So, for awhile now I have had a growing desire to create a ‘mega-dungeon’ for my 4e game. In all my years of gaming, the Temple of Elemental Evil is about the closest I have come to using a mega-dungeon. There have been extended romps into the underdark, and some truly horrendous multi-level dungeons in my gaming past, but nothing so epic and iconic as the mega dungeon. The time has come to see what I can do with this classic trope of the genre. This post begins a series of dialogues on the Design, Construction and Maintenance of a mega-dungeon, or focused campaign adventure site.
In addition to discussing the finer points of mega-dungeon creation, I will build a mega-dungeon from the ground up using the tools and tips in these articles. In the end, I hope to have a cohesive manual that offers a step by step guide to creating and running a mega-dungeon, complete with at least one fully playable campaign site detailed and ready to use, the Titan’s Fang.
It is worth mentioning that this series of articles will be written expressly for the 4th Edition of the world’s most popular role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. (In fact, my blog is specifically geared to 4th Edition.) Though I hearken back to ye olden days of little brown books, it is the current version of the game that has captured my attention and imagination like never before. Of course some of the information should be compatible for about any role playing system, but my focus on 4th Edition allows me to bring in specific and unique rules systems such as Skill Challenges and healing surges. And finally, since I am playing and loving 4th Edition, it seemed natural. (There is another reason for this, and that is the popular notion that somehow 4th Edition is unable to handle the exploration and challenges of an old-school mega-dungeon. I find this to be hooey, as I shall soon prove.)
First, off, let’s define mega-dungeon. We can look to some famous sites from the game’s roots to see a few examples: There is Castle Zagyg, the massive dungeon near Greyhawk City in D&D’s seminal campaign created and run by its co-creator, E. Gary Gygax, as well as fellow creator Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor. In addition, as the game matured Forgotten Realms campaign setting came about which boasts its own mega-dungeon in the form of Undermountain. A favorite of mine during the 3e heyday of third party publishers was Rappan Athuk by Necromancer games, and Castle Whiterock by Goodman Games. (Sadly I was never able to participate in either of these mega-dungeons, though not for a lack of want.) There are many more where these came from – some better, some lesser known. A mega dungeon is a campaign focal point. It is a site for adventure and treasure that is seemingly limitless, that is near-at-hand, and is changeable enough that it is a new experience each time a party enters it, but at the same time is stable enough that players generally know what to expect when heading that way. A mega dungeon doesn’t have to be the sole focus of a campaign, it can be a location the party returns to on occasion throughout the life of the campaign, or it might just be a major part of a single tier of play.
Here are a few necessities that come to mind when I think of a mega-dungeon.
1. It should have a lot of levels, sub-levels, secret levels, and maybe some more levels.
2. The levels should become progressively more difficult as one progresses downwards. For example, in a 30 level dungeon, each level might correspond to the character level of an average party.
3. it should be a crazy mash-up of monsters, traps, obstacles, NPC’s and other weird occurrences.
4. Each level, or section should have its own theme. The themes can be as vague as “Orc territory” or “underground mushroom forest.” They can also be specific, such as “This level is made from special rock which makes teleporting unstable.”
5. There should be a focus on exploration and discovery. There should be mysteries, some solvable, some not.
6. The dungeon itself should be adversarial. It should be difficult to map, it should have many dangers, and they should be concealed to surprise the unwary.
7. There should be wandering monsters, and they should harass and harry incautious adventurers.
The above list seems to be nearly universal to the mega-dungeons I have seen. These are the standards that separate a massive mega-dungeon from the lesser dungeons sprinkled liberally across the land. Hopefully I am not leaving anything out. Here is another list of my personal ‘must haves’ in a mega dungeon.
1. It must have an awesome back-story, explaining why it exists.
2. It must have a wide variety of monsters, yet should have at least a thin veneer of verisimilitude.
3. It should tie in with the campaign world, and not feel like it is ‘floating in space.’
4. It should have a nearby locale or locales that allow the characters time to retreat, train, spend their looted winnings, and even have side adventures. In ancient days of yore, the nearness of Greyhawk city to the Greyhawk dungeons is a prime example.
5. The dungeon should be dynamic, and should surprise the characters in unexpected ways. Re-stocking is one way, shifting walls is another.
6. Rumor tables! There should be rumor tables, possibly for each level. This gives the characters some focus for their greed, lust, fear, and anticipation. Don’t forget false rumors! Some should lead the feckless astray.
7. Politics – Links to the world above, cults of Orcus, the mayor is really an evil liche, whatever they are, add to the fun of the game.
So these are the elements I think a mega dungeon should have. All of them are ways in which the mega dungeon comes alive, and fits in with its surroundings. The first list of requirements sets the foundations for the mega-dungeon. By following these guidelines, the mega dungeon will have the basic necessities. But it is this second list that will give your mega dungeon life, and will turn it from another set of drafty hallways into a fitting campaign locale. In my next installment, I will go into the details of each of these points, and afterwards, I will unveil my mega-dungeon concept and how I used the guideleines to create a fantastic site for my own campaign world, D’ Erte.