Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why I'm Not Writing Another Tackle a Dungeon Post

So far, the tackling of dungeons posts have not gone as well as I had hoped; although, I must admit that they have initiated some very fine discussions.  Never in a thousand years would I have thought I'd write two posts on White Plume Mountain.

My intention had been to write a third post and lay the series to rest.  This post was to concentrate on reworking the interior of the dungeon as the players moved deeper into its space.  As hallways and doors are opened, as rooms are cleaned out, as traps are set off or puzzles solved, we can imagine the players taking steps to ensure that doors don't close again, that traps don't reset themselves, that holes are filled or that certain unsafe areas are watched carefully through the implementation of hard points - or bunkers - to ensure that horrible creatures can't wedge their way into 'civilized' spaces.

For my money, I have no problem with this.  Let us say that I create a pit trap for the players; it catches them, it doesn't catch them - one way or another the trap is exposed.  What should happen next?

Well, as we know, for most games the trap is usually ignored or forgotten.  The players don't travel that way again or the DM remembers that, oh yes, the trap was set off: "be careful on your way back through that hall, people!"

But supposing that the dungeon isn't a one off and we are going to go down that hall, again and again.  Suppose we're going to bring in porters to haul off gold and other treasure, past that pit trap?  Doesn't it make sense to bring in a couple hundred cubic feet of earth and just fill it?  That's not really that hard, you know; a gang of twenty could do it in a couple hours, easy.  Then not only do we not have to worry about that pit trap, no one does - and if we do have to vacate this area of the dungeon for a few weeks, that's a fair bit of work we're leaving the bad guys if they want to get that trap working again.

The same is true for removing doors, shoring up walls that were designed to fall on us, plugging holes designed for the emersion of monsters or missiles, etcetera, etcetera.  It seems to me that dungeons are fundamentally designed structures that can be redesigned if we have the mind to do it.  Anything that has been built to be deliberately unsafe can be rebuilt to be safe.

But I feel certain now that I'm stomping on toes here, as if to say it isn't fair to treat a 'dungeon' as a mere structure under the ground.  Why would anyone go to all this trouble, to what purpose?  Isn't it just good enough that the dungeon provides a good adventure and leave it at that?

To which I feel compelled to answer, why is the dungeon here?  Why is it this tremendously complicated structure under the ground?  Why does someone go to all this trouble, for what purpose?  Why, oh why, do people build dungeons to provide strangers a good adventure?

I don't believe that dungeons must be illogical.  I don't believe that it makes the dungeon 'better' if they are ridiculous.  I feel that a dungeon that has no other means to explain it's weird and complicated arrangement of rooms except for magic, more magic, magic the game has no rules for and, oh, a magician to do it all, is merely a big shiny curtain for the crappy writer of said adventure to hide behind.  It is much more difficult to create logical dungeons than nonsensical bullshit.  DMs ought to be able to explain rationally a few chief points about their dungeons:

  • How did all the monsters get here?  If you argue its a wizard's menagerie for a wizard's pleasure, you might just as well argue that Noah put all the monsters here.  No, what I want is a clear, rational reason these particular monsters inhabit these particular rooms in this particular order.  If you can't do better than creating a supreme being to do it, then you're a shit dungeon maker.
  • Why haven't these monsters killed each other yet?  Why do the orcs tolerate huge spiders in their storeroom, why have they exterminated all the giant beetles in the front hallway and why oh why haven't they bricked up the doorway that leads down into the dangerous level below their lair?
  • Why is this trap here?  Specifically, in this place, where clearly denizens of this dungeon have reason to pass through.  Why hasn't it been set off?  Who oils the gears?  Who built this magnificent atrocity that would win first prize at a design contest if the maker built it in a big town square and charged tuppence to see it work?  How is it possible that this massive thing continues to function at all?
  • Why are all these rooms built like presidential suites rather than only as large as they need to be functionally?  It makes sense for some rooms to be large - the temple, the meeting area, the mess - but why is the kitchen as large as a football field?  Have any of these dungeon makers ever been in a kitchen?  Or seen an underground bunker?  Or realize what a premium space underground is?  For one thing, it is really, really hard to keep large rooms underground from collapsing.
  • If there are rumors about this dungeon and its possible for a bunch of strangers to the area to find it, why hasn't it been cleaned out already?  Don't the locals like treasure?  And please don't tell me its because the dungeon is scary.  There are locals here that talk to gods, know how to use magic, are profoundly able to find traps and have lots and lots of hit points.  "Scary" is a bullshit word we use to frighten children; why haven't the Adults around here cleaned out the dungeon yet?

