Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why Dungeons?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 17, 2011

“Dungeons” – underground or otherwise deeply confined environments – are a staple of fantasy CRPGs. Of course, the dungeons we explore in fantasy RPGs bear little resemblance to real-world dungeons, but we’ve managed to broaden the term quite a bit.

But why do we keep going back? We’ve been exploring dungeons for something like forty years, now. Besides the fact that the first role-playing game had “Dungeons” as half the title, are there any other reasons why we seem to endlessly delve into underground tunnels with swords and sorcery?

Maybe. Here are some suggestions:

A) They make structuring adventures easy
As a designer (pen-and-paper or computer/console game designer), the confining nature of a dungeon makes things a bit easier to structure. Dungeons are not open-ended environments, and form natural barriers requiring predictable navigation. This means designers don’t have to jump through all kinds of contortions to structure an interesting adventure without imposing arbitrary limits on players. Dungeons form natural tree structures (at least well-designed ones do), albeit with loops, which lends itself easily to creating ordered events, choke points, and so forth.

Of course, in many games the players can take some extraordinary measures to bypass them, like spells to pass through walls or teleport. This is very cool if the adventure is structured flexibly enough to tolerate this  -it rewards the player for taking initiative. But it’s still an extraordinary event, not the preferred means of navigation. Whereas in an outdoor environment, it’s harder to justify why the player can’t just take a shortcut through the woods to go straight to the next castle.

B) They make player exploration easy
While limiting player options sounds bad, the simplified structure is usually of benefit to the players, so long as it’s not an incredibly boring linear dungeon. Players don’t get quite so lost in a sea of possibilities. As a player, you can look at a map and say, “Oh, I haven’t been THERE yet. Let’s try that,” instead of saying, “Uh, what do I do now?” The choices may be limited, but they are also relatively clear. That’s a good thing.

C) “Dungeons” are inherently oppressive and hostile
Human beings aren’t well adapted to living underground. We are built for being active during the day, in the sunlight. Yes, even we gaming geeks. In our deep subconsciousness that hasn’t quite evolved out of our species from more primitive eras, we recognize that in the darkness, we are prey. This is why it can be a thrill to go to these places of eternal darkness that we instinctively fear, and bring light with us. I think that’s one key that made Minecraft so successful, actually – as that’s what half the game is about. But this is also what makes dungeons so fun.

I’ve been dungeon-delving in one form or another for more years than I care to admit nowadays. I’m not bored of it yet. Sure, some particular dungeons (or game systems) are boring, but a well-designed underground complex still thrills me as much today as the first day I grabbed a handful of dice armed with a character sheet and imagination.  And in the world of computer RPGs (and console RPGs as well, to be fair), as a whole they’ve gotten better and better.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 15 Comments to Read



  • Fumarole said,

    Why dungeons? Because of the enormous power the graph paper lobby wields.

  • skavenhorde said,

    Hey Jay,

    Ever see this TedTalk of Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice? I think you’ll find it interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM

  • Bliff said,

    IIRC, the 3rd Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide stated something similar especially the first point.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I hope I wasn’t subconsciously plagiarizing!

  • Xian said,

    There are some game mechanics that work in a confined environment but would not in an open one. For example the “spinner” squares in Eye of the Beholder where they would rotate you 180 degrees. In an open environment you would have a different frame of reference, where in a dungeon one wall looks pretty much the same as another so you might not immediately know that you had been rotated until you saw that you had passed that way already.

  • manic roper said,

    I’ve always felt alone in this, but I really don’t like dungeons. Don’t get me wrong, I live and breathe fantasy rpgs but I usually consider dungeon delving a chore.

    The architecture is always so unimaginative and predictable and within individual games it feels like if I’ve played one, I’ve played them all.

    The only exception I can think of (and this one will be a shocker) is Molten Core from WoW. The boss mechanics were unimaginative and the story was lacklustre, but there was something about the terrain design that really made me feel like I was actually in a subterranean cave. Perhaps it was the sense of scope – it didn’t feel like it was designed for 6 foot tall players, but instead for 16 foot tall elementals. Maybe it was the fact that the barrier to entry (at the time) was high and you need to do a long quest chain just to get in, you didn’t just stumble across it and decide to head down for a gander.

    Either way, some combination of elements I can’t put my finger on just combined really well for me – and it was as fine a dungeon as I’ve ever been in.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Speaking of interesting architecture I’d kinda like to see more “abandoned buildings/cities” dungeons. Sunken, ruins, post-apocalyptic, doesn’t matter all that much – but well-thought-out places filled with clues to their former occupants. A lot of RPGs give zero thought to making their locations even vaguely livable for the current occupants, much less the previous ones.

