04 September, 2011

Why build dungeons? A rationale

I periodically get nostalgic for old-school style dungeon crawls. The trouble is, I usually get caught up in the rational but annoying thought of, “Well, where did this come from? Why is there a freaking dungeon crawling with monsters and weird random magic here, anyway? How can I make it make sense?” It’s enough to send my creativity scrambling for cover under the couch.

Some may say, “It doesn’t matter why! It’s a game! It’s a dungeon! The player characters want to kill monsters and get rich and famous and powerful!” I don’t wish to cast aspersions on this school of thought, but I have to say that this response worked for me when I was a kid, scrawling out dungeons on cast-off grid paper my father brought home from work. These days I want to have at least one foot in the realm of rationality. Yes, even in a fantasy roleplaying game.

On a whim, I picked up my copy of the Dungeons and Dragons Rule Cyclopedia, a compilation of the rules for Basic D&D. I turned to the section on wizard characters (pg 20) [1]. In talking about high level wizards, the book mentions that such a character typically acquires a tower and may build a dungeon underneath it. Why build a dungeon? Well, to study the creatures that wander into it, of course. To do magical, genetic, or perhaps alchemical research on them. To study their behaviour, and to keep current on the state of the monsters in the world.

There you go. There’s at least a couple reasons to build a dungeon. Of course, the wizard may be (or later go) stark raving mad for some reason or other and start building whacky evil magical stuff in his or her dungeon, but it’s not necessary.

Dungeons are also useful, as one might well imagine, for keeping prisoners. The text mentions that monster-filled dungeons are not popular amongst the local people and the wizard should be prepared for low-level adventurers to come poking about in his dungeon to stop the monsters within from ravaging the countryside. Maybe the wizard doesn’t care about this. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out,” he may think. Or perhaps she’d like to allow the monster population to naturally beef itself up as a result of the weaker individuals being weeded out by the adventurers. High-level wizards were once lowly, low-power characters, too. He might think, “How’re they gonna learn if they don’t have something to pit themselves against?” There are all kinds of responses.

There are other kinds of dungeons, of course. I think other archetypes - the abandoned keep, the haunted tomb, etc. - have their own rationales just in their very concepts. Sometimes you just need a dungeon that’s just a dungeon! Go! Find the monsters and the weird magic and try not to get brutally killed! If you succeed in collecting the Extremely Bizarre and Deadly Thingamajig of Doom you’ll be famous! And I’m sure you won’t mind that missing ear ... or hand ... wait, where are you going?

1. The dungeon-building rationale is also discussed in the Players’ Handbook in the Companion Set, under the section about high-level magic-users.

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