"A Gygaxian dungeon is like the world's most fucked up game show. Behind door number one: INSTANT DEATH! Behind door number 2: A magic crown! Behind door number 3: ten pounds of sugar being guarded by six giant KILLER BEES!"
- – SteveD
The primordial swamp of roleplaying: "There be treasure and monsters in that dangerous place. Have fun!"
Players have been pretending to raid mythical dungeons since the 1970s, and will probably be doing so for as long as fantasy roleplaying is a thing. Why? Well, the obvious reason is that this is a fairly logical thing for any kind of adventurer to do: go clear out the monsters, and find treasure, thus unifying the paladin (protect the nearby town!) and thief (steal all the treasure!) archetypes in one easy handwave.
Tabletop roleplaying in general owes its origins to dungeon crawling: the first effective game of Dungeons and Dragons is generally held to have been a Chainmail scenario about infiltrating a hidden tunnel beneath a castle.
A dungeon, for the purposes of this discussion, does not have to be below ground (although it helps). Plenty of dungeon crawls involve jungle ruins and aboveground fortresses. What matters is the "room by room" or "floor by floor" nature of the game; each room is its own encounter, with what happens in one room or floor not much effecting what the next room/floor looks like. Some authors try to have themes and logic and shit, but that is usually a waste of effort: a "true" dungeon crawl can involve goblins next to undead, next to a dragon's nest, next to a temple to an evil god, next to a wizard's hideout, with no explanation of how it came to be nor why they don't kill each other, and be better for it.
Hell, you don't even need to be a roleplaying game to do a dungeon crawl: board games, such as Dungeon, Descent: Journeys in the Dark, and Munchkin have done the concept with varying degrees of quality.
Naturally, as this is a fairly simple concept to implement mechanically, many early video games flocked to the concept of a dungeon crawl, or the similar concept of "hack and slash" roleplaying. Many "fantasy" video games still love an optional dungeon crawl, as it provides some fairly easy-to-implement exploratory gameplay that requires little to no explanation as to why you'd go there. nor what impact it has on the surrounding world; for the former, "because there's treasure there" is sufficient, and for the latter, "it's out in the middle of nowhere" or "they keep to themselves" will suffice. (One of the most notable branches of the /v/ dungeon crawl is the Roguelike. See more there.)
The closely-related "hack and slash" genre differs in a major sense from dungeon crawls in that it tends to focus almost exclusively on combat. A dungeon crawl is set in one location, and has, among other things, more exploration, traps that don't necessarily involve combat, and usually more puzzles, although the two can frequently overlap. A hack-and-slash campaign can focus more on going from place to place, killing monsters related to the BBEG, and looting their corpses. Such campaigns run the risk of turning into a world-spanning meat grinder at their most rote and stereotpyical - in short, no diplomacy, no exploration, combat only, final destination.
Some Notable Dungeon Crawls
- The first Ravenloft module was a dungeon crawl.
- The Tomb of Horrors is possibly the most notorious dungeon crawl ever.
- Most Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure modules, made by somebody who seems to have considered Tomb of Horrors "too fair".
- Planescape: Torment features an interesting variant: A randomly generated dungeon, created by insane Modrons, trying to figure out the concept of dungeons by creating a series of them from reusable parts in Limbo. It does not go well for them.