Tag Archives: megadungeon

When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax co-created Dungeons & Dragons, he played the game seven times a week. He wrote, “As I worked at home, I did not schedule play sessions, but when a gamer or two dropped in on a day, I made haste to finish immediate work and put on my DM’s hat. Evening games with the regulars were generally scheduled a few hours or a day or two ahead.” Weekend games included 10 to 20 players.

How did Gary referee his ongoing Greyhawk campaign for a cast of characters that changed completely from session to session? (Nowadays, dungeon masters like me stretch to keep one or two absent PCs from upsetting our game’s plot.) How did Gary create material for so many games? (I always scramble to prepare one game a week.) In 1974, as Gary focused on publishing D&D, he began sharing campaign duties with a second referee, Rob Kuntz. (I would never dare attempt collaborating on a campaign with a second dungeon master.)

The secret to all these feats lay in the design of the 12+ level megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Castle Greyhawk

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

Like Gary, D&D co-designer Dave Arneson ran a campaign for a large and fluctuating pool of players. Dave managed with his own megadungeon below Blackmoor Castle.

Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. These megadungeons enabled a style of episodic play that made those original campaigns manageable. Al from Beyond the Black Gate described the advantage well. “The scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to episodic play than for the more common ‘clear the dungeon’ style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign).”

Gary never needed to adjust a session’s difficulty to party size or experience, because players could chose a difficulty by choosing how deep to delve. The game awarded more gold and experience to players who dared the lower levels. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.”

Today, we tout the value of sandbox play, where players can take the game in any direction they want without feeling corralled by some story in the DM’s head. DMs tend to expect sandbox play to require improvisation and in-game adjustments. For instance, the designers worked to make much of the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure play as a sandbox. When I talked to dungeon masters about running it, we always focused on the challenges of preventing the PCs from straying into certain death.

The megadungeon let Dave and Gary to act as referees rather than dungeon masters—that term would not see print until the game’s second supplement Blackmoor in 1975. They could run a game entirely from notes, wandering monster tables, and the whims of the dice. If megadungeon referees choose, their campaigns never needed improvisation or in-game meddling. This gives players more control over their characters’ fate—more player agency—than in typical modern games.

Gary kept preparation manageable. He wrote, “I usually made one-line notes for my dungeon encounters, from around 20 to 25 of same for a typical level done on four-lines-to-the inch graph paper—a few more on five-, six-, or seldom used 8-line graph paper. The other spaces were empty save for perhaps a few traps or transporter areas and the like.” He and Rob Kuntz kept notes. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa, so we winged all of [the campaign management]. Sometimes a map change and encounter key note of something special in nature was made, but not often.”

On page 4 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary made a megadungeon a requirement for play. “A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). ‘Greyhawk Castle,’ for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20’ high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.”

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

Although folks don’t play megadungeons much now, the places remain uniquely suited to episodic play with multiple parties exploring the same space. Scott Fitzgerald Gray ingeniously used those strengths when he wrote the adventure Dead in Thay for a D&D Encounters season. The Encounters program lets players drop in a game store for a night of D&D. Different players may come for any night of play, shuffling each table’s adventuring party.

At first, the program managed these fluctuations by requiring every table to play the same episode in the adventure. The format limited players’ choices to battle tactics.

In Dead in Thay, each table launches their own, unique foray into a megadungeon called the Doomvault. By creating the sort of dungeon that made the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns work, the season rediscovered some of the format’s advantages: episodic play for whoever attends, the freedom of a sandbox where players can change the environment, and manageable cooperation between dungeon masters.

When Shannon Appelcline looked back on the adventure, he wrote, “For the most part, Dead in Thay is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl of the sort you could find back in the ‘70s. However, it presents a more mature, more active dungeon, where the rulers of the realm can react to the players’ actions…and where the players themselves could change an environment.”

Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.

The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.

I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.

Recipes and ingredients

Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.

Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.

To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.

The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.

As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.

Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.

Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.

How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?

Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.

If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.

Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.

Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.

When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.

I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.

I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”

None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.

Attention and recency bias

Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.

Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.

When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.

What happened between 1986 and 1996?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”

Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition

Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.

Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.

No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?

In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.

Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.

My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.

