Somewhat Disconnected

I realised today that all the adventures I have run in the past five years have been set above ground. One was on a snowy mountain top in the treeline in the dead of winter, one was in a fictitious Google office block in Mexico City, another in a Colombian jungle against a drug cartel, yet another was in the Spiderhaunt forest in the Forgotten Realms. No dungeons!

All the adventures I have played in the past five years have been the underground headquarters of an evil magician in Shadow World with a mix of old tech and fantasy, an underground undead infested cave system, and orchold and a hobgoblin cave system.

The last adventures I have published have been a  cave system used by an evil magician but behind it was a lovecraftian old gods site and a cave system filled with (avatar inspired) cat people ruled by an assassin were-tiger queen.

I haven’t published an above ground adventure in 3 months.

So I wonder why I don’t run dungeons?

I suspect there is an element of GM-snobbery going on. I tend to look down my nose at dungeons and bring up all those arguments about who built them and how do the inhabitants survive if this place was abandoned for centuries or how do all these chaotic evil races coexist so happily in this closed environment. I also don’t like dungeons because there is no one to talk to. There is no reason not to put intelligent beings in a dungeon but then you need to be able to justify why they are there and be prepared for your players to ‘charm’ and extract huge amounts of information about the dungeon and its workings, how to avoid traps and guards etc.

I think I am in a minority as the megadungeon seems really popular part of the whole retro gaming scene as does doing/clearing old style dungeons.

One of my failings as a GM is that my descriptions tend to fade away. I may start an adventure giving vivid and rich descriptions of the locations to set the scene, like “The corridor is heavy with the stench of burning pitch and the blocks of stone that make the ceiling are blackened with soot, the yellow light of the torches reveal the passage way to be disused and filled with standing puddles of water. The stones of the walls are slick with green algae and rivulets of water run down the mortar joins. Drips from the ceiling fall into the wide puddles that ripple with with every drop and the sound echoes along the corridor. ” but by the third dungeon corridor this is starting to slip towards “it is a 20m corridor, lit by pitch torches, there is a ironbound door at the far end with a burning torch either side of it.

By the fifth corridor I have described the same stone working techniques, the walls are still wet and the torches are still burning, the players are either imagining it or they are aren’t.

Interestingly, I don’t have this problem with my PBP game. I think as there could be a day or so between describing one room to the next, laying on extra atmosphere feels less like banging the same drum.

So how many of you enjoy clearing dungeons? Am I unusual in avoiding that as a location or backdrop for adventures?

I have been blogging about Rolemaster for the past few years. When I am not blogging I run the Rolemaster Fanzine and create adventure seeds and generic game supplements under the heading of PPM Games. You can check them out on RPGnow. My pet project is my d6 game 3Deep, now in its second edition.

8 thoughts on “Somewhat Disconnected”

  1. I’m with you – I don’t like dungeons. I’ve been trying to run some recently, but they feel like I remember and expect them to.

    In play, I like NPCs to interact with, not monsters and traps to avoid or kill.

    1. I could imagine running a whole Egyptology based investigation and ending up with a showdown in a pharaoh’s tomb but the real adventure would be the build up, not the final scene.

      That way I could use a trap if I felt the urge or even some thematic monsters.

      Room after room of orcs, goblins and a rogue ogre leave me cold.

  2. I do generally like dungeons and megadungeons (incidentally, your megadungeon link has a problem). Undermountain has a reasonably decent explanation as to why it exists – it’s entertainment for a crazy and powerful mage that gates creatures in. Which can explain why you can have monsters never seen anywhere else and are not viable in terms of numbers.

    Problems can arise in the gap between the tomb dungeon, which is small, and the megadungeon, which is huge. A megadungeon is large enough to have lots of different communities that are by themselves viable (Undermountain has an entire city!). Dungeons, well, creatures are crammed too close together. Old – not old school, just plain old – dungeons used to make little sense. “You enter a 20′ square room with 10 orcs who have no food, sleeping quarters or toilet facilities yet are still alive.”

    More modern old school dungeons can be different. Rappan Athuk seem to exist just to kill characters. Castle Whiterock is a very interesting example (I picked it up for $5). Many different levels with many different communities, some of whom communicate or influence others. Some far too large to go in spells blazing as well. Although most are evil, some are pragmatically evil and will make deals. There are also some potential allies and non-evil creatures. Plus, you have an entire town nearby with a host of adventure hooks. Castle Whiterock is a bit expensive at full price if you’re just buying it to read but at $5 it was an interesting read.

    1. Thanks for the flag on the link.

      I think the problems for me come down to suspension of disbelief when playing and same setting fatigue when trying to create them. There is a point at which creating hundreds of very similar rooms just gets extremely boring.

      1. I think the trick is to avoid the old style of endless identical dungeons, and have quite a bit of variation in them. How to Host a Dungeon has some interesting ideas.

        Going back to Castle Whiterock, here are some of the different types of locations. A town, aboveground ruined castle, castle dungeons, a crashed cloud giant tower, underwater outer breastworks of the castle, a ruined chapel, a hidden library, part of a different plane, a huge natural cavern, a pyramid tomb in that cavern as well as a huge inhabited stalactite, a gladiatorial arena, a prison for extra-planar creatures, a hidden wizard’s lair and more.

        That range of location types can help with setting fatigue, as it’s essentially designing well over a dozen different, yet connected, locations. They are also tied together in a pretty logical manner with a long history and interactions between the levels.

        1. So to all intents and purposes it is a setting rather than a dungeon. Whether the town is above ground or not is secondary to the fact that it is a town, unless you happen to be a sun worshipper I guess.

          1. Yes, I think you can build an interesting setting around a dungeon without it being an endless chain of 10′ corridors and 20′ square rooms. Back when I first played RPGs, logic wasn’t that big a deal when it came to putting dungeons together, but nowadays I like to see a little internal logic. Castle Whiterock has internal food supplies, plus incoming supplies and slaves through the aboveground ruins and connections to the Underdark (not that it’s precisely called that) at the bottom.

  3. The cat people complex I created was much smaller in scope, just something like 50 locations but it was built along the same lines of every essential service required for it to function as a viable community was included and anyone observing the comings and goings would be able to see how it worked.

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