Sunday, December 21, 2008

Light Bulb

Over at Greyhawk Grognard, Joseph has written a terrific post on megadungeons as "campaign tent poles," by which he means that a megadungeon serves admirably as the thing that "holds the rough up" of a campaign, even if there are -- and should be -- other things under that rough. That is, a megadungeon is a terrific foundation on which to build a campaign, but, being the foundation, it pretty much demands that you build something else on top of it in order to use it to its fullest. Clearly, both the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns operated in this fashion, being focused on the exploration and looting of a megadungeon, but expanding beyond it as the demands of campaign events and player desire demanded it.

I've become ever more convinced that a "tent pole" megadungeon is pretty much a sine qua non for an old school campaign. Dungeons & Dragons was written, after all, with megadungeons in mind and I don't think you can really get the most out of the game if you avoid the whole concept. In thinking about this, I realized two things. First, there's never really been a properly presented old school campaign setting, because none that I know of have ever given us the megadungeons around which they revolved. It seems to me that, if I were an old school publisher looking for a "killer app," it'd be a well-done megadungeon and surrounding wilderness, done in a way that fosters sandbox/hexcrawl play. Second, I've now realized that my growing dissatisfaction with AD&D 2e stems in part from the fact that few of its many and much loved campaign settings had much scope for a tent pole megadungeon. Or rather, megadungeons are possible in them, but they weren't generally aspects of the setting that official support encouraged. Consider:
  • Al-Qadim: A megadungeon might work in this setting with some work. It'd be a bit odd, given the socio-cultural nature of the setting, but there are enough ruined cities around in the desert that I could imagine it.
  • Birthright: A megadungeon in Cerillia would really shift the focus of the campaign away from the power politics for which it was created.
  • Dark Sun: Actually, this setting probably could have handled a megadungeon. Indeed, there was even a boxed set, City by the Silt Sea, that featured the ruined city of Giustenal that could have been presented as a megadungeon. Alas, it was instead used as a springboard for advancing a execrable metaplot. More's the pity.
  • Dragonlance: I have a hard time imagining a megadungeon on Krynn, but perhaps I'm too biased to consider the possibilities.
  • Planescape: I can't even begin to imagine what a megadungeon campaign in the Planes would be like.
  • Ravenloft: The megadungeon would probably work least well in this setting of all those I've listed.
  • Spelljammer: Interestingly, the Spelljammer itself was effectively a megadungeon and even got its own boxed set detailing it. Unfortunately, it was as bland as white bread and it was clear that TSR wasn't all that keen on doing much more with the concept.
On second reflection, it's more apparent to me that most of the 2e settings could be retooled to support a tent pole megadungeon, but the reality is that none were presented that way back in the day. That makes it appear in my memory as if they were much less amenable to D&D's origins than they actually were. That said, I never encountered anyway who attempted to run a megadungeon game in Cerillia or Athas and fans of these settings never mention their utility as the backdrop for megadungeon exploration in their paeans to them. So, while I'll concede that I've been more unfair to them than I ought to have been, the fact remains that 2e was an era that moved away from tent pole megadungeons as a principle of setting design and that still irks me even years later.

In any case, I think the tent pole megadungeon is, despite its antiquity, something we've never really seen on the publishing side of things. That may be because it's inherently un-publishable, but I'm not convinced of that. Indeed, I'm starting to think that a tent pole megadungeon might in fact be a rare example of an old idea that could catch fire again. The difficulty, of course, is in how its presented and in resisting the urge to over-detail and brandify the megadungeon to the point of uselessness. Some ideas are swirling in my head and I'll chat about them later, probably after I've reviewd Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. Having now read through the entirety of that module, I have some very clear ideas on what works and what doesn't and where the approach taken in that product went awry and why. They're lessons I've taken to heart while working on Dwimmermount and I'll elaborate on them soon.

18 comments:

  1. Knowing your issues with Dragonlance, which I don't personally feel myself but can certainly understand, I can think of several mega-dungeon ideas:

    - Abandoned Dwarven city partially wrecked by the Cataclysm and left heavily booby-trapped by the departing dwarves, filled with dwarven-made traps in some areas, goblin & hobgoblin infested lairs and trap-dens in others.

    - Human city, buried by the Cataclysm, now filled with the undead spirits of the former inhabitants as well as numerous other nasties that have gravitated towards the evil lurking there.

    - Xak Tsaroth is essentially a combination of the two ideas - a huried human city infested with goblins and gully dwarves and draconians; it's actually a pretty good mega-dungeon in its own right, especially if you expanded on what was originally developed.

    - An abandoned "mega-lair" for one of the Black (or red) wizards. There could be a large tower/keep above ground with passageways leading down into limitless underground levels.

    Because of the Cataclysm and all the information that was lost over that period of time, I actually think DL could host a good number of mega-dungeons - the whole campaign history is based around a setting filled with "lost cities" awaiting discovery and exploration (read: plunder).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I used to think of a Planescape megadungeon in terms of that weird comic series from the ~early #200 Dragon issues.

    This 'stranger in a strange land' cipher of a hero fell through the wrong doorway and ended up wandering around the endless catacombs that formed the connective tissue/backstage layer for the entire multiverse. He'd open doors into various worlds, dodge the factions fighting for control of the catacombs, and exploit bizarre thaumotechnology (I recall a zombie netrunner using a magic modem thing at one point) while looking for his way home.

    A bit of refluffing would make this into an entirely usable Planescape megadungeon. Thanks to the portals you could go straight from Sigil to the Catacombs just by climbing down the right manhole (or up through the right attic trapdoor).

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've actually thought of a campaign built like that, a sort of Sliders/Stargate type campaign with PCs trapped wandering from mini-verse to mini-verse, with some sort of "planar compass" as their only guide showing them the direction of their next portal. Think of taking a dozen or more mini-verse "dungeons", each with it's own unique theme and flavor, and each somehow interconnected with the others like some massive mash-up, floating out in some back-eddy of the multiverse.

    ReplyDelete
  4. James Mishler has presented an interesting potential counter point to this in his most recent blog entry:

    http://jamesmishler.blogspot.com/2008/12/sandbox-meanderings.html

    Worth a read. I have to admit, the "mega dungeon" has never really been part of my D&D experience, and I suspect that "scattered dungeons" can serve the same purpose, effectively being "levels" of a nominal mega dungeon.

    ReplyDelete
  5. If I were playing weekly, with committed/"serious" players (meaning people who really knew the game and were looking to get better as the campaign goes on), I'd use a megadungeon as the tent pole. I think it offers so many creative and RPing possibilities, and helps solve a lot of the "what quest are we on, now?" problems that can plague campaigns. It would also free up the DM and the players to go do other things - wilderness or town adventures, or sessions with nothing but interaction and negotiation, because they know the dungeon's not going anywhere.

    I doubt that I'll ever get a chance to do this, though; once a month with casual players just doesn't lend itself to a megadungeon-based approach (too much is forgotten or ignored between sessions). Maybe when we're all retired and OK with spending more time on the game.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Al Qadim could very easily have a megadungeon dropped into it somewhere.... sadly, I had always hoped that the CITIES OF BONE and RUINED KINGDOM supplements would have more dungeons in them (especially CITIES OF BONE).

    ReplyDelete
  7. The Ruins of Undermountain is the quintessential megadungeon in the Forgotten Realms. You could run an entire campaign with it and branch off with side missions in the City of Waterdeep that it sits below for a change of pace. I have both boxed sets and there are tons of adventure hook ideas there.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I actually like the idea of Ravenloft, especially as presented in the original boxed set. I ran many games in that setting, but after a while the themes got boring. As I read your post it occurred to me that a megadungeon in Ravenloft would totally awesome, if the megadungeon was actually a domain unto itself!

    Some mad wizard or creature could be in charge of it, and it might have corridors that just dead end in mist, with nothing existing there.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I bought the $5 pdf of Castle Whiterock a few days ago, it seems to be a lot like you describe, with megadungeon and surrounding area.

    I also have The Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor, which along with the additional campaign setting materials appears to fit the bill of a published megadungeon setting, indeed the first one. The maps are really bad though, keying is totally inadequate for play if you're not Dave Arneson.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I realize that this might be a heretical utterance, but the setting that absolutely "springs" to mind when reading your entry is Monte Cook's Ptolus.

