Excerpts Archive | 4/10/2012
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Types of Dungeons
Dungeon Survival Handbook Excerpt
Bart Carroll

Black passageways stretch out in all directions. The still, stifling air swirls gently with each cautious step forward. The clank of armor and the crunch of footsteps on gravel are the only sounds in the deep chambers, but their soft echoes seem deafening.

Around the next corner, faint lights are visible down the corridor. With no way to gauge distance in the darkness, they could be anything: far-off torches, nearby glowing fungi, or the eyes of a lurking beast reflecting the flame. After sharing a glance with the others, the party leader lifts the shutter of the bull's-eye lantern to reveal what lies ahead. . . .

Dungeons hold everything an adventurer could want: untold riches to plunder, new areas to explore, dangerous beasts to challenge, and strange societies to interact with. An ordinary adventurer accustomed to a soft life in the surface world might get a short distance into a dungeon and consider it a glorious victory.

But hardscrabble Underdark natives and veteran delvers know just how difficult survival is down there in the darkness, and that the tunnels keep descending into realms of ever greater danger.

A dungeon adventure is all about huge risks and even greater rewards. You (as well as your character) need careful preparation, problem-solving skills, nerves of steel, and a healthy dose of good luck to take on a dungeon crawl and succeed. Around every corner is some unexpected threat, deadly mystery, or never-before-seen Underdark horror. If you can't step up to the challenge, you'll never make it out.

In today's preview of the Dungeon Survival Handbook: Into the Unknown, we start off with a look at different types of dungeons you might face as a character—or create as DM. In later days, we'll look further at the character options this book presents, which includes the following:

Character Themes: To tie your character more closely to dungeons or the Underdark, you can choose a theme that fleshes out his or her backstory or represents a delving-related profession. Each theme's entry includes unique features, as well as optional powers that supplement the choices available to you at various levels. It also includes some suggestions about how to introduce the theme into a game and a sample character. As well, you'll find some in-world advice and background information in the form of sidebars in each entry.

Races: Three dungeon-dwelling races—the goblin, the kobold, and the svirfneblin—appear in the book with complete descriptions, roleplaying hooks, and optional racial feats and powers. Their adaptation to a life underground and their specific survival skills make members of these races excellent candidates for the adventuring life, even though they might face suspicion or outright hostility from topsiders. Unlikely though it can seem, under the right circumstances even a kobold can become a hero.

Dungeon-Themed Powers: The challenges of dungeon delving give rise to specialized techniques and dedicated explorers' guilds. Sometimes, too, a character's background or unique experience spontaneously gives rise to survival abilities that can't be taught. This section describes some of these possibilities, ranging from a widespread organization of Underdark guides, to the hard-knocks training that comes from years spent below ground, to the mind-ripping insights that arise from exposure to unspeakable evil. Here you'll find new attack powers for a variety of classes as well as skill powers available to any character who has training in the relevant skill.

Dungeon Types

A dungeon is always created for a reason, and almost always that reason is directly tied to the physical nature of the place. Some dungeon builders need a place to live, such as kobolds that stake out a warren. Others want to get at the riches under the earth, as with dwarves and their mines.

A dungeon's creator might use it as a place to hide secrets, whether a lich performing dark rituals in a laboratory or a group of mighty beings that have imprisoned a demon far from civilization. The type of dungeon you're heading into, and the reason for its existence, are the major factors that affect your preparation. Anything you can learn about what's ahead of you before you get there will improve your chances of success and survival.

Death Trap

A death trap lures thrill-seekers with promises of great treasure. The foolhardy who set forth into it find only a grueling gauntlet of perils, half-starved guardian creatures, and tortures unimaginable—all culminating in imprisonment or a grisly death.

A death trap is the most extreme expression of the dungeon concept, merciless and fatal to all but the most skilled explorers. It has no purpose other than to kill or (sometimes worse) capture.


Beyond being "just" a killing machine, a death trap is usually created for a purpose that sets it apart from others of its type. It might have been built to test creatures of a certain race, to measure candidates' skill with a specific type of magic, or to capture prey. In such a case, all the dungeon's tests and traps contribute to fulfilling this purpose.

Some death traps are little more than random collections of rooms with plain corridors connecting them. In such a dungeon, the individual traps and encounters don't follow a theme or serve a larger purpose. Other death traps exhibit a consistent style with repeated motifs that show the creators' attention to detail. For such builders, a death trap is a work of art, and possibly the culmination of a life's ambition.

