Friday, January 11, 2013

Does System Matter in the World of Megadungeons?

Map by by Tim Hartin

Does the system used to play through a Megadungeon matter? I'm not talking about converting from one system to another.

What I mean to say is this: "Are some RPG systems a better match for the Megadungeon format than others?"

I suspect that less heavy systems fair better in a Megadungeon environment.

So, OD&D through AD&D and their assorted clones would be a good match. D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder less so, as combats get more intricate and drawn out. D&D 4x would be a horror from a time investment alone.

Dungeon World would probably fair very well, as would Tunnels & Trolls.

Rolemaster / HARP I think would crumble under the lethality (and long term crippling potential) of the combat system without some major houseruling.

GURPS Fantasy would probably make a poor fit for the above reasons.

I don't have enough experience with Savage Worlds to definitively say one way or another, but I suspect not.

Am I wrong? Would 4e work in a Megadungeon?

I'm sure I missed some systems, so let me know what you think? Which ones would work and which ones wouldn't.

Heck, could you make a Megadungeon that plays to the strengths of the systems that wouldn't otherwise be a good fit?


  1. GURPS Fantasy would probably make a poor fit for the above reasons.

    I've got 19 game sessions, 11 in a megadungeon (12th on Sunday), all with GURPS that say otherwise.

    It's been both a lot of fun and a really good matchup of system. The lethality - and the potentially nasty crippling - isn't any more of an obstacle than low HP are in D&D. In fact, I think the risk of death inherent in any given GURPS fight makes delving in a big dungeon more of a series of calculated risks and less of a resource-management issue.

  2. Bear in mind that AD&D (1E) had rules that were specifically geared towards gaming in a megadungeon. Those odd powers that dwarves and gnomes have? New construction, depth underground, direction underground; those are explicitly designed for use in a megadungeon environment. The dungeon random encounter tables? Set up exactly for a vast megadungeon complex. And of course there are other examples as well.

  3. @Peter - I gladly stand corrected :)

    @Jospeh - those are very good points that I probably never paid enough attention to in the past - but will now!

  4. I've run many a 3.x session in megadungeons and they worked great. The only 4e game I played in was a megadungeon and it was a freaken' riot.

    Games with more potent healing magics handle megadungeons better than games that use "off screen" healing (where you only heal when you sleep, for instance). Low magic games thus don't handle it well at all - I played in a Chivalry & Sorcery game that went megadungeon, and it just didn't handle it well.

  5. I would agree with both Peter D and Joseph, so I am not sure that system is necessarily a make or break sort of thing.

    I think it raises the question as to how do you adjust your dungeon design (and play) to take advantage of what a system has to offer. Assuming that there are different systems that support megadungeon play, how much do you design your dungeon around an individual system?

  6. BTW, I think Dyson makes a great point. There is a point of frustration in megadungeon play with low-level early edition D&D type of games. Characters with few magical resources for combat and healing do not get very far before having to retreat, rest, and recover.

  7. RQ and cthulhu systems are deadly yet both have some huge dungeons. Some cities are mega dungeons. dnd is built exactly for this. computer games and table games have same issue of having to stop to get loot out and train but the use of gate scrolls to go to shops is over the top solution. My players enjoy in between dungeons more but that's probably my fault. My current long stair game (see my blog) and proposed imperial dungeon engineer corp have military build rails into dungeons and put forward bases and armed camps in dungeons - so mega dungeon feels more like a wilderness game - escorts guard party till they get to new zone and can be met again (hopefully) to carry loot back for the party. A dungeon pigeon service or equivalent would be handy.

  8. I've played with Dragon Warriors, Rolemaster, MERP, D&D3 and a few other minor systems, and the conclusion I've come to is that the adventures need to be designed or redesigned for the strengths and weaknesses in each system - the type and frequency of healing and magic power regeneration, and the ease of items or magic providing this, is probably the key difference.

    I've recently tried converting and running B11 and 12 for Rolemaster, for some reason that seemed good at the time. King's Festival was actually okay, but the combat was lethal and the traps weren't. The logic of B12 was lost in the Rolemaster system - a lone party assaulting a well defended military fortress - and it was impossible to run without completely gutting the adventure.

