During the 70s, the debates that raged in the pages of fantasy game fanzines mostly matched the gaming topics argued on Facebook and Reddit today. For example, forty-some years ago, gamers debated if dungeon masters should break the rules for the sake of story.
But we have forgotten some arguments that raged in places like Alarums & Excursions. Today’s post revisits an interesting debate that now seems as contentious as angels on pinheads.
First, some background. The original Dungeons & Dragons rules recommend 20 players as an ideal number for a campaign, although the text says one referee can handle as many as 50 players. Of course, 50 D&D players probably never crowded a basement at once. Smaller parties formed from the available players and mounted treasure hunts into the huge dungeons that dominated play. At the peak of the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns run by D&D co-designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, such sessions ran several times a week.
Instead of talking about a dungeon master’s campaign or game world, most gamers talked about a DM’s dungeon, because that’s what they played. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) Active players took characters from one DM’s dungeon to another. As long as DMs played in similar styles, that worked. (Early fanzines included much talk about coping with PCs coming from incorrectly run dungeons, but no one agreed on, say, the correct ratio of casualties to treasure.)
Popular dungeons saw lots of traffic from twenty or more players, each with a collection of characters at different levels, some recuperating from injury. Gamers started to notice that these dungeons resembled tourist attractions that drew crowds hoping a few risks would lead to a quick score, much like Las Vegas.
Dave Arneson and his group saw how much his dungeon resembled a tourist trap and they exaggerated it. The elves who managed the site of Blackmoor dungeon created a faire at the entrance boasting “hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!)” The elves constructed turnstiles at the dungeon entrance and charged 1 gp admission. “You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine ‘I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon’ button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.”
In the First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Arneson described the entrance to his dungeon.
After the second destruction of Blackmoor Castle, the EIves were made responsible for the care and protection of the area and it’s defense. Our
Elf player took a number of steps to do this:
- They have set up a barricade at the foot of the hill leading to the Castle that forces each entrant to pass a test of Purity (generally anti-Vampire), including a drink of Holy Water for each (provided at bargain rate by the Church of the Facts of Life run by Bishop Carr).
- Making it through that, the would-be adventures enter the Castle where the Elves have set up a great fair that fills the courtyard. There are hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!) and some shady types (cutpurses and the like). This lets the Judge wheel and deal with the players to empty their purses and make them wonder what is going on.
- There are now turnstiles into the Dungeon (1 GP admission as well as taking an Elven Tour (since canceled when the two Dwarves let Fang out of his box) (see attached short tout sample). You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine “I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon” Button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.
- Each of the regular exit/entrances from the Dungeon are heavily guarded by Elves armed with Holy Water Hoses, and other anti-Evil charms plus an Elven Prince and two Elven Lords! So, if you can reach a door and are still good, the pursuit will break off and the Elves let you in.
Other DMs treated dungeons as tourist attractions, although with less silliness. In the Forgotten Realms, a famous tavern called the Yawning Portal monetizes the main entrance into the Undermountain dungeon. The innkeeper “Durnan charges adventurers 1 gp each to descend into the well, whether they opt to use the rope or not. The return trip also costs a piece of gold, sent up in a bucket in advance.”
The debate came when game masters wondered how authorities would react to the heavily trafficked dungeons that made homes to monsters and sources of treasure.
Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus, the creators of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), favored adventures outside dungeons. They imagined a society that eliminated dungeons. “A large concentration of ‘evil’ will attract the Church and might bring down a ‘Crusade’ against it. A large concentration of loot will attract the King, a personage always in need of money. Nor is it possible to keep such a dungeon complex secret for long. Myths and legends about such a place and what is to be found in it soon become common knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Dave Hargrave loved dungeons. Page 1 of The Arduin Grimoire Volume IX includes the topic, “Dungeons and why the authorities don’t shut them down,” which counters the opinion voiced in C&S.
Nowadays, few campaigns run in the style that made Blackmoor seem like Six Flags, so few wonder why the Lords of Waterdeep never send their troops into Undermountain for coin. But if anyone asks, some of Dave Hargrave’s points seem plausible.
Dungeons and Why the Authorities Don’t Shut Them Down by Dave Hargrave
I am sure the question of why local authorities don’t just run troops into the “dungeons” of the land has come up now and again. I mean, what could be a more intelligent and logical method to deal with the creature-ridden madness and loose magik of these places? Here are a few reasons to wet your appetite on why they don’t just do that.
- With such a large contingent of troops away from their stations, it would be easy to attack the kingdom directly since there would be fewer defenders to face.
- It would be too easy for a “bad guy” associated with such a place to trap the soldiers in the dungeon, perhaps sealing them away forever. This directly relates to point one above.
