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5 Reasons Most D&D Players Stopped Exploring Megadungeons

Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. Megadungeons span enough rooms and levels to become the focus of an entire campaign without ever being fully explored. 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. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.)

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

1. 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. (See 9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.)

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.

In 1990, TSR finally published WGR1 Greyhawk Ruins, its first megadungeon in print. “There are more than two dozen levels of horror and treasures. Run into brutal foes and gain uncountable wealth-nearly 1,000 separate room descriptions in all!” Gary had left TSR five years earlier, so fans hoping to explore his actual creation felt disappointed. James M. Ward and other veterans of the Grayhawk campaign still at TSR gave insights, but the dungeon even lacked the Great Stone Face Enigma of Grayhawk that Gary himself drew for the first D&D supplement.

The Ruins of Undermountain followed 7 months later. 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 book kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

2. 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.

3. 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. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage rates as my favorite megadungeon in print, but when I ran it, the group longed for a story and for motivations beyond a hunger for treasure.

4. Megadungons can feel monotonous. Even the biggest megadungeon only shows a tiny corner of the giant canvas that D&D worlds can offer. In a campaign limited to a single dungeon, kicking in endless doors to fight and loot can start fresh and thrilling but often becomes a tiresome slog. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

5. 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 Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.) 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 and roleplaying 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 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 bring the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

How much description should a dungeon key include?

The conventional Dungeons & Dragons adventure includes a dungeon key describing numbered locations on a map. When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax created his first dungeon under Castle Greyhawk, he usually wrote a 1-line note for each room. These notes served as more than just Gary’s reminders to himself. He and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz shared the notes. For more, see “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.”

Early published D&D adventures such as Palace of the Vampire Queen adopted the same terse style.

Tegel Manor and minimal descriptions

Tegel ManorWhen Judges Guild founders Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen published Tegel Manor (1977), its rooms featured minimal descriptions:

B8 25’x16’x20’H Picture on south wall depicts living battle scene. Arrow flies out of picture every 4 r. Arrows stuck everywhere.

B9 25’x24’x20’H Dire wolves head E Wall has Ring of Mammal Control in nose. Stuffed Elf, Giant Ant, boar, etc.

In 1978, my friend Gordon tried running Tegel Manor, but the campaign fizzled after his first session. Young Gordon lacked the experience to turn a list of creatures, clutter, and spooky effects into something fun. His manor played as a dreary slog.

In Dragon magazine issue 27, Bob Bledsaw wrote, “Originally we had some bad feedback which indicated that judges felt that the actual description of dungeons was their ‘domain’ and all they desired was a very skeletal framework with the more time-consuming level details worked out. We learned quickly and now design to allow the judge to delete (or modify) that which doesn’t suit the tenor of his play.

Gary Gygax sets the standard

Gary started publishing adventures with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). He included generous descriptions for every location, even the rooms with little to interest players.

CHIEF’S CHAMBER: This room is hung with rugs and skins and there are hides on the floor. There is a bed, 2 chairs, a small table with a tun of cheap wine on it, an old shield and some of the chief’s weapons (in the corner), a chest with his clothing, and other clothing hanging on pegs. A thick chain (for his cave bear) is set into one wall. Nothing of value is in the place.

Gary’s longer descriptions set the pattern for virtually every adventure to follow.

Longer descriptions

When Gamescience updated Tegel in 1989, they expanded the descriptions. The bedroom with the battle scene gets the following description:

B8 BEDROOM (25’x16’x20’H): Opening into the side hallway that leads from the Master Gallery to the Whistling Hall, this room would appear to have been trapped, and to have claimed a victim already. The door stands ajar and a corpse sprawls partway out into the hall, with an arrow protruding from its skull. Two more arrows are lodged in the wall beyond. Any who examine the room further will find a fascinating sight: The wall opposite the door is entirely covered by a vast depiction of a fearsome battle scene—and the picture is alive! Not only does it continue to move, but every fourth turn another arrow flies out of the picture in a random direction. The other walls of the room bristle with arrows stuck in the woodwork, the bedding, other pictures (one of which—a portrait—is bleeding!).

