Dungeon Ecology: Making Your Dungeons Make Sense

Last Updated on November 16, 2023

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about dungeon ecology. 

Dungeon Ecology is the idea that dungeons in a game of D&D should function with some degree of internal logic that stands up to the scrutiny of the players. 

It deals with questions like “What are all these monsters eating?” “How do the goblins move around if their whole dungeon is full of traps?” and “How did they fit a dragon through that tiny door?”

In short, Dungeon Ecology is the practice of making your dungeons make sense. 

The term originated in a long-running, popular series of articles in Dragon magazine that sought to take a more scientific approach to the monsters and magical creatures found throughout the world of D&D. 

Why Should I Care About Dungeon Ecology? 

In a game all about wizards and warlocks fighting giant, fire breathing lizards for their giant piles of magical swords, I think it’s completely valid to question why we need to care about making dungeons make sense. 

Take video games, for example. I don’t get annoyed when I walk into my fifth mob of enemies if I haven’t also seen where the bad guys cook their food and go to the toilet.

I don’t abandon a game because it doesn’t answer how a secret base halfway up a mountainside feeds the several thousand disposable goons every day. That’s not the point. 

If you don’t care about that stuff, then dungeon ecology probably doesn’t matter to you. But, hear me out. 

If the immersion is broken in a game of D&D, however — if the world stops making enough sense for the players to see behind the emerald curtain — the story loses its power.

As dungeon masters, I think we have an implied duty to make the world of the game feel as real as possible or at least real enough so the players don’t feel the willingness to suspend their disbelief start to strain. 

I talk about this more in my article on creating Random Encounters, but essentially — more than plot and balanced encounters and background music — verisimilitude is our highest duty. 

Let me give you an example.I was flicking through a copy of B2 The Keep on the Borderlands — one of the earliest and most enduringly iconic adventures written for the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons back in 1979 — and I saw something (in the titular keep, funnily enough, rather than in the Caves of Chaos – the actual “dungeon” part of that module) that made the idea click into place.

Source: Jim Roslof, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands (1979), TSR/Wizards of the Coast

In the fabled Keep on the fabled Borderlands, there is a bank with a number of safety deposit boxes inside.

Because this is 1e D&D — and a large part of adventure writing back then was noting exactly how many gold, silver, and copper pieces every single farmer, bandit, and other sundry NPC had and where they’d hidden them on their property — the contents of the bank’s 12 safety deposit boxes are obviously listed for the DM. 

Two of them are trapped with poison gas or arrows by their paranoid owners (one of whom is the banker himself). Three of them are empty. And one of them contains four Pit Vipers. 

This struck me as weird. Why was one of the bank vaults in this medieval keep (which were otherwise full of gold, platinum bars, and alabaster statuettes) being used to store a nest of venomous snakes? 

Of course, I know why Gary Gygax, the game designer, put the vipers there.

In one of his games, the players decided to rob the bank, and he wanted to create some gameplay — something to remind the players that their actions have consequences — in the bank in case another group tried it. That’s all fine. 

What I don’t get — what stopped me short while reading the adventure and what I’m sure would stop my players short if they opened the vault and got mauled by a big angry snake — is why someone living in the Keep would pay to keep a bunch of pit vipers in the local bank. 

Are the safety deposit boxes airtight? If so, how do the snakes survive? If not, how certain is the banker that they won’t escape? Who feeds them and how often? 

Logical speed bumps like this aren’t uncommon in older modules.

They even crop up in modern adventures, especially when you get into lower levels of a big dungeon complex where, logically, food should be harder to find, but the monsters somehow keep on getting bigger and more numerous. 

Nine times out of 10, your players probably won’t notice — or they’ll just assume the adventure is playing by video-game rules.

No one writes off Raiders of the Lost Ark just because the movie glosses over how thousands of snakes survived for centuries in that one tomb. They’ll just rant about it angrily on Twitter 40 years later. 

It probably won’t destroy your game, but it might make it worse — make it feel like a cardboard filmLogical missteps like this probably won’t destroy your game, but they might make it worse.

They might make it feel more like a cardboard film set, a fake, a video game full of dummies arranged in a shooting gallery, and less like a living, breathing world.

Imagine. It’s the climax of the adventure. Battered and bloody, our heroes stride through the door to the dragon’s lair.

There, filling every inch of available space, the ancient black dragon Zargon the Despoiler sleeps — trails of noxious green smoke issuing from his nostrils. It’s time for a boss fight.

Source: Erol Otus, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Boxed Set, TSR/Wizards of the Coast

Then, a player says excitedly, “Guys, it’s a fake! It’s not real. Look! We just walked through a normal sized door. The dragon’s huge. If this was a real dragon there would be a way for it to get in and out. See?!” Oops.

I’ve been thinking about dungeon ecology a lot lately. 

If you want to avoid embarrassing goofs like the now-infamous “Zargon Paradox” that my old group still gives me crap about or a mysterious bank vault full of snakes and just maybe make your games a whole lot better in the process, maybe you should be thinking about dungeon ecology too. 

How Do I Use Dungeon Ecology?

There are different ways that people go about approaching dungeon ecology. 

The first and older of the two I’m going to talk about is used interchangeably with an idea that’s become known as “Gygaxian Naturalism.” 

Dungeon Ecology and Gygaxian Naturalism

Dungeon ecology as a practice (in the sense that people were actively thinking about it rather than just, you know, doing it, man) took root in the Ecology series that ran for 30 years in Dragon Magazine, with many of its entries being penned by Ed Greenwood, the co-creator of the Forgotten Realms setting.

The goal, starting with The Ecology of the Piercer in Issue #72, was to take a scientific approach to the fantastical beasts throughout D&D and treat them as any biologist would look at an animal in the real world.

Leave a Comment