In many people's minds, dungeons are synonymous with role-playing. The most successful game of all time includes the word in its title. But what is it about dungeons that really make them special, and how can you make a dungeon into a rich memorable environment rather than just a hole in the ground?
The tradition of the dungeon in storytelling echoes back to the myths of ancient Greece, and the stories of heroes traveling to the underworld to reclaim forgotten secrets, hidden treasures or captured maidens. The dungeon in a role-playing game follows the same patterns.
A dungeon is a place where adventurers find hidden truths, they may be locations where ancient treasures have been set aside and forgotten, or they may be carefully guarded strongholds where the treasures are not only remembered but they are feared and worship. The thing to always remember about a dungeon is that it is a place set apart from the rest of the world, it might be riddled with traps, it might be filled with nightmarish creatures, or it might be something else entirely. Dungeons need not be purely fantastic; there are numerous environments similar to the traditional dungeon setting in the real world, but even these real world dungeons have secrets and mystery shrouding them.
The use of dungeons in role-playing games can vary dramatically. Some game masters use dungeons as focal points for a series of stories, others use some kind of underground setting in ever session they run; there are even campaigns where every game is played out in a single unimaginably vast labyrinth. None of these options is more correct when it comes to dungeons, and each has a chance to be truly great.