    Yes, that means having to cut down on the bottlenecks and railroading, since a REAL building generally isn’t quite so limited in how you can get around it.

    Obviously it’s a ton of art work to do it well though. :)

  • Maklak said,

    I sort of got used to dungeons by now, but they did seem pretty limiting in my initial contact with RPGs. Sometimes dungeons make sense, like caves with bandits in Morrowind. With the kind of red dust that swept over the island, they needed a shelter, and had places to sleep, kitchen, silverware, boxes of supplies (some rotten), some loot and stuff.

    I generally like when dungeons, and other locations seem to make sense. Sadly in many games levels are stretched, railroaded, and only have one lane of movement. Furniture may make some sense, but general layout usually does not.

    I would find it amusing if someone actually made a Dwarf Fortress map into a dungeon to explore. Something from a community game with lots of random stockpiles everywhere and a handful of half finished megaprojects would be especially fun, and make the player question the sanity of whoever built this place, which is generally a good thing in a game. Headshoots seemed like an especially funny place to be. Caravan, players would be escorting would have to travel on a glacier, and surivive Sand Raider ambush. Then they would see a tower in the shape of a hand with a bridge in place of middle finger waving to welcome them. As they got closer, they would find a path of frozen vomit and blood. Then there was a bonehoard with bones of monsters, humans, elves, dwarfs, giants, batmen, and many other creatures. This boneyard was the entry to the fort, and covered thousands of standard-size squares. It also had some workhops slowly converting all that bone into bone flutes for trade, that traders would accept as payment. I’m not kidding. That place wasn’t evil, it was just that way. “Fuck the world” tower, sand raiders on a glacier, and big pile of bones (some of which were still decomposing, but everyone sort of got used to it) for entrace acytally existed in that game.

  • Maklak said,

    I meant Syrupleaf, not Headshots.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    When I was playing pen and paper D&D we never did much dungeon delving. None of our group liked it much. It felt too fake, artificial, and gamey.

    We liked role-playing above all else, and could care less if we got a magic sword or awesome loot during a campaign or adventure, so we tended to despise the “kick-in-the-door” type dungeon adventures that were the norm at the time.

    I guess we also didn’t, you know, find looting and slaughtering creatures in their home to be very heroic. Plus, our DM didn’t care for rampant inflation in his game world’s economy, and figured, logically, that with as many adventurers as there are in the typical fantasy world, any dungeon or ruin that isn’t absolute certain death would’ve been picked clean long ago. So, combined with the fact those places make perfect nesting grounds for monsters, why would anyone ever go in there?

    I still feel a lot the same way with CRPGs. I want dungeons and locations to make sense for their purpose and be logically designed. My absolute favorites tend to be ACTUAL dungeons. You know – prisons. Someplace where my character has been stripped and locked in its depths and must escape. Then it makes sense, the traps, locked doors, maze-like structure. All designed to keep someone inside, just like the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.

    Not incidentally, prisons are the closest thing we have to real dungeons in the real world.

    I agree with WhineAboutGames – I like real world style abandoned places for dungeons. Games like Fallout do this very well – you are trying to salvage equipment and supplies from buildings, but most have been looted by now, so you are forced to go deeper into the most dangerous buildings like military bases with still functioning defenses or radioactive storage sites. And in each building you find a story of the past and a reason for its existence.

    Anyone that has actually done any real-world cave exploring knows how terrifying that can be. The oppressive dark, etc. I went swimming once in an underground lake in a cave, and it was the absolute most terrifying thing I have ever done. The lights go out and it is total sensory deprivation, total dark and only water around you. When you go under the greatest danger is losing sense of direction and not knowing what is up or down. So I guess I very much agree with point C above, but not the ‘thrill’ part. Now, if I was in a fantasy world with ACTUAL monsters in that dark? Forget about it. Screw gold and magic swords. I’m robbing a nobleman or a bank, not dungeon delving!

  • Calibrator said,

    “…any dungeon or ruin that isn’t absolute certain death would’ve been picked clean long ago. So, combined with the fact those places make perfect nesting grounds for monsters, why would anyone ever go in there?”

    100% true!

    Even more ridiculous: The fantasy cliche of the mad overlord having a dungeon specifically built for the sole purpose of attracting adventurers to kill them and plunder their corpses.

