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

24 thoughts on “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Cory Cardwell

    The old megadungeons didn’t make sense story wise much of the time (why is a dragon 12 stories under ground right next to a cave of giants?). But wow! what fun we had from those sorts of stories in our youth when realism wasn’t so important. Always striving for that balance.

    Keep up the great blog posts!

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Cory,
      Thanks for the kind words. Sounds like you visited the same dungeon as me! Now that the newness is faded, we have higher standards. But in return, we know more ways to make the game fun.


    2. Russell Higgins

      I am going to disagree here..
      Why is something only a player can work out?

      Why for the DM because we are having fun.
      Why for the player is something that has to be worked out by the player.

      I can remember it didn’t really become important until the expert set. That things might have a relationship. There was a really big deal made about going outside and the relationships things might have outside.

      The genius of Gygax is that he started with wargames.. Something he liked and morphed it into active story telling.. That’s genius… Who else would fill an entire dungeon with traps, provide the setting, and it is one of the most memorable events to this day.. Genius ….

  2. Carl Williams

    When I first created a megadungeon for what became my weekly gaming group when I moved locations some twenty years ago, I set out to create an environment that would be reasonably dynamic and capable of being influenced by the PCs to whatever degree they wished. There was a degree of silliness and humour in the initial level as there were one or two younger players new to it all and that seemed like an obvious hook, but there was also the opportunity to get involved in serious faction fights. One area has the players ambushed by javelin-hurling Orcs who only throw one volley and then start arguing amongst themselves because they have attacked the wrong target – if the players actually wait a few seconds and listen instead of taking violent advantage they can manage to make allies against a much more major enemy. By the end of it all they had acquired an entire small Goblin tribe as minions and ended up with one of their number married to an Ogress (and a lovely ceremony it was, too) who also brought several friends to the fight.

    For me, Megadungeons work brilliantly as an ongoing campaign setting as long as they are run as a dynamic environment where the players feel they are actively able to influence that environment rather than just passing through it, fighting and looting.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Carl,
      Thanks for sharing your megadungeon experience! Seems like you made an ideal use of the setting.


  3. Shamus

    I think the megadungeon is an excellent place for adventuring when the group is constantly changing. If it is commonplace to have one or two players miss a session, I found that Undermountain in particular was very accepting of story continuity. A wandering, random, invisible gate simply whisked that PC elsewhere – or perhaps to a point in the future – and play continues for those who are present.
    I ran a megadungeon of my own creation in the mid-1980s that took a group of ten an entire summer of five sessions per week to complete. It was an epic journey that we still talk about today. Those moments are what make gaming legend, and we should all have the chance to experience it.

  4. Danny

    I recall vividly some 30 years ago designing a level of a dungeon with no less than 100 rooms. Halfway through it truly hit me—what supports this many creatures foodwise? Why don’t they kill themselves as they go from room to room themselves? Are they just in stasis waiting for people to enter their room?(I have used that idea tho, where each room is a portal). Giants next to dragons, next to kobolds, next to mummies etc……it was fun but unrealistic dungeons. I began being more logical after that and it made me a better player and DM. I like dungeon crawls and they have their place in both history and memory and the concept def plays into the video game world of players where kill, kill, kill is the only priority.

  5. Matty

    Terrific read! It’s been a while since I ran through a megadungeon. In my ME campaign the players disappointingly only stuck around Khazad-Dum long enough to complete their objectives, then hotfooted it out – When they’re a little higher in level I’ll think of some reasons they might want to return.

    But it was in the megadungeon our party learned the meaning of the word incorrigible – always pushing our luck and opening one door too many, despite any number of non-verbal cues from our DM. Good times.

    1. Jasmine Geddes

      Hey, I’m running a ME campaign, and I plan to have my characters go through Khazad-Dum. If you still have your notes/maps for that megadungeon, would you be willing to share?

  6. Nik

    This would be perfect for gaming in Rifts. The notion of Rifts, alternate dimensions and teleportation would make it possible to thread a story in with the expansive dungeon.
    I do believe I will be looking at doing this once I get a crew together. Adults seem to not have enough time to get together.

  7. Ed Snark

    Sometimes the whole ‘fantasy’ element is just thrown in with extra fantasy with no purpose nor rhyme nor reason. My DM used to call this the Playground of the Gods where some of us would disappear to and have to deal with. It was as bizarre as Alice’s Wonderland and even deadlier. You were teleported into the dungeon naked, with nothing. Your survival chances weren’t very high but if you managed to use some wit and got lucky with some dice rolls, you could do all right in there and come out with some nice loot and possibly a minor ability as well as plenty of experience. *sigh* I miss those days.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Ed,
      Thanks for commenting! I think a lot of us have fond memories of a gonzo funhouse like the one you describe. Ironically, as fun as they were, I don’t think many of us would play that style again.


  8. The Maze Master

    For Mega Dungeon fans, the topic now has it’s own podcast:

    The Iron Realm Podcast

    In classic RPG style, an adventuring tribe fights to survive in a realm of total darkness within an infinite maze of traps, monsters, and challenges. Check out the podcast (20+ episodes and counting!) and see if they survive. A solitaire game that invites you to participate – rendered with rousing audio, music, and a compelling narrative style. Listen or play. The choice is up to you.


  9. S J Grodzicki

    I never liked megadungeons like Myth Drannor or similar – as a player, I knew I’d get bored with one themed location. Recently however I read an article about a true megadungeon is the campaign – it’s supposed to be the whole world to the party. Still, I prefer an open sandbox, with varying adventures spread over a region rather than via descending levels in the same location.

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  13. Griff

    The Mega Dungeon was how we played BITD. AS someone else commented they didn’t make much sense either.

    Anytime you found a pool of water you just knew something lived in it too.

    Wish I still had my 9 level one from back in the 70’s.

    Thanks for the Article, was just searching randomly and came across it.

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