Why was This Dungeon Built?

Odd Little Room of Unkown OriginOften on this site, perhaps too often, I construct posts by comparing or contrasting my gaming philosophies to those of the OSR community. Most likely, this is because all of the gaming blogs I read have an OSR slant to them. Is it just me, or does the OSR have a huge blogging presence? Anyway, this post isn’t any different. It’s about dungeons, and how my views on them compare to the OSR community’s.

  • Most OSR blogs I’ve read are strongly of the opinion that dungeons do not need to have a logical layout. I agree.
  • Most OSR blogs I’ve read are of the opinion that dungeons do not need to have an origin story. I disagree.
  • Most OSR blogs I’ve read are of the opinion that the creatures which exist within the dungeon don’t need any particular reason to be there. I disagree again.

There. I figured we might as well expedite the process for this post, since it’s late and I’m somewhat tired. I’m going to focus on the second point here: that I believe dungeons should have an origin story. Even if the dungeon’s layout is completely randomly generated, it’s valuable to have a few solid facts about the dungeon in mind. Where the dungeon came from can provide insights into what the dungeon looks like, and what can be found there. A 40ft long corridor in an ancient prison might be simple stone, while the same corridor in a crypt might have burial shelves at regular intervals. Below are the various dungeon origins I’ve come up with.

A Wizard Did It

I think it was Gary Gygax in the “Underworld and Wilderness Adventures” booklet who attributed dungeons to “Insane Wizards.” And while I’d hardly call it a sufficient explanation for every dungeon, it’s a great starting point. A wizard might construct a dungeon as a personal fortress, or as a way to contain their magical experiments. A truly insane Wizard could be responsible for some of a world’s most twisting and hazardous dungeons.

A dungeon created by wizards is also, in my mind, a great excuse to be showy with the unusual architecture and traps. Rooms where gravity shifts, or invisible bridges between towering cliff faces are exactly the kind of thing an arrogant wizard might create just to show that they could.

Dungeons can be dangerous! (Artsit unknown)Heracles Will Get to it Later

We all love Greek mythology here, right? When the Olympian gods imprisoned the Titans, Gaea (mother to the Titans and grandmother to the Olympians) bore two final children: Typhon and Echidna. These monstrous gods had numerous monstrous children together, including Cerberus, the Hydra, the Chimera, and the Nemean Lion. The Olympians eventually put a stop to the parents, but decided to let the children live, ‘as a test for future heroes.’

There is ample mythological precedent for the gods intentionally creating challenges for no purpose other than to test the limits of mortal heroism. While the Greek gods did this by leaving monsters around to be defeated by a bunch of guys who were mostly demi-gods anyway, the gods in a Pathfinder campaign setting might choose to test heroes by crafting dungeons to be explored.

Natural Phenomenon

A natural dungeon, or cave, is nothing new. It is none the less important to mention. Dungeons like these are created by the flow of water through the earth, by volcanic eruptions, and burrowing animals. But in a world of magic, could not that also play a part?

For the last few years I’ve been intrigued by the concept of ‘wild magic,’ magic which either exists naturally, or which exists as a kind of “nuclear fallout” from a once mighty magical civilization. In my Negune campaign setting, the isle of Argania is absolutely filled with this kind of thing. I see no reason why wild magic couldn’t also create a dungeon.

Perhaps tens of thousands of years ago, a civilization developed an urban development spell. One which built roads and houses and sewers and aqueducts. The spell effect was permanent, and has continued long after the civilization collapsed. After thousands of years without maintenance it builds corridors and rooms seemingly at random. Often it creates areas which are exceedingly dangerous for humans. And while it mostly ignores areas once it constructs them, occasionally an older area of the dungeon needs to be demolished…

Dungeon in the groundAncient City

Ancient cities tend to be distinct among dungeons, because they often follow a more logical structure. However, there’s no reason an ancient civilization couldn’t have had some very strange architectural choices. Particularly if it was something like ancient dwarves, whose cities are carved from stone anyway.

And don’t forget all the cool ways in which an ancient city can be damaged over the centuries. It can be partially underwater, or partially hidden under a blanket of volcanic rock. A particular favorite of mine is the city which has fallen into the earth, creating a very strange amalgam of natural and man-made hallways and chambers.

Crazy Creepy Cult

Cults do all manner of wacky things, and not all of them are secret. Much like in real life (See: Jim Jones, David Koresh, etc) cults will often want to completely separate themselves from the world and form their own self sustaining communities. In a game like Pathfinder, there’s no reason why these isolationists wouldn’t decide to build a dungeon to live in. Some cults might actually view the endless expantion of their dungeon to be a medetative act of prayer.

Cosmic Fender Bender

Every one of the numerous planes of existence is no doubt filled with citadels, towers, and dungeons of their own. And if two planes intersect just slightly, a dungeon might be thrown from one world, and into ours. This is a great way to add a hint of planar travel to your campaign, without going all the way and sending your players outside of the material realm.

Extradimentional Trap

Lets say the players are raiding a wizard’s tower. Upon opening a drawer, a flash of light engulfs them. Next thing they know they’re in the middle of a labyrinth filled with monsters and traps.

Dungeon in a Drawer: Keeping thieves away from your silverware.

Old Standbys

There are some classics which I can’t really add to, but I feel like I ought to mention them none the less.

  • A literal dungeon, built beneath a castle. Monarch after monarch added on to it. Even if the castle is still inhabited, nobody really knows how far down it goes, or what was done down there.
  • A prison. While this is basically what a dungeon beneath a castle was used for, it is distinct because there’s no castle on top of it, and second because we rarely think of dungeons in a literal sense any more. ‘Dungoen’ can mean anything with lots of monsters and treasure in it.
  • A crypt where the dead are buried. This could be anything from an Egyptian Pyramid, to the Catacombs beneath Rome.

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6 thoughts on “Why was This Dungeon Built?”

  1. I was with you on points one and three, but two never bothered me such. And of course, I then read the rest of the post, and am now re-thinking some of the adventures I’ve GMed, and some plans for the future.

  2. I agree with you that most of the blogs have an OSR slant to them. Mine has one as well. Yet, I agree with your two disagreement points. Dungeons should come from somewhere and have some kind of logic with monsters, as long as the logic makes sense in the dungeon. (Granted, there was a point in the origin Temple of Elemental Evil when we ran into a hyrda I thought, “Damn, this place is just weird!”) Later, I realized it shouldn’t be there, but I want to try and keep it there for the same weirdness I experienced with it.

  3. Definitely important questions in my mind. Having a purpose, even if the players will never find out the why’s and how’s, helps maintain a feeling of consistency. A take on the mythological hero idea is that the dungeons were made (long ago or recently) by deities to test their heroes against one another for the purpose of bragging rights (inspired by Sergio Argones’ character Groo and his “Wager of the Gods” arc).
    An abandoned extradimensional zoo or a dungeon built from the lowest floor up would also be really cool.

  4. I tend to make my castles in the “were functional, but in falling apart became a labyrinth” model, and usually reward players for properly mapping and digging out old rooms (which are going to be the least disturbed, generally). I saw this in King’s Field for PS2, notably, and made a decision to include it more heavily.

    Usually, background yields purpose… I’ve had living caverns that rearrange themselves, animated by a hermit druid. I’ve had caves that, in surviving dwarves and weather, made no sense whatsoever… and then there’s always Ravenloft…

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