Saturday, October 24, 2009

More on Megadungeons

Looks like my post yesterday struck a chord with a lot of people, since there's been much commentary on it from people whose opinions I respect, like Allan Grohe, Rob Conley, and the Greyhawk Grognard. I'm pleased by this, because I think it's a topic worth discussing, but I fear that, once again, my "thinking out loud" has been invested with more authority than I ever intended. I did not say that publishing a "true" megadungeon is impossible, only that it cannot be done easily. I said this for several reasons, some of which I elucidated in the original post and some of which I didn't. Let me be clearer now.

First, I think the hobby has changed a lot since the early days. In particular, I think there's a much greater desire on the part of gamers for "complete" products. That's why exhaustive campaign settings, adventure paths, and monstrously large rulebooks seem to rule the day rather than the more skeletonic offerings of the Golden Age. Game companies, naturally, recognize this and cater to that desire. While there's probably a market for a proper megadungeon product, I suspect that market is small, or at the very least, I suspect it's perceived to be small.

That's a purely "logistical" issue and only explains why we haven't seen a published old school megadungeon product, not why it'd be difficult to do. The more substantive issue, I think, is that creating a proper megadungeon is more art than craft. That makes it hard to "commoditize" in the way that most game publishers like these days. It might be possible to produce a "megadungeon construction kit" product, which brings together a bunch of maps, random tables, and "how-to" essays on the creation and maintenance of a megadungeon, but I'm skeptical. Like good refereeing, I see megadungeon creation as something that you can't learn from a book. You learn by doing.

I realize this opinion will be controversial and I fully expect comments ranging from calling me an elitist to pointing to this or that product as a superb example of teaching good refereeing in book form. Once again, let me be clear: I don't think it's impossible, only exceedingly difficult and I say this because I have never seen an example of the kind of "how-to" product we're imagining and I've seen a lot of gaming products over the years. I've seen some that purport to teach the principles of refereeing or adventure design and none of them ever struck me as being all that successful in their intended purpose.

I come to this perspective from my own experience. I learned to become a good referee after years of simply muddling through and by watching others referee their own games. I've often noted that, in the old days, experienced referees frequently "mentored" their less experienced colleagues, helping them to learn the ropes of this rather unique role. For good and for ill, that's how I learned how to referee. The same is true of dungeon design. It's only through having read, created, and played hundreds of dungeons that I figured out how to make ones that are not only enjoyable but have what it takes to hold the interest of my players for months at a stretch.

Now, maybe, everything I've learned over 30 years of doing could be distilled into a book or other product. If so, I'd be very interested in seeing it. But my gut tells me that most such products would wind up being either a chaotic jumble calling itself a "toolkit" or else a bunch of vapid advice of use only to the inexperienced would-be dungeon designers. There's utility in both those types of products, I think, but neither would be a megadungeon product. They'd be products for making your own megadungeon. And, as I noted yesterday, that's really the crux of the matter: megadungeons are made, not bought. I don't discount the possibility that someone could create products to better support the creation of one's own megadungeon, but that's a far cry from asking for Castle Greyhawk in a box, something that I think that's neither desirable nor likely, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong.


  1. Oddly enough, I just said in my own post on this topic that I think running a megadungeon in this way is something you have to learn by doing. So, you won't get any argument on elitism from me. But then, I went ahead and started posting some suggestions on improvising dungeon details.

  2. Can't recall whether you've already talked here about Tony Dowler's How to Host a Dungeon, but that effort seems pertinent.

  3. > That's why exhaustive campaign settings, adventure paths, and monstrously large rulebooks seem to rule the day rather than the more skeletonic offerings of the Golden Age.

    Hmm... how much of the difference is actually down to stat blocks?

    The megadungeon comparisons in your previous post were more with the /unpublished/ campaign dungeons that originated in "Prehistory" (for the obvious names) and early Golden Age (for the likes of Gorree, Edwyr and others which receive blank stares nowadays), was it not?

    If we're getting out of the dungeon it might be fair to make comparisons with CSIO et al, but those /published/ Golden Age megadungeons are rather elusive, surely? (GDQ, for example, is still leading through an adventure path, albeit perhaps better played more open-ended than with the Q bolt-on being "the goal").

