Dungeon crawls are quite literally the oldest setting for tabletop RPGs that there is; a small group of grave robbers and tomb raiders disguised as would-be heroes is a trope as old as the hobby. These days, dungeon crawls happen less often and tend to be side dressing to the rest of the game, if they ever show up, but sometimes there’s an itch to get back to basics.
Why the dungeon, then?
It’s straightforward. Even in complicated dungeons like Rappan Athuk, the dungeon itself is one of the simplest concepts for a tabletop RPG. The base idea is that an ancient (or not so ancient) dungeon full of monsters, traps, and treasure exists, and the PCs are the ones to go defeat the monsters, disarm the traps, and take the treasure. It can be complicated past that, with an overlaying plot or story, or by expanding things into the area outside the dungeon, but the core is essentially simple.
It can be as fast to prepare as you like. Even leaving aside the sheer number of premade dungeon crawl adventures and campaigns that exist and can be run straight from the book, all it takes to make a dungeon is ten minutes to brainstorm a few encounters and scribble down a map on a piece of graph paper (or freehand, if you’re feeling artistic about it.) The random treasure tables in most system books exists specifically for this reason, and most bestiaries have random encounter tables for the same reason.
You can start off with no idea and then tack on a story. The first level or two of a dungeon-crawling campaign give the GM leeway to just let their brain percolate and brew with the actions of the players and their reactions to what they find in the dungeon. Often the best plots are those the players speculate about when talking among themselves, and taking a few levels for players to speculate about the dungeon and what lies beneath can provide ample fodder for the GM. Are they thinking about how it might have been home to some kind of cult? Add a shrine to some dark god on the next level and let them get excited at being on the right track.
The players may well build their own story. Give them the chance to permanently clear an area and lay claim to it somewhere in the dungeon, and suddenly it’ll become a priority to take on the threats of the dungeon to expand and defend ‘their’ turf. Throw them a few hints of story seeds and they’ll start spinning a plot for you, complete with ideas about major villains and motivations. Give them a broken magic item and a hint that the rest of it is deeper in the dungeon and they’ll delve into the darkness almost before they can get their torches lit.
It’s nostalgic. Older players will remember the dungeon crawls of past years and feel a nostalgic glow, particularly if you let them exploit their hard-won understanding and bypass things that less experienced players would fall for. Newer players will get to talk about the experience with friends and acquiantances who’ve played before, and enjoy the feeling of finally getting what they’ve been talking about before.
It’s fast, simple, and as long as a little care is taken, fun. Dungeons are typically associated with fantasy games, but you can tuck them into any genre of campaign. A derelict space station or ruined starship is a sci-fi dungeon; the (false) lair of an evil mastermind is a superhero dungeon. Whether you tuck a dungeon in for a session or two or build a campaign out of it, you can use it whenever you need something easy to prepare and quick to run that stands good odds of being entertaining for everyone.
And last… Well. Dungeons can be as complex as you want. You can build the entire dungeon, top to bottom, with prebuilt encounters and treasure, a deep plot, and anything else you want to include. You can take advantage of all the things above in the process, and then welcome everyone into an old-school-feeling campaign with all the bells and whistles of modern game systems.
Next week, I’m planning to take a more in-depth look at dungeons; but that’s all for now! Thanks for dropping by and reading.