Putting the Dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons: Who Builds Them?
There are two things players of Dungeons & Dragons can reasonably expect to encounter at some point in a campaign: dragons, and, not surprisingly, dungeons.
Dragons occupy 35 pages of the Monster Manual, making clear both their mechanical function and their narrative purpose in the game world. And while much of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is concerned with designing and stocking dungeons, the book spends only one column of one page detailing dungeon purpose and history.
But why a dungeon exists and how a Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) conveys that information are vital components of dungeon design, and as important as the monsters, traps, and treasure that fill its chambers and corridors.
Dungeons make sense from a mechanical perspective. They are comprised of a series of levels, each one presenting a higher level of difficulty and promising greater rewards than the previous, imparting a sense of progression. They also provide a stage for gameplay that is both closed-off and open-ended, offering clear goals and direction without overwhelming the player with options while still allowing players to make meaningful choices.
But what about the narrative justifications for dungeons? A Quest Master should seek to immerse their players in their game world, and presenting a dungeon as a bunch of rooms filled with things to kill and treasure to take is not particularly immersive.
Even if you do give your dungeon a narratively logical and compelling reason for existing, it’s still important to convey these reasons through the structure of the dungeon itself, allowing players to discover details through exploration rather than telling players all about it through an info dump.
For example, you can tell your players that umber hulks dug these tunnels, or you can describe the claw and mandible marks in the stone and allow your players to use their skills to investigate. You can tell your players that the Mad Wizard Falvgyre built this dungeon to torment his rival, or you can show them the statues of Falvgyre in every other room, let them listen to the laughter and taunts emanating from magic mouths, and allow them to come across notes scratched into the stone by the rival imprisoned within.
Discovering something about the origin and purpose of a dungeon can be as valuable as discovering treasure. The structure of the dungeon itself is often a challenge for the party to overcome, and knowledge can be a powerful weapon, but discovery through player choice also leads to deeper immersion and a greater investment in the game world.
As Quest Master, think about not only the types of challenges and encounters you want your players to face but also why these challenges exist. You are creating a world full of magic and inexplicable wonders, but that world should also hang together logically.
Why Was This Dungeon Built?
Monsters did it. The aforementioned umber hulks are just one of the many monster types known to burrow through stone. Allow players to use their Arcana, Investigation, Nature, Perception, or Survival skills to determine if and when a monster created a tunnel.
The wizard’s personality should be evident in the design of the dungeon: all of the traps belong to their favored school of magic, or if the wizard is particularly egotistical, his face and writings are plastered all over the walls like propaganda.
Subterranean races such as dwarves and drow used to live there, but they have long since abandoned the site. The former settlement is now infested by monsters or haunted by the ghosts of its former inhabitants.
Surface races are taking refuge from some sort of cataclysm, such as the destruction of a moon or a planet’s rings, angels falling from the heavens, or dragon attack.
In the distant past, the surface of the world became unsafe for humans for whatever reason, so they dug underground, carving extensive civilizations deep below the surface. As eons past and humanity took to the surface once again, these underground cities receded into legend. A dungeon of this type should be filled with ancient artifacts offering clues about this vanished race.
Geological processes such as volcanic or glacial activity. In a world where magic exists, there could be powerful elemental forces at work, such as a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire, making these cave systems much more extensive than those in the real world.
Magical weirdness. The planet is alive, and magic is the result of the workings of its conscious mind. The strange things that go on underground, however, are the workings of its unconscious, full of ineffable danger and wild magic. This type of dungeon would be a surreal dreamscape.
A dungeon could even be the result of some kind of magical self-replicating system gone awry: a spell designed to aid in construction somehow spiraled out of control, and now there are thoudsands of square miles of labyrinthine passages underground.
The gods did it for the same reason that a wizard would do it, but the results are potentially much more horrifying.
In addition to these, you have your more typical adventuring sites, such as mines, ruined monasteries, and burial chambers, all covered in more detail in the DMG. Tell us about your favorite ways to make dungeons meaningful and immersive!