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, and even some from the Sci-Fi end of the pool, must feature subterranean labyrinths from time to time. But why the hell are they always brimming with monsters?
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, on 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 the 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 creatures who seem 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…
1) There’s A Plentiful Food Source
Real life caves can be incredibly dangerous. But this mostly 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 will be 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 flesh-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, as well as fresh water sources. The key word here is ecosystem. In the same way R.A. Salvatore turned mega-caves into vibrant and populated ecosystems 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 shits 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.
2) It’s Mating Season
It isn’t often that someone accuses a Vin Diesel movie of being smart, but here goes… Pitch Black had it right.
Sitting at a cool 7/10 on IMDb, the 2000 Sci-Fi was campy, weird, and shot on a shoestring budget. But I give it credit for its monsters. 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 creatures we could all take a lesson from.
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 simultaneously 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 these otherwise 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 chest lay smashed and useless. Then, as they adventure deeper, the first trill of a giant insect echoes down the halls, and is 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.
Did your players wear their brown pants today?
3) Someone Is Using Lures and/or Rifts
I missed out on the latest Pokemon-catching craze. Mostly because my phone is so old it’s only capable of calling trading posts 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 using lures in dark parking lots and seedy neighborhoods to attract Pokemon, which in turn attracted adult children with expensive phones and disposable incomes. This is the example we should all be following.
Editor’s Note: No. No, it really isn’t.
Why is your dungeon full of monsters? Because a magical rune has been stashed at the heart of the dungeon, 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 giant ant chemicals through the dungeon. Or a rift to 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.
4) A 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 him (or her, or Ze) 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 would naturally be expected, is because they were deliberately designed. Wizard H. H. Holmes did it. Not you, the DM.
As for the motivation 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.
5) A Temporary Ecosystem Sprang Up
Nature abhors a vacuum. You know what nature also abhors? Passing up a free meal. The picture above is that 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. Just like humans who meet their fate in the briny deep, 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.
A whale fall in the ocean attracts literal monsters from the deep, albeit small monsters who pose little threat to humans. Just like the Osedax,
This creature sports a root-like mouth structure which secretes acid so it can burrow through and digest bone. It also carries 50 to 100 tiny underdeveloped males inside its tube-like body, in case it wants to get freaky on-the-go with its pocket harem.
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.
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 dungeons practically design themselves if you start from why and move forward from there.