Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dungeon Origins - From Howard to Gygax to 13th Age

Dungeons. Ever wonder why? Where did they come from? Who dug out all those corridors, neatly lined them all with stone blocks, built them to be all twisty and looking the same? Underground construction ain’t cheap, even if the builders happen to be dwarves who love that sort of thing.

Origin #1: Ruins from Ancient Times

This one dates back to Robert Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien. Dungeons are a remnant of older times - when things were grander than whenever "now" happens to be in the setting. Times of vast and wealthy empires. Empires that could afford to build vast underground areas for, y'know, reasons. Maybe those empires were run by dwarves or some other folks who enjoy subsurface living. Or maybe those empires needed a place to hide from something on the surface. Flocks of dragons would be a valid reason for hiding underground, even for ancient empires. On the other hand, underground structures tend to attract the types who find it like home - goblins, demons, etc. Maybe that explains what happen to all those vast and ancient empires?

Origin #2: A Wizard Did It

Gary Gygax wrote about how the wielders of powerful, unearthly magics had nothing better to do with their spare time than screw with people. When they weren’t creating Owlbears or conducting other experiments, they built dungeons under their towers. Look at the spell list for Magic-Users in 1st edition AD&D. There are certain mid- to high-level spells intended to secure a fixed location. Name-level player character Magic-Users getting tired of the murder hobo lifestyle, settling down, and building towers with dungeon expansions was A Thing in those early Lake Geneva campaigns. I suppose it could be entertaining to watch a party of up-and-coming murder hobos try to navigate your Dungeon of Doom after a hard day of exploring the secrets of the universe. Come to think of it, I'm kinda surprised that this isn't a standard dungeon set up.

Origin #3: Dungeons as Living Entities

13th Age presents the idea that some dungeons are living things that bubble up from the darkness under the earth and slowly rise towards the surface. I kinda like it. It reminds me of the video game Dungeon Keeper where the player runs an underground structure with a living heart that can be destroyed by do-gooders and rivals. However, there is nothing in else in Dungeon Keeper that suggests that the dungeons are alive. Making dungeons malevolent beings does justify why they seem to go out of their way to kill intruding parties of adventurers.

(I wrote an earlier version of this and posted on Tumblr awhile back.)

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