In Defense of the Megadungeon

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.


22 Responses to “In Defense of the Megadungeon”

  1. 1 rogercarbol
    October 10, 2012 at 12:47 am

    On the other hand, I can see how the playtesting experience in particular might be frustrated by the megadungeon. Do empty rooms really need playtesting?

  2. 2 Zarathustra
    October 10, 2012 at 1:04 am

    One swallow does not a summer make.

    The OSR doesn’t seem seick of mehadungeons- ASE1, Barrowmaze & Stonehell were well received as creative and worthwhile takes on the megadungeon (although argument could be made that ASE1 is just the beginnings of one). There was no gnashing of teeth about Rappan Athuk.

    I think someplaytesters so far have been less than impressed about one certain, well hyped megadungeon. So this is not yet evidence of people being sick megadungeons, just that the bar has been raised a little higher by the previously mentioned releases and non-interactivity & mundane design no longer cut it. Hell Barrowmaze hardly uses an original premise but he sets up someinteresting factions & possibilities.

    I still see the 2e railroad as almost universally derided on OSR boards but maybe I am missing the juicy stuff somewhere.

  3. October 10, 2012 at 1:17 am

    I got a good two years out of Stonehell before I had to move away, and the players never made it deeper than the second level. Of course, I used Stonehell as a campaign setting so they were always doing more than exploring. They generally had a reason to go to Stonehell; taking the fight to the raiding hobgoblins, killing a troublesome dragon, or finding a portal that would let them fast travel to get needed help in an invasion. I found this to be a better approach that, “Let’s go explore again this week.”

  4. 4 Peter K.
    October 10, 2012 at 2:41 am

    ” Playtests of Jamie Malisewski’s Dwimmermount dungeon have shown just how little patience people have for empty room after empty room.”


    Clearly I have not played nearly enough Dwimmermount or something.
    My recollection of the only hangout session I managed to make involved at least three encounters in the space of two hours, and a few “empty” rooms whose contents were nonetheless puzzling and intriguing. An atypical sampling?

  5. 5 Charlatan
    October 10, 2012 at 3:18 am

    It’s part of the uneasy fit of a large dungeon project onto a short-term play-test: If the Fellowship never drops a stone down a well, Moria might have seemed empty and boring, too.

  6. 6 Jack Colby
    October 10, 2012 at 3:35 am

    In the game I run we have fun, joke around and laugh even though the dungeon is becoming a big one. And there are empty rooms… nobody complains. I wonder what makes some megadungeons a boring slog and others fun, when they seem to be the same thing on paper? All I can figure is that the players need stuff to interact with, and stuff that actually changes and matters somehow to the ongoing game, charting the course according to the players’ actions. They don’t want to stroll through a museum and look at all the things there that mean nothing and can’t really be used for anything. Though our game has empty rooms, there are other rooms with cool little gizmos and things to fiddle with, as well as NPCs that are running around and gain traction as we play, even get sought out sometimes.

  7. October 10, 2012 at 3:47 am

    Meh – The demise of the Mega-dungeon is greatly exaggerated.

    I think the issue with the things and casual players is a matter of managing player expectations – the characters go in and out of the dungeon and what they remember they remember, the dungeon must be big and complex enough to offer new challenges. Players can’t expect to map and explore every corner or have a terribly linear experience if they only show up one every five session. It seems to help if the DM gives the dungeon a life of its own, so that players feel like stuff might be happening when they’re gone. Dungeon cultures fall and change – NPC parties plunder, but the dungeon is still big enough for new environments if you just climb down the well instead of entering the same darn gate (now spackled with henchmen recruitment fliers and NPC party logos). That’s the point of the Megadungeon to me – an environment that is massive enough for casual play by varied parties of characters and offers an entire living environment.

  8. 8 OtspIII
    October 10, 2012 at 7:10 am

    I’ve heard the whole ‘too many empty rooms’ thing about Dwimmermount a few times and I’ve always been curious about how true it is. My general understanding of solid Megadungeon design is that 1/3 of the rooms should have monsters in them, 1/3 should have something notable/interactive, and 1/3 should exist more or less just for PCs to pass through, and it seemed to hold to that fairly well in the two sessions I’ve played in it. I could never tell if I just got lucky with where I entered or if the people complaining just didn’t like any pacing/map-challenge rooms at all in their dungeons.

