What comes first? The Dungeon or the Wilderness? Or to put it another way, I think it is worth wrestling with the question, how do the game structures related to leveling-up and the envisioned endgame of a RPG interact with building the world in which the action and characterization of PCs take place. Game-wise, we know the old D&D answer to “What comes first?” is the dungeon. Not just because it’s right there in the title with primacy of place, but by an attentive reading of the earliest publications of the game (1974-1981). The booklet in the original rules set (1974) is titled The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (note the order). The boxed sets of 1981 follow this pattern: the Basic Rules focus on the dungeon and come with the Caves of Chaos, and the Expert Rules focus on the wilderness and come with The Isle of Dread. The expectation then was that the dungeon was where intrepid PCs began – the more of them, the better. They took porters and other hirelings with them – the more of them, the better. PCs faced terrible monsters, traps, and puzzles, and because of the lethality of the threats and the excessive tastiness of the PCs, they avoided combat and dying as best they could in a bid to make off with as much loot as they could. Minimize risk; maximize loot. Repeated success in this business meant one day a PC could build their stronghold or tower, carving out a piece of the wilderness to civilize for their very own. Then the PC could engage in the above-ground bid for power: the game of lords.
If you missed this answer, it was right there in the level titles from the little brown booklets through the bifurcation of the game into the Advanced and Basic+ traditions. Domains & Domini, if you will, once you hit that sweet level 9.
One can object that this simplifies the reality of the game, but the structure is certainly there. It is the implications of this logic that gnaw at me. Sure, it makes sense from the perspective of the wargamers who were first conceiving of the game, but as a mythopoet or subcreator I am more interested in this: what sort of world-building sense does it make? By way of response, I’ll be pursuing two lines of thought here: One that makes sense of the structure as-is, and one that reverses it. First up is the reversal.
Dungeons: Your Personal Gateway to Hell
Everyone loves The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld.* If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing and come back to finish this ramble later. The consensus that Philotomy Jurament’s (Jason Cone’s) essay is a must-read is well-deserved, in my judgment. Now, presuming that you’ve marked, learned, and inwardly digested it, I will proceed.
The hero’s journey into the underworld is a mytheme, that is, it is a type of mythological motif found across the mythologies of many cultures. The technical term for this descent is katabasis. Inanna, Gilgamesh, Osiris, Persephone, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux, Hercules, Dionysios, Odysseos, Aeneas, and many others (usually gods or demi-gods) make the trip to the ultimate destination, that undiscovered country, because it is the greatest beyond that we can conceive of. It represents all the limits of humanity and of the world that we know, and so it provides the ultimate yardstick for heroism. No greater opponent can be overcome than the enemy that has overcome all. Hel! Marvel’s Thor should just take out a rental down there, for all the visits he and his comrades make.
With these lofty forerunners in mind, first contemplate the sort of horrors that make their home in the dungeon and then conceive of it as the antechamber to the Underworld and include its denizens proper — the sorts of things demi-gods would battle. Now, turn your mind to the fauna of the wilderness – lions and tigers and bears – oh my! In this light, it seems a trifle ridiculous that PCs would start out testing their mettle in the dungeon and then move on to the wilderness. Anyone who knows well their monster manuals and their bestiaries can mentally confirm this. (How many early campaigns of our youth bragged of killing demon lords and dukes of Hell and even gods?!) So the first and most obvious thing to do is flip D&D’s script. It is not surprising that MMORPGs will have you grinding through giant rats infesting some woods. Based on the analogy of our world and the logic of fairy tales, would-be heroes start out in the womb of civilization (however deceitful and decadent), venture into the more dangerous wilderness, and then finally brave the most dangerous Horrors Below. This option is probably what would attract my world-building and gamemastering most of the time, if I were to guess.
But there are kernels yet to be harvested from the original schema that can serve world-building well. Again, I find it hiding in plain sight in the name (and name-order) of the game. Dungeons, then Dragons.
A Wilderness of Dragons**
If you want to make the wilderness more dangerous than dungeons, you can’t do better than the titular threat, not merely eponymous but iconic. In this scenario for world-building, you largely remove dragons from the dungeon. It makes sense: they get too big and they need to eat a lot when they aren’t sleeping. Imagine this: if you were an ancient white dragon looking for a home, K2 would be a great place to roost. Why bother with constricting dungeons as a colossal-sized white dragon when you can live in the extreme environment that you favor and no one is likely to set foot there except once in that place’s existence? A dragon that has to wait until the timeline analogy of AD 1954 to be disturbed is going to be either very happy or already dead by then. Meanwhile, all about is its range for feeding, lording over, looting, and general terrorism.
The examples can be multiplied according to the standard dragon types. For an ancient red dragon, a remote volcanic island would make for a lair that is easy to keep clear of competition. An ancient black dragon making its home in a vast wetland would maintain a wide border of overland travel that would cause an army to falter even before the first victims of malaria start to fall. As masters of strategy, tactics, magic — and above all, the land itself — dragons create entire ecological and economic systems that keep them on top of the heap, with just enough left over for others that in combination, would leave those who would be willing to oppose them for their own gain as outliers. And even more so those who might actually have a chance at success.
In this kind of scenario, wildernesses as we are imagining not only have their normal threats, but they will remain wilderness even in the face of population pressures and feudal armies because they are crowned by immensely powerful and intelligent top predators in their catbird seats.***
Building a world in which wilderness exists largely because there are dragons who lay waste provides a problem for which there will be no easy solution. Lords would tend to come to an economic understanding of where the boundaries are and make sacrifices and tribute to dragons as necessary. Back to our first example: they can’t just take their army up K2. Even if they could, cost-benefit analysis will rule it out. Thus the implications of wildlands ruled by dragons are rich for game play.
Furthermore following the feudal model, dragon offspring would, over time, carve out fiefdoms in the wilderness controlled by their dame or sire. They’d make easier targets, roosting in difficult but realistic locations – including, sometimes, dungeons. And who would generally be motivated to make trouble for such a status quo? Lords who are already on top of the socio-economic heap or those greedy scum looking to claw their way out of the dungeons and into the big time? I feel like I’ve found at least one solid answer for myself by pushing the inherent structure of D&D, and hopefully one that may inspire others.
By the Tail
I find it worth reflection that D&D has traditionally conceived of adventuring as something that PCs do initially in dungeons and then in the wilderness as they move toward endgame. While this structure goes against my most basic world-building instincts, going against these initial instincts in pursuit of alternative world-building answers that are still verisimilitudinous yields a creative and rich alternative to the simple ways in which, it seems to me, the adventuring world has often been conceived before. I don’t think it changes my preference, but I would never want to be locked into one way of building my game settings. I now look to my current S&W game and question what light this may shed on it. I’d be interested to hear others’ experience in this matter or their thoughts on my proposals.
* Yep, this has come up before ‘round these parts, and early on, to boot. Thanks, Allen.
** It is a happy coincidence that the festschrift for Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has just come out with this title.
*** I realize that there is a long-standing discussion about the power of dragons in classic D&D, but this has been solved many times over and I assume readers can fix this for themselves.