Is It Possible to Publish a “True” Megadungeon?

James over at Grognardia has published an interesting essay “Schrödinger’s Dungeon” which has garnered a lot of replies in the few short hours it’s been up. Much as I like and admire James’ work for the most part, I fear he has missed the mark on this particular subject.

I launched this very blog with the lament that James mentions in his first paragraph; we are all the poorer that Gygax didn’t have a chance (whether in the later years of his life, or while he was still with TSR) to publish some version of his own Castle Greyhawk. I stand by that assessment.

One of James’ key passages is this:

When most people think of a “dungeon,” they expect a set of maps with a key describing rooms and their contents. A megadungeon, by its very nature, can’t be detailed in the same way. It’s a lot more “impressionistic” and relies heavily on ad hoc adjudication by the referee, as the players explore it. Not all of the megadungeon’s rooms are inhabited at any given time — this is important — and many of their inhabitants might change, depending on player action, referee whim, or the luck of random rolls. Likewise, even the geography of the megadungeon might change, as the referee adds new sections, closes off old ones, or otherwise alters what the characters have experienced to date.

Which is, of course, correct, but which does not address the central point of the Lament of the Old-Timers. We didn’t have any model for that process! It was only discerned after years of careful reading-between-the-lines in various disparate sources; The Dragon, fanzines, hints in modules and rulebooks, etc. When I, and others, lament that Gygax hadn’t published his own version of the Castle, I think it’s implicit that we would have expected that such advice would be sprinkled throughout such a product, implicitly and explicitly. If nothing else, than by example.

Rather, when you look at the modules that TSR did, in fact, publish in the earliest years, the lessons were exactly the opposite of what James defines (and I, in large part, agree with) as the parameters of a “classic” megadungeon. Steading of the Hill Giant Chief et al weren’t much given to spontaneity (although lip-service is paid to the notion that the giants will not stand idly by while adventurers make numerous forays into their lairs). There was very much the idea of “come in, clean it out, and move on to greener pastures”, and it seems that Gygax himself was consciously leaning in that direction. Here’s what he wrote in the DMG (p. 91):

…but when it is all over the monsters will not magically reappear, nor will it be likely that some other creatures will move into the newly available quarters the next day.

It’s at odds with how we know his own Greyhawk campaign was run, but it’s still an interesting (if contradictory) statement.

But back to James’ argument; I think the real value in publishing a “complete” version of Castle Greyhawk (or Castle Blackmoor, or Maure Castle, or any of the various ones that dominated the early scene up in LG) would have been as an example of a starting point. Even the fabled Castle Greyhawk started as a map on paper with notes. Even if the map changed, and the notes most certainly changed based on various player activities (as well as reactions imagined by Gygax and later Kuntz), that starting point would still have been an invaluable resource to have. Most especially if it were accompanied by the briefest of introductory essays in the form of “you know, in the original campaign, none of this was lasting; once the player characters wiped out the kobolds on level 1, such-and-such happened; in your campaign it might be very different” might well have made all the difference in the world!

Instead, we had a steady stream of tournament modules (not that I’ve anything against them! G1-3 and D1-3 are among my favorite modules ever). They reinforced in the minds of tens of thousands of young dungeon masters (myself included) that dungeons were intended to be relatively limited in scope, have a particular theme, and as a rule end up with a fight against a Big Bad Guy to win access to the Treasure Room (or, in some cases, multiple Big Bad Guys and multiple Treasure Rooms). We learned by the only example we were given.

Imagine what would have happened if, instead of cranking out tournament modules, TSR had settled down to publish a large, if skeletal, Castle Greyhawk. A couple of lines per encounter. Encouragement to DMs to “take it and imagine the hell out of it” throughout.

James is absolutely correct when he states that a published module cannot possibly capture the ever-changing-based-on-player-actions nature of a megadungeon. However, I think that misses the point of the Lament of the Old-Timers. He says:

In every case, the changes are in response to play and it’s this quality of megadungeons that makes them hard to put into a published form.

And I must disagree. Any dungeon, no matter how small, can (and should) change in response to play. Whether it’s a three-room crypt or a ten-thousand-room megadungeon spanning twenty levels, the change-in-response-to-play aspect is constant. What we lacked, for years, was a model of how to properly set up such an enormous playing field in the scope of a single dungeon setting. How to get past questions of “dungeon ecology” (which Gygax admittedly didn’t give a fig about in the beginning, but begrudgingly came to realize as being at least something to take into consideration)? Factions within dungeons were, apparently, a staple of Gygax’s approach. A “still life” of them in action, at least as a starting point, would have been a great help in such a context. Ditto the “random zaniness” factor, noticeably lacking from the earliest module efforts of TSR.

James concludes with:

I simply don’t think such a thing would ever have been possible and any attempt to present a “Castle Greyhawk” trapped in amber would necessarily feel inadequate. That’s the nature of the beast and therefore I think the only way to experience a proper megadungeon is to build it yourself.

And I think here he lays the foundation of his own inconsistency. If I write my own megadungeon (which, incidentally, I have), it exists solely as a starting point. From the moment my players hit the corridors, it’s up to me, as the Dungeon Master, to alter and adapt, to change and manipulate, to reflect the actions of those players and how I imagine the inhabitants would respond. If someone else downloads Castle of the Mad Archmage and does the same, or if any of us had done so with a hypothetical “complete” Castle Greyhawk from 1982, what, exactly, has changed? Each of us would have taken (or will take) it in completely different directions, according to our own DMing style and the actions of our players.

Which, I think, is the whole point.

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.

17 thoughts on “Is It Possible to Publish a “True” Megadungeon?

  1. Your link for "incidently I have" only links back to the same post. I would love to take a look at the correct destination and see the dungeon. Good post. I am a fan of both this blog and Grognardia

  2. Interestingly, Gygax would of course lay out specifics for the various factions' likelihood of reinforcements/possibility of entirely new creatures moving in with "Keep On The Borderlands".

  3. Temple of Element Evil is as close to published mega dungeon as you describe. (that I know of). Certainly had the factions within dungeons and players actions changing the dungeon.

    I've always played that module/dungeon denziens react to character actions and new "folks" move in to replace the old. Not sure were I picked that up. Probably Caves of Chaos.

    I'm working on a review of "The Dungeons of Castle Balckmoor" Which is in fact "a "complete" version of Castle Blackmoor," The short of it is it's very disappointing and utterly fails. I'm thinking because the publisher was not enlightened/brave enough to do something different and create the sort of "starting point" resource you describe. Instead they made yet another module, just bigger.

  4. EGG also referenced how NPCs would respond to a party if they laid siege to a bandit camp and town in the 1st ed DMG. As well as the sample dungeon in the DMG of course.

    Temple of Elemental Evil and the Basic modules were the only real examples of low-level play around; it was a constant source of wonder to me that you had to dig around to find them.

    It's definitely a growth market.

  5. EGG also referenced how NPCs would respond to a party if they laid siege to a bandit camp and town in the 1st ed DMG. As well as the sample dungeon in the DMG of course.

    Exactly, there's plenty of advice on how player actions prompt changes in the dungeon environment in the DMG.

    @Joe – No offense, but you haven't written your own megadungeon. You've reconstructed part of EGG's. Sure, in a Published Product(tm) their needs to be a static "starting point" from where the action commences and the campaign takes shape. I think what JM was arguing is that taking someone else's "starting point" is a mistake.

    People like EGG, Professor Barker, et al. did NOT start with a finished product, however sketchily defined… They made the s*&t up as they went along, maybe mapping a level in advance of the party (and I suspect sometimes not even that). It's that fluid quality which is missing from every published campaign dungeon setting, including the best of them (like your own offering). There is a reason EGG included a random dungeon generation utility in the DMG–he wrote one because he needed to use it.

    In short, I don't think JM has missed the point at all. I think you're missing his, which I interpret roughly as, "The idiosyncrasies of an individual GMs megadungeon do not translate well into a published product; the develop organically, from beginning to…"

  6. rmckee78: Actually, the link takes you to all of the posts with the tag "Castle of the Mad Archmage". If you scroll through it, you'll find the downloads and other stuff.

    Or, if you don't have the patience, just look over to the right of this page, in the "Free Downloads" section. There you'll see a link to Castle of the Mad Archmage.

  7. Howarth: *shrug* We disagree. I don't think Gygax, or Barker, or Kuntz ever sat down with a group of players and no notes, no map, and no idea of what was happening. They all had some structure in mind. They had notes, and maps. Just because they were sometimes (often?) forced to improvise, doesn't mean they didn't rely on those notes. And I maintain those notes, as the launching pad for improvisation, would have been an invaluable tool to us burgeoning DMs back in the day.

    As far as your cheap shot that I haven't "written my own megadungeon", I will simply point out that aside from a few scraps of basic themes and a few names and features here and there (all that is known to us), the work is all my own. If taking inspiration for 1% of a work makes it not my own, then you're right. I happen to think otherwise. Feel free not to download it.

  8. I think the one aspect of the megadungeon that Gygax developed was the ability for groups or individuals to leave and come back throughout the campaign. The success of Castle Greyhawk for him was not a location, but the different adventures that were spread out over time. That's why I think the players remembered it in such fondness. One of the things that hooked me on the game was listening to guys that played with Gygax when I was 8 in the mid 70's. I think that the megadungeon is a tough feat to pull off successfully. I agree with one quality listed by the posters is that it has to be flexible. Greyhawk Ruins is a megadungeon as well, but it feels a bit sterile given its roots to Castle Greyhawk. I would rather have the linking of solid tournament modules.

  9. The irony is that EGG had a lifetime of chances to publish his version of Castle Greyhawk, or at least put in what he considered "publishable form."

    That being the case, I think the real (and critical) un-answered question is, why didn't publish it, or at least have a manuscript ready to go?

    It's easy for you and me to speculate he didn't. And my speculation on the reasons he failed to publish it is the central reason why I am disinterested in Castle Greyhawk.

    I have a lot of respect for the giants of roleplaying. EGG was a bright guy. He understood the old-school approach. He must have known there was pent-up demand for his offical version of Castle Greyhawk. Assuming that it wasn't copyright issues that prevented him from publishing Castle Greyhawk (did TSR own the rights to CG?) there seem to be two possible alternatives: (1) it was impossible to capture the fullness of CG in module form or (2) had it been published, its apparent deficiencies would have been exposed.

    This is pure speculation of course. There could be other reasons why it didn't get published, maybe EGG truly ran out of time.

    I too would be interested reading EGG's thoughts on the design and maintenance of a mega-dungeon. Sadly, he will never write that book. But we do have EGG's DMG, philotomy's OD&D musings, blogs by people like you and James M., and a host of other good OS products to fall back on.

  10. Paladin: Your analysis is only flawed by the fact that he was, in fact, actually getting around to doing it, before his untimely death.

    Personally, I think the reason he waited so long wasn't legalities so much as personality. He was, by his own admission, too busy in the TSR days to tackle the project, and once he was bounced out, was bitter and wanted little to do with it. The monetary benefit, along with the relative legal quietude (with no Lorraine there to pounce on his every word with a lawsuit) probably brought him back. That is of course, as you say, just speculation on my part…

  11. Wouldn't be the first time my arguments were flawed!

    I thought something was already published, under the name Castle Zagyg? Was that not Castle Greyhawk renamed?

    At any rate, I still stand my belief that if this was the gaming equivalent of the holy grail, we would have seen it by now.

    I expect a true (un-embellished) version of Castle Greyhawk would look a little like "First Fantasy Campaign".

    And, you know, I would be okay with (and buy) that.

  12. Paladin: Yes, CZ was Castle Greyhawk renamed, but only the first level and the above-ground ruins were released. The rest of the series was canceled with Gygax's death.

    And I make no claim that such a thing would have been the be-all and end-all of RPGs. I merely think that it would have given a different perspective on how such things might be played. An alternative to the small dungeon, plot-dependent, clean-it-out-and-move-on mentality that RPGs have had since almost the beginning of the hobby.

    Inasmuch as that approach is counter to how the game was played in its very genesis, I think it would have been nice to see such an example as a counter to the "tournament" modules that TSR ended up publishing.

  13. Good post!

    I think you're right in that just having a working example is priceless to a beginner. I know how that worked for me when I started with rpgs.

    Also, JM insistence upon the "idiosyncrasies of an individual GMs" leading him down the wrong garden path. He seem to like that path quite well, though. 😉

    The fact that a product will evolve in play don't make the publication of the starting notes impossible! And as we noted would even had be useful for some of us. Idiosyncrasies are not worth cradling that much.

  14. Hey, Joe – I like where you're going with this post. Treating published material (or, hell, even my own prepared notes) more as a "dungeon seed" then as a bible is a tough mindset to break into. I'm just now getting to the point where I'll have to do this with CZ:UW – the PCs have cleared most of the encounters on the first level, and I wanna get them back on their toes before they get the idea in their heads that you can actually "clear" a dungeon level. (Maybe if they get this through their heads they'll stop mucking around with Level 1 and I can actually get to use the CotMA stuff! Haha…)


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