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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Alternate Views » What I Leaned About Dungeons on My Summer Vacation

What I Leaned About Dungeons on My Summer Vacation

The family and I went to Sequoia National Park for a few days of camping. On our second day there, we took the Crystal Cave tour and for the first time, I got to actually creep through a dimly lit cave complex. 

crystal cave 01

A small pool with stalagmite formations.

I’ve always wanted to go caving or spelunking. I love the idea of exploring places that have been locked away for a million years, the dark, creepy environment, the opportunity to see something unseen by human eyes.

Well, I didn’t get to do much of that at Crystal Cave near Sequoia National Park. I did get to go inside a Marble Karst Cave and walk through the winding passages for about an hour.

The Crystal Cave tour left me with some impressions about natural caves. Obviously  this has nothing to do with man-made dungeons, but the for winding, natural caves that adventurers might stumble upon, there might be some information here that could prove useful or lend a little more authenticity to a game.

Caves Are Cold

Barring geothermic activity, caves are cold. This particular cave was a constant 48 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. At the cave entrance, as we waited for our tour to begin, there was a constant blast of cool air coming out of the entrance. It was refreshing, and I’d imaging visitors there in August might find it life-saving.

crystal cave 02

Small stream running along the side of the path.

Crystal Cave (and caves like it) are formed by water that’s mixed with carbon dioxide that slowly dissolves the bedrock (in this case, marble) over thousands and thousands of years. They start out entire filled with water, and as the water erodes a way out, the water within recedes and exposes the cave.

The gist of this is that these caves were filled with small streams and pools of water. They’re everywhere. As we wandered through the complex many of us were constantly getting dripped on with very cold water.

When Water Carves Caves, It Does It in Three Dimensions


National Park Service map of Crystal Cave. Click to see full size.

This is a map of Crystal Cave. If you click on the image, you can see the original size map from the National Park Service.

The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a mess compared to the maps most of us make of cave complexes. That’s because this cave was designed by water, rock and gravity.

The tour I was on only went through a small part of this complex (there are other tours that take you to different areas), but I was astounded by how many little crevasses and passageways there were at all sorts of weird angles.

On more than one occasion, there was a passageway that wound up from the ceiling of another passage way. Most of them led to another section of the complex, but taking them would require climbing gear (and a diet in my case).

Now, this would be kind of a nightmare to run in a game, especially if your players insist on mapping, which they should. Had I been exploring this cave by myself, I would have left myself markers indicate from which direction I came, so I could find my way out, and that’s because …

This shaft led upward as far as I could see.

This shaft led upward as far as I could see.

It’s Very Easy to Get Turned-Around

I like to think I have a very good sense of direction, and on the surface, I do. Much of this is probably because I subconsciously keep track of the sun and certain landmarks as I travel. All that goes out the window once you’re in caves. Five minutes into the cave, I had no idea which was North was anymore. Not a clue.

There are no straight lines. Every passage way curves and bends constantly, so that your’e constantly changing direction.

Furthermore, I found it very easy to lose track of how much we were ascending or descending, as those elevation changes happen all the time as well.

Sound Does Not Travel Well

Having looked at the schedule when I purchased tickets for the tour, there was a group of about 50 or 60 people in the caves 30 minutes ahead of us and even more behind us by 30 minutes. That means for the first 15 minutes of the tour and the last 15 minutes of the tour, there was a group of people as large as ours.

In the dome room. We heard nothing of the dozens of people ahead or behind our tour group, but I did get a photobomb.

In the dome room. We heard nothing of the dozens of people ahead or behind our tour group, but I did get a photobomb.

I never heard them. Not even a peep. At one point very near the end of the tour, when we entered the Dome Room, our guide turned out all the lights and asked everyone to be as quiet as they could be. During this time, we could hear the distant dripping of water, but we couldn’t hear anything of the group that was 30 minutes behind us. Not a peep.

It’s probably the irregular surfaces and constant bending of the passageways, acting as diffusers for all the sound waves. Hearing that small band of goblins arguing three passageways away? No chance. But at least they won’t hear you either.

Oil Lanterns are Shit for Light

During that same time in the Dome Room, while all the lights were off and we were in total blackness, he turned on a small flashlight and covered it with his hand, moving his fingers to simulate the flickering of an oil flame.

He told us that this was about how much light the people who first discovered this cave had. Here we were in one of the most magnificent rooms in the cave, and we could barely see any of the formations, let alone the wall opposite of us. The guide told us the first explorers to the cave noted that this room contained “nothing notable.”

Remember that when the thief is looking for traps or secret passages by lantern light.


