Friday, October 4, 2013

Death Mountain - A Megadungeon Concept

The Lord of Death sits upon a throne of bone, sipping blood from a chalice made from the skull of a dead hero.  There is nothing the Death God desires more than the death of heroes, littering the floor of his great hall with their bones and mounting their skulls on his wall as trophies.  His minions tirelessly work the veins of gold and ore that lace his underground kingdom, for it is the gold that draws heroes and adventurers to plumb the storied depths of Death Mountain.  It is the gold that lures them to their deaths.

After the previous post on MTG Theros, I gave some thought to how I'd position a megadungeon themed on Greek Myth (and also the cinematic interpretations of the Greek gods - a combination of Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts).

I want something that aligns with the core values and objectives of basic Dungeons & Dragons; characters risk life and limb plumbing the dark depths of the dungeon to find gold.  Gold means experience, power, glory, and fame; it's an objective measurement of a hero's success.  The adoring public that waits safely back in the polis doesn't care if a hero stole the gold by outsmarting the monsters, or won their gold solely through feats of arms.  The cunning hero is as beloved as the strong one.

The popular culture view of the gods shows them as petty, manipulative schemers; they advance their agendas through mortal agents, and scry on the world below as a form of "Olympian reality television".  Hades loathes and hates his fellow Olympians, and has devised tricks and traps and all manner of challenges to ensure the blood flows and a steady parade of dead heroes join his underworld kingdom; the more beloved is a hero (ie, a higher level), the sweeter is the victory to the death god when he claims their souls; the other gods, for that matter, are greatly entertained when heroes overcome the machinations of the death god, and have gone so far as to sprinkle Hade's sprawling dungeon with divine boons, godly weapons, and hidden shrines and sanctuaries where their beloved champions might gain a small respite.

But death's kingdom is eternal, and there is no limit to the number of monsters that emerge from the cthonian depths.


That's a summary of the background for Death Mountain.  It provides a "rational" explanation for all the oddities of the traditional dungeon - why there are always monsters and gold, why there are tricks and traps and weird magical things, and why you might find some boons or magic items along the way to help you out on your explorations.  Details of the home base even start to emerge, a nearby town or city that reveres adventurers as if they were famous athletes or Olympic champions.  "Put all your money on Leonidas, he always comes back with the gold!"  Dungeon delving is almost  a competitive sport, with fans, side bets, and rivalries across adventuring companies.  But always, the minions of Hades wait beneath Death Mountain, dragging the dead and the dying into the Stygian deaths to his realm of endless night.

What about a name?  In my notes I've been calling it Mount Mortis, not exactly Greek, but it sounds a bit classical. Less prosaic than Death Mountain.


  1. "Thanatos" sounds nice and is better Greek.

    1. Mount Ploutôn : it's another name of Hades which also means "the wealthy".

  2. Good concept. I knew about Hades being the god of the Underworld, death and wealth, but you've shown that all three themes tie up into a megeadungeon. When you look at it logically, Hades is the god of dungeons and megadungeons.

  3. The Mountain of Vast Wealth and Fortune is probably better marketing than Death Mountain.

  4. That's not a bad point.

    On the other hand, the Greek is probably equally bad, but you could use "Mons" instead of "Mount" and get something like "Mortis Mons".

    Actually, that sounds a bit more like a landmark on Mars.

  5. Yes, mortis sounds overly latinate; either thanatos (as Roger noted) or hades would work well though.

    Great idea overall. I would be curious about the relationship of the megadungeon to the rest of the afterlife. Would there be islands of safety within, perhaps a version of the Elysian Fields?

  6. I imagine the Mythic Underworld is a place somewhere deep below, and the dungeon ultimately connects to the vast caves that lead to the River Styx and the ferryman. Wouldn't that be a cool thing to discover in the depths of the dungeon?

    Once you cross the River Styx, you could treat the Underworld pretty much as described in Greek Myth.

    In the Magic the Gathering world, there is a whole class of beings called "The Returned". Dead people who somehow escape the underworld are grayish looking intelligent zombies - they retain their skills, but lost their previous identities to the River of Forgetfulness. Not sure I'd go in the same direction, since I might want there to be things like Raise Dead or Resurrection, but it's intriguing. Rescuing dead people from the underworld is certainly epic and classic.

  7. " It is the gold that lures them to their deaths.

    [...]I want something that aligns with the core values and objectives of basic Dungeons & Dragons; characters risk life and limb plumbing the dark depths of the dungeon to find gold. Gold means experience, power, glory, and fame; it's an objective measurement of a hero's success."

    This brought to my memory the French comic 'Donjon', which is set in a megadungeon that works like a bussiness. Daring heros come attracted by tales of fame and fortune. Some of them escape with sweet loot, but most of them fall prey to the monsters (hired by the dungeon) or the traps. And then the dungeon keep their stuff. X)

  8. Nice concept -- it really does tie together all the elements that make up traditional D&D.

  9. My weekly group is having trouble getting together, so I haven't been throwing a lot of energy at The Black City. It's not dead, but I need to decide if I work on it just for the purposes of getting something together for the public (like a product) instead of preparation for a weekly group. I'm finding it's a much different mind set!

    My thoughts are straying to something like Death Mountain specifically because it'd involve a little less horror and be more high fantasy - a home brew I could run with the kiddos.

  10. Beedo, this is great! I've been puzzling over my own megadungeon-in-a-mountain creation, Stormtop, for months now, but I had never really solved the back story. This works very well. I would probably swap out the Hades stand-in for a combination of Typhon and Echidna. Zeus imprisoned Typhon beneath Mt. Etna, and Echidna, the Mother of All Monsters, and her children were allowed to live to challenge future heroes. I would have the Hades-type secretly scheming against the other gods and throw in a Hades cult faction. But here's the thing I can't quite puzzle out: If this is and always has been just Hades' sprawling deathtrap, that can explain the treasure/traps/boons as laid out in your post -- but what about conventional dungeon dressing? Why would Hades put a kitchen or lounge or armoire or laboratory in his dungeon? What would you do to fill the hundreds of obligatory "empty" rooms in Death Mountain? The closest I've come to a solution is a false history, in which the dungeon is believed to have been the center of power of a forgotten Atlantis-type empire. The secret is that there never was such an empire, the empire and its trappings in the mountain are literally "dungeon dressing" so that heroes do not realize what they are up against. Thanks for your great blog!

    1. I really like the idea of using Typhon and Echidna as inspirations.

      However, your question about dungeon dressing got me thinking too much - so I'm going to make it its own post - I'll share some thoughts in the next day or so as I get them on paper.

      Glad you liked the Death Mountain idea.