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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Beware the Megadungeon

by Ken Newquist / March 15, 2009

 Expedition to the Greyhawk Ruins

Megadungeons, epic character deathtraps that have made or broken a thousand RPG campaigns, are staging a comeback. While it's been upwards of 25-30 years since we first crawled into Castle Greyhawk and Undermountain, the Oughts saw the release of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, World's Largest Dungeon, Castle Whiterock, Maure Castle and now Monte Cook's Dungeon-A-Day.

But is this a good thing?

Megadungeons played a huge role in the early days of my World of Greyhawk campaign. The Blackrazor Guild cut their teeth (and paid off their debts) adventuring through the Obsidian Maze (a hacked version of Undermountain with certain changes, most notably the addition the Cult of Death Undying) and then made another small fortune plundering the depths of the Tower of War in the ruins of Castle Greyhawk. We went on to run a successful two-year "Redshirts" campaign featuring low-level guildmembers saving the world from the resurgent Temple of Elemental Evil.

Despite these successes though, megadungeons also helped kill the campaign. We started Maure Castle as a follow up to the Temple of Elemental Evil, running it as a series of one-shots whenever we didn't have critical mass for the regular game. It evolved into a weekly adventure, but it's lack of an overarching plot, combined with it's extreme lethality, led to frustration among the players. The length of 3E-style combats, in which a single high level encounter could take all night, didn't help.

"We're heroes of the realm, with fortunes in our own right," one of the heroes said. "Why in the Hells are we killing ourselves in this dungeon again?"

We abandoned Maure Castle in favor of the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. Admittedly, this is not a true megadungeon, since it is a mix of wilderness, location and castle encounters, but ultimately it shared some of the same failings of Maure Castle. It had the necessary megaplot (kill Straud, save the kingdom) but the unrelenting brutality of its planned and random encounters wore everyone down. The ability- and level-draining powers of the undead, coupled with the lack of well-stocked (and defended) nearby town, ultimately sapped our will to play the game.

When Good Dungeons Go Bad

What went wrong? There were a couple of things. With Maure Castle, we were playing higher-level D&D 3.5 characters (in the 14-16 level range) and the campaign suffered from all the problems of 3.5 high level play. From "save vs. do nothing for four hours" effects to 90% of the party being unable to damage a particular monster, to the "teleport in, blow things up, leave" work day, we encountered the worst that D&D 3.5 had to offer on a weekly basis. None of us realized this at the time -- it took weeks for the frustration to build to the point where we'd all had enough.

The biggest problem with Maure Castle though was the lack of an overarching story. It wasn't enough for our group to simple keep delving deeper and deeper into the dungeon -- they needed a reason to be doing it. With the Obsidian Maze/Undermountain, they'd had those reasons, first in the form of profits from mapping the dungeon, then from their desire to smash the Cult of Death Undying. The player characters were willing to accept the risks because there were tangible rewards (either gold or revenge).

With Ravenloft, we again ran into the limitations of the D&D 3.5 engine. Undead in Third Edition were a challenge; fighting nothing but undead was a nightmare, and not the good kind. Many of the mechancis that prove problematic in 3E -- including multi-round spell effects that effectively knock players out of combat for half the night -- are integral to 3E undead. It wore us down, and ultimately we gave it up as well.

I can't say that Maure Castle and Ravenloft killed our D&D campaign, but it certainly contributed to it. Many of the issues we ran into with these games were things that 4E was designed to address (speed of combat, save vs. do nothing, characters who could do nothing against certain monsters, the one-encounter work day, etc.). The campaigns ended up exacerbating some players' frustrations with 3E, and they were the ones who found 4E most appealing in the playtest.

These sorts of problems are hardly unique to megadungeons, but I think that megadungeons tend to make them worse.

Lessons Learned

Despite the problems with our last two megadungeon encounters, there's still plenty about them that I find appealing. They're awesome campaign destinations, and done right, they can spawn the sorts of stories that people will still be re-telling 5, 10 or 15 years down the line. Now I should stipulate that when I say "done right", I mean "done right for my campaign." If you're campaign enjoys hacking and slashing their way through the Monster Manual, that's great ... but it's not so great for my group.

Give them a reason to be there: It's not enough for there to simply be this huge dungeon, the heroes need a reason to be there. Maybe goblins have a lair on the first level, and are using it as a base from which to raid near by towns. Maybe a death cult is lurking on the second level, and occasionally venturing forth to town to steal corpses for their dark experiments. Or maybe it is simple greed: some rich noble is paying them way, way too much gold to map the dungeon to its fullest. A good hook will get them to the dungeon. A great one will keep them coming back.

Use a mix of monsters, traps and puzzles: Pacing is important in a megadungeon. We learned this in Ravenloft; one fight against unstoppable is challenging, two fights is exhausting, three fights is frustrating. Players need safe bases to retreat to, as well as non-combat situations that give the skillful characters a chance to shine.

Seed the Myth: The best megadungeons have a thousand little hooks that entice players deeper into the dungeon. I think Maure Castle actually had these, but module doesn't do a great job of playing up areas like the "Hall of Antiquities". When players know that the Well of All-Heals is located deep within the dungeon, and just might resurrect a fallen party member, or that the City of Eyes is located on level six of the dungeon, it gets them thinking. You don't even need to have detailed these treasures; just a blurb and the occasional dropped reference is enough to pique players' curiosity ... and to keep them digging deeper.

The Necropolis of the ur-Flan

While writing this, I couldn't help but think about what, if any, role a megadungeon might have in my next fantasy RPG campaign. My group will be running a Pathfinder RPG playtest sometime this fall. Known as the Ur-Flan campaign, this will take place long millennia before our existing World of Greyhawk campaign, during a time when the Ur-Flan druid-necromancers held sway over the central Flanaess, and the greatest of their number -- Vecna -- was just beginning to consolidate his power.

I'm envisioning a megadungeon that's in the process of being constructed by the ur-Flan -- a tremendous necropolis being built for unknown purposes. I see it as being a sort of Mount Doom or Death Star of the setting; the momentous horror that looms over everything. When tribesmen are enslaved, it is to work in the mines of the necropolis. When virgins are sacrificed, it is to appease the horrors found in its depths (or perhaps to summon said horrors). I don't know if the players will ever step foot in it, but it will affect them and those around them regardless.

Now where's my graph paper?


I hate mega dungeons. With a passion. All this resurgence recently makes me weep openly at times because I dislike them that much.

Ask me why. Go on a dare you. :p

I'll take the bait ... why? (he says, not having fully kept up with the conversation around the blogsphere).

The Bob in our own group has his own reasons for hating them after his paladin was, ahem, sacrificed on an altar in the Temple of Elemental Evil, an act that the evil powers rewarded by replacing his corpse with a ring of shooting stars.

Which the party promptly stole, leading to jokes of "I traded in my paladin at the Temple of Elemental Evil, and all I got was this stupid ring..."

As you say, High level D&D 3.x killed your campaigns, coupled with lack of player buy-in into the (mostly absent) storyline.

That's what I'm trying to address in my nascent 4e Megadungeon campaign. By making the existence of the dungeon a cornerstone of the storyline (it's an ever growing subterranean structure trying to kill the whole world) I hope to keep players interest in it for some time.

heh -- that sounds like a suitably epic megadungeon. And I think that 4E could work well with a megadungeon (hell, just look at the "Dungeon Delve" source book; it's just dying to be folded into a megadungeon...)

I might toy with the idea for my upcoming PHB2 playtest. It's a one shot (or maybe a double shot, we'll see) so they won't have time to really lose themselves in the dungeon, but i like the idea of setting up such a thing and having them do a strikeforce style raid on it.

This will be a continuation of our Planetorn playtest campaign, so not only would it be a megadungeon, but it would also be a planar megadungeon. [evil DM cackle]. Oh the possibilities...

I dont hate megadungeons. I just hate that particular story from that particular dungeon. :)

I do think that from the player side, you've got to go in with a group that wants to be there. I would have been okay with Maure if we had a smaller group of players (4 max) who were really up for it and paying attention and enjoyed high level 3.5 combat.

Our group? It's not that group. Not since Bill and Jess left.

