A Primer on Dungeon Crawling

“Far over misty mountains cold,

“To d u n g e o n s deep and caverns old”

  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Dungeon board from the Dragon Strike game by TSR

“Dungeon” is a full one half of what “Dungeons and Dragons” is about (or thirty-three percent if you count the conjunction). Dungeon crawling is at the root of role-playing.


In fact, the first germ of RPGs was a wargame scenario that Dave Arneson (one of the co-founders of D&D) ran. Instead of controlling multiple units, each player controlled only a single soldier. The scenario had these players assault a castle gatehouse while enemy soldiers above them poured boiling oil through murderholes. This was probably the first documented scenario of “one character of one player,” and also probably the first dungeon crawl.


(While we’re being pedantic about history, I’m going to point out that the early modern definition of the word “dungeon” just means “castle.” I guess “Castles and Dragons” loses some alliteration.)


Why has dungeon crawling stuck around from these earliest days? Well, dungeon crawling consists of open-ended challenges: traps, lurking monsters, scant resources. These challenges don’t have any one obvious solution but can be solved through common sense. That is, these challenges allow for a broad variety of player choice. Choice is what is fun about RPGs. Even as role-playing games have explored new genres and storytelling conventions, there’s something persistently fun about the dungeon crawl.


This blog post explores the history of the dungeon crawl, explores what’s compelling about the convention, and offers some advice for effectively using them at your table.


The Mythic Underworld


In Original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D), dungeons weren’t just castle baileys or dark caverns, they were literally mythological deathtraps.

  • Doors were stuck because of...reasons. You had to smash them open.

  • When you weren’t looking, the doors would slam shut again.

  • Monsters could move through doors easily.

  • Monsters could see in the dark. Player characters (PCs) couldn’t.

  • If a monster became friendly and “good,” they lost their darkvision.


The rules of the dungeon weren’t the rules of the real world. This feeling of a magical dungeon gave rise to the OSR term “mythic underworld.” If you delved into the dungeon, you weren’t just adventuring, you were undergoing katabasis like Orpheus or Osiris. This gives a particular memorable flavor to dungeon crawling.


The earliest “reasons” for Gygaxian dungeon crawls were varied but usually simple. Gygax relied on the aesthetics of the mythic underworld— a dungeon that is literally hell—to handle the whys and wherefores. Goblins and kobolds were evil because that was simply their nature. Dungeons were temples to this essential evil. Adventurers fought these forces because they were set counter to the “real” world: the world of humans, of law, of logic.


The Basics of Dungeon Crawling


If you enter this mythic underworld to go dungeon crawling, there are certain challenges you can expect to encounter. These form the main meat and potatoes of the dungeon crawling experience.


Time


Time is the existential problem. Time burns torches low. Time empties waterskins. Time makes you stressed.


In old-school play, tracking time is an essential facet of play—just like tracking hit points going up and down. The GM usually adjudicates how fast time passes, but basically every significant action the PCs make takes one “dungeon turn.” Often, a dungeon turn takes ten minutes.


Dungeon turns include:

  • Searching the room

  • Picking the lock

  • Catching your breath

  • Translating the ancient runes

  • Etc.

Light and Darkness


The dungeon is dark. Darkness is one of the most dangerous problems an adventurer will face because darkness removes information. This removes your ability to find danger or seek your quest goals. It leaves you vulnerable. Darkness is one of the most Jungian fears.

Keeping a halo of light around themselves is essential for PCs. This means that players will need to carry candles, torches, and oil lamps.


Lights burn out after a certain amount of time. As the GM tracks time, light sources will fizzle out. This usually puts a hard timer on exploration. Once you’re down to your last torch, it’s time to head back to town.


Traps


The dungeon is literally filled with deathtraps: hallways give way to pits, doorways are filled with spheres of disintegration, steps suddenly become slides.


Old-school traps are interesting because they can be interacted with. They’re not a hit point tax for failing a Perception check. Rather, traps can be overcome through clever thinking and planning.


Pits can be discovered by trickling water down the hallway and watching it disappear into cracks. Deadly spheres of inky blackness can be experimented with—what happens if you push a candle in about an inch and then pull it back out? A trap on the steps can be triggered by a ten-foot pole before you put your foot down.


Wandering Monsters


Of course, traps aren’t the only thing menacing adventurers in the depths. Monsters make their home in dungeons. If the surface world and the cities are the homes for humans and demi-humans, monsters live in the inverted topsy-turvy world of the dungeon.


Especially important to early dungeon experiences was the wandering monster. Each dungeon turn, a wandering monster of some description could blunder through the room the PCs were in.


This element of procedural generation achieved two things. First, it creates a sense of tension for each room. Places that seemed safe might quickly become dangerous if the PCs stay there too long—similar to a zombie apocalypse movie. Second, it keeps things lively for players and Referee alike. The Referee finds out information about the dungeon organically and has the joy of discovering the game through actual play.


Dungeon Levels


There were no “challenge ratings” in the early days. There was no expectation that fights were fair. However, there was an intuitive sense that dungeons were more difficult the deeper you went. The first few levels of a dungeon might be home to squishy* goblins and kobolds whereas the deepest levels had the real big monsters.