- With the high casualties of this kind of action, soon there would be few willing to join the constantly thinning ranks of the army, no matter what the price. Most men are not fools when it comes to dying for no good cause. Again, this directly relates to point # 1.
- The troops mucking about in one of these places could open some old gate or cause some awesome and terrible bane to come forth upon the land, thus turning the people against the fool who caused such a calamity.
- The “dungeons” act as a constant “honey pot” that ensnares the more adventurous (read that as trouble makers) and any loot they manage to bring out, is, of course, taxable. A hell of a lot cheaper way to make money.
- With such a spot to attract undesirable things, it is easier to be aware of just what nasty beings are about. You don’t have to go hacking about the dark and dreary countryside; you know where all the uglies are hiding.
There are still other reasons, but I hope I have made my point. It just isn’t worth all the risk for a king to send his troops into such a mess.
That’s something that the Yawning Portal needs – the local tax man!
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I like Hargrave’s answers, but I also like the following as additional or alternate reasons:
7. Many “dungeons” turn out to be just local superstition. Why waste troops on that?
7b. Sometimes, the local superstition turns out to be right, and then you’ve lost an investigator to no purpose. Hard to get new volunteers for the role.
8. Some dungeons *have* been “cleared out”, because no one found the secret entrance. [National Treasure, anyone?]
9. Some dungeons are so obviously dangerous that normal / sane people refuse to go in. You need to hire the insa… uh.. adventurers / specialists to handle such things. After all, what soldier or investigator is willing to risk a rope bridge over a river of lava? Just to *enter* the dangerous place, with who know what hiding inside?
10. Some dungeons are so lethal [Tomb of Horrors] that they truly have the “no one has ever returned” mythos about them. Give that kind of place enough time, people intentionally forget about it.
10b. Some places are cursed/tainted/irradiated or otherwise environmentally lethal, and only people with the correct and very expensive (or very unusual) gear can survive. If you can only equip five or six people with MacGuffin-ators to keep them safe, they need to be extremely elite multitalented individuals…
I had never read those notes on Blackmoor, that’s very funny! I agree with Dave Hargrave’s perspective and figure the authorities focus more on salvage taxes.
The French comic Donjon also plays in the area of dungeon as tourist trap, especially in its Zenith timeline! In that case, the dungeon is actually cultivated as part of the business. For example, some of the characters are part of the cast of monsters you have to fight, or people that feet the bats in the cellars and that kind of stuff. A lot of the loot comes from adventurers who perished in there, there’s a wizard in control of the more dangerous stuff…
I imagine some of it is the same reason why modern governments don’t deal with these places. They tend to ignore problems until they slap them in the face.
This hugely dangerous den of orcs and goblins or undead and vampires? “Are they hurting me? Not my problem!”
It’s when the crap hits the rotating fan blades that the local authorities will even take notice … and probably only enough to send “someone else to deal with the problem.”
In my game, adventuring companies can purchase Imperial Charters, which officially recognize their status. They can loot dungeons within the realm, which is taxable, and spending the treasure helps boost local economies. Scofflaw dungeon delvers who aren’t sanctioned by a charter can have their loot confiscated by Imperial authorities, and are left with nothing but a ‘thank-you for your donation to the crown.’
I tend to set games in places where local authority is relatively weak, and looting dungeons has a pretty unfavourable risk/reward ratio compared to taxing peasants. But the authorities will organise vs major threats, and of course a dungeon with a reputation for lots of treasure + weak defences will soon be looted.
Often IME the PCs actually *are* the authorities, or the representatives of the authorities, sent to clear a threatening Chaos node.
Several additional options (more detailed discussion on https://spellshare.blogspot.com/2021/04/why-has-dungeon-not-been-emptied-out.html, in case you are interested).
* The dungeon is hard or dangerous to reach.
* The dungeon has a reputation for deadliness and people are afraid to enter it (also suggested by Frederick above)
* The dungeon just recently became known or accessible.
* The dungeon, its location or entrance is hidden or unknown.
* Access to the dungeon is magically gated in a way that cannot easily be bypassed.
* The Dungen is home to an entity of god-like power, that keeps it around.
One thing I do in my Damara 1360 DR sandbox campaign is have *so many* dungeons that you can’t loot them all. Some are isolated, some are insanely dangerous (eg the one that links direct to the 10th level of Stonehell). Some are recently discovered and in the process of being looted – I’d put Barrowmaze in that category. There are in-world reasons why the authorities are rarely involved – the country is a mess after the Vaasan War, most of the knights perished at the Ford of Goliad, central authority is mostly very weak and focused on a few major cities.
Dave Hargrave was full of beans. Yeah, I said it.
