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Dungeon Crawling? : Caves
by Delphine Lynx November 4, 2002

The purpose of this piece will be to examine the different factors which go into the creation of a Cave style dungeon, and is intended as a companion article to the others in the Dungeon Crawling? series.

"If there hadn't been women we'd still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girl friends."

    - George Orson Welles

Caves make excellent dungeons, for the simple reason that they exist. This may seem a bit cryptic, but look at it this way. To construct a complete dungeon is a massive undertaking, involving coordinated tunneling, bracing, construction of walls, etc. The number of individuals - or even institutions - capable of affording such a construction is limited, creating a situation where it can be very difficult to, within reason, justify the existance of the dungeon to be raided. That's where caves come in.

Among the advantages of a well designed cave is that it offers an opportunity for dwarves and similar characters to utilize their racial abilities; many characters of these types rarely get to use their senses to full potential. Even in a MUD where the benefit to these characters is limited to infravision, a cave still caters nicely to that. What's more, if desired by your MUD, the dwarf could be made to become an integral party member, as the setting provides a perfect venue for the classic set of Dwarven abilities (however rarely MUDs may bother to duplicate them); navigation abilities and other senses neatly serving the auxiliary role that a thief plays in the typical trap filled dungeon.

In order to properly discuss my theories on the creation of good cave like dungeons, I will first put forth some thoughts on each individual aspect. Not only will this serve to cement some of the concepts I will later refer to, but it will, I hope, serve to give you additional thoughts which may help in designing your own caves.

We will begin with the entrance, for, barring teleportation, imprisonment, or some other Act of God, the first the characters see of the cave will be its entrance. As such, we will start with that, and as with everything else presented here I will elucidate through examples upon which you may then base that aspect of your specific cave.

  • Obvious but not without merit is the high profile wide open cave entrance one is used to seeing. The advantage here is that the characters can progress into the cave immediately, without worrying about what they'll do if their descent line breaks, the portal closes, etc. While some groups will be all the more wary because of it, an entrance like this will typically set players a bit at ease, and works nicely for new players who may not have specialized equipment at their disposal.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum will be the entrances through the bottom of a body of water. At the least it will require a good swim to get in, or possibly even magic. Further, by forcing them underwater, you deprive them on the familiarity that comes from simply walking through an entrance or down stairs, as well as quite a bit of gear. How many fighters can dive and maneuver through a tunnel with full plate and an entire armory on their back? Play on this. Make their entry easy - so long as it's on your terms. They will then be within what's most likely an extremely dark and damp cave, with wet torches and few supplies (assuming your MUD incorporates such into its swimming rules). Again, the exact opposite of the suggestion above; with this style entrance, players are ill at ease the moment they enter the cave.
  • Ah, one of my favorites, the cliff side entrance. There's just something alluring about making players scale a fifty meter cliff only to descend twice that after they're within. As with the underwater entrance, this style of entrance provides both risk and a limit to the amount of equipment that can be brought in, though obviously without the necessity of dampness. This can make an especially good lair for creatures capable of flight, or just superb climbing. Further, it provides an environment where a thief will be extremely useful in gaining entrance without resorting to locks or traps - both of which will be rather rarer in a cave than in the typical dungeon. Provided you want to avoid rappelling (which, of course, many MUDs do not support), it is still possible to create the same effect with well written 'down' descriptions.
  • One of the most unpleasant entrances for a player will be the sort where they simply don't know what kind of entrance it was. Whether taken in blindfolded, unconscious or through some form of teleportation, the effect is the same - there's no known way to backtrack. Effectively, even with a hundred possible forks in the path, the players are backed into a corner from the get go. They have nowhere to retreat which is likely to be safe. In fact, in such a case it may be best to play up the confusion, adding more and more paths to the cave in question, creating a feeling of never having a chance of finding an exit. For the moment, however, suffice it to say that the unknown entry method is not only viable but potentially very interesting, and should be seriously considered as an eventual plot device in a quest.
  • Perhaps one of the most cliche of cave entrances is the straight, vertical drop into a seemingly bottomless hole. The only way in, a thin rope dangled into unseen depths, rappelling down into the perpetual darkness, the only light the torch you're desperately trying to keep away from your climbing rope. There's a reason it's become a cliche. But that's not what I utilize it for. The 'cool' factor of rappelling down into the cave is, in my opinion, just about equal to that of rappelling to access a cliff face entrance. Rather, given the unknown nature of what's below, and the possibility of it being a one way entrance, it's possible to easily raise the level of supposed difficulty before even introducing the players to the cave's denizens.
  • The last entrance I'm going to discuss is that pushed through from a dungeon of another type. While caves, as aforementioned, can be used for those villains who need a dungeon but may not have been able to afford one, they also serve admirably as links between other dungeons, or simply extensions thereto. As such, it's not very difficult to imagine a possible entrance being through an existing dungeon. Or, perhaps even better, an exit within a dungeon. Nothing like spending days attempting to escape a cave, only to wander right into a cell.

