Megadungeons: Drama Works Best When There Are Contrasting Moods

Today’s Musing is part of this month’s RPG Blog Carnvial about megadungeons is brought to you by RPT reader Ydars who wrote in response to my recent piece about how Dang Megadungeons Break My Heart.

He’s got some great ideas I want to share with you:

Dear Johnn,

Megadungeons are difficult beasts to run because they tend to lack emotional variety. Tension and danger are always high. Drama works best when there are contrasting moods. That’s hard to achieve when PCs spend every day under Castle Greyhawk.

I use megadungeons like Tolkien used Moria. They are big, they are nasty, and they affect the entire area around them.

You only go into one for a specific purpose. And then you hotfoot out again as fast as possible. I prefer to use them for 1-3 sessions max, and then the PCs emerge and do something else.

Megadungeons are centrepieces of other above-ground sandbox-based environments. They feature fairly often in-game, but they are exceptional elements, not the entire campaign.

Here are some hooks I’ve used to get the megadungeon into play without it becoming the exclusive focus:

Food Run

Denizens of the megadungeon emerge and begin plundering livestock or kidnapping travellers. The resolution of this can be a simple rescue or monster bash. Or it can involve understanding why this has just started happening now. What has changed inside the megadungeon to cause monsters to emerge?

Deadline

The megadungeon is the only way to get somewhere before a deadline. All the passes are blocked by snow/sandstorms at this time of year, or there are no other ways to get to a certain place except through the dungeon.

Rite of Passage

An NPC has entered the dungeon as part of a rite of passage and has failed to emerge. Perhaps kings or nobles have to prove their worth by recovering an item from within. This is part of a larger point whereby megadungeons can get incorporated into the culture of surrounding lands.

MacGuffin

An heirloom or item is located inside the dungeon and must be recovered. This may be knowledge (a book, scroll, carving), a resource (mushrooms, crystals, glass) or even a body or bodies of the fallen.

The Oracle

An oracle is located inside the dungeon. A sentient pool of water, a carving on a wall, or anything else non-movable. This oracle is knowledgeable and can answer questions or grant visions. It might also cure diseases. For real fun, make the oracle mobile, perhaps as part of some gigantic mechanism or on a walking colossus or floating around a canal system on a barge.

Power Source

An NPC emerges from the megadungeon greatly changed and gifted with enormous power. To challenge this new threat, someone must go back in and find the source of the NPC’s new power and determine its nature.

Grinding through an entire megadungeon taxes player and GM creativity, and drains emotional resources. It also firmly fixes many players into ‘game mode’ rather than ‘roleplaying mode’.

This is often because roleplaying can lead to non-optimal choices more likely to bring unsatisfying consequences (i.e., death or injury) for the character when danger is high.

* * *

I agree with Ydars and love these hooks.

Incorporating megadungeons as mission-based settings PCs can revisit gives you all the possibilities of such mysterious and dangerous places — without the boredom.

Thanks for the tips, Ydars!

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Johnn Four

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