    Another big difference would be the focus on non-combat skills, for the systems that actually have them... ;)

  9. Thought I'd mention the title is "mAgE dungeon". Might have meant it to be "mEgA dungeon".

    I think the greatest influence on running a megadungeon is (as always) the game master. So much in any rule system is a matter of interpretation.

    1. Yeah, but aren't a lot of mEgAdungeons actually mAgEdungeons? I know mine is... ;)

  10. The XP system has a lot to do with it, I think.

    Within just the various games named D&D, and all the clones, simulacra and spin-offs, those that hand out both combat and non-combat XP (XP for gold, exploration, or hand-wavey story awards) fit the megadungeon style of game better than those that only award combat (3 and 4E, by the book).

    Thematicly, some games also could work, but it might not seem right to use it. Flying Swordsmen, for example, could easily work in a megadungeon designed for wuxia heroes to explore, but since most of the source media doesn't involve dungeon delving, many players* might balk at the idea.

    *I don't think anyone actually runs FS besides me, but I'm still hoping...

    1. 4e has compulsory hand-wavey Quest story awards, BTB. So if the PCs are in the dungeon searching for the Sword of Crom, that is either a Minor or Major quest, and the GM awards XP equivalent to either a monster (Minor) or group of monsters (Major) for quest achievement.

      This works well in exploratory play if the players select & communicate their goals. Finding stairs down to the next level could be a Minor quest; defeating the BBEG controlling the dungeon level, or rescuing the princess before he sacrifices her to Baphomet, could be a Major quest. Quest level could typically equate to dungeon level, PC level, or primary threat level - I tend to go with threat level, so eg currently my 10th level PCs are aiming to loot the Temple of Emerald Dawn, a 12th level dragon. If they succeed they'll get a level 12 major quest XP award.

    2. 4e also has, RAW, XP for Skill Challenges - which I find I am making more and more use of. Making "finding your way through a dangerous area" an SC, with each failure rolled bringing about a "random encounter" worth 1/2 the XP of the challenge (but giving no extra XP - you just get the SC XP) works pretty well. So does an SC for getting surprise and intelligence about a "static" encounter. Both of these feed quite nicely into the "megadungeon" setup, I think.

  11. I ran the Lost City of Barakus tentpole dungeon in 3e, and I ran Vault of Larin Karr with its dungeon/wilderness/Underdark matrix in 4e.

    4e does well at big dynamic fights with complex terrain. A monster lair of say 15 troglodytes across 4 chambers works well as a single 4e encounter. Umpteen separate minor '1 monster in room' type encounters don't work well in 4e. This is occasionally a problem in running a megadungeon if the PCs would logically encounter a lone, weak monster, but not generally a big issue IME. 3e/PF allow for a wider variety of encounters, although rolling initiative can be a painful time sink if you have lots of very minor fights.

    Where 4e and 3e/PF fall down of course is in length of combat, the fights can suck up most of an evening's play. This then leaves little time for the exploration dynamic - fight/explore/fight/explore - that traditional megadungeons rely on. 3e/PF can be reasonably quick at 1st-2nd level, but even by 3rd level it starts to grind a bit. A good solution is to use the Pathfinder Beginner Box rules instead, the simplified combat rules at least double play speed and can be used above 5th level.

    I think 4e can do expeditionary megadungeon play well, with each subsection of the dungeon treated as its own encounter or delve (short series of linked encounters). The players would need to decide "Tonight we assault the Crypt of Eyes!", then you run the Crypt of Eyes as a single big dynamic encounter (if inhabited by a single group of coordinated foes) or delve (if inhabited by several rival groups, unintelligent creatures, etc). On this model the scouting/exploration of the general expanse is preliminary to the assault/delve on a specific locale, and will rarely trigger encounters unless the PCs screw up and get ambushed or blunder into something. Something like Tolkien's Mines of Moria section would work well in 4e - a long period of exploration without combat, followed by an intense series of battles over a brief period.

