A megadungeon (or "campaign dungeon") is a dungeon complex that is both the focus of a campaign -- a 'tent pole," as explained in the post to which I linked above -- and too large to ever be "cleared" by even several parties of adventurers. Megadungeons are designed to be an ongoing and permanent feature of a campaign, not used and discarded like most dungeons published in the past.
Everything in bold below is from the essay
"Bigness or the problem of Large" by architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas from the book "Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large". Monacelli Press, New York, 1995. The entire essay is reprinted below. Megadungeon-relevant commentary inserted by me.
Beyond a certain scale, architecture acquires the properties of Bigness. The best reason to broach Bigness is the one given by climbers of Mount Everest: "because it is there."; Bigness is ultimate architecture.
I'm not addressing megadungeons because they're there (they're not). I broach the subject because they're fun. It is also possible to argue (as we'll see below) that the megadungeon is the ultimate dungeon--not just in that it is big, but that the features unique to dungeons take on greater importance in megadungeons and the features not unique to dungeons become even less important.
It seems incredible that the size of a building alone embodies an ideological program, independent of the will of its architects. Of all possible categories, Bigness does not seem to deserve a manifesto; discredited as an intellectual problem, it is apparently on its way to extinction - like the dinosaur-through clumsiness, slowness, inflexibility, difficulty. But in fact, only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields.
It is this "regime of complexity" that is the primary appeal of megadungeons. If you read this and are like "what complexity?" then what I mean about megadungeon complexity is here.
One hundred years ago, a generation of conceptual breakthroughs and supporting technologies unleashed an architectural Big Bang. By randomizing circulation, short-circuiting distance, artificializing interiors, reducing mass, stretching dimensions, and accelerating construction, the elevator, electricity, air- conditioning, steel, and finally the new infrastructures formed a cluster of mutations that induced another species of architecture. The combined effects of these inventions were structures taller and deeper-Bigger-than ever before conceive, with a parallel potential for the reorganization of the social worId - a vastly richer programmation.
Obviously the megadungeon is not enabled by any such technologies, however the idea of the megadungeon is informed by the new tech-aided buildings of the 2oth century--malls, megahotels, office buildings, megacruiseliners, etc.. Buildings so large the inhabitants do not have to know each other despite depending on the same resources. (The merger of these buildings and the actual megadungeon is in the Shadowrun concept of the arcology.) Important idea: many of the most uniquely-D&D concepts (that is, not inherited from Tolkien, folklore, or Conan) and ideas are those which wear the dressing of medieval fantasy but are clearly "intellectually enabled" by 20th century ideas.
Anyone who has been in a late-20th-century hospital knows what it's like to be in a building so Big and therefore illegible that it functions as a megadungeon.
Fuelled initially by the thoughtless energy of the purely quantitative, Bigness has been, for nearly a century, a condition almost without thinkers, a revolution without program. Delirious New York (one of the author's earlier books) implied a latent "Theory of Bigness"; based on five theorems.
l. Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.
A megadungeon version of this idea: beyond a certain critical mass, a dungeon no longer can be controlled by:
A-A single dominant in-game "ruler" or "faction", and, more interestingly for us here...
B-A single story or narrative thread or even aesthetic mood. Even if the dungeon is the most pathetic box-car-by-box-car linear bullshit, the mere logistical fact that different rooms will be cleared by different groups at different times (due to the fact that probably not exactly the same group of players will show up to every session) destroys any predictable narrative development.
As a counterexample, consider a microdungeon: Raggi's Death Frost Doom. Its moodiness and "weird tale" structure is dependent on a distinct small group of PCs encountering a small group of distinct threats and obstacles in certain ways. Certain decisions or mistakes "trip" send the story spiralling off into any of a few horror-movie directions and the tight construction of the dungeon (and the suggestion in the module that it be run in one session) support this.
2. The elevator - with its potential to establish mechanical rather than architectural connections-and its family of related inventions render null and void the classical repertoire of architecture. Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot. The "art"; of architecture is useless in Bigness.
The architectural idea is that once upon a time travel through a building could be "designed" by the architect as a sort of parade of unveiled vistas. First we see a facade (from various angles), then an atrium, then a stairwell, now a view from the stairwell, now a hallway...you could not go from part to part without experiencing the whole. Now your experience is divided up according to where the 10 minutes waiting for- and standing in- the little metal box appears in your journey.
