On a the Secret of Megadungeons

"But it's just Hack & Slash Gameplay!",
"You can't role-play in a dungeon.",
 "It seems like a lot of boring, empty, rooms.",
"There's nothing exciting about a megadungeon."

Not a lot of people play or have played Megadungeons. Those that have, know people who deride megadungeons haven't played in a megadungeon campaign.

Most gaming experience is with adventure paths or loose sandboxes. A Megadungeon campaign is significantly different from either of those. I will say that again, because it is important. Megadungeon campaigns are significantly different from Adventure Paths and Sandboxes. Attempting to run a Megadungeon like either of those types of games will result in a bad end.

If you run a megadungeon campaign like an adventure path, then it immediately becomes a tedious slog of combat after combat. If you try to run it like a sandbox, the structure of the megadungeon itself works against you. Not only can you not see the other areas of the sandbox, most other actors within the dungeon have plans who's scope likely excludes the characters. Who cares what happens into the depths, when they are trapped in the mythic underworld? Megadungeons are not designed to facilitate player driven goals that are necessary for a sandbox to function.

Megadungeons are about The Mythic Journey


They have the player
(in the guise of his character)
Sit down at a table,
Race his peers and unknown threats
To retrieve the most valuable things,
from the darkest, secluded, places
and the denizens who live there
Who are not human
Who are not kind
Who do not care

There are elements of strong game structure in megadungeons, particularly revolving around encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision. These don't make any sense in Adventure Paths and are frequently less useful in sandbox games.

These are important because they provide weight to the idea of the Megadungeon as an inimical place. If you go 120' forward, You've caused a hazard die roll and resources available have decreased. Every step has a cost, and trying to get something—anything!— of value out this place is hard, because it pulls on you, weighing you down, refusing to leave.

It makes it mean something to the players. Territory explored is not only revealing the map; it's gained knowledge, that allows you to descend deeper in the depths of the mythic unknown. It is compiling this knowledge that empowers the player to engage in every more risky challenges in the depths. 

Megadungeon Meaning and Roll(e)

Megadungeons are mostly empty, because they are a Stage.
And us, the players.

It must serve three functions. It must obstruct and confuse characters in a way that challenges the player, it must be mostly empty so it can hold the emergent drama between players and dungeon actors while exploring, and it must contain treasure at intervals to provoke a reward response in players.

What happens is that while the players explore, they quickly become aware of other groups of monsters or players that are moving through the same dungeon area as they are. Most are not immediately hostile, but everyone in the dungeon is an opportunist. Fights against equally powerful non-player character parties are often fatal, but after they've fought a manticore, it might be a different story. It's likely they think the same about you.  These relationships and rivalries persist from session to session.  It is a sea filled with pirates and sharks. And since the door only opens once each week, you're stuck dealing with who you run into this session, while you're trying to accomplish your goal, meaning things usually go one way. . . or the other. 

Sometimes, there are dragons. 

Have you ever been hunted as a mouse? If your character survives to tell the tale, it will be memorable. If they could slay such a beast? Unforgettable.

So, no. Not like a Sandbox or Adventure Path. Yes, more focused on some unusual rules. More like an emergent adventure that challenges the player themselves. 
A fun game to play with a rotating group of friends. Friendly rivalry.
Sort of like a party game with dares. 
You know—a Megadungeon!
Are you going to cast Fireball or Protection! Which one! Quick!


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8 comments:

  1. Great article, although a word about dragons: I always have to stop and wonder what its doing on any floor that does not connect directly to the surface.

    I get that there could be larger open areas of the dungeon for the dragon to move around, and things don't have to make perfect realistic sense in the dungeon, and their exists in fiction such things as "wingless cave dragons"... but the dragons in D&D DO have wings, and unless the dungeon floor is more like a giant underdark cavern or a crazy floating-platforms-in-a-bottomless-chasm place, I don't know when or where a gargantuan sized or larger dragon is supposed to use those...

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    1. Of course the dragon can access the surface - just not the surface of this world. A megadungeon can be anything you want - it doesn’t have to be a purely physical underground construction. The original, Castle Greyhawk, was a nexus between planes and demiplanes with teleportation portals thrown in to boot. Level 3 might only be there on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the third Saturday of each month. Magic can do anything!

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    2. And even if it ~is~ a physical structure, remember that dragons (especially older ones) do tend to take really long naps. Maybe their lair ~did~ connect to the surface 60 years ago when they last hit the snooze button.

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  2. A very big dragon IMC called Dyson Logos recently wrecked the lower half of Dyson's Delve when he woke up and went outside. >:D

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  3. I've never successfully done a Megadungeon but always wanted to. Designing them is a bitch and I've never been satisfied enough with one to actually inflict it on my players.

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  4. I would not be so quick frown on the sandbox mega dungeon. I've done this many times. In fact, I am in near the end of a sandbox Megadungeon campaign with 4 players where each of ten levels has been randomly generated on the spot as needed. We're at the 17th month (real world) of play. "Plots" are tracked independently of whether and when they intersect with character stories. The grand story arc (which has turned out to be magnificent) was non-existent until it emerged through multiple levels of hard slogging. Travel to and from towns for rest and re-supply spawned an entire world with stories of its own. Even tricks and traps emerge through play itself. In short, the only thing that's different between a wilderness sandbox and a dungeon sandbox is that the locations are underground. One thing that makes this all possible is symbolic mapping. No distances on any map are literal unless it is drawn up on the spot to aid a situational understanding. Long live the sandbox mega dungeon!

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  5. PS: Check for an extra "a" in your blog post title.

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