The Megadungeon...

The Megadungeon. A dungeon so vast and epic, players were expected to spend their entire lives plumbing its murky depths. A dungeon that might easily top 20 or 30 levels of sheer madness.

Feared by some, adored by others, and quickly becoming a relic of an older age of gaming. Now, sprawling epics that take the players from land to land, environment to environment, are more popular with both players and publishers. And who can blame them? Did the Fellowship of the Ring spend their lives exploring one damp, lonely old dungeon? No. Did Conan drop into the same fetid pit time after time, seeking to delve ever deeper? No. Heck, even Lara Croft, the world's most famous tomb raider, sought new locales after a hard day's plundering!

So why would gamers want to spend their entire campaign in some Kafka-esque hell that never really ends?

And yet, when done well, a Megadungeon (yes, I like to capitalize it to show off its awesomeness) can be extremely entertaining. Of course, I am clearly biased, as I love a good dungeon crawl. But before you discount the idea of a Megadungeon as mere ramblings from a lunatic who does not know the meaning of fun you should know that two of the biggest myths of the Megadungeon are easily debunked.

#1: The offer limited roleplaying.

#2: They are combat-oriented.

True, at first glance, it would seem a Megadungeon offers exceptionally limited opportunities for roleplaying, and it would also suggest a combat-oriented atmosphere, but neither assumption needs to be correct.

Firstly, the idea that roleplaying options would be limited is a fallacy, though one based in seemingly irrefutable fact. If you're trapped in a dungeon there is very little time for character growth or socializing.

But if the dungeon is used as a recurring location which the PCs are drawn to, then it stands to reason that there needs to be a location for rest and recuperation. And that is where the town or city comes in.

Designing a detailed town/city is the best chance for roleplaying a Megadungeon group has, and it should be used frequently, often before a delve and after a delve. By creating a cast of characters for your players to interact with, you give plenty of chances for roleplaying, so long as you follow up on subplots hinted in conversation and through player interest.

It helps to tie these subplots into the dungeon, but is hardly required. After all, one can go on a romp elsewhere, so long as the return to the primary location is assured. And allowing additional adventures while the party rests keeps the dungeon from becoming too much like a 'day job'.

As for a Megadungeon campaign being combat-oriented. Well...that is partly true. There will be a fair amount of combat. But only a poor GM would give the players no options. Negotionation, stealth, general cleverness, and an escape route should always be options. To enclose your players in a fight to the death will only serve to frustrate them and you. Reward creative solutions to the enemy problem, so that every delve doesn't turn into a hack-and-slash.

All of this has been on my mind lately, as I am in the process of preparing a Megadungeon to run in either 1e or 4e D&D. I'd hoped to have the first level ready to show off today, but it's not quite done. It'll definitely be here next week, along with more thoughts on Megadungeons, as I explore reasons you ought to consider a Megadungeon, even if at first glance it's not for you.


Have any of you played in/run a Megadungeon campaign before? If so, did you enjoy it? If not, why?


  1. "If you're trapped in a dungeon there is very little time for character growth or socializing."

    Actually, reading that sentence, the concept of characters being trapped in a dungeon can make an interesting bit of character growth and roleplaying in itself. D&D players just aren't used to viewing dungeon delves like that. When people can't get out...that affects them. Being trapped can be quite the scary thing.

  2. CDGallant_KingMarch 24, 2011

    I agree with Andy. I once played in a sort of Megadungeon where the only characters we had to talk to were each other, and we talked A LOT. Most of it was arguing about how we were going to get the fuck out of there. It actually brought out lots of opportunities to build on our characters' quirks and foibles (and fears, especially fears).

    We never made it all the way through that dungeon - we all died somewhere around level 6 or 7, but I've always wanted to try and run my own. You can have plenty of opportunities for role-play and storytelling in a dungeon that size. There are bound to be feuding dwarf and drow tribes to work with/against, as well as intelligent dragons and undead to converse with, maybe even other adventuring parties to contend with. A dungeon that size has its own ecology, power structure, economy; it's a like a whole country underground.

    Except that you can fall into a pit trap every time you turn around, and you never know when a flesh-eating ooze could fall on your head.

  3. Joe NelsonMarch 31, 2011

    I'd definitely play in a game styled like that! In fact, I once did, though it kind of fizzled out due to player disinterest in the system we were using.

    Of course, it also requires good players and a GM willing to let them take center-stage. After all, if you're trapped with only yourselves for company, you've got to allow them the freedom for character growth at their pace.

  4. Joe NelsonMarch 31, 2011

    Fear is a fun emotion to roleplay, especially when it can create complications that need to be dealt with. Paralyzing fear of spiders, of water, or of the dark can add so much to the gameplay.

    And it's true. A large Megadungeon can provide just as many opportunities for roleplaying as any other type of game. Each level can provide a different experience. It's not all dull caves and ruins. I've had genocidal gnomes on a crusade to wipe out every other living creature in the underground, solely so that would be "safe", and even a party of belligerent dwarves, lost in the catacombs of a forgotten underground temple, trying to find their way deeper, to a fabled homeland.

    Anything is possible.

    Including narrow corridors with red dragons guarding the end. :-)


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