  • The greatest short adventures published after 1985
  • The greatest high-level adventures from any era
  • The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
  • The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures

Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.

Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.

Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign

The original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide included an instruction that seemed pointless to most readers, even though Gary Gygax shouted it in caps. In AD&D, he explained, “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” DMs needed to work with players to record every character’s use of campaign time.

Few dungeon masters bothered with such bookkeeping. The 2nd edition explains the reason. “Time passed in previous adventures has little of no effect on the current session. Next game session, the DM announces, ‘A week or so has passed since you last went out.’ An entire campaign can be played this way.”

When I first read Gygax’s declaration, no one I knew tracked campaign time. Still, thanks to the The Arduin Grimoire, I aspired run a campaign that marked time. In a trilogy of little, brown books, Dave Hargrave explored his Arduin campaign’s lore and house rules. See Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games. For me, the most inspiring passage revealed the scope Dave’s game.

“The Arduinian Campaign has been running about as long as D&D and related role-playing games have existed. Game time has been more than 11 years (of 453 days each). Over 480 player characters have been permanently killed in that time, and many more have had to retire due to wounds or afflictions acquired in campaigning. On the other hand, two characters have become Dukes of the realm and half a dozen are Barons (three landed and collecting taxes. raising troops, etc.). One even managed to woo the youngest daughter of the king and just this ‘end year’ all Arduin celebrated their nuptials. So, even though it is a hard and dangerous world, the rewards are usually more than a bold player can ever expect.”

Unlike Arduin, my campaign featured a mere series of adventures for a single party. To most gamers now, that’s a campaign. But Hargrave, Gygax, and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson ran grand campaigns on a scale I dreamed to achieve. Someday, maybe.

When Arneson and Gygax made the original game, they ran campaigns for player communities who floated in and out of frequent game sessions. The original rules suggested one DM and “from four to fifty players” in a single, fantastical campaign. “The referee to player ratio should be about 1:20.” Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign hosted weekend sessions for up to 20 players, but most parties included fewer players. During the week, Gygax let players drop in for spontaneous sessions. Often, he ran D&D for a single player.

The megadungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor helped make those campaigns work. Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.

Once character’s left the dungeon, they needed to heal at a rate of just one hit point per day. “The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful.” Recovery aside, characters involved themselves in projects like castle building, magical studies, and training. “All of these demands upon game time will force choices upon player characters, and likewise number their days of game life.” Campaign strategy involved spending your characters’ time.

Much of this resembles modern D&D’s downtime system, but with the time spent matched to days on the campaign calendar. A character could not leave for a month of training, and also join tomorrow’s dungeon crawl. The campaign calendar forced regular players to keep a variety of characters. TSR’s first employee, Tim Kask, explains, “If my currently-favorite Fighting Man was laid up recuperating, but word had just come at the tavern that a new menace was in the offing with a promise of loot, I played my next-best-for-the-situation character.”

Time in these campaigns advanced in step with real-world time, keeping all the campaigners on the same schedule. “The recommend time period for individual adventure campaigns is roughly on a one to four basis, with one real week equal to one Game Month.”

Arneson and Gygax’s players mostly stuck to dungeon and wilderness adventures, but other early games imply a bigger canvas. The scope of what players achieved in Dave Hargrave’s Arduin campaign awed me.

In the ideal grand campaign, a bunch of individuals and groups don’t just play in parallel—their actions affect all the other players. Groups change over time. As parties form and reform, characters share information. Rumors from the local inn tell the news of the day. Some players develop rivalries. For instance, Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz raced to be the first to retrieve the Magic User’s Crown from under Castle Greyhawk. Sometimes players unite against common threats.

To describe Arduin, Hargrave seemed to channel Stan Lee. “The Arduinian multiverse has been rocked to its very cosmic core by revolutions, wars, assassinations, royal marriages, and the nearly complete and utter entropic destruction of the entirety of it all in one cataclysmic confrontation between utter evil and everyone/thing else that wanted to survive!”

Actually, Stan Lee may inspire more than just Hargrave’s bombast. Much of the secret sauce that made Marvel comics so successful was that events could ripple between comic book titles. In the corner of panels, little notes from the editor revealed the connections. In the early days, Lee would even coordinate each hero’s schedule between books. By those early standards, if Captain America traveled to Europe, he couldn’t spend the same month with Iron Man in New York.

