Monday, 12 September 2011

Three Dungeon Types

Richard asked in the comments to this post asks: "So now I want some background on what the nature of your underworld is". I thought this deserved elaboration in a blog post.

It seems to me that there are three basic philosophical approaches to dungeoneering and the underworld in D&D. (They are specific to D&D and its mythos, such as it is.) They are:

  • The Philotomical Approach, better encapsulated in the phrase "dungeon as mythic underworld". Here, the dungeon is a kind of antithetical reality to the surface world, ruled by demons or other powerful and supernatural entities, akin in a way to hell or Hades. Far from being just a set of tunnels underground, it is rather a kind of grotesque mirror to our own reality - the yin to our yang, the place from which true evil comes. This is the most supernatural or fantastical perspective.
  • The Salvatorean Approach, which is (probably) the one which Gary Gygax took, best encapsulated in one single phrase: the Underdark. Here, the dungeon is a vast underworld, just like in the Philotomical Approach, and not just a set of tunnels underground, but here, it is still natural (in the sense of being naturalistic). It is knowable and works along comprehensible lines: there may be mind flayers, kuo-toa and drow down there, but at least those things are understandable as actual real physical entities. It isn't a well of infinite evil; rather, just a very bad place for surface dwellers while still being a living and breathing world in its own right.
  • The Piecemeal Approach, in which there is no underworld as such - only separate dungeons. Over here is an ancient volcano riddled with caves and tunnels; over there is an abandoned castle; yonder is a ruined temple: all of them are dungeons, but none of them are anything more than that. They have bottoms. They are finite. This is probably the most 'realistic' approach.
I have always tended towards the former in my gaming, although it usually appears as if it is the latter. Just by entering the first few levels of this or that dungeon, the players would be unaware of the supernatural nature of the underworld; they would not even suspect that an underworld exists. But it does - if they delve down far enough they will usually discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophies. It just lurks very, very deep, although its tendrils stretch up and up if you know where to look for them.

What this means is that I can, on the one hand, indulge in my banalifying instincts by talking about how trade can go on between dungeon denizens and surface dwellers, while on the other hand imagining that beneath it all there are devils, demons, and an entire mythical underworld representing hell itself.


  1. I have the same tendency. In my current sandbox, all dungeons have the same underlying origin, regardless of their temporal builders and whether or not they connect at the bottom, and that origin is very much "mythic" (although not exactly evil per se). But because that nucleus is very deep, deeper than most dungeons actually go, in play it comes off mainly as no. 3, shifting into no. 2 for the larger dungeons, which I like for the amount of flexibility it gives me.

    I'm curious as to what (if any) specific supernatural explanation your dungeons have. Just a vague wellspring of evil? Literal extension of hell?

  2. Me three!!!

    In general, I go with no. 1, but sometimes the "dungeon" becomes so vast, like a subterranean nation or even continent, that it goes the no. 2 route. However, in both types, there might be portals or planar conjunctions that lead to a no. 3 type of underworld.

    Good decription and classification of dungeon types. Thanks!

  3. What if some, but not all, dungeons are mythic and they don't all connect?

    Say, if a confluence of ley-lines renders the underworld in a certain area particularly liable to mad archmage delvings and the like.

  4. At first I was kinda confused, like: these dungeons seem pretty overlapping to me in terms of how they'd work...

    but then I got it--these are three different approaches to the "moral universe" of the dungeon.

    my failure to recognize that is no doubt due to my innate degeneracy and lack of moral compass, but probably also down to the fact that I tend to build worlds as wicked below as above. It's just that the above is safer for people.

    that is: the dungeon is more dangerous for the same reason the night is more dangerous: less light.

    which does quite a bit to explain the mythic and moral connotations of the idea of "light".

  5. John: I'd rather not give it away. I plan on running a Google+ game soon and I expect some people who read this blog will end up being involved.

    LJR: No problem!

    Roger the GS: Can you expand on what you mean in that second paragraph?

    Zak: Well, kinda sorta. I definitely get the feeling that there is something quasi-religious about the notion of having "the underworld" underground where all the evil things live, and the overground being invaded by evil things from below that have to be stopped.

    But I'm not religious so I see it more as being about different varieties of evil. You get evil on the overground but it's three-dimensional real evil like you get in our world: the people who perpetrate evil aren't doing it because they think it's evil, they're doing it because they misguidedly think it's the right thing to do. Even goblins. Maybe they're peeling the skin off you while you're still alive, but they're not doing it because they want to be evil, they're doing it because they enjoy it and, I dunno, maybe it's how you impress goblin chicks.

    But in the depths of the underworld there is stuff that is just intrinsically evil for its own sake, or at least has motives so different to ours that we can't understand them and our only available analogue is what we call "evil". It's a mindset much more alien than the goblin skinning you alive, because at least the goblin has something in common with you: it knows what enjoyment is.

  6. This is a very nice breakdown. 2 observations:
    1. these are all very predicated on the modifier "under..." The Philotomical (Philotomaic?) seems like it's really about the psychological implications of underground/darkness. What if these were overworlds instead, or back-of-the-wardrobe worlds? Does it change anything necessary?

    2. when I was reading your trading posts I was thinking about any kind of trade between worlds, and what's actually desirable in a game (it seems to me the challenge might be to keep the worlds separate once trading starts: why doesn't everyone live with a foot in each?) - 1 and 3 provide reasons why these two distinct realms don't just "globalise." 1 in particular makes traders interesting: you can go this far down but probably don't want to go any deeper. Although there are rumours that the really big rubies are just two more layers beneath your feet... So undertrading becomes a question of how far you want to stick your neck out, and how dirty you're willing to get. Nice.

    captcha word: ofeck. What players say when they discover that what they thought was a type 3 underworld is actually type 1 (and what they thought was a happy dungeoncrawl is actually a Cthulhu game).

