Saturday, March 7, 2009

Leery of the Whole Mega-Dungeon . . . Thing

It's a staple of the old school revival, supposedly, the 'tent-pole mega-dungeon' around which the entire campaign is based. As a player, it's a great deal of fun to remember "the hobgoblins on the 3rd level" and how you tricked them into the lair of the dragon on the 4th, thus eliminating two problems in one fell swoop. And I suppose that it's a lot of fun on the part of the GM to showcase everything he has in one easily accessible location, complete with convenient adventuring town no more than a day's journey away. From all this perspective, I like the idea of a mega-dungeon.

However, the mega-dungeon has always cramped my style so to speak. It's always impinged upon my sensibilities of how things "should" go. There's nothing wrong with a large "dungeon" per se, but I'm always plagued by the questions of what function the dungeon originally had before it was inhabited by goblins, kobolds, orcs, and etc. What did it do? Why was it built? In a way, I'm always a bit like Gollum, always worrying at the roots of things, looking for the beginnings of things. In the end, I look at the dungeons, crypts, and caverns in my own campaigns as all having functions, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that from a strictly functional standpoint, smaller is better.

From the point of view of "normal fantasy" why, if you were going to build a prison would you build a monstrously huge structure twelve levels deep with the possibility of unexpected entrances all over when, in fact, a small shell keep with a few dozen iron barred cells in the center would do immeasurably better? What in the world would posses somebody, or several somebodies, to dig out a massive twelve level complex the size of a metropolis and just as densely populated? It would be a massive waste of resources when something a tenth that size would do. Even the Tower of London, one of the most infamous prisons of the Middle Ages and sometimes residence of the royal family, is remarkably small. Even Ch√Ęteau d'If wasn't particularly massive (something on the order of three or four main levels and a tower or two).

Why are we so eager to fall into the mantra of more is better when, from my perspective, more is too often simply that: more.

Don't get me wrong, I believe there's nothing wrong with large dungeons, as long as there's a believable rational behind them. History has its fair share of them including the sewers and catacombs of Paris, the Underground system of London, and any number of such places that, if I were either brave or stupid . . . or both . . . I might love to explore. I have the germinating seed of an ancient dwarven city, decimated by a plauge centuries ago, through which the last few undead wander performing whatever task they did in life endlessly, crowding out other, more important things in my head: like the password to the database at work.

But in the end, I'm a great believer that there's more bang for the buck in smaller, more meaningful locations. Places that are more than just "the dungeon" and I as the GM don't have to make excuses for the players to go to but they naturally, if reluctantly at times, head for. That castle on the hill that they've been skirting around now for almost a year (of actual play!) that they know they will eventually have to enter and they're sure that whatever they find in there they're not going to like. One of the greatest "dungeons" of all time, I think, was straight out of Beowulf, the Dragon's Barrow in which the treasure of a long lost people rested and the eponymous wyrm brooded over the loss of a single cup from its discovered hoard. Beowulf didn't run off to slay the dragon because here was another chance at adventure and glory. I've always been able to hear quietly in the background the great king mumbling "awe crap, here's yet another thing I have to go kill because some idiot thief couldn't keep his fingers in his pockets when I'd rather be enjoying a good cup of strong wine, idiot peasants never had it so good. . ."

"Adventurer" should never be a legitimate career choice. At best, to the world around them, these persons are little better than wandering vagabonds. They're obviously dangerous, carry large numbers of weapons, meddle readily with the forces of darkness and break the laws of nature on a whim. Nothing sticks in my craw more than reading published modules that have as their hook the idiotic premise that the local king or lord is seeking to actually locate and hire these idiots who are followed by danger and misfortune like a stray puppy. The most common phrase an adventurer should know is "We thank you for killing Thorbald the Dark, Unleasher of Plagues, but would you kindly now get the hell out? You're frightening the townfolk."

By the same token, I as the GM (and often as a player) have some overriding urge to see things make sense. Why are there kobolds, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, a red dragon, 13 carrion crawlers, two rust monsters, and 37 rot grubs all living in such close proximity to each other without there being an all out furball conflict between them all? Why in the world aren't they all seeking the seclusion of their own? For that matter, why in the world would they be moving into a large dungeon complex filled to the brim with clever tricks and traps of the ancients when a nice, quiet, untrapped location could be theirs for the taking?

In the end, I think that a mega-dungeon raises more questions than I, as a GM, am prepared to answer. It feels too much like laying all my cards out on the table in one giant pile rather than carefully playing them in a slow game, one corner at a time so that the players aren't sure if they're looking at the corner of a seven of clubs, or a nine.

1 comment:

  1. The most common phrase an adventurer should know is "We thank you for killing Thorbald the Dark, Unleasher of Plagues, but would you kindly now get the hell out? You're frightening the townfolk."

    Be nice to the adventurers Madge... They just killed Thorbald the Dark and the only thing keeping them from doing the same to us is a poorly worded alignment system...