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"Musings about where dungeons come from" Topic

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©1994-2020 Bill Armintrout
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blackjack07125 Mar 2020 3:04 p.m. PST

There's gotta be a reason to dig out elaborate underground complexes right? I've run across three explanations other than "somebody got real bored". Anybody got more?

Over the Hill Gaming Blog Post

Oberlindes Sol LIC25 Mar 2020 3:46 p.m. PST

The best dungeons I've played in and that I've designed all started from the premise that the dungeon served some real and at least partially understandable purpose other than just posing challenges to the PCs.

Demons and their minions built vast and complex tunnels out of Hell. Dungeons are just the parts of those complexes nearest the surface.

Hiding Underground
This is mentioned in the linked article. Dragons, extra-terrestrials, even just more powerful human enemies might lead people to move underground some or all of the time.

Dwarves and Other Underground Dwellers
Some intelligent species have evolved to prefer living underground. Tolkien's dwarves are an example. They would create elaborate structures, just a surface-dwelling civilization would. Lava tubes and vast kerst formations would make ideal pre-fabricated underground cities for them.

Traditional Underground Things

-Crypts/catacombs/tombs/etc. have been put underground by various cultures for a very long time, for various reasons (e.g., sanitation, smell avoidance, religious tradition).

-Prisons/torture chambers/etc. have been put where the prisoners could be remote from their supporters, their screams and pleas unheard. The oubliette was a place where someone could be dropped and forgotten -- hence the name -- by everyone.

-Escape routes: from the inner keep, through the catacombs (which should deter superstitious pursuers) and secret funerary chapels (same function), past the oubliette, and out through a waterfall, hole in the mountainside, or whatever, a noble family needs a secret way to get out of Dodge, or, um, Castle Dodge.

-Sanitation, sewage, storm drains can all be found under castles and cities

Personal logo 20thmaine Supporting Member of TMP25 Mar 2020 3:46 p.m. PST

One theory is that in a world of High Magic the castle is a pointless defence – when your opponent can just fly over the walls or use line of sight to fireball all the defenders.

So the Dungeon becomes a more viable defendable dwelling – if the way in is 10 feet wide and it just gets narrower then that's the Dragons kept out at least! The problem will always be powerful magic wielders – but a lot of the area effect and line of sight spells can be mitigated with narrow and twisting corridors.

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP25 Mar 2020 3:54 p.m. PST

I always thought of them being hidden, secure, underground fortresses…and many of the reasons stated previously.
This is a good thread, I look forward to more inventive reasons beyond oversized moles!

Timbo W25 Mar 2020 3:59 p.m. PST

Orcs and goblins hate tanning?

USAFpilot25 Mar 2020 4:03 p.m. PST

Some dungeons are just basements for castles. Others are ancient ruins that over time have been built over.

Stryderg25 Mar 2020 4:44 p.m. PST

Or ancient cities that got buried under a landslide. If the buildings didn't get crushed, they would still be connected and could be turned into a lovely home for anyone wanting to avoid prying eyes.

Usually we used existing caverns and cave systems that had been improved by folks wanting to avoid a lot of publicity, cults, criminals, underworld dwellers, necromancers, etc.

Personal logo 20thmaine Supporting Member of TMP25 Mar 2020 5:20 p.m. PST

I also like the spin that a magic rich world can give to classical burial techniques: so in Cyprus there's the Tombs of the Kings which are, quite literally, a Necropolis city built below ground level


Add in magic and a Liche ruled subterranean city is yours to explore.

dBerczerk25 Mar 2020 6:22 p.m. PST

Castles need a place for food storage / preservation: wine, cheese, dried and salted meats, salt, water cisterns, etc. Some dungeons may have started out that way.

Thresher01 Supporting Member of TMP25 Mar 2020 6:27 p.m. PST

"Modern day" air-conditioned, naturally cooled rooms and hallways.

Doesn't get better than that in the dark and middle ages.

KevinV25 Mar 2020 7:12 p.m. PST

One of the best articles and threads. I loved reading this. It's got me thinking again, after 30 years!
My son wants me to run a dungeon crawl. Maybe I'm inspired.

Stryderg25 Mar 2020 7:44 p.m. PST

I like the idea from the article that the dungeon was a living critter, very slowly floating to surface.