What creates a parallel issue in the megadungeon is not the elevator but the previous delve. i.e.: the DM or author designs the movement (the crawling) from room to room as an experience--usually one of rising tension and slow discovery. However, once a room is experienced by a party, it can easily turn into "a place we already mapped" and so, on subsequent delves, this area is no longer "experienced"--and the DM has (and should have) little control over where the party finishes a session. The next session begins either:
-in the same place (but with a possibly slightly different cast of PCs, some of whom aren't familiar with the previous rooms)
-back at the surface, with all the cleared rooms as rooms to be "elevatored" past, or
-back at the surface, with all the cleared rooms to be re-experienced in a new way, not (usually) predicted by the DM when writing or prepping the dungeon
The overall effect is: just as the elevator lessens the degree to which the architect controls the experience and "reading" or a building, the episodic nature of megadungeons tends to lessen the degree to which the "reading" of a dungeon is controlled by the DM.
Every DM running a big dungeon has probably had the experience of having some players who leave a boss fight victorious but still baffled by half the dungeon's mysteries on account of having only been around for half the breadcrumb trail.
3. In Bigness, the distance between core and envelope increases to the point where the facade can no longer reveal what happens inside. The humanist expectation of "honesty" is doomed: interior and exterior architectures become separate projects, one dealing with the instability of programmatic and iconographic needs, the other - agent of disinformation - offering the city the apparent stability of an object. Where architecture reveals, Bigness perplexes; Bigness transforms the city from a summation of certainties into an accumulation of mysteries. What you see-is no longer what you get.
Koolhaas' idea here is that at one time, architects dreamed of a day when all buildings would announce their meaning and contents clearly to the public ( a legible city), all forms would announce their functions--and that this dream was annihilated once technology made it possible to have the center of a building so distant from its outer walls that the windows gave no clue to the life within and to have a building take on an exterior shape unrelated to the activities happening inside.
Now dungeons are based on this unknowability (all modern buildings are dungeons) however the idea of "exterior honesty" is important in a different way for megadungeon DMs:
It's almost impossible to get your shit together to write or buy and then properly prep a megadungeon unless you are fairly certain you are going to get to use it in your campaign. And it can be difficult, unfair and boring to put it in your campaign unless your players want to go into it--a lot. Making a megadungeon work requires a long term commitment from a lot of people. This is probably the real reason there aren't many and the few we see published aren't very complete or very good. You have to say "I am prepping a megadungeon, is everybody here ok with us doing pretty much dungeons for a few dozen sessions?" or else be running a regular game at your Friendly Local Game Store.
Thus: a megadungeon requires a commitment to commit to the unknown. "This campaign will be about...stuff you don't know what it is yet".
4. Through size alone,-such buildings enter an amoral domain, beyond good or bad. Their impact is independent of their quality.
Maybe the most interesting parallel here: just as the impact of a big building is often because it's big, not because it's good, megadungeons can be bad (that is: uninventive, unoriginal, mood-dead, aesthetically generic, bearing all the marks of creative cynicism) and still be fun, because they're big.
I ripped Ruins of Undermountain here for the "Three medusas waiting in a room" encounter (connected to nothing else important and yes, being among a million others just like it). However, I would never argue it wasn't fun to fight 3 medusas in a room. I would just say if someone was being paid to write it and you had to pay to get it from them then basic ethics demands most encounters be more than a free random dungeon generator could come up with.
(What's good dungeon design? For any DM:
-I couldn't have thought of it myself, and
-I like it.)
Point here is: the context of the megadungeon--its largeness, its disconnection from sources of resupply and succor (towns and taverns), its emphasis on basic survival needs (sleep, torches, rations), the density of its encounters, its constant intimation of something out-of-proportion-horrible about to happen--gives even "orc in a 10x10 room" a level of interestingness it didn't earn.
When you fight an orc in a 10 x 10 room after 3 hours in a megadungeon, it's mostly memorable not because it's an orc in a 10 x 10 room, but because it was after 3 hours in a megadungeon. Megadungeons are, thus far, a far better idea than what any publisher ever put in them. The megadungeon format--like whiskey, mood music and fast women--makes boring things interesting just by being there.
5. Together, all these breaks - with scale, with architectural composition, with tradition, with transparency, with ethics - imply the final, most radical break: Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue. It exists; at most, it coexists. Its subtext is fuck context.This isn't much of a stretch: the whole point of the dungeon is its difference from the world above. However, more subtly: megadungeon delves are so unpredictable that, in most cases, attempts to tie them in any necessary way to the intrigues outside the megadungeon are extremely difficult. The megadungeon is not only a world apart, it is--by definition--a world that can be explored in a million different ways. While events below can be tied to the politics, disasters and dramas in the surface world after the fact, tying them to specific objectives in the world in a "get this now" sense somewhat violates the open, exploratory spirit of the thing.
This is not an ironclad rule, but there are basic tensions here:
-You have time to design and prep a megadungeon or you have time to prep and design the world aboveground and its intrigues. You very well may not have time for both. (May be why so many long-time dungeon merchants like published settings, even if they're total vanilla.)
