Does someone have a pointer to the origin of 'crawl' in 'dungeon crawl'? I always suspected it has to do with the cautious pace, but I wanted to know if there was a definitive answer on this.


2 Answers 2


"Dungeon-crawl" goes back at least to 1982 and was based on similar slang phrases going back to the 1800's

The etymology, in short: On the Usenet groups that were popular among RPG and wargaming people in the early 80's, "dungeon-crawl" started as a piece of slang following the linguistic model of other "-crawl" slang phrases like "pub-crawl," which had been around since the 1800's. "Dungeon-crawl" got established over time as a commonly known term within RPG communities.

By way of references, the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest reference of "dungeon crawl" is:

dungeon crawl 1982 Re: SFRPs in net.games.frp (Usenet newsgroup) 29 Oct. "SF games lack the convenient dungeon-crawl scenario type, so more work is needed than in most AD&D campaigns."

and this construction appears to pick up on a similar compound construction of "[something]-crawl" (again from OED, emphasis mine):

crawl [in compound] b. A walk at a leisurely pace. beer-crawl, gin-crawl, pub-crawl: a slow progress from one drinking-place to another. slang. 1877 York Herald 28 Dec. "The project has been mooted in certain temperance circles for establishing a mission solely for women, who are to be searched for in their daily ‘gin crawls’."

So you are right in guessing that "it has to do with the cautious pace", in that the preceding "-crawl" phrases referred to activities that involved walking at a slow or measured pace.

(Note that the 1982 Usenet reference precedes D&D inventor Gary Gygax's use of the term in Dragon issue #112, which is the earliest reference listed as of now in the Wikipedia article.)

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The odds that it was used in meat space before it was used on Usenet is likely, but how to get a citation for that is kinda chancy. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 28, 2020 at 17:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Yeah, and if you can find an earlier reference you should literally send it in to OED, and they'll probably update their entry. I'm editing the title of the answer to say it "goes back at least to 1982" rather than "started around 1982." \$\endgroup\$
    – Valley Lad
    Jul 29, 2020 at 19:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, when alcohol is involved, actual crawling (the hands-and-knees kind) may be involved. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Jul 29, 2020 at 19:52

Well, looking up the etymology for "crawl" (emphasis mine):

crawl (v.) 1200, creulen, from a Scandinavian source, perhaps Old Norse krafla "to claw (one's way)," Danish kravle, from the same root as crab (n.1). If there was an Old English *craflian, it has not been recorded.

Then, the definition of "clawing one's way":

claw your way (somewhere): to move forwards with difficulty, especially by using stiff curved fingers to remove the things that are in your way

This would likely meet the idea that a "dungeon crawl", while initially thought to suggest a snail's pace, might actually mean "fighting your way" through a dungeon.


The Wikipedia article states that the "first" Dungeon Crawl was written by Gary Gygax. In the 112th issue of Dungeon Magazine, a re-print of Gary Gygax's first "Dungeon Crawl" adventure follows the Wizard Mordenkainen, and his apprentice Bigby as they delve through the Dungeons of "Some weird castle", as he put it. Countless hurdles, conflicts and puzzles had to be overcome in order to achieve their goals (of riches).

While this might not be the source for the origin of the phrase, it might help support the use.

I am having a little issue finding any hard reference to the original application of the word to the series, but until then, this is the best I can come up with

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good starting point, but could be improved by citing, maybe, when the term "x-crawl" was first used and in what context. Currently, this just reads as an English definition and etymology, with no relation to RPGs \$\endgroup\$
    – daze413
    Aug 4, 2017 at 2:12

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