Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld

The Darkness Beneath, published in serial form in the magazine Fight On!

There has been some interesting blogging on megadungeons, recently.

Yesterday, Wayne Rossi at Semper Iniativus Unum asked, Why Build a Megadungeon in 2017? Peter V. Dell'Orto at Dungeon Fantastic followed it up with More Thoughts on Megadungeons, and then Rossi posted Megadungeons, Bosses and Goals, today. Both authors have written many great posts on the subject over the years.

Dell'Orto has a useful page on his site that compiles his posts, as well as directing the reader to a more general compilation of megadungeon resources at Ken "Rusty" H's The Rusty Battle Axe.

David Hartlage at DmDavid has compiled a useful list of published megadungeons (as of late 2015), here.

Rossi and Dell-Orto make a number of helpful and interesting points, but the most memorable part of the exchange is Rossi's claim that to him, using a megadungeon that you didn't design yourself is like wearing someone else's pants to your own wedding. This is one of those times where even though personal preference is obviously important, there's room for a bit of objective analysis and persuasion. I still have no problem running Stonehell or contemplating running Barrowmaze or whatever, but I admit that Rossi pushed me a bit more into thinking about going back to my own dungeon projects.

The exchange also prompted me to reread Jason Cone's short section on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" in his seminal Philotomy's Musings, A collection of interpretations, house rulings, expansions, and general pontification on the nature of the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Many, if not most of you are no doubt familiar with this 49-page PDF. If you're not, you're in for a treat. It's one of the main resources that got me excited about coming back into the hobby a few years ago, as well as making me consider or reconsider OD&D (as opposed to, say, AD&D).

Cone (AKA Philotomy) argues that the dungeon or megadungeon may be usefully thought of as more than just a big hole in the ground with levels, monsters and treasures. Rather, it may be a "mythic" world of its own, possibly even subject to its own rules or laws. Thus, one need not be embarrassed or feel like one has to completely justify or explain the dungeon's contrived seeming elements by coming up with a completely coherent dungeon "ecology" or whatever. That weird things happen - all dungeon inhabitants can see in the dark (until they join your party), doors shut mysteriously and so on - may be a feature not a bug. I'm not putting it very well. As you'll see, below, Cone is much more articulate and persuasive.

I don't think Cone is arguing that a dungeon should be a completely random "funhouse," but he makes a good case that something a bit more than a totally "naturalistic" interpretation may sometimes be satisfying. This conception goes back to OD&D and its vibe. But, of course, there's no reason why one couldn't adapt it to AD&D or even 5e mechanics.

I've taken the liberty of excerpting the entire section. If you don't have a copy of the PDF of Musings, you can download a free version here, in a nice-looking OD&D style layout put together by Jason Vey. Greg Gorgonmilk also "recovered" it here.

In other places in the Musings, Cone has a funny style. "Considering OD&D?" he titles one section, as if he's innocuously handing you a religious pamphlet or asking you to try a new drug you might have heard about. "Well, here's what you should know," he could have added. And then there's the way he ends his discourse on the mythic dungeon, a place where you may end up alone in the dark, wondering why your monstrous pursuers always have such an easy time opening those doors: "And boy, is it fun."           
There are many interpretations of "the dungeon" in D&D. OD&D, in particular, lends itself to a certain type of dungeon that is often called a "megadungeon" and that I usually refer to as "the underworld." There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should "make sense" as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn't necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it. For example, consider the OD&D approach to doors and to vision in the underworld: 
Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength…Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters. Doors can be wedged open by means of spikes, but there is a one-third chance (die 5-6) that the spike will slip and the door will shut…In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns, and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg 9) 
Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter, and it is generally true that any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except player characters. (Monsters & Treasure, pg 5) 
Notice that all characters, including those which can see in normal darkness (e.g. elves, dwarves), require a light source in the underworld, while all denizens of the place possess infravision or the ability to see in total darkness. Even more telling, a monster that enters the service of a character loses this special vision. Similarly, characters must force their way through doors and have difficulty keeping them open; however, these same doors automatically open for monsters. This is a clear example of how the normal rules do not apply to the underworld, and how the underworld, itself, works against the characters exploring it. 
Of course, none of this demands that every dungeon need be a mythic underworld; there could be natural caves and delved dungeon sites that are not in the "underworld" category, and follow more natural laws. Nevertheless, the central dungeon of the campaign benefits from the strange other-worldliness that characterizes a mythic underworld. 
A mythic underworld should not be confused with the concept of the "underdark." The underdark concept is that of an underground wilderness composed of miles of caves, tunnels, delved sites, and even whole underground cities. This is a cool fantasy concept, but is distinct from the concept of a mythic underworld that obeys its own laws and is weird, otherworldly, and apart from the natural order of things. (There is no reason a referee couldn't join the two concepts of underworld and underdark, though.) 
Some common characteristics and philosophies for a mythic underworld or megadungeon (keep these in mind when creating your dungeon):
  1. It's big, and has many levels; in fact, it may be endless
  2. It follows its own ecological and physical rules
  3. It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
  4. It is not linear; there are many possible paths and interconnections
  5. There are many ways to move up and down through the levels.
  6. Its purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend
  7. It's inimical to those exploring it
  8. Deeper or farther levels are more dangerous
  9. It's a (the?) central feature of the campaign 
If you embrace these concepts, you'll be playing OD&D according to some of the original assumptions of the game. And boy, is it fun.


  1. The stuck doors rule is an interesting example of how rules can be re-interpreted given a different campaign structure.

    In early campaigns, particularly Gygax's Greyhawk, the dungeon was used by multiple gaming groups yet was persistent in that actions of one group were visible by the other. In this situation, having doors that open randomly (through the contrivance of being "stuck"), means that two groups can set off through the dungeon and, through the mechanic of rolling to enter rooms, end up traversing completely different parts of the dungeon. By not allowing a single party to clean out all the rooms in a particular area, it also forces the party to delve further away from the entry point.

    Thus two parties can have completely different experiences in the same dungeon without the DM having to script out their adventures. The groups can even share their maps and try to find common areas or different routes.

    Once D&D moved to a one party campaign, this poor rule has no reason to exist and is begging to be re-interpreted. Most just use it as a part of the surprise process which I find sad.

    1. That's a great point about the multiple parties thing, but I'm not sure it doesn't have other uses or benefits. How do most kids play, say, 5e? Does it have a stuck door rule? I have no idea.

  2. Stuck door rule(s) has plenty of use in the single party dungeon campaign. Stick doors reduce the chance of surprisng monsters on the reverse side. A party is slowed down and as such there is an increased chance of bumping into wandering monsters. A party can also not depend on their retreat being assured as there is a chance a door will swing shut behind them and not be immediately openable.

  3. I've really enjoyed your latest burst of creativity and energy. You have a lot of insightful things to say. I know it's a lot of effort, and I wanted you to know it's appreciated.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate that. "Bursts" is a good way to put it. :)

  4. I very much agree with this post; the dungeon is another expression of the otherworld of myth and fairy tales, like the dangerous forest, the cursed castle, etc., and as such it doesn't need to meet entirely naturalist standards without room for symbolism.