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the missing dungeons in literature

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 14:40

D&D’s most original addition to fantasy is the dungeon: an underground nightmare maze, a place with alien rules that must be mastered if you are to survive, a place that has no good reason for existing, a place that you explore for its own sake.

In its 45 years, D&D has spawned a video game industry that’s worth more than either the movie or the book industry. Dungeons, dragons, leveling, character classes, and loot drops define video game design space. But books, movies, and TV shows haven’t absorbed much from D&D that wasn’t in Tolkien.

In medieval and modern fantasy literature, you’ll frequently find magic swords, but no magic armor; wizards, but no clerics; and dragons, but no dungeons.

It’s the dungeons I miss.

I’d watch a TV show or read a modern book about people exploring a torchlit, hostile megadungeon: solving puzzles, bashing down doors, fighting strange and terrifying monsters. I’m not talking about a show with a set-piece in a tomb or sewer: there are plenty of those. I’m talking about the dungeon as a main character.

There’s just not that much content like that. Even most of the D&D novels I’ve read are more likely to spend more time on Tolkienesque wilderness quests than on dungeoneering, with maybe a few set pieces in a tomb.

So here’s where I need your help. I just had knee surgery and I’m stuck in bed. I’m looking for book, TV, and movie recommendations featuring dungeons.

Here’s the well-known, post-D&D fiction that I can think of with dungeon-crawl settings. Let me know what I missed.


Labyrinth: This is a pretty pure example of the breed. It takes place almost entirely in a dungeon. There are puzzles and weird monsters. The rules of the labyrinth are consistent but weird.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: The series as a whole is a travelogue, although the dungeon sequences are so good that they transcend set piece. Still, Temple of Doom is the only installment which really can be described as a dungeon crawl.

Cube: Cube is set entirely in a classic death trap dungeon. It’s got the puzzle solving, the location as the main adversary, and the claustrophobic dread that comes from knowing you’re a first level character in a module for levels 8-12.


Stranger Things: (mild spoilers ahead) Stranger Things is explicitly about D&D, and in season 2 they do dungeons pretty well. The tunnels of the Upside Down teach you to keep an eye on the ceiling; to use a map instead of a trail of crumbs; and to bring lots of flaming oil. That’s pretty D&D. Still, the dungeoneering-per-minute ratio is low.


Dungeon series: During my D&D-obsessed youth, I started reading the Dungeon series, edited by Philip Jose Farmer. I couldn’t get into it. It’s called the Dungeon series, though, so I suppose it’s probably got dungeons in it?

Maze Runner: A young adult book where teens have to learn to navigate a dungeon. Fits the bill even though the protagonists spend a lot of time in the safe central camp, having teen feelings, and not out there runnin’ the maze like I want them to.


I have no clue about anime. I suppose there must be some show which is exactly what I’m looking for, right?


OK guys, what have I missed? What are the great examples of dungeoncrawl literature of the past 50 years? Again, I’m looking for something where the characters’ primary activity is exploring a series of dangerous interior spaces. Does literature like this exist?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs