Dungeon Defenses from the Perspective of their Inhabitants

What do dungeon defenses look like if we switch our POV to the creatures who live in the dungeon?

One figure pulls another figure towards the top of a wall.

"Lifted from the Ground" by Gustave Brion

As usual, streaming about work crystalizes some ideas and generates other ones. In this case, I was inspired to think more about traps, specifically, and dungeon defenses in general.

There are two sorts of defenses at work in the dungeon:

  • deterrents

  • threat neutralizers

A deterrent is meant to be seen and, through its very visible presence, prevent bad actors, who might transgress if they sense an available opportunity, from acting. The deterrent is the loud proclamation: there is no opportunity here, move along. It’s the sign on the lawn proclaiming protection from a security agency. It’s the prominent video camera pointing down to the main entrance. It’s the armed guards standing at attention by the gates.

Of course, mere deterrents only go so far. At some stage, there will be a determined bad actor who through craft, force, or both, will go around or through a deterrent. A threat neutralizer is needed. As the name implies, a threat neutralizer exists to prevent transgressions. The same defense can be both a deterrent and a threat neutralizer. Those armed guards? They’re both a clear show of potential force and the potential force itself.

A good threat neutralizer should, however, include hidden elements, otherwise it would not have any advantage over a deterrent. A potential transgressor, having a full view of the defense, could plan around it. A high wall is an excellent deterrent but the real threat neutralizers are the defenses behind the wall which a potential sneak-thief can't see from the outside.

In categorizing defenses, I found three broad types:

  • sentinels (creatures such as guards, animals, etc.),

  • obstacles (walls, gates, doors, etc.), and

  • traps (pit traps, falling block traps, etc.)

From the point of view of the dungeon dweller, the easiest defense is an obstacle. It requires some outlay of resources during construction but, afterwards, repairs aside, it needs no other investment. The simplest obstacle, a wall, doesn't require specialized skill to implement: just pile stuff up and you're done. It might not be pretty, it might not stand the ultimate test of time, but, on a practical level, it will work.

Walls and obstacles are great but you generally can't wall yourself in entirely. You have to be able to get in and out so there's at least one built-in weak-point of the wall: the entry. Having a back door or other exit is usually a good idea but now you've got two entries to monitor. This doesn't even touch the assumption that, in a dungeon, you can build your wall from floor to ceiling and thus can be less concerned with breaches outside the entryways. You're going to need an additional, different sort of defense.

Sentinels are a good choice. Unlike obstacles, however, they have an ongoing cost. They have to be maintained. With a couple of exceptions (this is why constructs and undead are such nifty servants!), they need to be fed, they need to be armed, they need to sleep. If they're on guard, they're not taking part in other, potentially, vital tasks. You probably can't afford to keep enough sentinels on duty to cover all the ground that, ideally, you'd like them to cover.

You want potential trespassers to see your sentinels, at least some of them. They make excellent deterrents. This means they are likely deployed to the most visible areas. But what about those other areas, the back door, the secret escape tunnel? This is where you install your traps.

Traps are great. Like obstacles, it's a one time investment of resources to install them. You don't want to put them in high traffic areas because they would quickly not only become exposed but inevitably, if only through accident, cause injury or worse to your own. But in a little-trod emergency tunnel? Somewhere no one, or only a few, are ever supposed to be? It's perfect.

The trap still poses a danger, to everyone. We need some method of marking it out to those few who are authorized to transit these areas. The tools we have for this are: symbols and patterns. A simple pattern or symbolic motif, or a combination of both, is easy to internalize and, if it is tied to the dominant culture or religion, or some subset of same, it will be readily recognizable to insiders but not outsiders.

If we follow this logic, this means that, from a dungeon design standpoint, the most high traffic areas will be protected by sentinels and obstacles and the less active, restricted, or secret areas, will be protected by traps. Of course, this is merely a starting point and any number of exceptions and combinations can exist. Magic will certainly change some of this calculus but it is worth thinking about some of these grounded topics when you build these locations:

  • how many resources do they have?

  • which areas are the most accessible?

  • which areas are they trying to protect?

  • which combination of obstacles, sentinels, and traps will offer the best defenses within their resource budget?

Here's the stream that kicked all this off:

All of this work is for writing a dungeoncrawling module for my Do Anything D6 framework which is free (PWYW) on itch.io.

Questions or comments? Head over to the forums!