Friday, October 23, 2009

Schrödinger's Dungeon

A common lament amongst old schoolers is that Gary Gygax never published a "complete" version of Castle Greyhawk. You also occasionally hear similar laments about Dave Arneson's Castle Blackmoor or other iconic megadungeons from the early days of the hobby. I used to make such laments myself, so I have a lot of sympathy for those who wish they could see the maps and contents of these foundational adventure sites.

As I've studied the history of the hobby, though, I've started to understand exactly why we've never seen a "proper" megadungeon published to date: it can't be done, at least not easily. Now, before everyone jumps all over me for saying this, let me clarify a few points. When I talk about a "proper" megadungeon, I'm not just talking about a big dungeon. Now that the old school is the flavor of the month, lots of people use the term "megadungeon" without understanding that it's more than just a module on steroids -- a "super-module" to use TSR's late, unlamented phrase. When I say "megadungeon," I'm talking about what Trent Foster calls a "campaign dungeon," which is to say, an adventuring site so large, open-ended, and dynamic that it becomes a campaign setting unto itself -- a kind of "dungeon wilderness," if that makes sense.

When most people think of a "dungeon," they expect a set of maps with a key describing rooms and their contents. A megadungeon, by its very nature, can't be detailed in the same way. It's a lot more "impressionistic" and relies heavily on ad hoc adjudication by the referee, as the players explore it. Not all of the megadungeon's rooms are inhabited at any given time -- this is important -- and many of their inhabitants might change, depending on player action, referee whim, or the luck of random rolls. Likewise, even the geography of the megadungeon might change, as the referee adds new sections, closes off old ones, or otherwise alters what the characters have experienced to date.

All of these factors make it hard to present a megadungeon in a form that's easily usable by anyone other than the referee who created it. My own Dwimmermount megadungeon, for example, consists of a collections of piecemeal maps, quick notes, and random tables. If someone asked me to show them Dwimmermount, they'd get a stack of papers that'd probably make no sense to them, because their "organization" isn't according to the scheme of a published module but rather according to the needs of the sessions I'm playing with my players. As the campaign wears on, certain aspects of the megadungeon become set in stone -- like the "cleric tree" that bears fruit that act like potions of healing -- but many other aspects change from session to session, often without the players realizing it. These changes are sometimes purely whimsical on my part and other times they're based on a growing sense of what would work better as a challenge.

In every case, the changes are in response to play and it's this quality of megadungeons that makes them hard to put into a published form. As campaign settings in their own right, the best one can hope for is a "snapshot" of the megadungeon at any given period of time. Megadungeons aren't meant to be "cleared out;" they are constantly growing, changing, and re-populating. They're not just a bunch of maps with keyed rooms and to treat them as such is to miss the whole point of them. Rather, they're what Joseph the Greyhawk Grognard calls a "tent pole," a hub around which an entire campaign evolves. That's certainly been the case with Dwimmermount, as almost all the action outside of the megadungeon itself has been in relation to it. Dwimmermount is thus both a physical location for adventuring but also a "cultural" one, which is to say, a background against which other events and interactions take place.

If you read any descriptions Gary Gygax ever gave of the evolution of Castle Greyhawk, you'll quickly see that the Lake Geneva megadungeon was very similar to what I'm describing. Gygax kept notes about the dungeon, but there was nothing at all equivalent to a module write-up for its myriad levels and sub-levels. The same could be said for Arneson's Castle Blackmoor -- and we can see this in First Fantasy Campaign -- or in the underworld beneath Jakálla in Barker's EPT campaign. These megadungeons only acquired certain of their features through play and, even then, those features could and sometimes did change, which is why Philotomy's notion of the "dungeon as mythic underworld" rings so true even to a Gygaxian naturalist such as myself.

A megdungeon product built around the way these dungeons were actually used would be akin to many boxed campaign settings, where you get "high level" information about countries and rulers, important local sights, and places of interest, but leave the specific details up to the referee as his players encounter them. Now, I think such a product would be very interesting, but I fear that many gamers, raised on a steady diet of "complete" adventure modules, would find this approach unsatisfying and confusing. And their feelings are justified in as much as we've never really seen many examples of proper megadungeons published in the last 30+ years. Paul Jaquays's Caverns of Thracia probably comes closest and I am told that at least the first Undermountain boxed set takes a similar approach, but I cannot say that with any certainty.

All of the foregoing then is an explanation of why I no longer fret much about never having seen Gary's Castle Greyhawk in printed form. I simply don't think such a thing would ever have been possible and any attempt to present a "Castle Greyhawk" trapped in amber would necessarily feel inadequate. That's the nature of the beast and therefore I think the only way to experience a proper megadungeon is to build it yourself.

62 comments:

  1. Great post. This jives with my own (less-well formed) thoughts on the subject. I've been giving my own megadungeon campaign a lot of thought lately, trying to figure out (among other things) why my players have been less interested in the doings out of the dungeon and focused very much on the exploration aspects ("More killing and treasure - I don't want to deal with stupid townies" as one player put it). I guess I can take that as a sign of success for my creation. Twenty sessions and only on the third of many levels - the level of enthusiasm is quite heartening.

    I continue to read your posts for ideas on how to improve the experience. I've played for 30 years but this is my first real megadungeon campaign! So far, it has been a real blast.

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  2. I have fond memories of Caverns of Tharacia; my gaming group were big fans of Judges Guild products, and Thracia was one of our first introductions to really extensive campaign environments, and as you say, it's a good example of at least a modest megadungeon environment.

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  3. I'll just add that I think the first Undermountain boxed set fits your criteria. There are power structures sketched out, a city in a giant cavern on a lower level, and notes on how the dungeon and city above interact. While there are a few detailed areas, the vast majority of the dungeon map is left for the DM to fill in. There are also plenty of tips, IIRC, for making the dungeon dynamic.

    I have very fond memories of Undermountain. It was the core of a successful campaign I ran many moons ago.

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  4. Heh. “Schrödinger’s dungeon” is a term I use myself, but for something else. ^_^

    I think it has been a huge disservice to the hobby that—with the possible exception of FFC—a megadungeon hasn’t been published. For exactly these reasons. Publishing a megadungeon without trying to clean it up and make it usable by other people would have given referees an example other than the overly polished modules. A snapshot of a living work-in-progress would have provided a much needed different point-of-view.

    Of course, every referee has to find their own way, but it can be a great help when learning something to see how the masters go about doing it.

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  5. Ed Greenwood's "Ruins of Undermountain" comes as close as anything to a published megadungeon (I'd postulate it is the ONLY published megadungeon). As a matter of fact one of the complaints after it was released was "it was unfinished" since there were so many empty areas waiting to be developed (a "defect" that many of us see as a boon instead).

    While one of the best dungeon adventures ever published, I don't think Caverns of Thracia fits the mold of a megadungeon anymore than several similar multi-level dungeon crawls published in the same era.

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  6. To begin, I think this must be one of the top ten titles of you 1000 posts.

    Your point about empty rooms I think is the key. I understand that Dave Hargrave had lots of empty rooms in the campaigns he DM'ed. I think it's why there is a table for different coloured mists and fogs in Arduin. It gives character to a room without monsters. Sounds like EGG was also a fan of the empty room.

    And I guess that's the thing. People will complain if you make them pay for a map of empty rooms. They expect something. But empty rooms are evocative and realistic, if you're exploring ... well, a ruin.

    Maybe it's hard to bottle and sell an evocative, atmospheric mystery, when you have to look at printing costs.

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  7. Great observations, JM!

    I can't imagine putting my Forsaken Halls into any kind of publishable format - it would literally take years to write, if I wanted to include every detail, mystery, clue, sound, temperature, etc - short of a very vague overview. Just completing all the maps would be a herculean effort.

    I run my mega off a combination of fleshed out maps on 8 square per inch graph paper (roughly 9 or so 8"x11" sheets per level), but very few of these are finished, with most of the dungeon mapped out almost flow-chart style, with only the major iconic areas and inter-level connections represented.

    Random tables are you friend, especially in the megadungeon!

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  8. AEG's The Worlds Largest Dungeon easily fits the depiction of a megadungeon which is probably the largest physical dungeon map ever published.

    On a smaller scale, the Arduin Dungeons are essentially megadungeons compacted on a 8' x 11' sheet of graph paper were almost every square is used.

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  9. Excellent post. I think the idea of living play being difficult to capture might actually explain why 'old school' is so hard to explain too.

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  10. Excellent and inspiring post! I think one of the things that keeps people from attempting their own megadungeons is the feeling that they need to "finish it" before they can open it up for business.

    I think one of the illusions of the well run megadungeon is that impression of vastness that really doesn't have to be there except in the imaginations of the players.

    This really gives me energy to try to do this now. Thanks, James!

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  11. Great post title...
    I'm not sure that I agree with a few people's opinion of Undermountain, but I will say two things: the maps in that box are some of my favorites of all time. A friend of mine years ago hung them on his bedroom walls after we finished our campaign there, and I could stare at those things for hours. The second thing is one of my favorite gaming memories of all time happened in that dungeon. It still comes up in conversation 20 years later. Our group was six strong at the time, and we commonly would get into intraparty conflict that took the lives of many a character. One time in Undermountain, a fight broke out and the party split 3/3, with the side I was on being hunted. We somehow managed to trap the other group in a shaft where we controlled the exit, had the wizard fly a _Decanter of Endless Water_ up to the roof and lodge it in a rock. We cause a cave in that blocks the exit and the wizard teleports each of us out. The entire table (including the guys who were waiting to die) erupted in laughter that lasted a good half hour, as we witnessed their slapstick deaths. Definitely a style of play that was a product of low maturity and plenty of free time, but one of my fondest gaming memories ever.
    I need to con my players into a megadungeon campaign...

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  12. "AEG's The Worlds Largest Dungeon easily fits the depiction of a megadungeon which is probably the largest physical dungeon map ever published."

    Except that it's a "dungeon" in name only...it was never organically developed, it was put together in a lab like Frankenstein, with no development, playtesting, or adventuring groups altering the setting over time like other traditional megadungeons. It's so arificial it should have been built with saccharine; it never existed as part of someone's campaign, but was created as a sort of publicity stunt (IIRC, the project was made to use EVERY monster in the 3E canon).

    And the fact it's been universally panned as a piece of shite is a point against it...!

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  13. I think perhaps of more interest than a published megadungeon would be a sort of how-to guide on how to build and run your own megadungeon. I suspect the reason most folks want to see a published megadungeon is not because they want to recreate the experience on running the exact same campaign, but to use as a reference and example of how to create their own similar campaign. And given the indeterminate nature of a megadungeon as you describe, this is really the only thing that could actually be provided.

    I'm thinking here of something along the lines of the excellent Warhammer RPG supplement Renegade Crowns, which covers the Border Princes in that setting. Given that the Border Princes is an area in constant flux with provinces constantly rising and falling, the book does not attempt to describe a snapshot of the region, but rather describes how to build and run the region yourself. It includes a huge number of random charts, which may be a hallmark of its old school influences.

    I know I'd love such a book. I've never run nor played in an actual megadungeon, and the idea is somewhat foreign to me. I'm more used to sprawling games that travel the world and visit a variety of smaller, unconnected locations. The idea of a megadungeon based campaign intrigues me, but I wouldn't want to tackle creating one myself without at least a little guidance.

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  14. Does Castle Whiterock not qualify as a detailed megadungeon?
    http://www.goodman-games.com/5050preview.html

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  15. I think Temple of Elemental Evil definitely counts.

    Its also the best dungeon adventure ever written.

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  16. My White Sandbox campaign has Caverns of Thracia as its tent pole, and I can attest both that it's a great example of a published megadungeon seed (a little short on empty rooms, but the use of factions and hidden areas creates a lot of dynamic action and adaptability) and that after a dozen or so sessions it's evident that I have changed it in response to play & will do so increasingly going forward.

    Some of my changes use tools already present in the material as written - for example, there's a percent chance that a high-level patriarch might be present in one of the rooms, and although he never turned up according to chance I've had that NPC attack the players in town and then take up residence in the dungeon to defend it (and himself) against them. Other elements I've added from scratch and tied to hooks suggested by Jaquays. The multi-level cross-section map makes it easy to add still lower subterranean passages, and the planar doors in the ancient temple synched up with some astral random encounters and my desire to introduce a metropolis into the setting without affecting the nearby countryside by placing it in Limbo.

    I've only experienced Undermountain briefly as a player, but I think the one area in which it (and Keep on the Borderlands, another great megadungeon candidate) shines is organically incorporating a town as the other side of the dungeon. Descending through a hole in a tavern and seeing the grafitti left by previous adventurers made just entering Undermountain thrilling and memorable.

    Much of the richness of my own campaign has come from the relationship of events in the Caverns of Thracia to the nearby town where the PCs go to rest and sell stuff. It wasn't hard to create that town out of whole cloth and build in some connections to the dungeon, but since no such "home base" is mentioned in the published adventure I wouldn't have known that I needed to introduce one if reading Grognardia et al. hadn't given me some grounding in old-school play.

    - Tavis

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  17. I think my own interest in Castle Greyhawk specifically was always more of a historical one. I would almost rather have seen a book ABOUT the greyhawk campaign than an actual, keyed dungeon. One can find many of the anecdotes about who found the first Portable Hole, or what happened to suchandsuch a character in the Black Reservoir, but seeing them organized and collected, along with the author's own home-made maps...well, I can dream.

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  18. The first Ruins of Undermountain boxed set is a great example of what you are talking about. In the foreword to it, Ed Greenwood pretty much says that it would be impossible to fully flesh it out in a published format and that it is a dynamic, changing place (more so than many other dungeons since Halaster is constantly altering levels, changing the placement of "gates", and bringing in new critters).

    The product instead takes the route of fully detailing a small area of the map of the first level as an example, then providing HUGE maps that are mostly empty for the DM to stock. Included are several tables of traps, dungeon dressings and random encounters. The major themes of the levels are discussed and a brief overview is given of many more, even deeper levels. I personally had great fun with this product and it served as an excellent example of how to make a megadungeon. I still cannabalize the maps to this day for my own purposes (most recently in my prep work for an upcoming Empire of the Petal Throne campaign focused on exploring the undercity).

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  20. Except that it's a "dungeon" in name only...it was never organically developed, it was put together in a lab like Frankenstein, with no development, playtesting, or adventuring groups altering the >setting over time like other traditional megadungeons. It's so arificial it should have been built with saccharine; it never existed as part of someone's campaign, but was created as a sort of publicity stunt (IIRC, the project was made to use EVERY monster in the 3E canon).


    Who cares if it was part of someone's campaign or not. I can point to plenty Modules that were built from scratch inside a game company. As to it's design, is very old school as it gives plenty of space for the GM to improvise and fill in the banks should he choose or just run it like it is.

    Honestly, Instead of calling it a piece of crap, maybe you should actually look at it first before making judgments based on what other people think.

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  21. I was going to say the same thing about Ruins of Undermountain that others have here, so consider htis a "me too" on that account.

    Taking another step, though, is that with it's openness, I "taught" myself to create encounters. But, rather than keying empty rooms, I just put them in a notebook, pulling one out as needed. This got me to thinking that a keyed map is a little less important than being able to present an appropriate encounter.

    Touching on the World's Largest Dungeon. I ran a year long bi-weekly campaign, getting about halfway through. Badmike's criticisms touch on my beefs with it. However, some sections were actually pretty good; others stunk out loud. There was not contiuity section to section and it had a really contrived feeling to it.

    (FTR: the stunt was to merely use every SRD monster, not every 3E.)

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  22. I haven't done a true "mythic underworld" dungeon myself in a decade and a half. Then I actually drew out and stocked a several level dungeon (including "magic" levels that appeared as outdoor areas). Phew, what a lot of work.

    As a kid I managed to use the randomized stuff in the DM's Guide for dungeoning, and at this point I think I could pull it off pretty good with the DMG and The Old School Reference Guide and little else. Just let player action dictate the directions they might go, do some ranomization, and Ad Hoc the rest. At any rate, I doubt I will ever sit down and put 50 man hours into dungeon creation again.

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  23. Ah, this is almost TOO nerdy, but I've often thought that the maze in Labyrinth (yes, the cheesy-but-fun muppet-esque movie from the 80s) would be a good template for a megadungeon in that it's made up of several mazes, evolves into more complicated puzzles, and ends in an MC Escher funhouse. Add a few underground tunnels, caves, and a flesh out the castle and you've at least got a decent MD starter kit!

    /And tell me a Bowie-based Lich at the center wouldn't be bad ass!

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  24. @tedopon

    "I need to con my players into a megadungeon campaign..."

    Might be even more fun to not let them know they're walking into one!

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  25. I DMed Castle Whiterock, and it has its high points with some odd levels mixed in. When I think of a megadungeon, I would rather adventure in Rappan Athuk from Necromancer Games. There is a lot of background info, and if your group can attempt to foray into it more than once, it gives people a way to tie it into a larger campaign world. Its not enough for a standalone campaign, but there is great continuity. It may not have enough unused rooms to tailor to one's tastes, but I fixed that quickly.

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  26. @Jay
    Problem is that the last dungeon they went through (which was pretty good size) a couple of them complained it was too big.
    I think I'll have to approach them with a What If? hint first, then spring it on them if they're receptive.

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  27. I agree that this is one of the better posts--not to suggest that the others are poor, but it transcends the merely informative and titillating to the inspiring.

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  28. @Jay in reference to Labyrinth - Sounds good to me!

    I have a Megadungeon Design Kit right here at my desk. The basic kit consists of 3 hardbacks and a pack of Dungeon Geomorphs. Just add imagination and stir.

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  29. My takeaway from your essay, James, is that don't think that the true campaign dungeon experience can be captured in a publishable format---in short, that it can be successfully productized. Is that an accurate distillation?

    Paul's comment above about having a mega-dungeon design reference would provide a worthy step toward making a mega-dungeon publishing product more-viable, but I'm not sure that's required in order to be able to publish such a campaign dungeon environment.

    More thoughts and follow-up discussion in K&K's "Megadungeons!" forum @ http://www.knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?t=6291.

    Allan.

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  30. Doesn’t the 1e DMG pretty much serve as a megadungeon (and campaign) how-to kit? For myself, what I’ve struggled with is the practicalities of implementing that advice. Seeing the actual artifacts without being cleaned up for publication would help me a lot.

    The FFC—now that I’ve come to understand that that is more or less what it is—certainly has helped. I’ll be checking out some of the products mentioned here.

    Still, a megadungeon how-to kit would be a fabulous product. I’ll definitely buy that when one of you guys make it.

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  31. Crow: "Honestly, Instead of calling it a piece of crap, maybe you should actually look at it first before making judgments based on what other people think."

    I have it, I've read it, and I was not impressed (and I enjoy a lot of the 3E stuff, including Rappan Atthuk). It does not strike me as old school in tone or construction, and I have heard very unfavorable comments on it's design from 3E gamers who have tried to run it or have adventured in it.

    bobmungovan: "Touching on the World's Largest Dungeon. I ran a year long bi-weekly campaign, getting about halfway through. Badmike's criticisms touch on my beefs with it. However, some sections were actually pretty good; others stunk out loud. There was not contiuity section to section and it had a really contrived feeling to it"

    I think that's the problem myself (and others) have with the product. Since each "section" was created by a different person or team, there is little flow or continuity, and instead of developing "organically" over time the entire thing was slapped together for the express purpose of making it "the world's largest dungeon". It has all the soul of a carefully planned and executed science project.

    bobmungovan: "(FTR: the stunt was to merely use every SRD monster, not every 3E.)"

    I stand corrected. But IMO this still points to a flaw in it's design, the fact it was "created" whole cloth as a "stunt" and not allowed to evolve.

    I think the problem here is what exactly is a megadungeon. I would say it's not just a gigantic map with lots of encounters, but that goes to the entire crux of the megadungeon definition and purpose. Suffice to say TWLD does not (to me, at least, YMMV) have the feel, look or intanglibes that make it "megadungeon worthy".

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  32. Agreed, James, and indeed from some points of view an in-depth, fully-keyed description simply ain't going to work as a campaign dungeon is by nature, as you note, dynamic over an extended period of time.

    Since you also invoked Tekumel, Barker's one-line hook for further "exploration" from 1950;
    "It is rumoured that still there lie endless mazes beneath the three Jakalla’s towers that lead to the dark lairs of the antique horrors subdued by the sorcerers of the Triangle."
    and a good GM with ideas and a general feeling for a game world/cultural space, plus active players not looking for spoon-feeding, will /more/ than suffice to result in a "campaign dungeon" being created as adventures develop. That is, after all, no less than "how it all started".
    Other players (and GMs) will expect keying down to the last copper piece/qirgal.
    How the GM in the latter case copes with keeping the whole dynamic "up to date" when using a pre-purchased megadungeon or their own fully detailed, personal equivalent "created in full in advance" is beyond me.
    (How many GMs bother to work out a forward-looking temporal dimension for /non/-party events as in the old Thieves' Guild adventures, say, anyway?).

    I can also empathise with the desire for "reading for inspiration" or "to follow in historic footstep" for the likes of Greyhawk Castle/El Raja Key, the Jakalla underworld, etc., but as a living entity of huge scale rather than as a series of "levels", at least partially self-contained, that is indeed a difficult ask for a commercial venture attempting to appeal to a lowish common denominator.
    Not that there's necessarily anything inherently "wrong" with such a disaggregationist approach and it beats the linear goal-driven sausage machines like "World's Largest Dungeon" hands-down, anyhow, IMO...

    > If you read any descriptions Gary Gygax ever gave of the evolution of Castle Greyhawk, you'll quickly see that the Lake Geneva megadungeon was very similar to what I'm describing. Gygax kept notes about the dungeon, but there was nothing at all equivalent to a module write-up for its myriad levels and sub-levels.

    Hmm... don't know about the original version of Greyhawk Castle, but for Rob's El Raja Key the original notes & room descriptions such as I've seen are considerably more advanced than the keying on the likes of Palace of the Vampire Queen. *jk*
    Depends what one calls a "module" these days, I guess.

    Maybe it wasn't a cat in the box in the first place...

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  33. Jay - "Ah, this is almost TOO nerdy, but I've often thought that the maze in Labyrinth (yes, the cheesy-but-fun muppet-esque movie from the 80s) would be a good template for a megadungeon in that it's made up of several mazes, evolves into more complicated puzzles, and ends in an MC Escher funhouse. Add a few underground tunnels, caves, and a flesh out the castle and you've at least got a decent MD starter kit!"

    I actually think that Labyrinth is an excellent example of a surreal kind of 'mythic underworld' dungeon, complete with riddles, monsters and secret passages. It's a big inspiration for me, along with books like Gormenghast.

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  34. If Gygax had published his 'original' Castle Greyhawk, it might have ended up looking a lot like B1, but with more maps.

    I'm not saying that's good or bad. But i'm not sure it's something i'd have paid money for.

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  35. It's a big inspiration for me, along with books like Gormenghast.

    Gormenghast is a GREAT example, and it adds a whole new component.. Not only do your players adventure in your megadungeon, they actually live there! I call dibs on the name "Steerpike" for a PC!

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  36. If Gygax had published his 'original' Castle Greyhawk, it might have ended up looking a lot like B1, but with more maps.

    I'm not saying that's good or bad. But i'm not sure it's something i'd have paid money for.


    I'm sure I would. Something like an immense B1 is precisely what I hope eventually comes out of Gygax Games. All I really want in a Castle Greyhawk is the maps, some thematic notes for each level, a lot of random tables to add to those I already have (in the DMG1, etc.), and some (brief) essays about the campaign BITD. Maps and one huge idea generation utility.

    What I don't want is Greyhawk's Greatest Hits, and I certainly don't want a level here and a sub-level there from three different authors, published over the course of the next 10 years.

    Oh, and a companion product covering the City would be nice, too :).

    I'm going to go resume smoking my pipe now....

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  37. I'll take whatever you're smoking, Howarth :D

    Allan.

