Monday, May 25, 2020

how i did my megadungeon

so, first thing i did was feel like an open world was too tough to run over internet. thought maybe a dungeon would have the right constraint and focus for me to write material and run sessions week after week. told my friends this, not really giving them much choice.

consider the main idea. what is this place? something ruined, with several generations of inhabitants having moved in and out, and several competing factions. what is the goal? something concrete, elusive, but extremely traditional classic d&d, in the manner of the oldest published dungeons. some artifact, an orb maybe, let there be an evil wizard and an evil army, yeah thats classic. they’re all dead and the orb is lost, so the goal is the orb.

the original dungeon layout. secret levels are covered! uncovered levels not encountered don't exist. vaults of zin, snake man city, bloodways from rappan athuk, mercury citadel, shrine to zuggtmoy, all didn't make the cut.
draw an elaborate multi-level layout. draw connections between levels. main idea is, top of the dungeon is three large maps, with sublevels branching off and connecting them. sublevels dont have much to do thematically with main levels. consider some big ideas for these levels and their bosses: a buried pyramid and its pharaoh with a golden dragon, if the golden dragon is released, it wanders the dungeon, like the alien; a vertical level with acidic slime issuing from a tortured unicorn, but the slime is traveling UP and goes through the first levels as a river, so if players follow the source of the river they find an important secret; an upside down castle filled with vampires; far above, visible from the start but not accessible without extreme measures, a flying fortress, kept by a witch queen now captured inside the dungeon; a bottomless pit with an ancient purple dragon; and, perhaps, some others I can’t mention yet.

first draft of level two, bears little resemblance to current level. some neat ideas though. what's pool of black ruin? slow lightning! giant eye absorbs people! one idea that made it through intact: body of illith varn, optional boss now located on level three. headless wizard shoots cursed blood and powered up wizard spells. where's the head...?

first draft of level three, i think. it says level one at the top but pretty sure this is level three.

then immediately stopped playing for a long time, mostly due to job related stress. very sad.

pick it back up a couple years later. have the capacity to do an open world again. but the dungeon is still there and so is the quest. players do a long side quest, constantly telling NPC, “just give us a couple days, we’ll be right there.” then, quest commence.

long journey to the megadungeon.

next step: dont like the old maps anymore. too big, too many levels. should be a little smaller and condensed. let the three levels be the main event, delete and combine some other deeper levels I had in mind. write new total dungeon layout with connections. figure out exactly whats going on with the orb and where to find it, and how. scrap the old level maps and room list, too much whimsy. have a website generate all the dungeon maps. randomize until they look right. print at work after a shift. each main level, 65-70 rooms. each sublevel, 35-40 rooms. total rooms, about 400. no problem.

on each paper map, write the main ideas. brainstorm. write lists of ideas. inside each room, write the idea for each room, like, TRAP, MONSTER, NPC, BOSS, or even something specific. make a list of the bosses, put them in order, brainstorm ideas for each. block out areas of each level for sub areas — SLIME RIVER, BIO RECOMBINATION LAB, MALAGON’S HQ, SWAMP, and so on.

this is one sublevel, the flying fortress of the sky witch, meant to be visited after players make it to level two, but able to be accessed at any time by a dedicated and curious party. pretty typical for my paper maps. most of the ideas in the rooms made it through almost intact, many of the brainstormed ideas did not.
in big notebook at lunch, start making more detailed room list, level by level. this is where i get more specific but still sketchy. “slime river is jumping and playing” “orostranthian elf mecha, ancient war machine” “lich hidden in opulent tomb” and so on.

an important beat in the dungeon: the golden dragon, secreted far underground, meant to be encountered only late in the dungeon. "He has scraped a pit in the ground. The entire room glitters gold. The elaborate and cruel Gods of the psychodesert preside. He rests on a bed of gold, Gold is embedded in his hide, itself smooth gold, like cloth in places, like armor in others. A harsh and unfamiliar reptile scent. It has been awake all this time."

typical notes for level one

as players near area of dungeon, in big text file on computer, fill in concrete details, as much as possible around their current area, so they can go in any direction and it will feel full. let them know if they are close to the edge of the map. if they stray over, use notebook room list in a pinch. write exact numbers for monsters and traps. invent treasure.

room one. set bonus redacted until players find the rest.

the bottom of the tower of slime

some scenes from the flying fortress

write random encounter lists. write giant 100 item random treasure list. 

transpose dungeon maps onto roll20, first by importing map file, then simply by drawing map directly onto roll20. fill with images so it’s like a collage the players can look at during a game. tweak layout so it’s more pleasing and has better flow.

level one! too big to fit on one screen. some secrets remain blacked out
tower of slime, levels one and two

a section of level two

room one: mecha
if there’s time before a game, go back and revise. add complexity. change ideas. deepen characters and add new treasure and monsters. make images more vivid. 

run game.

talk to players about what’s working and what they like and don’t like. talk to players about feeling of overall challenge.

continue forever! actually they're nearing the end of the dungeon now. it'll be two years in september. will they finish before then?? 



  1. more like megaFUNgeon amirite?

    This looks hella nice! I've found all megadungeons work best as fluid entities, just adding and removing rooms whenever and wherever feels right

  2. Isn't it more like megaFUNgeon?

    This looks fantastic! I've discovered that all megadungeons work best as fluid entities, with rooms added and removed whenever and wherever it feels right. Check out YouTube, there are more video's like this, LenosTube are best at this.