“Help me… Please help me… I am a prisoner in the dungeon of the castle. My name is Zelda.” – Princess Zelda using the word dungeon correctly for the first and last time in the entire Zelda series.
The word dungeon is a twisting of the word donjon. Donjon is derived from the Latin word dominus, meaning master or lord. It referred to the central tower of a keep or castle where the lord of the castle lived.
In England, the word dungeon came to refer to cells or prisons build underneath a castle, but this was actually a very uncommon practice until the 12th or 13th century. Imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment, so dungeons would only be useful for political prisoners. Such prisoners were usually noble and were housed in the castle’s apartments. Some archaeologists have pointed out that some of the rooms we thought were dungeons were actually vaults, used to store castle valuables. They point to evidence such as the lack of latrines.
Around the Renaissance, dungeons also became associated with torture chambers. But some scholars have suggested that this association of the word dungeon with prisoners and torture chambers arises from Gothic novels of the 19th century, where they were routinely used by villains and tyrants and hidden beneath medieval castles or churches.
The point is, that a dungeon is not just any old underground structure. Both donjons and dungeons were built for very specific purposes. A donjon was well appointed and built to withstand attack to protect a ruler and their valuables. A dungeon was built to keep prisoners from escaping and perhaps to torture them. They weren’t just interconnected rooms filled with monsters. And that affects the mood and tone of the place.
So, when you create your underground complexes filled with monsters, maybe consider what purpose the complex was originally built for. That will help you bring it to life. Maybe, don’t call it a dungeon at all. Maybe call it an oubliette, a vault, a shrine, a temple, a crypt, a catacomb, a labyrinth, a sanctuary, a fane, an undercroft, an ossuary, a tomb, a complex, a city, a refuge, a redoubt, a cellar, a cistern, a bunker, a gallery, a lair, a sewer, a maze, a sepulcher, a fortress, a settlement, a gateway, a library, a repository, a pit, a treasury, an archive, an underbuilding, or a gallery. Feel free to add the word “underground” to any of those, just to be clear.