Certainly having had this experience is going to change the way I’ll handle caves in my game. It will change my narration, to include the temperature, the eerie silence, the absolute blackness when the lights are out, the winding passages. Combat within a cave by lantern light should be truly terrifying. You’d be lucky to get a good look at what your fighting, and people walking in front of the lanterns would bathe everything in front of them in darkness.

Definitely not what I pictured when I played by first dungeon crawl.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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9 Responses to "What I Leaned About Dungeons on My Summer Vacation"

  1. photostyleNo Gravatar says:

    Makes complete sense. I’ve been in a couple caves, and can relate to all of this. I have no idea why I’d never thought to apply that experience to RPG caves.

  2. ShoeNo Gravatar says:

    Used to go Spelunking all the time in boy scouts. I am definately not as observant as you . wish I had made some of these observations in my early GM-ing years!

  3. Anthony SandersNo Gravatar says:

    Awesome insights. I have done some amateur spelunking myself. While noting that caves are cold, it can also be noted that, no matter how cold the surface temperature is, caves generally maintain a constant temperature year round, so that 48 degree cave complex may save an ill prepared group in a blizzard. Also, it should be pointed out that all of those nooks and crannies provide tons of cover and hiding places for dungeon denizens and others familiar with the caves. Sneak attack anyone? Keep up the insightful posts.

  4. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple)No Gravatar says:

    Player skill is only as good as the GM’s descriptions. It’s a collaborative thing that dice rollers and equipment hand-wavers do not participate in. But it takes the kinds of insights you shared in the article, Stu, to engage the player’s creative thinking. I did not know about the base temperature in a cavern complex. That’s good data I need to inform my players about so they can add that to their skill. Like Anthony points out: it could save their lives in a blizzard. Your observation about the affect of lantern light on the visual senses certainly puts opponents with some form of “vision in the darkness” or “heat vision” at an advantage. That’s not exactly how some play the game if they take out a compass and measure 60 feet circumference. There is thought behind what the GM narrates. Your insights here are gold. Thank you. And let us have some more, please!

  5. Chris in KobeNo Gravatar says:

    Awesome article, the light insight is very useful. The humidity was a big thing for me – probably not so noticeable in cold caves, but huge caves in the tropics (at least, the one I went to in Okinawa). It was still cooler than the surface, but the humidity was so great that I was sweating buckets within 5 minutes. It might be a bit much for players, but I don’t think it would be unfair to count pretty much the entire cave as difficult terrain. Without carved paths and walkways, the floor is wet, slippery and uneven, plus there are stalactites and stalagmites all over the place for tripping over or bumping your head on. There’s a lot of environment depth to caves (pun only partially intended). Thanks for the article.

  6. Briar StompNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve done some free caving (not on a tour) and another thing you realize very quickly is caves are three dimensional. Chimneys and sinkholes all over the place. Attacks could come from any direction.

  7. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    I have visited a few caves, and my experiences matches yours. I once visited a mine as well, and I can tell that 2km below ground, it was HOT and the wind was a gale, pushing breathable air up all those tunnels.

  8. MRCJNo Gravatar says:

    Before I started gaming I spent some time in the lava tubes near Big Springs CA. Part of the network of tubes radiating from Mt. Shasta. Because of the way they were formed, you might find a slightly different experience. I noted a few things when in lava tubes: 1. sound does travel fine in them, because of the darkness and stillness any my own anxiety, I found my senses in general to be heightened. It is frigging dark down there. 2. Much of the complex in near Big Springs is fairly level, in some places you can experience a fairly flat floor, and the opposite- of a floor littered with chunks of rock fallen from the ceiling, very hard to walk on. 3. The caves in that area are very dry, lava formed them and left.

  9. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple)No Gravatar says:

    I thought this video might go well here. I stumbled upon it while reading about modern underground cities and my mind thought about the old Norse stories about dwarves. Then I found the medieval underground city of Derinkuyu and recalled this post. I hope you think of it as interesting as I thought was your post.

    From the description:
    Derinkuyu Underground City is located in the homonymous Derinkuyu district in Nevşehir Province, Turkey…….It was opened for visitors as of 1969 and to date, only ten percent of the underground city is accessible for tourists. Its eight floors extend at a depth of approximately 85m.

    The underground city at Derinkuyu has all the usual amenities found in other underground complexes across Cappadocia, such as wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, and chapels. Unique to the Derinkuyu complex and located on the second floor is a spacious room with a barrel vaulted ceiling. It has been reported that this room was used as a religious school and the rooms to the left were studies. Between the third and fourth levels is a vertical staircase. This passage way leads to a cruciform church on the lowest level.

    The large 55m ventilation shaft appears to have been used as a well. The shaft also provided water to both the villagers above and, if the outside world was not accessible, to those in hiding.

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