Dungeon Crawling

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.


Dungeon Crawling is the act of exploring a dungeon (or other dangerous area) while looking for treasure or some other important object. The characters must battle enemies (usually monsters) and use their skills and equipment to negotiate obstacles (usually traps). Usually, but not always, there is a Boss Battle at some point, and a MacGuffin or Plot Coupon at the end.

This is basically what many Role-Playing Games (especially video game ones) are all about - at least historically - but it is actually one of The Oldest Ones in the Book, since even myths feature it (a trip into the underworld is part of the Hero's Journey, after all). However, it was the Cliffhanger film serials of the early 20th century that defined the trope, and the Indiana Jones movies that made it popular again later.

The term comes from early RPGs, such as Dungeons & Dragons, that often had the player characters exploring some wizard's dungeon. "Dungeon crawl" is analogous to "pub crawl," a continual stroll from dungeon to dungeon to dungeon.

Note that in Real Life a "dungeon" was a type of prison, often in the lower parts of a castle, but the games expanded it to mean "any ruins or subterranean area." In fact, the term is used today for any dangerous area in an RPG, even open-air ones, as long as the same fight-your-way-across logic applies to it. This is usually to distinguish it from the two other kinds of locale in such games, towns (generally defined as anywhere that has peaceful NPCs or businesses like stores, hotels and bars) and the overworld (which, in most cases, is exclusively for getting between towns and dungeons, with the only real obstacles being Random Encounters.)

Apparently the whole dungeon shtick originated from a skirmish wargame played by Gygax, Arneson and others that involved breaking into a castle through the cellars - this turned out to be so much fun that tunnel fighting became a regular theme. Stir in Professor Tolkien's Moria scenario for a little fantasy and the rest, as they say, is history.

With the increasing trend towards Wide Open Sandbox-type game designs, the term "Dungeon Crawl" has taken on a certain derogatory connotation when used to describe a game. It is usually synonymous with The Maze, which not only represents the opposing linear game design tradition, but also implies developer laziness. The ease with which a dungeon generally forces players to follow one path through a game and keep them tied up for a long time in a small space, all without having to resort to illogical barriers, is all too easy for developers, and annoying to players. Dungeons, after all, are reasonably expected to be fully enclosed structures whose walls are well reinforced—often by the very earth itself, if located underground, as they often are—making a single, static path through them more or less "justified". Dungeon Crawls often cheaply limit options for traversing them using a spaghetti strand of enclosed corridors, keys and doors, and other barriers requiring unique items to surmount them—all of which are less realistically implemented in a wide-open setting.

Dungeon Crawlers are also a subgenre of RPGs in which the story, setting, and town areas (usually one at most) are downplayed in favor of massive dungeons requiring level grinding, trap-avoidance, and endurance. Roguelikes are a subgenre of dungeon crawler, further distinguished by procedural level generation and highly unforgiving game mechanics.

Not to be confused with the game Dungeon Crawl, though it is a good example of this trope.

Adventurer Archaeologists are at home in works prominently featuring Dungeon Crawling.

Subtropes include: Bonus Dungeon, Disc One Final Dungeon, Dungeon Town, The Maze, Noob Cave, The Very Definitely Final Dungeon.[1]

Examples of Dungeon Crawling include:

Anime and Manga

  • Mahou Sensei Negima has Nodoka doing this after she gets separated from everyone else during the gateport incident, and choosing her share of treasure like a professional MinMaxer.
    • The Baka Rangers' excursion to Library Island (and everything the Library Expedition Club did) definitely counts too. Nodoka even references it as the source of her trap-spotting skills.
  • The main point of Magi Labyrinth of Magic. People seek to conquer the dangerous dungeons that have started appearing all over the world for fame, glory, and power.

Fan Works


  • One early fantasy depiction of Dungeon Crawling was the Fellowship's passage through Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring.
  • Very common in Sword and Sorcery fiction:
  • There are some scenes reminiscent of this trope in Dracula, although they omit the "and take the monster's stuff" step once the monster (Lucy) has been tracked to her underground crypt and dispatched. Later vampire novels have added other elements of this trope, like death-traps (Salem's Lot) and guardians to protect the sleeping undead.
  • Seems to be given a knowing nod in the Dragaera story "The Desecrator", in which desecrator is the Dragaeran term for archeologist, but the job has the typical fantasy cast of raiding ancient structures for treasure and having to fend off magical barriers.
  • In the Alcatraz Series, librarians are all either evil cultists or vengeful undead, therefore every time the heroes infiltrate a library, it turns into dungeon crawling with monsters, traps and other dangers.
  • As its title suggests, the majority of the plot of Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth is Dungeon Crawling.

Live-Action TV

  • Hercules: The Legendary Journeys gave us the Made for TV Movie Hercules in the Underworld, which was inspired by the story of Hercules' twelfth labour (see Mythology below).
  • In the Angel episode "Awakening" has Angel and his friends travel to hidden subterranean caverns to find a mythical sword, the only thing that can kill the Nigh Invulnerable Beast, who had blocked out the sun. The find the sword, kill the Beast and bring daylight back - unfortunately, it's All Just a Dream to give Angel a moment of perfect happiness and make him lose his soul.


  • A number of Ancient Greek heroes (Orpheus, Odysseus, Heracles) go into the Underworld, where they face challenges like from monsters (such as Cerberus), obstacles (such as the River Styx), and gods. It's as early as The Aeneid that the scene starts getting deconstructed. Perseus, who doesn't go into the literal Underworld, might be the straightest Ancient Greek version of this trope in the sense of "go underground, kill monsters, take their stuff."