Full. Of. Beans. And so’s yer old man!
Let me start by saying, it’s a silly question to even ask. OS d&d was mostly about the megadungeon (which is ridiculous and defies logic on its face, but still fun), and spent very little time developing the rest of the world. “The king” was a mere background painting, irrelevant to matters at hand.
But if you’re talking about a fully fleshed out world (and usually we’re not, but let’s suppose), Dave Hargrave’s arguments are lame rationalizations at best.
Hargrave made a very basic mistake of rationality. He started from an outcome he wanted and then backed his way into it. Because of course there have to be dungeons. And of course they have to be available to the PCs. It had to be justified. He just did a very poor job of it.
Let’s assume we’re talking about a feudal system kind of like medieval Europe wherein people owe work/ service to people higher up in the hierarchy. Because that’s mostly what we all imagine.
Point 1. What large contingent of troops? If a party of 5 PCs, likely only one or two of which are actual fighters, can clear out a dungeon for cash, how does it merit an army so big that it’s a national security threat? The king just needs a few knights and magic support. 10-20 adventurers tops. He’d provide “top-side” support – supplies, food, guards, tools, rope, tents, healing, engineers, miners, cooks, etc – as the Return On Investment merits.
And whose troops? Since we’re talking feudalism, every knight in the realm owes the king (and likely several other lords) military time. Lords owe the king troops (or cash to rent them). Since this is fantasy feudalism, wizards and clerics likely also owe service. So the king doesn’t need to risk any of “his” people and certainly not the “army”, such as it might be. He has plenty of skilled, experienced subjects who are bound by oath and penalty of law to do it. Plus whatever mercenaries there may be.
Point 2. Being trapped by bad guys. FFS, dungeons are risky. To pick out one specific risk and say “this could happen!” is just dumb. A bad guy could shoot a fireball, too. BFD.
And agin, we’re not looking at a national security threat here. Maybe a dozen or two knights, mages and priests actually doing the heavy lifting.
Point 3. “It’s risky!” Not as risky as definitely being hanged for not giving the king what he is owed. And there are always stupid people willing to try incredibly risky things for a multitude of dumb reasons. Just look at Florida.
Point 4 argues that kings have a clear motive to not just NOT explore dungeons, but to post guards to keep idiots out of them. Or seal them off. Sorry kids. No more dungeon adventures. You might wake Vecna. Dave Hargrave said so.
Point 5, “it’s easier to tax.” Sorry, no. They used to hang “poachers” for carrying a bow in the king’s woods. If you think the king is going to just tax you and let you walk off his land with a magic sword, a wand of fireballs, half a dozen potions and your body weight in gold, you’re completely ignorant of how kings work. Legally, all that stuff is his and you stole it. He will take it all and hang you.
Secondly, the king is too afraid of the monsters in the dungeon, but not afraid the of people who killed those monsters? By Hargrave’s logic, shouldn’t it require his entire army to attempt to tax them?
Point 6 is just really stupid. Just because there is a dungeon in the neighborhood does not mean that is where all the monsters will go or stay. If a dungeon is so dangerous the army won’t go in it, why isn’t it dangerous for a few orcs? It’s not like all monsters know each other and are friends.
This is why dungeons need to be in the wilderness. The caves of chaos could not be located 10 minutes from Versailles. They have to be on the borderlands and far off wilderness. Anything convenient will already have been completely stripped to the bare walls.
I definitely think something like Undermountain or similar dungeon-under-city type setups can be implausible. The topmost levels should likely be fully looted (of course Undermountain is restocked by Halaster afaik).
In terms of gaming in a megadungeon campaign, you could have encounters with the king’s knights in the dungeon. You could have the PCs regulated and charted by the crown. A strong State like Cormyr in FR or most of the Greyhawk nations should likely be involved with any lucrative megadungeon.
“If you think the king is going to just tax you and let you walk off his land with a magic sword, a wand of fireballs, half a dozen potions and your body weight in gold, you’re completely ignorant of how kings work. Legally, all that stuff is his and you stole it. He will take it all and hang you.”
I usually have the authorities pretty wary of mid level adventurer groups, and anyone who can potentially Fireball. They tend to get treated as powers in their own right, not as peons to tax. The authorities normally try to *incorporate* them into the power system; attacking them is a last resort. The typical response to a new mid level adventurer party is to point them at some deadly mission the authorities want doing. IME most adventurer groups are happy to comply.
I think you are right on all counts. There is no good reason why an accessible dungeon that is a threat near a king or city with the means to do so would not be shut down. Other than that we then would not have a dungeon to adventure in.