    Talk about a wonderful tentpole and an equally wonderful supporting surrounding area. You could use this one setting for years and never cross the same path twice. And the one thing I absolutely loved about this idea was the ease with which you could insert a new character after an untimely demise.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Worth a read. I have to admit, the "mega dungeon" has never really been part of my D&D experience, and I suspect that "scattered dungeons" can serve the same purpose, effectively being "levels" of a nominal mega dungeon.

    Yes, they certainly could and I get the impression that the Wilderlands worked more on that model. That said, I do think the megadungeon is a very natural fit for D&D and the more the game has run away from the concept, the less I have liked it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The Ruins of Undermountain is the quintessential megadungeon in the Forgotten Realms.

    Yes, it is. I've long argued that the Realms -- the real Realms, Greenwood's Realms -- is a very old school setting that's been ill served by most of the products TSR and WotC have produced for it. I never owned the Undermountain sets, but I keep hearing that the first one at least was very well done and a nice glimpse into the old school heritage of the Realms.

    ReplyDelete
  13. In any case, I think the tent pole megadungeon is, despite its antiquity, something we've never really seen on the publishing side of things. That may be because it's inherently un-publishable, but I'm not convinced of that. Indeed, I'm starting to think that a tent pole megadungeon might in fact be a rare example of an old idea that could catch fire again.

    I'll echo S'mon: Castle Whiterock is looking just just such a thing. Of course, I have no idea how well it did.

    sadly, I had always hoped that the CITIES OF BONE and RUINED KINGDOM supplements would have more dungeons in them (especially CITIES OF BONE).

    Definitely. I suppose that James is right in that 2e AD&d wasn't interested in such things.

    ReplyDelete
  14. So, does AEG's 'World's Largest Dungeon' count as a megadungeon? I sort of assume it did.

    ReplyDelete
  15. You know, I've never actually seen World's Largest Dungeon, so it's hard for me to say for sure. I'd really like to look at it to see what it's like and how it's structured.

    ReplyDelete
  16. So, does AEG's 'World's Largest Dungeon' count as a megadungeon?

    Yes it is. But it fails. The premise of the dungeon is that it is a prison for a powerful creature. Once the party enters, they can't leave and are trapped inside. There are metagame issues when the players roll up new characters and enter the dungeon.

    ReplyDelete
  17. There are metagame issues when the players roll up new characters and enter the dungeon.

    That is when most or all the original characters that enter the dungeon the first time are killed.

    Being trapped inside and not being able to exit and restock supplies was a buzz-kill

    ReplyDelete
  18. Of published mega-dungeons, I would point to three:

    (1) Undermountain (as published in the original 2nd Edition boxed set). Although in some respects under-detailed, Undermountain is probably the only extant mega-dungeon which has been published with solid support outside of the dungeon (in the form of the Waterdeep boxed set).

    (2) Rappan Athuk. IMO, one of the best mega-dungeons ever published. (And the only one to be truly shown in its entirety.) The only thing it lacks is a good "home base" for the PCs' operations. (In my RA campaign I combined it with Crucible of Freya, Tomb of Abysthor, and several other Necromancer and Monte Cook modules to create a well-developed valley with two mega-dungeons and several smaller dungeons and dungeon-like sites.)

    (3) Castle Greyhawk (as presented in Greyhawk Ruins). Not Gygax's original, but a well-developed mega-dungeon nonetheless.

    I haven't read Castle Whiterock yet, although I'm looking forward to it.

    Other mega-dungeons have certainly been attempted. I would consider World's Largest Dungeon to be a failure.

    I'd also give an honorable mention to Ptolus for attempting the same dynamic. In print, however, the focus is primarily on the city and even the addition of The Banewarrens mega-adventure doesn't really alleviate the lack of detail for the extensive dungeons and caverns beneath the city.

    (In practice, my Ptolus campaign has featured a lot of dungeon-crawling. But a lot of that, while being drawn from Monte Cook's descriptions, is not in the form of material actually available in published form.)

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.