Certain political ecology case studies work excellently as inspiration for dungeon ecology. Human beings and our mixed motivations are endlessly interesting—porting these real-life examples over to the monstrous factions of a dungeon is a fun exercise and can yield very interesting results at the table.
Yeh et al. (2014) wrote a paper about Tibetan yak herders and the change in lifestyle they experience due to policies put in place by the Chinese communist government. In their traditional lifestyle, the yak herders had the power to react to snowstorms. Herders shared rangeland and therefore were able to transport their yaks from one area to another in anticipation of bad snowstorms. Chinese government policies subdivided land and forced families to keep their yaks only in certain areas. This meant that they were not able to move their herds into safer areas when snowstorms arrived. Furthermore, the government subsidized things like heated shelters and blankets for the herders to keep their yaks warm. But these subsidies were not followed up with additional support, meaning the heaters often broke and there weren't enough blankets. As climate change impacts have increased, the ability of yak herders to deal with the effects (i.e. snowstorms) has decreased—due to government policies.
At its core, this paper tells us that misaligned government control has prevented people from reacting to dangerous environmental effects.
This analysis of the political ecology of Tibetan yak herders can easily be ported over to the dungeon. Here are three ideas I came up with, each subsequent one taking another level of abstraction away from the original point:
- A snowy mountain is home to a tribe of yak-herding stone giants. An enormous dragon has taken residence in the caves at the peak. Using the threat of violence, the dragon has taken control of a considerable area, including all the family clans of the stone giants. In order to keep them cowed in fear, the dragon orders each family to stay on one slope of the mountain. This means that the stone giants are unable to move their herds from slope to slope in order to avoid snowstorms. The dragon, of course, is safe in her cave, and cares not for the troubles of the giants. This is an excellent starting point for some adventurers who hear of legendary treasure in the dragon's hoard—they can ally with the giants, travel under cover of snowstorm, or be the heroes who save the day.
- There is an ancient tomb in the desert—preserved for a thousand years by the dry air. Shifting sandstorms have revealed a new entranceway, and nomadic scorpion folk have entered seeking shelter. They unwittingly broke an ancient seal, unleashing a curse upon their people that prevents them from warning each other of danger. The curse can only be broken by an artefact held in the skeletal hands of the ancient tomb dweller, who lays at rest in the deepest portion of the tomb.
- One deep level of a megadungeon has thick humid air and warm water dripping from the ceiling and walls. Thin corridors and low rooms are home to row upon row of steel cages, full of creatures of all kinds, each throwing themselves at the bars and shrieking for help. The lord of this level is a steam demon, belching warm wet air and imprisoning intelligent beings for fun. With movement restricted, the prisoners are at the mercy of the hot geysers which erupt from cracks in the walls. Once a prisoner has been boiled alive by enough geyser hits, the steam demon consumes their flesh.
Other political ecology analyses can be ported into dungeon concepts. The deforestation of Mexico to fuel silver mines by colonial Spain. The change in Amazonian soil when indigenous agricultural practices are banned. Shoddy wetland construction in the United States incentivized by slapdash policies about replacing destroyed wetlands with new ones.
Any other ideas?
Robbins, Paul. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (second edition), 2010.
Yeh, Emily T., et al. Tibetan Pastoralists’ Vulnerability to Climate Change: A Political
Ecology Analysis of Snowstorm Coping Capacity.; Human Ecology, vol. 42, no. 1, 2014,