This week, let’s talk designs of dungeons. For most of gaming history, we have been crypt camping in one way or another, and even before the presence of video and tabletop gaming people have explored caves for enjoyment and excitement. So what has all this taught us about caves and their stories? Well, for a dungeon to go from misery to memorable it needs two things: atmosphere, and events. Game Master’s and game designers take notes, as we look into labyrinthian lore and focus on the atmosphere of areas. For inspiration, I want to look outside at some of the best caves I have seen for some context of basic human interest. When I was in college at Northern Arizona University I took a group of friends to a place called “The Lava Tubes”. It was midnight on all hollow’s eve. Equipt with our headlamps we got out of the car. It was a five-minute hike to the cave entrance, or more accurately the bowl of the earth that lowered into darkness. Our lights could not find an end to it as each beam combined and was swallowed looking in. We stepped deeper and deeper, the cavern engulfed us in its massive nature. Our sounds echoed and then are silenced. The warmth moist essence of the cave encased us as we looked around avoiding overwhelming darkness by four meager lights. The occasional echo from deeper in the beast along with the heeps of bull sized rocks tested our resolve to see the end of the tubes. The grandeur of nature was pressed into us as our own size and significance failed in comparison to the surrounding.
When we reached the end of the Tubes we realized we then had to brave our way back through the car, and our momentary victory was shattered.
If I compare that with my favorite environment to teach new D&D players 5th edition, Death House from “Curse of Strand”(CoS), we see that 1. I’m kinda a sadistic DM, and 2. How the atmosphere can be used to push the story along more than plot lines. Now slight Spoilers for CoS, but Death House is a house of death, in Barovia, a fantasy setting of the darkest order. The house itself is haunted and designed to teach players a lesson in humility and mortality. The creepiness of the story starts as the house’s nature pushes the players to find out how to get out. This isn’t an exercise in curious exploration, but a need to not be the house’s next victim. The foreboding stairs that lead upward, the destitute nature of neo-gothic design with hidden grotesque imagery for the observant, along with the binary of clean and unclean areas drive players to find a place they feel safe. The environment encourages exploration in multiple ways all to aid an attempt at survival.
Long story short, when you have a place in your world that you want people to spend time in, whether it be a literal hole in the ground or a crypt from a necromancer, you need to put effort into the purpose of the things in it. One of the first lessons storytellers learn is that people fixate on items described in detail and items they perceive to be out of place. If you have a secret lair in it with multiple cat portraits in it and not a cat in sight your players are going to become hyper-aware of every shadowy movement. If the town’s musician has gone all Pied Piper on the local children and his lair doesn’t have musical items or could be mistaken for the wrong house, it will be forgotten or worse boring.
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