Foul Dungeons

Have I created this sense of dungeoneering somehow being wrong by aligning the act of entering a dungeon with the playing of certain games? I’m not sure I can take sole responsibility for it, but I think it bears consideration.

I find myself hankering for a dungeon crawl, but somehow in my mind this equates to having a dirty thought. On the other hand, how can that be true? When I go to sites like RPGNow, online purveyors of roleplaying materials always seem to have loads of maps and adventures that cater to those who favour subterranean environs. The indie gaming environment seems positively engorged with simple Old School games that support the sort of stereotypical view of gaming common in the 70s and 80s.

I admit I may simply have created a stereotypical activity aligned with a certain type of game – like people who play 4th Edition D&D or Pathfinder must spend all their time trailing around the musty depths of the Underdark. I’m 100% certain I have fabricated this vision. For every dungeon adventure published, in series like the Pathfinder Adventure Paths by Paizo, you can probably find another one (or a greater ratio) set somewhere above ground. You can, afterall, adventure in almost any environment and many genres don’t even have dungeons in the strictest sense. Yes, you might have a science fiction game set in an underworld, sewer, or claustrophobic hive complex, but I’m not sure that strictly equates to a dungeon.

Or does it? In the broader sense, is a dungeon actually a specific thing? If you have a series of encounters connected across an area doesn’t that basically amount to a dungeon? If I travel through the sewers, meeting mutants, rats, beggars and hideous slime beasts, how does that not count as a dungeon? If I throw in a necromancer at the end of the labyrinth, plotting from the stinking depths to raise an army of darkness from the corposes dumped in the fetid waters does that differ from another necromancer planning to do much the same thing from the midst of a crumbling underground den in the back of beyond. The guy in the sewer probably deserves some respect for having a better plan, as a swarm of undead rising from the sewers will likely meet less resistance than a shambling army heading towards the city walls.

I suppose that using the term ‘dungeon’ doesn’t help, because a gaming dungeon and an actual historical dungeon have very little in common. A gaming dungeon really represents a type of environment, a common type of adventure setting, populated with creatures, traps, treasures, and one or more megalomaniacal would-be overlord. A historical dungeon basically amounted to an underground jail, torture chamber or perhaps a vault for secure storage. I doubt it had anything else to offer.

In the mood for dungeoneering, I have mulled over the game to play with, and after juggling thoughts of Old School systems, I might use Maelstrom. The Tudor backdrop for Maelstrom amounts to quite a short background in the era over a few pages – otherwise, effectively, the game offers up a low magic quasi-historical setting not unlike many other Old School games. My familiarity with the system and desperate urge to tinker with it seems to fit my need.

So, now I just need to overcome the feeling that spending time in a dungeon somehow undermines my serious roleplayer credentials…

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