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There is perhaps nothing more iconic in fantasy gaming than a perilous expedition into the dark and unknown. Dungeons—be they dank crypts or forgotten temples—beckon to brave adventurers, who descend into the dungeon in order to claim lost wealth, defeat monsters, and achieve glory. Those who are strong, clever, and lucky enough climb out of the hole victorious, laden with gold and drenched in the blood of unfathomable beasts.
Dungeons Have Dangers: First and foremost, a dungeon is a deathtrap. It's a place of danger and terror, where every flagstone and doorway may conceal a lethal trap. The dangers may differ from one dungeon to the next—a cave network might be home to vicious orcs, a tomb could be crammed with poisonous traps and blood-drinking ghosts, and a wizard's tower may be enchanted with magical symbols of death and suffering—but they are always present, always waiting for their next victim.
Dungeons Have History: Dungeons are, for the most part, fallen places. Only lunatics and monsters set out to build a dungeon for the sole purpose of luring in adventurers and butchering them alive. Instead, most dungeons were originally something else, such as massive tombs, elaborate shrines, or labyrinthine factories. A dungeon's original purpose often defines the kinds of perils one might face inside it, and understanding the reason for a dungeon's existence can help a wise adventurer navigate its dark corridors—and uncover hidden secrets.
Dungeons Have Monsters: Dungeons may be abandoned, but they are rarely, if ever, uninhabited. From orcs and goblins to slimes and even stranger horrors, all manner of living beings flock to dungeons. An adventurer must brave the brutish monsters and nightmarish ecologies of the underworld to survive in these places. Worse, dungeon denizens are fighting in their home territory. They know the cramped confines of their lairs, with all those traps and secret passages, far better than adventurers do, and they generally offer no quarter to those who dare to intrude.
With all these horrors, why brave dungeons? There are many reasons, but one is paramount: Dungeons have treasure! A lucky adventurer might find gold, jewels, and magical relics amid the burial goods of long-dead kings or the stolen booty of orc raiders. The lure of treasure has led many adventurers to violent and untimely deaths in dungeons, but so too has it made other adventurers rich beyond reckoning.
Anything could be waiting on the other side of that door. Ready your sword, take up your 10-foot pole, and seek your fortune!
A simplistic definition of a dungeon is a place where danger and reward are intertwined in stone. This definition may sound too simple, and that's because it is. In truth, there are many types of dungeons out there, each with different horrible ways to reward or kill adventurers. Many dungeons fall into one or more of the following categories.
Conquered Dungeons: In a conquered dungeon, invaders have taken over and despoiled a once-civilized place. The remains of a town or castle can become a perilous dungeon with alarming swiftness, especially if the new denizens fortify the place with deathtraps and guardian monsters. Conquered dungeons also often feature haunts or unquiet dead, especially if the former inhabitants were slaughtered during the invasion. For all their perils, conquered dungeons are invariably rich in spoils—some valuable prize drew the conquerors here to drive out the original owners, after all, and adventurers are often more than happy to return the favor.
Fortress Dungeons: Castles, barracks, forts, ramparts—fortress dungeons go by many names. They all once served as the headquarters for a much grander operation or continue to do so in some fashion or another. A fortress dungeon is protected from intrusion by traps and trained sentinels, who are typically either the original builders of the dungeon, conquerors who took the spot by force, or monstrous beings that have claimed the abandoned ruins. Since these protections are usually designed to keep external forces out, the hardest part of exploring a fortress dungeon can often be just getting inside. Stealth becomes paramount, and if its guardians are numerous, simply being detected might spell the end for an otherwise intrepid party.
Guardian Dungeons: These lairs were built to contain or protect something important. A pyramid, for example, is a guardian dungeon made to protect the body of the pharaoh interred at its heart. A treasure vault, protected by a hundred deadly traps, is another form of guardian dungeon. So too is a prison built around a bound demon. In each case, the original designers may have left a safe path through the dungeon, but that secret was likely lost long ago. Guardian dungeons are perhaps the most likely to be protected by a wide variety of traps as well as eternal sentinels like undead, golems, and bound outsiders.
Curious Dungeons: Beyond the traditional dungeons types explored in this section, several other, more extreme varieties exist.
Living Dungeons: These places are (as the name suggests) dungeons that are in some way alive, such as the bowels of titanic monsters or a biological city on some sinister plane of existence. Veins and intestines are the corridors of these pulsing lairs, and the inhabitants are parasites or other trapped denizens. Defeating a living dungeon usually means finding a way to kill the place itself.