The list goes on, of course. But the above, in my opinion, exemplify the basic types you're likely to find, though the variations are endless. After all, you may need to rappel down a cliff into a castle where there's a lake with a cave at its bottom.

So the players are now within the cave. And the first thing they're liable to notice is the light within the cave, or the lack thereof. What's often neglected, though, is that even after having established a source of light, it's unlikely to be complete light. Unfortunately, MUDs do not represent this well; the following suggestions are based on a light source granting the player complete visibility, and are thus there as a retroactive factor in descriptions.

  • Attempt to play off of shadows. Rather than using them periodically by mentioning that 'you see shadows playing off the walls', use them instead to repeatedly tell the players about movement and threats (i.e., as part of room programs rather than in the descriptions themselves). And then, just when they start to get bored, sloppy, and start to ignore them altogether...Why, that's when it isn't a shadow at all.
  • Don't necessarily forego man-made lighting entirely. Especially in a setting where it's a cave that's somehow connected to a dungeon, it's perfectly reasonable for sconces or some other form of lighting to be placed throughout the cave. In addition to the obvious function of providing light, these may also serve as beacons, alerting the players that there is something different in the areas where they're placed.
  • Try to use natural light sources, ranging in possibility from exotic lichen to long holes leading up to the surface, or even glowing fish and other underwater growth in underground lakes. The more natural light sources you can reasonably work into the cave, the better the effect, for then the players have more to focus on than the same drab rooms one after another. The other thing to remember about natural light sources (specifically holes) is that, for better or worse, they serve to connect one to the outside world. As such, they may well ruin any effect of complete isolation or surrealism a long time within a cave could create, not to mention bringing up the question (and potential unrealism) of why a character cannot in some manner force their way out.
  • Occasionally utilize complete darkness. There are multitudes of ways to arrange for a torch to go out, for instance if the party were to stumble into a lake, or suffer a sudden breeze through one of those aforementioned light holes (at night, of course, so as not to be letting in light itself). What's more, there are ample opportunities for a far more simple accident to cause something of that nature. Depending on the terrain of your cave, there may be cases where it's perfectly reasonable to drop a torch. Again, something not incorporated at all into many MUDs, but which ought to be looked into.

Illuminated by the light, of course, will be the terrain and layout of the cave itself. Here is where you really have the opportunity to make a cave stand out from a generic dungeon, because within what is physically possible for stone, the cave can take any form imaginable. You needn't worry about the logic of why, how or what for. For once, if it strikes you as interesting or useful for the game, you can design it in with absolutely no additional justification.

  • Vertical drops are excellent in caves, if only because they're the only time you can use them so frequently. Unlike designed structures, a cave is theoretically created without rhyme or reason. As such, there's no reason not to have all the vertical drops you want to challenge your players.
  • Include a lot of forks. Part of the advantage offered by forks is that they prevent the PC from knowing everything about the terrain behind them. It's always possible, once you've passed some fork unexplored, that a colossal monster will burst forth from it to attack your back. As a last note on forks, remember that, in a cave, they needn't be a matter of North-South-East-West, but Up-Down, or any combination of the six.
  • To continue in the vein of the above, try to use the Up-Down axis extensively. Players grow accustomed to thinking in terms of the world as a plane - or, in the case of multilevel dungeon, as a stack of smaller planes. As such, their sense of what's "right" is immediately thrown off by sloping corridors. Also, remember that with just a slight change in altitude you can easily make corridors loop over/under one another, further confusing players, especially if they don't notice the slight grade - very difficult to notice for characters not adept at life underground, or who simply decide not to read your room descriptions.
  • I'm fond of utilizing underground water, for the fact that it provides a natural barrier which, unlike a rock wall, isn't insurmountable. This can then be extended to including underground plant life, which will require the damp to grow.

