Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How Mega Is My Dungeon?

Riffing off some recent posts I've read - how big does a dungeon need to be in order to be a "mega" dungeon?

First, I think it needs to be a . . .

Discrete Area. A megadungeon is a fundamentally interconnected underground area. I think if you blow that up too big, and spread out the connections too much, it goes from "megadungeon" to "series of dungeons" (Caves of Chaos) or "underground wilderness" (ala D1-2). Those are cool, and great campaign settings, but once it's "travel for a week to the next encounter" it's really just a wilderness game with travel via tunnels.

Second, size matters. I think it needs to be big enough to support:

Repeated Play - You need to be able to go back to this place over and over. It's not a question of "can't be cleared out" but rather of "supports continuous play." You should be able to use the megadungeon as the basis for many sessions.

Cumulative play - the play should be cumulative, too, in that what you do to change the environment changes the environment for future trips. Re-popping is your enemy. Restocking is your friend.

Diverse Challenge Levels - It needs to mix difficulty ratings within the same dungeon, all on a large enough scale that those challenges also take repeated play. There needs to be the risk of going into too dangerous of an area, but also both easy stuff and hard stuff mixed together so it can hold up to repeated play.

End Points, But No End - there needs to be things you can accomplish in it, that says you did more than farm gold and grind monsters. But not a single end point that finishes it as an adventuring environment. A dungeon often has an end (a demi-lich, say, or a boss fight with a dragon) but a megadungeon has accomplishments.

Even Castle Greyhawk (mark I) had an end point - the wizard down on level 13 you could meet. But it didn't finish the dungeon as an adventuring environment, since he wasn't a load bearing monster. It was still a place you (even the same PC "you") could adventure in.

Things I don't think matter so much:

Specific Room Count - I don't think it's worth getting hung up on room count. My first two-three levels could swallow most or all of Stonehell, but that's still a megadungeon. It's not the room count that matters. Lots of rooms helps, but there isn't a numerical threshold. Level count, either - Barrowmaze is one big level, and it's pretty mega.

Multiple Groups - doesn't matter if one group of players or one group of PCs do all of the adventuring. It's nice if the dungeon can handle more groups, but that's just a subset of repeated play, above. It shouldn't matter if it's the same group or not.

Game Mechanics - I don't play a class-and-levels game, so I have zero concerns with level advancement, appropriate treasure distribution, or challenge ratings by level. None of that defines "megadungeon" for me, and I think it's too game-specific to worry about those things . . . if you make them part of the definition of a "megadungeon" then you're limiting the definition by the game mechanics. The dungeon should be mega or not based on its non-mechanical features.

Factions - I also don't think factions matter so much. It's a nice feature, if monsters come in groups and you can negotiate with them or pit them against one another or something. But If you have a dungeon that meets the rest of the requirements above, does it really matter if there is only one faction? Moria was pretty megadungeonish, and what I remember was a bunch of orc-kind and a boss monster, and that was that. You could spend a campaign clearing out Moria without ever needing factions.

For me, it's the size (it's big, and can hold a wide variety of challenge levels) and scope (can handle repeated play natively) that make a dungeon mega.


  1. Two other things I think are important to define a mega-dungeon as 'mega' - Independence and Exclusivity.

    A mega-dungeon should be distinct enough in location that even though it's likely many layers deep and sprawling in footprint (underground or otherwise), it is always considering to be a *singular* location. It must stand as independent locale that is identified by the rest of the world as one place, otherwise its just a collection of dungeons/places in interest that happen to be near enough to each other that adventurers can visit many of them without changing camp-site.

    Closely linked to this, a mega-dungeon also has to be remotely detached from the rest of the world. Sure, the rest of the world exists, but you can't go and visit it. This means the site of a mega-dungeon has to exclusively offer everything an adventurer needs, from the obvious delving opportunities, but also a place they can buy their bread, sell their ill-gotten gains, hire fresh meat, cure curses and wounds, safely sleep and rest up and purchase unique items.

    There should be no reason to go *anywhere* else. No popping off to the exotic sand-merchants in their bazaar on the other side of the mountain to buy a rare potion of visions. No being called to the kings court that sits two days travel down stream so you can get knighted. No vacation to the misty peaks to train with monks in ancient lost arts. If you need it, it's here, somewhere - if it's not, then its not on offer, you simply can't have it.

    Now, the obvious counter point to this is that many mega-dungeons have settlements near by - but in many regards these small harbours of civilisation are merely the garden to the house, they come with the territory and are inseparable in function. They act as the sidekick to the main character that is the dungeon, although thought of as a pair, you're only really there for the main character, no matter how much the sidekick is needed. The settlement is just a place to house the necessities, they're not the show, they're the cloakroom. So they don't invalidate either of my above points.

    It also helps if you keep adding the suffix "the mega-dungeon" to the name of the dungeon whenever you discuss it, I find that helps nail the point home. =P

    1. I agree with the first one, and I wish I'd thought of it.

      But the second is a defining trait of a megadungeon-centric game rather than the megadungeon itself. You can have a game with a megadungeon, but not center on it. My game happens to do so, but that's an accident of me having less time and interest in developing the rest of the world. If the players expressed a strong interest in going elsewhere, I'd let them - it;s just easier for all of us if they don't.

