November 8, 2011

Where Did the Dungeons Come From?

Dungeons are a staple of most D&D campaign worlds. However, when it comes to world-building, why were the dungeons originally built? Why are there so many dungeons for the player characters to explore? It is a good idea to contemplate the idea of where the dungeons came from during world-building as the answers can add a level of “realism” to a campaign world and also provide adventure ideas down the road.

Here are some rationalizations for the existence and proliferation of dungeons. It is assumed these dungeons were initially created in ancient days.


Cultural- Dungeons, or underground complexes, were a part of society. They were a status symbol. While this “fad” was short lived, perhaps only about 20 years or so, it was widespread and “everyone had to have one”. While they were only showpieces without any real purpose, that doesn’t stop modern day monsters from inhabitating them.

Tombs- The easiest form of dungeon style to include, the ancient society took elaborate measures to bury their dead. Every person of note was built a large underground complex, the more famous or rich they were, the larger the complex. Poorer people were still buried in underground tombs but they would have been communal tombs, large complexes with many biers for the dead.

Survivability- Perhaps in a former age the surface of the planet became inhospitable (hazardous weather effects, magical disaster, etc). Society had to move underground to survive. Eventually the surface became livable again and ultimately, over the centuries, the ancient underground was forgotten, only to be rediscovered by the adventurers of this age.

Resources- Similar to Survivability, this is less about escaping the surface, but rather about being closer to a resource required to live. Perhaps there is no surface water; all the water lies deep underground and thus it makes sense to live near the sources of water. Perhaps their main food source survives best underground. Eventually the resource was found on the surface or their resource was changed so it could adapt to the surface. Or the race inhabiting the underground complexes simply died off leaving behind their underground complexes.

Mining- Similar to Resources, the ancient people did extensive mining to reach valuable resources. They would not have lived underground but there would have been expansive cavern systems left behind. Why such a large mining operation? Perhaps the resource being mined for was required for survival or was used as a basis within their society (such as a magical stone that powered their society and with the loss of this magical stone, from overuse, the society collapsed).

Safety- If war was constant in ancient times then underground dungeons were a good place to hide the non-combatants. They also would have served as the place where a group could make their last stand. As such, these types of dungeons were designed with combat in mind.

Growth- Land was at a premium at some point in the past. This could be because the majority of the land was owned by only a few or was relegated to other purposes than living quarters, such as food production in a weak environment. Living quarters were then built up into towers and down into underground complexes. While the towers no longer exist, the underground complexes did survive into the current times.

Prisons- Perhaps in ancient days there was a race of monsters that was a serious hazard to everyone else. They would have been impossible to kill and the only way to deal with them was to imprison them underground.

Cost- In the past, it was just cheaper to build and live underground. Perhaps there was no stone in the area worth building with. Perhaps there were no trees within easy transportation distance. It was deemed cheaper to simply dig down and live there.

Hiding Places- If the ancient society was rife with evil cults and other groups looking to hide from the general populace then an underground complex is a good way to have done so. The entrance into an underground complex is easy to hide and beneath it there is plenty of room for whatever purpose the secret group had…all out of sight. This concept would assume there was a proliferation of secret societies and groups during those ancient times. An alternate method of doing this is that the ancient society was tyrannical and these hiding places were used by a wide spread resistance. In this case, many of these underground complexes would have been safety houses and storage depots, not used as living quarters.

4 comments:

Porky said...

Superb, and very useful in creating adventures of course. We should be queueing up to applaud you for this. Let me say it again then - superb.

John said...

Don't forget under Growth to include cities that build over older sections of itself as its needs changed, like Edinburgh and Paris did.

Chakat Firepaw said...

An extension to Safety would be a previous conflict that had large numbers of flyers involved. Thus, for a while, fortress design required that there was a roof as well as walls.

Why isn't it still the standard? Well, when the Scaled Tyrant was slain by the great hero Aaron the Bold the Draconic Empire collapsed. Since then, no one has had to deal with anything worse than a company mounted on gryphons.

Callin said...

Good idea-getting away flyers.