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The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

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Halaster-Blackcloak
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The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#1 » Fri Jan 25, 2019 12:46 am

The mega-dungeon has become such a staple of the D&D game - from Castle Greyhawk to the the Ruins of Undermountain and beyond, every edition and every setting seems to feature one. So - what exactly is the allure of the mega-dungeon? I've actually known players who (overall) were not that find of dungeon crawls - preferring city or wilderness adventures - but who, when they caught wind of the fact that we'd be using a mega-dungeon, would get all excited and anxious to play. There must be something about mega-dungeons that makes them so popular.

I'm sure some reasons for their popularity will be common amongst many of us, and some reasons more particular to just a few people. For me, the allure comes from several angles.

First, who as a kid did not like to explore abandoned areas? I remember old factories that were closed down when I was a kid, and we would go exploring there. Sometimes we'd find left-behind paperwork or tools or other insignificant items. Sometimes we found empty rooms. Other times we'd run into rodents or even other people who were likewise sneaking around exploring. At night, we'd often see shadows that, in our minds, became a lot more than what they likely actually were. But it was the fun of discovery, of exploring an alien environment filled with mystery. The attics of old houses held the same fascination, but the basements (of both houses and factories) always had a special allure unique to them. We would be entering the earth, going underground, to a hidden realm. I think that feeling is what carries over to mega-dungeons for me.

Second, the promise of great treasure. Look, we all know that both Castle Greyhawk and Undermountain hold unbelievable amounts of magic items and other treasure. Undermountain easily contains more treasure (both regular and magical) than any dozen dragons combines have ever managed to hoard! Where better to explore in the search for treasure and magic items?

Third, secrets are always buried deep beneath the earth. Always. Any properly run mega-dungeon is going to offer an uncountable number of secrets for the PCs to discover. Ancient mysteries. Forgotten lore. Secret passages. Secret rooms. Secret treasure. You name it. There is always something interesting in a mega-dungeon.

Fourth, the possibility of unique monsters. When my players first dared set foot in Undermountain, they soon encountered scaladar and watchghosts and slithermorphs. Monsters none of them had ever encountered before. Mega-dungeons offer so much new material when it comes to monsters. For Ruins of Undermountain III: The Deadly Levels, I created no less than 3 dozen new monsters, many specific to the dungeon. And I'm not talking about mere variants of exiting monsters.

Fifth, the mega-dungeon is its own world. It's an underground labyrinth that could in some cases (such as Undermountain) be far more extensive in size than even the largest above-ground cities. It offers an almost unlimited amount of adventure. Vast numbers of unique and interesting locations (levels, rooms, caverns, etc). It can (again, as in the case of Undermountain), essentially be considered a specific ecosystem. The mega-dungeon can be used as (virtually) its own setting.

So I think those are the main reasons (for me, and I'm going to assume plenty of other people) why the mega-dungeon is so alluring.
Last edited by Halaster-Blackcloak on Fri Jan 25, 2019 11:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Billy_Buttcheese
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#2 » Fri Jan 25, 2019 9:05 pm

Hal,
You bring up a lot of great points about them. But, to be honest, for me, the allure definitely applies more to the player than the DM. At least it does in my case. Do you remember the "World's Largest Dungeon" that came out about 10-12 years ago? It was designed for 3rd Ed but I was intrigued and bought it for the collectibility of it. After receiving it, I immediately began to lose interest in it. No, not because it was for 3rd Ed but because it was so effing huge! It would literally take a small group of players several years to complete the bloody thing and months (& months) of prep time. I've never been with a group that would have the incredible amount of patience it would take to even try to complete it. Two months and my players would all be like, how the hell do we escape this place? And I wouldn't have the time or inclination to actually read through the freakin' tome that is the adventure book, let alone become familiar with all the maps.

When it came out, I started a group in Undermountain, the first one. I set mine in Greyhawk but it still worked. I spent countless hours going over the books and maps, preparing for my group. Literally, after 4-5 solid weekends of adventuring, my group was looking for the exit because they were so sick of being underground. They weren't necessarily bored, just weary of the setting. Treasure and experience are great in moderation but too much of a good thing gets boring to even the most die-hard aficionado.

But maybe that's just my experience....?

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Halaster-Blackcloak
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#3 » Fri Jan 25, 2019 11:57 pm

Billy_Buttcheese wrote:

You bring up a lot of great points about them. But, to be honest, for me, the allure definitely applies more to the player than the DM. At least it does in my case. Do you remember the "World's Largest Dungeon" that came out about 10-12 years ago? It was designed for 3rd Ed but I was intrigued and bought it for the collectibility of it. After receiving it, I immediately began to lose interest in it. No, not because it was for 3rd Ed but because it was so effing huge!