    1. I've expanded my thoughts slightly here: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?333707-Tips-on-running-Megadungeons-in-4e&p=6072646#post6072646

      Random encounters need to work a bit differently in 4e. The occasional big solo wandering monster or humanoid long range patrol can work ok as a 4e encounter, and I've occasionally generated random d% - 33 - '1d6 troglodytes' type encounters and had them work well. Often though the random encounter check should be more about whether you alert your enemies, such as the inhabitants of a nearby lair - it's not about a threat that will itself defeat the party, it's about eliminating those two orcs before they alert the entire tribe.

  12. These words of Ken Harrison show a lot of wisdom:

    "I think it raises the question as to how do you adjust your dungeon design (and play) to take advantage of what a system has to offer. Assuming that there are different systems that support megadungeon play, how much do you design your dungeon around an individual system?"

    I run a lot of classic edition games, but I also enjoy and run a lot 4e. In particular, I enjoy bringing more old-school influence into 4e. That is really my whole purpose in blogging, and my upcoming free fanzine is really a hybrid of classic editions and 4e. I have run an updated Tegel Manor game, which while not technically a megadungeon is still 240+ rooms. I also have a megadungeon appearing in my zine in serial form (a new level each issue).

    Anyway, I can certainly understand how some might not think 4e is suited to that style of game. There are two culprits for this imo. The first is the 4e designers' god awful grinding adventures they released for the game. They amounted to nothing but combat, and I don't care what system you use, every room being a big combat encounter is boring design. Sadly, I think a lot of 4e DMs and players were influenced by this, and this style of play became assumed at many (not all) tables. 4e simply cannot work in a megadungeon if every room is a combat encounter; it is a slow, soul-killing grind. The second culprit is that a lot of 4e players and DMs, for multiple reasons, fight every encounter to the death. I have played with literally dozens of 4e DMs and hundreds of players, and it is rare to see encounters avoided through clever tactics, or to see either side run, even when the monsters are getting obliterated. My primary solution to this is a 4e morale system, and it has worked like a charm in my 4e games.

    At the risk of sounding self-serving, I have a couple of related blog posts to share on the topic, as it is near and dear to me.

    Here is my post on running 4e megadungeons


    Here is my post on a morale system for 4e.


    Another great topic Tenkar, gj!

  13. Hmm, I'd never really considered mega-dungeons from the perspective of what system works with them. My old system, Chivalry & Sorcery, was definitely not suited for extended dungeon exploration. Most editions of D&D are well suited--although I haven't really played 4E and so can't properly comment on it. One problem with D&D in general is the "5 minute workday" syndrome with respect to healing and spells. The party constantly has to barricade themselves in somewhere so the casters can recover, again and again.

    1. I think that's more of a 5 minute workday "attitude" than it is a "syndrome". If the magic-users blow their allotment of spells in the proverbial "5 minutes", that means they're (often) managing that resource poorly. And speaking of resources, that's torches and food they're going through, and a TON of wandering monster checks, some of which might be able to get past the barricade or set traps or the like.

      The 5 minute workday is only a problem if it's a viable option, which I think it often isn't.

  14. Im just guessing here, but I'd say that it's one of those "rules or rulings"-smokescreens.

    If the game system (not as written, but as enforced by your group) says that you roll a d20 and high is better, except for this case where high is worse, and this case where you actually roll two d8s - and oh... then there's this one time you roll triple-d4s and drop the lowest - but for now we're gonna go with 50/50 if you're all ok with that, then it would seem like a megadungeon system to me.

    If, on the other hand, the system (written or otherwise) says that there's this one, objectively good, rule that applies to every situation, chances are it won't make for a great megadungeon.

    Again i might be mistaken, but to me the principal quality of the megadungeon is that it constantly brings new variations on a rather limited theme: you open a door, you face an obstacle, you choose the next door. To be exciting, the obstacles must be varied so that you don't know what to expect behind the next door. The more your game says that every obstacle - no matter what it is - can be overcome by the same die roll, the more you know what to expect.


    (On a sidenote, i think the other type of system (One rule to rule them all-systems) might work perfectly fine in other situations. Like if you were in a megadungeon and the adventure was mostly about "soft" issues like who could make someone else feel ashamed for some amoral shit they did. Of if you weren't in a megadungeon at all and there was new stuff everywhere and therefore other ways to change the pace of the action)


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