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D&D General Ars Megadungeon

Hussar

Legend
Riffing off the recent Dungeon of the Mad Mage thread (D&D 5E - Dungeon of the Mad Mage: Adventure or Setting Book?) I thought I'd give a few thoughts as to how to make a mega-dungeon campaign work. Or, at least how I make it work for me. :D I'm an inveterate dungeon crawler. I LOVE megadungeons and I look forward to the next time I run one. But, having done it a few times, there are a few things that I think will really help DM's engage the players and keep them from zoning out. Because, let's face it, it's easy to make dungeons boring. Investigating a room for potential traps is fun. The first time. Maybe even the third time. But, after the fifteenth time, it's enough to make me want to dig my brains out with a spoon through my left ear. So, with that in mind, here are my tips and tricks for running a mega dungeon.

1. Give information to the players. This is an absolute must. If the players don't have any idea about what is potentially to the left or right, then it's all just random choice. That's boring. Drop maps. Drop maps with mistakes on them. Have prisoners give directions and information about what's ahead. Give the players enough information to let them make a (semi) informed decision.

2. Give goals. "Clear out the level" is a good goal. Once. After the third time, again, repetition kills the game. Endlessly slogging through the dungeon just to "clear things out" is one option, but, remember, there should be many goals. "Find the Macguffin" "Find the NPC", "Talk to this or that NPC", "Escort duty", "Hunting a specific NPC" are all great goals that you can mix things up with. Imagine being hired by the Temple of Gond to delve into the Undermountain to find a specific fresco. They know roughly where the fresco is, but, they need an exact rubbing of it for some bit of knowledge. Whatever. Go nuts. Heck, if you're doing Undermountain, have Jarlaxle contact the PC's to go talk to the Drow enclave to broker some sort of deal. So on and so forth.

3. Factions matter. Having different groups also in the mega-dungeon with their own goals, that might be conflicting with the PC's, is a great way to really make the dungeon pop. Here's a place where you can just sort of have a bag full of semi-random encounters that you can plug and play as the PC's are wandering around.

4. Not everything has to be combat. If the PC's try to talk to stuff, talk. Again, you want to get as much information into the PC's hands as possible and they're helping you do that when they try to talk to stuff. Maybe offer to guide them somewhere. Leave the straight up combat encounters for the monsters and the mad cultists. If it's got a language and isn't automatically trying to murder anything that comes near, talk to the party. It will really move things along. You can always drop in some combat later.

5. Move encounters into the corridors. This is one of the biggest mistakes mega dungeons make. All the encounters are in a room/chamber. My favorite tactic was to start drawing circles around encounter locations. Whenever the party entered that circle, they spotted some or all of the NPC's in that encounter outside of the numbered chamber.

There's a few of my tips and tricks. What are yours?
 

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You've detailed a lot of the essentials. But there are more;

Factions and power groups. Make sure the place is living. That their are different factions in different parts, and they have border lines between them. Give each faction a goal or three, and have them respond accordingly. The party may go to, or pass through the same place two or ten times, and yes their should be familiarity, but their also needs to be change. Maybe the first time it is controlled by goblins, the next they might have a few hobgoblin allies, but then the whole region has been overrun with drow, or something else. And some of those changes should reflect the actions of the PCs.
 

Mordhau

Adventurer
I've found with more modern styles of gaming that megadungeons work best if there is a world outside the megadungeon that interacts directly with the megadungeon.

So a megadungeon underneath a city would be a classic set-up here. All the stuff going on in the city, factions, poltics etc, relates to the megdungeon in some way.

So rather than spending all their time exploring the megadungeon, the PCs are often pursuing other threads and leads above ground that constantly lead them back into the megadungeon.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
Excellent advice!

Another good one, if you’re creating the map yourself or modifying it, make sure there are many entrances to every level. The players will likely be in and out of the dungeon countless times, so shortcuts will help keep it from getting too tedious.
 

pogre

Legend
An old gaming trope I use on occasion in delving adventures is to have a little competition. Usually it is another group of adventurers, but it can be almost any sentient creatures. Racing for a McGuffin or a hidden location can add a fun additional element.
 

Hussar

Legend
Another thought occurs. Do not shy away from the weird. Part of the appeal of the mega-dungeon is that it doesn't really have to make any sense. Extra-planar incursion, sentient rooms, doors, floors, walls, pools that do random things, that sort of thing. Dungeon "worlds" (for lack of a better term) might have their own logic, but, certainly aren't limited to being realistic.

Maybe the Dungeon is some sort of extra-planar incursion. A sort of magical "cyst" in reality. Things that die in the dungeon are absorbed and then repurposed by the dungeon itself as it tries to spread itself further and further, like a cancer in reality. Or, maybe there are multiple portals to other worlds/dimensions within the Dungeon that trap various things inside, "mists of Ravenloft" style. Whatever the reason you want to use, don't shy away from the really, really weird stuff.

