Is the Temple of Elemental Evil a Megadungeon?

Norman over at Troll and Flame thinks so. So do some of the commenters over at Grognardia. Personally, I disagree. It does touch on the definition of “megadungeon”, of course.

To my mind, a “megadungeon” in the strictest sense lacks an overarching plot. Indeed, it is a wilderness unto itself that adapts to a variety of different plots. Due to its lack of plot-driven nature, it is not the sole focus of a campaign, although it can very well stand as the tentpole of a campaign, and most proper old school campaigns should have such a centerpiece. But it should not be the raison d’être of the entire campaign.

A megadungeon should be large enough in and of itself to absorb the punishment of repeated forays into the depths without significantly depleting the supply of bad guys (and, ultimately, treasure). The mechanism of this replenishment is irrelevant; fountain of endless orcs, insane demigod, miles of troll warrens, interdimensional portals… The replacement rate of the bad guys should exceed the ability of the players to annihilate them. They can achieve local superiority in a given section of the megadungeon, of course; a given level or sub-level can be cleared out, and even claimed by some of the players (as happened in the original Greyhawk campaign, of course). But in the long run, the dungeon wins; you’re never “done” unless you say you are.

I have some specific problems with The Temple of Elemental Evil that are somewhat beyond the scope of this post. However, regarding the question of whether it meets my own (admittedly arbitrary) criteria for a megadungeon, I think it clearly does not. It most certainly is plot-driven (the players are there to stop the re-ascension of the Temple in the local area and ultimately beyond). The stock of baddies is limited; kill enough elemental priests of the various factions, and you’ll eventually run through ’em all. And, most importantly, it is designed to be “finished”. You thwart the minions of the Temple, stop Zuggtmoy from being freed (or, in some cases, freeing her), and then move on to greener pastures.

Not so with a “classic” megadungeon.

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.

10 thoughts on “Is the Temple of Elemental Evil a Megadungeon?

  1. It's not quite big enough to be a mega mega dungeon. It's damn close, and what megadungeon starts out fully formed? Many of the people saying "not a mega dungeon" have in other posts said megadungeon must be broad brush strokes, a starting point for DM's to make their own. My definition of megadungeon also includes "requires, encourages, tweaks and customization. " ToEE is ready for expansion.

    ToEE is only the sole focus of a campaign if DM / players make it. I see nothing in the published module that implies it must or even should be the raison d'whatever of the campaign.
    In fact there's a page on Other adventures. Where it says "you may — and should — design and develop other adventures in the area".

    But, I really want to address your last paragraph which is taking a very narrow, selective (and convenient for your argument) view of what ToEE is and has.

    There are numerous plots in ToEE. And room for several DM created ones. Megadungeons should not be static. They should be dynamic filled with factions, wars, and plots. The stop "re-ascension of Temple" is just the hook TSR put into every module. It is totally ignorable. "Temple was sealed up pretty good, not perfect. So, we don't go round there. But, I heard all the treasure was locked up with the critters. Laying there, just waiting for someone brave enough to claim it!" Works just as well with no plot other than let's explore and loot. As the players explore ToEE they may or may not stumple upon and figure out the various plots and subplots.

    That sounds no different than any mega dungeon that I've heard described. Sounds exactly like the deepness below? dungeon from Fight On!

    In any mega dungeon if someone wipes out all the badies, you run out of them. A double standard is being applied. With ToEE it's even implied that more baddies will come to fill the ranks (it's stated that the rise of Elemental Evil is attracting creatures, and there are several examples of that in the moathouse and elsewhere). Really we don't need to be told how a restock a dungeon But, ToEE is a training tool for teaching that to newbies.

    Also ToEE has a couple of sources of bad guy replenishment. 1) elemental nodes 2) connections to Drow underdark D1-2 and Demonwebs (hmmmmm, fact checking I can't find this, must be something that was only in my ToEE!) 3) Elemental Chaos attracting creatures from all over. 4) insane demigod(s) there are at least three of those in play.

    In the backstory of ToEE the temple had already been "finished" once. There's a published return to ToEE. Both of which conflicts with your opinion that ToEE can be finished. Zuggtmoy and her followers are not the only power faction in the dungeon, far from it. End (or release) her it's not over, just changed. Zuggtmoy can even be a red herring perpetuated to keep the forces of chaos fighting amongst themselves and weak.

    Some alternate plots and goals were explored in the computer adaptation. Each party alignment had different reasons and goals for entering the dungeon (9 or so from recover the holy avenger and kill goody 2 shoes knight, to trap zuggamonty, to free zuggamonty, to ransack the place for whatever loot we can and not get killed). It was a total sandbox, do whatever you want. And that was a freaking prewritten computer game. A human DM would rock all over that.

    I think peoples recollections are clouded by past experiences with ToEE. And possibly a desire to pigeon hole it so as to not conflict with their current beliefs. With a open mind ToEE fits even your narrow definition.

    I don't think ToEE was published as a mega dungeon. I do think it's closest thing to one in print. And is definitely a product you can hand someone "Here are the first levels of a megadungeon. Go read mythic underworld, these posts and forum threads on running a megadungeon and make it your own!"

    But, ya know YMMV!

  2. ToEE sits as a small dungeon in the Greyhawk sandbox. Imagine your process for creating a wilderness sandbox: you start with some central areas that are fleshed out a bit and a megadungeon. The outer areas are wilderness with small dungeons and points of interest that draw adventurers. Eventually these adventurers settle down and establish kingdoms in the outskirts. You define the borders of your sandbox with inhospitable terrain and barriers like mountains – Gygax bordered the southwest of his Flanaess sandbox with a sandy desert.

    What I see when I look at the Greyhawk map is a matured, and yes possibly "played-out", WIlderlands. Castle Greyhawk and the dungeons beneath are the tentpole megadungeon. Temple of Elemental Evil is just a minor dungeon situated way off the beaten path in a forest. The northern kingdoms like Keoland and Valley of the Mage look like they were settled by the players, with others like Iuz developed as opposition-kingdoms by the DM. This is just hypothesis, someone who knows please do correct or corroborate.

    Of course there looks to be a ton of smaller adventure sites on the scale of ToEE around the continent. And the Moathouse, though it's a whole graph paper sheet aboveground and one underground, hardly counts as anything but a minidungeon. Anything smaller, say a few connected rooms or a short cave system, doesn't register on this scale and would be effectively represented by some rolls on random tables.

    So when I say played-out, I mean as an untamed wilderness with no major power sources around and every opportunity available.

  3. Norman – Good points, all.

    I *like* megadungeons with an overarching theme, or something that ties them all together. Otherwise, the megadungeon is nothing more than a series of unrelated 1 level dungeons stacked vertically.

    I'm not saying that it needs to be blatantly obvious that all of these levels are tied together and focused on one subject. However, I do think there needs to be a thread which, if tugged, starts to unravel a story about what and why the dungeon is, and maybe even how it arrived at its present state.

  4. Alan– there is a difference between "theme" and "plot", as I'm sure you realize.

    TOEE has a definite plot. The players are there, explicitly, to halt the rise of the cult of Elemental Evil. It is, of course, entirely possible to discard the plot and simply use TOEE as a killing ground. But doing so loses what little there is to like about the module. Other modules fulfill that purpose much better; Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, for example.

    Megadungeons, as I define them, can most definitely have themes, and most assuredly benefit from having such. But even if the theme is as light a broth as "some insane archmage built this playground before he turned into a demigod", it remains a theme, and the very lightness allows for the presentation of various more specific themes in the levels of the dungeon. A "giants' bowling alley" would be less of a good fit in the "lost city of the dwarven kings". Both the mad demigods' playground and the dwarven city could be megadungeons, of course, but whereas the latter would have a specific theme that runs throughout, the former by its nature allows for more whimsical constructions.

    As for the specific idea that TOEE is a good example of the first couple of levels of a megadungeon, I don't see how that is any more true of that module than almost any other. White Plume Mountain gives an explicit entre to the DM to expand out the rest of the place. Steading of the Hill Giant Chief has a caved-in tunnel that could very well be used as the start of something greater. But those features no more make either module some sort of lost megadungeon progenitor than TOEE is.

    A regular module that can be turned into a megadungeon is different from something that was designed as a megadungeon in the first place.

  5. @ Paladin: FWIW, I think that several mega-dungeon products have been published:

    – Undermountain I and II boxed sets (which only detail 7 levels between them, and the UMII content is terrible, so they're too small IMO to count)

    – Rappan Athuk (it probably makes the grade, even though I think it's level maps are far too small)

    – Caverns of Thracia (fits the bill in style/tone and mapping challenges, although from what I understand it's has about 7 levels so, so it's at about the minimum threshold there, so, sure, we'll say it counts!)

    – Castle Whiterock (don't own it, can't say; size-wise it's sufficiently large, but I can't comment on the style of the encounters, tone, etc.)

    – Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor (horrible; the last 10 levels are almost 100% drek; stick with the First Fantasy Campaign and never look back; counts)

    – Worlds Largest Dungeon (never caught my eye, don't own it; style-wise, it doesn't sound like it fits the bill, but that's all based on secondhand info)

    – Maure Castle (7 levels if you count the free on the PPP site, so it's verging into mega-dungeon territory on a size basis, and the levels are certainly challenging enough from a map and varied encounters/style POV; it's probably the best example of a mega-dungeon published to date)

    Whether any of them are truly successful as mega-dungeons remains the open question/debate, I imagine!


    (verification word: "kings"!)

  6. Whiterock and Rappan Athuk seem to be well-regarded.

    I hear tell Rappan is scarce, i'll have to look around for Whiterock

    I received Undermountain as a Christmas gift, didn't like it, but it's possible that my dislike was due to my general loathing for Forgotten Realms.

    I picked up a copy of the Thracia reboot, I wish I had a copy of the original. The re-imagining does something similar to what was doen with Return to the Tomb of Horror.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

  7. I like this thread. It inspired me to create my own megadungeon, a project that will evolve with time. I like the notions you present of a megadungeon and will use them as a starting point. I mentioned this on my blog, so I hope you dont mind.

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