And that is totally not a criticism of our group! It's just like you said (or implied), you've got to match the adventure to your group's style.

Yeah, the right group makes all the difference (which again, isn't saying our group is the wrong one ... just the wrong one for a Maure Castle-style dungeon crawl). Our group in the old days had a very different composition from the one today.

The Blackrazors of old were all abou the delve. These day our interests have broadened. I think people are as in to the role-playing aspects of stuff as they are killing monsters (thus the Dark City campaign and its focus on role-playing/character development).

I think the Star Wars campaign is more action oriented, but it's action channeled through the needs/desires of the player characters (e.g. the crew's quest for a new ship, the Jedi padawans devotion to their training, etc.).

Can you mesh a character-driven campaign with a megadungeon? To a certain extent, yes, since you can shae the encounters to accomodiate the party, but on the other hand, i can see an argument that no, you can't do that. The megadungeons of old weren't about the dungeon adapting to the characters, but rather, the characters adapting to the dungeon.

I fail to find all those issue about speed of combat and "player that can't do anything about that particular monster", etc...
I played a really really long campaign that started from level 1 and ended when our levels ranged from 23 to 25 (with a "out of body" adventure were we went from level 6 to 11 or so).
As far as I remember the ONLY players that ever happened to not be able to do nothing were our two wizards that depleted all their spell (at least the combat ones) because of a strangely intensive day and by "not being able to do anything" I simply mean they had to use wands of XYZ spell or of polymorph but their damage and utility got greatly reduced).
Even really challenging combat that ended with an expense of "25k on diamonds" to patch up some of us rarely lasted more than 1 hour.

I felt instead that fights were gradually becoming easier and easier after lvl 12-13, so much that for challenging events we found ourselves facing monsters that the manuals listed as a CR24-25 when we were around 17-18.

My point, at the end of those examples, is that all those issues are NOT inherent on the rules of D&D 3.5, but totally depended on how the character are made, and how the encounters they are against are created (yes, a barbarian could be useless against the flying dragon you're trying to hunt, but what about that other party of hunters that is trying to kill him and steal your prey?, or at worst the party should be smart enough to try and pierce/burn/cut/freeze his wings)

I think it depends on the group, how prepared said group is, and what style of adventuring you're going for.

In our case, one of the characters who couldn't do any damage was a tempest who was getting something like 5-6 attacks a round ... but none were with a properly aligned/manufactured blade, so he couldn't bypass the damage reduction, and he couldn't do enough damage with any one blow to overcome it (and even if he did, the amount of damage he'd do was insignificant, maybe 1-2 past the DR).

But that was entirely by design; he wanted a light melee fighter who could be a whirlwind of destruction ... but when he went up against golems and high CR demons, he was out of his depth. Other characters who had similar problems were wizards who didn't have spell penetration feats, rogues with skillful builds, etc., etc.

Of course, if you've got an optimum adventuring build (and it sounds to me like that's what your party has/had) then you avoid a lot of those "hurry up and do nothing" problems because your characters are combat monsters who were designed to be combat monsters. A fighter who takes the power-attack/weapon specialization approach is going to be able to cripple a monster even if he didn't bring the right golf club (err, weapon) simply because of the amount of damage he does.

Same goes for wizards and clerics with Spell Penetration and/or a good adventuring spell selection, rogues with the right magic items and feats, and bards who are comfortable in their traditional support role.

I do think that high-level D&D 3.x predisposes you toward certain kinds of encounters. Almost *every* high CR monster has damage reduction and immunities of one form or another. If you haven't built your character to deal with those kinds of threats, you're going to be in a world of trouble. As a DM, I can certainly customize these fights to play to character strengths, but at the same time, when you're talking Megadungeons, a lot of the encounters *won't* be customized to the player's strengths.

High-level combat in 3.x certainly can work, though I think it's clear that how well it works varies from group to group (and even session to session). In our own group, we've been able to run high-level combats fairly quickly (as chronicled in my Asgard Project posts) but ultimately that's only half the battle. The other half is the prep time involved for actually planning a high-level adventure, and that's ultimately what did me in. I just couldn't afford to spend three weeks prepping for a single epic-level adventure any more.