Megadungeon Design: How Much is too Much?

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Literally the bedrock of the hobby, megadungeons have a special place in my heart, and in the hearts of gamers everywhere. But can you have too much of a good thing? Can you have too much megadungeon?

I’ve been bravely buying and reading as many commercially available megadungeons as I can get my hands on in preparation for getting stuck into the nitty gritty of designing Gloamhold. What’s struck me as interesting is the vast differences in styles. For example, Undermountainprovides a tremendous amount of material and detail. It’s staggering how much information Ed Greenwood manages to cram into that original boxed set. In contrast, Barrowmaze takes a much lighter approach to describing individual areas. Both are excellent delves, but they are clearly the result of differing design philosophies.

In considering the design of Gloamhold’s various levels and sub-levels two niggling question keep popping into my mind:

  • How much detail is too much?

  • How much detail is not enough?

With the twin tyrannies of page count and print costs looming over the project (as well as the small matter of GM usability) it doesn’t seem possible to provide as much detail for every encounter area as I would normally. That is unless I want to print a book you could use to beat a zombie elephant to death. While there is a a certain attraction to writing such a book —you never know when a zombie apocalypse might strike — I’m not sure I want to catalogue every nook and cranny of Gloamhold. It doesn’t seem practical, and more importantly it feels wrong— like I’m missing the point of a megadungeon.

Beyond the flavour and the cool adventures, one of the reasons I love Greyhawk so much as a campaign setting is that Gary gave just enough detail to get started. He provided the GM with ample design space to make the world his own by stamping his individuality and personality on the setting and the adventures. It was easy to make Greyhawk your own and no two campaign were identical.

I think a similar approach to Gloamhold is the way to go. Providing GMs with a robust framework and thematic tools to bring the dungeon to life seems much more appropriate than providing reams of notes on endless encounter areas. Slavishly detailing the whole place is great for the first time the party explore a certain area, but provides much less replay value. Off the top of my head, I can think of several advantages to this strategy:

It enables the GM to stock the dungeon as he sees fit without throwing out or extensively modifying existing material.

  • It enables the GM to restock the dungeon in response to campaign events. After all, once cleared a room, sub-level or whatever isn’t going to stay empty forever. This kind of ebb and flow among Gloamhold’s denizens will be a vital component of breathing life into the dungeon.

  • It enables the GM to easily maintain the illusion of detail.

  • It enables the GM to stamp his own personality on the complex.

Providing tools to enable a GM to restock the dungeon quickly and thematically (or to reveal new secrets and mysteries to the PCs) are worth more in the long run than presenting voluminous notes on every chamber, passageway and cave in Gloamhold that are useful only once.

Of course, I’m planning to write adventures set in Gloamhold — it would be madness not to — and also I really want to detail certain places in greater depth. (I’m particularly keen to shed more light on the Twilight City, which I think is going to be a terrific adventure locale). To achieve this designing — along with Raging Swan Press’s heroic band of freelancers — exciting, flavoursome adventures the GM can modify and weave into his own campaign is the way to go!

And let’s face it a campaign set in Gloamhold should hopefully go on for a very long time.

What Do You Think?

What do you think? Do you want everything lavishly detailed or would you prefer getting the tools to build your own Gloamhold? Let me know if the comments below and help me make a better Gloamhold!

To read the original version of this article, and the ensuing comments click here.