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The Designer's Notebook: A Letter from a Dungeon

"My Dear Master: I write to you from the thirteenth level of a dungeon. The dungeon has a name, but I will not disturb you with it, for it sounds ridiculous and made up. My companion and I have stopped to rest and heal ourselves before going on, and I felt that as you have not heard from me since I left the School, you might care to know how your pupil has fared...."

Ernest Adams, Blogger

January 26, 2000

11 Min Read

My Dear Master,

I write to you from the thirteenth level of a dungeon. The dungeon has a name, but I will not disturb you with it, for it sounds ridiculous and made up. My companion and I have stopped to rest and heal ourselves before going on, and I felt that as you have not heard from me since I left the School, you might care to know how your pupil has fared.

If I may say so without impertinence, our adventures have had an altogether different character from what I was led to expect at school. There we were of course taught of many different heroes – King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table; Beowulf; Siegfried; Salah-el-Din; Robin Hood. I fancied that someday I should come to be like them. I was trained to be a warrior by your esteemed self, and we live in a world seemingly designed for heroes and their deeds… and yet I find myself on a quest, or series of quests, so unheroic as to make me wonder if I ever had a proper understanding of the meaning of the word.

But let me begin at the beginning. My companion and I arrived at the town (it has a similarly ludicrous name), and were immediately introduced to a group of folk: a blacksmith, a healing-woman, a grocer, a thaumaturge, and the like. Each of these people sells an array of goods and services at a wide range of prices, yet oddly enough my companion and I seem to be the only customers they ever get. The townspeople themselves are neither warriors nor wizards, for they welcomed us with open arms and immediately began to importune us to undertake errands of various sorts for them, for which they promised rich rewards. Indeed, having achieved several of these I know they do not lie, for with each success they gave us great sums of gold. We have no use for it, however, except to buy overpriced goods at their own shops. While they have no other customers, they also have no competition.

Exploring the countryside around the town, we soon came upon the dungeon in which we now find ourselves. What a strange place this is! I cannot determine who made it or why it is here. It seems to consist of room after room of chests, crates, boxes, barrels, jars, vases, and other containers; most empty, but some containing food, weapons, or magical items. A few of these vessels have been booby-trapped, though for what reason I cannot imagine, since the booby-trapped ones seldom contain anything more valuable than the others.

The rooms themselves are built in a variety of architectural styles. We have seen many types of stone, and arches, pillars, cornices, balustrades, and other interesting elements, but all have one thing in common: they are uniformly rectilinear. Not a single curve have I seen to relieve the stark uniformity of the place. The floors, too, are curiously level and even; laid by master craftsmen no doubt, but without a step or platform anywhere. There are stairs which lead from one level of the dungeon to another, but that is all. And these levels themselves are curious also: the layout of each bears no relation to the one above it, and the style of the stonework changes suddenly without apparent reason; yet level upon level, the place seems to be little more than a vast storehouse, a storehouse with no rhyme or reason, organization or plan.

Yet a storehouse it is not, for the dungeon is inhabited. The creatures that live here could not have built it – ugly, misshapen brutes with crude weapons and cruder clothing. I can only conclude that they moved in after it was constructed. That is what one might expect of a very ancient building, long-abandoned; yet in all its particulars this place seems nearly new. Never a crack in the stone; never a chip; mile after mile of geometrically perfect corridors, shaped as if by a mathematician rather than these lumpen creatures. I tell you frankly, master, if this is a dungeon it is the strangest I have ever heard of, and bears no resemblance to the places spoken of by the Nordic bards.

The creatures could perhaps be servants of a single overlord who built this place to be their dwelling. Upon rare occasions we do find tables, chairs, and beds, but never enough for all the monsters we encounter. Perhaps they are only for the use of a middle grade of nobility, and the remainder sleep on the floor and eat with their hands. In any case the dungeon is clearly not a barracks or a dormitory; it does not give the impression of a place where someone lives; it is merely a place where things are.

The beings who live here... what shall I say of them? Firstly, that they are uniformly hostile. We have released a few prisoners, who always flee without offering to assist us... a shabby, ungracious way to treat one’s benefactors. Yet apart from these churlish wretches, all others that we have encountered have attacked without challenge or parley of any kind. And so we kill them.

Oh, God, how we kill them.

Dozens, hundreds of beasts have I slain, in considerable variety of species; but each individual is identical to all its fellows of the same species. There is none of the variation one expects to find among living things, and I find myself wondering if they are not creatures of machinery or magic, all conjured from some template somewhere. They attack in groups of four or five, seldom more, and although there are obviously hundreds of them in the dungeon, they never mass in overwhelming numbers. They are clearly extremely stupid, possessing neither any organizational skill nor a communications system to summon their fellows. They attack blindly, marching towards us, taking no advantage of cover or tactical opportunities. And so we mow them down. The simplest expedient is to stand in a door and slaughter them one by one as they approach.

