Dungeon Forest
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"The terror induced by forests and darkness," said a mocking voice from somewhere over her head, "was called by the Ancients, Panic fear, or the fear of the great god Pan. It is interesting to observe that modern progress has not altogether succeeded in banishing it from ill-disciplined minds."

Dian gazed upwards. Her eyes were growing accustomed to the night, and in the branches of the tree above her she caught the pale gleam of silver.

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Basic Information

A dungeon-forest is, as the name suggests, a sort of a hybrid between a Dungeon and a Forest. It features a dense canopy that admits almost no light. In this gloomy, twilight world, the mundane ecosystem has been replaced by vicious predators and bizarre creatures whose mere existence, let alone evolutionary success, is in defiance of all known laws of zoology. For example, the dungeon-forest may be described as unnaturally silent, as if all the smaller mundane animals had been scared away, yet somehow massive super-predators thrive instead of starving or migrating away. Such creatures are typically depicted as a carnivorous plant, giant spider, or dragon.

A dungeon-forest is created when a large, old-growth forest is somehow turned evil. This may be the effect of black magic, human sacrifice, a haunting by ghosts, or the corrupting influence of the Big Bad Evil Guy whose citadel lies in the center of the dungeon-forest.


1. Books: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien - Mirkwood is a prime example of a dungeon-forest, complete with utter darkness and improbable man-eating spiders. Likewise, Fangorn Forest and the old woods outside the Shire have a similar reputation in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
2. TV: Dexter's Lab - the cartoon "D&DD" gives the name of this terrain type. As of the time of this writing, the cartoon in question can be seen at this link.

Game and Story Use

  • The easiest way to do this is have a series of clearings as "dungeon rooms" and then use trails as "corridors" to link them. Of course, this requires the PCs not to just wander off into the trees - this can be dealt with in a variety of ways, from the most mundane being undergrowth so dense that the PCs move a miles per day through it when trailbreaking (and, because they have been using their swords, find that they are blunt when combat starts) to fae magic that makes navigation impossible and dumps the PCs in random locations. Fantasy druids, rangers and the like are a particular nuisance in this scenario. Several old skool scenarios for several RPGs use this basic format - some better than others.
  • It's a classic fantasy trope, showing up in at least three places in Lord Of The Rings, yet unlike the rest of Tolkien, it rarely sees use in RPGs. Tabletop gaming features underground dungeons instead.
    • Probably this is because dungeons are so well established, and people suspend their disbelief of the ecological insanity of dungeons. Whereas, if you're out in the woods, you expect it to be somewhat familiar to real-world experiences. Also, the manufactured walls of dungeon make it feel more natural for the boxing-in of monsters… unless you have some first-hand familiarity with brambles and dense undergrowth.
    • Also, dungeons logically confirm to square grids, convenient for cartography and depicting on a battlemap, whereas forests are unflinchingly organic.
    • Using this terrain in your campaign can help shake things up a bit. The players may think it's just another forest on the map, but it's actually the largest dungeon in your world.
  • There's something very primal about the dark woods that goodly folk avoid. The players will Grok it pretty quickly.
      • Which means it's a perfect place for runaways and fugatives to flee to. It then falls on the PCs to go in and bring them out.
  • In settings with druidic magic or elemental magic, the dungeon-forest can be specifically cultivated, even directed.
    • It might look like a forest (okay, a creepy old sinister forest) from the outside, but once you're past the tree line it's a labyrinthian fortress. Walls of thorns, dead-ends, ambushes and traps await the intruder. Guard towers will be carefully camouflaged in the high canopy, ready to rain down death on those who trespass.
  • A lighter fantasy campaign might use something more along the lines of the Dexter's Lab version - more goofy than evil.
    • Perhaps a sort of a dungeon-forest poser, with skeletons chained to the trees, and angsty goth-clad elves who cultivate their forest's undeserved reputation.
  • On a more prosaic note, it appears that a goodly proportion of our ancestors regarded all heavily wooded areas as being like this - dark, trackless and full of supernatural terrors (or at least dangerous animals and bandits). Certainly to a great many medieval Europeans the Wildwood was a place to be avoided - and the jungle plays a similar role in other parts of the world. Of course this doesn't apply to those communities that live in and/or off the forest… but in many cases they may be regarded as part of the problem by those who don't…
  • Robert Holstock fans may be able to spin this out much further - Mythago Wood was a universe in its own right, distorting time and space in bizarre ways and whilst fairly small on the outside, was almost infinitely large within.
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