Dwarves in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) had a neat function that interfaced with this paradigm. They had the ability to determine their approximate depth underground. This let adventuring parties with dwarves figure out just how deadly their current dungeon level was, comparatively.


* Squishiness, of course, is all relative.


Evolution


With its roots in wargaming, the early days of D&D were competitive. This is not true anymore (for the most part). At gaming conventions, official referees would run the same scenarios for different groups of eager players. Whoever got the most gold and treasure as they explored the depths of these death mazes were rewarded with real-life bragging rights.


Early dungeons rewarded cleverness. As such, Gygax (in some of his worst impulses) would try and place gotcha surprises in these competitive dungeons. These gotchas would weed out even resourceful enterprising players at GenCon. For example:

  • Of course, mimics can take the appearance of chests...but also floors, ceilings, bridges, etc. The whole dungeon could merely be a variety of camouflage monsters stacked on top of each other.

  • If PCs thought to listen at doors, they might be infected with an earworm that lived in the wood.

The list goes on. Any old grognard (old player) can tell you about a dozen dirty tricks that early modules pulled.


To counter these dirty tricks, each edition of old games promised new spells, new races, new classes, and new abilities that let players get the upper-hand on mean old referees.

  • Elves and dwarves (and many others) gained the ability to see in the dark without torches.

  • Magic-users gained “cantrips,” which were spells that didn’t require traditional spell slot resources. As such, light, food, and water were no longer precious commodities.


As many fantasy games progressed, the “problems” of dungeon crawling were replaced with easy solutions. There was a general sense in the community that the fiddly bits of dungeon crawling wasn’t “fun.”


What Makes Dungeon Crawling Fun


But were they right?


The OSR movement has seen a return to dungeon crawling as a compelling type of game. In fact, modern RPG theory has made a lot of progress at narrowing down what is “fun” about dungeon crawling. The OSR begs players not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If there was something unfun about instant death traps and gotcha moments, there was still something in the old-school dungeon worth salvaging.


Thus, here are three pieces of advice to make your dungeon crawls meaningful and fun.


Choices, Choices, Choices


We said it before but it bears repeating: choices are the fun part of games. RPGs are particularly fun because a human agent (the Referee) can interpret your choices and measure them against the yardstick of feasibility: something that no computer can yet do.


Dungeons are hotbeds of choice. If there’s a pit trap, how do you get across it? Do you try and leap it? Do you haul over some planks of wood from a disassembled hobgoblin fortification for a makeshift bridge? Does the magic-user cast a spell of flight? Do you turn around and go the other way?


Each hazard has dozens (hundreds!) of potential solutions and none of them are necessarily the “right,” one. That’s what makes it fun!


Takeaway: Dungeons should have a variety of open-ended problems that allow clever players to make informed choices. Traps can be interesting puzzles to solve. Overwhelming monstrous forces can be dealt with in a variety of ways (negotiated with, fled from, placated, led into traps, etc.). Gotchas aren’t fun because they don’t provide choice.


Dungeons Should Be Dangerous


The pulp stories that established the genre of dungeon crawling deal with the same problems that real-life spelunkers deal with: darkness, treacherous environments, thirst, stress. These basic concerns are fundamental to the dungeon genre.


There are hundreds of different genres and hundreds of different RPGs that emulate them. If you are trying to play in the dungeon crawl genre, you should use a rule system that supports the essence of dungeon play: danger. The focus isn’t on being the big damn hero. The focus is avoiding stepping off of a precipice and falling to your death on the stalagmites below.


Takeaway: If you want to run or play in a dungeon crawl, choose the correct rule set that emulates the appropriate genre conventions. Choose a game that forefronts darkness, hunger, stealth, and traps.


Resource Management


Resource management is core to the dungeon crawl experience. Each problem has an infinite number of solutions, but PCs have a limited number of tools at their disposal. This means that the solution to darkness is a torch, the solution of hunger is a ration. But what happens when you run out?


One of the most essential choices you can make (and choices are fun, remember?) is what equipment to take into the dungeon. These choices should matter and be the difference between victory and death.


Takeaway: Choose a rule set that makes resource management meaningful and fun. If you find tracking weight tedious, adopt resource management rules that actually seem enjoyable.


Further Reading:


  • The Angry GM’s “Click” Rule - The “click” rule provides a simple solution to put an element of player choice into traps. It can be adopted into a number of games.

  • Quantum Ogre - Choices are only fun if they are meaningful. Referees shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that “left or right” is a fun choice if both paths lead to the same conclusion.

  • Keep Dungeon Threats Threatening - A treatise on removing abilities that trivialize the essential core of the dungeon crawling experience.

  • Arts & Crafts: Morbidly Encumbered Edition - A very innovative and fun alternative to weight-based encumbrance rules. This makes resource management a cool little Diablo-esque minigame.

Josh is a writer and game designer, he blogs at riseupcomus.blogspot.com as well as The Elf Blog. You can find his games at riseupcomus.itch.io


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