You're playing with the biggest "A Wizard Did It" playground there is. Go nuts. This is definitely the place to start breaking out those 3rd party monster manuals that you've picked up a while ago. Or those 3rd party magic items that you saw on Reddit. Whatever you like.

Speaking of Reddit, I did see a cool idea about a Gold Disease. Basically, the Dungeon spawns Gold that causes those that pick it up to take it out into the world. Those that handle the gold have no real interest in keeping it - they'll spend it freely - but, anyone who handles the gold starts becoming addicted to returning to the Dungeon to bring out more gold. IIRC, the longer you handle the gold that you bring out, the less it "hits", so, just like an addiction, people keep getting drawn back into the Dungeon to bring out more gold into the world.
 

Speaking of Reddit, I did see a cool idea about a Gold Disease. Basically, the Dungeon spawns Gold that causes those that pick it up to take it out into the world. Those that handle the gold have no real interest in keeping it - they'll spend it freely - but, anyone who handles the gold starts becoming addicted to returning to the Dungeon to bring out more gold. IIRC, the longer you handle the gold that you bring out, the less it "hits", so, just like an addiction, people keep getting drawn back into the Dungeon to bring out more gold into the world.
Eh. I don't like this idea. In effect you are taking free agency away from the players. It is very common for players to get tired of megadungeons before they are "all used up". Coming up with a mechanic or geas to keep the characters coming back when the players don't want to, imo, is a bad idea.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
I've recently started a sandbox campaign that includes a combination of hexcrawling and many dungeons, including several well known megadungeons (with serial numbers filed off in some cases). My big word of advice here would be to not approach dungeons and megadungeons from a "Diablo" style point of view of level-clearing, or like contemporary adventure modules with a clear end goal, but as environments not unlike a town - exploring and interaction should be emphasized along with combat and treasure, "restocking" should take place between adventures, and characters should have their motivation for going to a particular dungeon - whether it's fighting a sect, rescuing a lost uncle, trying to get rich, finding the McGuffin, etc...

This way every journey into the deeps can be it's own experience. The Fellowship wasn't trying to clear every level of Moria or loot the place - they just wanted to get to the other side! Others might want to reclaim it. Or grab a few choice pieces of treasure and run. Or defeat the Balrog.

The dungeon is a landscape, a world unto itself, as well as part of a greater world.
 

Voadam

Legend
I've found with more modern styles of gaming that megadungeons work best if there is a world outside the megadungeon that interacts directly with the megadungeon.

So a megadungeon underneath a city would be a classic set-up here. All the stuff going on in the city, factions, poltics etc, relates to the megdungeon in some way.

So rather than spending all their time exploring the megadungeon, the PCs are often pursuing other threads and leads above ground that constantly lead them back into the megadungeon.
The Banewarrens did this really well. A big sprawling multiple level adventure that ties a beneath the city megadungeon in with city adventure and politics and factions of the city of Ptolus and keeps the PCs going back into the dangerous dungeon repeatedly.
 

Voadam

Legend
From the title of the thread I thought this was going to be about applying Ars Magica stuff to D&D megadungeons or D&D in general, either troupe style play or something else from the game (magic/divine/diabolic/fey regions or who knows what).
 


Hussar

Legend
Sorry, using ars to mean skilled work. The Latin meaning. Far too pretentious. :D

As far as the disease thing goes - I was thinking of it as a source of adventure. The players want to break the curse, and need to find a way to do so, while still constantly being pulled back into the dungeon.
 


ardoughter

Hero
Supporter
@Hussar With regard to your point 5 in the original post. This is similar to something I started doing in my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign, I would activate neighbouring encounters when the party started clearing a room. I did not do it a low levels but when the party seemed to be having an easy time with encounters. Roll d4 when a fight begins in the nearest neighbours and that is the turn they activate. They move toward the fight the following turn.
It make the dungeon seem more dynamic.

I would also have a faction evacuate their section of a dungeon if the bosses are killed.
 

Yora

Legend
XP should not come (primarily) from fighting monsters. Dungeon Crawling is not an arena fight club, but an exploration game. The character advancement mechanic should reflect that.

Use Wandering Monsters, while some dungeons are exceptions, megadungeons are living environments. The creatures dwelling there have their own lives and don't sit in their rooms for eternity waiting for PCs to find them. Use additional wandering monster checks to the regular ones any times the party does something that could attract other creatures in the area to come investigate, like making loud noises as they are tearing down stuff that's in their way.

