April 2017’s RPG Carnival topic is “Carnival of Megadungeons!”, during which the gaming blogosphere looked at this staple of fantasy (and occasionally science fiction) role-playing games.
I suspect most gaming groups of a certain age have a megadungeon that they call their own — it’s a trope of Dungeons & Dragos that calls to us like dragons to gold. For the my gaming group, Blackrazor Guild, that dungeon is the Obsidian Maze.
Located in the mountainous heart of the Pomarj peninsula in the World of Greyhawk campaign setting, the Obsidian Maze is your classic deep-delve dungeon, with dozens of levels, most of which have only been hinted at in the region’s lore. Like many of its kin, the Maze was spawned by some insane wizard, though I don’t recall if we ever named him.
The earliest incarnation of the Maze was based on the first two levels of Undermountain, the venerable Forgotten Realms megadungeon. I had the boxed set sitting on my shelf, and it seemed like a shame to waste it. I stripped away much of the Forgotten Realms trappings — my group was (and still is) comprised of Greyhawk partisans — and moved it far inland. There’s still a big city associated with it, known as the Free City of Obsidian Bay, but that city is located several days away. You can’t simply go to a tavern and drop through a hole into the dungeon.
In the early days of the campaign, the Blackrazor Guild was tasked with mapping the dungeon’s first level by one of Obsidian Bay’s lord traders. At the time their guild was deeply in debt and needed as much gold as they could get their hands on. Getting paid to go to dungeon they’d raid anyway was just gravy.
At the Obsidian Maze they encountered skirmishes between drow and high orcs, a storyline that never quite went anywhere. The more lasting impact on our campaign was the Cult of Death Undying. The cult’s purpose was (and still is) to open a way to the Fading Land of Necros, a demiplane ruled by the lich followers of Nerull. They are led by Lewandrew, a powerful lich wizard, and defended by fanatical assassin warriors known as the Followers of the Skeletal Way.
The cult kidnapped, murdered, and raised the guild’s erstwhile leader, Brant Bladescream, as an undead horror. That lead to an epic showdown with the Cult in the Obsidian Maze … and the end of a chapter in the campaign. It also inspired my “Crystal Skulls of Nerull” article for Oerth Journal #11.
After their run-in with the Cult of Death Undying, the Blackrazor Guild moved on. The cult would be a recurring villain in the campaign, but the heroes rarely revisited the Obsidian Maze.
Its legend, however, would grow. The Well of All-Heals was determined to be located deep within the Maze. For a time it looked like the heroes might seek out the Well as a way of healing their leader Malphas of the various artifact-induced maladies he was suffering from. The City of Eyes — a level of the maze populated entirely by beholders — is notorious in our campaign as the one place our heroes never, ever want to go.
Though the heroes never returned to the Obsidian Maze, it’s continued to loom over the campaign. Our prequel campaign, Obsidian Frontier, features the Maze as the reason why Obsidian Bay became such a boom town. But given the opportunity to go back to the Maze, our heroes decided to do anything but.
Beware the Megadungeon
Years ago I wrote a column called “Beware the Megadungeon“. It talked about my group’s experiences with Maure Castle. At the time, Maure Castle was being published in the pages of Dungeon magazine, and it had everything my group could have wanted. It was steeped in Greyhawk lore, it was challenging, and it was deadly.
The problem was .. it was too deadly. Our high-level heroes ended up asking themselves the question “Why the heck are we here?” These were characters who had won their fortunes, found their great magic items, and — in some cases — established estates of their own. Maure Castle became a place where they could only lose, never win.
Maure Castle laid bare the fact that while conceptually we like megadungeon, in truth what we want are megastories. Maure Castle lacked a story. It was the Cult of Death Undying storyline that drove our heroes to the Obsidian Maze, and it was the completion of that story’s major arc that took them away from it. I suspect, given a sufficiently compelling story, my group would return to the Maze, but the challenge alone isn’t enough. A fortune in treasure isn’t enough. Even a great magical item isn’t enough.
My advice to would-be megadungeon creators is this: don’t forget about the story. You can make a dungeon filled with the best traps known to angels and fiends, but if your heroes don’t have a reason to be there, it might as well just be another hole in the ground.
- A view of one of the levels of Undermountain, a classic megadungeon. Credit: TSR / Wizards of the Coast