  7. I can confess that I've never considered the Type 1 dungeon as an option. Probably due to the fact I'd regard it as a shifting morass of Evil instead of a mappable expanse of space.

    And that offends the dungeon cartographer/sociologist in me that insists that every "lair" area in the dungeon have access to water and a basic sanitation system [1].

    Plus it wasn't suggested in the D&D Red box, which has forever formed that basis of how I view dungeons.

    [1] Even if it's "crap in that corner and put food in this one" or "crap in the room that the grey ooze sometimes goes though and hope that it doesn't visit while your pants are down".

  8. I think what Roger the GS is getting at is that you have the underworld, and you have the overworld, and it's hard to get from one to the other. So you have dungeons in the overworld that are just type 3, holes in the ground with squatters in them. But in certain locations there are confluences of ley lines or other magic whatnots that make it easier to pass between the overworld and the underworld. So, when your standard mad archmage sets up shop on one of these to take advantage of the mystical confluence and starts delving, he's liable to "break through".

  9. Probably due to the fact I'd regard it as a shifting morass of Evil instead of a mappable expanse of space.

    I confess I've never followed the white box advice to add and remove passageways and rooms in already mapped areas, or occasionally mirror image the entire map to screw with the players. Although one of my current dungeons is a fractal maze.

  10. Richard: 1. Well, no, it probably doesn't, but I think there is something compelling about underworlds - it seems to strike a nerve in human beings, probably because we don't live underground.

    2. I didn't really think of it that way, but I like the spin you put on it.

    Paul: You're more of a Classicist than a Romanticist. See further reading.

    John: Expand on the fractal maze idea?

  11. I really want to run dungeons as being about "the womb of the earth", as the store of limitless potential and fertillity that is just naturally down there, sort of riffing on the greek ideas of Cthonic ritual without having to go all the way to having an underworld of dead people.

    So the earth produces stuff, and if you start digging into it, building temples into it, and so on, it will start producing strange and amazing things. Because if you plant a building deep in the earth, the building itself will start to flower and change.

    Some people know about this, and build temples down there on purpose, and perhaps add traps to capture the strange beasts that start to appear, and others come across it by accident, when they build their castle's dungeons too deep into the ground.

    But in order to run that kind of world like I imagine it, I'd need to get a lot better at randomising!

    It would have some rules; things left in those dungeons may become magical, but almost never in line with their function, everything down there is instinctual, mad or comes from the surface originally, and maybe even then. The tone would have lots of roots in various colours and stone, riffs on the structure of whatever they entered through, so chains and manicles or iron rails from mines twising their way round floors and ceilings etc. But beyond that, it could be anything, and the map should keep spreading out and down so that people should be able to exhaust their courage before they exhaust the map.

    It's too big and too ambitious for me to do properly, and until I get that knack for complexity I'm probably going to stick to more surface-derivative dungeons.

  12. Sure ... "Mythicness" is a quality of being deep enough underground in an area of magic influence. There can be many such areas of influence, or even a zone of influence, without all the dungeons necessarily connecting together.

  13. @noisms: that classicist/romanticist post is excellent: thanks to your lucid discussion there I can finally see that Call of Cthulhu is the most romanticist game I know - it's all about confronting the sublime with your empiricist brain and discovering that it's inadequate for holding the mysteries. I guess the clue was there all along in the epithet "gothic horror" but I didn't see the deep structure that links Nyarlathotep and Frankenstein.

    The point raised in comments there about not cataloguing everything in the world seems relevant here, too: it should be possible to write an encyclopedia of what can be encountered in the type 2 dungeon, but it should be impossible to catalogue the type 1, partly because nobody's gone down to the deepest depths of the id and come back, and partly because the enlightenment/encyclopedia-writing/empiricist approach should fail when confronted with the mythic - only hubristic villains ever claim to have plumbed the deepest mysteries.

  14. @noisms: This is a fractal maze. Imagine that the lines running around and between the boxes are passages, rooms, chambers etc. The "-" is the stairs up and the "+" is the stairs down. To design it, you'd draw the boxes first, then fill in the dungeon around it, matching up connections as you go.

    To show you how it works, here's the solution to the same maze. Starting from -, you take the route marked in red to C. From that point, the passage continues from the green entry point at the top right of the maze. However, you're no longer actually in the top level labyrinth; you're now in iteration C (or level C, if you like).
    Continuing on, you run into the box marked A and emerge from the blue entry point on the left-hand side; you are now in iteration CA. From here you're able to find your way to the edge of the map without entering any deeper iterations of the dungeon, so you emerge from the right-hand side of the A box back in iteration C. This goes on until you find your way to the stairs down at +, which requires both some very labyrinthine navigation and, at one point, actually passing through the same area more than once.

    This isn't a "fair" dungeon from the perspective of someone inside, in the sense that it's navigable at all, unless the players have some way to keep track of which level of the dungeon they're in. So, all the entry points into the boxes are stairs down, and all the exit points are stairs up. You can also make it easier by increasing the number of connections between passages that don't require passing through a box, and by reducing the number of boxes on the page.

    Currently it's only in the conceptual stage - I've got the dungeon all fitted into my campaign, but it's not actually mapped and I'm not ready to risk it in actual play yet.

  15. Richard: Glad you enjoyed it! It's one of my favourite posts from my blog.

    John: I find your ideas interesting and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.