Saturday 7 March 2009


There's been a heck of a lot of talk about dungeons around the blogosphere in recent months. Now, I like a dungeon as much as the next man, but I have to confess that I don't love them in the same way that others seem to. They're always part of my campaigns, but I tend to use them as small liars or underground areas scattered over a wide region: locations that can be explored and plundered relatively quickly. Megadungeons sound nice in theory, but I find it hard to imagine setting an entire campaign around one. Perhaps it's all the time I've spent playing roguelikes, and I'm all dungeon-ed out?

The type of campaigns that really get my pulse racing are wilderness adventures. Deep, thick, primeval forests where owlbears and manticores prowl and hidden kingdoms of myconids lurk. Massive mountain ranges, from whose peaks and glaciers dragons study from afar the affairs of men. Vast deserts dotted with hidden tombs. Mighty oceans swarming with kraken and tako. Mangrove swamps where invertebrate things slither through the mud. Volcanos and jungles and chasms and lakes, these are a few of my favourite things...

It is for this reason that I've long wanted to run a purely outdoorsman's kind of a game. A group of rangers and druids and the like protecting a huge wilderness from encroaching evildoers. A gang of egg-thieves raiding the nests of giant eagles and owlbears and selling their young at market. Intrepid bandeirantes setting off into impenetrable jungle to make their fortunes or die in the attempt. Or maybe a band of outlaws or exiles fleeing into the great empty, never to return...


  1. It would seem that you can't go two blog posts these days without the word 'megadungeon' popping up somewhere. I guess it is heresy to some, but much as I love the dungeon setting, there's only so much you can do with it before it gets stale.

  2. Balance, balance, balance - and then you fall into the pit trap.

    A hole in the ground is okay for a while, but after that while, most players want characters that DO things - explore the Shadowed Tomb of the Overlords, cross Devil's Pass, snort the Sacred White Powder of Nort...

    Dungeons are fun because they are simple, but that simplicity becomes its limiting factor, and the unbridled opportunities of the wilderness campaign beckon. But then it becomes chaotic and confusing, so it's back into the Dungeons again.

  3. So... West Marches? It still has dungeons, but that's kind of where I'd like to go with the megadungeon concept. Lots of little dungeons scattered in the wilderness rather than one huge cave complex.

  4. I'm with you, noisms. I'm fond of dungeons and all, but give me a good trek across the wilderness any day of the week (I think maybe my problem is finding something new and unique to try with them). And that egg thieves camapaign sounds wild, I'd love to be a part of it.

  5. The megadungeon and the wilderness sandbox are twin pillars on which D&D was built. I expect a lot of the enthusiasm for the megadungeon among old schoolers right now is because, as a concept, it's the one that's least understood by later generations of gamers, who view it primarily through the lens of caricature. I think once the megadungeon concept is better elucidated with lots of solid examples, we'll start seeing more old schoolers doing other stuff -- and talking as enthusiastically about that.

  6. arcona: My contrarian streak makes me want to create a megadungeon a little less every time I hear the term.

    Pukako: Balance is everything, I suppose.

    Anders: That's generally what I do with a campaign, and I think always have done more or less instinctively - ever since I first started DMing anyway. Our campaigns as kids almost always involved trekking across a desert from tomb to tomb, or across a range of mountains from castle to castle, etc.

    Rach: Pure wilderness can become repetitive and dull - but so can pure dungeoneering. The DM has to be very creative. But that's the fun of being a DM.

    James: I hope so, but I detect something of the rose-tinted spectacles in the megadungeon fad; some of the most egregiously dull games I've ever been involved in have been set in dungeons, and from that perspective a megadungeon sounds almost nightmarish. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a well-written and planned one (I'm loving your, Amityville Mike's, and Greyhawk Grognard's posts on the subject), but I think there's a bandwagon developing that advocates megadungeons as the orthodoxy, and that seems stifling.

  7. If anyone suggests that a megadungeon is the only way to play old school D&D, they're woefully mistaken, as the title of Volume 3 of OD&D should make clear. That said, I think we're you're probably detecting is a reaction to years of being told by gamers with no understanding of the megadungeon concept that it's a "primitive" (or worse adjectives) way to play the game.

  8. That said, I think we're you're probably detecting is a reaction to years of being told by gamers with no understanding of the megadungeon concept that it's a "primitive" (or worse adjectives) way to play the game.

    That's possibly true as I've seen again and again more "modern" gamers saying that just about anything that isn't the current flavor is "primitive."

    However, I think there are other objections to the mega-dungeon that come not from viewing it as primitive, or simply not understanding it. It might be a tent-pole of Old School gaming (and I'm not entirely convinced of that since I've really not seen much example of the concept except in some of the revival products), but at some point relatively early on, that tent pole seems to have been pulled or de-emphasized in favor of a different style.

    I think by the late 80's, gaming was taking a different tack and the mega-dungeon concept started to fall by the wayside. Which is not to say it vanished entirely, but just that it seemed to fit less and less in some ways.