  9. October 10, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for the linkback!
    I don’t know if it matters, but I’ve never played or even looked at the electronic versions of Dwimmermount; on my blog I was mostly musing on what I read other people writing and what the guys I play with had said (and that wasn’t Dwimmermount or any other published project specific, either).
    I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to slam people for not ‘loving’ the megadungeon. If six of us sit down at the table and only a couple find the session interesting, we need to either change up the group or change up the game. And I love my current circle of friends, so I would rather change up the game.
    It sounds like the Mule has a great thing going on; color me envious.

  10. 10 Timothy
    October 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    To take some specific criticisms of one megadungeon, and conflate it into an attack on the very concept of megadungeons, is dishonest. If you actually read what people have been saying, there is no way you would make this claim. Also, point out some examples of people longing for 2E railroads – please.

    Otherwise, admit that you are not being honest in your “discussion”.

  11. October 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm


    I hope I didn’t send any angry villagers with torches and pitchforks your way. That certainly wasn’t my intention. Anyone who actually reads your post will get, I think, what you were trying to say. And I never meant to link you to Dwimmermount one way or another. Your post today about fuck-a-diddles was great, by the way–exactly the kind of stuff I love to find in a dungeon, instead of just another six orcs in a ten foot room to fight.


    Shoo, troll. There’s no food for you here.

  12. October 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Ha, no angry villagers. I got three emails after I wrote about megadungeons the other way asking how this related to “Dwimmermount” which left me puzzled — because, well, I guess it applies to Dwimmermount as it applies to any ‘megadungeon,’ but why they were asking me (and not James M.) about Dwimmermount, well, I don’t know.

  13. 13 Kilgore Trout
    October 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    As others have said, criticism of Dwimmermount should not be extrapolated into an attack of Megadungeons. Rappan Athuk kickstarted 3 months ago and was very well received. People rave about ASE and Barrowmaze. The Megadungeon is live and well and railroads still reviled.

  14. 14 Timothy
    October 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Stuuning rebuttal.

    This is an admission that you cannot defend your claim that criticism of dwimmermount is an attack on all megadungeons by the OSR; nor can you provide a single example of OSR bloggers longing for the 2E days of railroads, despite your claiming such.

    But the name calling makes you look very brave and secure.

  15. 15 Charlatan
    October 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    To be fair, Timothy, you may only be trolling on accident via your ungenerous reading of the post. The author is responding to some conversations about the Dwimmermount project that seem like they would apply to any megadungeon in a single session foray: Things don’t “make sense”, there’s a lot of empty rooms, etc. He pivots from this to a discussion of why a different megadungeon project is well-received in the long-term campaign he plays in.

    Your attempt to save the megadungeon from a non-existent threat centered on calling the author “dishonest”, when what you might have said was, “despite the vague character of the self-described ‘rants’ in the Dwimmermount play tests you saw on another blog, I think the criticisms they imply are specific to that project and not megadungeons per se.” Now, that’s also not a really well supported claim, but the post has a very non-aggressive and conversational tone, so it seems like a fair space for you and the author to have a relaxed exchange in which you trade vagaries about megadungeon experiences. Maybe you didn’t like the writing in the post- different strokes- you still don’t need to adopt a confrontational stance in a curt reply, questioning the author’s integrity and sarcastically scare-quoting along the way. Unless you want people to think of you as a troll.

    Put another way: There’s two reasons you didn’t get a “rebuttal”. You were arguing with nobody, and you were rude while you did it. I’m sorry if you didn’t mean to troll, but barring a change in tone, I’m not interested in any further interactions with you, either.

  16. 16 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    October 14, 2012 at 3:33 am

    “A big reason for that is Eric. He’s the best DM I’ve ever played with.”

    *runs away crying*

  17. 17 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    October 14, 2012 at 3:34 am

    More seriously, I’d say, “shrug.” Not everybody was interested in a game of hidden map exploration, even back in the day.

