• S.A. Fisher

Dungeoncrawling toward Joseph Campbell's "Inmost Cave."

Updated: Jul 21

"The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek." Joseph Campbell

The Quest

Do roleplaying games, particularly dungeon crawls, have any value beyond the sheer entertainment they offer? Is the dungeon exploring and the hex-crawling genre just a low-brow game of hack-and-slash, or is there something deeper at work?


Delving Deeper

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture in 1938. Huizinga argued that not only was play the central activity of civilization, but that play created civilization. He said that "law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom, and science . . . are rooted in the primeval soil of play.” Huizinga, reflecting on the personification of inanimate objects and abstract ideas stemming from the human imagination, observed that play "must have been present before human culture or human speech existed." To play at anything is serious work. Fair enough. What then is the significance of playing Dungeons and Dragons?

"All play means something." Johan Huizinga

In Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, an exploration of mythmaking, he lays out a series of stages through which the hero must progress in what he calls the monomyth. Of course, this work is well-known but let's pay a little closer attention to Campbell. First, his writing was focused at least as much on psychoanalysis as it was on myth, literature, and folklore. In fact, Campbell said that to understand "the symbols" behind religion and mythology, "I know of no better modern tool than psychoanalysis." Dreams and rituals were a mirror of each other, symbolic of our struggle to understand ourselves and our world. Campbell says:

"These archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision . . . Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche."

There are several stages of the hero's journey, including the Call to Adventure and the Supreme Ordeal. But before the Supreme Ordeal, the hero must face Stage 7, the inmost cave.

The metaphor for dungeon delving is clear.

"The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind — whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self."

It is no coincidence that dungeon delving, as we might call it, is a metaphor for self-discovery.

Joseph Campbell had this to say regarding the mythmaker's journey into their own psychological Underdark of the monomyth:

"And so it happens that if anyone — in whatever society — undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) . . . in the vocabulary of the mystics this is the second stage of the Way, that of the “purification of the self,” when the senses are “cleansed and humbled,” and the energies and interests “concen­trated upon transcendental things” . . . In our dreams the ageless perils, gargoyles, trials, secret helpers, and instructive figures are nightly still encountered . . . [and these figures are] the clue to what we must do to be saved."

This seems so on-the-nose that surely the origins of Dungeons and Dragons can be found in Campbell's work. Were the designers influenced by his work and just recapitulating the metaphor as a game? Well, perhaps. One researcher discussed the influence of Campbell with Frank Mentzer, and though he remembered that Campbell's book was "on the shelf," it seems unlikely that the founders intentionally formed the game around the Campbellian monomyth. Nevertheless, it's clear that this type of play, mythmaking, and psychological self-examination are foundational to the human experience.


Kolbitars and Appendix N

There is a further link to examine, and that is to the oral storytelling tradition. Tolkien formed a club at Oxford to gather weekly and read the Norse sagas, inviting C.S. Lewis to attend. He named the group Coalbiters after Viking storytellers who sat so close to the fire they could bite the coals. The little gathering regaled each other with exciting tales of Norse literature and history, heroism, combat, and mythology. The group, of course, reformed into The Inklings, which produced the Appendix N of Dungeons and Dragons. But more than that, the Coalbiters tradition of an intimate group huddled together and telling and re-telling tales of derring-do and heroism holds a great similarity to the liminal space that Dungeons and Dragons occupies.


Gary Gygax wrote of his own upbringing in the tradition of Kolbitar, in the very Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide, saying of Dungeons and Dragons that "all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a lad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerers and dauntless swordsmen."


The oral tradition of play, storytelling, and the saga-myth is an intellectual activity as old as mankind. William Butler Yeats called this tradition of storytelling folk art, saying “folk art is, indeed, the oldest of the aristocracies of thought . . . it is the soil where all great art is rooted.[whether] spoken by the fireside, or sung by the roadside, or carved into the lintel.”


