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I'd like to make a "dungeon" for my party to explore, but it needs to be something other than an old-school "dungeon". Underground hallways and rooms with creatures in them have been overdone for us. What else could we try?

Some criteria:

  • It needs to be a place you can explore. These players love exploring dungeons and mapping them out as I describe what they see.
  • It can't be too interconnected. For example, a town is too interconnected -- you can easily get to anywhere from anywhere else. Streets in the town go everywhere. But in a dungeon, there are only a few routes available.
  • It can't be underground. We've done a lot of that lately.
  • It has to work in a human-centric Iron Age setting. Think Celtic tribes and ancient Germania. Castles in those days were still hillforts -- not too exciting to explore.

An answer that works for a no-magic setting would be great. It's easy to add magic into a realistic environment, it's hard to take magic away from a magic-requiring environment.

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I feel like with the criteria you've outlined, nearly any structure with more than a room or two would do. I'm really trying to figure out what you're getting at here, and all I'm coming up with is "just use a castle and move on" –  wax eagle Jul 24 '12 at 2:12
    
Maybe useful: gnomestew.com/tools-for-gms/… –  Daenyth Jul 24 '12 at 15:55

16 Answers 16

up vote 64 down vote accepted

Your options are sort of limited here. You're asking: "In an age where people have not built any large above-ground structures, what sort of large above-ground structures are there?"

You need to either reach out to fantasy or think outside the box.

Natural, mazelike terrain

  • Open-air passageways through an icy tundra, or cracks in its ice. Effectively a cave minus the ceiling.
  • Mountains with winding goat-paths, and a spattering of caves.
  • A spirit-touched ravine with winding paths between its walls.

Natural obstacles to make crossing land hard

  • A land teeming with rivers.
  • Great islands separated by vast water. Some may be connected by natural bridges (sandbars, stone arches connecting two cliffs), others by artificial bridges (sturdy bridges, vine/rope bridges, ziplines). Alternately they may be connected by underground passageways or nothing at all, with reliance on boats or other transport to cross - if anyone even lives there to offer such services.
  • Somewhere with lava flow - current with glowing rivers, or recent with hot stones. Mind you, Lava comes in a lot of forms and could be tricksy - that page alone has a couple of photos of lava sealed beneath rock, so that it might just look like rock (or mysteriously flowing rock if it's not still) - until you step in it.
  • Heavily overgrown forestry.

This section isn't comprehensive - other answers have provided locations that could fit here and I'm not sure I should pilfer them for the sake of making this list comprehensive.

Dwellings created by others who can build big things

  • A raft city built on a lake. In the ancient Celtic age, this may have been quite a technological feat and wonder, and might be a natural expansion upon Crannogs. The Wiki article will fill you in on how common they were, but they're a fairly ancient concepts (though common only in Scotland and Ireland). Come to think of it, I wonder how it's anchored - it would be a shame if anything were to happen to those anchors...
  • An ancient, crumbled city - ancient man, perhaps. Dilapidated castles, caved-in houses, no dungeons and a lot of missing rooves giving you open air.
  • A faerie dwelling. Celtic mythology was full of spirits, and if your setting's anything like theirs, yours might have its fair share of them too!
  • A city at the top of giant trees. Pathways connect the trees, as many or few as you want. Instead of large stone walls separating you from another point, there's just a large gap and a long fall - unless you have the resources to cross the gap, or climb down and back up again.
  • The Lost City of Atlantis.

Send them elsewhere entirely

This is definitely cheating, but can let you have some fantastic structures that can't exist in the real world. Whatever those would be. Like the Maze of Tzeentch.

  • There's a place where another plane meets this world and the players have to venture in.
  • The heroes experience a spiritual journey in their sleep - ooOoOOoooOOOOooo!!
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+1 for "Mountains with winding goat-paths, and a spattering of caves" That just made my dungeon today! –  Vethor Nov 2 '12 at 21:43
    
For a natural mazelike take a standard videogame that takes place in the wilderness. The character is in the outside, and still must follow a path, so it's more like a dungeon. The downside is that many times those obstacles are not very believable (A pair of rocks can be an unsurpassable wall). –  Flamma Mar 8 '13 at 11:05

A flooded city. All the wimpy structures are gone, the first floor of all the stone ones is underwater. The water is hazardous (disease or perhaps predators.) You can only go where people have managed to rig crossings over narrow points.

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This is really cool. Especially since the flooded city could have been perfectly fine earlier in the campaign, and you come back to find it like that... –  doppelgreener Nov 3 '12 at 0:55

You haven't mentioned the magic level in your setting, but if high magic; the inside of a monster. I'm thinking the party gets swallowed by a giant sea monster, Jonah and the Whale style. You explore the belly, and intestines and such, and have to fight monsters that aid its digestion. There could be a large shipwrecks in a stomach (or multiple stomachs) to give some diversity to the terrain. You could even force them to go into the monster to retrieve something from a wreck. Alternatively...chomp.

