Campaign Design: Seven Realms Dungeoneering
One of the biggest failures in believability for fantasy worlds is often the overabundance of dungeon crawls. I’ve always felt that dungeon crawls are often too common in most fantasy games. They don’t often make much sense, especially for repeat visits over centuries, and I’ll admit I am biased against them, both as game master and player. I’ve always had more fun playing in the overworld or with politics, etc. Still, even the Seven Realms house dungeons, and I’m sure game masters will add others. Let me talk about why there aren’t many more of them in the base campaign world.
If you think about what Dungeons and Dragons means when the word “dungeon” is used, it’s often a tomb, underground manmade structure or an elaborate monster lair. We have the first in real life. The pyramids were elaborate and quite large tombs which contained material treasures. The idea that a culture would construct a trapped tomb is not new. The idea that a handful of cultures might construct gigantic ones is plausible. The idea that there would be multiple ones in every region of a land almost as large as the United States is, however, ridiculous.
The good old wizard’s dungeon designed to hold some secret or serve as a villain’s lair of last resort is plausible once or twice. If dungeons were that easy to build, even with magic, then everybody would do it. Even with magic, it is difficult to excavate soft soil and tunnel through rock without encountering mishaps. The medieval mindset could construct mines, but most wizards aren’t engineers, nor would they find many engineers who would willingly work on such a project. Rulers often killed their architects to protect their secrets and they didn’t have an artifact of immeasurable power to protect. The variant on the wizard’s tower might exist, but it will be rare. Much more rare than trapped tombs would be.
The large underground community, referencing Tolkien’s Moria, (or the Underdark of D&D fame) are quite plausible because they require large natural formations and the efforts of an entire people to create. Still, while Arn has the Delving Deep, it’s not as vast as the Underdark, nor does it stretch underneath everything on the surface. It is more like multiple Morias linked via cave structures that happen to tunnel across much of the hilly and mountainous areas of the map, but entrances are not common, and the cave systems aren’t guaranteed to lead anywhere interesting.
The elaborate monster lair is another staple I’m less willing to rubber stamp all over the map. Most monsters are beasts by definition. They can’t build anything more elaborate than a tunnel system with treasures in a favorite corner. Enemies which can think won’t need a lair of those proportions, or it will be a community, not a booby trapped manor home embedded in the ground. There might be many fortresses above ground, but few of them will have treasure unless taxes are in, or the community is limited to that fortress. Most importantly, if one of these dungeons, which I prefer to call ruins in my game, are cleared out, they won’t be inhabited in the same manner any time soon.
If Goblins are holed up in a former bandit-king’s mountain top stronghold they will use it differently than he did. The Bandit-King himself used it differently than the ancient monk order that built it as well. If there is treasure on site, it will probably be in the leader’s quarters, where as the Bandit-King would have kept everything in a locked vault, and the monks wouldn’t have had such things in the room which eventually became the vault. That was their wine cellar or larder, not a coffer room.
The more elaborate ruins, of which I have devised a few, are unlikely to be resettled with similar dangers later on because they either will destroy themselves or the heroes will ensure they never are breached again. Imagine a temple complex which was sealed and then a veritable maze was built up around it to keep people out, or a jungle designed to keep you away from the forbidden portal at its center. Those are the ruins I prefer to have in the setting. A dungeon is the oubliette where you imprison your enemies in Arn.