Saturday, August 29, 2009

Megadungeon Design and Philosophy - Part 3

The Importance of History
Adding an historical background to your Megadungeon can really draw the players deeper into your adventure, and give them a lot to do outside the dungeon, as well as help them have goals to accomplish within the dungeon itself, as opposed to just wandering haphazardly from chamber to chamber. Some good examples of history at play in the Megadungeon are available at JM's Grognardia, where he often details the sessions played in his Megadungeon, "Dwimmermount". As his campaign progresses, his players gradually learn more and more about the location and some of the strange stuff within it, and even research matters further when they are out of the dungeon.

With my own Megadungeon, the Forsaken Halls, as I designed the first upper levels, I tried to keep a basic sketch of the history of my Megadungeon in mind, and let that help me shape the actual look and physical design of the place.

The Forsaken Halls were originally an enormous bunker of sorts, the last defensible bastion of a dark empire destroyed by the forces of light roughly 150 years ago. The (known) main entrance to the dungeon is known as the Valley of Stone Faces, and lies between two rocky arms of a mountain that rises up from a barren heath, devastated all those years ago. Across the heath are the ruins of a city, once the capitol of that fallen empire.

The history of the dungeon goes back even farther, as it has been used by a long succession of masters. Before the Dread Emperor's time, the place was an underground monastary of sorts. Before that, the place lay "empty", full of dangers and hazards, much as it does now. And before that, well over a thousand years ago if the oldest texts on the place are to be believed, it was home to a lost race, vaguely human-like in appearance as depicted in some broken and weathered friezes on display.

Myth, Rumor, and Legend
Obviously, so much history can get cloudy as time passes. Much myth, legend, and rumor can take shape, obscuring the true history of the Megadungeon, and giving explorers quite a chore in figuring out what is fact and what is fiction. The towns closest to your Megadungeon should be boiling cauldrons of rumor, with every shopkeeper, horseshoer, and barmaid in possession of some bit of Megadungeon lore, from the wildly fantastic, to the strangley accurate.

It good to keep a list of these rumors handy, say 6 or 10 at a time, and keep them tucked away in your DM notebook to give out whenever your players are in town. It could look something like this:

1- Two groups of explorers entered Halls last week, neither has returned (true).
2- A war party was spotted leaving the Halls last week, headed into the wilds (true).
3- A powerful elven maiden wanders the deep Halls, looking for a worthy husband (false).
4- A dragon has taken the Troll Gardens for its own, there is a troll at the Blade & Sickle looking for help (false).
5- The stars are in alignment, the Dread Emperor shall return ere long (?).
6- A secret door has been found in one of the Stone Faces (true).

As each rumor is given, either strike it off, or modify it a bit to retell it, thereby reinforcing the rumor with repeated tellings.

Myths and legends are a bit more complicated, and need a bit more work, but are a good way to give your players a few different clues at once, as well as reinforcing the idea that they are exploring a place that truly is, well, Mythical and Legendary. A legend might look something like this:

"Guard your thoughts well, young explorer, or face the fate of Sir Lornly of Pells. Sir Lornly was a mighty warrior, and a legend in his own right before he even came to challenge the Halls. It is said that Lornly feared no man, and no beast, and was possessed of an unshakeable resolve. When he passed through the Valley of Stone Faces, it is said they all cast down their eyes in respect. He took not food nor water with him, for he swore he would only need his courage to win through to the Black Gates and beyond.

One moon later, only a single lowly retainer of Lornly's retinue emerged from the Halls. He told a tale of the brave knight hacking his way grimly through the Halls, overcoming the Trials of the Iron Paths, even cowing the Guardian of the Great Stair, only to arrive at the Grotto of the Oracle. 'Pass not this way, Warrior', the Oracle is to have said, 'for I know all things, and your ignorance is your only shield!'. Lornly scoffed at this, answering the Oracle, 'It is known far and wide that I fear no man nor beast, what can you possibly tell me that will shake my just resolve!?'. The Oracle, sighing, bade the knight draw closer, and when he did so, whispered into his ear at length.

Then Lornly is said to have cried out in anguish, and stumbling away, fled the chamber, leaving his astonished retinue gaping. They never saw him again, and without his protection, the denizons of the Halls picked them off one by one as he fled to the surface, only one making it back to civilization. To this day, no one knows Lornly's fate, but it is rumored he died in the Halls, leaving his storied blade 'Spell-Breaker' waiting, discarded, for some wiser soul to find.

When pressed to reveal what had so broken the famous knight, the maddened retainer could only remember overhearing a single name, 'Nerelee'. To this day no one who that was...".

This simple legend reveals some information I want my players to have about my Megadungeon:
1. The Stone Faces may be supernatural in origin.
2. The Oracle of the Grotto is not to be trifled with, and bears further research.
3. A legendary magic sword is lost within the Halls.
4. The name "Nerelee" may bear further research.
5. There is a Great Stair, which may or may not still have a Guardian.
6. The Iron Paths may bear further research.

Megadungeons and the Local Economy
Another important consideration is the Megadungeon's effect on the local economy. If it is far out in the Wilderness, there may be towns and villages that act as "gateways" to the dungeon, a common starting point for expeditions. Local shops and merchants will be sure to have travel gear, mounts, and livestock on hand to sell, usually marked-up considerably. Opportunistic locals may target the party for scams, or attempt to sell them maps or documents of dubious worth.

If the Megadungeon has a town or village nearby, then it is likely that the place will have whole industries based around explorers to their little tourist attraction. In my campaign it is the ruined city, not the Megadungeon, that draws the most traffic to the area, and has the greates impact on the local economy:

"The ruined city is a popular site for treasure hunting and excavations, not unlike the Valley of the Dead in Egypt, and a river town, called Tome, has sprung up around the (largely abandoned) fortress (constructed by the forces of light to watch over the place) to service the seasonal influx of traders, diggers, and antiquity dealers. The Halls are avoided by all but the most daring treasure hunters, as it is known degenerate humanoid races lair within, an infestation that has grown far worse than the local authorities realize (or would admit)."

The nearest community to my Megadungeon is "Tome", "originally a simple garrison tower on a rocky knoll, to watch over the nearby Halls. Also, a short distance upriver, was a small monastery housing a scholarly order of monks dedicated to the study of the lore and ruins of Anslore. Slowly, as the legacy of the dark empire faded into the past, traffic to the area increased. Rich in resources such as timber and firestone (coal), Tome became a hub for scattered mining and logging camps. Then, as the antiquities trade became more profitable in the increasingly stable kingdoms to the South, more traders, tourists, and treasure hunters began to frequent the area. A profitable service industry sprang into existence to see to all these new residents and visitors.

Slowly, the land along the river between the monastary and tower filled with inns, shops, forges, and markets. Permanent wharves were set up along the river bank, the marshy shores were reinforced with stone, and a natural wide point in the river dredged out to accomadate regular barge traffic. A wooden stockade was added to the town after a series of bandit raids, and this was replaced by a permanent stone wall and four stout guard towers after the Orc Raids of 1322PA.

While the old keep fell into greater and greater disuse, the monastary thrived and became a college of ancient and esoteric lore, the Royal College of the Ebon Tome. "Tome", the township, was constitutionalized in 1335PA, and the first Sage-Mayor elected by the collegium the following year. "

As your Megadungeon takes shape, so too should the history, legends, and economy, all of these elements helping, as much as the dungeon itself, to bring your setting alive.


  1. I enjoyed the first two parts of this series, but this one is the best yet. I love the history--I want to play in this game!

  2. The Importance of History Adding an historical background to your Megadungeon can really draw the players deeper into your adventure, and ...



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