Another idea is the inside of a giant tree; Something like The World Tree or something like that. Or a dungeon set in a giant beanstalk; instead of a few of large, flat levels, you could have a lot of smaller vertical levels that connect in semi-random manners, so you have to go up two levels at once, then down one and such.

I freely admit my inspiration for this is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Lord Jabu Jabu's Belly and The Deku Tree.

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Actually, the OP added a comment on his original post that specified he was looking for dungeons that would work in a no-magic setting, which I imagine is why most of the answers here don't use large quantities of fantastic elements. Also, thanks for reminding me to steal more dungeon concepts from the Legend of Zelda games. –  GMJoe Nov 2 '12 at 2:41
    
@GMJoe Should I delete my answer then, since it wasn't was the OP was looking for? –  Canageek Nov 2 '12 at 3:31
    
Well, the OP didn't actually specify it in the question, and your answer could be useful to other GMs, so I'd say leave it up. (mxyzplk did add the extra requirement to the question, but only after you posted your answer. As there's precedent for pre-edit answers remaining on substantially edited questions, I think you should be fine.) –  GMJoe Nov 2 '12 at 4:34

The traditional dungeon is really a literal 'node-path'. There are encounter locations represented by rooms connected by linear hallways. Really, the rooms are just physical places where combat, plot-points, or background color / descriptive bits can be handed out. The hallways are just the way you get the players from one node to the next.

With this thinking, you can define nearly anything into a node-path "dungeon". The other answers give some brilliant ideas. The only thing that's really important is that the paths are non-deviating. I.e. the players can't just choose to turn left between nodes 8 and 9 and wander off your mapped out path.

You don't necessarily need "structures" to achieve this. Really all you need is some mechanism to limit deviation. For instance they're on an island and the bridge washes out. Or a cliff-side village reached only by boat, and only when the weather permits. Deserts, mountains, swamps, storms, and so on are all excellent ways to remove the ability to deviate.

Understanding this, you can get more creative. The limitations don't even need to be physical aspects. Time constraints are excellent tools in this regard. Let the players think they have the entire city to romp and play in, but let them know they need to get from the tavern to the pillory in 10 minutes and to the docks before the town guard arrive and you've effectively put them on a node-path, without making them feel so constrained.

You can even use time as your "node-path". Instead of defining your events to physical places, tie them to points in time. A strange mist traps the players in a narrow valley where the local townspeople speak of a madman on the hill and rumors tell of the dead returning to life; today a witch gives the players strange advice... in 2 days a pack of ghouls will attack... 7 days from now the prince is to be wed, or so he thinks... 13 days from now is the next full moon...

Then try mixing and matching. Let the players map out the ruins of an ancient ship on a desolate island, with ghosts that play out some macabre history that they players must experience and solve over a period of days as they work to restore the ship to seaworthiness, then a series of ocean encounters as they try to return with their treasure to the mainland.

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+1 for an insightful answer that goes beyond just listing examples and gives us some tools. –  doppelgreener Jul 24 '12 at 13:23
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+1 Nice answer. I'd only add that eliminating paths entirely isn't always necessary, if there are consequences. For example, they can go through the briar patch, but there is a cost: scratches and potentially lost equipment. Or they could ask the architect who built the duke's castle where the secret entrances are, but he might alert authorities. –  E L Aug 10 '13 at 18:48

A cliff city. Inhabitable areas are carved out and connected by a FEW paths, not heavily interconnected like a normal city is.

Of course magical flight could bypass these limits and let you go anywhere.

Alternately, a very jagged version of the Himalayas. There are small valleys that are flat enough for people or monsters to live in. However, mostly it's peaks extending up beyond the altitude they can operate at. Connections are limited to areas where the passes are low enough they can breathe while crossing them.

Flight won't make a lot of difference (there probably are some passes that could be traversed by air but not on the ground) but anything that negates the need for air lets them move freely.

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What about the "boat towns" like those on the Yangtze or in the port of Hong Kong?

Here is a little write up for my long-defunct Pulp campaign. See also this pic for inspiration.

To get back to the "dungeon" feel the actual place should have been deserted, or the inhabitants have been dead for a long time, or whatever... you still get a set of interconnected "locales" that have to be traversed along specified paths... and it's not underground, and it can match the tech-level.

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You could use spaceships, a magical flying fortress, a normal ship or something like that, depending on the Genre.

It would be a dungeon for itself, but not necessarily underground.

