Fantasy RPGs have two important tropes. The first is dragons, which I won’t discuss here. It’s a trope, but it’s not exclusive to RPGs, so there’s plenty to read about them elsewhere.
The second trope, which you don’t see explored in any detail in other media, are deserted dungeons. Man-made structures, from a forgotten culture, underneath ruins, that adventuring parties explore — either to cleanse the evil inhabitants or to seek treasure. I always wondered how that could be: how could the structures that a previous group of people left behind, just be forgotten? (I will ignore things like natural caves, because those are just there and not constructed. It’s specifically the dungeons with the 5′ corridors leading off into the dark that interest me.)
And then I realised that in real life, we have unexplored dungeons too! Minus the magical monsters, which I think we can all be thankful for… Of course, there are the corridors through the pyramids and the graves of the pharaos: left behind by a previous civilisation, which we know about, and yet when those were discovered, it made a huge splash.
Or take Rome: after it was sacked, the population dropped immensely: without the structures of society, there was no way to support an urban population that large. The people who stayed behind demolished the buildings to use the bricks for their own houses, and cows grazed on the Forum. Could there not be undiscovered halls and corridors underneath, that nobody knew about? Would someone who was going to flee the city before the pillaging hordes, not stash their wealth in a hidden passage underneath their house, as to lighten their load — intending to return for it when things quieted down?
More bizarre is the Shell Grotto in Margate. Such intricate patterns of shells — and yet nobody knows who made it, or what its purpose is.
Or take the underground city of Derinkuyu. These underground structures existed for over a 1000 years, yet when the original inhabitants were forced out, it took less than a generation to completely forget that the town was built on top of this. Only after 30 years did they “discover” the structures when someone knocked down a wall in their cellar. That means that the dungeons were forgotten within living memory!
Or take the region of Bagan, where kings and princes of the distant past build thousands of temples. Those were Buddhist, so they could theoretically be still used for their original purpose, but suppose that they’ve belonged to a now-dead religious system? Suppose all the houses back then had been made of wood, and only the stone temples are now left?
So I learned that having dungeons around is actually not as far-fetched a story-device as I thought it was. This knowledge will certainly inform my future scenario-building.
(Do you want to know more? Check out this video and this video by the excellent Great Big Story channel.)