Dungeons as a Mythic, Living Evil

In 1974, dungeons tried to kill you. More than just the creatures inside, the walls and stone wanted to murder you.

  • Dungeons changed when you looked away. Page 8 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures tells dungeon masters to change explored dungeon tunnels by “blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”
  • Dungeon doors closed on their own accord, and then you had to force them open. But the dungeon helped its monstrous allies kill you. Doors opened for them.
  • “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.” (See page 9.)
  • Dungeons had one-way doors and gently sloping corridors that lured prey deeper and closer to their deaths.

Did the architects of these dungeons aim to foil explorers, or do the walls themselves bend to snare them? Was the door you went through earlier one-way or just gone now.

dungeon table at Gen Con 2015

Decades after the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor launched the game, players grew interested in recapturing the style of those old megadungeons. But D&D had matured. Even players bent on remaking the past wanted to drop or explain the most preposterous elements: Monster populations that defied any natural order. Walls that changed between visits. Doors that opened and closed to frustrate intruders.

So gamers looked for ways to account for the weird essence of those classic dungeons.

Jason “Philotomy” Cone popularized the idea of a mythic underworld, which justifies the strange things that happen in those old dungeons by embracing the unreal as part of a place’s nature.

“There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should ‘make sense’ as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn’t necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it.”

For more about Jason’s concept, see page 22 of Philotomy’s Musings, a PDF that mimics the appearance of the original D&D supplements.

When Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo created their “love letter to D&D” in the 13th Age role playing game, the mythic underworld probably inspired their notion of living dungeons.

“Other special dungeons, known as ‘living dungeons,’ rise spontaneously from beneath the underworld, moving upward steadily toward the surface as they spiral across the map. Living dungeons don’t follow any logic; they’re bizarre expressions of malignant magic.”

The game charges heroic adventurers with the goal of slaying living dungeons. “Some living dungeons can be slain by eliminating all their monsters. Others have actual crystalline hearts, and can be slain by specific magic rituals whose components and clues can be found among their corridors and chests.” 

The concept even explains why a living dungeon might offer adventurers clues to its secrets. “More than one party of adventurers has observed that most living dungeons have some form of a death wish.”

Blogger Adam Dray gives the best sense of the concept’s flavor. “Like any good monster, the living dungeon wants to kill. It’s a mass murderer, gaining more and more power as it takes life. Like a clever virus, it knows that it can’t just instantly kill anything that enters it. It seduces and teases. It lures people into its depths with the promise of treasure.”

The 13th Age adventure Eyes of the Stone Thief presents a living dungeon for the game.

If you like the living dungeon concept, in “I, Dungeon,” Mike Shea gives more ideas for a living dungeon’s motives and vulnerabilities.

Some 13th Age reviewers found the living dungeon concept too fanciful. For them, the biological whiff of the concept of a burrowing dungeon felt too dissonant.

For me, I think the mythic underworld resonates when it feels less alive and more haunted or cursed. Not cycle of life, but living dead. Stones that echo with so much hate and hunger and chaos that they mock life.

To make such a dungeon frightful, avoid putting a face to the wickedness. The evil cannot manifest itself as a ghost in a sheet or as a personified “Dungeon Master” working controls at the bottom level. For inspiration of a haunted place look to 1963 movie The Haunting, which never shows ghosts but proves scarier for it. Or see the 2006 movie Monster House, which my kids couldn’t bear to watch through to the end.

Imagine a place, perhaps one haunted by a massacre or some other legendary wickedness, perhaps one abandoned by god. This site devours all that is living and good that intrudes. It hungers to snuff more lives, so perhaps it pulls gems, gold, and lost treasure from the depths to lure more victims. Imagine a place that seems to summon—or perhaps even create—malign horrors to infest its halls. Imagine a place that waits to test the boldest heroes.

10 thoughts on “Dungeons as a Mythic, Living Evil

  1. Jeff

    Loves this articles! I actually really like the fact that most of your last few articles were abour megadungeons as my player are most likely to enter one soon to complete some personnal quests. I dont need them to complete it but if they want to or feel like they need to i wont stop them! 🙂

  2. Lich Van Winkle

    Thanks for putting this together. About blocking corridors, I suppose that some monsters are capable of doing these things without help from the dungeon itself. If I were a monster in a dungeon, I’d fortify my home after a few home invasions!

    There’s a board game of cave/dungeon adventure called Vast in which one player can take the role of the the cave itself. The player who plays the knight has to find and kill the dragon; the player who plays the dragon has to wake up from slumber and escape; the player who plays the goblins has to kill the invading knight; but the player who plays the cave itself has to throw hazards at the others, like bats and shadows and tremors, delaying them until it can collapse in on all the other players, killing them all. (It’s pretty fun, too, but very complex.) This is clearly inspired by ideas like those you outlined here.

    1. Ynas Midgard

      We played it last summer on our yearly get-together-and-play-games-three-days-straight. It was pretty fun. My only problem with such asymmetric games is the steep learning curve. You need to understand your own capabilities and everybody else’s to play optimally (whereas in Game of Thrones, for instance, even if the starting positions are asymmetric, everyone has mostly the same moves they can pull off).

      (Granted, we only played it once. I’m sure if we swapped roles around till everyone had a chance to play each role, we’d have a much deeper understanding of the game.)

  3. Pascal Martinolli

    A funny «psychoanalytic» analogy : the dungeon with-a-prize-at-the-end mirrors the deadly journey of the spermatozoa.

    Also : maybe the history of the murder house in Chicago of HH Holmes had an influence on the Great Lakes dungeon crawlers…

    1. Lich Van Winkle

      Pascal, you may be interested to know that Gygax did talk about the funhouse at Chicago’s Riverview amusement park (closed in ’67), where he went as a child, when interviewed about random dungeon hazards in 1979. He said:

      “OK “Disneyland” campaigns can be fun — you never know what spook is going to pop out from around a comer — here are the tables to do it. It’s kind of like Disneyland, you know, and the old fun houses. I can relate to River-view because that’s what was in Chicago when I was a kid, and you stepped on a little board and something went “bleeh” and would pop up and you never knew what it was going to be. And it was fun.”

      More of the quote on my blog here: https://lichvanwinkle.blogspot.com/2020/06/gygax-1979-on-random-monster-treasure.html

      It was called “Aladdin’s Castle”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/497155246340918190/

      Wikipedia says, “Aladdin’s Castle was a classic fun house with a collapsing stairway, mazes and turning barrel.” These features correlate somewhat with DM David’s initial bullet points at the top of his entry here.

      This isn’t the same as the Chicago H.H. Holmes’ murder house, but Gygax and other TSR guys may have visited it. The map of the house in this article could very well be a D&D dungeon map:


      (The article is genuinely disturbing.)

  4. Matt P

    Without going into spoiler territory in case anyone is playing or wants to play in it, I think Stonehell makes a fantastic idea of the sort of “haunted” megadungeon you’re talking about, David. Well worth reading if you haven’t.

  5. Sinan

    A nice literary example that came to my mind reading this post is Ursula LeGuin’s “Tombs of Atuan”, part of her Tales of Earthsea.

    1. Eudas

      Another example is the Labyrinth that the Patryns were stuck in, in the Deathgate Cycle. It started as, basically, a correctional facility, but as the Sartans died out, their guidance faltered, and it became actively and cruelly malevolent.

  6. Pingback: D&D’s Advice for Dungeon Masters Offers Nothing on Running Dungeons | DMDavid

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