The title “grand campaign” comes from the first page of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), a game that aimed to beat D&D by supporting a grand style. Designers Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus wrote that C&S emerged when “a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our [D&D] characters. The solution was to develop an all encompassing campaign game in which dungeons and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.”

In 1978, C&S boasted the “most complete rules ever published.” The game covered everything from mass combat, to tournaments, to courtly love—everything that fit in 128 pages of 6-point text.

In the grand campaigns suggested by C&S and Arduin, every player controlled a cadre of characters, including dungeon crawlers, but perhaps also nobles, traders, courtiers on so on. All gain space to follow their goals, and some will reach them. In response to all their actions, the campaign world changes and develops.

In my post on C&S, I had some fun at the game’s expense. Unlike D&D, where players join in parties to adventure, C&S and the grand campaign offers fewer reasons to gather at a table and play together. This limits the style’s practical appeal.

But the biggest limit to the grand campaign comes from the DM’s time. DMs hosting grand campaigns must run a few group sessions a week, plus 1-on-1 sessions for the exploits of nobles, soldiers, and thieves. Then add time for preparation. Who needs sleep?

I do. I have regular games to play and another post to write. Still, the dream of the grand campaign feels as compelling as ever.

The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat

In the sprawling dungeons of the 70s, Dungeons & Dragons players enjoyed an agency they rarely see now. They could choose their difficulty level. Plus, the game world offered a logical reason for that freedom. By fourth edition, players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level, and they learned to ignore the impossible luck of it.

Through the years, D&D’s approach to pitting characters against monsters changed. Each change brought benefits, problems, and something to learn.

In the early D&D game, dungeon explorers chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level underground corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—by delving deeper.

This system gives players a choice that rarely get now, and it added a element of strategy. To lure characters to danger, the game doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. Because most experience came from gold, players needed to delve as far down as they dared to rise in level. For more, see When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.

The concept of the mythic underworld provides a game-world explanation for greater threats appearing at deeper levels.

For campaigns seeking maximum player agency, such designs still work, even outside a dungeon. For example, in 2009, the online Dungeon magazine launched a series of 31 adventures set in the Chaos Scar. The editors called the series a “sandbox setting” in the spirit of Keep on the Borderlands.

The series started with a compelling concept: Long ago, a meteor carrying some malignant force carved the long, wide valley called the Chaos Scar. “Over the centuries, creatures of evil spirit have been drawn to this beacon. The meteor’s dark sentience spurred competition among them so that they fought with one another. The weak were killed or pushed to the edges of the meteor’s influence, while the strong and cruel rose to the top of the pecking order.” The ingenious background explains why the Scar’s dangers increase closer to its center.

“This is a campaign designed from ground zero to be about player choice,” editor Chris Youngs wrote. “The players have the opportunity in this campaign, unlike many others, to really choose their fate. Do they go into a tough cave or an easier one?” The Chaos Scar let characters roam until 11th level.

For the megadungeon under Castle Greyhawk, Gary Gygax relied on terse notes and improvisation to capture a constantly changing underworld. The dungeon defied capture in print. So when he learned that dungeons would sell, he published the adventures he designed for tournaments. These smaller dungeons lacked space to cover a span of difficulty levels. Instead, the adventures aimed to challenge a roster of pregenerated characters. In print, they recommended a party level and size. DMs started selecting or constructing adventures to suit their players’ characters.

This led a trend where players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level. Lucky! Although this happenstance defies a game world explanation, we’ve learned to accept the artifice. Balanced encounters combine a fun challenge with a strong chance of success. As players turned from dungeons to missions launched by hooks and patrons, matching threats to the characters’ power became key.

Even in adventures aimed at a certain party level, Gary and other DMs included harder and easier encounters, but the practice became less common. By third edition, most players became used to always facing threats tailored to their characters. The Dungeon Master’s Guide advised DMs aiming for a natural mix of threats to warn players in advance.

Fourth edition perfected encounter balance. The edition had to because fights took significant preparation and hours at the table. No DM wanted to squander so much time playing out a romp. Players learned to expect balance. The instigators who rush around the dungeon, opening doors and attacking with slight provocation, thrived because encounter balance protected them from the natural consequences of their recklessness.

