Creating a dungeon ‘ecosystem’

Much has been said about the value of players voluntarily suspending disbelief to make a Dungeons & Dragons game more enjoyable. Much less has been said about how to create a setting that enables players to do so.

The purpose of this post is threefold: (1) to introduce a new post category – RPG Settings, (2) to provide novice dungeon masters with information to avoid glaring mistakes in dungeon ecosystem design, and (3) to describe an “ecosystem” design tactic experienced dungeon masters can employ that can radically impact adventure outcomes.

With respect to the new category, RPG Settings will contain posts related to adventure setting design, sample settings presented in condensed form, and selected settings submitted by site visitors.

For the novice dungeon master, consider this unhappy tale from early in my game mastering “career” about setting design. I created a natural, subterranean complex with numerous passages, grottos, underground streams and interconnecting caverns. The further the player characters delved, the more powerful the monsters became, until they met with a dragon in the deepest cave! Just as I was about to regale them with a description of the fearsome beast, my own brother asked, to no one in particular, “How did a 100-foot dragon get down here? There are no other exits and we came through a 10-foot wide passage.”

Another player, presumably trying to assist me, suggested, “Maybe it’s been here since it was a hatchling.”

The conversation continued, as if I wasn’t there, from a third player: “Nah, there’s nothing to eat down here. and even if there was, where did he put 500 years’ worth of dragon poop?”

All my hard work became a joke at that point. Of course, while we all enjoyed a good laugh about it, the tense, exciting encounter I wanted to provide was forever lost.

In light of this example, it is helpful to consider that most monsters you place in a dungeon of your own design must breathe, see, eat, drink, sleep and excrete wastes in your setting, and that failing to account for those needs – unless you can find a very clever way of meeting them in extraordinary ways – will produce glaring inconsistencies in your setting that players may question. And if they stop to question the internal logic of your setting, much of what you hoped to achieve, in terms of dramatic tension and suspense at least, will be all but impossible.

Thus, when placing creatures in your dungeons, consider the following:

Breathing. Not normally an issue for settings on or above the surface, but subterranean settings need to have vents connected to the air above or a similar way to allow denizens to breathe. 

Vision. How do the denizens function in the absence of light? Having nightvision or tremorsense makes light unnecessary, but be prepared to have players try to use light as a weapon against creatures unaccustomed to it. Creatures who need light to work will need light sources; determine how they are obtained before your heroes enter the area.

Food, drink, and sleep. Feral, predatory monsters in the area probably eat rats, bats and other creatures, which in turn probably eat insects, worms or fungi. If you have predators prowling the halls, allow the heroes to see what they eat when there are no heroes in stock. More civilized creatures probably have access to the surface or subterranean cities to obtain provisions by raiding or purchase. A particularly elaborate setting may even have a basic economy, where dungeon residents could be involved with fungi farming,  fishing in underground rivers and lakes, subterranean husbandry, or resource gathering for the purposes of trading for necessities.

Wastes. While it isn’t necessary to go into great detail on this point, do whatever you can to prevent 500 years of dragon poop from accumulating.

Noted exceptions to these rules are constructs and undead who, in theory at least, can exist indefinitely in a sealed setting, as they have no life processes.

Although your players may be so excited about your setting that they may never question the particulars of how its residents live, it helps to devote the extra effort to develop an internal ecosystem, just in case they do.

For the experienced dungeon master, I offer an unusual approach to setting design through dungeon ecology: add some alien elements to that ecology and make understanding the ecosystem necessary to complete the quest.

For example, consider a party exploring a natural cave complex far below the surface; farther down, in fact, than any of the heroes have been before. Their goal is to obtain an uncut gemstone of extraordinary size, so large that the prospector who discovered it was unable to bring it back with him – all he could do was note its location on his map, which is now in the party’s possession. Periodically, the group notes an unusual fungi with pale, green caps growing in the larger caves. During the trip, they are frequently attacked by a strange race of subterranean beast-men.

Eventually, the party runs into a war party of the beast-men, whose primitive missile weapons make use of the green caps – as a paralytic poison. Thereafter, the heroes make a point to destroy the green-capped fungi wherever they find it, for obvious reasons.

The party learns that the beast-men are in possession of the gem, and prepare to assault their cavern home. Unfortunately, the beasts lair at the far end of a corridor flooded with carbon monoxide, methane, or other unbreathable gas. The corridor is too long for a hero to hold his breath, run half the length of the corridor to a guard post, defeat the guards in combat and run to the other side. The corridor has too many twists and turns for teleportation to work. And yet the beast-men walk through it with ease.

Astute heroes recognize that beast-men walking through the passage always carry a sprig of the green-capped fungi, which gives off prodigious amounts of oxygen. Suddenly, the party’s goal changes from assault to exploration, as the dungeon ecology demands that they find some of the fungi to overcome an ecological obstacle. And if they really did destroy all of the fungi on their side of the passage, they may not be able to succeed.

If you have tried this technique during one of your games, or if this post inspires you to try it, consider using the “Contact Us” page to let us know how your game went.

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2 comments on “Creating a dungeon ‘ecosystem’

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    One issue to be aware of when designing this system. Make it robust so it’s not easy to stop. If there’s a ventillation system, make sure that the heroes can’t simply stop it up and guard the door until the monsters suffocate. Or poison one river and kill all of the monsters.

    • Alric says:

      Hello again, Philo, and thank you again for your astute observations. You certainly have a crafty bunch of players over there.

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