In 1974, dungeons tried to kill you. More than just the creatures inside, the walls and stone wanted your life. Dungeons changed when you looked away. (See page 8 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.) Doors closed on their own accord, and then you had to force them open. 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.
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.”
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.”
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.