How to design a dungeon city

Dungeons started defining gaming from the moment Dungeons & Dragons set its fantasy adventures in underground caverns. And just as dungeons remain a staple of pen-and-paper gaming, so has our D&D-influenced industry been evolving the video game dungeon for almost half a century. The text-only underground spaces of Zork eventually led to the ill-lit corridors of Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, and from there to the architectural delights of Ultima Underworld, the undead-infested crypts of Skyrim, and the claustrophobia of Rogue and Diablo.

Dungeon living

Dungeon cities are, however, a rare sight in video games. For some reason, dungeons seem to be almost exclusively approached as levels fit for traps, puzzles, and battles, and rarely to house intricate societies. Dungeons are commonly located below cities but, missing an important opportunity, are never envisioned as cities. There’s no reason why a dark, cavernous dungeon – which also contains deadly challenges and abundant treasures – couldn’t also function as a city. Bringing urbanism’s ideas to interconnected ruins, mines, tombs, sewers, prisons, and caves will not only create a sense of cohesion, but will also add plausibility to their inhabitants, whether they’re demonic or perfectly happy.

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Eye of the Beholder, for example, took place in the decidedly non-urbanised dungeons beneath the metropolis of Waterdeep, and this meant its Dwarf and Drow clans always felt a bit out of place. Then again, it’s Diablo that set the archetype of contemporary video game dungeons. Here, players were meant to exclusively encounter monsters, and all environments were focused on supporting the gameplay rather than on evoking some sort of internal organisation. Even the simple considerations of a basic ecology were often ignored in such spaces. Yet even the nastiest monster has to sustain itself, presumably with food and water. Monsters hunt, are hunted, scavenge, sometimes maybe cultivate, and are always parts of a wider ecosystem – a system not unlike the ones present in Dungeon Keeper.

An ecosystem’s relations are crucial when designing dungeon cities. If the cave trolls enjoy elf meat a bit too much, for example, it would make sense for the elves living in the dungeon to fortify themselves behind massive city walls, while also making certain they can grow enough fungi for their salad and maintain safe trade routes. Of course, we can always look at Tolkien’s Moria for inspiration: a now-dead mining settlement whose surviving halls and burial places are enough to hint at a glorious, industrious past. This is a believable settlement whose underground existence was decided for very specific mining reasons, and which is part of a wider geography. Alternatively, we can glimpse functioning, evolving dungeon societies by examining all those wonderfully detailed towns players construct in Dwarf Fortress. Places, I imagine, bound to strongly influence their imaginary inhabitants and institutions.

The genre-defining Rogue came with procedural dungeons that were excellent for hacking and slashing, but cared little for the setting’s lore and ecology

Dwarf cities, metropolises under the desert, and other takes on the dungeon city, need more than a memorable idea and a strong concept. If they’re to feel like real urban settings, they have to come with societies and histories, not just food chains. Dungeons cities have to enable more activities beyond monster-slaying or looting, while obviously also reserving sections for this exact type of experience. Whether they’re abandoned or inhabited, though, dungeon cities need to make sense. They need to be able to provide food, water, air, and connections to a wider world.

Next to these fundamentals, the key functions that will define them are creatively crucial too. Are people mining there? Are they hiding from something? Are they honouring a very demanding god? Why has this society gone underground? Is it a nocturnal species? Why does this dungeon city exist, and how are the basics of urbanism transformed to fit an underground habitat, and its labyrinthine nature?

Where the urban core lies and what it’s focused on is another important subject to be tackled, perhaps even before deciding whether the city is dispersed or barricaded as a means of defence. Maybe not all of the dungeon is populated, some pathways may have been blocked shut, and it might make sense to thematically differentiate the city by depth. What’s more, underground construction space would be at a premium, which could lead to high population densities, unique architectural solutions, cramped living quarters, and communal facilities.

Classic D&D module The Lost City features a city in a vast cavern populated by a drug-addicted species. For further inspiration, however, it’s better to explore historical reality. The Derinkuyu underground city, in Cappadocia, Turkey, is a multilevel settlement (Figure 1) that reaches 60 metres deep, and once housed up to 20,000 people with their livestock. Built by Hittites or Phrygians 3000 years ago, and expanded during the Byzantine era, it was often used as a refuge until the 20th century. Derinkuyu can be closed off from the inside, and each floor can be individually sealed with heavy stone doors. Air circulates via ventilation shafts to the surface, and wells provide safe underground water. Living quarters, granaries, wine and oil presses, chapels, cemeteries, stables, schools, bathrooms, weapon storages, and dining halls have been dug into the volcanic rock. To round off the dungeon-like atmosphere, the city’s passages are narrow enough to only allow invaders to attack in single file, and often lead to unexpected dead ends.

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