Thursday, December 17, 2009

Taxonomy Of Archetypal Dungeon-Types I'm Interested In And Notes On Cannibalizing Them When They Appear In Published Form

The Lesser Crazy-Wizard (or Funhouse) Dungeon

So this guy (often a wizard, though it can be a demi-lich or an innkeeper or just some jerk) threw a place together for largely the purpose of fucking with people. Full of puzzles. Un-full of internal logic. Room follows upon room for no particular normal-architectural-function-serving reason. Egregious genre violations are likely but not essential. (The Crazy Wizard being the traditional catch-all excuse for all D&D genre-violations). The worst parts usually have stupid puns, old jokes and references to showtunes in them but these, likewise, are not essential.

A slightly more "sane" rationale for a puzzle dungeon like this can be: "Evil force treating the PCs like test subjects in order to plan future attack on humans/earthlings/surface-dwellers/air-breathers/two-legged-ones etc."

Either way, this sort of dungeon is among the easiest to write. (Though the hardest to master.) Perhaps the best thing about puzzle dungeons is it's very easy to pull individual rooms, gimmicks, or traps out of them and stick them into other puzzle dungeons. So if your players miss a bit of it, you can stick one onto the next lunatic mage tower.

It's kind of pointless to buy a published one of these and just keep the structure and re-skin all the details, because all the designer's work generally went into the details, not the structure.

The Greater Crazy-Wizard Dungeon

This resembles the Lesser Crazy Wizard Dungeon only there is a structure and that structure is as crazy as the details.

That is--some over-arching meta-puzzle or meta-challenge profoundly affects everything you try to do in the dungeon. The rooms all spin independently of each other so it's a mapping challenge or you can only see what's in a room if you enter from the proper direction or you have to kill everything in the blue rooms but not everything in the red rooms. These can be awesome if done right but are highly taste sensitive--if the gimmick doesn't fit what you or your PCs want to do, the whole thing's pretty much useless.

Working Palace

This is any kind of big residence of some people/monsters/entities that are alive and active in the world and have built a big place to hang out in. The logistics and aesthetics of the place tend to match whatever race inhabits it.

These dungeons put the most pressure on the DM to actually make some sense. (DM's are free to ignore this pressure, but whatever, anyway...) Locked doors have keys, the inhabitants have bedrooms or other quarters, and there should probably be whatever things a big residence is supposed to have just in order to function normally as a residence like, say, a kitchen.

All this, PLUS the fact that it should still be fun, PLUS you need a way for the PCs to get in there without immediately being killed by guards, PLUS trying to give it enough monster/NPC variety so that, say The Palace of the Lizard Prince isn't just endless fights with Lizard Man Guards makes this the hardest kind of dungeon to write. Plus it's really hard to buy a published adventure of this kind and re-skin it because if the featured monster/NPC race doesn't particularly fit what you're trying to do, then a lot of the other elements might not fit either. Like, sure the Red Dragonmen have a magma bath but if I want to re-skin it as a Kenku palace then you've got to re-write the bath, too, which sucks because the magma bath was kind of cool...

It is usually easier to write by making the monarch insane, therefore giving excuses for making parts of it into a Puzzle Dungeon.

I have yet to see a good, published Pure Working Palace dungeon. Yes, that's a challenge.

One-Shot Funnel Dungeon

This dungeon can be gotten through in a session or two and never lets you forget the main objective. You know "Den of the Moldy Ogre Who Is Like Ten Feet Away" or whatever. There's a big bad or quest item or major gimmick in there and the rest is just roadbumps and the PCs generally know it. These are useful to have around but a good DM can write one in his sleep.

(A subgenre of this is the Strongly Implied Plot One-Shot Dungeon, where the PCs not only are moving toward some simple goal, but have few enough options that they have a decent chance of tripping certain predictable plot events on the way. This doesn't have to be a railroad.)

When you buy one, you tend to go "I could've written that in my sleep", unless it has some really clever stuff in there which allows the PCs to "use" the place in more than one way.

When you buy a full-length adventure that turns out to be just one of these stretched out to ridiculous proportions--say, not just Dragon + A Handful Of Sucksmear Kobolds And Not Much Else, but, say Dragon + Several Thousand Sucksmear Kobolds And Not Much Else, then it can make you want to not buy a published adventure ever again.

Re-Purposed Forgotten Place
There once was a mighty empire, then it sucked and died and now blobs and tribes of ratmen crawl around their Once Mighty halls. Relatively easy to write because if you don't want to write in the Once Mighty Kitchen or Once Mighty Horseshoe-Making Room then you can just say there was a cave-in or it's been emptied out or lost to the mists of time or whatever. However, they're more fun when you write in some politics among the new inhabitants--like the ratmen hate the blobmen who are servants of the cheesemen who are imprisoned by the Elephant Pig who worships the Demon Pheasant who possesses the Fairy Cow. If they bump around long enough, the PCs can do a pretty good job of unwittingly stitching together their own plot.

(This is a good place for Schrodinger's motive--i.e. there's several mcguffins and several mcguffin-wanting NPCs/intelligent monsters, but which of them wants which mcguffin is left in the air 'til the PCs actually show up. Whatever the NPC/critter wants inevitably forces the PCs to go to some part of the dungeon they haven't been in yet or go to some place they have been and try harder.)

It also allows you to throw in bits of Crazy Wizard Logic but you don't have to carry them out to their conclusion because maybe part of it has Fallen Into Ruin. So like this room fills with water if you try to cast a spell in it but the next one just has some orcs and a pine cone.

Also, this kind is really easy and fun to re-skin if there's some politics since you can just change the factions around and pin any uncongruous element on the long-dead "architect" culture. Like I pointed out yesterday while re-skinning Tomb of The Bull King.

The Dungeon Where Something Just Happened
This dungeon can be any of the other kinds of dungeons, but then some large and transformative event just occurred--invasion from without, meteorite strike, experiment-gone-awry. An important function of this change is to create an easy in-game reason why a horde of supposedly powerful, intelligent, dungeon-dwelling beings can't keep 3-12 adventurers of levels 1-3 from just waddling up to their front door and stealing all their stuff.

Once you come up with a good event, this kind of dungeon writes itself. Plus it provides an instant in-game excuse for rooms to radically change if things get boring. The only problem is it can get in the way of the default "delve/loot/rest at inn/delve/loot/rest at inn" default-OD&D type adventurer-whim-centric dungeoneering schedule. Things in this kind of dungeon have to have a little bit of a life of their own.

The Place That Wasn't A Dungeon A Second Ago But Now Is

Basically, it's like Alien. It's an ordinary (to the PCs) place and something bad just got loose and so now every corridor is infused with primal terror and whatnot. Generally I kind of hate this kind of dungeon because it's hard to make the environment "come alive" for an extended period of time (In a game, I mean, not in a movie. I like Alien just fine--I'm not a psycho) and, to me, D&D is as much about the place itself as the things in it. I've yet to see a really good one. However, it is closely related to...

The Dungeon that Used To Be That But Now Is This

This place was, long ago, something interesting but benign, like a zoo. Then it became horrible. Some malevolent and probably supernatural thing has evilified every inch of it. Like the Greater Crazy Wizard Dungeon, it's all about the premise. Unless you like that, a published one is probably going to be kind of useless.

The Dungeon of Beings Who Are Completely Weird

Unlike the Crazy Wizard/Puzzle dungeon, the entities in charge here are not necessarily hostile or cruel, they just behave or live in such an alien way that it's a big pain in the ass to go around finding stuff in their house. Like the Bath House in Spirited Away or Lewis Carrol's Wonderland. Again: the premise here is everything, and there is a huge possibility of genre-dissonance. If you don't like the premise then you won't like the dungeon because the premise affects everything about it.

Obviously there are other kinds of dungeons--and most dungeons have elements of more than one "species".

Anyway, can anybody think of excellent examples of dungeons that fit one of these bills (aside from the usual suspects--like we already know about White Plume Mountain)? Are there types of dungeon you like that I've left out?

(Not "types" in terms of what specfically is in the dungeon, but in the sense of the structure of the dungeon.)


Adam Dickstein said...

In a Japanese RPG called 'Make Your Kingdom', the game world has been cursed with a magical effect known as the 'Endless Dungeon Phenomenon' (or something - my translation my be a big off).

Essentially, imagine a Genesis Wave type of effect that transformed any and all underground structures, natural or man-made, into monster filled, puzzle ladden, treasure hiding wonderlands of medieval penal architecture.

After I stopped laughing from your post, this was the first thing that popped into my mind.

JDJarvis said...

how about?

The Dungeon Where Dead People are Supposed to Stay Dead: it's a catacomb, tomb, mausoleum, the locals aren't supposed to do much but now they want to eat you brain.

Zak Sabbath said...

The living dead in a tomb make a decent Funnel One Shot (as in Death Frost Doom), but after that I get bored if it's ONLY the living dead.

