The Campus as Dungeon

University of Waterloo Math Building

Games can be influenced by the principles of higher education, but also by its spaces. Every campus doubles as a dungeon. After all, what’s in a dungeon? A good dungeon imparts a feeling of mystery and apprehension. It presents an opportunity for exploration and has an ecology all its own. Treasure, traps, and monsters are almost incidental to the feeling that the space gives. They’ve got all of that and more.

New and old

University of Waterloo Math Building

This is the building where I work. It’s dungeonesque. (Credit: Saforrest)

A university campus has a lot of different architecture as opinions about what makes a building look nice shift over its lifespan. More importantly, each building houses more than classrooms. A campus can have everything from a laser lab to a library. They’re places where experimentation happens side by side with research. As any first year student can tell you, it’s easy to get turned around or wind up in the wrong building because as they grow, campuses tend to become more labyrinthine as the university struggles to find room near its other buildings. There are even secret passages, since most campus buildings tend to be connected by heating tunnels. It’s a landscape where the odd and the innovative clash with the traditional, and every one is different. Oxford isn’t like MIT, MIT isn’t like Stanford. There’s no formula to designing a campus, so you can pile on the strange.

Alive and dead

There are two kinds of university I think about when this comes up. A living university is still in use. Explorers might find students studying in out of the way nooks, purchase food from campus vendors, or be barred from certain areas by stern-faced staff. Staying below notice becomes a priority, as well as building relationships with characters with the right access the party needs. A dead university on the other hand, is abandoned. An oppressive silence sits around its crumbling bricks and it’s filled with signs of things that used to happen. Flaked murals, old chalkboard art, and odd educational artifacts make for great dungeon dressing. Even if the party knows what happened to the university, even if they’re intimately familiar with its story, every hallway is rife with opportunities to get them to relive it. It also carries more danger. Floors built by the lowest bidder could give way at any moment, abandoned experiments might have run amok, and in the right setting abandoned buildings are great places for monsters to live.

Day and night

During the day a living campus is filled with people and noise. They’re going to class, marching, protesting, playing music, and generally being humans. But at night it dies. The lights may be on, but no one is home. A lot of the buildings are still accessible to students, but it’s a lonely, silent place. The only thing more frightening than being alone there is the fear that you might not be. In a lot of ways the university can be the best of both worlds for a GM, a town during the day and a dungeon at night.

3 hooks that use the campus as a dungeon

  • A vampire is luring unsuspecting students to the steam tunnels and feeding on them during the day. The party must explore both the daylight and nighttime campuses to┬átrack down its lair after a friend goes missing.
  • A journalist wants to know more about Professor Klempf’s research, but the good doctor keeps his lab sealed. A group of students have a better chance of finding out just what’s going on in Klempf’s genetics lab, but can they overcome the owlbear to do it?
  • The campus has always been strangely arranged, but an ancient text reveals the shape as a summoning circle for a terrible demon. Planned by a dean two centuries past, the party must uncover clues left behind by a professor who opposed him in order to stop the ritual in time.

There are a ton of different ways to use a campus, library, residence, laboratory, or any of the other structures at a university like a dungeon. They’re practically small towns unto themselves, after all. Small towns filled with book-obsessed crazy people.

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