But some players missed a natural imbalance, and not just players who valued cautious or thoughtful play. Some players missed the highs and lows and surprises that D&D once provided.

Next: Fifth edition, wilderness adventures, and the 5-minute adventuring day

Megadungeons in print and on the web

Perhaps few people play megadungeons, but my look at the era when megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and why few people play them anymore revealed great interest in vast underworlds. So in this post, I present the megadungeons in print or on the web.

To qualify for my mega-list, a dungeon must meet three qualifications. It must be…

  • in print or on the web in a form close to playable.
  • suitable for the focus of an entire campaign from low to high level.
  • too big to clear of traps and monsters, even as the focus of a campaign.

Most of these products attempt to recapture or update the play style of the original campaigns that launched D&D, so many use rules that emulate either original D&D or AD&D. If you prefer advantage, concentration, and armor classes that go up, you can play these dungeons with fifth edition. Just use the monster stats in your new manual and make up any difficulty classes as you go.

Barrowmaze product page
Barrowmaze System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Barrowmaze is a classic, old-school megadungeon.
Typical reviews: “This is a multi-year campaign in a book. It is an obvious labor of love. If this product doesn’t deserve five stars—easily deserve it—then no product deserves it.” – Greg W.

Barrowmaze is nearly a textbook example of how to make a compelling, well-presented dungeon module. – Grognardia

Rational: Underground tombs infested by chaotic cult
Snap reaction: With an emphasis on undead and dungeon factions, will Barrowmaze prove too much of a good thing?
Castle of the Mad Archmage product page
Castle of the Mad Archmage System: Adventures Dark and Deep, other games with the same initials, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Constructed to match reminiscences of Castle Greyhawk.
Typical reviews:Castle of the Mad Archmage is a lot of fun…The problem is that so much of feels either random, unexplainable, or silly.” – Dungeon Fantastic

“Serious old-school aficionados should put the Castle at the top of their shopping lists – Roles and Rules

Rational: The Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants it so.
Snap reaction: A tribute to Gary’s game that is best enjoyed through heavy nostalgia.
Dragon’s Delve
product now unavailable
Dragon's Delve System: d20
Tagline: Created by Monte Cook (co-designer of 3rd-Edition D&D) and written by Super Genius Games for dungeonaday.com
Typical reviews:Dragon’s Delve hits most of the right old school notes. There is in fact a great deal to like about it and I’m not ashamed to admit I may even steal an idea or three from it.” – Grognardia
Rational: Ambient magic? Insane wizards? The mysteries of Dragon’s Delve remain locked from my gaze.
Snap reaction: A mountain of interesting content locked behind the dungeonaday paywall. Update: The only trace of dungeonaday now on the web is an adventure drawn from its content, The Tomb-World of Alak-Ammur.
Castle Triskelion
product page
triskelion System: First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Tagline: Come and get a free dungeon room every day.
Typical reviews: None. You could be the first to review this product.
Rational: A feuding family who practiced abominable sorceries.
Snap reaction: A labor of love offered for free.
Castle Whiterock
product page
Castle Whiterock System: d20
Tagline: The greatest dungeon story ever told.
Typical reviews:Castle Whiterock is an epic endeavor that is the best adventuring product released by any company this year.” – Nathan C.

“The adventure features great encounters, adventure to be had, wonderful villains, great twists in the tale, and many hidden secrets waiting to be uncovered. On the down side, there are some tedious bits.” – Peter I.

Rational: Traps, magic, and monsters accumulated over the castle’s 1200-year history.
Snap reaction: No mere list of rooms, this product builds a campaign with numerous quests around a megadungeon.
Darkness Beneath
product page
The Darkness Beneath System: Original D&D and similar rules
Tagline: A multi-author megadungeon released in installments in Fight On! magazine.
Typical reviews: “The community megadungeon ‘The Darkness Beneath’ has turned out some very good levels, with a single exception.” – Ten Foot Pole
Rational: Undetermined.
Snap reaction: A strong but uneven anthology that ranges from inspired to silly, just like the old-school dungeons it emulates. The cutaway map calls me to adventure.
Dwimmermount
product page
Dwimmermount System: Labyrinth Lord, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: With Dwimmermount, the Golden Age has returned.
Typical reviews: “The very size of Dwimmermount may also be its enemy, a few forays into the place won’t discover much, and the levels get consistently weirder, but start very classically D&D.” – Dungeon of Signs