I never liked the Worlds Largest Dungeon material. To me it felt robotic. The layouts look...generic. Computer generated. There's no life in them, no inspiration. Sterile.

I think the sheer scale of the mega-dungeon is one of the few things about it that can be troubling. It definitely is a lot of work! Of course, depending on how one defines "mega-dungeon", the dungeon can be just a handful of levels or dozens of levels. So I guess there's room for compromise there.

It would literally take a small group of players several years to complete the bloody thing and months (& months) of prep time. I've never been with a group that would have the incredible amount of patience it would take to even try to complete it. Two months and my players would all be like, how the hell do we escape this place? And I wouldn't have the time or inclination to actually read through the freakin' tome that is the adventure book, let alone become familiar with all the maps.


I've never really run an entire mega-dungeon - for example, I never ran a group through the entire 1st 3 levels of Undermountain as a single adventure. I think it does get tiring after awhile - for both the players and the DM. On the other hand, I've had several groups that I know would love nothing more than to spend 3-4 months (in real life game time) exploring Undermountain. But as essentially an entire enclosed campaign setting, I think that's asking a lot. I think the mega-dungeon is more fun when you can take a break, exit it, go into city or wilderness adventures, then go back to the mega-dungeon and encounter all the changes that have happened since last time. I know most of my players who explored into Undermountain really loved re-visiting areas only to find that massive changes were made as far as inhabitants, treasure, etc.

When it came out, I started a group in Undermountain, the first one. I set mine in Greyhawk but it still worked. I spent countless hours going over the books and maps, preparing for my group. Literally, after 4-5 solid weekends of adventuring, my group was looking for the exit because they were so sick of being underground. They weren't necessarily bored, just weary of the setting.


I think some of my groups would probably make it - at most - 8 to 10 weekends of exploring a dungeon before they started getting the itch just to see some sunlight and fresh air. Most of my groups would probably fall into the range you mention - about 4-5 weekends and then they're going to want to see the surface world.

But maybe that's just my experience....?


I think that will probably hold true for most groups. Even my most die-hard dungeon-crawling, Undermountain-loving groups over the years would probably, after about 8-10 weekends straight of exploring the dungeon, want to break the pattern and go outside the dungeon. As you said, not out of boredom, just just to break the monotony.

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Meph
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#4 » Sat Jan 26, 2019 5:13 am

I know the 5E version of Undermountain is a sore subject with you, but my 5E group elected to run it after Dragon Heist. I know you have issues with the monsters/traps included and believe they aren't powerful enough but I will say my group had almost wiped out twice now. All that aside, my group has spent 3 weeks now on the 1st level and aren't done with it yet. I can see the monotony starting to affect at least one of my players. I don't imagine we are going to continue too long down here. The last "Mega" dungeon I ran was really more of a mini (mega) dungeon. Each level of the dungeon took (1-2) 4-hour session and every 2 levels I provided an entrance/exit to the dungeon. My players spent a winter exploring this dungeon but did leave after every couple dungeon levels and I ran some overland or city adventures to break it up.

I am not big fan of the 5E Undermountain after running it for a few weeks but I think a big part of it is just the whole Mega Dungeon concept. Never has been and never will be my style. I know there are players where there is a big allure to this style of play but it's never been that way for me or my players.

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Billy_Buttcheese
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#5 » Sat Jan 26, 2019 9:19 am

Billy_Buttcheese wrote:And I wouldn't have the time or inclination to actually read through the freakin' tome that is the adventure book, let alone become familiar with all the maps.


And latching on to what I said earlier, no matter what your DMing style might be, maybe it's little to no prep time and just wing it (not my particular style but some folks can pull it off). OTOH, those of use that feel there is no such thing as being too prepared. My own style falls somewhere between the two leaning more toward the too prepared side. Either style, I feel would stutter, given that much material. There is simply too much going on in the background to stay on top of and still keep things fair to PCs and dungeon inhabitants.

Years ago, I played in a campaign where the DM actually created a mega-dungeon but it wasn't introduced to us that way. We simply kept finding new levels, but we were close enough to town that in addition to getting rid of excess booty,we could level-up and heal-up when necessary. The DM simply kept us interested enough to want to keep exploring to see if there was, in fact, a "bottom level" to the place. He would leave clues that kept us guessing and interested and wanting to find more. It was one of the best campaigns I've ever been associated with. And it was a mega-dungeon before we new what to call it.