An element played upon by many a gleeful GM in pencil and paper games is the potential for natural dangers within caves, and this idea may equally be applied to a MUD dungeon. The purpose of a natural danger is threefold; firstly, to do as traps do, and hinder progression through the cave. Secondly, they can serve to add a feeling of realism to your cave - once natural dangers are faced, it ceases to be just an anonymous dungeon with a novel entrance. It becomes, "The cave where we were almost buried alive" and "The cave you should skip until level 11 so you aren't buried alive." Lastly, you can use natural dangers of different styles to subdivide a cave system. If one section of the cave is flooded, another filled with dangerous gasses, and a third prone to rock slides, each will take on its own unique feel. By developing such different styles you can run multiple adventures within one cave without it beginning to feel trite. Some natural disasters include:

  • Including a toxic atmosphere in part (or all) of your cave creates both a challenging and a realistic environment. Literature is rife with stories of candles lowered into wells to test for oxygen, and there's no reason not to force your adventurers to do the same. Further, given the unavailability of gas masks, it can be a quest in itself to find the proper method of surviving in the different atmospheric conditions, thereby creating inaccessability without utilizing either strong monsters or locked doors.
  • Cave-ins serve an extremely useful purpose beside immediate mortal danger: They trap the party. With carefully applied cave ins, you can funnel the group in a certain direction; possibly even getting them to take risks in exploring some more difficult areas, if only for an exit. (see Boo? for more discussion on what to do with a trapped group)
  • Who doesn't like flooding? There's nothing like the scenes in old movies where the lone hero outruns a tidal wave of water as he dashes madly for the cave's exit. While such blatantly cliche scenes may not fit well within MUDs (if only because text doesn't lend itself to them), flooding in general can be excellent - especially as it effectively converts the entire flooded area from one type of cave to another. Unfortunately, such can only really be applied once.... But why not do it? Eventually, most areas grow old and tired. Through flooding, a cave can be entirely rebuilt, all in character. And it has a hidden advantage. By incorporating flooding, you can allow access to otherwise inaccessible passages on a ceiling/sheer wall - simply swim to them as soon as the room floods. A lovely way to justify the mysterious (and useless) opening that had been there since the beginning; no longer is it useless.

The last key point discussed in this piece will be my thoughts on the issue of a cave's inhabitants. Here, more so than with any other item in this essay, I must stress that my ideas are hardly complete - you can do virtually anything with monsters, and should experiment at every opportunity.

  • Weak but numerous enemies, such as goblins and kobolds, are excellent for caves. While they may not be powerful enough to build their own dungeons, they nevertheless will need one (at least those that aren't "employed" by some stronger over-species as is typically the case). By employing these sort of monsters you can frequently hint at great numbers of enemies, and yet, due to their relative weakness, every ambush is not likely to be fatal - and thus may be used for effect. What's more, these sort of creatures make excellent foes for new players, and a cave may be a perfect area to host such foes.
  • [Most] every cave requires some large and ferocious uber-demon, a creature to lurk at the cave's darkest depths and pursue the players upon approach. With such a nigh impassable adversary at the cave's core, the players will then never quite know what else is down there - and it provides them a reason to return later when they've grown stronger, to at last complete that elusive dungeon.
  • Remember that the cave's inhabitants will invariably know its twists and turns far better than the players do. Keeping that in mind, you can easily spring ambushes at every moment - through heretofore undiscovered passages, through tunnels behind the players, or even simply without explanation. Keep them on their toes...make them feel that they're never quite safe.
  • One thing I'd suggest you avoid for the most part are caves-specific creatures. While the occasional living rock can be exciting, if they become too abundant, any surprise or suspense is lost. Better, instead, to mention rocks frequently, and so keep the players off guard for when that last rock you mentioned turns out to be living and very dangerous.

For better or worse, the breadth of even the smallest cave is such that I cannot touch upon everything, even in the longest of essays. It is my hope that I have provided you with a beneficial introduction to the kind of thought process I employ in creating a cave, and that it shall prove useful to you in creating your own. Above all, remember that, as with any aspect of your game, it's important to tailor it to just that: your game. Don't let the advice of some writer interfere with what's already working for your MUD.

Dungeon Crawling? : Caves - copyright © 2002 by Delphine Lynx - All rights reserved.

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