Tabletop Games

  • Dungeons & Dragons is probably, if not the Trope Namer, at least the Trope Codifier. "Killing evil and stealing its stuff" is the game's unofficial motto, after all.
    • And there is also the old TSR board game 'Dungeon', which literally is "Wander through the wizard's dungeon picking up treasure."
    • Interesting to note is that when Gary Gygax started making fantasy rules for Chainmail, D&D's precursor, he moved the action from standard tabletop war game battlefields to underground dungeons so he could save time and money on designing maps.
    • There are actually quite a number of games like this, such as HeroQuest, a simple dungeon crawler boardgame loosely connected to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
  • Mage Knight had a variant called Dungeons which pitted teams of heroes against each other as well as against the monsters and traps.
  • The Games Workshop boardgame Space Hulk is basically this genre Recycled in Space liberally crossed with the James Cameron film Aliens.
  • Munchkin is nothing but this. Along with much backstabbing and stealing.
  • The Arkham Horror spinoff Mansions of Madness is this genre as applied to the Cthulhu Mythos, with areas such as churches, university buildings, estate grounds, and the eponymous mansions serving as the dungeon.
  • Similarly, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a modern-day, horror-based example of this genre.
  • Dragon Fable has the 100 Rooms of Doom dungeon.
  • GURPS has a sub-gameline, Dungeon Fantasy, devoted exclusively to this genre. It is one of the most popular parts of the line.

Video Games

  • The very core of The Legend of Zelda and its many, many sequels is Dungeon Crawling.
  • Lessee... Wizardry came out in 1981. But Richard Garriot (of Ultima) released Alkalabeth in 1979. The game name comes from part of The Silmarillion; such "homages" were common with Garriot in his early games. Of course, Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974...around the same time "Dungeon" was a popular game on mainframe computers.
    • Dungeon, by the way, was later split into three games and published as the Zork series by Infocom. It was arguably the first real dungeon crawl.
    • This troper attended high school on the University of Illinois campus, and thus had the pleasure of playing Avatar on their PLATO internal network in the mid-80s.
  • Etrian Odyssey is a contemporary dungeon crawler that pays homage to games like Wizardry and introduces some spins of its own, most notably the F.O.E.s which are visible boss-like enemies that move with each step you take.
  • Master of the Monster Lair features this—with a dungeon you make yourself—along with a deconstruction of some of the assumptions usually implicit to this premise; having a dungeon near your town is considered desirable, as it acts as a tourist attraction, lures monsters out of the wilderness where they pose more of a danger to ordinary people, and the items monsters hoard in dungeons can be quite valuable. In this game and My World, My Way, which is an otherwise unconnected game that takes place in the same world, "Dungeon Maker" is a respected profession.
    • Global A has done a couple of other games like this, such as the Dungeon Maker duology (which has a similar premise), and Adventures to Go!
  • Ubiquitous in Final Fantasy games, but the original game has some of the most basic examples. Not surprising, considering how much it owes to D&D.
  • RuneScape's 'Dungeoneering' skill is exactly what you'd expect. It even got the nickname 'D&D'.
  • World of Warcraft, along with the bulk of its MMO kindred, buries most of its best treasure in various dungeons.
  • As mentioned above, the Roguelike Dungeon Crawl is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Even before Zork/Dungeon, however, there was Colossal Cave (also known as Adventure or simply ADVENT). Although it includes no dungeons (it's a cave crawl instead), it undoubtedly was a major inspiration for Dungeon and every other dungeon crawl since.
  • The game Fate and sequels. The big doors with creepy pillar suits of armor guarding them, with the description Enter The Dungeon. Right next to town.
  • Solomon's Keep for the iPhone is one, where you use a student wizard to traverse the eponymous keep, fight monsters and bosses, loot treasure and defeat the evil necromancer- as his graduation exam, no less.
  • Parodied in Planescape: Torment with the Rubikon Dungeon Construct. The Modrons, beings of pure Law, are trying to study dungeon crawls in order to understand them, so they create a simulated dungeon with randomly generated rooms, filled with identical constructs that drop "loot" which looks valuable but is entirely worthless, even as Vendor Trash. Somewhere in the dungeon is the Evil Wizard Construct, who is a Card-Carrying Villain that you have to fight because that's what evil wizards are for.
  • The many, many caves you have to explore in the various Pokémon games. Places like, for example, Silph Co. and the Pokemon Tower in Lavender Town also count, as they both have stuff to find and are crawling with enemies to defeat, and usually contain one final Boss.
  • The focus of Desire Dungeon is about exploring the eponymous dungeon filled with Cute Monster Girls.

Web Comics

  • The Order of the Stick started off as this, before the Cerebus Syndrome hit it. One of the compilation books is even called Dungeon Crawling Fools. There's also a lampshading of the activity by the cleric Mallack in reference to his membership in an evil adventuring party, "Ah, the life of an adventuring cleric. I remember it well. A perpetual struggle to maintain the hit point totals of four or five nigh-suicidal tomb robbers determined to deplete them at all costs."

Western Animation

Real Life

  • It is the job of Tunnel Rats (most notably in Vietnam and other guerrilla wars) to crawl into insurgent tunnel complexes to search for weapons, intelligence and the enemy. Being a tunnel rat is one of the worst jobs one can draw as it was highly dangerous and possibly one of the quickest paths to PTSD.
  1. Several other video game settings, such as Temple of Doom, aren't necessarily dungeon-specific - they could also refer to themed Platform Game levels, or to places of relative safety.