Design, construction, and maintenance are the three major pillars of a successful mega-dungeon, and they will be the lens through which every article of this series will be viewed, yet they are so entwined as to be inseparable. The design is the big-picture. It is an over-all plan, the creative impetus of the dungeon itself, and its placement into the campaign world. The design carries through to the construction of the mega-dungeon in almost every way: from the very look of the dungeon maps, to the thematic elements that are found within, including its monstrous inhabitants. And finally, none of this would be possible or necessary without the maintenance of the mega-dungeon, which is to say the continual exploration, exploitation, and extermination of said mega-dungeon. The adventurers who delve within its halls will be continually pushing boundaries, directing the actual construction and possibly even design elements by their choices. No plan survives contact with the enemy is an axiom that is true with dungeon mastering as well as war: no carefully laid plan of the DM will ever survive the uncanny machinations of a group of zealous PCs unchanged, unchallenged.
The creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax, has written that when his new game was first becoming popular, he would host many sessions a week, sometimes with more than a dozen players. He wrote of drawing up levels and side-levels as fast as he could for his his Greyhawk campaign. Certain areas became popular or dreaded and were avoided, while paths continually forged in new directions, and deeper. It is important that the creation of the mega-dungeon happens concurrent with game sessions devoted to plunging its depths, or at least with the experiences and inspirations that come with playing with a group of like-minded players in the shared experience of building a campaign world together. The play’s the thing, so get the game started as soon and often as possible. Great campaigns are played, not postulated.
That design philosphpy actually works perfectly with the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons as well as it did with every prior edition. The players are going to make choices which lead them down specific paths while adventuring, and other paths are going to be left fallow, either to be explored by another group, or never seen at all. Through the usage of dynamic campaign choices, we will actually map the mega-dungeon as we go. We can use exploration and skill challenges for the PCs to meaningfully affect the direction of the mega-dungeon’s creation. It allows for infinite adaptability and size. Its dimensions are limited only by our campaigns needs and our imaginations.
For example, lets say a party of 1st level adventurer’s is in the 1st level of a mad wizards catacombs. They have just defeated a skeletal legion, and now must choose to enter the inner tomb where even greater undead may await, or to turn to the side where natural caverns have opened up in a wall collapse. This is a branch, and while the next encounter has been planned for either eventuality, the encounter after that might not be, depending on how far ahead the DM pre-plans, or relies on inspiration or improvisation, which is also a valid way to populate the mega-dungeon. The mega-dungeon becomes modular in nature, with each “adventure site” being a string of linked encounters of varying length, from a single encounter, to an entire adventure or campaign arc.
When the 3 tenets of mega-dungeon creation are working together, its design, construction, and maintenance, then the mega-dungeon will build itself with inspired grace. The DM will provide the framework lattice through which will weave the tangled vines of the PCs adventures. This is the epitomy of the modern mega-dungeon, and in the coming articles we will plumb the depths of what is possible. The next article, part 2 of Chapter 1 will go over the 14 ideas set out in the preface and detail the why’s and how’s of each of them.
We will end this article with an introduction to the mega-dungeon I will be building for the series. There are actually 3 (known) mega-dungeons in my campaign world D’ Erte: The Titans Fang in the Arctic north, the Isle of Dread in the Jade Sea, and Forge Helm, lost citadel of the dwarves. My campaign has been focused on Forge Helm, in the Dawnforge Mountains, and its famed mansions and ruined halls will be displayed in all their pride-wracked ruin.
Exploring the Shattered Halls of Forge Helm
Over a centruy ago, a great war tore the land asunder. While waves of undead beseiged the south, monsters were released from the darkest underworld in the north. A great host of Orcs dared to attack Forge Helm, first and greatest citadel of the dwrves, and battled for one year over the city. The greatest champions of the war came ad fell at Forge Helm, until finally Gruumsh himself took the field, and blasted the Dwarvish bulwarks with his black spear. Moradin, patron of the dwarves, and honored here in the halls of their very birth more then any other place, was enraged that Gruumsh dared to take the field and he too appeared in the great central courtyard of the city. Forge Helm and the surrounding mountains shook with the battle as the two deities grappled. Moradin threw Gruumsh down again and agiain, then stood over him laughing. Slowly gruumsh got to his feet, and with a curse that caused avalanches 100 leagues to the north, he strck his spear into the carved court of Forge Helms central Halls. His spear pierced every level as it strove ever downwards, first through the mountains rocky depths, then into the roots of the world, where the dwarven halls met the Underdark. Magma flowed through halls of elemental flame and Gruumsh’s spear plunged into that cauldron of flame and magma and the dwarven halls became a volcao of fire and ash. Dwarf and orc alike were slain and for many years it was a dark realm where only the dead walked.
But the ghostly whispers of death are giving way once more to the sounds of life. New and darker threats call this place home. Abandoned by the dwarves, Forge Helm has a new name. The treasure seekers and lore dealers of Magmaburg and Minotaur Halls call the place the Damned Mansions and the Diamond Mansoins depending on their fortunes, but that is only the name of the first level of this epic underworld. And through it all, from the blasted peak of ever-smoking Forge-Helm Mountain, 3 miles deep and 100 feet in diameter, the smoking shaft the spear of Gruumsh smote.
Magmaburg and Minotaur Halls
Magmaburg lies at the feet of the Dawnforge Mountains on its Western slopes, while the Minotaur Halls are delved high up in its Eastern slope. There are two ways to cross the Dawnforge mountains in this region: an overland trade caravan pass which is unavailable much of the year, or an under-mountain subterranean route. Between these two fortified frontiers of civilization lie the plunging depths of Forge Helm.
Magmaburg is a new town. It is built mainly by treasure seekers hungry to plumb the riches of Forge Helm for the wealth of centuries. OUtside the gates of ancient Forgehelm was a tower built by a clan of dwarves known as Petty. The Petty tower guarded a valley in the foothills of Forge Helm which had a semi-lucrative silver trade. The quality of the silvwer was subject dispute, ad the Petty dwarves, being outcast from Forge Helm, were ever looked down upon. But the Petty dwarves were spared the destruction of their betters and were so avenged.
Soon after the destruction of Forge Helm, a nomadic tribe of halflings known as the Scab-feet settled near the Petty Tower, and built a great sprawling wooden building which they called a tavern and roadside inn. When a band of warrior-priests of Kord wanted to build a temple, the three groups signed an alliance. The warrior priest built a palisade wall which they oversee, and a burgeoning town has flourished under the leadership of the three factions.
Minotaur Halls is an ancient city built by Minotaurs long ago. It is a gateway city, which connects the underdark to the surface, and is an important strategic location. The city is a maze of vast corridors, each of which are 40 feet wide and at least as high. The private dwellings of the minotaurs are hidden by secret doors in the walls of these echoing chambers. Down the centers of many of the central chambers, non-minotaurs have built dwellings and shops, and the city is a bustling trade route. It is said that the Minotaur King, ever faithful to Forge Helm, now pays homage to the surviving dwarf lords who reside in Hammerfast, far across the Dawnforge Mountains.