“Pages upon pages of minutiae.” – Binkystick

Rational: A dungeon set atop a node of primal chaos
Snap reaction: An attempt to recreate a golden-age play style that resists capture in print.
The Emerald Spire
product page
Emerald Spire System: Pathfinder
Tagline: An all-star superdungeon.
Typical reviews: “The superdungeon might feel like a long series of Pathfinder Society dungeons.” – 5-Minute Workday

“Two levels of the Spire really stand out for me and made me want to slice them out of the megadungeon and run them back to back as a one-shot or mini-campaign.” – Tor.com

Rational: An insane creature of immense power living at the bottom level.
Snap reaction: This collection of levels created by all-star contributors probably plays better if you divide the levels into separate dungeons.
Eyes of the Stone Thief
product page
Eyes of the Stone Thief System: 13th Age
Tagline: The Stone Thief rises. Enter it, find its secrets and defeat it–or die trying.
Typical reviews: “A very, very clever idea executed very well.” – The Other Steve

“The book as a whole also gives you the tools and tips to customize [the campaign] for your players.” – Addison Recorder

Rational: The dungeon is alive.
Snap reaction:  A promising example of the living-dungeon concept, backed with advice on running and customizing parts or as a campaign.
Grande Temple of Jing
product page
Grand Temple of Jing System: Pathfinder
Tagline: The dungeoncrawl that rules them all!
Typical reviews: None. This product hasn’t been released yet.
Rational: A temple to a trickster god
Snap reaction: With a catch-all concept and many contributors, expect a trap- and puzzle-filled dungeon loaded with ideas.
Greyhawk Ruins
product page
Greyhawk Ruins System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: Enter the infamous ruins of Castle Greyhawk, the most formidable and expansive dungeon on Oerth.
Typical reviews:Greyhawk Ruins may not be a particularly inspired example of a megadungeon, but it is a megadungeon and I give it points for that alone.” – Grognardia

“A classic, illogical ‘gilded hole’ dungeon.” – Lawrence Schick, Heroic Worlds

Rational: The wizard Zagag’s mad experiments
Snap reaction: The product every player dreamed of in the 70s, released in 1990 when our expectations had changed.
Rappan Athuk
product page
Rappan Athuk System: Swords & Wizardry, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Nothing more and nothing less than a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl.
Typical reviews: “A TON of interesting encounters and levels. It’s also maddeningly confusing in places” – Ten Foot Pole

“I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by a couple of levels, but at the same time, I’ve really, really liked several ideas herein.” – Thilo G.

Rational: A complex created by refugee priests of Orcus
Snap reaction: Suited to old-school DMs who somehow recruit the rare players who enjoy dungeon-only campaigns, high body counts, and unwinnable final encounters.
The Ruins of Undermountain
The Ruins of Undermountain System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: The deepest dungeon of them all.
Typical reviews: “The dungeon itself is barely detailed, with only the major level features written up.” – Dungeon Fantastic
Rational: Another insane wizard
Snap reaction: An outline for a DM determined to create a megadungeon in the Forgotten Realms and willing to dream up the details.

Stonehell
product page
Stonehell System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time.
“Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is probably the best megadungeon published to date in any form” – Grognardia

Stonehell takes a curious middle ground between detailed set pieces, and leaving some room descriptions sparse to allow for DM improvisation.” – Dreams in the Lich House

“This is certainly one of the best works to come out of the OSR. It’s a megadungeon and it’s close to perfect.” – Ten Foot Pole

Rational: A prison where the pain and suffering attracted a powerful, chaotic entity.
Snap reaction: Highly touted by old-school fans. Adopts a concise presentation inspired by 1-page dungeon design.
World’s Largest Dungeon
product page
World's Largest Dungeon System: d20
Tagline: Over 16,000 Encounters – A mammoth dungeon unlike any other! Every monster in the SRD – And a few you’ve never seen before!
Typical reviews: “Nothing remarkable or all that memorable about it” – Jeremy Reaban

“They don’t expect you to actually run the World’s Largest Dungeon as one big dungeon. Considering that’s the only reason that anyone would actually buy the product, I find that pretty stupid.” – oriongates

Rational: A giant prison for evil.
Snap reaction: Not so much an adventure as a publishing stunt.

