What is a “Dungeon”?

7 January, 2022

design-for-a-stage-set-showing-the-interior-of-a-fortress-or-dungeon-061ac6So, my wife and I were talking with some other gamers at our local game store, Tyche’s Games, as you do.  The people we were talked mentioned that their campaign did not not have dungeon and then described what their campaign did have . . . which sounded just like a dungeon just under another name.

Which lead to a discussion among my wife and I about what defines a dungeon.  I think I know what defines a dungeon, in the classic Dungeons & Dragons sense, to me and which I will elaborate on in a moment.  But what does the term dungeon mean to you?  What images does the word conjure?  Is there anything that you immediate think of, for good or ill?

Now that you have your thoughts in mind.  Let me tell you what my definition is:

A dungeon is any geographically constrained location that has an objective that the characters wish to obtain.

Now, let us look at those two parts:

First, geographically constrained, a dungeon exists in a fixed place (even though that place itself may be mobile such as a ship or cloud fortress) with limited means of egress and ingress, this may be because it is underground (traditional), a dangerous fae forest surrounds it, it is a cloud castle floating high above the world or many, many other things.  But the fact remains that there is a cost for leaving it in time or resources (or both) so that continuing to push on is often a necessary course of action.

Second, has an objective that the characters wish to obtain, this can be as simple as money and as complex as the campaign demands but there is something there that the characters want and they are not likely to give up until they obtain it or are so beat down that they cannot continue.

There, a simple and practical definition.  So, while I rarely use the “underground lair build by a wizard and stocked with puzzles, traps and monsters just to protect his labratory” in my campaign, I do use what we (GMs and players) would see are recognizably dungeons quite often, even if they are not the term that the characters or other people in the game world would use for them.

Dungeon-like structures that I have used recently in my games:

  • An inexplicably abandoned dwarven underground city with haunts and hollow guardians.
  • The barrow of a hero-king with tests to try and find a worthy successor, and his nemesis, a hag, trying to interfere with anyone attmpting to complete the tests.

What dungeons have shown up in your games lately?

Notes:  Every now and then we should discuss the terms we use in roleplayer so that we know that we are all talking about the same thing.

Image Design for a Stage Set Showing the Interior of a Fortress or Dungeon found on PICRYL, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is in the Public Domain.


One comment

  1. A tavern basement? Dungeon.
    The ancient halls of an abandoned dwarven kingdoms? Dungeon.
    A cave where trolls hide from the day? Dungeon.
    A tunnel of ice carved through a dead lake of ice? Dungeon.

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