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  38. Heh, it's sentiments very similar to those you've described here that made me excited about your megadungeon.net project (which I just noticed isn't abandoned after all, huzzah!) I wasn't sure whether this would actually be where you were going with this, but I think that a properly-created megadungeon would be an amazing product, but that it would have to be created, as you say, not as a module, but as a campaign setting.

    My earliest gaming experiences centered around a megadungeon. I believe it originally evolved out of Keep on the Borderlands. And underneath the keep, there was an underbasement, and then caves, and then... well, the idea was that our DM kept creating or adapting adventures to keep our party going, and that these adventures always ended up connecting to this central cave system near our homebase. I don't think we ever considered the idea of "wilderness adventures"; I know we all played Isle of Dread at some point, but for me at least leaving the dungeon constituted, somehow, a abandonment of something that was crucial to my D&D experience.

    Anyway, as we advanced in level, we stopped fighting so many kobolds and goblins, and started fighting more elementals, more undead. Eventually demons and dragons.

    But, structurally, we were always connected to that original entry point. Doors we had previously been unable to open became available to us. Catastrophic events under the earth opened up new paths. Frequently, we would just get to the end of an adventure and, somewhere in the room, there would be another door, or another pit, or another teleport, leading deeper.

    The dungeon is an emergent property of what I now (thanks to the OSR) think of as the old-school gaming experience. The game, as I first knew it and as I now find myself returning to, is built around the experience of exploring imagined spaces, and of course underground spaces are ideal-- they're contained, they're conducive to mapping, and to meaningfully defined encounter areas... You start out only able to cast magic missile once a day and then, deeper, you're able to hurl fireballs with impunity. Early on you're fighting snakes and spiders but if you go down far enough you'll find a great wyrm or a balrog. The deeper you get the bigger and weirder things are.

    By the time that first campaign of ours fizzled out, we'd fought our way through a fire giant clan, killed an old white dragon and a lich, battled an ancient demon... and we had pages of maps, detailing our descent from the old keep, through the cavern networks, around the dwarf city, through elemental lairs. The last adventure I remember from that campaign involved was with the aforementioned white dragon, but I'm sure that somewhere in his cave there could have been a trap door. Or maybe his death throes had set off a cave-in somewhere that revealed a crevice leading further down. I am sure there could have been another extension to the massive underground complex we'd mapped. The point for us was that, in this network of halls and pits and caves that we'd started mapping out with a party averaging 3-4 HP, we might eventually get to anything the game had to offer. Hell, there was this "tarrasque" thing in one of the monster manuals. If we got to a point where nothing else was an adequate challenge, well...

    (cont., because apparently I've gone over the Blogger limit.)

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  39. A megadungeon, as I understand it, is a unifying principle more than a specific edifice. There is a reason for you to delve into the earth. You will find adventure there. Villains who escape you early on will show up later, advanced in level. If you build a world around the assumptions (a) that the world is designed to offer challenges and opportunities to the PCs, and (b) that the world extends (ultimately) vertically, then you end up with a megadungeon.

    As with some of your other commenters, I think Ruins of Undermountain is close to what I'd want from a successful megadungeon product. 2nd Edition's Dragon Mountain is another contender (at least the way I ran it, spread out over about 3x as much subterranea as was detailed in the books). The GDQ series is, despite some nominal "outdoor" time, probably the most successful recorded effort so far.

    But ultimately, what I really want is a pastiche. A megadungeon that exists as a huge number of possible sites. Modular (in both the technical and the TSR nomenclatural senses) lairs, cities, and diversions that are in some general sense thematically linked, and that can be fitted together as needed to meet an adventuring party's current interests, like an early-period Dungeon magazine but with less emphasis on "interesting" hooks and more on the presentation of interesting characters, the inclusion of good rumor and random encounter tables, and the establishment of challenging and diverse environs.

    And this is partly because I think a megadungeon needs to be flexible, needs to be able to accommodate the changing interests and focus of a growing party, but mostly because I think that the je ne sais quois of a proper megadungeon needs to be that the players cannot possibly expect what is coming next, and therefore the moment you print a map detailing a megadungeon (like the execrable World's Largest Dungeon, or for that matter the quite-good-as-a-dungeon-but-underwhelming-as-a-lair-where-deities-battle Temple of Elemental Evil) you have already made the megadungeon into something too tangible, too precise for the title.

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  40. James: Great post. I completely whiffed on Dragon Mountain. As written, it wouldn't work, but it would take really very little GM input to make it quite a memorable "megadungeon". Good spot.

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  41. Not a book on megadungeon design, but an article offering one approach:
    Creating a "Mythic Underworld" Dungeon

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  42. James; you didn't say it /had/ to be 100% pen-and-paper... ;)

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  43. >I think that the je ne sais quois of a proper >megadungeon needs to be that the players cannot >possibly expect what is coming next,

    So long as there is a room t enter or a door to open, doesn't matter if it's a megadungeon or mini dungeons as the element of surprise for the players should be the same.