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Notice that the question asks for something possible in a human-centric Iron Age setting. –  Joe Jul 24 '12 at 15:59

It might be a few thousand years later, but something like Chichen Itza or Machu Picchu. But the complexity of structures in Egypt (e.g. the Pyramids) lend itself to the idea that with enough slave labor anything is possible.

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I've heard that the modern theory is that slaves weren't trusted to work on the pyramids. Apparently, they were considered too likely to lay curses on a tomb's owner during the construction process. It's considered more likely that the pyramids were created by paid labourers, who could be trusted to have more professionalism. Then again, since we're talking about fantasy games, feel free to make slaves the explanation. –  GMJoe Jul 25 '12 at 5:37

Some possible ideas:

  • Dimensional wormholes; connections between planes need not be just a simple "pop in pop out" affair; you can wander twisting space/time tunnels and fight star vampires and the like as you wander.

  • Similarly - a cross planar dimension. The "ether" is often used as a parallel dimension where creatures such as undead and the like reside in a shadowy quasi-mirror world of our own; this can give once familiar places a much more spooky feel.

  • Dreamlands; A realm of nightmares; curse the party, have them wander their nightmares and twisted realities where escherlike constructs are real, see here for more information.

  • Their own home. Shrink the party; and have them explore their own house in micro-dimension fight giant creatures like bedticks. This may make the party a bit more hygenie concious!

  • Mountain ranges and passes; the twisting roads and pathways of a mountain constrain as much as a dungeon, unless the party really feel like falling several thousand feet. Add in some caves and settlements as "rooms" and you have an open air complex to explore.

  • Other large non-dungeon buildings; Cathedrals, Pyramids, Libraries, Warehouses, blocks of flats, castles, workhouses, factories...

Underground places, for completeness:

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Note that most of the tunnels under Paris are not catacombs. Only a small part of said tunnels are used to store bones. The tunnels were make to extract building stones. Link in French, including maps and photos... –  Sardathrion Jul 24 '12 at 9:44
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I didn't know that, thanks for the link :) –  Rob Jul 24 '12 at 9:59
    
I really would love to explore said tunnels :P –  Wayne Werner Jul 25 '12 at 12:21

How about a high-altitude mountaineering adventure? Maybe the heroes need to find a lost city, or rescue someone from mountain bandits, or simply find a route from point A to point B (for trade, or scouting for a military maneuver).

Once they're on their way, they'll be naturally constrained in which directions they can go because of the nature of the terrain - you have stick to the ridge lines, because travel in the valleys is too treacherous, due to glaciers (and their attendant crevasses, icefalls, seracs, and other hazards). If they've got an experienced guide, then they can maybe avoid the most dangerous areas. But what if the guide is injured/killed/runs away?

Once you climb a peak, you may find that you're not able to find a path going in the right direction, and you have to go West to get North, for example. If the weather changes, the "safe" route can easily become blocked, and you're forced to take a less desirable route.

Meanwhile, you've got bitter cold, whiteouts, winds that can pick someone up and toss them off the mountain, little to no food resources, avalanche danger, snow blindness, altitude sickness, snow bridges and cornices that can collapse out from under them.

And then there's the wildlife living on the mountains, from the mundane (wolves, bears, mountain goats with an attitude), to the troublesome (goblins, giants), to the truly terrifying (Giant Eagles, Air Elementals, Yeti).

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Might I recommend nests or a hive? If you really want to bend their brains, how about something Escheresque? You've likely seen the optical illusion of stairs that converge (drawn by MC Escher). Think crazy things like that. Then go back to using a castle.

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Several come to mind without violating the Fantasy level of tech.

  1. Forest platforms (ala the Ewok City on Endor in Return of the Jedi, or the Wookie cities in Christmas in the Stars).
  2. Maze-like canyons and cave systems with open ceilings in parts.
  3. island-cities like Venice or pre-conquistador Tenochtitlan.
  4. Hanging cities like some of the abandoned Anasazi complexes
  5. Roadless towns like some Anasazi and some early Eastern Mediterranean cities.
  6. gate-networked rooms (if magic level is high enough)
  7. Flying islands (again, if magic level is high enough) ala Zelda: Skyward Sword
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Some ideas:

  • I built a city in a ravine. The ravine was about 300m across and twice as deep. A town had been cobbled together inside the ravine. It was a maze of stairways, catwalks, multi-level plazas, rooftops, and arcades. A river flowed through the bottom of the ravine providing food, water and sewerage disposal. Two cranes at the top of the ravine acted as a ferry to transport vehicles across the span. The cranes were slow, intentionally, to generate forced tourism. The locals might know their way around, but good luck to your party navigating a 3-dimensional city. It was great when I had the villain burn it down around them! Something like this:

    Brazillian Shanty Town

  • A fortress of towers filled with magical portals. Each portal may require a different activation. Each leads to a different room in another tower. From each room, you can see out a window and gauge your position. However, the trick is your ultimate destination can't be reached by portals alone. You need to traverse the outside of the tower to that one room you can't seem to reach. This room contains the final portal required to reach the inner keep.