Maybe that's the secret. Don't call it a M-D, just run it until you or the players cry "Uncle!!"

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Halaster-Blackcloak
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#6 » Sat Jan 26, 2019 5:45 pm

Meph wrote:

I know the 5E version of Undermountain is a sore subject with you, but my 5E group elected to run it after Dragon Heist. I know you have issues with the monsters/traps included and believe they aren't powerful enough but I will say my group had almost wiped out twice now


Not really a sore issue. I just think it was a poorly written, uncreative piece of crap. Something I would be embarrassed to sign my name to as a writer. From a subjective standpoint, it was a disappointing, poorly written, poorly designed failure. From an objective, purely professional design/writing standpoint, it was utter crap and a total failure. No matter how you cut it, the product sucked.

I'm not sure how to address your players' experience since I don't know their character levels or which levels of 5E Undermountain they explored. All I was saying about the 5E product was if that is the best they could come up with for the deadliest level of the deadliest dungeon of all time - a bunch of empty rooms, broom closets and 1-HD monsters - they should not have even bothered to write it.

All that aside, my group has spent 3 weeks now on the 1st level and aren't done with it yet. I can see the monotony starting to affect at least one of my players. I don't imagine we are going to continue too long down here.


Considering the quality of the 5E writing, I can't blame them! :wink: :lol: Like I said, the deadliest threat on Halaster's level of the 5E product is boredom. :roll:

Generally speaking though, I think that's what makes mega-dungeons hard for the DM to create (and run). It takes a lot more creativity than other types of adventures. What I mean is that, for example, most of the adventures I write consist of happenings about town and the city, then usually some sort of outdoor/wilderness travel (anything from a few miles to a few thousand miles, depending on the adventure), as well as some dungeon crawling or wilderness encounters, etc. You can make a good smorgasbord of an adventure. In a mega-dungeon, you're stuck with just that one aspect - dungeon crawling - for a long period of time. So it takes work to keep it interesting and challenging and unique. Believe me, there are times when I'm working on Level 8 and I just stare at the screen tapping my fingers waiting for the inspiration to hit me. It's hard!

The last "Mega" dungeon I ran was really more of a mini (mega) dungeon. Each level of the dungeon took (1-2) 4-hour session and every 2 levels I provided an entrance/exit to the dungeon. My players spent a winter exploring this dungeon but did leave after every couple dungeon levels and I ran some overland or city adventures to break it up.


I think for most people, that's probably the most fun way to run a mega-dungeon. Sometimes just getting that breath of fresh air makes you want to go back.

I am not big fan of the 5E Undermountain after running it for a few weeks but I think a big part of it is just the whole Mega Dungeon concept. Never has been and never will be my style. I know there are players where there is a big allure to this style of play but it's never been that way for me or my players.


Have you ever tried running the 2E Undermountain material? I can tell you for sure, that will feel a lot different! :wink:

Billy_Buttcheese wrote:

And latching on to what I said earlier, no matter what your DMing style might be, maybe it's little to no prep time and just wing it (not my particular style but some folks can pull it off). OTOH, those of use that feel there is no such thing as being too prepared. My own style falls somewhere between the two leaning more toward the too prepared side. Either style, I feel would stutter, given that much material. There is simply too much going on in the background to stay on top of and still keep things fair to PCs and dungeon inhabitants.


I also lean more towards the "you can't prepare too much" side. To me, I've always found that over-preparing tends to pay off more often. For example, I may write bunch of material for a dungeon crawl adventure and the PCs will end up not using/finding parts of it. But that material becomes a new adventure later on. In my current campaign, this is exactly what happened. They explored several levels of dungeons and thought they'd defeated the main villain. But no, that was just an animated skeleton imbued with some spell ability, controlled by the lich who ran the place (I think this is an ability/power from Van Richten's Guide to Liches). So they assumed they discovered everything and defeated the major evil. Nope. Now, events have led them back to that castle and dungeon, where they've discovered new levels and are hoping to root out the lich. So none of the original work from several adventures ago went to waste.

Years ago, I played in a campaign where the DM actually created a mega-dungeon but it wasn't introduced to us that way. We simply kept finding new levels, but we were close enough to town that in addition to getting rid of excess booty,we could level-up and heal-up when necessary. The DM simply kept us interested enough to want to keep exploring to see if there was, in fact, a "bottom level" to the place. He would leave clues that kept us guessing and interested and wanting to find more. It was one of the best campaigns I've ever been associated with. And it was a mega-dungeon before we new what to call it.

Maybe that's the secret. Don't call it a M-D, just run it until you or the players cry "Uncle!!"


Absolutely! And that's precisely what's happening in my current campaign in the example I gave above. The players are now convinced that the site has many more levels of dungeons that they haven't discovered. There are actually just 2 levels left and they found one. But they don't know that. They think it's becoming like a miniature Undermountain. And if they fail to find/defeat the lich, it may well go along those lines. The lich will simply begin creating newer, deeper, deadlier levels while also modifying the upper levels. He already did some modifications and set new traps and monsters on the original upper levels, which has been a challenge for the PCs. Yeah, that might be the best way to use a mega-dungeon.

Keighn
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#7 » Sun Jan 27, 2019 8:13 pm

Sometimes you can make the mega-dungeon not appear as a dungeon at all. Some argue the underdark is just a cavern megadungeon and some might argue the Hollow World is a mega museum piece dungeon with its own lighting. Is not a massive town possibly a dungeon? Even the wilderness can appear as such.

The dichotomy of the players and the DM can vary so much. Each player is different as well. Now I haven’t seen or participated in all types of RPGs. Some are political, romance, action, mystery, horror, etc. How can one include these into a mega dungeon campaign.

Anything just hack slash loot level rinse and repeat will get tedious and possible replicate the CRPG/MMORPG genre.

Setting up small goals and finishing them or puzzles that require them to search elsewhere to proceed can work. There just might be some object that can only open x but some high political guy has it. Maybe it can be stolen or he sends you on a quest to the outer planes or space (if you’re into it).

The DM has to get a feel of what his/her players are like and compromise a bit. This also allows the DM work in areas he might not be all proficient in. I think I recall some writer stating: dungeon, wilderness, city, country/world affair, the planes, then beyond. I think it depends again on player but starting out dungeon crawls are fine; should it be a megadungeon? Heh! Might depend on my mood.

I’d be interested to hear ideas on making the megadungeon last longer. What has worked and what hasn’t? Completion seems a bit much and I know many like the feel of “YEAH WE BEAT IT!” Some megadungeons were never meant to be completed as they ever change like an ecosystem.

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Halaster-Blackcloak
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Re: The allure of the mega-dungeon - why?

Post#8 » Mon Jan 28, 2019 1:31 am

Keighn wrote:

Sometimes you can make the mega-dungeon not appear as a dungeon at all. Some argue the underdark is just a cavern megadungeon and some might argue the Hollow World is a mega museum piece dungeon with its own lighting. Is not a massive town possibly a dungeon? Even the wilderness can appear as such.


I can see an extensive underground area like the Underdark counting as a mega-dungeon in essence. A city? No. Very different flavor. Same for wilderness.

The dichotomy of the players and the DM can vary so much. Each player is different as well. Now I haven’t seen or participated in all types of RPGs. Some are political, romance, action, mystery, horror, etc. How can one include these into a mega dungeon campaign.


Undermountain, for example, has lots of mystery and intrigue and power groups vying for control. So much back-story. It's such a rich setting within a setting.

I’d be interested to hear ideas on making the megadungeon last longer. What has worked and what hasn’t? Completion seems a bit much and I know many like the feel of “YEAH WE BEAT IT!” Some megadungeons were never meant to be completed as they ever change like an ecosystem.


You're right, there is no "completion" of a mega-dungeon. I think that goes against the purpose of it. To me, a mega-dungeon is an ever-evolving threat, a place that changes in many ways each time you enter it. It's also so extensive that it has a un-determinable number of levels or areas. The players should always feel: "What did we miss? What did we not find?".

What works, as in Undermountain and other such dungeons, is the ever-changing aspect of it. Not just structural changes, but also changes in monsters, power groups, competing NPCs, villains, etc. It has to change in relation to the PCs. So say the PCs clear all the orcs or goblins out of Level 1 of Undermountain. When they come back next time, or perhaps when they pass through Level 1 months later on the way back to the surface from Level 2 and Level 3, they may encounter bugbears or hobgoblins who have come in and taken over the areas previously held by the orcs. Perhaps an area dominated by Zhentarim agents has now been taken over by Red Wizards of Thay. Teleports that used to lead one place now lead to a different place. Interesting, recurring NPCs (both friend and foe) really help too.

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