Megadungeon!

Is that ‘Webberan of the North’ checking out the pit?

“In Search of the Unknown” was probably the first ‘published’ adventure I ever played in. Before that, we used “Monster & Treasures Assortment” and “Dungeon Geomorphs” or, more usually, we just made our own dungeons — usually frantically drawing level 4 right after the session where the players almost finished exploring level 3, etc. There were hordes of creatures living in 10×10 rooms that shouldn’t have been able to fit it 10×10 rooms and levels full of a hodgepodge of creatures without a toilet or any food and water in evidence (well, no food other player characters I guess), traps that were probably as much or more of a hazard to the dungeon residents than the adventurers and gelatinous cubes sweeping the hallways clean after every expedition.  And, right or wrong, that was how we did it. I’m inclined to say it was the right way, because we kept on playing.

We explored “In Search of the Unknown” with Bob W. as our DM (as opposed to my friend Bob C., who was the guy who asked me, “Have you ever heard of ‘Dungeons & Dragons?’ and probably ruined any chance I ever had of living a normal life).  Bob W. had bought his own D&D set, and, instead of the geomorphs and treasure assortment, he had a copy of a newfangled thing called a ‘module*.’  We rolled up characters and in we went. Compared to what is available today, it was probably pretty tame stuff, but I remember thinking it was cool because there was a certain logic to the dungeon… here was a kitchen, there was a food storage room, etc. There were also things that you could interact with; I remember the ‘room of pools’ that had perhaps a dozen different wells, each of which contained a mysterious liquid that might heal or harm your character, so there were things to do other than just fight monsters and take their stuff.  I began to incorporate that ‘logic’ and inspiration into my own dungeon designs. And, naturally, the temptation was to think that if a two level dungeon like Mike Carr presented in ‘In Search of the Unknown’ was good, an eight or ten level dungeon had to be better (OK, my logic was flawed, but, in my defense, I was a kid).

After a brief period of recently being ‘in vogue’ among the cognicenti of the OSR community, it seems as though the ‘megadungeon’ may be once again falling out of favor.  This is the impression I get when I kibitz in online forums or read the usual blogs and what not.  A few years ago people were raving about 100 room dungeons, now they are patting back their yawns and saying, “That is so 1975!  And not in a good way…”

Part of the problem seems to be that when the online community talks ‘dungeons,’ mostly they talk about things to buy (i.e.: a book or a pdf with descriptions and maps).  And the biggest complaint from ‘adventure buyers’ is whether or not an andventure was ‘worth the money.’ (This leads me to another thought: maybe the complainers should consider building their own rather than buying, but that is probably the subject for another post). There has also been, I suspect, a ‘lifestyle’ shift. When I was a pimply dork and first put pencil to graph paper to draw a dungeon, video games were in their infancy. Today, the idea of pretending to kill orcs, find treasure and gain XP (and thereby go ‘up’ in level so you can kill bigger orcs, etc.,) are concepts that most people know through video games or online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The idea of exploring a dungeon by drawing it out on graph paper seems as ludicrous as rolling a hoop down the street for ‘fun.’ The people I currently play with are completely uninterested in the idea of having ‘the dungeon’ be the campaign. They tell me it just sounds boring. It does not fit with their current life style.  Unlike my 15 year old self, these people have families and jobs and kids to take to dance practice or soccer camp. Playing D&D is a twice-per-month extravagence (if they are lucky).  They can play World of Warcraft or a similar game after they put the kids to bed; whent they manage to get away to play D&D, they want to have fun, joke around, drink beer and have a few interesting encounters that we can laugh together about. Then two weeks will pass before we can gather again and what happened last session might not be particularly fresh in their minds. Perhaps, rather than a map with 100 discrete encounters and dozens of different tunnels that need to be methodically explored, they want a ‘D&D’ session that plays out more like an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ or a similar TV show.  The player characters will have a goal in mind, they pursue that goal, bad shit happens, dice are rolled, you try to prevail and bring as many player characters through the session as you can and then you end the session. Next session will probably start with another short term goal, perhaps new player characters to replace whomever they lost and off we go for another few hours of escapist entertainment and wisecracking. I’m not seeing how a multi-level dungeon with hundreds of rooms fits into that.  Even adventures from the ‘golden years’ of Gary Gygax at the helm of TSR are going to fail to please people who have so few hours to devote to a very time intensive hobby.  Something like the ‘Slaver’s Series’ (from the late 70s or early 80s, where the players had to figure out who was kidnapping citizens to sell as slaves) is probably too ‘complicated’ and long for the modern player. The hobby is changing because, maybe, the people in it are changing. I’m not saying that is a good or bad thing; but I think it may just be the truth.

So where does this leave the designer of megadungeons?  I’m not sure. I don’t pretend to understand the market for anything, especially not for ‘hobby’ stuff that we are supposedly doing for our own pleasure. A few nights ago, however, I took out the maps and handwritten descriptions of one of my original megadungeons. I turned the pages and looked at the maps and remembered some of the encounters we had played out there in the old days and how much fun I had putting it together. I don’t think I can logically (or economically) justify any part of my hobby — if I wanted to make money, there are easier ways of doing it, but I have a hard time logically or economically justifying the things that bring me pleasure — and my own megadungeon has certainly been a lot of fun.  I enjoyed playing it back in the day.  I enjoyed designing it.  And I still enjoy reading over the notes. If ever I manage to get it to the point where it will be ‘shareable,’ (a lot of work would need to be done), I’ll be interested to see what kind of reaction it gets.  I can’t rationalize it as either a ‘waste of time’ or ‘time well spent’ because I think that kind of thinking misses the point.  And maybe megadungeons are going to go the way of dancing the Charleston or the Lindy Hop — become something that people ‘used to do.’  I don’t know.  I don’t think I care, either.

Also, check out this article on ‘Top 10 D&D Modules’ (yes, he uses that word) from `2 years ago on Wired.com.

*The term ‘module’ always made me think of ‘nodule’ (one of those tumors under the skin), which is not a good association.


4 Comments on “Megadungeon!”

  1. Great reflection, Stef. I feel for both your pragmatic recognition of what the game has become for some of us, as well as the nostalgia of yearning for more carefree, less cluttered lives.

    Follow your bliss. If the megadungeon concept is something that gives you great pleasure, then it will show in the work as well as the final product.

    Commercial success without passion may be nice financially, but it is ultimately empty. Whereas a passion project without commercial success is an endevour that brings its own reward.

  2. Stephan Poag says:

    Thanks, J.C.!

    I don't think a 'megadungeon' would work with our group, and that's fine — we are having more fun with the current DCC campaign (both in and out of game) that I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm no longer comfortable with prescriptions on 'the right way to do it.' If everyone at the table doesn't have a reason to 'buy in' to whatever is happening, then they are not going to have a good time. I think, as a player, I'm pretty reactive to group dynamics. If someone else at the table is not enjoying the game, it lessens my enjoyment, even if they don't say so.

  3. One idea I've read that might actually make a megadungeon work with a group like what you've described is to have concrete, finite missions that are to be accomplished within the megadungeon. “Find this gem or magic item,” or “rescue this kidnapped person,” or “find out this information.” All of these diverse missions can be accomplished within the same megadungeon without the need for new maps for each mission; the areas relevant to the different missions will overlap, both saving the referee trouble and allowing past experiences to give players an advantage with harder missions, as they'll already know (or at least have maps for) portions of the relevant areas with new missions.


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