Longer descriptions free DMs from a need to invent details at the table. Even if you have a knack for description, the ideas that spring to mind first will steer toward the obvious—likely the most familiar and blandest ideas.

The update turns the curiosity of the arrow-shooting picture into a possible trap for players to investigate. The bleeding portrait adds another spooky detail. The fuller description makes the room more fun than the version Gordon ran.

On the other hand, the description of the taxidermist’s bedroom adds some color, but little play value.

B9 BEDROOM (2S’x24’x20’H): Entering this room off the Master Gallery, one is immediately overcome by the strong animal musk that clings to the chamber. A stuffed elk stands in one corner, while heads of boar, dire wolf, great cats and other fierce beasts fill the walls, along with hunting bows and spears, all heavily layered in dust. How one could sleep in such a room without keeping a bonfire going is questionable, especially since the eyes of all heads seem to glimmer and follow you around the room.

This description takes a good, middle sentence and pads it like a school paper stretched to an assigned length. The custom of longer description encourages authors to write something even when they have little to add. The format makes authors feel obligated to describe the shelves and pegs in an empty closet. I have quotes from published adventures. Don’t force me to include them.

Matching description to a location’s purpose

A location’s purpose in the game should also figure into the length of its descriptions. If the player characters meet the sheriff about a wanted poster, no one needs an item-by-item inventory of her kitchen. Even the kitchen in the giant chief’s steading only merits a sentence. In the unlikely event that players care about pots and pans, Gordon can improvise.

The Curse of Strahd adventure lavishes detail on every location. The homes of notable NPCs get pages of room descriptions. To be fair, players might explore some of these rooms and author Chris Perkins fills them with creepy, moody details. But unless your players treat social calls like dungeon crawls, they will never enter the Burgomaster’s scullery, much less care about his spooky spatula. As I read the adventure, many locations interested me until I considered how players might experience them. Often then, I  realized that nothing would bring players to the location. I wonder if any DMs led players to explore village houses like dungeons because the places’ descriptions seemed to invite that mode of play?

An avalanche of description does more than squander page count. It buries many great details might actually enter play. For example, in my Curse of Strahd game, every time I needed to find information about the players’ ally Victor Wachter, I needed to find him buried in the page-long description of his workroom in the 5-page description of his father’s mansion. (I have an idea: Trade 2 pages of mansion for 2 pages of index.)

Boxed, read-aloud text

Even though I seldom read-aloud text verbatim, boxed text consolidates and identifies features that require description. I like box text, but not every location needs it. Curse of Strahd includes it for every location. The descriptions are evocative, but DMs who dutifully present the box text for all the empty rooms in a place like the Argynvostholt dungeon will bore players.

Clearly, writing box text for the endless, gloomy rooms in Curse of Strahd caused Chris Perkins to collapse weeping into his keyboard. His follow-up, Storm King’s Thunder, omits almost all read-aloud text. Find a happy middle, Chris.

For more on boxed text, see “Picturing the dungeon – boxed text.”

The influence of one-page dungeons

A few modern adventures skip long room descriptions. Michael Curtis, author of the well-reviewed Stonehell megadungeon follows a style pioneered for one-page dungeons. Curtis explains that the format provides “the minimum amount of information needed to run the dungeon, allowing the referee to customize the adventure to his own (and his players’) tastes.”

stonehell level 1AStonehell dungeon presents each level on 2-page spread, with most rooms getting a just a couple of lines. Features that deserve special attention get descriptions in sidebars. (You can download a free, 6-page sample of Stonehell.)

Even a novice DM could run Stonehell cold, but I wonder if the sparse details offer enough to bring the adventure to life.

The ideal dungeon description

My ideal dungeon description would adopt the best of both worlds. I want a map overlayed with notes and matched with an abbreviated key on the same page. At the table, the short key offers an easy reference. The latrines, empty bedrooms, and such can get the one line they deserve. More interesting locations can break out into a second, expanded key.

The length of descriptions should match the way players will engage a location. If sofas, throne-like chairs, and urns appear in the kindly widow’s salon, skip the box text. If they appear in the Tomb of Horrors, keep typing.

Descriptions should focus on telling details and plot-critical information—details I can use in play. Don’t bury the evocative bits in lavish descriptions of sleeping pallets and rubbish. If your kitchen description seems like the first thing a typical DM would imagine at the table, you may as well rely on the typical imagination.

How much description do you want in a dungeon key?

Mapping—or not-fun things that Dungeons & Dragons players learned to skip, part 1

In 1978, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons basic set, I noticed that the dwarf description included lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players keep the chore of mapping from becoming maddening.

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. Map-keeping dominated play as much as combat. In the original example of play, the referee—dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the game reciting dimensions.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In the same example, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?)

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to waste graph paper. In this game, the dwarf’s slant-and-shift sense became essential. If you wanted to survive, someone played a cleric; if you wanted your game to not suck, someone played a dwarf.

The text described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

Original D&D described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

The original example of play should have included this addition:

Mapper: I cannot believe the referee teleported us into another goddamn Maze.

Caller: I suppose a mountain of fun games will be invented in the next 40 years, but for now the only alternative is Monopoly.

Mapper: Sigh. I search for secret doors.

To be fair, the sloping floors and trick staircases made more than a nuisance. In the megadungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured PCs deeper threatened their lives. Traps that blocked a mapped escape from the dungeon prevented players from resting and re-equipping.

Deathmaze 5000 offered a true test of map keeping

Deathmaze 5000’s revolutionary first-person view offered  mappers a true test

Perhaps Gary also thought map-keeping let players practice the skills of imaginary dungeon explorers. But explorers would see the place they mapped. From a first-person view, mapping is entirely different than translating spoken descriptions. I learned this playing Deathmaze 5000 long before computer programmers went soft and made dungeon games with automatic mapping, or saved games, or that players enjoyed.

By 1976, Palace of the Vampire Queen included player’s maps to spare players the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had turned from mapping challenges to skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

For years, mapping formed a part of D&D that players tolerated, but that few questioned. Then, this revolutionary game seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love, just a lot less than the game’s actual fun parts.

9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen

Before Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft came Palace of the Vampire Queen, a dungeon written by California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan and distributed by TSR Hobbies.palace_of_the_vampire_queen_folder

1 Palace of the Vampire Queen may count as the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure module published, but only after a few disqualifications.

Book 3 of the original D&D game devoted two pages to a dungeon level, but the sample falls short of a complete dungeon. Supplement II Blackmoor (1975) includes Temple of the Frog, but that location plays as a Chainmail scenario rather than a dungeon. As Palace reached print in June 1976, Paul Jaquays published Dungeoneer issue 1. The magazine including a dungeon called F’Cherlak’s Tomb. So Palace of the Vampire Queen rates as the first standalone D&D adventure in print.

2 D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought no one would buy published dungeons, because dungeon masters could easily create their own.

The key to Palace makes dungeon creation seem trivial, so you can see Gary’s point. Each room appears as a row on a table with a monster quantity, a list of hit points, and a line describing the room’s contents. Anyone with enough imagination to play D&D could create similar content as quickly as they could type.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_key

3 TSR Hobbies distributed Palace because they found success reselling blank character sheets from the same authors.

In February 1976, Strategic Review announced the Character Archaic, a set of character sheets for D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne.

4 Palace came as a collection of loose 8½ by 11 pages tucked into a black folder with a copyright notice taped inside the cover.

Adding to the low-budget feel, TSR fixed missing pages in some kits by adding Xerox-streaked duplicates from the office machine.

