The Dungeon as Simulation and Narrative

by Lev Lafayette

The dungeon is a common feature in many roleplaying games, its historical inclusion is somewhat anachronistic and the implementation requires some investigation. In terms of a historical simulation, the dungeon, or more accurately the oubliette, is quite a rarity and when they do exist, they are hardly extremely extensive multi-layered designs of ten-foot wide corridors that fit into a nice grid map. When they do exist they were typically used either for immurement, or as storage rooms for foodstuffs, or valuables, or even a combination of these features. In any case they are likely to exist as only a few small and uneven rooms. In a rare case they may even provide an escape route, although that is only likely to be the case if there is a extensive plumbing design - and who wouldn't keep that backdoor protected. All in all, the traditoinal oubliette is hardly how it is portrayed in most fantasy RPGs. An interesting conclusion perhaps to storming a castle, rescueing the prince(cess) or similar, but certainly not a major plan in itself.

An alternative which is realistic however is the catacombs. With extensive designs underneath cities and major towns, these are usually associated as religious meeting places, especially for burial rites (cata tumbas, "among the tombs"), and were often adopted by criminals or refugees of various stripes. As can be imagined this combination of effects is a great opportunity for adventure design; guild's of assassins, nasty cults, and of course many undead (consider the Parisian Crypt of the Sepulchral Lamp), all existing underneath the city, is a great opportunity for urban adventure, and even for ancient ruined cities as well. Indeed, with the latter it is an extremely good location (apart from natural caves) etc., to place communities of the goblinoid variety – they are sufficiently far away from civilisation, they are hidden from view, some infrastructure is already in place etc.

Catacombs can become even more extensive when they connect to mining sites, of which the Parisian catacombs are a well known example. In this case, the adventure design can include stronger subterranean features where the religious burial tombs were taken over by a connection to a world from mining a little too far underground - the traditional location of hell in Christian mythology. So now with demons, thieves, assassins, rebels, undead, and of course the homeless, in an extensive, even city-wide, network of crypts, tunnels, tombs, and mines, one is beginning to see something that resembles the typical presentation in fantasy roleplaying games.

There is an issue in stocking of such locations which seems slightly odd at first blush. That is, the deeper one goes, the more dangerous the opponents. On the first level of a dungeon in a game like Dungeons & Dragons the likely encounters include goblins, orcs, giant rats, and if one is unlucky, a low-level demon. By the fourth level one is encountering carnivorous apes, dragons, and werewolves - usually creatures that one would think that would prefer to live closer to the surface. By the tenth level is demons, devils, titans, and worse.

Now it doesn't take much tactical nous to realise that this is not a particularly good tactic. The rulers of a dungeon would not put their weakest troops at the defensible bottleneck that make up the entrance to the complex. Rather the entrance would be highly defended, as any ingress at that point by an tomb-robbing party (by which I mean "adventurers") would leave the complex wide open. But whilst it doesn't make sense from the perspective of simulating a reasonably tactical mind, it does make narrative sense. As the story and the characters develop, their challenges become greater until they reach the lowest level of the dungeon where their ultimate opponent ("boss monster" to use the video game term) will be located, and whose defeat represents the conclusion of the story. It is worth pointing out that although many consider "narrativism" to be a new component in RPG game design, and from a character's perspective it mainly is, the idea of the game system driving the story is evident from the earliest days.

Nevertheless a good game will provide satisfaction for a variety of the creative agendas which various players wish to explore. Whilst it is well-stated that a game system will encounter difficulties trying to incorporate different creative agendas simultaneously, it is a worthwhile challenge to at least provide a satisfactory combination of these features. This is certainly possible with the underground complex with a bit of care. For example, the entrance to the complex could be well-defended by the controlling force which is both realistic, but also provides a major milestone in the plot development. This does not have to be a martial opposition, it could simply be a trick or trap. The famous scene at the entrance of Moria in The Lord of the Rings is a case in point.

Once inside (and perhaps with a fleeting glimpse of the major opponent making a hasty retreat?), the invaders can engage in some exploration. Realistically, and this also works in terms of narrative, it will be a cat-and-mouse game. The inhabitants know the area and they'll do their best to wear down their opposition, split the party, and generally confuse them until they can make a serious strike. The invading party will have to make a choice depending which will depend on the size and population density of the location - do they push forwards, perhaps acting as the arrow-head to a larger force? Do they seek a defensible and hidden location for recovery?

As the story develops, and assuming the invading forces have a degree of success, the leaders will seek refuge behind a line of defenses and escape routes, which generates the notion of having the chief opponents deeper in the complex. Certainly if magical items and treasure are a focus of the story, in all probability they will be kept in distant defensible locations as well. If their origins are from deep undergound they can seek a path in that direction, especially keeping in mind how different catacombs, sewers, mine shafts and natural caverns are in design. In terms of story development there are opportunities for a gradual discovery of the focus of the quest, perhaps even a tragic one (again, Moria in Lord of the Rings), the surprising discovery of an ally (such as Newt in Aliens).

Reviewing the material in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide (1st edition AD&D) or the example of Dyksund Caverns in RuneQuest's Shadows on the Borderlands provides many insights. The ecology of the underground complex must also be considered of course. For an amusing look at dungeon ecology Tunnels & Trolls offers “Rat on a Stick”, which is essentially a very silly response to a sensible question – what to all those undergound creatures eat? To keep this part realistic, if the underground creatures don't have an significant food source the complex will be sparsely populated or inhabited by creatures that don't need food (demons, devils, most undead). If the complex is in the wilderness or ruins the food source can be above ground (“the first sign that the area was inhabited by orcs was their goat herds”), and if in a city they could have quite a significant store acquired by raids. There are many other articles in numerous RPG journals over the decades that address this problem and are worthy of review.

The main points however is to illustrate firstly how the narrativist perspective in system design actually dates back to the earlies roleplaying games and is not as novel as is often made out. Secondly, it is emphasised that particular types of underground complexes should and can match a realistic perspective (small under castles and keeps), large and complex for burial grounds in cities, or for mine shafts, or for natural caverns. Thirdly, that simulationist and narrativist perspectives need not be in conflict in terms of the design of an undergound complex if some thought is applied to the situation.