  • A behemoth of a ship that is a city in itself. Although, being below decks is akin to being underground. What is the ship home to, and why did they leave dry land?

  • Traversing islands on a large, foggy lake. Limited visibilty and water currents may lead them in unexpected directions. In fact, what's causing currents in a lake to begin with?

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A city is a great idea and from that, a slum right outside the city is a natural extension. I've seen a few movies where police have to fight through a large, elaborate slum and it seemed like it would be a great setting for a RPG. It becomes a natural maze that, unless you really know the area, seems to shift and change the deeper you get. Baddies could move a few boards around and easily escape or block in the players. Garbage piles hiding weapons & traps, innocents to protect, and buildings that easily collapse like traps. –  Curtis Jul 24 '12 at 21:30
    
@Curtis, one of the first traps was an upper-level house rigged to fall onto a major arterial bridge the PCs had to cross. Unfortunately for me, two of the PCs decided to jump across rooftops and sprung the trap before they were in the danger zone. Also, in almost every battle, a hole was punched through the floor leaving a gaping hole to the levels below. –  Hand-E-Food Jul 26 '12 at 23:18
    
Time to add a "Parkour" Dexterity/Wisdom based skill to the PCs (and NPCs) in your game :) –  Curtis Jul 30 '12 at 20:13
    
Holy crap that's an awesome idea. Might work best with a vertical map. Or both (!) –  As If Mar 7 at 5:39

Here are some suggestions that would be different enough that they might make things interesting:

  • Swamps. This works best if they are bog-like and have islands of solid ground linked by pathways that are surrounded by quicksand/mud/water. This also allows for unexpected surprises if they get too close to the edges.
  • Rooftops of a city. Say, for whatever reason that the ground levels of the city have been abandoned due to a poisonous cloud-type spell gone awry, and that the rooftops are occasionally connected by planks and other such things. If it is a recent occurrence, and the planks are weak enough, a given path may look feasible, but may be treacherous for the person wearing 30 lbs of armor and another 20 lbs of weaponry.
  • Forest paths that have been worked by the inhabitants to form paths, rooms, etc. Bonus points for the creatures to be small and be able to move from one path to another through very small holes in the forest "walls" of the paths that the PCs can't get through.

edit to add
- How about a city after a serious battle? Lots of streets could be booby-trapped, be filled with impassable rubble, or have some fighting or barricades that they need to find a way around.
- In a similar fashion to the swamp above, how about a desert with sinkholes, or a filed of geysers and really hot water?

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Why not a forest? Iron Age forests weren't the tame things we stroll through these days. They were big, dense, and frightening. Outlaws hid in them. Monsters real or imagined prowled through them. The remnants of long-dead villages lay silently waiting for explorers to arrive.

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Fairy tales and fantasy are fond of spooky dense forest, but if realism is a consideration, note that dense forests are generally quite easy to travel through. There's very little underbrush when the trees block most light and absorb most of the water. Generally, the fringe of a forest by a track or riverbank may be impenetrable, as it gets ample light. Steep slopes + brush + wet vegetation would make travel much harder, whether there are trees overhead or not. –  Jon of All Trades Jul 24 '12 at 10:35
    
"Dense" was probably not the right word. I meant to call to mind primeval forest, the characteristics of which vary quite a bit. –  Erik Schmidt Jul 24 '12 at 17:01
    
@JonofAllTrades you're wrong about dense forest - at least in terms of relatively unspoiled wilderness. Try hiking through Alaskan forests off the roadgrid (or even some close to it) - the game trails themselves are often hard to negotiate, and that's the easy part. Going off the game trails, the way is soft, filled with unpleasant plants, and often quite soggy. Of course, this is evergreen forest or mixed forest, not dense deciduous... –  aramis Jul 24 '12 at 18:01
    
It depends on your definition. "Dense forest" implies a dense canopy, therefore very little light at the forest floor, therefore very little undergrowth. A classic example is the "park forest" of the Pacific northwest. –  Jon of All Trades Jul 26 '12 at 3:42

Dungeons are often man-made, so why not try something with a more natural feel, like an overgrown forest, jungle or swamp?

If it's sufficiently wild and untamed there'll be more than enough vast thickets and fallen trees that effectively block off routes and reduce the connectivity.

Mist or fog can be used to reduce visibility and it can be very easy to get completely lost if you're not careful, which might be appreciated by your mapmaking explorers.

Reasons to venture into such areas can be as a search for ruins, treasure, or a simple case of having to get from A to B with this terrifying swamp in the way.

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