by Mike Shea on 6 January 2014
There's a lot to love in 13th Age and we've talked about it before in our interview with Rob Heinsoo our 4e Player's Guide to 13th Age, and a 13th Age review over on Critical Hits. Beyond all of the interesting mechanics in the game, 13th Age has taken a fresh look at many typical fantasy RPG elements we've all gotten used to over the years. In no place is this more clear than in the idea of the living dungeon.
In short, living dungeons are "bizarre expressions of malignant magic" they are dungeons infused with their own consciousness. They seek to burst free from the confines of the earth and spread their malevolence to the world around them.
They're also the perfect excuse to have wacky zany dungeons that make little sense in the real world but perfect sense in the high fantasy world of 13th Age.
Like many of the elements of 13th Age, living dungeons work perfectly in any fantasy RPG you run, whether it's D&D Next, D&D 4e, Pathfinder, Fate Core, or Dungeon World. Whatever system you play, living dungeons can be an excellent setting — and villain — to throw into your storykit.
The best way to develop your living dungeon is to treat it like any other villain you might insert into your game. Like we learned with Dark Sun, even an entire planet can be a primary antagonist. As an antagonist, the dungeon needs a clear motive. This comes down to the same simple question we use when developing any good villain.
What does the dungeon want?
Here are a few potential motivations for a living dungeon:
The key to a good motivation is to develop one that makes sense for a dungeon and makes sense in the context of adventuring. Your overall goal as a GM is to get PCs into the twisted pile of trapped halls — and this too shall be the goal of the dungeon itself. Why would a dungeon want PCs to go inside and cause all sorts of ruckus?
With our motive down, we move on to our next question.
How does the living dungeon work?
While we don't need a scientific system that can work in the physical world, we do need to incorporate some sort of organized system that makes sense within the context of the living dungeon and the magical world around it. How do all those crazy monsters manage to live in such cramped hallways? Maybe they spawn directly from the walls of the dungeon itself. Maybe every monster is built on the spot, by the dungeon, as needed to engage the PCs in battle. Maybe the all the cracks in the dungeon walls are thin portals to other worlds from which the dungeon can draw their beings directly into the dungeon's corridors.
Perhaps a "dungeon master" sits in the very bottom of the dungeon with a bag full of miniature monsters and a detailed model of the dungeon itself. As this "dungeon master" places miniatures in the dungeon, the monsters spawn in the same place in the full sized version. How's that for meta!
Living dungeons don't have to be physically possible, but whatever system you put into place should make sense within the context. Even if the system is completely unrealistic, it is still a system and should remain consistent.
Old-school dungeons often receive criticism for their poorly designed monster ecology. How did those evil bandits get past the trapped door that hadn't been touched in 200 years?
One way to handle this is to have monsters as part of the dungeon itself. Perhaps the dungeon simply spawns the monsters it needs. Perhaps monsters pop out of dripping pulsing eggs right out of the dungeon walls, hairless and pale yet fully armed and clothed, until they grow into their form.
In short, maybe the dungeon creates, on the spot, the very monsters it needs to defend itself or fulfill its desires.
This gives dungeon ecology an entirely new meaning.
The dungeon is a core building block of our typical D&D games. Inject into it a vile consciousness and you have something truly monstrous for your PCs to face.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.