Game Day: Embrace the Megadungeon

In 2008 I wrote, “Beware the Megadungeon”, a post about delving into depths of the sprawling deathtraps known as megadungeons. At the time, the Blackrazor Guild was just coming off of a prolonged — and frustrating — foray into the legendary ruins of Maure Castle. What started off as a fun side adventure turned into a never-ending slugfest that soured us on mega dungeons.

Ten years later the Gamer Working Group — my lunchtime gaming cohort — has restarted. We’re running through Wizards of the Coast’s Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and if it goes well, there’s a legendary megadungeon in our future: Undermountain. Wizards re-released the Dungeon of the Mad Wizard in November 2018 and it could provide just the sort of quick-hit adventures we need for a lunchtime game.

At the same time, Undermountain was the inspiration for my campaign’s own megadungeon, the Obsidian Maze. With Dungeon of the Mad Wizard detailing 23 levels of Undermountain, there’s plenty of fodder for a future Blackrazor campaign.

The question, in either case, is simple … can we make it work?

Lessons from Megadungeon

Looking back to “Beware the Megadungeon”, I identified several key lessons learned:

  • 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 use it as a base to launch raids on nearby towns. Maybe a death cult lurks on the second level and occasionally ventures forth to town to steal corpses for their dark experiments. 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. One fight against unstoppable evil 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. When players know that the Well of All-Heals is located deep within the dungeon, and it just might be able to resurrect a fallen party member, or that the beholder-ruled City of Eyes is located on level six, 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.

These are good lessons, but I’ll take them farther.

Give them reasons to be there

A good adventure needs a good hook. A good megadungeon needs dozens of them.

When I ran Maure Castle, the group’s purpose for being there was simply to defeat a legendary dungeon. But Maure Castle wasn’t a dungeon you could easily defeat and after a dozen murderous fights, our heroes finally asked themselves … “Why are we here?” When they couldn’t answer it, they left.

A good megadungeon needs to have dozens of seeds planted. They need to be interesting and they need to be doable. While I still think it’s a good idea to hint at the legends that lie deep in the dungeon, it’s even more important to have short-term objectives that the group can accomplish in a session or three.

Enable World Building

It’s not enough just to accomplish the objective though, there need to be rewards attached to them … and those rewards need to go beyond just gold and magic.

In my campaign, it was the adventures in the Obsidian Maze that forged our group into the Blackrazor Guild (both in the real world and in the game). When the Obsidian Maze arc began, our heroes had just signed up with the down-on-its-luck Blackrazor Guild. Driven into near bankruptcy by its flashy (and incompetent) leader Brant Bladescream, the guild was behind on its taxes and deeply in debt.

The expeditions to the megadungeon yielded huge amounts of treasure for the adventurers (as did a lucrative mapping contract from a patron). That treasure allowed them to pay off the guild’s debts and fund a series of improvements both in their home city and beyond. Heck, by the campaign’s end they had their own brewery and farmstead out on the Pomarj!

The megadungeon provided the group with an identity, and it’s one we’ve embraced ever since. It was the defining moment for the Blackrazor Guild and it demonstrates why a megadungeon needs to be more than just a dungeon crawl. A good megadungeon provides the building blocks for the group to establish their identity as well as the resources they need to accomplish their out-of-dungeon goals.

Lessons Applied

So how would I apply these lessons learned to my campaigns? A few ways.

  • Factions, factions, factions: The dungeon poses its own threats but they can feel static because the players can always rest, recover, and return. Adding opposing or competing factions can add drama and urgency by forcing them to make tough decisions – do they take that 8-hour rest knowing that Zhent agents could sneak in and snag the treasure they’ve been questing after? And what if, after retrieving said treasure, the heroes find that they are the target of a heist planned by the Xanathar Guild? Dragon Heist makes this easy be introducing the players to various factions around level 2.
  • Nostalgia: If the Blackrazor Guild returns to the Obsidian Maze, we’ll have major nostalgia on our side. It is, after all, where some of our most notable early adventures happened. I can imagine bringing back some of our classic characters to venture to the deeper levels of the Maze / Undermountain.
  • Meta-story: Part of what made our original adventures in Undermountain work were the meta-stories that kept going while the players were away. The Cult of Death Undying schemed on level 2. The High Orcs and the Drow battled throughout levels 1-5. The Dark Circle, the bitter, exiled remnants of Obsidian Bay’s Professionals Guild (aka the Thieves Guild) schemed.  Maure Castle had none of that. If we return to Obsidian Maze, you can be sure one these stories (and a few new ones) will be waiting.

Featured Image Meta

A photograph of a few of the maps from Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Credit: Ken Newquist (map artwork Wizards of the Coast)

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