Saturday, 9 October 2010

Dungeon Ecology

Its been well over a year since I last posted. Lets hope I have a better track record this time. The War of the Burning Sky campaign folded after six months due to my work commitments, but links to it can be found under my alter ego, "Calavingian", on You'll also find links to my current games, such as the Dragon Age campaign I've been running on and off this last year.

In this session, I wanted to record an idea for Dungeon Ecology I recently suggested on the Huge Ruined Pile blog (there should be a link to it on this page, as its one of the sites I follow). Dungeon ecology has been a huge issue for years. After the first gamer asked his DM how the hell a 90ft dragon managed to squueze itself through the 10ft wide dungeon corridors, I'd like to think his second question was: what the hell does it eat?

Granted, the answer was probably "adventurers", but what else did it eat? Moreover, what did it's minions eat? Various supplements over the years have sought to address the issue by having plenty of "prey" animal encounters, such as giant rats, mushroom rooms, bats, spiders, centipedes and so forth, but rarely did you encounter enough of them in the dungeon to support a hundred odd humanoids - even assuming they had control of a safe route to the surface for foraging (and most dungeon denizens don't).

Then again you had the issue of waste disposal. To be frank: where did these monsters shit? Or more importantly, where did they put all that shit? Sure a few dungeons had latrine shafts, privies and the odd shit-smeared crevasse, but what did they do when these holes finally filled up? Sure shit burns, but it makes a hell of a lot of greasy, choking smoke in the process. And ventilation in an underground chamber can't be that great. What monster wants to choke to death on burning shit just to keep warm or dispose of waste?

Fortunately, in a world of magic and mayhem such as that found in most D&D settings, there are options. One I have used in the past -and plan on using again very soon- is outlined below:

Scattered throughout the dungeon are various magical rooms. Each of these rooms contain a number of barrels. Some of these barrels contain junk or waste materials, such as urine, faeces, scraps of iron, ragged strips of leather, food scraps and so forth. Others contain fresh water, gruel, newly smelted iron ingots, tanned leather or iron rations. Each barrel only ever contains one type of resource or material waste at a time.

Each day, at midnight, the contents of barrels full of "waste" are magically recycled into fresh, new resources of that type. Broken bits of iron or steel are replaced with fresh ingots. Faeces is replaced by pottage or a watery gruel. Urine becomes fresh water and so forth. Removing the barrels from the room will not duplicate the magic: purely because these are normal, everyday barrels. It is the room itself, not the barrels, which are enchanted.

And in case your players get any funny ideas, any material produced by these barrels (except for material that has since been "reworked" in such way, as as swords forged from the iron or food that has been consumed) disappears upon being removed from the dungeon.

Hence, the intelligent monsters within have a reason to stay there, despite the presence of enemy tribes and adventurers). Moreover, they have a reason to war and feud with one another for control of these rooms (rather than fighting over the actual resources themselves). Logically, this means every monster lair (or at least, every lair occupied by intelligent beings) needs to have control over at least one such room. If the tribe doesn't, it will perish. Unless it can convince another tribe to allow it access to the magical rooms they control - a possible means of establishing an internal power structure within the dungeon, with weaker tribes such as kobolds and goblins acting as servants/minions of more powerful tribes in return for access these rooms.

If players can seize control of such a room (and keep it) then fresh forays to town for new supplies become a lot less frequent, allowing them to spend more time in the dungeon. Of course, this is balanced by the time they must now spend defending this room from other monsters that want it for themselves. I suspect that this is how most tribes ending up in the dungeon: they moved in, captured such a room, and have been busily using the resources it creates to defend themselves (and it) ever since. Perhaps one tribe is actually the degenerate descendants of an adventuring band that got all caught up in the idea of defending "their" supply room long ago?

Actually, thats not a bad idea. But what have they degenerated into? Neanderthalls? Grimlocks? I'll take the time to have a few thoughts on that one, then spring it on the players later.

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