Dangerous Archaeology, Part 2: Levels & Layers

My previous post on dangerous archaeology explored environmental narrative in the context of the dungeon, but only detailed one area: the recent past. Today, I’d like to build on that, and discuss how multiple layers of time interact in the dungeon. Layers of time are key both to archaeological aspect of dungeon delving, and to the creation of a living and lived-in dungeon environment.


Let’s consider the layers of a hypothetical dungeon room. Once again, we’re exploring an ancient tomb complex that’s been taken over by brigands.

  1. Bodies and blood from a recent battle
  2. Traces of brigands drinking and gambling
  3. The coffins of long-dead royalty

Each of these layers represent a different period in the history of this room. The closest layer is the battle, while the deepest is the tomb’s original function as a place of rest. In a certain sense, we have three places: a battleground, a barracks, and a burial chamber.

Yet, these three places share a single space. So the layers aren’t sitting next to each other, or one on top of the other. Instead they’re colliding, mixing, and it’s up to the players’ exploration and intuition to separate them and reconstruct their separate stories, as well as the longer story they all tell together. So the bottles from the drinking will be strewn and shattered. One or two of the coffins will be overturned and splintered.

Environmental narrative in the dungeon, then, is driven by friction and collision between layers of the past and present. These layers aren’t static, either, as they often are in video games. Character action and exploration can uncover new layers as they continue to excavate the dungeon. Characters will damage the environment, causing new collisions and leaving environmental narratives of their own.


A classic dungeon doesn’t just have layers of time, it has levels of depth. The classic mechanical assumption is that as you delve deeper, the monsters become more powerful. The narrative assumption is usually that the deeper levels are older (consistent, again, with our archaeological metaphor).

So the characters are pushing forwards towards a goal while pushing backwards in the dungeon’s history. Again, this generates valuable narrative friction. At the top of the dungeon, we’re in the present, but only at the beginning of our characters’ story. At the bottom, we’re in the ancient past, but quite possibly at the climax of our characters’ story.

At the same time, those increasing monster hit dice imply that the resistance is getting more dangerous, and that the dungeon itself is more deeply permeated with supernatural corruption. The party delves deeper, and with every step they descend further into the otherworld.

For example, as the party penetrates the tomb complex, the brigands’ lair gives way to the abode of the vizier’s undead servants, and then to the royal burial chamber. Is the First King still noble in death, or has he been tormented by his descendants’ betrayal and become wrathful at any who seek his counsel or his treasure?

One of my favorite examples of a descent like this in literature is in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three. The heroes: Taran, Eilonwy, and Fflewdur meet in the holding cells in Spiral Castle, then escape to the passages within its walls. As they weave downwards, their relationships develop, leading up to a moment of shared fear and treasure-finding in the crypt of King Rhitta.

The disparate characters become companions as they descend downwards in time from the modern era to the cursed past.

As is often the case in roleplaying, the environmental narrative of dungeons is about disparate elements and contradictions, and the atmosphere and drama created by the friction between them.

5 thoughts on “Dangerous Archaeology, Part 2: Levels & Layers”

  1. Man, any time a Lloyd Alexander reference gets dropped, I’m a happy camper. It’s been so long. Now I want to read that series again.

    — c.

  2. This reminds me of a house rule I was kicking around when I was considering a Labyrinth Lord one-shot (which got scrapped). When you make your character, you don’t even choose a name. As you gain levels, you also have to pick a piece of background — a name, a parent, a personal relationship, something. The original idea was that since characters can die easily, the player’s investment in the character grows with the length of time they’ve survived. Also, since I was also using a “henchmen get promoted to PC status” rule for PC death, it means that one of the previously background characters might, in fact, turn out to be the lost king of Atlantis.

  3. Chuck:

    I might toss that into my 8-bit gothic fantasy idea — each level, you get to watch a cutscene revealing more of the character’s backstory, or something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *