GTM #204 - Tricks of the Game Trade - Tip #11
by Jon Leitheusser

~ Delving Into Dungeons! ~

Dungeons don’t really play a very big role in the real world (unfortunately), at least not in the way we all think about them in fantasy roleplaying games. Unless you’re an archaeologist or spelunker, you probably don’t get to explore many ancient, abandoned ruins or plumb the depths of dark, mysterious caves.

That being the case, it raises the question of why dungeons are such a common trope of fantasy games. Why do they exist? What purpose do they serve? And why should you as the player or GM care?

There are, of course, answers to each of these questions, which we’re going to cover in this month’s column, which was inspired by Heroes of the Darklands for Paizo’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. When the information for that book surfaced, it immediately conjured up thoughts on dungeons, cave complexes, and why they’re so common in fantasy gaming.

~ Why Do Dungeons Exist? ~

Roleplaying games grew out of the miniatures gaming community. Initially, they were historical miniatures games, but then fantasy elements, like dragons, magic, and wizards were added to spice things up and offer unique challenges and gameplay options. The game designers were, naturally, avid fans of fantasy novels, so they drew inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien and other authors who often featured some manner of dungeon, underground city, or caves and tunnels as part of their stories.

Eventually, players started portraying a single character on the battlefield instead of a small group or large army of figures. The players made decisions for their character only and the game master was responsible for setting up the situations they would encounter—these were obviously the first game masters. Most games in this time period were mostly about combat, commonly called “hack and slash” games.

Originally, one of the earliest “dungeon crawls” was set up as part of a larger campaign in which the players needed to sneak into a castle through a secret entrance. The players were so thrilled, the GM ran the adventure numerous times, making the dungeon larger and more challenging each play session.

~ What Purpose Do Dungeons Serve? ~

Dungeons limit options. Sure, they mimic what already exists in fantasy stories, but in a happy accident, they also restrict players’ choices and make it easier for GMs to run the game. So, instead of needing to prepare a huge, sprawling setting in which the characters could do anything and go anywhere, a dungeon allowed the GM to confine the players to a small set of actions: move forward, turn left, turn right, open the door, attack the monster, disarm the trap, etc. The characters could only move and had access to areas they were able to find through exploration — exploration that was limited by the fact that they couldn’t see where the passages led or into which room the next set of doors opened.

In designing a dungeon, the creator is able to set the pace of the adventure by starting small and giving the players a chance to gather information and items that aid their characters in uncovering the next step in the adventure and, ultimately, enduring (and surviving!) the more challenging aspects as they delve deeper. Often, well-designed dungeons restrict access to some sections until a specific key is discovered, which gives the characters a reason to fully explore one part of the dungeon before being able to move onto the next, more dangerous portion.

~ As a GM, Why Should I Care About Dungeons? ~

As a GM, dungeons make your job much easier. Take, for example, running some characters through an adventure in a city. One character might decide to take to the roofs, another sneaks through the shadows and alleys, while the rest march down the street because they know trouble is coming. Even in this simple setup, you have to discern how to involve all the characters in whatever occurs next. When trouble does arrive, one of the characters decides to open a random door and take cover while shooting his crossbow, which means you need to know where the door he opened leads to.

On the other hand, in a dungeon, the characters are limited by how you’ve constructed the dungeon. Sure, an adventurer could sneak ahead and do some scouting, but they’re always running the risk of being attacked, falling prey to a trap, or getting cut off from the rest of the party. Basically, a good dungeon allows you to control the flow of action by limiting player choices, which in turn means it dwindles the number of things you have devise on the cuff.

~ As a Player, Why Should I Care About Dungeons? ~

This may be a bit meta-gamey (the term ‘meta-game’ means using your knowledge as a person in the real world to influence what your character does in the game), but as a player, when your character is in a dungeon, you should be aware that everything is there for a reason. If there’s a locked gate that’s impossible for the rogue to open, that’s probably because whatever’s behind the gate isn’t meant to be encountered until you find a means to properly access it, or until you’re more powerful (or, in some way, better prepared). So, when you encounter a door you can’t open, instead of railing against it and expending all sorts of resources to get through it, move on and hope that you discover another way in, because chances are you’ll find one.

If you’re playing in a game that’s rooted underground, such as in the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms (D&D) or the Darklands of Golarion (Pathfinder), you should inquire if there are specific skills or other abilities that might be useful for dungeon delving. Sometimes it’s fun to play a fish-out-of-water role, but it’s also fun to create a character who’s comfortable or at home with being underground or in ruins. As a player, it’s up to you to create the sort of character you want, so if dungeons are going to be the focus of the campaign, take advantage of that knowledge. The Heroes of the Darklands for Pathfinder includes a number of options and skill sets to choose from.

~ Take It To the Tabletop ~

We’ve covered a number of the reasons why dungeons are so prevalent in fantasy roleplaying games, but we can’t deny the fact that they’re just, plain fun. Dungeons grant opportunities for unique challenges, such as traps, encounters, and puzzles, and give the game structure, making it easier for the GM to run and the players to engage in.

As an aside, the opposite of a dungeon crawl is called a “sandbox” style of game. In a sandbox, the GM builds an area and plants a number of adventure hooks or encounters for the characters to discover on their own. Instead of being groomed as a dungeon crawl, the sandbox is all about spontaneity, exploration, and the choices the characters make.

Jon Leitheusser is a writer, editor, and game developer. He published the Dork Tower comic book, was the HeroClix game designer for years, was a content designer for Champions Online and Neverwinter, was the Mutants & Masterminds game developer for Green Ronin from 2008 to 2016, and freelances for a number of different companies. He cut his gaming teeth on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and still games twice a week with his friends online or in person.