    As to TWLD is cheese, sure parts of it are just like you'll find parts in any module that come off as corny. So, if it doesn't work for you then all you need to do is CHANGE IT. Don't like half the maps don't use them, if you dislike the 3ED stats, change them to AD&D. Simply put, make it your own.

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  44. > As to TWLD is cheese, sure parts of it are just like you'll find parts in any module that come off as corny. So, if it doesn't work for you then all you need to do is CHANGE IT.

    The underlying railroad/sausage-machine premise ("Start this end at level 1 - end up that end at level 20") is, however, anathema to many - especially in the "old school", I suspect, since that immediately damages the potential for freeform adventuring.
    *
    Easier to start elsewhere or from scratch, perhaps, albeit that's not to deny there may be /some/ good ideas/inspirational hook/reusable areas therein.

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  45. Very interesting discussion! My own experience with the Jakalla underworld was (and still is, for that matter, as we're still exploring it and finding new things to boggle at) that the Professor had set the place up like a giant stage set, with fascinating scenery and interesting 'bit players' who would have his plot lines ready for for us to discover. It was a 'living' underworld; one would run into repair parties from various temples fixing up old shrines, restocking looted treasures, and generally cleaning up the mess left behind by the various parties of player characters.

    One mess that didn't get cleaned up was due the 'endless mazes' that were quoted, above; the original group of players got bored with the endless twistings and turnings in one section and simply blew a hole through the walls to create a straight path. The hole is still there, and my current group uses it as a short-cut.

    The Professor also mapped out only three of the seven levels when he did the original in 1974; I asked him about this, once, and he simply smiled and said that "it was always a good idea to keep a little something back for later..."

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  46. Hiya, Jeff. Trust you're feeling a bit better, now. :)

    Thanks for sharing that insight/history which does, of course, bring in a further complexity regarding the relationship between a megadungeon - by whatever definition - and the rest of the campaign world in which it is situated. (Well, barring a freeform multidimensional-nexus megadungeon, or World's Largest Dungeon which rather ignores that issue entirely ;)

    Coherence in the case of your own adventurings under Jakalla was /relatively/ "easy" since the Prof. had several decades to work on the backstory/setting but, even then, that creates the problem of having a /large/ amount of information with which the GM requires to be familiar - both statically and dynamically.
    As has been said - somewhat blithely, perhaps - it doesn't matter what system you use to play Tekumel so much as having Phil GM it. ;)

    Not an easy "transfer" to make to a publishable megadungeon (modular or otherwise) and underlying the "easier to build one oneself" line of thought, perhaps.

    > "it was always a good idea to keep a little something back for later..."

    Amen to that! ;)

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  48. >The underlying railroad/sausage-machine . . >premise >("Start this end at level 1 - end up that >end at level >20") is, however, anathema to many > especially in >the "old school", I suspect, since >that immediately >damages the potential for > freeform adventuring.

    Who says your PC's going to make it to 20 'th level much less 10'th or even 3'rd? The designers said TWLD was made to take PC's from 1st to 20'th level should they choose but doesn't mean it's a guaranteed one way ticket - you PC's could DIE in the process. Also the fact that your calling it a sausage/railroad adventure is simply crass . It's a dungeon crawl, which means the players/ PC's pretty much decide what they want to do once they set foot in the place and how far they want to go.

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  49. Sorry to be coming late to the party (geeze, it's only been a couple of hours and already so many replies), but this is a subject near and dear to my heart for obvious reasons.

    I was going to write a long reply to this, but it got a bit too long! I've turned it into a sort of reply-post over at my own blog.

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  50. > Also the fact that your calling it a sausage/railroad adventure is simply crass .

    How so?

    You wrote:
    > Who says your PC's going to make it to 20 'th level much less 10'th or even 3'rd? The designers said TWLD was made to take PC's from 1st to 20'th level should they choose but doesn't mean it's a guaranteed one way ticket - you PC's could DIE in the process.

    I wrote:
    > The underlying railroad/sausage-machine premise ("Start this end at level 1 - end up that end at level 20")...

    If you're going to be argumentative it's normally better to argue from a different point-of-view rather than merely restating the same words in a different way.
    Dying as an additional option hardly yields gameplay depth above-and-beyond that outline description.

    Yes, it's a "dungeon crawl" but the /whole/ setting is also a deliberate bubble-universe, railroad plot with no option but to go "forwards".
    If you believe WLD has positive features that do indeed fit what's being asked about here, please explain those further in a constructive manner. ("When I talk about a "proper" megadungeon, I'm not just talking about a big dungeon" still stands, however).

    > PC's pretty much decide what they want to do once they set foot in the place and how far they want to go.

    If they can't even turn around and leave by the entrance 30 seconds later where's the "choice" in that?

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  51. > If you're going to be argumentative it's normally >better to argue from a different point-of-view >rather than merely restating the same words in a >different way.

    Well them how about starting by taking your own advice. Your the one who keeps labeling TWLD as worthless over and over.

    >Yes, it's a "dungeon crawl" but the /whole/ setting >is also a deliberate bubble->universe, railroad >plot with no option but to go "forwards".

