Answering all the Questions in Mega-Dungeons

Over at Grognardia, James asked a question about the preferred format for mega-dungeons. Naturally, this is a topic close to my heart, as my own Castle of the Mad Archmage reflects. However, someone made specific reference to my own humble effort in the genre, and although I did answer in the comments, it seemed like a good enough topic to warrant its own discussion over here.

Rach’s reflections made this point, mentioning CotMA in particular:

“Step three: it has to make sense. There can be areas of total funhouse if it seems suitable, but let me tell you why, after initially falling in love with Castle of the Mad Archmage, I quickly found myself frustrated by it: what are these human berserkers doing in a previously sealed complex, full of hostiles, a great many stories underground?

I’ve got to say, I think that misses the entire point of something like Castle of the Mad Archmage.

At the risk of sounding trite, it’s up to you as game master to decide what those berserkers are doing there. Maybe they were sent to that room in CotMA by Odin when there wasn’t enough room on the mead benches in Valhalla. Maybe they’re cursed, not realizing just how much time has passed. Maybe they know exactly what they’re doing, and are gearing up for an all-out assault on the level that never quite materializes. Maybe they’re Zagyg’s personal guard, kept entertained here until they’re needed elsewhere. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above, or something else entirely. Any of those possibilities would take the encounter into a completely different direction, and could serve as the hook for an entire adventure (or more than one) in the dungeons.

As far as the other hostiles on the level go, maybe they know just how tough it would be to take out 50 berserkers, and give them a wide berth. Maybe they’ve struck a bargain with them. Maybe they don’t even know the berserkers are there. If so, why? Figure it out; you’re the GM!

The whole point of a mega-dungeon module like Castle of the Mad Archmage is that it is replete with gray areas like that. If I had put in every motivation for every NPC, and a justification for every trap, treasure, monster, etc. the whole thing would collapse under its own weight. It would literally be impossible for any single GM– myself included– to internalize enough of that information to the point of being able to run the dungeon without having to endlessly consult the written page. By providing just enough information, and placing a plethora of tantalizing “hooks” like the Mead Hall in there, I allow you to breathe life into the dungeon and turn it into a very very different place than it is when I run it.

And that’s what I want to happen. Make it your own! Don’t see an explanation? That’s on purpose! It’s room for you to explore and expand off the cuff if you want, or with a little planning and forethought it you work better that way. Castle of the Mad Archmage is the framework only. You need to fill in the details, by design.

And I should add that some of the best explanations for such things come from the players themselves. While they engage in agonized speculation about what those berserkers are doing down there, don’t be afraid to take a good idea they float and run with it. Or turn it on its head, based on their own speculation and expectations. You’re not cheating, you’re improvising, just like the module demands.

And I certainly don’t mean to bash Rachel in this; I think she’s a product of her time, 18 years old and come to D&D right at the advent of the 3.5 era. She’s used to modules that lay everything out in exacting detail for her, with its adventure arcs and so forth. I hope that if she realizes that she’s ready to perform without that sort of net, she’ll excel. And that’s what CotMA is designed to exemplify.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

18 thoughts on “Answering all the Questions in Mega-Dungeons

  1. I have to say Joe, I go the other way. My preference is somewhere between your CotMA and Castle Zagyg: Upper Works.

    I like my dungeons to make sense in some way. Logically hang together as to what is where and why, and how all those elements and creatures form a little ecosystem. I look at it as part of the puzzle or story for the pc's to solve. On some level it has to make sense why the room of bugbears is across the hall from the room with the roper in it, and how they are able to actually live together, as well as survive individually.

    As a player I like to try to figure out the dungeon's internal logic, or story, in order to gain some advantage over it. As a DM I can't just design random shit that makes no sense to me. Someone designed the thing for a reason. That reason may have been lost in time and different denizens are there now, but both the original intent and the current sentup should be inteligible to the players and DM. Even the maps have to make sense as to why they are laid out in such a way.

    Your dungeon falls short in that regard, for me, as for what I look for.

    On the other hand, Castle Zagyg give it to me in spades. Too many damn spades. The descriptions and backgrounds and interconnections are too intricate, there is too much written about it all in a lot of places. I don't want a travelog, just a module.

    The whole reason to play the module in the first place is because I have no time to make something up, or I want to give the players a chance to jump into someone else's creation, and experience something created by another person. I don't want to "make it my own." I just want to play in their sandbox for a while.

    Here's what I want: a dm description box to read to the players, no more than one or two sentences. I like these for a couple of reasons. First, they give a quick glance at the room, give the players something to chew on while I as DM quickly scan the dm info section. Second, they set the tone or flavor in a way that the author's voice is expressed. If I buy a module by Rob Kuntz, for example, I want the ability to run the module for my players as if their DM was Rob. The only way for Rob's voice to be there is thru the captions.

    Next, I would like the next section under the caption to be a short paragraph giving the dm all he needs to know to run the room if the players quicjkly decide to do something. Also, it gives me a way to quickly refamiliarize myself with the area, as in "Oh, this is the medusa room with the swan." As DM's we can prep for a game, but no amount of prep will let me memorize a megadungeon.

    After that, give very brief details of various objects/monsters in the room that are of note.

    At the start of each distinct section of the dungeon complex, give me a paragraph which summarizes what it was when created, what it is now, and how its denizens interact with the areas around it and how they are able to live and breed and survive. Basically, give me its mini-atory.

    Random encounters must make sense. On a level dominated by demi-humans, why would there be zombies if there wasn't a necromancer's lab or graveyard nearby? Or a random poisonous spider encounter when every room is fully developed and there are no spider lairs anywhere? I don't want to make up a BS reason, as I think you lose credibility with your players that way.

  2. part 2—

    On the maps, give me enough info by way of syumbols that I don't have to refer to the text of the module to read the contents of each room. Have the map make sense in layout, as to its original creation purpose. Show me a real live place that someone lived in, let me imagine what it was, in a way that makes sense. In other words, put the latrine near the barracks, rather than next to the king's quarters or the alchemist's lab. No latrine? Fail. Everyone shits man.

    All that being said, I don't like megadungeons because you never get to see the world around you and never get to conquer it. You go into a hole in thye ground, and some months later you come out a badass, with occasional trips to town to resupply and sell. That's just boring as shit to me. My brother ran a group of friends and I through Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, and I tried to sabotage the fuckin' thing every chance I could get just to get out of the goddamned hole in the ground, so I could enjoy some of the most fun levels in a character's career above ground in the world.

  3. It's definitely not that Joe. I like it. I ran it at a con last year in conjunction with Castle Zagyg. That's where the stark contrast really hit me. There are a lot of good parts to it that do hang together and tell the mini-story, but there are some that don't. Some of the stuff in Archmage is damn brilliant and I steal it for my own stuff. But I like it all to hang together, but not as much as Zagyg in terms of the details. If you could throw your Mad Archmage and Zagyg together in a soup pot and see what comes out, it would be the perfect megadungeon for me.

  4. Mid-Irene posting (more fun than the storm):

    It's actually the occasional random "what the hell is X doing here" points that I really, really enjoy. It's the moments of improvisation and creativity above and beyond the pure formula of the locale's creation that makes it genuinely exciting and challenging (for me, personal mileage may vary) to be a DM.

    Certainly, there can be idiosyncrasies with some random things, but it's fun (for me, and them) to toss a red herring or blatant moment of confusion at players, if for no other reason than to simply to break up their expectations and keep them alert.

    I've only really read through a little of CotMA so far – and my players are a long way from starting something like that (assuming they even want to steer that way) so take what I say with a large dash of 'doesn't see it all'. From what I have read I can see hints of things that I'd write, not in quality or thought (where I know, first-hand, that Joe surpasses me by a country mile) but in tone and feel and the balance of random to seemingly thought-out.

    That all said, I'm of the opinion that it's the vast array of different DMing styles that gives "OSR" D&D it's greatest strength, and "current" D&D it's greatest weakness. Keep on rolling with whatever suits you, and change or ignore whatever doesn't, for that way D&D games are born.

  5. As a DM with a strong interest in MDs, I made a financial contribution to the CotMA project when it was being developed. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to run it.

    I know that I will never be able to run a group through the entire thing. So I look for interesting levels that I can use. I've mainly focused on levels 8-11 due to the maps.

    Coincidentally, I was re-reading CotMA after Stonehell Dungeon this week. A couple of observations jumped out at me regarding content and style.

    The first is that Michael does a really good job of setting the scene for each level and provides a decent amount of motivation. I like the concision of the room descriptions and how he draws attention to the really notable things on the level. Much easier to plan and prepare.

    On the other hand, while looking at CotMA, I noticed how difficult it was to get a good sense of what to expect from a level and how the inhabitants related to one another. I don't like having to read through 75+ encounter areas to discover who and where the major players are and what their issues are. I'd rather have that up front. If I know that there are x number of creatures in y number of factions trying to control z feature, I can place them myself, if necessary.

    It also struck me that there are a lot of creatures cheek by jowl on levels 8-11. And all of them seem immediately and unrelentingly hostile. As I think about what I will do with the levels, I will probably keep the location descriptions, the wtf? elements and populate with my own critters and factions. There will probably be far fewer creatures and much more intrigue. Combat would be a secondary option until allies are discovered and won over.

    I would agree that you shouldn't ignore motivations and factions in your next MD project. I'd say they are almost as important as the creatures themselves.

    Rather than define motivations for each creature, perhaps you group em- powerful, but solitary; weak, but numerous; hostile, but…; aberrations that nobody gives quarter to, etc. Then give a range of possible goals, motivations and factions. You could stock a level with one set of creatures, but we could swap them out for other, similar ones if we prefer a slightly different feel.

  6. During my time running AD&D I mostly ran a group in forgotten realms, Waterdeep, the North, and especially Undermountain.

    I think Ed Greenwood's undermountain is an excellent mega dungeon. There is little to no motivation and backstory for most of the room descriptions. I had a huge binder where I kept updating and rewriting whole sections of the dungeon to reflect how things kept changing.

    I think a megadungeon needs an overall reason and story for its existence and each one should have its own "feel" for the PC's as they interact with it but otherwise it should have a life of its own, each room changing as the DM needs it to for the purpose of creating a shared improvisational experience. I always allowed the actions of the PC's to matter and for them to permanently put their mark on the dungeon.

    You give me a room with some Berserkers in an area that was previously sealed off and don't worry, I'll figure out what they are doing there 😉

  7. Rob, I really think you need to read through those levels again, particularly the introductory sections at the beginning of each. There are absolutely factions presented on each of those levels, not just "a lot of creatures cheek by jowl on levels 8-11 … all of them seem immediately and unrelentingly hostile". At the beginning of level 8, for instance, it states "These factions generally get along, but it is certainly possible for clever play to bring them into conflict with one another".

    Do I explicitly spell out the motivations for each faction on those levels? No, and deliberately so. I'm sorry if you think it's too much work to bring the thing to life from the scaffolding, but hopefully you're in the minority. Maybe I'm the one in the minority, not wanting to be spoon-fed every last detail, and free to give monsters and factions motives and relationships based on the needs of my own campaign, rather than just following a script.

  8. All that being said, I don't like megadungeons

    Then please don't make long negative arguments that appear on the surface to be substantive critiques of specific efforts, when all it is, is a tortured justification of your own personal general bias.

  9. Unfortunately imagination is not included with the game, that is assumed to exist with the DM.

    What this points to, IMO, is the idea that was forwarded under pre-made adventures in that the thinking for the DM is all done in advance (or at least partially so).

    As there are literally 3 camps that exist within this sphere (DYI and fill in the blanks yourself, give me a little context to mix and match with my own, and DO IT FOR ME) this argument cannot be resolved cross-camp, but only by the weight of numbers attached to each of the three.

    So the best response is: YMMV. But I favor Joe's approach, just for the record, for using my imagination is only consonant with growth.

  10. I'd like to propose a fourth method in addition to Rob's three (each of which is a consistent across the board level of detail). I like to see rationalizations when the rationalization is cool or interesting. Berserkers placed by Odin? Lay it on me; that's cool enough that it's probably better than what I'd come up with on the fly, or it might springboard me to something even more interesting, like some are Odin's some are Loki's. On the other hand, I really don't need to see the humdrum stuff. In my dungeon there are lots of places where I don't bother to write anything other than a monster, and some places where a neat idea occurred to me, so I wrote it down in order not to forget it. I think megadungeons are an odd enough animal that in some places the level of detail ought to be handled differently. An area that's strange or has its own rules, or where there's a cool explanation? Give some detail. 12 giant rats? I don't need to know where they eat or crap. No detail.

    A middle level of detail is probably my preferred zine of comfort for something that was written by someone else. No way I can handle high detail, it kills me all the way to death. On the other hand, if it's all completely unexplained I feel like I could probably be doing just as well with some random tables and my own imagination — then it's all up to whether the maps are better than mine. 🙂

  11. Matt, your last paragraph succinctly explains what I spent 1000 words trying to explain.

    Joe, extrapolated from all the crap I wrote, you'll see that as a player I don't like MD's because I feel they bury me in the ground for too long. I want to be out in the world. As a DM I don't like them because I haven't found one that hits that middle ground just right, as Matt explained.

    In general I'd rather make my own stuff up. I think we all would. But modules and megadungeons give us the chance to play in another person's world, to experience their creation, which I find enjoyable at times. I think we all do from time to time. For example, I bought Zagyg because I wanted to play in Gary's last creation. I found it lacking due to too much detail. I buy Rob's stuff because I wanted to play in his games, and that's as close as I've come. I have your whole MD printed up and it is on the shelf right next to Zagyg. I played it at Fal-Con last year, as the group skipped the majority of Zagyg and spent most of their time in your world. It was fun. I look at it for inspirational pieces sometimes. But as a whole, the way it is written isn't my cup of tea. I'm looking for something more in the middle.

    Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I won't ever like something. If done right, and I DM'd a group who loved playing in them, I could see myself liking a MD. But like the Police song goes—"I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

    You could dismiss my comments on MD's as the result of a "tortured explanation of a general bias." That's up to you. But that's not where I'm coming from. I think you are viewing them as such because it feels like an attack or a judgment of your work or playstyle. It wasn't, and isn't. It's just a preference for what I look for in a MD. In fact, what I described is what I am looking for in all MD's applies equally to my preference in all modules across the board. If a MD came out that fit my preferences, I might like it as a DM, though I would still hate them as a player. I was just passing along my opinion and giving input.

    I always try and take the input wherever I can get it, no matter the source. You never know, some of it may be actually good, and come from an asshole—but it might make you better at what you do. Too often I project that way of being on others and dump "input" all over them in a blunt way.

    My habit of speaking bluntly seems to offend all too often. I'm not going to go over to Grognardia to explain myself, because frankly most of the people who post there are douchebags. I shouldn't have posted there to begin with—that's what 4 beers and a shot or three of Captain gets you. I don't give a shit what they think, so I won't explain myself to them. But I wanted to post this over here by way of explaining myself more clearly.

    You can think I'm the biggest asshole in the world, that's your right. Many people do. If you do though, I'd rather have it not based on a misunderstanding. I'm sure you'll have many other opportunities in the future to do so, based on the truth of what I say. 🙂 I'd just rather not have it based on this, when I think that I failed to communicate properly my thought and apparently ruffled some feathers.

    Take care…

  12. I would say two things:

    (1) The creative explanations of why there's a bunch of Valhallan berserkers sealed 20 stories beneath the ground are far more interesting to me than a stat line reading "15 berserkers". I'm interested in other people's creative vision only insofar as they actually have a creative vision: Insert generic monster A into generic room B is something I or a random table can do in seconds.

    (2) I think that re-stocking is a crucial part of what makes a megadungeon work. Ergo, I'm far more interested in flavorful and memorable locations (which will likely be inhabited by many different creatures). (And this is particularly true of the upper reaches of a megadungeon.)

    So, to sum up, in order of preference:

    (1) Memorable, detailed locations.
    (2) Unique, clever, and creative inhabitants.
    (3) Generic-but-detailed locations.
    (4) Generic inhabitants.
    (5) An empty map.

    A product consisting entirely of #3 and below is of marginal utility. A product consisting entirely of #4 and below is basically worthless to me.

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