result of mating and egg-laying. (You don't want to know the details.) Unless someone later occupied the dungeon, all the furniture was mimics at one time, though the mimics may have since died, leaving behind what appear to be chests containing the indigestible remains--coins and magic items--of previous adventurers.

What? you didn't think someone actually dug ten-level dungeons, did you? I'll believe that when some GM describes the spoil pile.

Cmde Perry26 Aug 2019 7:47 a.m. PST

+1, Robert!

rmaker26 Aug 2019 1:18 p.m. PST

USAFPilot is essentially correct. As an original Blackmoor player, I an attest that the early "outdoor" adventures rapidly became nearly unmanageable, what with characters wandering away from the group and even the main group wandering off into unprepared areas. The dungeon channelized movement and kept the party more or less together.

catavar26 Aug 2019 9:51 p.m. PST

The dungeon is a widely excepted locale where anything supernatural (or mildly scary) can happen, right?

Think catacombs, tombs and ancient castles. How many people have been in one, but I'm sure many have heard stories of such places, no?

What better place to explore? Who knows what delves in it's deep, dark, dank depths? Ok, USA probably nailed it, but it was worth a try.

jamemurp28 Aug 2019 11:30 a.m. PST

It's part of the particular game genre. If the players are wondering too much, either the GM isn't giving them enough story or the players are overthinking (much like many fun vs. "realism" arguments). There are plenty of trappings that make a "dungeon" work- the long forgotten tomb of an ancient warrior lord, a warren of terrible animalistic monsters, the winding streets of a lost city, etc.

There is something to be said for wandering about, though, and hexcrawls kind of treat the world like one big dungeon crawl.

DungeonDelver02 Sep 2019 8:19 p.m. PST

I agree with the obvious narrative impact of the dungeon as a necessary artifact to structure the game. The early Fantasy Trip modules did effectively the same thing through a "choose your own adventure" format. It played exactly like a dungeon.

That said, I will offer two real life "dungeon" counterparts that I have actually visited: The Paris Catacombs and Forte Belvedere, a WWI Italian fortification cut into a mountain on what was then the border of Italy and Austria-Hungary.

The Paris Catacombs are real. They are big. Very big as in miles and miles and they pretty much look like what you would expect a dungeon to look like. Tunnels, turns, forks, rooms. Not many doors though. These were no dug by a dark necromancer, but to get salt. A perennial valuable commoditty worth returning to dig deeper. It was only 150 years ago that they cleared the Paris cemetaries and filled the tunnels with bones (which makes them kind of creepy today.)

There was a big, persistent purpose to digging tunnels. It only accidentally left the tunnels behind.

Forte Belvedere is actually as close to a dungeon as you can get. It is cut from limestone, has passages, stairs, forks, and rooms. It even has doors.

It is also really wet. The passages have gutters down the sides to let the water drain away. Not something you usually see in a fantasy dungeon.

This was a huge capital investment by a relatively mature nation-state in order to achieve a clear strategic objective. Think Maginot Line 30 years earlier. For that matter, the Maginot forts are real life dungeons too. Hard to swing in an ancient-medieval economy.

So my version of the question is not "why dungeons?" but "why so many dungeons?" There are enough real life analogs to at least support the fantastic existence of such places. Having them exist in every town, village, or shire is another thing entirely.

But if you need a literary example, read Red Nails by Robert E Howard.

Mithmee05 Sep 2019 12:37 p.m. PST

Because they are dark, damp & have the best features.

Plus it would not be called Dungeon crawling if it was not a Dungeon.

Wheldrake10 Sep 2019 6:36 a.m. PST

Dungeons don't *have* to be dungeons. Sometimes they are ruined temples or castle. Or not-ruined versions. Or townhouses and run-down tenements. Or natural cave systems.
When D&D got started in the mid-70s, Gary suggested using his second-favorite game, Outdoor Survival for wilderness campaigns. It was a sort of abstract hex map with mountains, forests, swamps and rivers. Very quickly, everybody and their brother started making similar maps for their game world.

But you're right: wilderness adventures are far more open ended. The players decide where they will go, and often the DM has to wing it. Or simply keep specific "places of mystery" locations vague, antil placing them in a fortuitous spot.

Inevitably though, conflit resolution zooms into a small-scale map. Whether terrain features are mouldering walls or trees and underbrush, there will be a "one space equals five feet" board with adversaries to defeat or outwit. Often it's a physical board with miniatures, but even "theatre of the mind" games have to resort to describing such a space.

So we call them "dungeons". Even when they aren't.

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