Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Big Damn Dungeons

The original working title of this post was "Mega, my ass!" But that was way too confrontational for the vibe I like to maintain around here. Like my previous post on 3-D dungeon design, I'm not trying to call anyone out here. God forbid Joe or Mike do anything different on my account. And those of you who have mastered the art of painting dungeons on grains of rice don't owe me a damn thing. I just want to offer an alternative. And that alternative goes something like "Holy friggin' crap! How big did the DM make this level?!"

How big can we make a dungeon and get away with it? I think the answer is a lot bigger than we usually work with. Upping the scale of the dungeon map obviously costs in the ability to graph fine detail, so just deciding that one square equals 30' isn't going to get the job done. Here are a couple ways you can make the dungeon bigger:

Here's a page from First Fantasy Campaign, Arneson's not-completely-successful attempt to organize his campaign notes for public consumption. The level 4 Castle Blackmoor map (at 10' per square) nestles into this larger scale (30'/square) map of the tunnels in and around the castle. The cool thing is that I'm not sure the players have any way of knowing when they've left the dungeon proper. Here's an easy peasy example of how you can use this at home:

Levels 1a through 1e and 2a are all basically one whole page in size, at 10' square. Level 1x is a "crossroads", which you could flesh out as a mini level. One or two dungeon geomorphs would probably be all you need for 1x.

Another way you could got in making your dungeons bigger is to do a "dungeon wilderness". I first encountered this idea in Uncle Gary's D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth. Dig it:

Whole dungeons can easily fit into one hex when your scale is one mile each! Obviously the dungeon becomes an even bigger logistical challenge if you're going to underground for weeks or months. Wise players might want to adopt a protocol like "If we go 1000' with no change in a corridor, we immediately turn around. Exploring that passage can wait for a dedicated expedition."

Another nifty example of a vast underground wilderness (almost Journey to the Center of the Earth in scope) is the Underworld of the computer game Ultima V. I wasn't fond of U5. It seemed like a step down from the pinnacle achieved in its immediate predecessor. But the first time my rowboat went over a waterfall and ended up in the renfair fantasy equivalent of the Land of the Lost? Priceless. To this day I still fear mongbats.

Finally here's a cheap trick for making your dungeon more spacious:

The main difficulty here is that in the middle of a run you might forget that room 10 and room 7 aren't really 30 feet away from each other. That can be very important to remember for teleport, locate object, rings of x-ray vision, etc. For low level dungeons it's not as critical. My own copy of Keep on the Borderlands is marked up to add about 300' between many of the caves.


  1. Cool post. This one deserves to get put into the "good posts" archive somewhere.

  2. Isn't this just location based design? I've been working on my reverse mega dungeon map over the last week and came to similar conclusions but figured that it was just stringing together a bunch of locations which have just a few points of interest at each.

  3. I'm running a mega dungeon in my group at the moment where the players are trapped inside it and the goal is to get out.

  4. I like the "this box refers to page N" idea.

    Nest it. Page N has another box referring to page M.

    Don't fuss too much about scale. Maybe just treat each page as having the same scale - it could be a Lovecraftian dungeon with twisted alien geometries, after all.

    Loop. Page 1 refers to page 2 refers to page 3 refers to page 1.

    Fractal dungeon!

  5. "Isn't this just location based design?"


  6. Loop. Page 1 refers to page 2 refers to page 3 refers to page 1.

    Fractal dungeon!

    We call that justification for homicide.

    Actually, this is very helpful to me. I've been trying to work out for a coon's age now how to map an entire semi-ruined dwarf city, and this seems to be the way to go.

    All I need now is two weeks off and a really big tasty beverage and I'm all set to hammer that thing out.

  7. See, this is where us SciFi and Superhero GMs get to point and chuckle in amusement and say, "Aww, isn't that cute. The Fantasy GMs are working on "a" Megadungeon."

    Space Stations the size of small moons, Moons converted into Battlewagons, 3 mile long starships and an abandoned planet-wide city are par for the course in the games my friends and I run (and have been running for years thank you kindly). In one Star Trek adventure I created back in '87 (and have run a few times since) the players explore and become trapped in a an alien artifact/space station nearly 3 AUs in length.

    Just teasin' with that opening but its true, I could never quite get behind the 'a Megadungeon is Special' concept when I'm often designing star systems.

    Barking Alien

  8. Hey BA; you map out that solar system on graph paper using a scale of 10' to the square, and I'll be impressed. ;-)