Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

In my last post I wrote about how Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session.

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons.

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

The Ruins of UndermountainIn 1991, TSR finally published The Ruins of Undermountain, its first megadungeon in print. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a box kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Kicking in endless doors to fight and loot turned from fresh and thrilling to a tiresome slog. Today, avid D&D players can claim that they don’t like dungeons or can say that their best games lack any combat. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. See “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.” With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A world of fantasy offers plenty of possible justifications for the strange things in the underworld. More on that in my next post.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can being the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

Next: The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

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29 Responses to Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

  1. Pedro Leone says:

    An awesome article, as always. Thanks!

    • I’m enjoying this series. B4 The Lost City by Tom Moldvay is often overlooked as an example of a published TSR megadungeon-type adventure – 10 underground levels, 100 rooms, leading down to a BBG (Zargon) and then an underground city. It’s also a good example of using factions as you mentioned above, as there are followers of three different gods scheming to take over.

      • DM David says:

        Hi Zenopus,
        I’m pleased to have a comment from someone who’s blog I enjoy. Speaking of Red Nails, B4 The lost City captured the story’s flavor in a classic adventure.

        Dave

    • DM David says:

      Hi Pedro,
      Glad you liked it. Kind words like yours keep me posting.

      Dave

  2. Alphastream says:

    The issue with Undermountain (and most megadungeons) may be that it provides very little for the DM with which to create a great experience. The boxed set lacks good ways to keep players entertained for long, unless everyone is really new and thrilled by simply rolling dice and meeting new monsters. Any den of kobolds is great when it is your first. For your 10th? You want a bit more!

    An example may be Greyhawk Ruins, published a year before the Undermountain boxed set. It is surely a megadungeon, but it shows a greater attempt to provide compartmentalized experiences and explanations for how the dungeon works years after the mad wizard has departed. I found it a more satisfying product to run and also to read.

    As Zenopus notes, older classics often feel like megadungeons and can be pretty big. Pharaoh is a great example… but that’s already making the same point. Pharaoh is great because it was written by people who wanted to see more than just rooms. They wanted reasons to be present and felt and for a narrative and plot to shine. The later adventures in the Desert of Desolation increasingly accomplish that.

    We can also see how Undermountain and Greyhawk Ruins were redone. Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk adds more meta-plot. The 4E version of Undermountain adds three very fun plots a DM can use as introductions into the megadungeon, even crossing over one another, and makes the product easier to use (and more fun).

    Count me as another DM who doesn’t care for the megadungeon. Give me mega-story!

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphastream,

      When I wrote this post, I overlooked Greyhawk Ruins. Thanks for clearing the record. I sacked my research staff, so I may start tweeting more random questions that inform future posts.

      I have never read the Desert of Desolation adventures, but I want too. They seem highly regarded and may represent advances in dungeon design.

      In the review on the D&D classics site, Shannon Appelcline gushes about Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk. I have to get a copy of that.

      Dave

  3. Thanks for the history lesson. Interesting read. I used to have the Ruins of Undermountain boxed set, but I never once used it in its intended campaign setting form. I just liked having the massive, sprawling dungeon maps on hand for when I needed a quick build or didn’t feel like making up a maze of my own. I’d just photocopy the section(s) I wanted, black out the squares to make it smaller, and modify accordingly. These days there’s plenty of software programs that do that sort of thing as well.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Geoffrey,
      Reusing the maps as you did seems like a way to save time and draw inspiration. Sometimes a map evokes more interesting ideas than appear in the room key. Thanks for commenting!

      Dave

  4. Brent says:

    Thanks for the blog posts David,

    Awesome reading as usual. I played D&D the boxed sets and then AD&D so much of these writings referring to the old stuff puts a smile on my face as I remember some of it. Then life got busy and I quit playing til 5th Ed. came out and I found myself wanting to “get back into it”.

    Peace

    • DM David says:

      Brent,
      I love the words of encouragement. Thanks! I have lived through a time away from the game and that urge to get back into it. I suggest seeing if any nearby stores host D&D encounters.

      Dave

  5. Christopher Beattie says:

    I started out back in the early 80’s as Gary had originally thought by making things up as I went along. I was young then and as a college student had access to a ton of graph paper. (I think the biggest original motivation for a “mega dungeon” was the mega dungeon drawing was the simplest form of artwork you can do to get something that you can be impressed with.) Let’s face it; this was a lot of work. So the mega dungeon models seemed to be less work. But it turned out to be a lot of work to memorize, since you were internalizing it as you were developing it.

    Two things happened. First the non combat portion of the game kept being reduced in scope. Traps and secret doors became so mundane they were automatic. It was just fill the rooms with combat situations that didn’t make sense as a whole. Second, the model of the six humanoids started to go out of favor. The Paladin wanted his horse, others wanted other things that just didn’t go well in the “dungeon” and of course the druid was always bored. Thus a change to smaller dungeons where getting there was a significant part of the adventure which changed to just the part of getting there.

    • Alphastream says:

      You just reminded me of the hours I spent (sometimes in class) sketching out dungeons on graph paper… the vast majority never used. It was just fun to think of the ideas. Over time it was more fun to think up plot and ways to encourage PC roleplaying than to work on dungeon appearance!

    • DM David says:

      Hi Christopher,
      Thanks for commenting! The evolution of your game sound a lot like mine. The game expanded into a wider world. As for druids and PCs with mounts, perhaps I shouldn’t have roasted them back in 9 popular things in D&D that I fail to appreciate.

      Dave

  6. Ben. says:

    I ran Ruins of Undermountain many times for groups in college and high school a hojillion years ago, and only once did a group ever get to the second floor, and rarely more than 400 feet from the entrance. Once, they didn’t even get out of the tunnel that dropped down from the inn to the dungeon. It often worked better for one-shots and test runs to see if someone was a good fit for the group. Many of the players were repeat visitors, though, and while they did enjoy the fact that I kept elements from visit to visit, the “noise draws other monsters as you’re fighting” aspect got rough.

    -Ben.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Ben,
      Thanks for commenting. When I researched this post, I found lots of accounts of megadungeon campaigns that stalled on the first level, so your experience seems typical. I’m glad your game still visited undermountain from time to time.

      Dave

  7. Bob Brinkman says:

    It is worth noting that Gary’s son Ernie is releasing an old school mega dungeon in March and late next year plans in releasing the Hobby Shop Dungeon, created and run at the old Dungeon Hobby Shop.

  8. Dale Donovan says:

    There are many non-Gygax examples of classic, old-school megadungeons. TEGEL MANOR and DARK TOWER are just two.

    Further, Undermountain sold very well for many years, leading not only to 4 other UM products but a long line of megadungeon products including THE NIGHT BELOW, DRAGON MOUNTAIN, and several more.

    Saying Undermountain and megedungeons failed is simply wrong.

    Others have already pointed out some modern examples; EMERALD SPIRE also comes to mind.

    • Alphastream says:

      According to employees, it is generally a good assumption that a boxed set did poorly profit-wise. But, I think the reason to say that the approach “failed” is that the game has clearly moved away from the idea of a ‘bunch of dungeon space where monsters are basically packed in to be killed’. Where that was once a fairly dominant style, now we see it as a rarity. Even the dungeons that have a large size and a classic-feeling layout are now more logical in the monster population and have a strong plot with hooks to stimulate the PC narrative.

      • Dale Donovan says:

        Hi Alphastream; thanks for the thoughtful reply.

        According to this employee, I can tell you that TSR did scores of boxed sets; it was one of the primary formats from the early ’80s through to the mid ’90s. Assuming the format was not profitable is ludicrious; why keep doing them if they’re all losing you money?

        Also, most of the cost of a product comes from creating that product: the writing, editing, art, production, utilities, etc. With any product that’s successful enough to be reprinted, the profit margin goes up significantly because the only costs the reprint is incurring is that of the printing itself (plus shipping, etc.)

        Now, talking about play-styles rather than physical formats, the term “dungeon crawl” may be more apt than “megadungeon” since we’ve already seen that megadungeons are still being produced today.

        The dungeon-crawl style of kicking in the door, killing the monsters, and taking their loot as the end-all of an RPG has evolved as we’re all aware. Roleplaying, meta-plots, and story-enhancing mechanics/games are much more prevalent now, and I think that’s a good thing. But attributing this natural evolution to the supposed “failure” of a physical format is specious at best.

        • Alphastream says:

          Several employees around the time when WotC purchased TSR said that when the WotC team did a full-cost accounting they found that many products were losing money. A number of products, from Planescape’s boxed set to Dark Sun flip books, have been said to have lost money on every sale because they were so expensive to make and no one had done proper accounting. Sean Reynolds was quoted as saying the Birthright boxed set lost money and Ryan Dancey loudly talks about the warehouse full of unsold items dating back many years, when he was put in charge of figuring out inventory values.

          Undoubtedly, some of the tales are wrong. I put limited stock in Dancey, for example. But, there are enough accounts of this and the few contradictory ones I have heard say it was not always the case.

          • Dale Donovan says:

            Hey,

            I’m not going to confront anybody on numbers or profit/loss on this or that, but will merely note that it’s very popular to crap on post-Gary TSR and its business failures.

            The upper management was far from perfect; in fact, they often managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They did understand accounting tho (they were in it for the money, after all), and until the last 3 years of its existence, TSR always made money. A combination of factors caused those losses and the company’s purchase/rescue by Peter Adkison.

            Further, much of the actual operations of the company was done by folks who were very smart and very passionate about the market and the game. They were gamers; intimating that they lacked the ability to put out products that were profitable is an insult to them and all the hard work they did.

            That’s all I’m saying. There’s a new installment of the blog up, so I’m off to read that. Thanks.

          • Alphastream says:

            No insult meant. Sorry if it came out that way. I’m very appreciative of everyone in this hobby.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Dale,
      Thanks for commenting! I love seeing a former Dragon magazine editor and a designer with your resume weigh in here. When I wrote of megadungeons, I thought of 10+ level dungeons intended as the focus of an entire campaign. (Then I proceeded to muddy my definition by citing examples like the Banewarrens, which seems too small.)

      I’m not sure Tegel Manor fits my criteria, but another look at the manor’s amazing map might make me reconsider. Around 1978, I joined a campaign centered on Tegel Manor. For a lot of the reasons I described in my post, that game sputtered.

      Many megadungeons have seen print, especially in the wake of the d20 boom and the old-school resurgence. Next week, I’ll make a post of my list and spell out my criteria.

      Despite all the megadungeons in print, I fear that few see much actual play. Ever since I saw the Skull mountain cross-section in the 1977 Basic Set, the megadungeon concept has enchanted me. But I suspect that like me, most buyers browse them for inspiration or to capture a bit of nostalgia. I know I’ll need another 100 years to play all the adventures on my shelves—assuming no one publishes more that strike my fancy. A megadungeon can work today, but they seem to demand a campaign rather then just a few sessions, so the barrier to entry seems that much higher.

      Dave

  9. Alphastream says:

    And that’s not to say that we can’t have a blast with that old megadungeon style. We’ve seen some attempts, such as the World’s Largest Dungeon, Rapan Athuk (including Kickstarter rebirths) and various others that show up. Or, the Fourthcore movement of having a very classic take on deathtrap dungeons. But, that’s a small minority of the play today. (Again, nothing wrong with enjoying that kind of play!)

  10. Murkfury says:

    I stumbled from Facebook onto your blog and really enjoy your DnD perspective. Keep up the excellent work and I look forward to more.

  11. Matty says:

    It seemed that at some point around the end of the century, maybe towards the end of 2nd edition, there seemed to be a shortage of playable material. There was a surplus of Forgotten Realms lore, and some terrific boxed sets, but overall there weren’t many new modules or dungeons (those we did get, though, were very good). It was quite different from the early days of D&D. I would very much like to have seen more dungeons. I converted much 1st edition material to the Realms – the only problem being most of my players had ran through it all before.

    Glad to see Mr. Donovan mention Night Below; it remains one of my favourite boxed sets of all-time, a classic of the genre, and I dearly wish Carl Sargeant had stuck around and done a few more.

  12. Reverance Pavane says:

    The best way to use a megadungeon is really as a setting environment. There may be a whole metaplot that covers the entire reason for the structure (usually expressed as some ultimate prize located in the depths), but there should be lots and lots of stories involved in the actual megadungeon environment. And the best of doing this is as a living entity – that is the megadungeon develops in conjunction with the players explorations of it.

    One big advantage that the classic megadungeons had was that they were all closely associated with civilisation. That is, if you got out of the dungeon you were (reasonably) safe and could resupply easily, making them quite easy to run – generally the adventure started when you went in through the front door (although a good megadungeon didn’t just have one way in (as well as having multiple paths through it, including easy ways to “level-appropriate” encounters). This allowed them to be a very easy way of starting a campaign. And as they ran the area around them grew more and more defined by the player’s interactions with it.

    [Greyhawk’s World of Flanaess is said to have developed from adventurers using the teleport portal on Level 9 of Castle Greyhawk (which sends people going through it “to the far side of the world”) and the adventurers’ journeys back to Greyhawk.]

  13. Sasha Bilton says:

    I just paused running my 5e Dwimmermount megadungeon campaign after running it every other week for 2 years solid. It’s a fantastic OSR dungeon that’s easily converted to other rules, and I heartily recommend it. I’ve paused though because I want to play a bit more myself, and to run another, grim fantasy investigative 5e arc for awhile.

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