  18. 18 Naked Sam
    October 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I personally think the erosion of how effective megadungeons are to have some validity, but I say this as someone who doesn’t commonly read the collecive OSR blogs and find the wonkiness of the whole endeavor, plus the type of hyper-defensiveness/aggression of Timothy types really annoying.

    It does seem like there was a massive rush to create megadungeons for a while, as a weird way of trying out the hallowed rules of how many empty rooms, etc., should be placed in huge sequences of drawn-up rooms, as mentioned by OtspIII above. Naraoia and the original post may be detecting a shift in interests/realities of players that may have been evident in gamers when the shift to 2e (or earlier, or later) started happening and goofy stuff like Castle Greyhawk got published — it’s hard to keep interest in these huge, non-functional, sprawling messes. The OSR is fanatical in its devotion to its own, and that’s great, but unless certain qualities are met, then a megadungeon is a recipe for extreme frustration. Things like long-term membership among players, regular continuity of play, ability by the players to consolidate maps, etc., which have been mentioned. I am fortunate to be in a situation (naraoia’s own) where these are all present.

    In my mind, many megadungeons are much more fun to read than they would be to play. Otherwise they are chock-a-block, ending up to be generic, worth more to plunder ideas than anything else. The most successful are those where various zones of the dungeon, whether floors or otherwise, are quite different in tone or enemy from one another. I believe the original Rappan Athuk was this way, as were some of the JG products, such as The Dark Tower.

    Otherwise any gravitation toward dungeons, rather than megadungeons, is always attractive to me – present campaign, for its circumstances, excluded. The megadungeon is almost always a vanity project, grandiose in its ambitions, extraordinarily hard to pull off. The OSR’s affection for them is more hopeful than realistic.

  19. October 15, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Naked Sam hits it straight. Sometimes the difference between fun-to-read and fun-to-play crops up really hard in megadungeons.The functional problem of players visualizing/knowing the megadungeon “space” is the real tripping point for enjoyment. New players stepping into this imagined space have a hard time getting up to speed about where everything is and what the references are, while long time players just have a hard enough time knowing where they are going.

    Generally, if a dungeon layout isn’t bare-simple or abstract, most dungeon exploration is pretty reliant on the mappers at the table. This reliance on the map-holders is multiplied when the party is in an extravagantly laid-out megadungeon, where routes and previous exploration might have happened months ago in real table time. While the mapper has to blurt out a shorthand of directions of where the new party exploration is going to happen for the session, the non-mapping players are left with a faint lack of agency as the “mapper-DM transportation trolly” gets things worked out so they can start playing. (Of course Gygax mentions that the players should decide on dungeon objectives ahead of time in the AD&D PHB, but a play group should consider how much time is spent on repititive infrastructure.)

    So I agree that the better megadungeons have defined sections and “flavor-layers” so the whole playing table can get the sense of moving through the space together and not just the poor regular souls who do the mapping. These digestable areas of the dungeons are a common factor with the fun big’uns I have played in.

  20. 20 OtspIII
    October 29, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I will say that the map visualization issue does seem pretty important. Ever since I took over mapping I’ve done a lot to try to figure out how to make our movements through the dungeon more meaningful to all the other players, and it is difficult. Our last few sessions have been weird, but I’m going to start posting maps of our travels through the dungeon to each session summary to try to start letting people get a feel for our map movements at least in retrospect, but ultimately physical constraints make it really hard to let other people get a good sense of what’s going on in play; my map is ultimately just a piece of 8.5×11 paper and only people sitting right next to me can really see it. If we played in someone’s house I’d say that the best option would be for me to hook a laptop or something up to a TV and show everyone where we’re traveling on a digital map.

    Roll20 actually makes this super easy in my weekly megadungeon game on it. The players draw the map themselves on the digital gameboard, and we just play directly on the map they drew. I’m still trying to figure out a way to do something like this at a physical game-table.

  21. February 16, 2013 at 1:13 am

    I know this is thread necromancy, but I’m curious about how you use Roll20’s map feature, OtspIII.

    What if the players draw the map incorrectly? How do you handle it?

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2012

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