Magical Dungeons: This category refers to impossible dungeons that can only exist through arcane power or via divine intervention. Floating cloud citadels, towers made of solid fire, and hellish prisons where the very walls are filled with the souls of the living are apt examples of magical dungeons. Even the laws of reality cannot be trusted in such places, increasing their peril.
Megadungeons: The vast complexes colloquially referred to as “megadungeons” are unreasonably large lairs that sprawl across many levels and sublevels. Most consist of hundreds of chambers and countless miles of twisting, unmapped corridors. The sheer size of these labyrinths means that each layer of these indomitable locations often features its own distinct protectors.
Natural Dungeons: Some places are dangerous by virtue of natural geography and ecology. Labyrinthine cave networks, impossibly thick thorn-forests, treacherous swamps, and meltwater tunnels in the heart of a glacier are examples of dungeons that formed naturally and were populated by the local fauna. Wild beasts, monstrous plants, and other unintelligent monsters like slimes and oozes typically inhabit these lairs, and the perils are usually geological or environmental in nature. Nearby communities of civilized people give natural dungeons a wide berth because of their inherit danger, but monstrous beings that seek refuge from the outside world need look no further than these prime defensive locations.
Underground caves provide homes for all sorts of subterranean monsters. Created naturally and connected by labyrinthine tunnel systems, these caverns lack any sort of pattern, order, or decoration. With no intelligent force behind its construction, this type of dungeon is the least likely to have traps or even doors.
Fungi of all sorts thrive in caves, sometimes growing in huge forests of mushrooms and puffballs. Subterranean predators prowl these forests, looking for weaker creatures feeding upon the fungi. Some varieties of fungus give off a phosphorescent glow, providing a natural cavern complex with its own limited light source. In other areas, a daylight spell or similar magical effect can provide enough light for green plants to grow.
Natural cavern complexes often connect with other types of dungeons, the caves having been discovered when the manufactured dungeons were delved. a cavern complex can connect two otherwise unrelated dungeons, sometimes creating a strange mixed environment. A natural cavern complex joined with another dungeon often provides a route by which subterranean creatures find their way into a manufactured dungeon and populate it.
Overrun Dungeons: These are places that were recently infested with dangerous creatures, such as a sewer now home to swarms of evil ratfolk, a necropolis overrun by undead, or a prison conquered by insane cultists. If these pests can be eliminated, an overrun dungeon can usually be reclaimed for its intended purpose. Understanding this original purpose is often vital to navigating the dungeon, since its foul inheritors may lurk in any nook or cranny. Fortunately, these intruders are often the only lethal danger in the dungeon, as overrun places are not often built to house lethal traps. Unfortunately, most of these places also weren't built to house treasure, so the rewards for cleansing these places and returning them to their former dignity take more intangible forms.
Ruined Places: These forgotten locations were ravaged by the forces of time, the elements, or something more sinister, and become dungeons when dangerous creatures come to dwell there. The perils of such ruins are not limited to the resident monsters, since collapsing ceilings, unstable floors, flooded chambers, and rubble-choked hallways can be found at nearly every turn. Ruins have perhaps the widest range of potential threats—adventurers may encounter undead or guardians from the days before the place fell into ruin, as well as whatever vermin and wandering monsters have made their homes amid the desolation in the intervening centuries.
The four basic dungeon types are defined by their current status. Many dungeons are variations on these basic types or combinations of more than one of them. Sometimes old dungeons are used again and again by different inhabitants for different purposes.
Storage Areas: When people want to protect something, they sometimes bury it underground. Whether the item they want to protect is a fabulous treasure, a forbidden artifact, or the dead body of an important figure, these valuable objects are placed within a dungeon and surrounded by barriers, traps, and guardians.
The safe storage dungeon is the most likely to have traps but the least likely to have wandering beasts. This type of dungeon is normally built for function rather than appearance, but sometimes it has ornamentation in the form of statuary or painted walls. This is particularly true of the tombs of important people.
Sometimes, however, a vault or a crypt is constructed in such a way as to house living guardians. The problem with this strategy is that something must be done to keep the creatures alive between intrusion attempts. Magic is usually the best solution to provide food and water for these creatures. Builders of vaults or tombs often use undead creatures or constructs, both of which have no need for sustenance or rest, to guard their dungeons. Magic traps can attack intruders by summoning monsters into the dungeon that disappear when their task is done.
The following sections discuss the most common features found in a dungeon or other subterranean area. They are broken into the following categories:
Masonry walls—stones piled on top of each other, usually but not always held in place with mortar—often divide dungeons into corridors and chambers. Dungeon walls can also be hewn from solid rock, leaving them with a rough, chiseled look. Still other dungeon walls can be the smooth. unblemished stone of a naturally occurring cave. Dungeon walls are difficult to break down or through, but they're generally easy to climb.