So, either you make your world more believable and move this dungeon into the far off wilderness, or even better, get rid of the megadungeon concept to begin with and find a more credible format for adventure, or you make up some half-baked rationalization and ask your players to suspend disbelief and have fun.
One thing I have been thinking which might be credible, even though stil a stretch is the tourism argument: the dungeon as long as it exists is not a threat, it is a means of generating wealth. If the dungeon attracts adventurers, this helps the city’s economy overall. These adventurers will live in the city, buy healing and equipment, sell off loot, and all of that will be taxable and eventually deliver its fair share to the coffers of the local lord. Our group has been adventuring in Undermountain from character level 5 to 13 so far, and we have spent any treasure gained from doing so in the city of Waterdeep. Granted, we are carrying around some choice equipment, and could leave the area with it, taking a fair share of the treasure with us. Still, the city did do quite well. And a lot of adventurers can travel to the city, rent rooms in the inn, buy equipment on the market, leading to an influx of cash, even if all they achieve is dying on the first level.
Ther is another perennial issue next to why authorities do nothing about the dungeon: why are there not a lot more adventuring groups about competing with your players’ characters?
The real answer of course is again that this is no fun and laborious to run for the DM. But what are the rationalizations to help with suspension of disbelief?
Undermountain employs the device that most people who enter the dungeon like your group are relatively either scared off or killed by the monsters on the first level, who have their own rackets going – both the “vampires” and the goblins serving the Xanathar mafia. They transport out all the loot that comes into the dugeon from doomed adventurers, so nothing accumulates. To create the feeling that there ARE a lot of other goups exploring, it further offers one or two such adventurer groups to make your life harder running of with loot in front of your eyes, or that you see being maimed and killed as redshirts when you explore.
There is a third option, which both Gygax and Greenwood chose, and that is the best one to explain with in-game logic why the dungeon is not emptied out when your players encounter it: the dungeon is owned and run by an entity of god-like power.
That entity happens to enjoy adventuerers struggling through it, and so keeps restocking the levels for characters to explore. No normal king with vassals could permanently shut this off, so why try? And consider this means that said god like being continues to supply new monsters to kill and loot to cart out as long as adventuerers keep coming. It is like a goldmine for the local lord, producing an unending stream of wealth. The only question is how heavily to tax this — if he did like you propose and conficate everything, there would be no incentive for adventurers to risk their lives. Taking a reasonable toll would generate more income over time. A further advantage of this solution is that it also helps sustain the unrealistic setup where monsteres are getting stronger and stronger as you go down levels.
The Caves of Chaos by the way are just as ridiculous — how would these humanoid groups that hate each other guts choose to live cramped together like this, without having to slaughtered each other long ago? Because it is a fun adventuring environment, so suspend disbelief.
“ I usually have the authorities pretty wary of mid level adventurer groups, and anyone who can potentially Fireball. They tend to get treated as powers in their own right, not as peons to tax.”
Not saying you’re wrong to do this, but suggesting that if we want a game that is familiar and predictable, it should look like the real world.
Not sure what you mean by mid level either.
To my mind, in the real world the authorities will always have resources and almost always more than PCs. They are in power because they have power and will protect it. The resources depend on how big a region were talking about. Villages will not have a lot. Kings will.
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III will have dozens of the most powerful wizards and clerics. He will have whole orders of paladins in his service. He will probably personally own an artifact. Maybe three.
If he had to pussyfoot around half a dozen PCs, he wouldn’t stay king for long.
Mid level to me means 5th through about 8th level. I would never have any authorities be pushed around by them. Any town of 2000 people would have more than enough resources to take them down.
“if we want a game that is familiar and predictable, it should look like the real world”
My current Damara 1360 DR campaign is set in a chaotic post-war era with weak central authority. My Wilderlands Ghinarian Hills game was set in a culture of scattered micro-states resembling Mycenean Greece, with no central authority at all. I have run games in settings with strong central authorities but they’re not universal IRL historically, and their absence can be good for adventuring. While unfamiliar I guess, I’ve not experienced this as a problem. And players are often familiar with eg Wild West tropes which often have weak or absent authority.
One thing I’ve noticed in the Damara game is that the PC groups work hard to establish themselves within society as a legitimate element, eg as a manor lord & his retainers, or as retainers to an NPC lord. They definitely seek ‘cover’ for their activities, not wanting to be seen as brigands/bandits.
I liked Tardigrade’s responses.
I think another option is to lean on the “Mythic Underworld” idea. Some dungeons are part of a Mythic Underworld, so are not just caves where creatures live, but are in some way a twisted reflection of humanity’s nightmares, weaknesses, sins, or whatever. If a great army were to try to invade the realm of their own nightmares, they might find something of a vastly different scale than what a handful of adventurers would find.