 

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

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax developed Dungeons & Dragons, he played the game seven times a week. He wrote, “As I worked at home, I did not schedule play sessions, but when a gamer or two dropped in on a day, I made haste to finish immediate work and put on my DM’s hat. Evening games with the regulars were generally scheduled a few hours or a day or two ahead.” Weekend games included 10 to 20 players.

How did Gary referee his ongoing Greyhawk campaign for a cast of characters that changed completely from session to session? (Nowadays, dungeon masters like me stretch to keep one or two absent PCs from upsetting our game’s plot.) How did Gary create material for so many games? (I always scramble to prepare one game a week.) In 1974, as Gary focused on publishing D&D, he began sharing campaign duties with a second referee, Rob Kuntz. (I would never dare attempt collaborating on a campaign with a second dungeon master.)

The secret to all these feats lay in the design of the 12+ level megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Castle Greyhawk

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle

Like Gary, D&D co-designer Dave Arneson ran a campaign for a large and fluctuating pool of players. Dave managed with his own megadungeon below Blackmoor Castle.

Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. These megadungeons enabled a style of episodic play that made those original campaigns manageable. Al from Beyond the Black Gate described the advantage well. “The scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to episodic play than for the more common ‘clear the dungeon’ style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign).”

Gary never needed to adjust a session’s difficulty to party size or experience, because players could chose a difficulty by choosing how deep to delve. The game awarded more gold and experience to players who dared the lower levels. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.”

Today, we tout the value of sandbox play, where players can take the game in any direction they want without feeling corralled by some story in the DM’s head. DMs tend to expect sandbox play to require improvisation and in-game adjustments. For instance, the designers worked to make much of the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure play as a sandbox. When I talked to dungeon masters about running it, we always focused on the challenges of preventing the PCs from straying into certain death.

The megadungeon let Dave and Gary to act as referees rather than dungeon masters—that term would not see print until the game’s second supplement Blackmoor in 1975. They could run a game entirely from notes, wandering monster tables, and the whims of the dice. If megadungeon referees choose, their campaigns never needed improvisation or in-game meddling. This gives players more control over their characters’ fate—more player agency—than in typical modern games.

Gary kept preparation manageable. He wrote, “I usually made one-line notes for my dungeon encounters, from around 20 to 25 of same for a typical level done on four-lines-to-the inch graph paper—a few more on five-, six-, or seldom used 8-line graph paper. The other spaces were empty save for perhaps a few traps or transporter areas and the like.” He and Rob Kuntz kept notes. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa, so we winged all of [the campaign management]. Sometimes a map change and encounter key note of something special in nature was made, but not often.”

On page 4 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary made a megadungeon a requirement for play. “A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). ‘Greyhawk Castle,’ for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20’ high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.”

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

Although folks don’t play megadungeons much now, the places remain uniquely suited to episodic play with multiple parties exploring the same space. Scott Fitzgerald Gray ingeniously used those strengths when he wrote the adventure Dead in Thay for a D&D Encounters season. The Encounters program lets players drop in a game store for a night of D&D. Different players may come for any night of play, shuffling each table’s adventuring party.

At first, the program managed these fluctuations by requiring every table to play the same episode in the adventure. The format limited players’ choices to battle tactics.

In Dead in Thay, each table launches their own, unique foray into a megadungeon called the Doomvault. By creating the sort of dungeon that made the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns work, the season rediscovered some of the format’s advantages: episodic play for whoever attends, the freedom of a sandbox where players can change the environment, and manageable cooperation between dungeon masters.

When Shannon Appelcline looked back on the adventure, he wrote, “For the most part, Dead in Thay is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl of the sort you could find back in the ‘70s. However, it presents a more mature, more active dungeon, where the rulers of the realm can react to the players’ actions…and where the players themselves could change an environment.”

Next: One surprising reason Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons