[IKRPG] Dungeon Dwellin’ Fools

Zak said, in the comments: *

I have been experimenting with “top-down” methods for dungeons: start with the factions and architects of the dungeon and THEN move into traps and treasures and vermin, so the rationale is sorta pre-loaded.

Wait.  You mean that isn’t how everyone does it?

It just seems self-evident to me that the dungeon structure was built by someone to serve some purpose.  Even if they started with natural structures like cave systems, those are being used and modified in particular ways by the creatures that inhabit them, and anything more conventionally traps-and-doors-ish has assuredly been made that way.  Loading the rationale before you start designing – whether in terms of ‘who built it’ or ‘who lives in it’ just seems obvious to me, otherwise you end up with some sort of incoherent pit of voles.  Actually, that’s too coherent: you end up with a pit of voles, with an alligator at the bottom, and the only way in or out is by helicopter.

To be fair, you can make mix-and-match design choices and have it work, with the right excuse…
Image from http://ukgameshows.com

Anyway, this gives me an excuse to stake out some territory I’ve been meaning to work on for a while vis. dungeons and dungeon-like environments.

I have a bit of a problem with dungeons, not least because they are standard-issue fantasy roleplaying fare and I happen to concur with this man in the belief that ‘standard’ and ‘fantasy’ are two words that create something of a clash of ideas.

It’s one reason I’m so taken with the Iron Kingdoms.  The RPG version of the setting is an interestingly multicultural place where ethnicities sprawl across national boundaries and some of the typical ‘monster’ races are as likely to live down the road and be after your job in the foundry as they are to be off in a cave somewhere flinging rocks at passers-by.  The internal tensions between traditional and urban goblins and trolls, between expatriate and isolationist elves and nations which welcome ogres as fellow citizens and those who think they’re lumbering great dangers to themselves and society are genuinely quite interesting to me, as is the whole cold war setup between the great nations and the general industrial revolution in progress feel to the world.*

The ‘problem’ with the Iron Kingdoms as a D&D setting is that there isn’t much room for the standard ‘dungeon’ in there; the usual trappings don’t quite fit with a pseudo-Edwardian world characterised by the struggles between great nations.  There’s certainly room for the odd dungeon – Orgoth ruins spring to mind, although their being relics of a dead civilisation means they’re automatically behind the times, and that’s sort of the point of them – the world has moved on.  Dungeon-like environments are also a possibility, with most of the IKs’ cities having some sort of expansive sewer or catacomb near to hand, but that’s still ‘network of tunnels’, and I think I want something different again from that.

A while back, when I was spending a goodly chunk of my inheritance and the taxpayers’ money on an MA, I attended a series of seminars on ‘the City’, including one about industrial monuments.  In our world – or at least in Europe, where such things are possible – medieval ruins are preserved as ‘heritage sites’ and are sites for tourism.  Curiously, industrial ruins – abandoned factories and derelict stations – are either left to rot, unvisited and unmourned, looming over the bustling cities around them, or are regenerated, turned into chic apartments and expensive yuppie restaurants and charitable-foundation art galleries and the like.  Canal networks, like the ones sprawling around three of the cities I’ve made my home in the last few years, are brilliant for spotting these, as well as being quiet, neglected spaces that link sites for exploration together; the ride to Birmingham takes me past quite a few abandoned or very quiet industrial yards, right on the outskirts of town.

I am rather taken with the idea of treating such sites as the equivalents of brooding castles and festering dungeons.  They don’t even necessarily have to be ruined, and they certainly don’t have to be underground; one thing that the WoW thing does quite well is construct dungeons themed around particular factions and adversaries with implicit narratives, a great many of which have the suitably labyrinthian** structure despite being technically open to the sky.  I want to do something like that – have the players exploring a refinery or factory belonging to a rival faction, or an abandoned industrial park in a town that’s been ransacked by Tharn or something.  In a setting characterised by industry, I want my dungeons to be… industrial.  In a setting that runs on cold wars and simmering factional tensions, I want my dungeons to be factioned.

That’s why I wander around taking photos of factories a lot.

Do you see what I see there?  Multiple levels.  Crumbling, dangerous structures.  Potentially many entrances and many different orders of encounter.  Can be placed on the outskirts of a town, or potentially further afield, near the resources it uses.

Of course, there is a downside.  The Iron Kingdoms aren’t post-industrial, and so the majority of their factories are still running, still in working order.  Dereliction in the Iron Kingdoms isn’t necessarily the result of long abandonment, although there are areas of the territory where that’s possible.  It might, conceivably, be the result of war, or at least of deniable border skirmish involving rogue elements or mercenaries that were OF COURSE not in the employ of the neighbouring country – one of my favourite IKRPG scenarios concerns navigating the front lines of an urban warzone that’s just starting to go cold again.  It might be neglect, maintenance forsaken for the love of the profit margin.  It might be a secret facility, abandoned when its mysterious patrons had to give up their work or risk disgrace.

But who says dungeons have to be derelict?  What is it about ruined, obsolete territories that makes them the default sites for adventure?  Is it the mystery, the sense that anything could be happening in there?  Is it the history, the chance for the players to step out of the present (which might explain the default-to-pseudomedieval aspect of things)?  Is it the implicit narrative, the sense that something has happened to make this place empty and abandoned?  Is it harder to suspend disbelief and let the adventurers in to explore freely?  The original dungeons were always a long way away – one thing about the WoW thing is that Ragefire Chasm and the Stormwind Stockade only make sense the first time.  Then again, the first time’s enough for a conventional tabletop game that doesn’t involve farming instances for phat lewtz, as long as the initial explanation of Why This Dungeon Is In Town makes some sort of sense.  Context, with these, is everything.

* – I seem to spend ever-increasing amounts of time responding to stuff Zak has said.  It’s beginning to worry me.

** – My powers are clearly waning: I had to look that up.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

You may now commence belching

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