Listen, the reader is free to think the above isn't important.  After all, designing a dungeon is just like starting a book with the words, "It was a dark and stormy night."  If you don't know jack about anything that has been written in the last two centuries, that sounds like a pretty cool line.  If you don't know jack about any sort of writing, the next thing you'll do is have a really attractive girl meet a really attractive man and say five or six really attractive lines to each other before they smash their mouths together in what you'll think is the the greatest love scene ever.

On the other hand, if you look at the points above and give them some real thought, you'll quickly see why designing a dungeon that makes sense is so hard that nobody in the hobby industry bothers to try.  It's just too easy to have a wizard do it for them.

If you've gotten anything from this post, please have a look at my crowdfunding proposal.  I encourage readers to dance through it and to consider joining in.  I've had some great conversations with contributors about Ternketh keep, various book characters in the Fifth Man and whose name might fit best where.  People are really stoked about the module.  It is great stuff.  The reader shouldn't miss out!


  1. I'm glad you still put forward some questions for a DM to consider, even if you aren't planning on finishing this series. Whenever I'm doing any sort of writing or creative work, I find having a few major questions to answer can really tighten things up since it forces me to stand back and look objectively at my work.

  2. These bullet points should be considered a minimum standard of forethought put into the design of any dungeon. You should understand how the chambers were carved and in what order, the temperature and humidity at play, light sources, etc., etc.; the entire physical reality of the dungeon must seem, feel be authentic.

    "why hasn't it been cleaned out already?"

    What is your answer to this? I'm sure I'm not the only one who's wondered how your game has any dungeons left, and consequently what their frequency of occurrence as a Player encounter is.

  3. I have four simple answers to that, Mujudaddy:

    1) The dungeon hasn't been discovered yet. Perhaps it is only a few rooms that were inhabited very recently or the entrance is profoundly hidden (beneath or behind a sealed floor or wall, or inside a cave where the entrance is only a hole that is eighteen inches across. Cavers will often find such completely unknown cave entrances in surface area that have been exhaustively explored.

    2) The dungeon is profoundly remote and difficult to find; it isn't near any sort of town or village, it isn't near any trade route, the creatures within are keeping to themselves and therefore the effort to find a dungeon that may not even be there hasn't encouraged a sizable party to search for it. Anything that remote is bound to have no fixed location, such as famous accounts of people having discovered gold in western Australia (never found) or having seen temples that then become hopelessly overgrown and lost. Only a truly dedicated party can then find it. Alternately, a single monster may be terrorizing a very small, very unpopulated island that no significant person cares about (and where no significant amount of treasure exists)

    3) The dungeon can't be reached at all by ordinary means - for example, Ternketh Keep, floating in the sky (casting of levitation/permanency/flying spells on a grand scale) and to a certain degree affected by point (1) (hasn't been taken over by harpies for very long). A dungeon may be found on another plane of existence or it may only be accessible through a wardrobe; perhaps the dungeon can only be found with a key word that has been written in a book that remains ignored and dusty inside a very large library.

    4) As far as anyone knows, the dungeon HAS been cleaned out. All evidence points to a place where high level people came in, wiped out all the easily found monsters - and yet missed some crack or crevice, some unimportant little corner or passageway, that will yet serve as a good adventure for a low level party serving as "clean-up crew."

  4. In the real world, we have tour groups going into caverns/sewers/dungeons, and these have been made (relatively) safe. I see no reason why a dedicated effort should not be able to do the same for a fantasy dungeon. Especially when you consider the mindset of what "safe" meant four hundred years ago!

    Just because it's fantasy doesn't mean logic can be suspended.

  5. The dungeon's entrance is beneath a swamp that naturally drains once every four or five years and remains accessible for about as many months. The effort necessary to drain and keep the swamp drained might be too much for the locals to care about, especially if there's no proof that doing so would yield appreciable treasures.

    This seems like a topic that should be crowdsourced for ideas, if inly to produce a random chart that would actually be useful...

  6. That seems to me a nice combination between (2) and (3), Ozymandias. I think that any really good dungeon is going to take advantage of two, three or even all four of the points I suggested.

  7. Given that "How to Tackle a Dungeon" has made it into your top ten list, is there any chance that you'll be reviving the series?


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