The sheer lethality of a death trap means it can afford to draw attention to itself in a way other dungeons can't. The greatest death traps are not secrets. People fear to speak their names, and the lands around them stand deserted. A death trap might be topped with a towering iron front gate or surrounded with warnings about the danger inside. It could be hollowed out of a rocky spire that has been carved to look like a skull. The entrance could be hidden among a row of magic portals, with a wrong choice meaning instant death.


If you explore haphazardly in a death trap, you'll quickly prove the appropriateness of that name. This type of dungeon demands discretion in your approach. Pick the right times to look for hidden passages and to study runes, but also know when to keep on a focused path and move quickly. Methodical mapping and the careful use of dungeoneering tools can't guarantee your safety, but both tactics are necessary.

Watch for clues that can help you overcome traps and bypass hazards safely. No set of scratches on the floor is too minor, no drop of blood too small. Don't read runes without taking precautions first. Above all else, never use a magic item found in a death trap before subjecting it to extremely careful study.

The heart of a death trap is a place of great significance, whether it's the citadel of the dungeon's creator, a shrine to an otherworldly entity, or the resting place of an artifact. Finding your way there is never easy, and a death trap might contain numerous false central chambers.


Anything goes in a death trap, where nothing is out of the realm of possibility as long as it's dangerous. Any hallway could collapse to drop you into a pit of acid. Any door might be protected by explosive runes or some other magic trap. Any gap between bricks could spew poison gas. Any statue could animate and attack.


Any dungeon shows hallmarks of the creatures that created it, but a death trap reflects only the choices of its designer. One dungeon's creator might be sadistic enough to build a death trap solely for entertainment. Another could be testing challengers for a specific purpose: worthy opponents, potential recruits for a great cause, sturdy humanoid stock for foul magical experiments, or the like.

Among the most common creators of death traps are liches, ancient dragons, mind flayers, and devils. These creatures have long life spans, high intelligence, and a consuming desire to test or torture others. The creatures set loose within a death trap are chosen for their toughness, their bloodthirstiness, and (if appropriate) how they conform to the dungeon's purpose. A death trap is rarely a living, breathing ecology, however; the monsters within one usually have no relationship to one another.


Every death trap has a great boon at its heart, whether a hoard of treasure, lost lore, or a face-to-face meeting with a formidable being. Reaching the end can change your life, though you might pay a high price to get there.

Magic Laboratory

The darkest dungeon lords build vile laboratories in which they undertake twisted experiments. Necromancers, summoners, and artificers make use of magic laboratories, filling such sites with fanatical servants and vicious contraptions, as well as new kinds of monsters.


Magic laboratories encompass a wide variety of designs, each related to its creator and purpose. A necromancer's laboratory is filled with body parts preserved in jars containing unknown fluids. A conniving artificer might create a magic machine shop featuring racks of tools and clockwork components used to build mechanical devices. No matter what the variation, however, every laboratory serves as a testing ground for some creation or experiment.

Necromancers use their workshops to create new and diabolical undead, weaving profane magic with the power of the divine. A necromantic laboratory has shelves filled with rare herbs and components, with preserved body parts and organs neatly organized nearby. A large worktable provides space to disassemble corpses and put them back together again. The smell is repulsive, testing the perseverance of even the hardiest adventurers.

Summoners and artificers have less gory decor. Their shelves are lined with books, devices, and reagents that they use to call on and control their creations, whether monsters from other worlds or mechanical minions.


Because a laboratory is typically a working dungeon, you can expect to encounter guardian creatures and traps. A laboratory's builder is by its nature detail-oriented, so the area might be filled with all manner of mysterious devices and decorative elements that have a common theme.


The dangers of a magic laboratory are usually obvious. Strange mechanisms and substances, traps, hazards, guardian monsters, constructs, and other threats lurk throughout the dungeon. Many of a laboratory's defenses could be bizarre-looking objects and creatures whose true nature might not be obvious at first.

Alchemical concoctions are common in magic laboratories. They might be used to form hazardous terrain in the form of pools or spills, augment guardian creatures, or serve as makeshift weapons.


The most common inhabitants of a magic laboratory are the unique creatures that have been created there or are assigned to protect it. Alchemical constructs, clockwork beasts, and golems of every material stand watch against trespassers. Necromancers employ ever-vigilant patrols of skeletons, zombies, and ghouls. Summoners deploy lesser elementals and savage monsters to guard their laboratories and lairs.


A laboratory environment holds exciting treasures limited only by its creator's imagination. Such loot can include unique new potions and elixirs, recipes, magic items, and even never-before-seen servant creatures.

Bart Carroll
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.
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