5 Most of the adventure’s text comes in a 1-page background.

The page tells of a beloved queen, slain by a vampire, and entombed on the dwarvish island of Baylor. She rises to bring terror to the night.

In addition to launching the standalone adventure, Palace gives players their first shot at rescuing the princess. The vampire queen has abducted the king’s only daughter. “The people wait in fear at night. The king wanders his royal palace, so empty now without his only child. Neither the king nor his people have hope left that a hero or group of heroes will come to rid them of the Vampire Queen. For surely the Vampire Queen lies deep within the forbidding mountains, protected by her subjects, vengeful with hate for all truly living things and constantly thirsting for human blood on which to feed.

In the early days of the game, when players raided dungeons for treasure and the experience points it brought, this qualified as an unprecedented dose of plot.

6 Palace shows a dungeon designed before anyone worried about making things plausible.

Even though the dungeon’s background presents it as a tomb for a queen-turned-vampire, it features assorted monsters waiting in rooms to be killed. In any natural underground, the creatures would wander away for a meal. And the bandits in room 23 would search for a safer hideout near easier marks. And the Wizard selling magic items in room 23 would find a store with foot traffic that doesn’t creep or slither.

7 In 1976, nobody worried about dead characters much.

When someone opens a chest on level 2, a block drops and kills the PC and anyone else in a 3×6’ space. No damage rolls, no save—just dead.The dungeon’s threats escalate quickly. Level 2 includes orcs and a giant slug; level 5 includes 35 vampires and a Balrog.

Despite these menaces, players in 1976 stood a better chance than they would now. The Balrog was just a brute with 2 attacks and 41 hit points, not the modern Balor with 262 hit points and a fire aura. Vampires suffered significant disadvantages: “Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.” Level 4 even includes a Garlic Garden so players can stock up.

When the players reach the vampire queen’s tomb, she flees their garlic and crosses, and tries to take the dwarf princess hostage.

8 In 1976, no one knew how to present a dungeon—or agreed on how to play the game.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_mapThe key sketches just the most essential information: a quantity of monsters, their treasure, and an occasional trick or trap. The text lists no stats other than hit points, but lists them as Max Damage. Apparently, D&D’s terminology remained unsettled. Back then, DMs rolled hit points, so pre-rolling counted as a time saver.

In one room, a PC can adopt a lynx kitten as a pet, which lets him “add 3 to his morale score.” D&D lacked morale rules for player characters, but in those days popular house rules spread though regions. Folks writing about D&D regularly confused their regional practices for canon.

Each level of the dungeon includes a keyed and unkeyed map. “The Dungeon Master may give or sell the player map to the players to speed game play.” Even in 1976, players saw mapping as a chore.

9 The dungeon master needed to work to bring the Palace to life.

Palace of the Vampire Queen isn’t called a “module” or “dungeon adventure,” but a “Dungeon Masters Kit.”

The authors realized that dungeon’s brief descriptions fell short of adventure. “Feel free to use your imagination for dialog or any extra details you feel would add to more exciting play. The kit itself is only a basic outline—you can make it a dramatic adventure.

The kit uses fewer words to describe 5 levels than some modern adventures lavish on a single room. Nevertheless, it presents some charming bits. On level 4, PCs find a petrified Lammasu missing a jewel eye. Replacing the eye causes the creature to come to life as an ally.

Room 24 holds 3 sacks of sand. Room 25 says, “Sand alarm rings in room 26 when door is opened.” I searched the web for “sand alarm” to determine if it were some kind of widely-known trick, perhaps requiring a supply of sandbags. Finally, I realized room 25 holds a sound (making) alarm.

One room holds an Invisible Chime of Opening. I have no clue how the PCs might find the thing unless they literally sweep the floor. Just for kicks, I would have put a broom in the room.

Just a couple of years after Palace of the Vampire Queen reached gamers, the D&D community forgot about it. But this first adventure showed Gary that adventure modules could attract buyers, so he rushed to publish the giant series.