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The Dungeon as a Campaign

In the 1970s and early 80s, when someone talked about their campaign, they'd say, "In my dungeon..." It wasn't until later on that people would say, "In my world..." At some point, D&D left the dungeon, and became about worldbuilding.*

Is it possible to go back? Of course. Products like Ruins of Undermountain, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, World's Largest Dungeon, and Castle Whiterock prove that it's possible to create a single campaign that takes place entirely or mostly in one large underground complex.

Perhaps a better question would be, should we go back? Should we try to create a whole campaign around a dungeon? Or rather, a megadungeon? Here's why the answer might be yes:Rolling Dice

  1. The megadungeon provides focus. Even if it's far too big to be fully explored, let alone "cleared," it gives the players a sense of managable adventure--it gives them a goal or goals that they can immediately and easily grasp.
  2. The dungeon offers options in a manageable way. Rather than a thousand plotlines scattered across a continent, there's basically one adventure location. It allows both players and DM to really delve (pun intended) into the single area and explore its depths, rather than shallowly touch on a location here or there. While the PCs always have choices, they don't have an infinite number of choices.
  3. The dungeon allows the players, rather than the DM, to control the difficulty level. If you adopt the assumption that things get harder as you go deeper, the players can decide whether to go to a deeper level or continue exploring the level they are on. And if they also understand that with greater challenges come greater rewards, they can manage their risks versus their potential rewards.
  4. The megadungeon offers any and all possibilities for adventures. Exploration? Check. Combat? Check. Traps? Check. Puzzles? Check. Interaction with NPCs? Check. It offers interesting and strange environments of all kinds, even those that one would never expect in an underground catacomb. The PCs could find a magic teleporter that takes them temporarily to an outdoor setting, or a huge cavern that for all intents and purposes is a wilderness of its own (maybe filled with fungi, or maybe filled with a magical forest, jungle, etc.). There could be an underwater portion of the dungeon. Gates to other planes. There could even be a city down there, or the dungeon might connect up with an existing urban area on the surface. (All of these things will be true in 
  5. The megadungeon provides an easy means for incorporating recurring villains. With the PCs and NPCs traipsing about in a somewhat limited area, it's not hard to engineer multiple encounters with the same foe or foes.
  6. The dungeon/surface creates a nice cut-and-dried dichotomy of unknown and the known. When the PCs enter the dungeon, they know things are not safe. When they leave, they know they're probably safe, or at least safer (and you can play with that assumption later in the campaign). This dichotomy also builds on player expectation. In the dungeon, they'll expect to explore, fight, and overcome obstacles. Out of the dungeon, they'll expect to interact with NPCs, trade, craft items, and so on.

So then, how do you do it? How do run a dungeon as a campaign without the players getting bored?

Well, first of all, you expand your horizons about what the definition of a megadungeon is. You incorporate all the changes in environment and play experiences mentioned in point 4, above, and more. The actual rooms-and-corridors standard concept of the dungeon isn't the entire campaign, it's just the focal point of it. The campaign itself also involves the area around the dungeon, places the dungeon links to (physically, like an old ruin on the surface or the Underdark, and magically, like other distant locations or other planes), and nearby urban areas that the PCs must travel to. In other words, the dungeon campaign is going to involve a lot of adventures in locations other than traditional underground rooms and corridors.

Second, you make those rooms and corridors as interesting as possible. Worry less about "realism" and more about fun. (I'll be writing here in future entries about the difference between realism and believability. In short, however, chasing after the former can lead you astray if you're not careful, but the latter can go nicely hand in hand with excitement and fun.) Use the dungeon as a magical place to stage thrilling encounters with strange conditions--collapsing floors, rivers of lava, areas without gravity, and so on. Use the alien underground environment to place strange creatures, treasures, and obstacles that you would never find on the surface. And make use of the alienation and feeling of displacement the player characters (and the players) feel when they are deep, deep within the dungeon to create nail-biting tension and awe-inspiring wonder. 

Lastly, you make the dungeon a dynamic place that is always changing, both because of PC actions and NPC actions. You make the dungeon so big that it's an environment, not a single locale. The PCs can no more clear it out and "finish" it than they can clear out an entire desert or mountain range and finish that.

When running a dungeon campaign, give the player characters an opportunity to leave the dungeon to rest, recuperate, and re-equip. Create adventures that link to events and creatures in the dungeon that take place outside of the dungeon. The nest of dopplegangers the PCs stirred up come after them in the nearby town, for example. The curse associated with the artifact they bring to the surface alters the surrounding land. The evil temple the PCs raided in the dungeon sends demons to attack them while they rest in the lands above.

Likewise, events on the surface affect the dungeon. War ravages the surrounding lands, making travel to and from the dungeon more difficult. New adventurers come from a distant land to raid the dungeon for treasure even as the PCs continue their explorations. NPCs, hearing about the PCs' successes in the dungeon, arrive to commission them to find an entirely new treasure or complete some other quest within the labyrinths below.

It all comes down to keeping thing dynamic, keeping things interesting, and changing things around from time to time. Which really are perhaps three of the main tactics for running any good campaign, dungeon or no.  


*Of course, I'm generalizing here. Plenty of DMs (including myself) before then were worldbuilding, and plenty were running virtually nothing but dungeons after that point.

Copyright 2006-2010 Monte J. Cook; Copyright 2010-2011 Super Genius Games