Other ideas of what formed the holes:
Meteor strikes that punched holes in the ground and loosened the dirt so diggers could dig easier.
Huge tunneling worms that are thankfully extinct now.
Underground rivers that have dried up or been diverted.

Wackmole9 Supporting Member of TMP25 Mar 2020 9:31 p.m. PST

The Pavis/Big rubble Runequest idea was always my favorite. A Vast city destroyed and buried.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP26 Mar 2020 4:16 a.m. PST

The Burnt Sienna Hulk. It measures 10' x 10' x 10' and eats limestone and granite. Chambers, steps and smaller corridors come from--well, do we really want to discuss the reproductive cycle here?

Mimics come in behind, taking the form of furniture. Trapped items with nothing inside are dead mimics. Chests and suchlike with treasure actually are dead mimics holding the remains of previous adventurers.

You can get away with the "ruined city" or "dwarf mine" as long as you stick to a dungeon of modest proportions. But when you get to high-level D&D, only the Burnt Sienna Hulk makes sense.

Kropotkin303 Supporting Member of TMP26 Mar 2020 6:46 a.m. PST

Good thread Blackjack. I believe old HP Lovecraft had his shoggoths as slaves building underground and undersea cities such as At the Mountains of Madness.Everything was going fine until………

joeltks26 Mar 2020 8:48 a.m. PST

Kind of in line with 'the wizards did it' … I always thought The Lords of Quarmall (Fafhrd & Gray Mouser) would be a terrific backstory and setting for a dungeon adventure. Some situation where all the resident wizards have killed themselves off and the other inhabitants either depart or continue to devolve. And, of course, the possibility for new inhabitants to more in to portions.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP26 Mar 2020 10:36 a.m. PST

Aggressive "over-building." Heck, most cities in Europe and the Mediterranean regions are built on top of cities which were built on top of cities which were built on top of cities which were built on top of towns which were built on top of villages which were built on top of somebody's favorite camping site. In the case of a "dungeon," the over-builders just didn't bother to fill in all the stuff underneath.

Cerdic26 Mar 2020 11:09 a.m. PST

Technically of course, a dungeon is actually a keep or large tower. Basements were just storerooms…

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP26 Mar 2020 12:17 p.m. PST

They often don't Parzival. About 25 years ago, there were news reports of shoot-outs under Kaliningrad as competing gangs sought the Amber Chamber in the remains of Koenigsberg. Evidently the Soviets just bulldozed the remaining buildings and built, without any of the wimpy foundation stuff, so it's still semi-navigable. (Anyone needing a short campaign for the Lockdown, feel free.)

Rome is much as you describe. For Paris, you have catacombs and mines, and there's a regular guided tour of underground London. (Speaking of which: can anyone tell me whether the new north-south tube line made use of the stations built for it during WWII and used for bomb shelters and storage? Or are they still there?)

But outside of a fantasy world, you start running into ventilation problems long before you reach normal D&D depths.

Oberlindes Sol LIC26 Mar 2020 1:04 p.m. PST

Huge tunneling worms that are thankfully extinct now.

… or are they?

blackjack07126 Mar 2020 4:08 p.m. PST

Loving these ideas, folks!

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP26 Mar 2020 4:54 p.m. PST

Ah. The city level thing. Consider that Troy only got a new level every 200-300 years. Under a city is a fine dungeon for sane purposes, but it doesn't give you the sort of thing you find in D&D where you need an express elevator to reach the deep parts.

The 20th Maine explanation works, of course. Imagine a fantasy--or SF--world, and some panic-stricken authority pouring resources at the problem, and possibly forgetting all about it later. (I think it was the late 1970's when someone turned up about two divisions worth of Korean War-vintage US armor rusting away in the Black Forest.)

geekygamer27 Mar 2020 6:54 a.m. PST

It is like the remodel that never ends! You start with a storage room and a small warren for goblins to keep them out of the sun and the next thing you know, you've got adventurers trying to steal your stuff…which spurs some defensive building…but those workers need a bigger mess hall…and so on.

chironex27 Mar 2020 7:30 a.m. PST

Think "Maginot line" – but in Dwarven stone.

Oberlindes Sol LIC27 Mar 2020 8:31 p.m. PST

What an awesome topic. It makes me want to run a traditional swords-and-sorcery dungeon crawl (as opposed to my usual Traveller dungeon crawls through either abandoned underground installations like deep meson gun sites or hellmouths that lead to firefights with transdimensional beings).

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