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The Allure of the Mega-Dungeon

I recently finished reading the latest D&D adventure, Dead in Thay, so that I could do a review of it on the Tome Show Podcast (look for the review to be posted there in the next couple of weeks) and it triggered in me a desire to, once again, re-visit the “zone” theory of dungeon design. After recently running through various portions of Stonehell Dungeon, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, and the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, I have come to the conclusion that my group does not really enjoy mega-dungeon exploration. I am, however, still fascinated with mega-dungeons. Am I just in love with the idea of them, but not skilled enough to run one effectively? I ran several in the far past (mid-80s) when it was de riguer… am I just out of practice or have things changed?

I think the answer is BOTH. Perhaps I am out of practice, but that wouldn’t be an insurmountable difficulty with a little more practice. I think, though, that the modern gaming population has changed. The 3rd and 4th editions of D&D moved to a much more encounter-based design which showcased fewer encounters, smaller (usually) battles, and much smaller dungeons. My current D&D group (for which I am running D&D Next) have learned to play the game with 3rd and 4th edition sensibilities – tactical combat, balanced encounters, and skill checks rule over encounter-avoidance, pure exploration, and player-based trap detection and removal. These modern skills are not conducive to old-school mega-dungeon exploration, and, as a result, my players are not good at, and don’t enjoy, old school style play.  After several sessions of attempting to get them interested and showing them how to learn a sort of old-school sensibility in their play, my players have told me they want to leave the mega-dungeon and play in a “modern” campaign.

But is there any way to blend those so that my fascination with the mega-dungeon and the players’ new school playing skills are both satisfied? I don’t know, but when I went looking I did find some interesting articles about mega-dungeons. So… here are 3 articles that are interesting and offer some insight into the issue.

Schrodinger, Chekhov, and Samus, a multi-page article from The Angry DM blog, about how to create zones and factions in your mega-dungeon. His system uses a more modern approach to mega-dungeon design.

Jaquaying the Dungeon, a multi-part article series from The Alexandrian about how to create non linear dungeons in the fashion of Jennell Jaquays‘ Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower, two classics published by Judges Guild in the late 70s. The components of good dungeon design discussed in this article can indeed be ported to modern dungeons.

And finally, this short gem, Re-examining the Dungeon, from the prolific Robert J Schwalb. I read this when it was first posted (back in 2010), but it makes a certain sort of sense in the context of the other articles I read just recently. It’s mostly about how to incorporate narrative/story into the dungeon in a game that relies on ‘encounter-based’ design in small dungeons rather than zones/sectors or whole mega-dungeons.

I am unsure of what I can do to satisfy my 5e D&D group – I think there is no going back for them, it’s onward and upward and no mega-dungeon style games. My other group, which spent the past year playing Basic D&D and has just moved to a 2e D&D campaign, is happy to play in games that contain a variety of styles and situations that require a variety of skillsets. That group also plays Savage Worlds (Deadlands: Reloaded), Hollow Earth Expedition, and Numenera (to name a few other systems), so they are flexible and versatile. But even they don’t like the long term Dungeon-as-Campaign play that is required of a true mega-dungeon.

Am I just nuts for liking the mega-dungeon? Am I crazy for wanting to run a fresh group through Castle Blackmoor? Should I find a group that wants to run through one so that I get it out of my system? Or should I simply try and throw in as many old school mega-dungeon elements as possible into my modern game groups? I haven’t decided yet.  What do you think?

Until Next Time, I wish you good gaming!


DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

6 Responses to “The Allure of the Mega-Dungeon”

  • Clearly you should start a VOIP campaign to run a megadungeon! ;)

    The problem I have found with running one is simply that it really does require a long-term commitment, which I have found difficult to arrange.

  • Ha! Perhaps that is truly what I should do. I have to put it off though, until I finish my dissertation and defend (end of this summer, hopefully). So perhaps in the fall I will start up a Mega-Dungeon DMSamuel Campaign!

  • If your players aren’t into it, then they aren’t into it…. no use trying to shoehorn them into a megadungeon campaign if they want to do something else..

    Skype, roll20.net, and Google hangouts are the way to go these days, because in my experience, people (younger ones anyway) aren’t as interested in older editions of D&D, so use the internets to thine advantage.

    And thank you for the follow on Twitter!

  • oh, and another thing. Players don’t like being stuck in one environment for too long. They want the option of being able to leave the dungeon and do things aboveground for awhile.

  • Hi Brian! Nice to see you visiting my blog!

    What you say is very true – I usually do have a good healthy mix of wilderness, urban, and dungeon adventuring in my campaigns. I still have this megadungeon draw though – I guess I just need to sit down and run through castle Blackmoor or something equivalent using VOIP as Steve suggested and you highlighted.

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