The OSR’s love affair with the megadungeon seems to be over, if you believe the blogosphere. Playtests of Jamie Malisewski’s Dwimmermount dungeon have shown just how little patience people have for empty room after empty room. Maps of giant dungeons are held up as examples of poor design. There’s even a resurgence of interest in the once universally panned 2nd edition, because at least its railroad adventures gave the players something to do.
Stephan Poag suggests the problem comes from players who only get to play sporadically, and can’t be bothered to remember all the details of a massive monster hotel: “when they manage to get away to play D&D, they want to have fun, joke around, drink beer and have a few interesting encounters that we can laugh together about.” He goes on to say “I’m not seeing how a multi-level dungeon with hundreds of rooms fits into that.” His post actually reacts against this attitude, discussing how much fun he had back in the day drawing up silly dungeons, but it’s true—the blogs are full of people who get to game rarely enough that they don’t want the plodding, methodical mapping exercise that is the current state of the megadungeon.
My personal experience is almost the direct opposite of this. For a couple years now I’ve been in a player in Eric Minton’s “Chateau D’Ambreville” megadungeon campaign, which is closing in on its 150th session. This is the longest sustained campaign I’ve been part of, or, for that matter, heard of. We meet weekly to explore the sprawling underlevels of what was once Castle Amber, a sometimes surreal, sometimes prosaic maze where a bunch of wizards hid during a civil war twenty years ago. We’ve been five or six levels deep in all that time; we know for a fact there are at least as many levels we’ve never seen. And we keep going back.
Part of the reason why may be simple demographics. We live in New York City, which has a large enough population that we can attract a large number of players. We play a pickup game, where whoever shows up gets to play, under the condition we must all be out of the dungeon and home by the end of the session. Most of us are married or in serious relationships, but very few of us have children—which may explain how we can meet so often. We’re also all very committed to the ideas of the OSR and dungeoneering in general, with a preponderance of artistic and/or information technology backgrounds.
But we keep going back to the Chateau, not because of who we are, but because it’s there. I’ve never questioned for a second the fact that our campaign is built around a tentpole dungeon. And it is full of empty rooms—many nights, we come back with a handful of copper pieces and no good stories. Sometimes we lose characters, or get level drained, or get in a fight so nasty we have to buy our way out at the expense of magic items and coin. It never stops us—if anything, it steels our resolve to find the big treasure around the next corner.
A big reason for that is Eric. He’s the best DM I’ve ever played with. He knows when to play a silly accent for laughs, and also how to make an encounter feel truly threatening. And his dungeon, even with its vast stretches of empty rooms, contains enough mystery and surreal locations (insane proto-computers, washerwomen golems who will trade gold for soap, competing bands of humanoids fighting over scarce dungeon resources) to stay fresh and interesting over so many sessions.
Another reason is that we have plenty of relief valves. If we need a break from the Chateau, there’s always the Keep on the Borderlands, or Quasqueton, or countless one-page dungeons to conquer; Eric is steadfast in his belief that it’s up to the players what happens next, even if that means setting aside his lovingly-crafted dungeon for a while. He even lets the players take the occasional turn in the DM chair—something we all look forward to, since a guest DM means a freer hand with the loot.
But in the end, if megadungeons were boring, none of these things would matter. It may be facile simply to say that the people who have lost interest in big dungeons aren’t playing them correctly—facile, unfair, and obviously incorrect. But clearly there is a right way to do it. We found it, maybe by mistake. The megadungeon may disappear from the OSR landscape (or more likely just fade into the background until the next blog cycle passes), but I imagine we’ll still be playing in the Chateau at session 200, and beyond. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.