26
Oct
09

big damn dungeons

This post at Grognardia about the lack of mega-dungeons and the follow-up at Greyhawk Grognard and it got me thinking.  My introduction to the mega-dungeon proper (I didn’t know it then) was Descent Into The Depths/Vault of the Drow (D1-3) with it’s epic scale (miles of caverns) and sections you were encouraged to develop.  Big damn dungeons are one of the iconic elements (to borrow a phrase) of Dungeons & Dragons.

Undermountain, Night Below, Moria, Dragon Mountain, Rappan Athuk and The World’s Biggest Dungeon are examples with a more contemporary example being the dungeon built by Monte Cook at Dungeon-A-Day.  Demand for such exists yet few hit iconic status without re-invention or turning into self-contained mills to grind out levels and gain loot with no customisation or replayability.

Ironically, the failure of most mega-dungeons to engage may be down to granularity and scale, effectively not thinking big enough. There is a danger you create modules for the mega-dungeon setting rather than larger campaign elements.  The difference between module and campaign sourcebook is notable and it’s this divide that has caused many mega-dungeons to be definitive works, preventing individual innovation.

Mega-dungeons have been described as campaign dungeons.  Why not then treat them that way?  Provide a core sourcebook or boxed set for the megadungeon with an overview map with complete sections and gaps to allow growth. The basic model of expanding detail works but the trick here is to stop short of providing the ultimate resource.  Tabletop’s big strength is imagination and the unexpected so why not play to it?

The second part of this plan is to think larger scale when publishing to fill the gaps.  Instead of modules, using self-contained sourcebooks with example encounters and two or more adventures.  The rest is assorted new things, vignettes and elements to maximise replayability (e.g. tables, selections of elements) enabling emergent play and customisation while being effectively self-contained. 

The trick here in both cases is to inspire development by the DM, sections with three lines of text at most (something Gary Gygax excelled at) to spark imaginations (e.g. “Here lies Dragotha, the Undead Dragon.”) and deliberately leave sections for the games master to make their own.  Making your mega-dungeon different from your friend’s means you get more enjoyment out of it.

Flexibility in creating content is a desirable skill for any games master.  Providing rough flight plans for areas of the mega-dungeon and enough meat on the bones so running this game as is can be good, but running it your way is better.  Emergent play also allows the sourcebook to inspire further adventures within that common framework and gives players a taste of something they don’t get every day – the unknown.

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