Design Ideas from History – No Really, Why is this Here?!

22 May

More thoughts about gaming that come from my recent vacation!

In my previous post I talked about the wonderful pioneer village at Spring Mill State Park in Indiana. While there I learned some more things that gave me insight on dungeon design.

I am not a big fan of “funhouse” dungeons, not in their pure form. I like some level of rationality to dungeon design, even if it’s the thinnest of pretexts. It can be as simple as, “The Witch King filled the dungeon with traps so that he could find the greatest tomb raiders,” or even, “The Mad Necromancer loved clowns”. My current sweet spot is Michael Curtis’ spectacular Stonehell Dungeon, which is filled with high weirdness and still built on an underlying logic.

That logic doesn’t need to be obvious to the players. Part of the fun of dungeon delving is unraveling such mysteries. I like it when a dungeon tells a story and through legends, puzzles, and other discoveries the players can figure it out for themselves.

So what does this have to do with Spring Mill?

My wife and I noticed that several of the the large houses had living quarters on the upper floor, but the staircases were outside. Given the climate of Indiana, especially in the winter, this was a strange design choice. The upper floors were clearly not a later addition to the homes, so why put the stairs outside?

The answer turned out to be quite simple, and it applied to a wide range of other features in the town.


Each year the tax collector would come to the people’s homes with and assess taxes based on their belongings. They came with a ledger that included a list of items taxed in the previous year and the tax collector would walk through the house and update it. Many of the taxable items were very specific, leading to curious loop holes.

Having a staircase inside your home was taxable. If it was on the outside it was not. This influenced many people’s decisions when building their homes.

Families used armoires and had shallow closets because a big closet was considered a room and was taxable. Iron tools, such as fireplace pokers or even door hinges, were utilitarian and taxable. But if they had ornamentation on them they were considered artwork and not taxable. Thus the blacksmith added leaves or flowers to his designs. The same was true of mirrors and an unadorned mirror was taxable. An ornate wall hanging that was also reflective was not taxed.

One of my favorite tax dodges involved a low fence near the door to the mill that was used to keep pigs out. The villagers raised pigs for food and each night filling a trough with mash from the distillery. The pigs always came in for feeding but were left free to wander the village and the woods. If the people penned the pigs they’d be taxed as livestock, but by letting them roam free they could call them wild hogs. When it came time for slaughter they could be collected when they came in for dinner.

Instead of building fences to keep pigs in they built fences to keep them out.

From our standpoint as “adventurers” visiting an “ancient village”, these design choices made no obvious sense. They presented mysteries that only became clear as we explored further, and the answers were both fascinating and enlightening.

You can do the same thing when designing a dungeon. A strange series of rounded tunnels and many slime encounters will suddenly make sense when a lost temple is discovered, revealing that the builders were worshipers of Juibilex who were transformed into the slimes. The great aqueducts bringing water from the glaciers were built to cool the prison of a fire giant, who may still be bound in the further depths. The dungeon may have been built as a hidden town, to avoid exposing the people’s prosperity to bandits, monsters, or the High King.

People in the real world often make choices that seem inexplicable to us, until we take the time to dig deeper. There’s no reason you can’t do the same with your dungeons and have a lot of fun in the process.



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