one monster per dungeon

I’ve read a lot of the same sword and sorcery/sword and planet fantasy that inspired D&D, and so I’ve read about adventurers exploring a lot of proto-dungeons: ancient tunnels and sewers, labyrinths left by wise alien races, and buried cities. One difference that strikes me between these literary dungeons and a standard D&D adventure is that, however sprawling they are – however many twists and turns the heroes take in the Cimmerian darkness – most literary dungeons contains approximately one monster. This rule goes back to the ur-D&D dungeon, Theseus’s labyrinth.

In this way, pulp-fiction spelunking is more like the classic D&D wilderness adventure than dungeon adventure. While a few D&D groups explicitly engaged in hex crawls, many overland D&D trips last for exactly one wilderness encounter.

Could a book be more D&D-y, or D&D be more literary? Well, a dungeon crawl of eight or ten encounters would play hell with the fast, location-heavy pace of your standard pulp novel, and most of the wandering monsters would be excised by an editor wielding Occam’s razor or Chekhov’s gun.

On the other hand, how would it feel to play a D&D game where you were exploring a big, dusty dungeon where you might, or might not, run into the dungeon’s singular supermonster? Would it lead to a) tension or b) boredom?

3 Responses to “one monster per dungeon”

  1. Peter says:

    If it’s possible to explore the dungeon, find the Big Treasure, and sneak back out with getting whacked by the big monster, sure, tension. It adds a whole new dimension. As long as the monster is scary enough that avoiding it would be better, and there is a non-monster-slaying goal involved (escape the dungeon, find the treasure, get through the maze into the secret lair of whomever, etc.) So the monster is the worst thing that could happen, and it’s not something that helps you with your goal.

    Theseus is a bad example of that, though. The minotaur is the quest item (find him, kill him) and escaping the maze is the tough bit. The maze is the monster there, if you follow me. A better example might be the sea maze in front of Imrryr, where sea raiders hope to hell they get through the dungeon to the prize (sack the dreaming city!) without encountering the monster – the golden battle barges. Smaug’s lair, too – Bilbo wants to find the treasure, not really find the dragon. Getting rid of the dragon is fine but everyone would rather not be the one to fight it.

    But it’s just a big maze I have to explore and hope I find the monster I want to kill . . . eh, that doesn’t sound too fun.

  2. Jason Hurst says:

    I find myself more and more really only having one monster when I create a dungeon or cave. A central monster that is.

    But I think like this “one monster” can include a race of monsters, like troggs or goblins, etc.

    Now I know this is breaking away from your article that’s focusing on those stories where you venture into the cave of the three headed hell hound to gather the boots of flying and all there is in the cave is a three headed dog and boots.

    But how I usually write dungeons is put in a central “monster” be it a group of goblins, etc. Those pesky goblins are not going to be up to any good, so their failed experiments, their tinkering with some ancient item of power may have brought forth other monsters they now have to share their living space with and I just go from there.

    I think the one monster one cave idea works better in books because in literature you can take your time to build mood and not only do you get the power to describe you get the power as a writer to explain what’s going through the protagonist’s mind. You can describe outcomes of what it means if this or that happens.

    In a game all you generally get is to describe the surroundings and it’s up to your players to perform the actions. They want to “do something” and not just hear you ramble on about a cave (if they wanted that they’d just read a book) therefore little time would actually be spent with the one cave one monster idea.

  3. Rachel says:

    I think a group of monsters is definitely within acceptable limits, or even a small variety of monsters. Think of Moria.

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