    Who's says it has to be in a bubble universe or are>forced to going there in the first place? The dungeon is made to fit into a GM's game any way he chooses so if your looking to blame someone that your not having fun, start with him first.

    >Dying as an additional option hardly yields >gameplay depth >above-and-beyond >that >outline description.

    So if your favorite PC dies you don't think there' any sort of depth or resonance from when it happens? I've seen people cry when their characters die in a game. So obviously it has some effect.

    >If you believe WLD has positive features that do >indeed fit what's being asked >about here, please >explain those further in a constructive manner. >("When I >talk about a "proper" megadungeon, I'm >not just talking about a big dungeon" >still >stands, however)

    What more do I need to say other then I liked it and I can choose any way I want it to fit into my world. As to how you should run it your own games, use your own imagination.

    >If they can't even turn around and leave by the >entrance 30 seconds later >where's the "choice" in >that?

    How can anyone answer such as loaded question when it simply depends on what's happening within that moment in the game itself. Maybe you can leave, maybe you can't. One again, tell your GM your not happy with the game and maybe he'll accommodate the game to your specific needs.

    .

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  52. This discussion has prompted to me to start blogging about my Mutant Future "megadungeon". My first hack at it got sidetracked and turned into a session recap of the PCs first foray into the sucker, but that first foray illustrates a lot of the principles outlined in your post.

    I included tons of vertical access routes in the place, and to begin with it was filled with noxious gases that limited visibility, slowly killed anything breathing them and served to keep several dangerous factions in their own self contained, gas free levels.

    The PCs figured out a way to go straight down to the very bottom level and shut off the portal to the alien world that was the source of the gas; then they realized that the way they got down was no longer a viable exit (its complicated, but it had to do with them shutting off the gas) and they had to start exploring the dungeon from the bottom level up! Their actions that very first session also set in motion a chain of events, as two warring factions of genetically modified killer apes spilled out of the level they had been trapped in for centuries and took their conflict to the halls, scaring the crap out of the PCs in the process.

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  53. @crow: I'm simply stating the underlying premise/goals of WLD and what is actually in that, /as published/. Yes, of course, the GM can alter things but to say WLD is "made to fit into a GM's game any way he chooses" tallies neither with underlying product premises/goals nor even with the actual physical product itself. (Having no choice but to lug around a 840 page book could be useful to fend off RL muggers, though).

    If you believe that downloading the Monster Manual into a dungeon makes for a better "megadungeon" than the outline given by James in his second last paragraph, please explain why.
    Is it that his ideals, paralleling the organic growth of those early '70s "originals" is simply unpublishable (whether on paper or electronically), or is the /approach/ taken by the likes of WLD simply and inherently better?

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  54. goodman games did put out a good mega-dungeon in 'Castle Whiterock' ; therefore,
    the problem is NOT that it is impossible to build a true mega-dungeon -
    the problem is that such an undertaking requires a tremendous amont of effort and passion ,
    hence sales to effort ratio is exceedingly small

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  55. I'm surprised nobody mentioned D1-3 (Descent into the Depths/Vault of the Drow) yet.

    The long tunnels and double-backs are wonderful things and had all the criteria mentioned in James' post - large sections of travel; non-combat encounters and more with plenty of room to customise and change things around.

    I ran this as a campaign and the sheer scale of the beast was such that by the time the party got to Erelhei-Cinlu, they were pushing 14th level, having started with the giants at 9th two years previously! Good times.

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  56. While I like the post I have to challenge the conclusion.

    Are you seriously saying that you can't teach anybody how to run a specific megadungeon from a map, some notes, and a random table?

    That you can't write that up?

    That you can't take that and bind it then sell it?

    Granted it not going to be the same type of product as Tomb of Horrors or more recently the Sunless Citadel. But does it have to be?

    I think our thinking has been so conditioned by the tournament style adventure module (which nearly all the early modules were) that we feel to see the alternative formats.

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  57. I.C.E's " The Mines of Moria", has a lot of good ideas on putting together a megadungeon. I especially like the side view map which gives a really good depiction of the complex from top to bottom and even though not every nook and cranny is described in the module,there's easily enough info and ideas for any GM to expand it if he chooses to do so.

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  59. satyre: I was just about going to mention the exact same thing! A lot of the classic modules could be made into great megadungeons: Keep on the Borderlands, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Dungeon Land, ect. All have great potential. I've even toyed with the idea of taking Tomb of Horrors and expanding it into a massive underground necropolis the size of Undermountain.

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  60. crow: “I've even toyed with the idea of taking Tomb of Horrors and expanding it into a massive underground necropolis the size of Undermountain.

    ^_^ I haven’t had the pleasure myself yet, but I’ve seen Necropolis compared to Tomb of Horrors.

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  61. Just posted my Impressions of Castle Blackmoor Dungeons, Dave Arneson's Megadungeon, 300 pages published by Zeitgeist Games.

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