Friday 24 February 2012

Back in My Day We Didn't Have These Fancy Megadungeons

The sight of the recently released 300 room Barrowmaze being docked points on Grognardia for not being big enough to be a true megadungeon - I guess that makes it more of a what? Macrodungeon? Kilodungeon? - reminds me that we didn't even know what the hell a megadungeon was in 1982. There were no commercially available examples of the art, and only a few oblique references to Castle Greyhawk in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

To us, megadungeons were boring. In the absence of any guidance from TSR, our DM started us off with three levels of what, in hindsight, was inspired by the only available megadungeon examples at the time: PC dungeon games such as Wizardry or Bard's Tale, which we also played avidly. In other words, a monster motel punctuated by traps.

By the time we reached third level of this dungeon, we were clamoring for a more "mature" experience, more similar to the published modules we were starting to read. Adventures with a plot and a climax and in different parts of the world map. Nobody we knew was running a megadungeon, and even less so through the story-obsessed 80's and 90's. When Undermountain came out, it seemed more of a curio than a model for emulation. Impressive, certainly, but would you actually want to nail your campaign down in one place for years at a time?

Really, what we're doing under the banner of the Old School Renaissance is much cooler than 99% of our actual old school experiences with D&D. Essentially, we are finally appreciating and spreading the practices of the close Gygax/Arneson circle that never made it out to the masses in any published product. Megadungeons are part of that, and the only pity is that the necessary catalyst seemed to be the passing of the founders of the game.


  1. I hear ya.

    I started gaming in '89 with BECMI and 2nd Edition. By that point, the original advice on how to build megadungeons (found in OD&D) was long gone and hexcrawls had vanished from the earth entirely.

    The first adventure module I have actual memories of using was B3 Palace of the Silver Princess, which was (although I didn't know it at the time) a watershed moment: The original version by Jean Wells followed the original pattern suggested in OD&D. It presented a small wilderness region and a megadungeon with multiple paths to lower levels that the DM was supposed to provide.

    The revised version by Moldvay was a closed dungeon without any real details on the surrounding wilderness and a pre-canned plot. That was the passing of an era.

    It's to the OSR's credit that it's helped to rediscover and reinvigorate these old game structures. The exciting part is that we're beginning to see people innovate within these forms: Not just mimicking and rediscovering the past, but charting new courses.

  2. I don't remember any mega dungeons in my earlier years. I always found when they are too long everyone tends to get bored. I am using BarrowMaze in my current campaign. After some background tweaking I it will help. There will be multiple visits back to the village, but that will give me the opportunity to add in some outside tension.

  3. The only experience I had with a mega-dungeon in actual play was the 2nd edition Greyhawk Ruins WGR1 module. I think that mega-dungeons work well in a game where you have a large group of players, where not every player is there for every session. You never really need to update anyone on there story, and you can always bring in new characters that can be found either wandering the dungeon, or back at the tavern. This sort of campaign doesn't seem that interesting for a smaller group, but when you hear about some of the games that Gygax ran with 20 players at the table, then I can see how a mega-dungeon works very well.

  4. Brilliant post. I linked to it from my own blog.

  5. I don't hate the megadungeon, I even built one when I was kid, I just find that if it doesn't have a point, whats the use...grinding room to room is just...ugh...


  6. I started with the White Box in the mid-70s... all of the dungeons we designed ourselves were megadungeons, with multiple levels and many different paths between them. We hand-drew regional maps (mine, not so good!) for our campaign worlds and our players traveled about from city to city dealing with locals only until their gold ran low and they were forced to delve again. Sometimes rumors of great treasures, magical and non, would send the players back into a dungeon they hadn't fully explored before, only to find it went much deeper than they realized. (I used We a bunch here, because within a few years each of us was DMing a separate usually homegrown world, with a subset of us playing in each.)

    The only published megadungeon we ever used was Judges Guild's Tegel Manor.