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Worlds of Design: Making Megadungeons Make Sense

When D&D originally came out Gary Gygax more or less taught GMs that they should make huge multilevel dungeons that the adventuring party would enter and loot, killing the monsters who were guarding it. But in my case we were eager to play, so as GM I made what gradually became a big, sprawling, somewhat random dungeon. And it didn’t always make sense.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.


My dungeon was only six levels, and the levels were not the vast kinds of things we see in true “Megadungeons” where the graph paper map for one level could be as much as a yard by a yard. Quite apart from the huge question of why does the place exist, we had monsters living adjacent to each other who should be hostile but seemingly didn’t know the others exist, monsters living in places without ventilation, sanitation, or access to food. Inexplicable magics like Gary’s fountain of kobolds (IIRC), a continuous upwelling of kobolds in the middle of a room: where did those kobolds go, let alone where did they come from? One-way doors, secret doors, and rotating rooms placed mostly at random. We didn’t care, it was fantasy, it was a game. And it gave us a sense of wonder or of mystery, a sense of the fantastic.

There was a reason we created dungeons this way. The fundamentally nonsensical dungeon was practical to reduce the work required of a GM. (Keep in mind, there were very few commercial adventure modules at that time, everyone had to make up their own stuff.) I don’t think anyone can argue with that. Gygax's solution to the difficulty of worldbuilding (as paraphrased from Jeffro Johnson, author of Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, on Twitter) was to:
  • Have lots of space.
  • Place lairs with vast quantities of loot
  • Use random encounters to simulate an active, dynamic environment with very little effort.
But there’s an entirely different way of making dungeons that makes much more sense, though it takes more time.

Gritty Realism?

When I play RPGs now, I like to feel as though it should make some sense, something like Glenn Cook’s the Black Company, a kind of gritty realism rather than wild (Dunsanian?) fantasy. To me the vast dungeon with unrelated contents and inhabitants, often no way they could even get in and out without running into others, no way to get air, no way to get food, is just plain nonsense. It breaks the immersion in the world that many gamers look for. Worse, there is no explanation for why this vast dungeon exists. I don’t buy for a second the “mad wizard created it” excuse.

So after my initial six level dungeon made primarily for my brother in the Gygaxian Megadungeon style, I kept my underground designs to individual lairs or to Skystone Castle and its environs.

Skystone Castle

Skystone Castle grew out of my thinking about how magic would modify military considerations (keeping in mind I have a PhD in military and diplomatic history, and when I first played D&D I was already two years into graduate school). In an environment where fireballs and lightning bolts are somewhat plentiful, where a charmed umber hulk or burrowing monster can dig underground and undermine any wall, a fortification in a magical world would look more like the World War II Maginot Line than like a medieval castle, with most of the fortifications and living spaces underground. Skystone Castle was an abandoned very large fortification built into an enormous rock that grew out of a featureless plain, and allegedly had fallen from the sky. Such rocks exist (though not from the sky), for example Traprain Law in the UK (though I think of it more as stone than as a hill).

The fortress was long abandoned. Creatures had moved in and made modifications. But I experimented with actually having creatures move in and settle down, as governed to a considerable extent by dice rolls. Sometimes those creatures could burrow or mine-out additional areas, and the map changed accordingly. Sometimes those creatures might live in the dungeon a long time and then someone else would move in and chase them off or slaughter them. Sometimes evidence of inhabitants (and battles) long past would remain behind.

This all made changes in the dungeon. It was like a game in itself, seeing what would happen, and of course I had ideas about what I wanted in the dungeon and that governed who turned up and how strong they were. The result was a “living dungeon” rather than a caricature.

I accepted the notion that the more powerful monsters would tend to want to live deeper, in order to retain the game-practical idea that the deeper you went, the more dangerous it became. Though in smaller such places the danger level was roughly the same regardless of where you were in the “dungeon.”

