Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Let's talk about REAL dungeons


Today I want to talk about dungeons. Yes, actual dungeons as they existed in history - the ones without the floating lava platforms and the arcane eyes dotted all over the place.

It's a bit of a misnomer that medieval castles housed areas for prisoners. In fact, the French don-jon was the name used for the Great Keep where nobles lived and contemplated this most secure of places. But as time went by, the nobles sought more luxurious abodes while priceless items and important prisoners were kept in the Great Keep on the count of its security.

Eventually, in the late medieval period, new prisons were built for political prisoners, which were called dungeons - reminiscent of the don-jons before them. Because people didn't really want prisoners near them in the castle, the dungeons were located in basements and dank places that, frankly, were pretty rotten.

Dungeons tended to be little more than a room with a trapdoor - nothing like the places we're used to in our fantasy roleplaying games. They were certainly claustrophobic - but they have nothing on the oubliette.

French for 'the forgotten place', the oubliette is one of the most unthinkably terrifying places you could imagine. The prisoner would be lowered into a space in which they could only stand - there was no room to crouch or move. There they were left, sometimes fed scraps, until they were let out - if they ever were. Surely this is one of the worst fates anyone could experience. I can imagine that if someone's character were put in there, the player would be affected somewhat.

One of the most infamous examples of the dungeon was the one located in Pontefract Castle, 35ft below the surface. It had a network of prison cells deep underground where prisoners were left to rot - a harrowing and unbelievable experience by today's standards.

So, dungeons in real life weren't exactly like the ones full of treasure and magic that we're used to at the gaming table, but if you want to really terrify your players - lock their characters in a real dungeon, in the dark, for the rest of their lives.

Sleep tight.