Break Up the Mega-Dungeon

I am a big fan of classic adventures with flavorful dungeons, insidious traps, and dangerous denizens. But one thing I do not enjoy is the concept of the mega-dungeon – a great sprawling complex filled with rooms and chambers, a map-makers worst nightmare.

For one, as a DM, they’re kind of a boring to run. Or at least they can quickly devolve into total dullness as you run out of ways to say “20 foot by 20 foot chamber” to make them interesting to the players. And you really need to have a player who loves mapping, or at least someone who is willing to step up and do it, to get the best benefit. I’ve found my players don’t enjoy mapping out a dungeon as they explore, and I can hardly blame them.

There are a lot of ways to spice up a mega-dungeon, but I think my favorite way is to break it up. Break up the mega-dungeon into smaller, digestible pieces that can each have a unique hook or flavor. For me, a dungeon with about 12 areas to explore and interact with is a pretty perfect number, maybe a few more depending on the scope and maybe a few less if the hook is served well.

As an example, I’ve had the Ruins of Undermountain boxed set for almost 20 years now. It’s cool, and the maps are mesmerizing, but it’s kind of … overwhelming? Underwhelming? I’m not sure. The hook is strong, everyone and their brother has heard about it, and it sits beneath a great metropolis. Lots of things to like about it but I’ve never gotten around to running it because it just presents such a slog of corridors and empty rooms.

But in the past few years I’ve been itching to drag it out and start taking chunks of the map and converting them into distinct dungeons of their own. Crazed gnome illusionist takes over a section? A cultist to a rat god calls swarms of rats to do his bidding? A cabal of assassins create a gauntlet of pain for new initiates? Those are the kind of ideas I can get behind, and each can live within a relatively small section of Undermountain.

I know a lot of mega-dungeons use the concept of floors and levels to attempt this, but from what I’ve seen and experienced this still doesn’t keep it down to a usable chunk in a reasonable amount of time. Though I have been itching to take a closer look at Castle of the Mad Archmage, and the Emerald Spire from Paizo seems like it strikes about the right balance for my taste. Especially since each level can be contained in a single foldout map!

I don’t think you’ll see a mega-dungeon from Cut to the Chase Games anytime in the near future. There are enough other ones out there to cater to that flavor, and like I stated it’s just not my cup of tea. And if it’s not something I would run, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s not something Cut to the Chase Games is going to make!

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