The dungeon is a quintessential setting for many tabletop RPGs. Heck, it’s in the name of the biggest TTRPGs out there. “Dungeon Crawl” is a term dating back to the earliest days of the hobby when it was just beginning to differentiate itself from the miniature-based war-gaming that spawned it. It evokes some of the more ubiquitous imagery that one might imagine if they heard the name Dungeons & Dragons.
But what precisely do we mean in the D&D space when we say “dungeon”? Because it is more than just a place to hold and torture political dissidents. If anything, so few dungeons that are referred to as such are literal prisons that its original meaning is nearly lost in this context. A dungeon in the TTRPG space is, broadly speaking, a labyrinth or maze-like construction containing multiple chambers. At times these can be as simple as the shrine puzzles in the game Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or as complex as the 106-chamber nightmare that is the Doomvault from the Tales from the Yawning Portal book from Wizards of the Coast.
The draw to dungeons in gaming is their contained nature. Designers create distinct limitations in the form of dungeon chambers while players have their choices reduced from Do Literally Anything to Make it Through the Chamber. On both ends it forces a narrowing of focus that can help give a game a sense of progress and achievable stakes. A common issue in many TTRPGs can be the decision paralysis that comes with a sandbox game where your imagination is the limit. When literally anything is possible, how do you choose?
This question actually leads back to the question I posed two paragraphs ago because what we deem a dungeon in a TTRPG can have a broad definition. While initial instinct draws the mind to narrow stone-made corridors with flickering torches and iron fixtures, this is just the start. In many of the oldest D&D adventure modules we see this very thing in a myriad of forms. Forgotten tombs, ancient fortresses, monstrous strongholds. Each with a unique flavor of monsters or regional environment but few that deviated from the standard brick and mortar or cave styling. There were exceptions of course. I’ve written in the past about one of my favorite old school modules Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and how it turned a retro-futuristic spaceship into a unique dungeon crawl.
That one in particular is a great example of thinking outside the box in creating an interesting dungeon of your own. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the classic formation and the gods only know how many times I’ve used it myself, but one of the fun things about dungeon design is breaking the mold. In all likelihood you are going to end up with hallways with traps, rooms with monsters or puzzles and hidden treasures galore but giving it a unique flavor can be the difference between memorable and rote.
Even mini-dungeons can be spun on their head into oddities that your players will continue to talk about. Pinocchio found himself in the belly of a whale once and while there is a lot of questions about the biological consistency of it all, something like that can make for a fun (if gross) miniature dungeon. It is all about broadening your thinking on what exactly qualifies as a hallway or chamber.
Rope bridges and tree-top platforms. Steel catwalks and hovering orbital . Claustrophobic tubes and pressurized pods leagues beneath the ocean. Some of these may sound more science-fiction than fantasy but that is part of the fun! Mixing in different genre trappings can make dungeons strange and captivating while still maintaining their basic structure. One of the largest monsters around is the Tarrasque (as seen here), so if one happens to have died in the hills nearby why not turn its whole body into one massive, albeit nasty, dungeon! Who knows what kind of parasites it might have that would be considered monsters to normal sized folk?
My point with all of this is that rusted chains and ichor-covered stone is a classic that will always play in a traditional high-fantasy TTRPG but simply reskinning them into something more out there can immediately make them more interesting. And that is before even considering logical extensions of these more fantastical settings. Traps and puzzles more focused on the unique setting, as well as more far-out monsters, can heighten things even further.
So the next time you find yourself creating or running a dungeon crawl, start thinking on how you can shape it into something familiar yet new. Think about other games who’s setting you connect with and try to employ those tropes. Remember that in a TTRPG your only true limit is your imagination and that includes when you limit yourself to a series of hallways and chambers!