Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Megadungeon Topology

A reader posted some feedback about the Death Mountain idea, and I realized my reply was becoming meaty enough to warrant its own post.  The question from Dwimmer Gan had to do with dungeon dressing one of those gigantic graph-based megadungeons.

To launch the discussion, let's start with the term "megadungeon".  The popular conception of the megadungeon seems to be one or more sheets of graph paper, absolutely packed with rooms and corridors.  The difference between a regular dungeon and a megadungeon seems fairly subjective to me, but let's say anything with 100 rooms per level is moving directionally towards a megadungeon.  There are usually other defining characteristics applied to  the megadungeon as well, but those are tangential to my point here today - I'm focused on pen and paper presentation.  Just keep that picture in your head - lots of graph paper, filled with lots of rooms.  You've all seen the style.

I would have quit the hobby a long time ago trying to stock one of those gigantic maps.

Sketching maps is one of the least interesting things to me.  90% of my dungeon design is done sans graph paper, in notebooks;  I spend my time imagining the spaces, set pieces, and environments of the dungeon.  Putting little numbers in rooms and trying to slap dungeon dressing in there makes me cringe. However, the map making side of things is an area I'd like to improve!

The formative example for me was  the Mines of Moria.  Tolkien's sprawling creation was seared in my memory as the epitome of the vast, underworld space, the dungeon as mythic underworld with its goblin kingdoms and centers of power.  But how would a dungeon master take such an expansive vision and reduce it to graph paper and notebooks for use at the table?  There was a Mines of Moria game book for Rolemaster (bye ICE) that presented Moria as a vast underground wilderness.  The ICE product was ambitious (and difficult to use) but it was tremendous at freeing me from thinking purely in terms of 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of paper filled with endless rooms, doors, and corridors.

Descent into the Depths of the Earth
Here's the thing - Gygax pioneered the "underworld as wilderness" approach way earlier with Descent into the Depths of the Earth and the Vault of the Drow.  (You really can never go wrong returning to the classic Gygaxian adventures for inspiration and problem solving - still a massive fan of the man's work).   Creating the mythic underworld as a vast hex crawl was the missing piece for me.  The approach requires a node and line-based design.  Nodes represent dungeons and cave complexes, and lines are the vast tunnels of the underworld, allowing travel between the sprawling, Stygian caverns of the underworld.  Another inspirational product that borrowed the same approach was Thunderspire Labyrinth from the 4E era - one of the few 4E adventures I greatly enjoyed and would still recommend.  The ideas in it are fantastic.

This node-based style feels EPIC, and supports vast underground complexes worthy of Moria.  It lets you separate your major areas geographically and establish strong themes at each node.  The dungeons and lairs are not so expansive that it's exhausting to stock them.  Putting more distance between lairs, factions, and other inhabitants of the dungeon enhances the verisimilitude.  It's much easier to manage dungeon dressing and similar details by starting with a small, strongly themed lair or mini-dungeon complex.  And from a preparation perspective, it allows the referee to develop the mythic underworld in much smaller chunks -  one mini dungeon at a time  - instead of having to generate a sprawling 100-room complex.  It combines most of the best aspects of the wilderness hex crawl and the graph-based dungeon into a seamless continuum.

Rationality is my shortcoming.  I have tremendous respect for folks that can make those intricate, brilliant fun-house designs, jam-packed on the graph paper, and loosening up my graph-based mapping style is a work-in-progress.  But hopefully I've given you some ideas on a different approach.

I haven't exhausted the topic - putting theory into practice, I'll lay out how this approach has worked in the Black City campaign, my ideas for the first level of Death Mountain, and even my notes for Harrow Home Manor (Death Mountain and Harrow Home are the other megadungeon campaign settings brewing across various notebooks).


  1. Thank you for writing this post. It's helped get clarity on the sprawling campaign I've wanted to put together.

    I've always known about Descent into the Depths, of course, but you've given me the benefits of the approach that I was missing.


  2. The nodes can be a couple (even dozens) of dungeon levels all on their own. Leave room for more or the notion of more and dungeons can really feel "MEGA".

  3. I agree with the node approach, I ran Descent into the Depths when it came out and had a great time with it. I anxiously await your further notes on Black City!

  4. Agreed here too. Gygax's underworld hex maps and your own description of the Black City directly inspired me when laying out my node-based Alien Orifice megadungeon.

  5. Back in December of last year I reviewed an article from Pyramid magazine by David Pulver discussing node-based dungeons (he used the term "superdungeon" for it, though). I referenced your Black City game, because it was a clear example of the type. :)

  6. About a year ago Keith Davies did a series of posts where he rather successfully tried out node-based megadungeon creation. For most of it his 'maps' were simply flowcharts that showed how the various sections connected to each other, (both physically and socially).

  7. The node approach is good stuff. It's more or less how I manage the sublevels for my megadungeon: one blob for each zone, with line connections representing long tunnels, deep stairs, or giant imposing doors.

    Each node ends up having ~15-25 keyed rooms and gets drawn out on a post-it. If it won't fit on the post-it, it's too big to be one node.

  8. Gah! I just posted this idea on Dragonsfoot, and someone helpfully provided a link to your blog. Oh well, great minds and all that.