    It’s so above realness that the games industry made a whole genre out of it by turning the player into the overlord and let him kill off the adventurers or even run the whole dungeon. This started with Wizardry 4, I think, and the most popular PC game was probably Dungeon Keeper, though Tecmo introduced many things a year earlier with their “Devil’s Deception”. After its success Tecmo milked the series to a deserved death in 2005.

    A cave, that already exists somewhere and attracts a dangerous new occupant whether it’s a bear, a clan of goblins or mutants, is much more logical: Re-using stuff is the way of nature. IIRC all dungeons of Fallout 3 are of this type, whether it’s the metro stations, vaults or natural caverns.
    But what about the motives to enter a dungeon?
    Killing off the inhabitants to “free the dungeon” is utterly pointless: It will be inhabited sooner or later again anyway.
    Caves, or dungeons, are also very good places to ambush somebody, making them even more dangerous. The only plausible reason is that either the odds of surviving it are very high (which they usually aren’t) or that there is sufficient loot and treasure to make the trip worthwhile. Perhaps a unique item, that must be fetched to continue the plot (Fallout 3 did this, too). Finding only a “sword +1″ or a rusty rifle is hogwash.

    But of course we are talking about video games here and not reality. We gamers often run into dungeons with blazing guns and if we die we simply reload and try again.
    Fun? Sure. “Easy”: Of course. Realistic? Nah.

    The only halfway realistic style of play would be to enter a dungeon and don’t save while in it.
    Personally, if I were to program a CRPG I wouldn’t even allow the player to save. At all.

    The game would save automatically, perhaps at the start of a “chapter” or when entering a specific location.
    But only once – to get another save one would have to enter another major location first (or advance in the plot into a later chapter – depending on the kind of game).

    If the player or the party is “killed” they would wake up in a town nearby, with a good percentage of their loot taken from them (but not get their stats lowered!). The player would then think hard about his ability to beat the odds or if he should pursue other things first and come back later.

    Of course, nobody would pay for such a game so it would have to be freeware – and even then I’d probably receive death threats… ;-)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, there’s no question that traditional D&D dungeons & dungeon adventuring is utterly, ridiculously unrealistic. Though I do make an effort to throw in enough believability / verisimilitude / plausible elements that folks willing to suspend disbelief won’t have to work too hard at it. Realism isn’t one of the virtues I was going to list. :)

    Seriously, an underground bunker / lair for a predatory intelligent race wouldn’t be something you could waltz into and battle room-by-room. You’d be unlikely to get through the front door.

    But it’s fantasy, and realism isn’t the point of it when I play. I still totally dig the vast, impossibly structured dungeon complexes that would be filled with bad air where it hadn’t collapsed instantly before it finished construction. When it comes to dungeons – or giant mecha robots or flying dragons – I am happy to just turn off the part of my brain that screams about the impracticality and physics of the situation, and just have fun with it.

  • Modran said,

    I’ve thought and tried many times in my Pen & paper games to do realistic dungeons with intelligent denizens that reacted loically to the entrance (barging in?) of players.
    I stopped very quickly, because having all the monsters in the area gather in the first room at the sign of alarm makes for a verrrry deadly battle. And a verrrry boring dungeon afterwards…
    But there is always a source of waters, a place to sleep and a place to relieve oneself in my dungeons (and believe me, if its inhabitants are ghouls, you don’t want to find either…).
    Also, no treasure chests in my dungeons. Or only filled with money. Magic items are used by the inhabitants (or are still on the bodies of previous heroes). It seems more logical.

    As for reasons for dungeons? There can be many. An old prison, a temple that someone wanted underground (somebody’s plotting something…), an abandoned mine…

  • Menigal said,

    I’ll just add my support to the people who’ve already said dungeons are far more fun when there’s some sense to them. I’ve recently played short bouts of Morrowind and Oblivion, so naturally my thoughts have been lead to this subject as I’ve gone from the smugglers caves of the former to the purposeless “ruins” of the latter.

    It doesn’t take much to add some feeling of purpose to a place; a sane layout, a smattering of furniture and minor loot, notes left by the inhabitants. Yeah, it might not stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s better than dungeons for dungeons sake.

  • name_here said,

    Well, there’s an easy answer for why you want to go into a dungeon: Someone else did, and you want to kill them. Alternately, it hasn’t been picked clean because that’s not something that magically happens. Everywhere that’s picked clean of valuables is the site of someone’s previous dungeon delve.

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