Friday, January 30, 2009

A Few Thoughts on a Megadungeon

Since I started the Traveller campaign (which will have its own blog in a day or two) I have, naturally, started planning other campaigns I might run in the future instead of working on it. In particular, I've started thinking seriously about running a megadungeon again. I've been going off and on the idea for a while now, particularly since Swords & Wizardry came out. Every time I read about a great megadungeon campaign on Sham's Grog 'n Blog or Grognardia or The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope, I get really excited about running my own -- and then I get distracted and wander off to plan and run something else.

I haven't managed to get much done during the enthusiasm phase of these cycles, but a few things are starting to stick. No maps, no room descriptions, not even a general idea of what the levels are, just a few vague notions.

First, I'm thinking the first level or two is going to be the sewers/catacombs of a city. Non-sensical fantasy sewers, with goblins and bandits hiding out in them and little shrines to evil gods, but sewers the same. Below that, things start to get weird, but the first few levels are relatively normal, though they don't make good civic sense.

The trouble with this notion, and the thing that keeps me from embracing it wholeheartedly, is that it seems to suggest that I'd have the whole city above it mapped out in similar detail, which I'm not really up to doing. And if I did that, I'd start thinking about whether said sewer conformed to medieval standards, and then I'd be spending my time on wikipedia rather than working on the dungeon. I suspect I can solve my problems by going "pfsh, there are entrances where I want there to be entrances, and the PCs are never going to map out the dungeon and the city accurately enough to figure out whether they match up" and leave it at that.

And, as much as I like the idea of urban adventure, on any given day I'm just as likely to think it'd be better for the main home base to be some little village out in the middle of nowhere. Or at most a medium sized town, something more manageable than a city, since I'll already be spending a lot of time working out the dungeon proper.

The other major idea I've had is that the dungeon, or at least part of it, is not just an underworld in the usual dungeon-y, it is The Underworld, the realm of the dead. This makes a pretty decent explanation for why everything down there is so weird, in case my players start asking pesky questions, and would make for an interesting series of sub-levels. And it gives me an excuse to make the entrance to the dungeon or some of the doors within it great gaping stone demon maws, whose teeth you must walk under to enter it.

So. Now I've got that out of my head, and I can go work on my Traveller game.


  1. Why not have the city swept of the face of the land, by the hand of an angry god, leaving only a dead, flat space where nothig grows, and the occasional sewer access. Voila! No need to map a city. Just have some random piles of rubble laying around for beasties to circulate in.... kinda like Sodom and Gommorah. They did something REALLY BAD, and the gods said, "That's it! You are all OUT OF HERE!"

  2. If you want to have a living city above the sewers, I'd suggest drawing a rough map outlining the general areas of the city, slums, main markets, temples, palace, barracks, etc. Just a big block diagram. Once you have that laid out it's pretty easy to link up sewer entrances to areas. Just note which area the sewer links to in the city, with perhaps a note on the immediate locale. For example: A storm drain leading into an alley behind the the smithy in the street of steel. A hidden passage in the cellar of an abandoned shrine on temple square.

    If the exact location becomes more important, then you can expand on it from the outline you already have.

  3. You could also go with the idea that the sewer/catacomb system predates whatever settlement is located above it. An example of this methodology might be that the underground complex was once the home of a subterranean race, dwarves being the usual stand-in for such purposes.

    Perhaps the dwarves dug a little too deep - breaking through to the Underworld/Afterlife/Lands of Wind and Ghosts/etc. and were either wiped out or evacuated their delve. Fast forward the clock a few decades, centuries, or millennium, and along come some human settlers that take up residence on the land above the complex. Maybe the only establish a village or small town, but upon discovering a newtork of well-built tunnels under their feet that sport decent drainage, decide that those tunnels would make a perfect sanitation system for dumping waste, turning the Halls of the Mithril Jarl into an extravagant sewer. Of course, since no one wants to spend much time in a sewer, the local "cult of the Big Evil One" decides to use it as headquarters, the Broken Nose bandit gang plots there in between heists, and the Blubblug goblin tribe moves in and starts collecting the "treasures" that the silly humans flush away. And, of course, whatever sent the dwarves running in the fist place is still down there somewhere...

