Many people see the dungeon as the corner stone of any good D&D game. It’s right in the name, for Rerox’s sake. Heroes go down into unknowable depths to kill things and get loot. The farther down you go, the more powerful the baddies. It’s a reoccurring trope. It’s also something I moved away from for a long time.
The game has evolved greatly over the years, largely in terms of play styles. D&D became less about about “kick in the door” and more about the story. As a game created by a bunch of war gamers, this was quite the transition. This was not Dungeons and Dragons original vision. There was a column Gary Gygax wrote for Dragon magazine that advised against becoming too much of an actor, as it would take away from the game portion of role playing games. I can’t find it for the life of me, but it was fascinating. If anyone has an issue number, drop me an e-mail.
As such, the generic dungeon that existed only to provide XP and treasure fell by the wayside. It certainly did for me as well. I found my players having more fun traveling the surface world and getting involved in intrigue than they did marching through room after room of random encounters. For a while, dungeons were dead to me.
Eventually, I found myself nostalgic for those underground romps. In many of my campaigns, players will go weeks without a combat encounter. The dungeon, full of nasty denizens, is a great way to equal this out. I couldn’t make dungeons the way I used to, however. It couldn’t be just a collection of monsters and traps. One of the reasons dungeons started to work for me again is I started to ask a very important question: why?
Why are those monsters in there? Who made those traps? I’ve lived with room mates that would put this sentiment to shame, but I don’t think most people spend time trapping their own domiciles. If there is treasure, why is it there? Who the hell keeps all their gold in a hole in the ground?
Answering the “why” question keeps the story aspect of the game running, even when the players are underground. Is the dungeon natural or man made? That is a great place to start. A series of natural caves is going to be different than sewer tunnels. If it is caves, why do the monsters live in there? If there are different types, how do they all live in harmony? Maybe they don’t.
Let’s go the caves route for a moment. A good dungeon needs a good pitch. Perhaps a slew of Owlbears have made the woods near impassible around a small town. Wood cutters can no long ply their trade. Travelers steer clear. Someone needs to do something about this.
The Owlbears came from a cave in a near-by mountains. Why are they leaving the cave? They’re being driven out, of course. When the characters get there to eliminate the threat, they find what looks to be a newly mined opening in the Owlbear’s lair. It goes deeper into the earth.
Obviously, we need more monsters now. How about goblins? They are the ones that have come up from below, displacing the Owlbears. They’ve brought pets with them: spiders, rats, and whatever else you can think of that makes sense. This can keep the PCs busy for a good few sessions. We should keep asking why, however.
Why did the goblins come up from below? Duergar have started to wage war on them. The deep dwarves want their “land” and resources. Great, now we have a reason for the goblins to have laid traps. As the PCs go deeper, they’ll eventually get into Duergar territory. The caves will start to get more ornate and the hallmarks of Dwarven craftsmanship will become apparent. They will be tombs and temples. These are great places to sprinkle in some magic items.
Perhaps the Duergar have their own domesticated animals. Perhaps another dwelling of underdark creatures is near that is involved in trade with the dark dwarves. That gives you yet another adversary, if not multiple. Soon you’re creating a web of peoples, cause and effect, and locations. Your dungeon has a history and a reason to exist.
Part of the fun of the dungeon will be how your players discover these things. Once they realize it is not just a random stream of events, they’ll want to know more. Any snippet of information they come across will be like treasure. The goblins screamed about the ones from below before they died. Everyone will want to know what that means.
Dungeons are cool and with proper preparation can have every bit as much role playing opportunity as the land above. That said, there is something satisfying about searching for traps and then kicking down the door. The trope has endured this long for good reason. Just take it and make it your own and you’ll fall in love with dungeons all over again.