Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Megadungeons: Unique Rooms and Encounters

Before beginning, I must state that all artwork used in today's blog is owned by the publishers. I do not claim ownership of any of the art within. I have chosen each piece to represent a part of the topic today. If you find it to your liking, check out the book it is associated with. Links are found within the article.

When designing a megadungeon, a few things will make it stand out as exemplary. First, an evocative name makes it enticing: Barrowmaze, Undermountain, and Rappan Athuk all immediately grab your imagination in different ways. That's your hook.

Second, having a strong theme that pervades levels or even the entire dungeon itself allows the players and DMs to become immersed within. Barrowmaze's undead theme isn't a new one, but Gillespie uses it well to highlight the corruption and dread of the concept.

Finally, having "tentpole" rooms that make your dungeon unique and have people talk about that encounter make the dungeon legendary. Today, I am going to discuss these tentpole rooms. As I read through and review my collection, these are one primary factor in how I view the megadungeon.

Fans of megadungeons know certain places within dungeons that they have never delved: the Font of Snakes in the original Castle Greyhawk, the Well in Rappan Athuk, the Great Chained Doors within the Temple of Elemental Evil are a few examples. Typically, these rooms are a puzzle instead of a combat, although sometimes they are a combat (like the Well) or both (like the Font of Snakes). 

Rappan Athuk's Well

What makes these encounters transcend from a common puzzle to a tentpole, legendary one? Sometimes, it is marketing (like the Well in Rappan Athuk). Other times it is truly a legend from the past (like the Font of Snakes). Others have been played by so many that the location becomes a shared memory (Great Chained Doors).

But, we dungeon masters have one important criterion above all others. It must be fun and interactive. In this, I would like show some shining examples from modern megadungeons.

great winged gargoyle of Barrowmaze
Great Winged Gargoyle
 of Barrowmaze
1. Barrowmaze's Great Winged Gargoyle. When Greg Gillespie released Barrowmaze, he had the forethought to add some artwork from the character's point of view. Largely this is still not done effectively, but Barrowmaze (and his subsequent books) pull it off well. 

The gargoyle itself is a fetch quest, with a decent reward. Simply find and reattach the arm for the prize. This is simple, and the type of puzzle would not typically move the needle for me. But, it is early in the dungeon, so many people who have explored Barrowmaze encountered it. It has great artwork that helps immerse the players in the game.

Dung Monster from Rappan Athuk

2. Rappan Athuk's lair of the Dung Monster is hilarious. A mimic that acts like a bathroom is legendary just based on the concept. Throw in its "unkillable" nature and you have a great encounter. Although it feels like a combat, it is actually a time sink and puzzle. It moves slowly (and can be avoided) but it always reappears when it is inconvenient.

3. The Grande Temple of Jing's Jing Statues. These statues aren't a single encounter. Instead they are pieces of information, puzzles and rewards within the dungeon. Often they have a riddle associated with a particular statue and if answered give a reward. Sometimes it opens a secret area, and others it is wealth or knowledge. Repetition allows the statues to be thought of more frequently, and therefore discussed by groups.


Many megadungeons miss the mark when creating a legendary encounter. Most of these become forgotten on the heap of books in my corner. How do we avoid this fate?

These encounters should not be immediately solvable. In the case of the Gargoyle, you must seek out its other part. Dungy cannot be defeated, only foiled. The Jing Statues can be solved, but there's always another one not too far away. The encounter is talked about between sessions. It becomes a driving goal (either short or long term). 

They must be fun. Opening the Great Chained Doors in ToEE causes a whole new level of chaos. It's fun! Dungy slowly creeping up on you while advancing down a deep level of RA is fun. Finding and completing the Gargoyle quest is exciting (and fun). 

These encounters must be almost immediately recognizable as what they are (Dungy being an exception, based on the type of encounter). With all of this in mind, let's look at making an example.

As many of you know, my home dungeon is Mord Mar. It is a dwarven city destroyed by chaos. With that in mind, I begin to design. If your dungeon has its own theme, start there. 

Now, dwarves are famous for mining, making great cities underground, blacksmithing and other tropes. Any of these could be the basis of the encounter. Blacksmithing is calling to me today, however. That gives me the room description: a small forge completely ready to smelt and shape up to the wood and charcoal within the hearth. However, there is no metal to to work within the room. 

Throughout the dungeon, I can sprinkle ingots of different metals for the characters to find. Once the forge is lit, and the ingots are in place the tools then begin working themselves. Depending on what is put inside the forge, different items or hazards can be output (any items are +1 magic):
adamantium = ring of protection
aluminum = small magma elemental attacks
bronze = a jet of liquid metal sprays the room, doing 3d6 (save for half) to everyone inside
copper = a 6-sided die that always rolls 4
iron = helmet
mithril = thieves' tools
steel = dagger

And as I continue to develop the dungeon, I can add more varied materials to allow experimentation. I can add layers (after the 3rd time, a guardian may show up for example). 

Using your own themes, you can develop a fun room too! Just remember:
Don't immediately gratify the players all the time
Make it fun
Make sure it evokes the imagination

And above all, remember that not every room can be legendary! The must punctuate the area or level that they are within. If everything is special, then nothing is.

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