A Question of Immersion

I still use this method between adventures, so that sometimes when the party comes back to the dungeon it has changed in some ways, if only in the inhabitants, which I think makes for a much more interesting place to adventure in. “Clearing out” a dungeon and never having anyone fill in the space, as in the old Gygaxian dungeons, doesn’t make sense. Yes, it takes more time, but it’s a lot more interesting.

This is not a question of somehow improving sales, it’s a question of improving the immersion that is necessary for most any game. Wild fantasy is one thing; something more realistic, whether it’s the Glenn Cook’s-style of realism or the Tolkien-style of realism, is just as valid a way of playing RPGs in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular.

My question to readers, then, is what kind of dungeons (if any) do you have in your campaign, and why?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


OOoh, @Von Ether, love the concept. It's one that's been tickling in the back of my mind too. Dungeons as sort of extra-dimensional parasites that break into reality and begin generating monsters to go out and bring back food for the dungeon. As more and more adventurers are killed in the Dungeon, it continues to grow, gradually draining all life from the area or even the planet before moving on again.

The manga Magi has a similar idea where the "gods" (for a given value of gods) of the setting create these dungeons as tests and those who can defeat the dungeons become rulers of the lands where the dungeons exist. Very cool concept.

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I am also now desiring a treatise/blog series/mini-book about how society in general and military strategy would change in a pseudo-medieval setting if there was relatively easy access to the magic posited in D&D. If it was done by someone with a PHD in military history or sociology or anthropology, well all the better...

Hmmm, wonder if there's anyone who might have those qualifications...?
I will be writing some columns about that.

I once wrote a LONG (4400 words) article called "Fights of Fantasy" (Dragon #79). It will be in one of my reprint books, when I get around to it.

Thanks for the reference to How to Host a Dungeon.

When I first started back in 1E, we mostly did adventures, not just dungeons. We had a specific mission we were attempting to complete, and most were from the published modules. We had a mega-dungeon near the Caves of Chaos from B2, which we used for interesting one-off sessions to break things up. Those were randomly generated using the appendix from the DMG, but everything was a surprise to everyone, including the DM (of course nothing in it made any sense at all). That one went down about 20-some odd levels, but we limited the width to 3x3 graph paper sheets.

During our early college years, I did create a semi-mega-dungeon for my players (we were using a hybrid of 1E and 2E at the time, but that's not really important). Mad, Mad, Murray's Magical Mazes was an entertainment spot for people to go and spend coin to go through one of his various mazes. They were all mostly harmless, but he did have one that was dangerous... and came with a prize if you succeeded (and death if you didn't). It cost 5,000 gp to enter, but if you returned, you got 25,000 gp and a powerful magic item. You had to go through the maze to find a mcguffin (I don't remember what it was), and return. However, once you got the mcguffin, the walls moved, changing the entire layout. It wasn't an overly large dungeon, but having to do it twice put it just short of mega-dungeon level (yes my players survived... barely).

In 5E I made a mega-dungeon concept, but my players just weren't interested in exploring it. It was an ancient dwarven stronghold. The above ground area was for use in dealing with surface dwellers (humans mostly), and that was completely destroyed. The first level of the dungeon was originally rooms for diplomatic, which was overrun by various beast (spiders, rats, bats, etc) that were used as food by each other and the lower denizens. It also contained a lot of traps, because there was a room that triggered the fortress's defense, but the party never found it. A sub-level was originally barracks, that had been taken over by kobolds. The next level was going to be a maze used to confuse invaders that had goblin living within it, who'd use the maze to hide from the more powerful monsters on level 3 (which I never got around to detailing). The lower levels were going to be a dwarven city, now occupied by various underground monsters, with underground gardening methods (whatever dwarves normally use) to allow the creatures to self-sustain. Below all of this was a mine, which was the domain of a red dragon (who could polymorph into something smaller to use a well to leave the dungeon freely). There was a mystery about who this dwarven clan was, and what happened to them, with various clues dropped within each level. I was kinda excited about it, but my players feel mega-dungeons are passe. I'll probably keep it for use again at some point (I'd detail it and put it on DMGuild, but I'm far too lazy and unskilled for that).