Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fictional Reasons for Magic Items in Dungeons

So why exactly are dungeons stuffed full of magical loot?

Or at least, why are people always sticking magic items underground, or at least in some cave somewhere?

Here are a few reasons I've come across in fiction.

Hidden by long-dead races.

"Ansorge," the Mindak said. "City of Everlasting Night. City of the Night People. The ones remembered as elves and trolls in your legends. They're dead now . . . Only their guardians remain. Their last project was to gather the wrack of war."
- from The Swordbearer, by Glen Cook

This idea is a pretty interesting one. Why are there hideously powerful magic items, but they aren't just tossed willy-nilly across the world in constant use in warfare and scheming and slaying?

Well, perhaps the last time that happened, some long-dead race gathered them up and buried them there. It makes for an interesting dungeon, and it would explain ordered tombs, treasuries with fiendish guards and horrible wards, and undying curses on those who pick the stuff up.

After all, these poor guys didn't spend their final days gathering up powerful magical items only to let you come by and get them without challenge. They aren't always a stockpile, though - the serpent men hid their magic crown on an island in Conan the Buccaneer, but didn't turn it into a city-sized stockpile like the folks of Ansorge.

It was put there for use by a future hero.

You usually get this for a very specific piece of gear; it doesn't explain a huge and odd assortment of goods. But it does explain some things being there.

". . . let us instead say, all those centuries ago, Egel looked into the future and saw this invasion, so he left his armor here, guarded by magic that only you - the earl - could break."
- Legend, by David Gemmell

But don't knock it as a bit of modern fiction unsuited to swords and sorcery. Where did Arnie get his sword in Conan the Barbarian? Crom either left it for him, or guided him to it.

Buried along with an ancient civilization.

It happens, especially if they used the magic item(s) in question in a somewhat self-destructive manner.

"The great metropolis of the empire vanished beneath the dust is now known only as the City Out of Mind.. The masters of the lost empire ruled from that city, and they used the Theorpart in their final battle. It lies there now, buried beneath a blanket of dust so deep that scarcely a trace of the city can be seen from the surface."
- Sea of Death, by Gary Gygax

The gods stuck them there.

Another one that usually explains single items or small clutches of items.

"Enter the Shade Gate . . . then you must seek the Tunnel Under the Marsh which leads to the Pulsing Cavern. In that chamber the runeswords are kept. They have been kept their since your ancestors relinquished them . . . "
- Elric of Melnibone, by Michael Moorcock

It could explain a huge stockpile, though, if the gods were especially thorough.

Crazy mage put it there.

As reasons go, this one pairs well with "An old man comes up to you in a tavern" for a full old-school course of dungeon delving. But it's used for good reason, because a crazy guy with powers explains a lot.

"It is well known that the labyrinthine dungeon, catacombs, and maze of subterranean passages beneath the ancient castle once held a conglomerate of monsters and a plethora of treasure - all there at the whim of the lord archmage who ruled within."
- Night Arrant, by Gary Gygax
(more of that quoted passage is here)

This fictional piece is an offshoot of gaming, of course, where it's the grandaddy of all explanations of why there is a bucketload of magic swords in a hole in the ground.

Any other fictional reasons for magic items stuck in tunnels underground that I'm missing? I'm not just wondering about why magic items might be underground. I'm wondering about fictional writeups of the same.

[Editing later - commentators posted a bunch of good reasons for magic items in dungeons . . . but my point was to explore some of the reasons in published fiction for magic items in dungeons. So guys, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask for some citations. ;]


  1. The big tough monsters, already established as being deep underground, take the loot for themselves - from their raids on the surface, from other monsters, or from foolhardy adventurers.

  2. Good post - I'm a sucker for anything with literary annotations.

  3. Evil temples could have offerings of treasure and after the ritual they place the treasure into a treasure trove and keep it guarded. Maybe the demon lord only wants the the treasure to be given to it ceremonially and afterwards it is just stored. Or maybe like in the the Hall of the Firegiant there could be a temple like the one dedicated to the Elder Eye where the is a chance after a sacrifice that the Elder Eye will grant a magic item in return. Of course evil temples would be located deep underground in the lowest levels of the dungeon away from the good gods.

  4. Magic Energy Absorption

    Dungeons are where the bonds between the worlds are weakest, which is whey so many items are created here or are reforged. Many creatures may believe that items left in dark places absorb the natural magic energies. Some creatures may give items to their lackeys, so that they absorb these energies. In other cases, items may be hidden there hoping that in a few years they will grow in powers until their master returns for it.

  5. Nice, you're missing some

    -The items (and a lot of treasure) were left as funeral offerings, and buried with their owners.

    -As above, but also time and geology buried the tomb even further, and then someone built a dungeon/mine/whatever over it. Now you can have a change of scenery, leading from the dungeon to the tomb

    -It's owner went undead willingly, and now resides in a large underground necropolis. He is still using the item.

    -The item was in a city that sunk to the bowels of earth. This may be a geological event, or the wrath of the gods.

    1. Well, I am missing a lot of reasons. Mostly because I wasn't trying to catalog all the reasons magic items could be underground.