Dungeon walls are most commonly in the form of masonry and are usually at least 1 foot thick. Often, these sorts of walls sport cracks and crevices, and sometimes dangerous slimes or small monsters live in these areas and wait for prey. Masonry walls stop all but the loudest noises. It takes a DC 20 Climb check to travel along a masonry wall.
Iron walls are placed within dungeons around important places, such as vaults.
Paper walls are placed as screens to block line of sight, but nothing more.
Wooden walls often exist as recent additions to older dungeons, used to create animal pens, storage bins, and temporary structures, or just to make a number of smaller rooms out of a larger one.
As with walls, dungeon floors come in many types and construction.
Doors in dungeons are much more than mere entrances and exits. Often they can be encounters all by themselves.
Doors come in three common types of construction (and several more fantastic types): wooden, stone, and iron, and can be single or double-doors.
Most doors are made of wood and sometimes reinforced with iron bands, but in places where wood is limited or nonexistent, stone or other more exotic materials are sometimes used.
Hinges: Most doors have hinges, but sliding doors do not. They usually have tracks or grooves instead, allowing them to slide easily to one side.
Stone walls, iron walls, and iron doors are usually thick enough to block most detect spells, such as detect thoughts. Wooden walls, wooden doors, and stone doors are usually not thick enough to do so. A secret stone door built into a wall and as thick as the wall itself (at least 1 foot) does block most detect spells.
Doors are bottlenecks in dungeons and doorways are often the setting of desperate battles. Clever combatants can use them to their advantage.
Many double doors have one or more locks, to stymie explorers and such areas of importance are normally protected by good (or better) locks, traps and even magical wards on occasion. Attempting to open a lock takes a full-round action.
Doors might be locked, trapped, reinforced, barred, magically sealed. or sometimes even just stuck. All but the weakest characters can eventually knock down a door with a heavy tool such as a sledgehammer, and a number of spells and magic items give characters an easy way around a locked door.
Attempts to literally chop down a door with a slashing or bludgeoning weapon use the hardness and hit points given in Table: Doors. When assigning a DC to an attempt to knock a door down. use the following as guidelines.
For example, wooden doors typically have the following DC's to break:
Not all doors are created equal. Some may have been damaged by previous explorers while others are as good as new.
Use the following table to determine a door’s general condition:
1 Only to hearing-based Perception checks.
Stairs are the most common means of traveling up and down within a dungeon. a character can move up or down stairs as part of their movement without penalty, but they cannot run on them. Increase the DC of any Acrobatics skill check made on stairs by 4. Some stairs are particularly steep and are treated as difficult terrain.
Stairs come in many different shapes and sizes, including steep, gradual, precipitous and spiral. Stairs in dungeons don’t even have to be made of stone – some can be of wood, bone or other magical or fantastical substances.
Staircases are important parts of most dungeons, enabling easy passage between the various levels of the place. In occupied dungeons they are often one of the areas which sees the most traffic as the place’s denizens emerge to fight, hunt and trade. They are therefore perfect places for a GM to place hints, clues and other interesting features that highlight what lurks in the connected dungeon levels.
This section presents the basic characteristics of different kinds of stairs; use the information here in conjunction with that in later sections to breathe life into your dungeon’s stairs.
Gradual stairs are easy to move on and have the following noteworthy features:
Natural staircases are just that – the result of natural processes and are not crafted by intelligent creatures. They are rare in dungeons, but relatively common in natural caverns. Natural stairs can be gradual or steep, but are rarely spiral in nature.
Precipitous stairs are particularly steep and perilous to traverse:
Steep stairs can be perilous to traverse:
Designed as defensive features, spiral staircases provide cover to defenders against attacks originating either from above or below them (but not both). They can be gradual, steep or precipitous and have the following additional characteristics:
In dungeons, stairs are most commonly constructed of stone but on occasion, adventurers may discover stairs of wood or even bone. In deep dungeons, they may even find stairs constructed of more outlandish materials such as magically hardened glass.
The statistics below represent individual steps of a stair.
In many dungeons, stairs simply lead between two levels, but there is nothing to stop you designing a staircase that links several different levels. The characteristics and features of such stairways can change between the connected levels; remember to add several different dressings and features into such a stair.
Section 15: Copyright Notice: Dungeon Dressing: Stairs © Raging Swan Press 2012; Author: Creighton Broadhurst.
There are many hazards possible in dungeons and caverns including cave-ins, slimes, mold, fungi, and others. A large list of potential hazards commonly encountered is listed on the Traps & Hazards page.