      But the remoteness isn't IMO mandatory. Otherwise, Greyhawk Castle isn't a megadungeon because, well, there is that whole rest of greyhawk.

    2. You have a point, however I'm of the opinion that if you let too much of the world in a campaign that focuses on a mega-dungeon - then you stop focusing on the dungeon.

      It can quickly undermine Repeated & Cumulative play if you can leave and run other dungeons or have adventures and month long romps of wilderness encounters. You can't have meaningful (or at least perceivable) restocking and persistence of player interaction if after every time they do a run or two they disappear off for a few months to train with the wizards of the wastes because they levelled up/got enough points to buy the new ability they want.

      I accept that yes, a mega-dungeon doesn't *need* to be standalone within the world, but if it doesn't have some command of Exclusivity then you're not going to be able to make full use of it.

      Without constraints in focus and geographical limits (be they meta-agreements with the GM, or some form of in-setting isolation), I'd call a would-be mega-dungeon a dungeon-complex, or dungeon-scape or something to distinguish it from the standard mega-dungeon. They begin looking more like cities of importance or kingdoms/landscapes that hold many *possible* adventuring opportunities, but are too large and have too little player interaction to allow the PCs to start carving out lasting changes. As once they move on things will carry changing without their input, so that next time they come back it looks totally different again.

      The Haunted Woods that enveloped a kingdom a century ago, or the City of Brass *could* be mega-dungeons, but if you frequently travel the rest of the world and leaving for meaningful periods of time, then its silly to assume they wont have radically changed each time you return. They're just self enclosed areas that follow their own theme that always have something to do in, but they're no longer a true mega-dungeon imo.

      Of cause, I may just be nitpicking over informal terminology - but if they behave differently, and feel different when interacted with, they should be named differently. For instance, a city adventure and a dungeon adventure might be effectively the same on paper, but they're not in practice, its only a subtle difference - but its different enough that they scratch different itches for different people.

    3. See, I disagree in that I don't think usage affects whether it is a megadungeon or not. Felltower is a megadungeon by my definition about. I can support repeated and cumulative play. It has end points but no end, etc. But if I let the players adventure too much outside of it, it's no longer a mega-dungeon? If "mega" is "size plus frequency of visits by the players" that's a very different way to look at it. A megadungeon is a megadungeon to me, even if you only go there once. It's the ability to support the kind of play, not the play itself, that makes it a megadungeon. It's the ability to support the things I mentioned, not ensuring that they occur, that make a megadungeon to me.

  2. Hey Peter, could you clarify the difference between restocking and repopulating your dungeon for the audience at home (and me)?

    1. Sure!

      Re-pop: There is a hydra in room 1. Once slain, after X amount of time, there is another hydra in room 1. Treasure (if any) comes back, possibly scaled up if the hydra is, too. Think video game monsters. It's replaced after a time lag.

      Re-stock: There is a hydra in room 1. Once slain, something else might move into the room. It might not. Nearby monsters might loot the room, trap it, post guards, etc. Something else might take the niche, or might not. But it's changed.

  3. Varied "themes" within the dungeon is for sure something I'd put in a mega-dungeon.

    Aside from that, I think factions can be very interesting if you're not just looking to clear the place and want more political, mysteries and conspiracies into your sessions, and not mainly just bash'n smash. Overall it needs to be what you and your players want to see during play is what I'm saying.

    As for game mechanics, the "Bounded Accuracy" concept from D&D Next (I'm commenting on this because I'm running 2 weekly campaigns with that system currently) would allow, despite being level based, some more leeway with what you can find in there, without tailoring everything down to level, class, and whatnot.

    Thinking about it, a massive city could be considered as a mega-dungeon to some extend. Pretty much all the concepts you mentioned are valid for ultra heavy urban adventures...If the term feels wrong, make it an underground city :)

  4. Before GURP Dungeon Fantasy came out we played a game where there was no outside. The world as everyone knew it was underground in a series of caves and man built structures. Towns and cities existed and many where like the Mega Towers from Judge Dredd. Many times the adventures where scouting missions for less crowded areas that had water. Sometimes you could come across these cities that were completely empty. It was a fun setting.

    1. I've started working on a mega-dungeon idea a bit like this during my spare time since I started reading Peter's blog more actively.
      Basically, aliens captured thousands of specimen from a fantasy like planet and were bringing them back on their miles long spaceship when riot broke out. Now, the ship is a derelict in space, and all races have started establishing controls over various key places like hydroponics, reactors, bridge, mess hall and whatnot. Wish I had more time to work on it but it's been good fun so far :)

    2. Anything written for Metamorphosis Alpha would be really inspiring for that, I think! The Warden is just a self-containined megadungeon world, but with a (warped) human-designed ship instead of alien-designed.

    3. Cheers, I'll check it out, always good to expand your horizon and grab inspiration bits and pieces every which way you can :)

    4. I can't vouch for the later editions, but the original (up on RPGNow for like $6) is pretty entertaining. You can read about it here:

      and here are some dungeon delvers on the Warden:
      (see page 6)


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