Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Dungeon That is Never Cleared

I'm sure there are the exceptions, but it seems like that Gygax-approved secondary goal of dungeoncrawling is to clear dungeons to make the land safe for decent folk or something like that. I don't know how much that's that's done these days, but at least dungeon rooms and levels are cleared to allow safe havens/base camps.

What if the dungeon were so alien that sort of thing were unlikely? A dungeon could be looted, but it never could be tamed. This wouldn't mean that the dungeon is static or unchangeable by adventurers, just that it would always retain its essential, deadly, character.

I've been reading The Vorrh by Brian Catling, a novel which has at its center (sort of) the eponymous, immense, ancient forest that is steals people's memories and is supposedly uncrossable. I'm also thinking of the toxic, alien nature of the Zones in Roadside Picnic.

Maybe a mythic underworld as hostile as either of these, would be a bit too much of a killer dungeon (but then again, maybe not) but some movement in this direction might be interesting. In both cases, the appropriate sort of preparation might be key. In the Roadside Picnic case, that means good intel and appropriate gear. In the case of the more mystical Vorrh, it might involve a separate quest to get the needed knowledge, blessing, or key.

Philotomy in his off-quoted "Musings" got it, particularly if we go light on "versimilitude" and allow just enough "internal consistency" for player choices to be meaningful:
"...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."


SF said...

Huh. I've been DMing 5e for my 10 year old the last four months. So far the games have been very nearly dungeon-free (perhaps 8 underground rooms explored) and I wasn't seeing that as likely to change.

But the idea of megadungeon as metaphorical underworld? That's brilliant. I can really dig that.

Trey said...

@SF - I'm not particularly big on dungeons in my current game either, but I can understand the appeal, which gets me thinking about them from time to time.

JB said...

Many DMs may ignore the idea of a dungeon as a "living place" and many published adventures, too, may fail to be explicit in the long-term ramifications of PCs pillaging their confines, but I don't think Gygax was of this. When I look at adventures like B2 and WG4 (Tharizdun) there's plenty of information about what occurs as a result of adventurer forays, with new monsters moving in and surviving creatures responding to future threats. The idea of using a "cleared" dungeon as a stronghold or personal fortress is a good one, but one requiring real work on the part of players...even a "non-alien/toxic" environment should simply be left as another emptied tomb littering the countryside of the campaign setting.

Sean Robson said...

I've imagined dungeons as nexuses of chaos; sites so tainted with blood and magic that they become almost sentient, and they exert a psychic lure to draw creatures of chaos to themselves. The older a dungeon is the more self aware it becomes and the larger it grows - extending new passages like tendrils beneath the earth. Such places can never truly be vanquished, only kept in check.

Trey said...

@JB - Maybe you've mistaken me, I'm not sure. It's not really so much the idea of a dungeon as a "living place" I'm talking here. I assume most people allow for new monsters to come in and cleared to be a relative condition, requiring maintenance. What I'm wondering about here is whether that is possible in certain sorts of places. Dungeons that might actively thwart attempts to do so. These "alien/toxic" environments would not be left as another emptied tomb littering the countryside, but would also remain as a mystery that could be grappled with, defeated for a time, but never subdued.

Tom H said...

I don't think a dungeon should ever be "cleared", unless it involves some massive effort on the part of the party to cleanse and fortify it. Even then things should tend back towards chaos unless they invest in upkeep.

Jez said...

I was always taken with the idea of the megadungeon as a cancer, slowly spreading beneath the skin of the world, ordering the rocks and roots to suit its purpose. The monsters were its defenders, and its heart was the treasure. Heroes that braved its depths and stole that treasure took it back to their domains, their castles and towers, and they guarded it, hiding it deep within their own dungeons, unwittingly spreading the infestation. Something that sprouted out of an early G+ conversation circa 2012.

JB said...

@ Trey:


I suppose I think of any campaign that includes an "Underdark" or other "mythic underworld" to be that kind of alien environment. I've been crystallizing my opinion on this for a while now, and I've simply come to the conclusion that there's a lot more "under-the-surface world" than there is "surface world" and as such it IS its own, dominant ecosystem. The only thing that keeps it from encroaching on the "civilized" lands above is (perhaps) an aversion to the sun (?) as most denizens appear to be of the nocturnal variety...and thank goodness because there are far more of THEM than US (the humans, etc.). Even dungeons (adventure sites) that appear isolated from the underworld are subject to this, as the subterranean realm will eventually break through the walls (or floors) to repopulate and transform the place.

It explains (a bit) why dungeons continue to exist. Most such sites will be constantly subject to change by external (subterranean) forces REGARDLESS of whether or not adventurers attempt to loot their confines...only stubborn, organized resistance can allow a particular group (Drow, Kuo-Toa, or whatever) to maintain a particular "home region" for themselves across centuries. It helps explain why a seemingly random monsters appear in dungeons with little rhyme or reason...they're new infestations, like the dandelion weeds that miraculously show up in my lawn every Spring.

Whether or not there exists surface environments (The Vorrh or similar) that exert this same persistence is, of course, dependent on a particular campaign setting. But for me, I feel the world below the surface is exactly the kind of hostile, "untamable" environment you're suggesting. Similar surface environments (haunted forests, Greyhawk Castles, etc.) are, for me, simply places that have open access points to these underground networks. There's no such thing as a "mega dungeon" in my world...simply dungeons that have been allowed to grow unchecked over centuries, like an overgrown ivy plant left unpruned.

My D&D world is adversarial; I am an adversarial DM. The monster is the dungeon; as "Dungeon Master" it is my job to play this monster.

JB said...

OH! And with regard to my earlier comment, there's a typo in it. Should have said:

"...even a "non-alien/toxic" environment should NOT simply be left as another emptied tomb..."

My bad!

Trey said...

Ah! No problem. That clears it up, thanks.