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D&D General Justifying dungeons for the modern age

tomBitonti

Adventurer
My issues have been, not that there are dungeons, but more how they are laid out, and what is (or was) their intended use. That leads into questions of what would be in them.

I prefer a location that has an explanation: A history and a purpose. For example, I had location which was a tower built on the ruins of a dam. A sluice of the dam had been dug out and used as a pit trap in front of the tower. The dam was in a swamp which had formed when the lake behind the dam silted over, and was overgrown and forgotten. Stones from the dam were used to build the tower. The tower was built by a wizard who wanted a remote and secure location for his studies. The denizens of the swamp -- alligators and giant spiders and occasional lizardfolk -- were of no threat to the wizard, who mostly stayed secure in the tower. Magic kept the tower fresh and clean, as the swamp was known for its noxious fumes and clouds of biting insects.

That's not much of a "dungeon", but serves as an example of history and intent.

TomB
 

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So aside from the normal (All things have had a history and a purpose, with time and work of future generations having worn them down into their future form), I also very much swiped the idea of Living Dungeons from 13th age. There's just, 'living' constructs of stone and mortar that move throughout the world and occaisonally pop up, that somehow survive on people going inside, killing monsters and looking treasure. Or survive on those people dying.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I like the idea of dungeons as underdark bunkers. As for living dungeons, I've used one of those successfully. That said, I agree that not all dungeons need (or should) have the same origin.

I also disagree that once a dungeon is cleared it is dead. A dungeon could be used many times, and I actually like this kind of historical sediment spread throughout.

For example, you might have a set of catacombs that were originally built to lay the faithful of the god of healing to rest. However, they were eventually slaughtered by a death cult, who took over the catacombs and performed vile rituals. The cult was wiped out by heroes at a later point, after which the catacombs were abandoned for a time until a goblin tribe discovered it and settled therein. Adventurers who delve this dungeon would first encounter the goblins, but if they go deeper they may find the undead spirits of the death cult in areas that the heroes sealed off (and that the goblins were wise enough not to venture into). They might also find sacred relics hidden in long forgotten compartments dedicated to the god of healing.

And if they clear out the goblins, who can say whether something new might not make this dungeon their lair at a later date? In my current campaign, I had a kobold warren the PCs ventured into at a low level, taken over by illithid at a later point.
 

I like the idea of dungeons as underdark bunkers. As for living dungeons, I've used one of those successfully. That said, I agree that not all dungeons need (or should) have the same origin.

I also disagree that once a dungeon is cleared it is dead. A dungeon could be used many times, and I actually like this kind of historical sediment spread throughout.

For example, you might have a set of catacombs that were originally built to lay the faithful of the god of healing to rest. However, they were eventually slaughtered by a death cult, who took over the catacombs and performed vile rituals. The cult was wiped out by heroes at a later point, after which the catacombs were abandoned for a time until a goblin tribe discovered it and settled therein. Adventurers who delve this dungeon would first encounter the goblins, but if they go deeper they may find the undead spirits of the death cult in areas that the heroes sealed off (and that the goblins were wise enough not to venture into). They might also find sacred relics hidden in long forgotten compartments dedicated to the god of healing.

And if they clear out the goblins, who can say whether something new might not make this dungeon their lair at a later date? In my current campaign, I had a kobold warren the PCs ventured into at a low level, taken over by illithid at a later point.
Yes. This sort of thing is key to a successful dungeon I feel.

Memorable dungeons are built on layers of time and metaphor.
 

MarkB

Legend
Dungeons have been a mainstay of our favorite game. More than that, some commentators have argued that dungeons in OD&D and AD&D were a key component of the game's success, namely a laser focus on a specific kind of play. Enter the dungeon, kick open doors, kill monsters, loot treasure. A formula for fantasy gaming excitement.

As the game matured, the dungeon concept became more strained. Why is that dungeon there? How has it not been discovered before? Isn't it dead once cleared? And so on.
All valid questions that a DM should consider when implementing a dungeon. All questions that should have different answers for each individual dungeon based upon its context.
I would like to present an alternate theory for dungeons that makes them more logical and sustainable in the modern era.

Dungeons are Underdark strongholds used for surveying or invading the surface races.
It's a neat concept for creating a dungeon, but it's not good as a universal explanation for all, or even most dungeons across all campaign settings.

It's also been used a few times in existing adventures and settings. In Eberron, it roughly applies to many of the locations in the Shadow Marches and the Mror Holds. In Rime of the Frostmaiden there's a dungeon that is specifically a staging ground for a duergar incursion.
 

I'm in agreement that its a cool concept for a dungeon or series of dungeons, but not for all dungeons as a whole, although even as a justification for a single dungeon it runs the risk of demanding that the enemy be a centralized force, which can be problematic.

