Monday, June 14, 2010

An Epiphany, in Two Parts, About Dungeons

I’ve had something of an epiphany since getting to Europe. As game-related epiphanies go, it’s not exactly world-shattering, but I thought it was important enough that I should share it here with all of you.

Dungeons happen in towers, not in basements.

In Muiderslot, the first tower we entered was where they kept their prisoners. At the medieval Louvre, there was an inner tower at the castle specifically to house prisoners. Tomorrow, I’m going to one of the most infamous dungeons in history, which also happens to be the Tower of London. (Versailles did not have a dungeon; they had a much more modern prison for their prisoners, though if I understand correctly, there are other palaces within Paris that have dungeons, and all of those are in towers as well).

Tower dungeons, honestly, make a lot more sense than subterranean dungeons. If you’re going to be holding people for a long time, there are going to be some things those people need, that you aren’t going to want to have to provide for them. First would be some waste management issues; if your prisoners use exactly the same sewers as everyone else (the moat, or the River Thames, for instance), then you don’t need to worry about transporting the waste away for your more long-term residents. Also, they are going to need fresh air once in a while, or they are going to suffocate. Ventilation is not something easy to come by in medieval Europe. Pushing air around is a rather silly waste of time and resources when the people doing the air-pushing could be doing something much more constructive, like torturing people, or cooking. Also, escaping from a tower can be pretty tough; there’s only one set of stairs down, and there are guard rooms between you and freedom. Assuming you could do enough damage to your windows that you could squeeze out of them, you might conceivably jump to freedom, but I would not suggest it; Muiderslot doesn’t look like much, but those towers are break-your-legs-or-kill-yourself high. Jumping into the moat might also seem a good idea, until you remember that it’s the sewer, you’ll probably get yourself the gout, and because there’s no good medicine, you’re going to die from a fever somewhere in the next town.

The second part of the epiphany is that people don’t keep their important crap in the dungeon. You keep people in your dungeon. Those people are not the sorts of people you want hanging around your important crap.

See, when you make your way through some dungeon full of monstrous guards and pitiful prisoners, when you get to the top, there isn’t a room full of treasure. The treasure rooms are kept in the keep, in a vault, with the rest of the important crap. When you get to the top of a dungeon (because they’re towers, remember), there’s just more prisoners. Sometimes those prisoners are important, sure. They could be a sack of princes waiting for a pack of heroic babes in chainmail to come rescue them, but it’s quite a bit more likely that they’re a bunch of whiny nobles that the king doesn’t really like anymore, but they’re too important to just kill outright.
So I think we’re using dungeons all wrong. Doing a dungeon crawl is ridiculous. There’s nothing there but prisoners, guards, and maybe some kick-ass torture tools that you shouldn’t be using because you’re a fucking hero. I think if you’re going to bust into a dungeon, you should be looking to scale a tower. I think if you’re looking for treasure from a dungeon, it should be in the form of a ransom for some pretty-boy whining ducal heir or something. I think that whenever you’re running around some subterranean maze, it should be called exactly what it is: a labyrinth.

See, labyrinths are the sorts of things people hide important crap (and people, and monsters) in. They’re these huge underground (or above-ground, or flying) constructions built specifically to house some important thing or other, and that means that they are uniquely designed to be plundered by adventurers and their important crap stolen.

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