  4. I wouldn't want a Megadungeon "in a box." Granted, I'll get around to reading "The Castle of the Mad Archmage," and I'm sure I'll not only enjoy it, but, I'm likely to find some clever ideas I can use in my game. I would even BUY a product with those kind of historical ties; but to read, not run. The design aspect of DMing is an integral part of my gaming experience. How many of us who do it because We Want To, as opposed to doing it because "No one else will," use modules? At least, after we've been doing it for a little while. Every DM of the former persuasion whom I've spoken to, tells me the same thing: "I make my own material."
    I'm not sure how DM's who've started out with the Wotc versions feel, but, I certainly hope they feel the same way. I would expect them to.

  5. Among my friends, it was commonly believed that the "blocked-up tunnel" in the Caves of Chaos (from the Gnolls lair I believe) connected it to B1, In Search of the Unknown. This might make little sense to those of you who played B1 (we never did), but this kind of thinking suggests how one so inclined could purchase a mega-dungeon: buy modules and assemble them how you wish.

    My players (and me, too probably) generally prefer quasi-political adventures involving human agents that don't really seem to work in a dungeon. And I feel a little sad about this, because these posts and comments about the dungeon as a universe underground are powerfully suggestive.

  6. Who says you cant have both? Take a look at Tekumel for example, were players are encouraged to role play with the strange cultures and politics of the lands aswell as go dungeon delving into it's massive underworld looking for loot and fighting monsters. The only limits are your imagination afterall.

  7. *nods* The same applies even to the likes of Blackmoor, Greyhawk, et al, which have no such "deep roots"; the megadungeon was not the world by any means.
    Admittedly the terrain around Greyhawk Castle and City had /relatively/ limited mapping compared with pretty much any modern-day off-the-shelf campaign world but even in that case not all physical lands are contiguous...

    The cultural dimension wasn't, however, to the fore in the original "D&D as a medieval wargames campaign" design as presented to the public, so it shouldn't be surprising that the "easy option" of dungeoneering ("per the title") was far-and-away the most popular despite the original campaigns having already expanded far beyond those bounds.
    And within those dungeoneering boundaries it should also be no surprise that the relatively free-form megadungeons arose forth, given the lack of settings provided or anything beyond outline rules and tables. (Only a little unexpected, perhaps, that there were relatively few megadungeons hooked blatantly onto the likes of Tolkien's Moria rather than designed afresh).

    02c/ymmv as ever, anyhow. :)

  8. Since I feel the above commencts are goign off on a tangent, I'll steer nback and comment upon something I felt odd that James wrote.

    How to be a referee can't be learnt, right? It has to be learnt from a mentor. So if we go all the way back to Dave Wesely we of source wonder who taught him? OR should we take it further back and ask who taught H.G. Wells? There's a logical error lurking here of infinite regression.

    No James, good refereeing skills can be codified and have been. I even think good Megadungeon caring skills can ce codified and put into product.

  9. Kids: Don't try to spell when you're ill out of your mind...

  10. He didn't say it couldn't be learned, just that it can't be learned from a book. You learn by doing. This may or may not include a mentor. Books of DM advice might be useful, but they are almost exclusively about high-prep DMing, instead of improv/megadungeon DMing.

  11. Which is why such a campaign-dungeons-focused book needs to be published, of course!


    (validation word/omen: "printryo")

  12. . . . not to get us back off-topic, but I agree with crow and irbyz that there is no "philosophical" reason that a campaign can't do everything. but since my group meets so infrequently, I have to choose what I'm going to develop.

  13. I completely agree that it is something you have to learn-by-doing. I still think a published a megadungeon could help a lot of people along that track, though. (As First Fantasy Campaign has helped me.) It’s not going to teach them everything, but it helps you see it as a reality. “Hey, I could do that. Oh, and I’m going to do this and that different.”

    For things your indecisive about, it gives you an example to copy so that you can get on with the task of learning-by-doing.

    I’m betting even the most experienced referee would pick up an idea or two from such a product as well. Something that they can add to their arsenal and adapt through doing.

    And I still think serving as a counter-example to the bulk of the market would be a very good thing.

    Whether it would actually do well in today’s market, though, is something I can’t address.

  14. > Which is why such a campaign-dungeons-focused book needs to be published, of course!

    Systemless or otherwise, Allan? :)

  15. Likely systemless, or OSRIC/S&W, irbyz: no need to write for a system that's not doing mega-dungeons anyway, eh? :D