"You should know better than to pick up a duck in a dungeon."

Should I, really? Most of the cards in basic Munchkin are humorous references to Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop RPG culture. I'm fairly familiar with both, though my history of personal involvement in them may not be long. But I just don't get the joke here.

Is this meant to be an "inside joke" for D&D/RPG fans, or is it just some random humor made up for the Munchkin universe? If it is an existing cultural reference, what is it referring to?

  • What do I know. I have a chicken on my head. (See my avatar)
    – ikegami
    Feb 27, 2015 at 18:50
  • @ikegami Yeah, I don't get that one either. I think I remember finding something out about it awhile ago, but I've forgotten. The duck just came up in recent discussion, so I figured I'd ask.
    – Iszi
    Feb 27, 2015 at 19:08
  • Perhaps it's a duckatrice. Also nethack. Feb 28, 2015 at 11:36

6 Answers 6


There is a long and storied tradition of unspeakably awful deathtraps showing up in dungeons. Kind and generous dungeon masters would allow such traps to be found, but others would skip the tedious step of permitting the party Thief to check for traps, and simply spring the trap upon the unsuspecting victim, sans saving throw, sans opportunity to escape, and sans chance to survive.

These evil Dungeon Masters often point to Gary Gygax as their inspiration. Gygax was, by most accounts, a tough-but-fair DM, but he also created the module Tomb of Horrors: the most trap-filled, instantly-lethal, no-saving-throw dungeon published at that time. (It may still remain the most-lethal professionally-published dungeon, for all I know.)

Some examples of the kind of traps Gygax used in the Tomb of Horrors:

  • A tapestry that, when torn, fills the entire room with green slime (which is nigh-instantly fatal).
  • A variety of cursed things: a Cursed Spear of Backbiting (does exactly what it says on the tin, to your back), valuable items that summon demons when taken, and a gem seems to grant you a wish, but then explodes (killing all within 15 feet)
  • An archway that causes you to reverse gender and alignment if you walk through it.
  • A variety of teleport traps that take you back to the beginning of the dungeon, sans your equipment.
  • A giant face, with a 3' wide mouth you could crawl into – it's actually a Sphere of Annihilation (die immediately, no save). Some of the teleport traps mentioned above dump you right in front of said face (instead of at the dungeon entrance), possibly giving you the impression that if you walk into the face, you'll end up back where you were before you teleported.

On a personal note, I have played through a few Gygax-inspired dungeons. The twisted traps that a clever DM can come up with are truly amazing, truly enlightening, and truly lethal. (It was good fun; we all expected to die horribly, and were not disappointed.)

The Duck of Doom, then, is likely inspired by exactly that sort of Evil Dungeon Master. A duck that curses you horribly the instant you pick it up is exactly the kind of thing that an Evil DM would put in.

For the phrase "Duck of Doom", the oldest role-playing-game-related results I found on Google were from Munchkin, so Munchkin itself is likely the originator. (There's some ancient Australian bird, Bullockornis, occasionally called the Demon Duck of Doom, but it's utterly unrelated to "harmless" rubber ducks in dungeons and cursed items.)


I don't think it's a reference to anything specific, other than the tendency for sadistic Dungeon Masters to make innocuous items into deathtraps.

Having said that, I wouldn't be surprised if one of Grimtooth's Traps had a Duck in it. While the Grimtooth's Traps books are out of print, a recent KickStarter finished with plans to reprint all the books in the series.


Why would you expect to randomly find a rubber duck in a dungeon?

That's right, you wouldn't. There must be a REASON it's there... and can you imagine any good reason for a rubber duck to be in a dungeon?

Right, exactly. Of course not. Therefore, it's been put there by someone or someTHING. That's never a good sign in a dungeon.

Therefore, finding a rubber duck in a dungeon is a sign of Very Bad Things. You should know better than to pick it up.


Judges guild had a module called "Dark Tower" and made a parody to go along with it "Legendary Duck Tower" where a lot of things in the dungeon were replaced with Ducks. Probably a long shot, but could be a good homage to it!


I thought that it came from the movie Unforgiven, where the barely literate sheriff reads aloud "The Duke of Doom" as The Duck of Doom*.

  • it may not have been "of Doom" as my memory is faulty but he definitely pronounced Duke as Duck.
  • 2
    For reference, the actual movie phrase was "Duck of Death." I'm not sure that these two things are really related, but it's an interesting catch.
    – SocioMatt
    May 11, 2016 at 15:25

I've got no evidence for it, but I guess there's a chance it could be a nod to the Demonic Duck from El Goonish Shive.

The Demonic Duck is a minor recurring character in El Goonish Shive. In canon, he only appears when a distraction is needed and he is summoned. A character will stumble into an awkward situation, try to use the duck as a distraction and either flee from the situation or change it to be less awkward. The duck will then usually grumble about feeling used.

  • 1
    I'm afraid that El Goonish Shive's oldest comic is from 2002, and the first Munchkin set (which contained the Duck of Doom) was released in 2001. Feb 28, 2015 at 0:17

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