The Dungeon Crawl to Self-discovery (and Self-Therapy)

While our games feature stalwart heroes taking torch and sword in hand to explore the darkness of what lies beneath, this is clearly a metaphor for self-discovery. And there we must turn. The journey in the darkness that Campbell describes is our journey to confront ourselves and our future. To understand ourselves and what we can become is the treasure. The location of this confrontation is not in the Hall of the Blood King, but in our inmost cave, our mind, exploring thoughts about ourselves and facing our own worst enemy. Yes, that one. The one in the mirror.


The Greeks believed that entertainment in any form, be it theater or music, was an exploration of what it meant to be human. In Plato's The Republic, the great philosopher argued that music had a spiritual purpose, that it purified and elevated the human experience. Aristotle agreed. He believed music was not only pleasurable and relaxing but also instructive. Music taught values and emotions. Music was not only entertainment but a teacher of moral principles.

"The best tragedies are conflicts between a hero and his destiny." Aristotle

The Greeks also considered theater an important form of entertainment. Aristotle believed theater was a form of psychological therapy. To witness a tragic play created in the viewer an experience he called catharsis, which purified the viewer of negative emotions such as pity and fear. Through tragedy, the audience came to not only understand the world through the eyes of the protagonist and antagonist but also to free himself of strong negative emotions. This release of pent-up feelings allowed the viewer to leave his physical body for a higher plane of existence and understanding. Once relieved of petty concerns and worries through catharsis, Aristotle felt that the viewer could better understand the nobility of suffering and face the world fully prepared for conflict. This was Aristotle's concept of "catharsis."

Recent psychological research supports the work of the Greek philosophers and Campbell's monomyth. Psychologists studying RPGs found that players reflecting on the gaming experience reported the following:

  • Experiencing situations through characters.

  • Skill building.

  • Escaping mental health symptoms.

  • Safely engaging with mental health difficulties.

  • Building relationships.

Role-players that report these experiences were, according to researchers, developing and growing, moving through all five stages of the Psychological Recovery Model. Researchers concluded that D&D was beneficial for the mental health recovery process.


The Loot

Johan Huizinga, the father of game theory, tells us that all play has meaning.

Our games play out in the theater of the mind. Our shared worlds and personae our built from imagination and creativity. The conversations, combats, challenges, and victories of our games are drawn by mythology, religions, folklore, novels, video games, comics, movies, and all manner of social and cultural detritus. But the game's inspiration and understanding also come from dark places in our minds, mined from our thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories, and perhaps, even from repressed trauma.


In a Freudian sense, we are cured by making conscious our unconscious, and thus gaining insight. This is the framework of Campbell's hero's journey. Here he describes the role of the modern psychoanalyst in the role any gamer might recognize, as Dungeon Master:

[The psychoanalyst] is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night.

The Dungeon Master issues the Call to Adventure that begins when we pick up the dice. Each of us faces our own inmost cave and finds the treasures we seek, together.


The Post-Mortem


Playing an RPG can be an imminently satisfying social and intellectual experience. Dungeoncrawling is not only jolly good entertainment and pure escapism, but also instructive and therapeutic. As our Heroes with a Thousand Faces overcome their enemies, the gamers are participants in collective mythmaking and experience through it the vicarious sense of resolution in the hero's journey. There is a psychological catharsis in the roleplaying process as the heroes struggle, fail, and finally triumph against the obstacles and challenges that fate (i.e., the DM) has thrown against them. This is why there is so much focus in the community on good gaming, on good adventures and good adventure design, and on fair adjudication. We all know intrinsically that the threat of character death and the high tension from that in the game provides catharsis. And catharsis can only come through the experience of a properly told tragedy.


Indeed, as the players wrestle with their inner demons and fears about their future, this manifests as mythmaking and catharsis through shared storytelling with friends. The defeat of that one orc, that one trap, or that one level of the dungeon may not deliver the same sense of accomplishment as a big promotion at work, but it scratches a similar itch. If you have ever said, "I need to play" or "I really enjoyed the game tonight," you probably agree with this assessment. And maybe, like me, you never quite knew why gaming was important to you.


Now, of course, not everyone will agree with my opinions here. And that is well and fine. But however you play the game, bite the coals, . . . and go roll some dice. Cheers.


Interested in more thoughts OSR analysis, history, or game theory? Click here.


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