Randomize how creatures and NPCs in the dungeon react to seeing the party. Sometimes it's obvious what they'll do, but in most cases they could react in all kinds of ways. Since it's difficult to come up with something on the spot, a simple roll to determine if the monsters attack, become threatening, run away, or try to talk with the party is a very useful tool.

Build shortcuts into the dungeon, which can be doors that can be unlocked from the other side (usually a lower level) or other connections that can only be used by parties with certain spells or magic items. Which you can place as treasures or scrolls deeper in the dungeon. Opening up shortcuts to newly opened areas is both a nice objective for the players, and a nice reward. Especially when you have wandering monsters you'll run into every time you go back to the surface and then back down to continue exploring. Especially especially when monster fights don't offer any meaningful reward to make progress, and are only a sink for resources.

Use encumbrance. A megadungeon is not a fortress assault, but an exploration expedition. The party has only the tools that they bring and that they can find, and going back to buy new ones will take time. (And a whole lot of wandering monsters on the shopping trip and the way back.) The food and water they need to bring also takes up space, as does all the nice treasure that they find. (I recommnd not giving out bags of holding, since that defeats the whole purpose of this.)
Listing all the items by weight and constantly calculating the total is impractical because it's too much work, so abstract things a bit and set the encumbrance levels simply to the number of items carried, with stuff like armor and the like counting as multiple items. Letting characters carry a number of items equal to their Strength scores without getting any penalties is often a good starting point.
 

Mordhau

Adventurer
Break the megadungeon down into themed areas. It helps the PCs feel like their progressing if now they've reached the area with the lava river and the fire monsters.

Chokepoints are important. I say this because advice to do the opposite (Jacquaying the dungeon) has been well absorbed. But while it's important to have lots of different connections between different areas it's also important to have chokepoints. If everything is just connected to everything else it's hard for players to feel like they are making real progess. Chokepoints help to separate different areas (like those above) and to help the players decide when to progress or not. If this particular passage is the obvious pathway to a different region of the dungeon then the players can decide if they're ready for it, or if they want to continue exploring their current area first.

Chokepoints also help it feel meaningful when you do discover a backdoor entrance into an area of the dungeon which it previously seemed there was limited access to.

Edit: Just to be clear here. I'm not arguing against Jacquaying the dungeon. I'm arguing for what I feel is an aspect that is often overlooked.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Great points all.

@Mordhau - I think you make an excellent point here and I think we could expand on it. Making maps with multiple paths or making linear maps, both are tools. There are times when either one makes a lot of sense. And both a linear section and a more "maze like" section have strengths and weaknesses. Linear is faster. There's no denying that. If you can only progress through A-B-C, there isn't a whole lot of time spent trying to determine the next path. But, that comes at the sacrifice of choice. Whereas a Jacquay style map has tons of choice, but, suffers from analysis paralysis sometimes, and, unless the players have some way of knowing (or at least thinking they know) the results of a particular choice, it's basically just random, which, well, isn't really much of a choice.

Not that either are bad or good. They are simply tools in the kit. A linear section makes for great "gauntlet" style scenarios. And, as you mention, chokepoints. A Jacquay'd section is fantastic for slowing things down, taking the pace down a notch, or, perhaps for increasing tension with the whole "jump scare" aspect of lots of blind corners and whatnot.

Additionally, on the point about maps - do not forget verticality. One thing that mega-dungeons often suffer from is a lack of up or down. Look at that first level of Ruins of the Undermountain - most of the encounters are on perfectly flat planes. DON'T DO THIS. Add stairs, ledges, drop a floor out, make an exit from a chamber fifteen feet up, if the monsters can climb, hang them from the walls and ceiling. Nothing gets boring faster than a dungeon that is all just perfectly flat rooms on the same plane.
 

Sorry, using ars to mean skilled work. The Latin meaning. Far too pretentious. :D

As far as the disease thing goes - I was thinking of it as a source of adventure. The players want to break the curse, and need to find a way to do so, while still constantly being pulled back into the dungeon.

You should have titled it “Assaying Ars Megadungeon”
 

You folks should look up the work of Dyson Logos. He has created some tremendous mega-dungeon maps, many of them multi-levels.
His opus, if playing with 5 feet = inch scale, would be 26 feet long if printed. He admits it is impossible to use, but the inspiration.....
 

Edit: Just to be clear here. I'm not arguing against Jacquaying the dungeon. I'm arguing for what I feel is an aspect that is often overlooked.
I'd heard of it as linear vs circular, but both designs have their uses. A simple linear lair works for a short adventure, but a megadungeon needs to have both. My current megadungeon has multiple entrances and an open design. However, there are strategic chokepoints the builders designed to delay/prevent invaders from fully accessing everything easily. These then create an overall circular dungeon, but with areas of linear access.
 

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