Why are there so many monsters in your dungeon?
I realize there are certain expectations in tabletop games. I understand that a dungeon in Dungeons and Dragons is bound to be harboring horrible beasties–otherwise why play the game? I get that every RPG, from Pathfinder to Savage Worlds, must feature subterranean labyrinths from time to time. But why the hell are they always brimming with creatures?
Do monsters in the RPG world eat rocks? Undead warriors guarding crypts, I understand. But what business does a Hellhound have roaming the blank, featureless corridors of an isolated cave? Why is a goblin tribe living so far underground, away from a ready food source, or inside a glacial mountain with nothing growing on the surface? Or, an even worse offender; inside an active volcano? What are the giant spiders eating? And what does the Minotaur do for fun between murders? Does he just stare wistfully at the bloodstains in his corner of the cave, year after year, reminiscing about adventurers he’s slain?
Why are there so many monsters in your dungeon? This is such a tiny, insignificant question in the grand scheme of the game. Yet 90% of dungeons I encounter have a bafflingly diverse array of subterranean life, which seems to have no biological imperative to eat, reproduce, or nest. It’s as if their entire existence is centered around their desire to kill player-characters.
Please, for logic’s sake, for sanity’s sake, tell me why there are so many monsters in your dungeon. And if you need an excuse to give to your players, consider one of the following…
There’s A Plentiful Food Source
Caves in real life can be incredibly dangerous and teeming with life. But this comes with one important caveat; there must be a plentiful food source. With food comes danger. If there’s a huge colony of bats nesting in the cave, we can reasonably assume something is feeding off the piles of guano they leave behind, or on the bats themselves…
And that giant mound of guano–that’s a cave monster in of itself. Caves rich with guano have a tendency to build up toxic gases, attract dangerous parasites, or even poison the air with bacteria capable of infecting the lungs and causing wounds that calcify as they deepen. I was going to post a picture of Histoplasmosis lesions, but I’m not that cruel.
Nutrient-rich fungi can play a part in cave growth too. And so can the source of your water. The key word here is ecosystem. Ecosystem is how R.A. Salvatore turned mega-caves into vibrant and populated habitats in his Underdark novels, by adding jungle-like varieties of fungi.
I know it’s tempting for simplicity’s sake to tell the players that the stone walls are bare, dry, and boring, but by stripping away the life within your dungeon you remove natural threats.
Make your dungeon rich with creatures. Even if it was originally hewn by hand. Have the dwarven holdfast overgrown with mineral deposits, bacteria, and some type of vast, poisonous animal that poops constantly, like bats. Now the players can’t ignore your boring dungeon corridors. Now they have to consider what they’re stepping in, brushing up against, and reaching into.
Pitch Black had it right.
The huge flying hammerhead lizards that infested the world of Pitch Black could only emerge from their caves once every [insert arbitrary number of years] in order to feast, mate, and return to their hole before the sun rose. It gave the movie a sense of frenetic violence and desperation, and it mirrored a few real-world species.
Enter the Cicada, our version of the Pitch Black monster. Cicadas might not have venomous fangs, deadly claws, or hard heads (hammer or otherwise) but they do mirror the monsters from Pitch Black in a more significant way. They hibernate for years at a time, and emerge from the ground in massive swarms to feast on local flora and make bug whoopie. They travel by drunkenly jump-gliding across the landscape, seemingly at random, while natural predators make a meal out of the helpless insects.
How frightening would it be for your players to encounter a dungeon that’s vast and barren, where all the traps have been sprung, and the doors and chests lay smashed and useless. Then, as they adventure deeper, the first trill of a giant insect echoes down the halls, and it’s answered by a mate somewhere back the way the party came. That’s when the swarm begins to emerge, and sing, looking for a mate…or an easy meal.
Pokemon / Google Images
I missed out on the latest Pokemon-catching craze. Mostly because my phone is so old it’s only capable of calling telegraph offices from the early 19th century. But I understand that Pokemon Go is both a) a game, and b) all about dog-fighting.
A key element of Pokemon Go that made headlines was the abuse of Pokemon lures. CNN reported on thieves and con artists who used lures in dark parking lots to attract Pokemon, which in turn attracted Pokemon players with expensive phones and disposable incomes. This is the example we should all be following. (The lures, not the robbery.)
Why is your dungeon full of monsters? Because a magical rune has been stashed at the heart of the labyrinth, and it’s attracting swarms of ghosts. Or there’s a fogger full of dragon pheromones puffing out the top of the mountain. Or someone dragged an organ sac full of queen ant jelly through the dungeon. Or a rift into the Jell-O dimension was opened in the caves and it’s spilling gelatinous cubes everywhere. An unnatural explanation is just as good as a natural one. Just make it interesting.
A Literal Dungeon Master Did It
Another option that dovetails neatly with the last example is the old “Dungeon Master” excuse. No, not you. Another Dungeon Master. One that lives within your game, and takes just as much pleasure watching party members die as you do.
Think medieval Saw. Give them an observation post hidden within the dungeon itself. Give them scrying pools or mirrors so they can monitor the party at all times, and levers to operate the monster cages sprinkled throughout your maze. The best way to rationalize to the party why your intricately-planned, intelligently-designed, grid-drawn kill rooms seem more deliberate than what should naturally be expected, is because they were deliberately designed. Wizard H. H. Holmes did it. Not you, the DM.
As for the motivations of your evil dungeon overlord, any old reason will do. They’re performing necromancy and need fresh bodies. They’re looting the corpses of their victims. Hell, just plain old sadism works fine too.
Wiki / Google Images
Nature abhors a vacuum. You know what nature also abhors? Passing up a free meal. The picture above is of a natural oceanic event known as a Whale Fall. This should be the model for your next dungeon.
You see, whales don’t naturally explode when they die. The gases trapped in their guts make them float for a short period of time before their mass comes crashing down to the ocean floor. That’s when a single organism–the whale–becomes a vast and diverse oasis of life, surrounded by dead sands and cold waters.
The osedax sports a root-like mouth structure that secretes acid, so it can burrow through bone. It also carries 50 to 100 tiny underdeveloped males inside its tube-like body, just in case it wants to get freaky on-the-go with its pocket harem. If that’s not a D&D monster, I don’t know what is.
Whale falls also attract hag fish, sleeper sharks, bristle worms, and crabs. About 75% of those already have D&D stats. And if you aren’t convinced already, consider that China Mieveille, award-winning novelist of Perdido Street Station and King Rat used this very notion to introduce magical elements to his fictional city. One of the notable features of New Crobuzon are the spires of bone that jut up from the ground and tower over neighborhoods, giving off dark magic and evil vibes. Like a whale fall, denizens of the city crawl among the remnants of that gigantic beast who died eons ago. It’s poetic. It’s interesting as a concept. But more importantly, it’s a believable excuse why there are so many monsters to be found in the labyrinth of his overgrown metropolis.
Google Images / Pintrist / Perdido Street Station
No, those aren’t from the Monster Manual. Those are just some of the dark horrors that fell out of China Mieveille’s head.
Do yourself a favor. Next time you plan out a dungeon for your players, start with why the dungeon exists in the first place. Give the party an excuse for why there are so many monsters roaming the maze, looking for bones to melt with their acid-spewing root maws. You’ll find that the dungeons practically design themselves if you start from why and move forward from there.