Adam Dickstein said...

What about the Unusual Terrain/Locale Dungeon?

I'm sure it could fit into one of the other types but a popular dungeon theme in my old and rare D&D campaigns was the dungeon that is or was essentially some bizarre natural or supernatural terrain feature that someone is using as a dungeon (to imprison someone, hide a magic item or any of the other standard dungeon uses).

The players then have to deal with monsters, traps and all the normal trimmings but also avoid mudslides and falling rocks or freezing temperatures and sliding on the icy floors, etc.

There are several such locations on my game world that people visit again and again over the ages as different villains find new uses for the spot.

squidman said...

your post made me think of a situation where a dungeon unexpectedly hosts another dungeon inside itself (a parasitic dungeon?), or leads to another type of dungeon (gateway dungeon?)

i can't think of a good existing example of the first type, while the other seems to be kind of a cliched idea (mines of Moria anyone?)

you also made me recall an old computer game called Thief. it had a level where you were supposed to steal something precious from an old tomb of someone important. you'd start on the surface of a cemetery, than descend into "present day" tombs, they would lead to a series of natural caves, which finally would get you to a forgotten, ancient necropolis. it was a well designed level as it featured three logically connected dungeons, each with a completely different flavor and design.

Anonymous said...

The funhouse dungeon is basically the SAW series of movies, isn't it? I haven't seen them, but that's the impression that i get(ooh..mighty mighty bosstones).

SC78 said...

Not necessarily a "dungeon" structure, but the wilderness trek as a matter of survival. X1 is a good example of "what the hell do we do now that we're shipwrecked? Oh, I know, lets go kill something and take its stuff so we can live comfortably on this dinosaur infested island." This type of adventure setting lends itself to a more sandbox style of play and is easily fleshed out using random encounters with a few set pieces (creepy temple, village where all the natives are missing inexplicably, freaky totems at the gates that hold back Kong, etc). Besides you'll never look at flying squirrels the same way again!

Zak Sabbath said...

Well if we want to talk about non-dungeons that;s a whole other ball of wax. I'm just talking about dungeons.

grodog said...

There's been some good discussion about the nomenclature of mega-dungeons over on Knights & Knaves @

I'm fairly sure that there's quite a bit of discussion on lairs vs. dungeons vs. megadungeons on Dragonsfoot and OD&D74 as well, but I can't find the specific nomenclature thread(s) there atm.


Erin Smale said...

Shadow elves (not drow) burrowing up from the depths created a 'staging area' just below the surface. But as they were working to make space and stock supplies for their Unrelenting Surface Invasion, they had to deal with monsters and humanoids who wanted to move in. When the PCs arrived, there were shadow elves, goblins, owlbears, an ogre, and a bunch of annoying beasties (however, no flail snail). Sort of a working palace dungeon mixed with elements of the Forgotten Place.

Also, you're not kidding about Dragon Mountain. What a terrible, useless, insulting sham of a dungeon. And you're right - so awful was it in my sight that I haven't bought an adventure from TSR/WotC since.

Anonymous said...

B4: The Lost City is sort of a functioning palace, although it does have a goodly amount of Crazy mixed in.

Noumenon said...

I have yet to see a good, published Pure Working Palace dungeon. Yes, that's a challenge.

How about The Giant's Skull from Fiery Dragon for 3.5? The PCs played angry ogres in that one, so the palace had a nice variety of cleric and paladin defenders. It came with an alert system that meant you wouldn't alert all the guards at once unless you came right to the front gate and did nothing smarter than beat it down with weapons. Of course that's what angry ogres tend to do -- after playing it I thought it would actually work better if the party played four rogues instead.

can anybody think of excellent examples of dungeons that fit one of these bills

Your description of the Re-purposed Forgotten Place is just about a complete description of Castle Whiterock from Goodman Games.

"Tower of the Black Pearl" from Goodman Games is a lovely pure one-shot funnel dungeon.

"Vale of the Indus" is a pilgrim's trail with four locations off it that are themed as corrupted shrines, but separate and you can skip them. Call it the "4-in-1" dungeon, should be really easy to rip off because it's modular.

Starwind1985 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Starwind1985 said...

I know that this is a super-SUPER-late comment, but screw it.

"your post made me think of a situation where a dungeon unexpectedly hosts another dungeon inside itself (a parasitic dungeon?), or leads to another type of dungeon (gateway dungeon?)"

The dungeon-in-a-dungeon thing is pretty much the whole idea of ChattyDM's Primal/Within campaign. You can find it here: