It's been a long couple of weeks, and I haven't been able to read the blogs as much as I normally like to. Since I have today off (working for the State may not pay as well as the private sector, but its other benefits are nice, including the number of days off for State and Federal holidays.) One of the posts over on the Omnipotent Eye about dungeons in newer game systems these days really caught my eye. In essence, he was asking what could be done to help gamers with a preference for cinematic adventuring common to modern gaming systems become fully engaged in a dungeon experience. I posted a response to the original entry, but it sparked my imagination enough that I thought I'd make a quick blog entry of my own here.
Megadungeons are pretty fascinating environments, as you can tell by their prominence in discussions on the internet over the last few years. However, many gamers don't like the changes that overcome a party of adventurers the moment they step into a dungeon. Suddenly, everyone is busy checking for traps, looking for secret doors and systematically mapping a seemingly endless series of chambers looking for monsters to kill and loot to steal. In many cases, the party experiences a change of focus, because they have no end-goal or destination in mind. Instead, it's all about getting in, getting gold and getting out alive. For people interested in a story-based adventure, let's face it: that's boring as hell.
So, how do we fix this issue? My personal recommendation is to think of these large megadungeons as campaign maps. Every "sandbox" GM has read about taking a modular design approach to their campaign maps, and has probably even designed a setting or two that presents the special locations in the wilderness beyond civilization as rumors and the goals of quests. If your entire campaign is going to be based around the concept of a megadungeon, there's no reason you can't do the same exact thing here.
Choose six to twelve locations on your overall map to serve as destinations or goals. These sites become the focus of your rumor charts, and are fairly well known (even if only by rumor) among the populations that inhabit your dungeon. Each site has its own flavor that makes it stand out, and presumably its own secrets as well. Like a wilderness-based sandbox campaign, the rest of the dungeon represents the wilderness between these exotic locations that the party must traverse. Certainly, it does not appear as open as the wilderness of a surface-based adventure, but you can offer as many significant choices as the party would presumably have in a game of surface exploration, and create a similar feeling of exploration with your megadungeon.
One of these special sites could be an underground village or township. Conceptually, such a location would have much in common with a space station (an image that may help those that have GM'd science fiction games before as well), in terms of the use of corridors and main thoroughfares to connect the rooms that make up the central area of this "Dungeon Town." The NPCs here offer the party great opportunities for urban-based adventures, rumors of other sites and patrons for other adventures. Herein may be found exiles from the surface world interacting with diplomats from great underground clans or ruled by powerful denizens from the underworld or even realms beyond that which we know. A priest of healing may feel it is her mission to bring peace to those of this forsaken "Under-shire", and has erected a temple or shrine that is considered sanctuary by the natives of the region, in order to stay in the good graces of the cleric. Maybe there's even an arena or an arcane academy here, depending on who rules this place. The great part about this concept is that any idea you don't use for your "Dungeon Town" becomes fodder for any of the other special sites you've created. Instead of being ruled by a great dragon with a penchant for watching gladiatorial combat, you decide to make the village fall under the auspices of an insane mage. In that case, one of the other locations may focus on a great dragon with his own private arena, and the small community of raiders and slavers he has gathered under him to support his desires for interesting and diverse gladiatorial experiences.
The other sites on your campaign map, I mean, in your megadungeon, could include locales similar to the following:
- Temple of Gold: This site was once a great temple dedicated to a God of Wealth, before disaster either killed its population or drove them away. The temple itself, gilded in gold and filled with untold treasures, is all that remains behind.
- Mushroom Jungles: This vast underground cavern (or series of caverns), is filled with a fungal jungle of immense proportions. Rare and unusual plants grow beneath the giant toadstools, and unusual variations of underground jungle critters and natives harass all who travel through this place. Still, the alchemical value of some of these plants makes the efforts worthwhile.
- Tomb of the Gods: This vast crypt is actually the final resting place of several demigods that fell in some ancient divine conflict. Entombed here by the followers of the losing side, these corpses contain within them the spark of divinity, for those skilled enough to access it. As such, this Tomb and the bodies therein are often sought by those seeking immortality, divine power, the resurrection of a fallen god, and others of similar purpose.
- Lake of Stars: The bioluminescent denizens of this underground lake create the impression of balls of light swarming under its surface. For those that have not seen the nighttime sky in years, if at all (such as most denizens of this realm), this body of water has been poetically dubbed the Lake of Stars. A number of small islands serve as homes for tribes of aquatic humanoids, who bring all of their captured treasures and prisoners from raids back home as offerings to their bizarre gods.
- The Undercastle: This region of fortified rooms forms a bastion or stronghold for a dedicated militaristic order. Whether they remain, or if their undead corpses, driven into eternal service by their severe dedication, still defend the Undercastle is a matter for the GM to decide. Either way, such a location may serve as a base at higher levels. Of course, such fortifications would exist if there weren't something to defend against...
- The Magus's Sanctum: This unusual and isolated section of the megadungeon once served as the private sanctum, personal library and well-equipped laboratory for a famous (or infamous) mage of long ago. The mage may not be dead and gone for decades, or may still remain as a lich or similar form of undead. Untold arcane treasures are said to lie within the walls of this personal sanctuary.
I'm sure you get the idea. If you have any thoughts, comments or questions, I'd love to hear them, so please feel free to respond in the comment section below.