Dungeons are part of the standard fare of most games – even sci-fi campaigns have situations that amount to dungeon crawls, be it exploring a derelict starship or making a raid on some futuristic prison. On the other hand, campaigns built entirely around venturing into a dungeon tend to be a lot less common – certainly not as common as they were in the early days of tabletop gaming. It’s understandable, since a dungeon campaign is going to be a lot more focused on traps, monsters, and treasure than usual.
Still, there’s something about the idea of a dungeon campaign that appeals at least a little bit to most people. A dungeon campaign is almost always going to be built around something long-abandoned and forgotten, filled with mysteries and dangers. The idea of being the first person to walk those abandoned halls and unearth those long-lost treasures speaks to the curious explorer in people. If it comes with a side of heroics, so much the better!
There are certain things necessary for a dungeon to fill an entire campaign, however, and that’s what I’ll be covering today.
Size matters more than ever. A campaign set in a dungeon needs something on the scale of a megadungeon – something akin to Rappan Athuk, the Emerald Spire, or Undermountain. It needs to be large enough that it feels daunting to try to explore it, with room enough for different groups of opponents to exist. Most such dungeons tend to break the difficulty curve up by the floor the group is on, with the dungeon becoming more dangerous as the group descends.
Be sure to build the dungeon with an eye to the history you have in mind; most such places have had multiple builders over the years, each one adding to the existing structure. An original core of a human kingdom’s prison for the worst criminals around might be surrounded by kobold warrens at the top, additions by deep gnomes farther down, a cave network beneath it that part of the lowest prison floor collapsed into, and then the structured catacombs of a dark elf lich at the bottom. Put in enough room for some variety.
Variety is more than just spice. In the case of a megadungeon, variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s the meat of the thing. Nothing will tire a group out faster than fighting through an entire dungeon floor of nothing but goblins and rats at the top of the dungeon, and it gets tedious if an entire megadungeon is simply populated by advanced forms of the opponents from the first floor.
An example of this being done poorly is the initial area of the World’s Largest Dungeon; other than the ‘boss’ encounter, there are – if memory serves, as I don’t have the monstrous book with me right now – perhaps three types of enemies in the area. One of them is darkmantles. I assure you, nothing will get irritating faster than having darkmantles repeatedly drop on your head, even if it reinforces the trope about the relative experience of adventuring parties, and how true veterans check the roof and floor first.
More than that, variety means you can have conflicting groups in the dungeon; the deep gnomes of one area are fighting a two-sided war against the kobolds up above and the aberrations of the cave system beneath them, while the undead creations of the lich are harassing everyone. The more the merrier, and it provides players a chance to do something other than mechanically hack and slash through every single room of the dungeon.
Don’t theme the entire place. Individual area themes can be excellent; one section might be the masoleum of an ancient dwarven kingdom, now overrun by the restless dead, but outside of the masoleum and the areas directly adjacent to it, there shouldn’t be dwarven carvings and encounters with the bearded dead all over. Giving the entire dungeon the same core theme can get as monotonous as a lack of variety in the creatures; megadungeons are huge places, easily enough to support a full ecosystem and even competing nations with their own style of carving passages and artwork.
That said, you can get a little too crazy with this. The only genuinely unifying element in the Emerald Spire is the spire itself; each floor is essentially an individual dungeon that happens to share a few things with some of the other floors. A little more coherence would have added a great deal to that particular example. Variety shouldn’t trump the internal logic of the world.
Have ways to get around without a slog. Particularly if you intend to have the players go back up out of the dungeon, or at least return to the higher levels for things they missed, needed a plot key to access, or ignored, have an easy way to transfer between levels that have been discovered and cleared. A ‘living’ megadungeon’s cleared areas won’t be likely to stay that way for long, so allowing players to bypass areas easily (and thus give you an excuse to not repopulate every room or else leave them mysteriously empty) makes life easier for everyone.
Where the Emerald Spire failed on the last point, it does well here. The Spire itself is a transit hub, and the key for the different levels can be found in the dungeon to give the players an easy route in and out. It doesn’t matter what the secret is as long as you have one.
A base of operations is important. Players are going to want to sell their loot, buy additional gear, and spend time crafting magic items over the course of a campaign. Giving them one or more safe locations that they can do these things at will go a long way toward making everyone happy. If the players are stuck inside the dungeon, have friendly inhabited areas willing to trade with them and provide them a safe place to operate from.
A particular note is that if you allow the players to have a base of operations inside the dungeon itself, you’ll find that they’ll quickly grow possessive of the place. Not only are the likely to invest some effort into improving it, threats to it can shake them out of relative complacence and send them in the direction you want them to go. Additionally, NPCs in the safe area can ask the players to go on quests for them, seeking out rumored lore or items in the depths.
Not enough campaigns offer PCs a base of their own; it’s a simple and effective way to get them invested in a particular area. Use it well in a megadungeon.
That’s all for today! Come back tomorrow for more dungeoncrafting!