I’ve written a fair amount about dungeon design over the last few years. Recently, I came to a startling realisation!
Good dungeons need many things: a purpose for existing, an evocative name, an ecology that actually (vaguely) works, interesting features, a decent range of dungeon dressing and more. What they also need, however, is a decent swath of wilderness in which to lurk.
Consider these examples:
- The castle in I7 Ravenloft is surrounded by wilderness rich in minor adventuring sites.
- The ruined monastery and the dungeons below in B5 Horror on the Hill (an overlooked classic) can only be reached after a gruelling trek through the monster-infested wilderness.
- The Tower of Heavens (from UK5 When a Star Falls which is another overlooked classic) stands at the centre of a great swath of hills and mountains.
- Sakatha’s tomb hosts the climax of I2 Tomb of the Lizard King, one of my all-time favourite modules. It squats amid a noisome swamp, and just reaching the place is an achievement.
Would any of them have been as good adventures if the wilderness portions were removed? Hell, no.
That said, some modules are undeniably marvellous even without a well detailed surrounding wilderness (but would have been much better with one added). For example,
- The Moathouse from T1 The Village of Hommlett is perhaps one of the greatest—if not the greatest—low-level dungeon crawl ever written. (The village is awesome as well). Sure, it’s not fancy and it’s not sophisticated, but it’s brilliant nonetheless. How much better could it have been, though, if Gary had taken time to flesh out the surrounding countryside?
- The Caves of Chaos from B2 The Keep on the Borderland is a classic adventure site. Literally millions of heroic adventurers have fought the foul creatures dwelling therein. Sure, the area around the caves does receive a little bit of design attention in the module, but it could have been so much more.
What’s So Great About the Wilderness, Anyway?
Adding an area of surrounding wilderness to a dungeon does several things:
- It creates separation (or perhaps a buffer) from civilisation. Often this gives the storylines of the dungeon more realism; after all if the orc tribe lives next to the town why hasn’t war come to the region? Similarly, if a ruined temple is to remain unexplored (and unlooted) it’s much better located far away from prying eyes.
- It creates different challenges. Rangers, druids and the like often shine in the wilderness, but sometimes struggle to bring all their abilities to play in a dungeon. Providing an area of wilderness gives those characters somewhere to be in the spotlight. It also enables a GM to use different kinds of monsters—monsters that probably wouldn’t make sense in the dungeon—and different kinds of challenges.
- It creates a transition zone. Often jumping immediately from a tavern’s comfy common room into a deadly adventure can be jarring and disconcerting. A wilderness area provides an environment in which the players can “warm up” to the adventure.
- It creates somewhere to tell the story. If the dungeon is stuffed full of orcs, undead or whatever, a surrounding wilderness gives the GM somewhere to tell a little bit more about the story. If bandits lair in the ruined castle, the party might find the nearby roads mysteriously empty of traffic or merchants only travelling under heavy guard. They may even find slain merchants, abandoned wagons and so on. Such details build flavour and may even give the party important clues about what lies ahead.
- It creates the possibility of sanctuary. Even the harshest wilderness has pockets of safety. Canny PCs can retreat to these areas—hidden caves, fortified homesteads of brave settlers and so on—to rest and recuperate without having to retreat all the way back to town. Sometimes, the PCs may even be able to get significant help at these sanctuaries.
Putting it into Practice?
All this has got me thinking about a module I wrote several years ago: The Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands. I designed it as a homage to the Moathouse in T1 and to date it’s been rather well received. (It’s also Raging Swan Press’s best selling product).
However, I’m beginning to think the module would have been much better if it also had a richly detailed surrounding wilderness area. (It could also do with a nearby town for the PCs to retreat to, and some expanded cavern levels, but that’s the subject of another post!)
What Do You Think?
Do you agree or am I talking rubbish? Let me know in the comments below.