This is not the way Beowulf fought Grendel. In this business I am no hero, no warrior; I am an exterminator, a dog killing rats in a crate. If we fight on enough to get tired, they can eventually get the better of us, but for another thing: we have a magic door which allows us to return instantly back to the town. There we may rest as long as we like. I have no fear that this letter may never find you – will rot away beside my body here in the dungeon, for in ten seconds I can be back in safety. And as if that were not enough, we also have spells of resurrection! Yes! The greatest miracle of all, which I had thought solely the province of God, is available in this place for the price of a few gold coins. I myself have died half a dozen times, through want of attention to my body’s condition in the heat of battle, and in a moment my companion brings me back to life. I sip a healing draught and we proceed as if nothing had happened. Death holds no terrors for me here, and in a place where there is no death, can there indeed be a hero? Courage is the conquering of fear, yet I have no fear; no reason to fear, and therefore no need for courage. The stirring stories I read as a child in school are meaningless here; they provide no example to guide me. Richard the Lionheart did not cast a spell and fly home to England whenever he felt tired! He is no adventurer who returns upon a moment’s whim to sleep in safety every night.

Indeed, master, I am no adventurer. I no longer know what I am.

And now I come to my companion. I had been warned at the beginning of this affair to seek a mage to accompany me, someone whose magic would complement my sword. Heeding this advice, I chose the sorceress Divandra.

Master, I scarcely know how to describe this woman. Her appearance I know well enough, but her character remains a complete mystery. She almost never speaks. I know nothing of her history, her people, her reason for being here... and yet we do everything together. I have seen her in furious battle; I have seen her poisoned; I have seen her dying. We have experienced nearly every extremity the human frame can endure, and yet for all that she remains a cipher, a stranger.

When she does speak her words are short, nearly monosyllabic, commands: "Cover me," "wait for me here," "help me!" and the like. Right before my own death I have heard her say, "Oh, no!" which suggests that perhaps she feels some affection for me – as indeed she must, or she would not resurrect me – but that is the extent of her emotional range. She follows me through the dungeon (or sometimes I follow her), killing creatures and hacking open crates with the same wordless, fixed intensity. We never walk side by side; we never sit and tell each other of our hopes and aspirations; we never discuss this bizarre undertaking that engages us.

Periodically, as we travel, I can feel myself growing swifter and stronger... not in the normal way one does in a training regimen, but in strange jumps at unexpected times. Divandra, too, experiences these sudden surges of strengh, and from time to time she learns a new spell from old books that we find. I know with numeric precision every detail of her abilities, as she does mine. If we were in a novel we would be boon companions, soul mates, yet here we are silent and glum, always together but utterly apart.

And so we march on in a waking dream, smashing boxes and slaughtering beasts, hour after endless hour. We collect up gold and armaments, robbing the bodies of our enemies until we can carry no more. From time to time we find curious bits of jewelry or metalwork; we take them back to the townspeople; they praise us and pay us. The arms we sell at the blacksmith’s shop, and use the proceeds to buy others. We spend an extraordinary amount of our time engaged in commerce – more than ever Sir Lancelot du Lac did, I am sure.

Where it all leads I do not know. The townspeople talk vaguely of an evil overlord who threatens their land, but every time we return to the town there is no more evidence of his presence, and the people seem to have done nothing to strengthen the defenses.Occasionally some of the objects we are asked to find are said to be useful in delaying or destroying him, but once we surrender them we never see or hear of them again. For a people under the shadow of doom they are strangely complacent about it.

Divandra and I have now returned to full health, and it is time to go on: hacking and slashing, looting and robbing, opening every box and barrel in the hope that we may unearth a clue as to what this is all about. God send that it is not a vain hope.

I said above that I do not know what I am. For sure I am not a hero; a greedy and bloodthirsty mercenary, perhaps. Yet when this is done, I have sworn to regain my pride and my self-respect. I shall study again the virtues of the legendary heroes of old... between the covers of a book.

With respect and affectionate memory, I remain, sir,

Your most humble and obedient servant,


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About the Author(s)

Ernest Adams


Ernest Adams is a freelance game designer, writer, and lecturer, and a member of the International Hobo game design consortium. He is the author of two books, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, with Andrew Rollings; and Break Into the Game Industry: How to Get a Job Making Video Games. Ernest was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers' Association, and a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers' Conference. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at http://www.designersnotebook.com. The views in this column are strictly his own.

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