Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kobold Quarterly--Respect the Lowly Dungeon

Geomorph by Glenn Judd
In today's Howling Tower installment at Kobold Quarterly: deep, dark dungeons have their hooks in me, and they won't let go.

It's taken as gospel by many fantasy roleplayers that in the bad old days, all campaigns were about dungeons. Characters left the dungeon and returned to town only for healing and to replenish supplies. They might have a few random encounters between the town and the dungeon, but those were nothing more than distractions from the main event, which took place entirely underground. This is a nice myth, but it's a complete distortion of the truth.


  1. You know, I've been rolling bones for over a decade now and I can't remember ever exploring a classic dungeon till about 2007 or so. I don't think my group ever even ran a module until Faction War, and even that didn't happen till at least 2003. Most of our early games were epic love letters to Tolkein. Our story arcs always seemed to involve our characters moving from humble beginnings to move on and influence the multiverse.
    Central to our games was the idea of a grand struggle against the Ancient Evil, somewhere in all that, we just plain skipped the dungeon crawl.

  2. Maybe it was my choice of modules or the only ones offered to me, or maybe that all the books I've ever bought teach the game through dungeon crawl examples, but most of my early D&D gaming was dungeoncrawls. Only after maturing and reading more fiction did I branch out into actual storylines.

  3. I think the stereotype is mostly accurate, at least as it applied to me and my friends in the late 70s. Back in the day (say, up to 1980) there was not an incredible amount of published content to choose from -- TSR, Judges Guild, and magazine content. JG had the only major published setting. Therefore, campaigns primarily took shape in the image of the DMs that ran them, and it was common for DMs to switch in and out with the same PCs. In those days, wilderness adventures were considered more dangerous than the nearby "local dungeon" (either a published setting or homebrew) and it was understood that random wilderness encounters would demolish a party of lowbie adventurers. Couple that with the relatively high mortality rate among PCs in Basic/1e, and you had a dungeon-focused game.

    However, we tried to have "stories" of sorts in the dungeons; it wasn't merely hack & slash. I think what we lacked (as a group of pre-teens and then teenagers) was continuity and overall cohesion within a game world, but we still had fun. As I matured we became more interested in plot, character development, and world-building.

  4. Heya,

    The reason that the dungeon-only myth persisted for so long is that back in OD&D, the system worked best in a dungeon. Once you got out of the dungeon, things like being the mapper and having a marching order mattered less and less. It was far easier to get seperated and lost in a forest than in a dungeon. And once you're lost in a forest, you're not off by a tunel or two, you're off by half a day's travel at least. Maybe more! And it was just a pain in the butt to hav eto backtrack that far. Also, encumberance mattered less because there was always a village within a day's travel to sell your wares. So a lot of the logistical challenges that people liked (mapping, resource management) were taken out and a lot of the annoying challenges that people didn't like (getting seperated, wasting days of travel) were added in.

    So what was passed down from the oldies to the newbies was stories about how great those old dungeons were. The older players remembered them fondly because the system worked there. Once they left the dungeon, the memories turn sour and we end up "Advanced" versions of the rules that try to fix things but really didn't.