Saturday, May 28, 2011

Megadungeon Monotony

What are we going to do tonight, Brain?
The same thing we do every night, Pinky...

The same thing we do every night...
I've run a couple of megadungeon campaigns and a few sandboxes.  One thing I've noticed with a pure player-driven exploration game, is that it can become repetitive if you're not careful.  Making clever themes and stories for the levels and sub-levels in the megadungeon only takes you so far; there are more elements to the campaign than exploration and it can require some special effort by the DM when running a megadungeon.

Show of hands, how many folks have run a 6-month megadungeon (or longer) - and how did *you* keep it fresh and interesting?

Here are some of my techniques, would love to hear other observations, so see you in the comments.

Vary up the exploration by providing goals within the megadungeon.  Examples could include seeking a set piece location the group has heard about through rumors (like finding the famous fountain of snakes), or it could be a quest from a patron - the princess was captured by bandits and carried off to level 3, find her for a reward.

NPC Rivals
I like having multiple NPC groups involved and returning to the same town as the PC's.  It creates situations with bragging rights, spying, trying to steal each other's maps, and possibly a team-up.

Campaign Events
Just because the game is focused on a single (extensive) location, there are still things going on in the rest of the world that could draw attention, or give the players a reason to leave and come back.  (I've been putting together a list of campaign events for the Black City that will go up some time soon).

Active Resistance & Restocking
As the group clears areas, make the survivors change their tactics and get ready for fresh incursions.  New traps are set, areas are fortified or vacated, other monsters might start hearing about the PC's and know them by reputation.

Conversely, there should be a good campaign reason why the place is full of monsters in the first place.  Because of that, more should be arriving all the time, and cleared areas will get new inhabitants.


  1. The dungeon was only part of the action. A major part, but not the focus of the campaign and the party would leave to tcb in other places, for months at a time. Sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.

    The old idea of "Let's go back to the Dungeon, where it's Safe," came into play on occasion, which was quite amusing. Eventually, they found what they were looking for in the dungeon, one part of the Rod of Seven. Their search for the rest, while being hunted by Rudolph Hess and a demonic clone of a brother of one of the PC's, then led them elsewhere, for good.

  2. It is absolutely key that a megadungeon has distinct areas -- and I mean distinct enough that the players can make the distinction based on play, not that the DM happens to know that there's a greater chance of giant rats there. Not only that, but the distinctions need to be meaningful. This allows players the ability to make a decision about where to go in the dungeon. Without that, it is a fungible, undifferentiated, who-cares landscape.

    It's incumbent on the DM to either create a dungeon where future missions can be perceived and planned, or to provide some missions the players might choose. Blind exploration gets old if not leavened with some purposeful expeditions that have planning behind them.

    Upshot of both those points is that players have to be given meaningful choices and the ability to pre-plan at least some of their activity.

    The major potential failing of a megadungeon is not to realize that pre-planning and preparation are fun and integral to the player experience, and a megadungeon risks removing this aspect of the game if it doesn't provide information. Information flow and discoveries are critical components of a megadungeon campaign, or else there is no meaning behind player choices. Might as well flip a coin about our equipment, spell, and direction choices? Not fun.

  3. Yes, yes, yes, and yes!

    After a game last night, I did some math and found that 35 sessions of play (out of 76 thus far) in my megadungeon game have primarily occurred on the 5th level. I think what made it work was that it was sprawling enough that there were a multitude of factions and elements that constantly combined to create new and interesting situations, most of which I did not foresee as DM. This somewhat dovetails off Matt's observation - this level had areas the players came to recognize as "Mantis Country," the "Shadow King's territory," the "Necromancer's Isle," and the "Derro Tower" among others. Most every session included a debate as to where to go and whome to take on that night, with a healthy dose of caution as to what was feasible and what was foolhardy. Only now, with a few holdout enemies left, all deemed too tough to crack at the party's present strength, have they decided to proceed deeper.

    Even without forcing a specific story or plot, the players have managed to create their own goals. I think the key, to once again echo Matt, is that there was a sufficient degree of choice, and sufficient information to inform those choices, to make the exploration meaningful from the player (and PC) perspective.

    This has proven very fortuitous for me as DM as I sort of boxed myself in - I set the dungeon way up north in a mountain range. Since I was keeping strict track of time, it became clear that winter was coming, so the party decided to stage enough supplies to spend the entire winter in the dungeon without leaving it. Thus, I'd managed to cut off any possibility of external adventures and will be forced to keep the underworld interesting for a long time to come.

  4. Really well said, Matt - sufficient information needs to flow out of the dungeon, such that the players can make meaningful decisions about planning delves and expeditions.

    It's funny, I have a few items like that on my 'campaign events' list that I knew made the dungeon more interesting (like a rival NPC group bragging about their new discovery of a sub level, which spurs the players to check it out too) but I just hadn't been able to verbalize why that kind of stuff works - because it provides a basis for player decisions.