      Rather I'm really just trying to find literary examples of magic items in dungeons. Preferably in non-D&D fiction sources, although Gary Gygax gets a pass here.

  6. In my games undead have magic items because they were buried with it, living Humanoids have them because they use them and creature type monster either don't or they're attracted to the magic radiating from it and horde it out of instinct.

  7. There could also be a passage that goes down to the lowest level of the dungeon and allows a dragon to come out and raid kingdoms and steal their treasure. The passage then seals but there is a dungeon that has some sort of entrance into the dragon's lair. Maybe is was built ages past but the dragon now lives at the bottom of the dungeon and if the adventurers wish find it's treasure they must go through the dungeon to get it because the passage that the dragon uses to exit the dungeon is too strongly sealed for the adventurers to use.

  8. Maybe the monsters make the treasure and magic items themselves to lure adventurers to their doom. DF is really sort of a fairy tale and there are many fairy tales where evil monsters lure people to thair doom.

  9. Or maybe the dungeon is actually the site of a great underground war, and there are dozens of long-dead corpses still gripping the handle of their magic swords.

  10. The Hobbit; the troll cave contains treasure, Glamdring, and Orcrist. The reason? There was an apocalypse, no one knows, but trolls live underground and trolls have the swords, so the swords are underground. As for the exact passage, I'm at work, but I'm sure you have a copy of the book.

    Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, there's another example of the same (Smaug), as well as an example of something slightly different from the above, which is that the race that made the treasure used to use the treasure, and they lived there. (The Dwarves under the Mountain.)

    1. Also, Jack Vance in The Dying Earth has treasure around just because. Here's an example: "Liane made a wry mouth. There were objections to the course. Sometimes it seemed as if all living creatures conspired to exasperate him. Only this morning, the spice merchant—what a tumult he had made dying! How carelessly he had spewed blood on Liane's cock comb sandals! Still, thought Liane, every unpleasantness carried with it compensation. While digging the grave he had found the bronze ring.

      And Liane's spirits soared; he laughed in pure joy. He bounded, he leapt. His green cape flapped behind him, the red feather in his cap winked and blinked ... But still— Liane slowed his step—he was no whit closer to the mystery of the magic, if magic the ring possessed."

      It works pretty well if your conceit for the world is, "This place has so much history it's practically homogenous with it."

  11. I thought of the trolls later. Smaug I didn't count because I'm not sure what magic items he had. Elven mail? Er, the Arkenstone, which has the magic power to make Thorin mad at Bilbo?

    And yeah, Liane's ring. I was sure there must be something in Dying Earth but I just loaned out my copy.

    Another one I thought of is Fred Saberhagen's swords books. One of the books concerns raiding the Blue Temple for their underground vault, which has some of the 12 swords in it. But I haven't had time to dig for a page reference.

  12. It was lost in an accident.
    I have a citation, but totally out of the genre. Magic items actually don't exist there, but treasure is treasure (the citation is definitely not literal, as I'm translating back to English from Polish edition):
    "A legendary riverboat that sunk 30 years ago with gold worth 100,000 dolars![...]
    Twenty years ago the river have changed it's stream channel and flooded the old village! We've built a new one! There, in the old channel![...]
    We are inside the boat... And this means that the river used to run here..."
    - "The Master of the Mississippi," by Don Rosa

    1. I'd love to find a fantasy reference like that. Treasure ones aren't that hard - treasure always seems to be buried. Magic items, however, it does make me wonder if there was ever much non-gaming material that supposed magical treasures were best stashed in tunnels underground.

  13. I like to give purpose to hidden treasures. I write histories if time provides. In a lost fortress the party found a room almost frozen in time. One naked skeleton with a sword nearby, one armored skeleton also with a sword and a robed skeleton all behind a wall of rubble. The naked skeleton was the intended victim of two assassins but woke and fought them off in his birthday suit. The mage panicked and tossed a fireball in the small bedroom, crumbling the walls outside and blowing them to smithereens. The fortress was sacked soon after and was quickly abandoned as the march moved on...

    In another game the players found a secret door triggered by kissing an elf statue. Behind it was a similar statue (although it was much more naked) looking over a treasure chest of fine elven clothes, jewelry and a vial of magic perfume. A little research revealed that the statue was the secret mistress of the castle's owner.

    1. Heh. I like stories like that. Gives the dungeon personality.

  14. Three most common magic item justifications:

    - monsters who have killed adventurers and taken their stuff, or just left it in their lair.

    - raiding monsters who have attacked civilized areas (castles, abbeys, etc.) and looted them and their owners, then carried the loot back as treasure or personal gear to the dungeon.

    - other monsters that have defeated monsters who engaged in the above activity and occupied their lair.

    - mischance: warrior with ring of invisibility is killed by orcs, falls in river, ring drifts into lair of degenerate cannibal hobbit (and why weren't the latter made into a standard D&D race?).

  15. Now I start to wonder, as I haven't read the tales. Was there something magical in Ali Baba's treasure? Or was the origin of Alladin's cave given?

    1. I don't know offhand. I'm going to have to look into that!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...