Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Sinking Ruins, a mega (non) dungeon

I'm not a big fan of mega-dungeons. I'm not much of a fan of dungeons, really. I much prefer adventures set in abandoned cities or ruined castles or tangled forests or, well, anything with an open sky above. I'm not claustrophobic, so it's not like I'm afraid of dungeons, I just don't especially enjoy preparing them or playing in them extensively. I think that's a huge part of why Red Hand of Doom is one of my favorite modules: despite being a huge module, there's only two "dungeons" and the three other major set-pieces are an abandoned keep, the ruins of a sunken city, and a town undergoing a siege.

Nevertheless, I've been reading Peter V. Dell'Orto's articles on megadungeons, and a couple of things he's said sound interesting to me. The idea that it's impossible to completely clear the dungeon, or even clear a level, just sounds fascinating to me. Having to make some strategic choices as you enter the dungeon so that you always have a retreat path could be really cool. For various reasons, I don't know if that would work with my current tabletop group, but it could be really neat for the right group.

I'm currently running Savage Tides for my group, nominally in between running things we actually care about. I'm probably going to wrap it up later this year when they complete the Tides of Dread adventure, because after that the adventure rapidly goes to places that I'm pretty sure aren't going to work for my group (ie, literally to Hell, where Sister Joan's intolerance of other religions is not going to play well with the adventure's requirements that you cut deals with demons and devils). So what to run next?

One option would be to heavily adapt the later adventures in Savage Tide so they're workable with the group. I've also been inspired by Peter's reviews of Dragonlance, and it looks like it might be fun to ditch the stupid storyline and convert the early modules into delving sites for a bunch of murder-hobos. Or I could create a mega-dungeon of my own.

The Sinking Ruins

One thing I know I don't like about mega-dungeons is I often have a hard time believing that anyone would build the silly things in the first place. I know there are a few historical examples in history, but they're rare. And since mining is hard, real life examples don't have miles of extraneous corridors and widely spread out rooms, which serve important purposes in a mega-dungeon of making it plausible that the delvers don't fight the entire orc tribe at one time.

So my first problem with creating a megadungeon is coming up with a reason that I can accept for it to exist. And then I remembered that Chicago has been sinking almost since it was founded: the early settlers would periodically reraise the roads and build steps down to their buildings, and then eventually add new levels to the buildings to put them above the roads. There's a similar line about Discworld's Ankh-Morpork, "a fellow with a pick-axe and a good sense of direction could travel anywhere beneath the city by knocking down a few walls." If the mega-dungeon is the ruins of an ancient town that has been sinking into the ground forever, with multiple layers of buildings and roads built up around it, then that's very interesting and plausible for me.

So now I want to flesh out this concept, provide a few more details. Starting at the very bottom, there are some natural caves (I can totally accept natural caves in a mega-dungeon). Maybe a lot of natural caves, or some semi-unnatural caves that people only find by "digging too deep." In order to dig too deep, you've got to dig, so some layers of mines and/or sewers above that; maybe some of the sewers are played out mines. Above that, the original roads and buildings of the city, now buried and having become sub-cellars of the next few rebuildings of the city. I might add a nearby volcano or some other equivalent natural disaster producer, so that the city can have been knocked down or buried a couple of times and rebuilt, radically changing the layout and road plan.

I don't know if I'm going to go any farther in actually fleshing this out. Right now, it's an idea I don't have a huge amount of use for. But it's definitely something to reflect on, should I ever be in a position where I need a mega-dungeon. 

Blogger's Note

I posted twice today, so if you're following a direct link from someone's blog-roll, consider reading Daily Posting, Double Posting.

Also, I've expanded on this article with more detail.


  1. If you haven't already, take a look at Beedo's Black City campaign, and at Tekumel/Empire of the Petal Throne.

    The first is set in a combination giant ruined city/big underground tunnel complex (and even in orbit). The second has a culture that periodically razes cities and then builds on top of the ruins, leaving a dungeon-like maze of cellars, old buildings, etc. underneath the actual surface city.

  2. I've always been a little offish about megadungeons as well, but the notion of finding some reality that allows for their creation is definitely firing up my own juices as well. Seems like it will be hard to do well, what with planning for unsafe floors and getting your players to understand that sometimes they'll have to make their own doorways with axes or the like, but rewarding in the end.

    1. The way I'm visualizing this, there are entire underground streets and buildings with doorways. So instead of hallways and rooms, there are roads and buildings. It plays to Peter's suggestion that rooms should be off of hallways, not at the end of them.

      Of course, different layers of the city could be arranged differently - the sewers might have another set-up.

    2. Underground streets are a harder sell for me - they'd have filled up with refuse and rubble, as I see it. Now, breaking through a wall into the tenement next door, or finding a hole in the floor of the old butcher's shop that takes you down to what used to be a gang hideout and now holds who knows what manner of forgotten lucre and foul creatures...

    3. If the city architecture routinely includes arcades, covered streets, and mall-like structures, lots of streets will survive.

      Plus inhabitants will tunnel them out - in a fantasy world, the very existence of earth-affectings magic, underground monsters, and earth elementals means tunnels will be much easier. Add that to human ingenuity and lots of groups operating independently or at cross-purposes, and you should end up with a fair amount of tunnels and covered walkways.

    4. I'd already thought of purple worms digging through the ruins of the 3rd City and a defunct delving guild in the 3rd City that had partially excavated the 2nd City, but adding arcades and covered malls is a great idea.

      For the 1st City, I was thinking a divine cataclysm lets you get away with anything: "the angry gods buried the 1st City", a la the sunken city in a huge cavern in the first Dragonlance adventure.

      My thoughts thus far will be in a post later this week.

    5. Another thought - I had a lot (well, 3, but hey) who went to Carleton in Minnesota, where the snows are so bad that they have tunnels running beneath the campus and close it after Thanksgiving. If the climate of the 3rd city was unforgiving enough, maybe they had tunnels already and the purple worms just opened stuff up.

    6. Hrmph. The snows aren't that bad here. It's the cold that shuts you down, with at least a week every year, typically, with temps lower than -20F, and -10 to 10F is a guarantee every year.

    7. Doug, my wife went to school in Winona. The snows are that bad there. We lived in LaCrosse for a year while she did her student teaching, my first winter in the midwest and we got five feet of snow.

      I'm really digging the idea of covered malls, arcades and the like.

    8. Here's been the snowfall totals at Chanhassen, which is far enough from the cities to not be influenced by the thermals of the true city:

      Snowfall Measured at the NWS in Chanhassen, MN

      Winona doesn't look too much worse:

      In 2000, when I moved here, we got over six feet of snow as well, but more typically we get what looks like about four feet, but with several nearly total melts that don't allow it to accumulate.

      So anecdotally, there are very deep snow seasons (twice in the 80's Minneapolis got over 8 feet of snow. That couldn't have been fun to live and work through) that drive extreme preparation.

      One thing that might be driving my different recollection is that the Cities have simply awesome plowing and snow removal capability. So my judgement of how bad the snows are might be impacted by the fact that given about 12 to 24 hours, the roads here are darn close to 100% clear. Salt deployment must surely be measured in total inches or feet, too.

    9. Carleton U in Ottawa (Canada) is another university famous for it's alternate tunnel system used for avoiding inclement winter weather. Does Minnesota have hidden Loyalist leanings I didn't know about?

      Our tunnels stay open all year round, and it's a common challenge among students to go an entire year (or an entire degree) without ever going outside. It's quite possible.

      Carleton's Engineering program may have something to do with the popularity of that dare.

    10. I used to do a Linux conference at the Rideau Center in Ottawa, which is a mall + hotel + conference center all connected by walkways and tunnels. If it weren't for the bars, I could have spent the entire weekend without ever seeing sunlight.

    11. There used to be a Pub in the Center too, the Elephant and Castle down in the food court.

      And in more trusting days, there was a direct internal connection to the National Defense HQ from the Rideau Center, just to add to the rabbity-warren factor. Alas, gone are the days of nipping across for a pint at lunch without ever braving the elements.


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