This will be the first post in a series on game mastering dungeons and specifically mega-dungeons.
First, a definition. A mega-dungeon is, in my eyes, any adventure that takes place in a boxed-in environment (such as a dungeon, cave, virtual maze) where the player’s primary goal is interacting with and exploring said boxed-in environment. The environment is a set environment, usually with some random encounters mixed in for variety but it generally acts as a walled-off sandbox.
This definition is intentionally fairly broad and many adventures could be described as a mega-dungeon. To me, the most important aspects of a mega-dungeon are the set environment and the focus on exploring that environment.
It’s also something that, until recently, I had never run. I’d run D&D before. I’ve run games focused on exploration and games that were heavily combat-focused. But having read the 5th edition D&D rules and having seen the discourse online on this new edition, I figured I’d give it a try.
So far, the experience has been a positive one. A dungeon like this is a little more prep-heavy than I’m used to, but I’m still learning the system, so I expect the time spent per session to go down as I get better. My players have enjoyed the sessions I’ve run so far and I’m enjoying preparing a living, breathing dungeon ecology full of interesting beasts and awesome thematic locations.
And that’s one of the things I wanted to touch upon in this first post. In later posts, I’ll go into more detail on other topics, but for now, I’d like to stick with the living breathing dungeon. In my opinion that’s particularly important in keeping the environment interesting and, more importantly, feeling like a real place. That means that when you’re designing your dungeon, cave or wizard tower, you need to think about the important things like: What do they eat? Where do they sleep? Why are there 6 goblins hanging out around here?
Those first two questions are super important because they inform both the layout of the dungeon and the placement of treasure. In many traditional D&D games, you murder a goblin, take his 1d6 copper coins and move on. However, in an environment like this, where attention has been devoted to making the caves a lived-in place, those 1d6 copper are just the cash the goblin had on hand to spend on mushroom wine in room 14. The real treasure is the bracelet that’s hidden under their pillow in room 9.
It also lets your players get clever. If they spend some time in the dungeon, they’ll notice that around 9PM, most of the goblin guards leave to get wasted, which presents a perfect opportunity for stealth (or slaughter, depending on your party’s tendencies).
It also makes the dungeon really easy to model as time passes. You can look at your map and see the small town that exists in these caves. And when you roll an encounter of 4 goblin warriors for room 9, you know that the players are either dealing with goblins just waking up or about to go to sleep. On the other hand, if you roll that same encounter in room 14, they’re either drunk after their shift or there to break up a fight. It adds flavor and that’s what makes that extra prep time worth every moment you put in it.
So take your time to prepare a dungeon, and give it some thought. Your games will be better for it.