I also don't really think they need much justification at this point: sometimes they're naturally occurring caverns partially modified by inhabitants past or present, sometimes they're ancient ruins inhabited by a mix of the original inhabitants and latecomers who find it an ideal habitat, sometimes they're tombs and other places inhabited entirely by undead, sometimes they're magically infused dream-like spaces with strange and powerful entities and artifacts distorting the reality of the location, sometimes they're built deliberately as death traps to guard something like a treasure vault or an important artifact.

a 'dungeon' is a metagame concept we use to design content, although it has clawed its way more directly into some fictional worlds, although in those cases they have their own worldbuilt quirks and explanations (Is it Wrong to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon? Dungeon Meshi, Tower of Druaga, etc.)
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
In my campaign world, the underdark is a separate plane of existence that can be most easily accessed deep underground. As such, in one sense it is the ultimate mega dungeon.

I rarely use typical dungeons, but another option is to make a deserted city a type of dungeon. Instead of going down levels, you work your way closer to the source of corruption that caused the city to be abandoned. Different districts would act as levels with fortifications between the districts.

I also had a dungeon where a mage created a bunch of skeletons to excavate some rooms for him and then died. Since the skeletons had no new instructions, they just kept excavating. In addition, the wizard had a lab set up for growing "experiments" which again, had a (literal) skeleton staff that just kept on creating. Some of them had been slightly enhanced to be able to alter the experiments a bit.

Last but not least I had a dungeon that kind of riffed off the Alien movie look and feel and while made of stone had a very organic feel to it. Think hallways that looked like arteries, chasms that had sinew bridges, rooms with lakes of acid all in black, dark red or gray stone. It was the remains of a petrified titanic aberration from ages long gone. Had various bits and pieces that were valuable, provided sustenance or for other reasons attracted inhabitants.
 

Reynard

Legend
One of my favorite dungeons of all time was the dungeon that was a massive mimic -- hyper intelligent but so utterly alien they couldn't communicate with it. A clan of goblins worshipped it as a God and forged mimic weapons from it (think a sword that snakes out and strikes its targets) while some other inhabitants included morlocks "mining" it for food and an illithid who had fallen in love with it.
 

My issues have been, not that there are dungeons, but more how they are laid out, and what is (or was) their intended use. That leads into questions of what would be in them.

I prefer a location that has an explanation: A history and a purpose. For example, I had location which was a tower built on the ruins of a dam. A sluice of the dam had been dug out and used as a pit trap in front of the tower. The dam was in a swamp which had formed when the lake behind the dam silted over, and was overgrown and forgotten. Stones from the dam were used to build the tower. The tower was built by a wizard who wanted a remote and secure location for his studies. The denizens of the swamp -- alligators and giant spiders and occasional lizardfolk -- were of no threat to the wizard, who mostly stayed secure in the tower. Magic kept the tower fresh and clean, as the swamp was known for its noxious fumes and clouds of biting insects.

That's not much of a "dungeon", but serves as an example of history and intent.

TomB

I tend to lean more on dungeons like this. It is a bit like the types you find in something like HARN. I usually like more practical dungeons (though I can make them elaborate if there is sufficient reason). One reason I mentioned entrances to hell is because I feel that really opens up the plausibility of having these vast, many-chambered dungeons filled with monsters traps and artifacts.
 

Orius

Adventurer
Sure, that could explain some of them. But I'd never adopt it as the de-facto explanation for all of them.

I think having all dungeons there for the same reason seems a bit... strained.

Yup, this is a good idea, but applying to all dungeons does make things creatively restraining. Still, I'd mix this in with hidden strongholds for raiders, freedom fighter types, forbidden cults, wizards who wants to violate natural laws, and so on.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
I think having all dungeons there for the same reason seems a bit... strained.
Yes, of course I agree. But I also think we've all heard about megadungeons seeming an odd concept in many settings. From a gamist persepective, no problem. From a simulationist view, which is mine, a megadungeon as an elaborate underground staging area has appeal. But of course, all sorts of temples, ruins, citadels and the like with 1 or 2 underground levels do not need my framing at all.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
My issues have been, not that there are dungeons, but more how they are laid out, and what is (or was) their intended use. That leads into questions of what would be in them.

I prefer a location that has an explanation: A history and a purpose. For example, I had location which was a tower built on the ruins of a dam. A sluice of the dam had been dug out and used as a pit trap in front of the tower. The dam was in a swamp which had formed when the lake behind the dam silted over, and was overgrown and forgotten. Stones from the dam were used to build the tower. The tower was built by a wizard who wanted a remote and secure location for his studies. The denizens of the swamp -- alligators and giant spiders and occasional lizardfolk -- were of no threat to the wizard, who mostly stayed secure in the tower. Magic kept the tower fresh and clean, as the swamp was known for its noxious fumes and clouds of biting insects.

That's not much of a "dungeon", but serves as an example of history and intent.

TomB
Yup, this was exactly my motivation.
 

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