  4. You could do a lot worse than using the city geomorphs that came with the AD&D 1e Lankhmar, City of Adventure setting/module. You can get representations of the tiles from here. Instant city!

    If you want to make your city extra-weird, don't record what you put where. A ruined, abandoned city that shifts constantly definitely has an air of being tainted by the underworld...

  5. The Badger King: Hot damn! That's brilliant!

    mthomas768: Yeah, at some point I'm going to run a city campaign, and that's pretty much how I'd have to map it out. Flowchart style. I get myself into trouble when I try to go into too much detail. Never gets done.

    Amityville Mike: Did you just . . . you explained the nonsensical fantasy sewer. Wow. And stolen.

    Restless: Ooh, extra weird is good. Very cool.

  6. To mostly restate what has already been said, map the dungeon first. Don't worry about the surface level. Focus on where the action is. Once you at least have the first dungeon level to your satisfaction, then go back and start adding to the upper deck. Much of the important layout bits will already be done by that point.

    From there, it's mostly a matter of deciding what is or is near the dungeon entrances and about where you want the important-to-pc stuff like armourers and bars. The bulk of the city can be very vague and generic, especially at first. A big purple blotch on the map labeled "slum tenements" should suffice unless the pc's want to actually go there and map it all out.

  7. I always thought of Traveler as a megadungeon in space. Each planet is a "level", and the deeper out into unknown space you go, the more strange and dangerous the levels get....

  8. To echo previous comments, the quick solution is to move the megadungeon away from the city or town. Perhaps its connections to the surface made the immediate area above inhospitable and thus you are left with ruins.

    I too love the sewers concept, though. One of my old 1E campaigns used just such a connection to the vast deep down.

    Essentially I consider some sort of "buffer zone" to soften the blow between the surface and the underworld.

    Here's the thing, though. Whenever one considers a vast underworld expanse of crawling tunnels, tricks and traps, one must be willing to let go.

    Let go of logic and realism, that is. Why would anyone go through the effort of building something like a megadungeon? The idea of such a place is not rational whatsoever to mortal man.

  9. Let me add that the entire idea of a megadungeon SHOULD defy logic.

    Surface dwellers are departing their world and entering a realm of unreason.

    Anyway, YES megadungeons can be a huge undertaking. I'd say use the advice offered in the LBB of OD&D...that is to make them three levels at a time. You can host a campaign thusly.

  10. Golgotha: Definitely.

    Tim Jensen: I'd never thought if it quite that way, but it makes sense. The dungeon is a pretty sound concept, gaming-wise. (As many, many people before me have pointed out.) It's good to give players a way to manage risk, and slowly work them into your weirdness.

    Sham aka Dave: Yeah, buffer zone is what I was thinking with the sewers -- and now with the ruined city idea. But it does tend to get me thinking "How did ancient sewers work?" which isn't a useful question.

    "3 levels and you're ready" and "weird and illogical" are two of the major things that draw me to the megadungeon. And two that your blog introduced me to.

  11. The idea of buffer zones was narrowed a bit in the Undermountain boxed set (which is still my gold standard for low-nonsense megadungeons). Each secondary entrance was described with some wiggle room so that you found a grate into the sewers on Slant Street or something, which led "by a series of winding tunnels and forgotten sub-basements", or somesuch, to a particular location on the dungeon grid.

    That kind of wiggle room lets you pin the entrances to particular places as loosely or exactly as you like, but prevents players from trying to figure out the exact correspondence between surface and understructures. It's also more expedient for an adventure, because you can skip the uninteresting, non-dungeon tunnels with some handwaving description. When the detailed description kicks in, the players notice and shift into exploration gear.