-Either what's in the megadungeon is urgently important to the world outside it or it isn't. If it is, then the megadungeon may lose some of its "free exploration" feeling ("Just find the gold monkey and save the princess, dammit, forget the mystery portal in room 45!"), if it isn't then nothing in the world outside can be that world-shakingly important either, or else you'd be aboveground dealing with it. There are ways of dealing with this tension, but it's always a problem to be solved if a megadungeon isn't the only thing going in the campaign.
Here begins an extended and jargon-filled historical digression I have half a mind to just skip 'cause it's sorta beside the point, but I won't because:
-what Koolhaas describes as responses to "Bigness" to some degree mirror the responses to D&D's idea of dungeoneering-as-central-to-RPGing
-examinations of things which aren't dungeoneering throw some light on the appeal of dungeoneering
In 1970s, Bigness seemed a phenomenon of and for (the) New World(s).
In 1970s, Megadungeons seemed a phenomenon of and for a small group of hobbyists.
But in the second half of the eighties, signs multiplied of a new wave of modernization that would engulf - in more or less camouflaged form - the Old WorId, provoking episodes of a new beginning even on the "finished"; continent. Against the background of Europe, the shock of Bigness forced us to make what was implicit in Delirious New York explicit in our work.In the second half of the eighties, the entire rest of the world was introduced to megadungeons via video games. Super Mario being an early standout example.
Bigness became a double polemic, confronting earlier attempts at integration and concentration and contemporary doctrines that question the possibility of the Whole and the Real as viable categories and resign themselves to architecture's supposedly inevitable disassembly and dissolution.
Now we got a lotta postmodern jargon here, but the idea for us is: despite the "cinematic" interpretation of running a game, the ideas about negotiating (rigorously imagined) physical space implied in megadungeons haven't disappeared off the radar of the popular imagination. The fun of the dungeoneers repertoire--resource management, outside-the-box-but-inside-the-system problem-solving, turning the system against itself, threat-of-death-as-spur-to-invention etc.--isn't as easily ignored as it might have once been when everyone was pretending old D&D was just a cro-magnon version of how games were supposed to work.
Europeans had surpassed the threat of Bigness by theorizing it beyond the point of application. Their contribution had been the "gift" of the megastructure, a kind of all-embracing, all-enabling technical support that ultimately questioned the status of the individual building: a very safe Bigness, its true implications excluding implementation. Yona Friedman's urbanisme spatiale (1958) was emblematic: Bigness floats over Paris like a metallic blanket of clouds, promising unlimited but unfocused potential renewal of "everything," but never lands, never confronts, never claims its rightful place. Criticism as decoration.
The architectural ideas Koolhaas is talking about here are techno-neo-utopian ideas which treat the whole city or environment as one big building--plug-in buildings, build-anywhere structures, mutifunction locations, etc.
This echoes various attempts in gaming to treat everything as a megadungeon--that is, a large-but-mappable space primarily defined by combat encounters and measured rigor. Citystate of the Invincible Overlord (every shopkeeper has levels), Ptolus (every shopkeeper is a bloodtroll), and various mostly-failed attempts to somehow turn every hex of a continent into simultaneously a battlemat and a believable wilderness space, mostly through random encounter tables which have you either fighting bears and wolves pretty much every hex or which make dragons and levelled-NPCs so ubiquitous that the world loses all its magic.
2e and 3.5 made everything measured and nailed down and then convinced nearly everyone that was a bad idea. The whole-world-as-dungeon didn't quite work.
In 1972, Beaubourg-Platonic Loft-had proposed spaces where "anything' was possible. The resulting flexibility was unmasked as the imposition of a theoretical average at the expense of both character and precision-entity at the price of identity.Basically: drow-and-mind-flayers-everywhere "world-as-dungeon" situations only end up showing how unique and unreproducible a real megadungeon situation actually is.
Perversely, its sheer demonstrativeness precluded the genuine neutrality realized without effort in the American skyscraper.
By creating situations where monsters serve a specific and integrated function in the aboveground world as a way to make the game about more things than just dungeons, what ended up happening more often than not is the true "they could be or want anything, who knows?" situation created by having most monsters be mysterious denizens of a "meaning-neutral" underworld was lost.
So marked was the generation of May '68, my generation, supremely intelligent, well informed, correctly traumatized by selected cataclysms, frank in its borrowings from other disciplines- by the failure of this and similar models of density and integration-by their systematic insensitivity to the particular-that it proposed two major defense lines: dismantlement and disappearance.
Translation here: gaming had two responses to the failure of dungeoneering to meet everyone's gaming needs...
In the first, the world is decomposed into incompatible fractals of uniqueness, each a pretext for further disintegration of-the whole: a paroxysm of fragmentation that turns the particular into a system. Behind this breakdown of program according to the smallest functional particles looms the perversely unconscious revenge of the old form- follows-function doctrine that drives the content of the project--behind fireworks of intellectual and formal sophistication--relentlessly toward the anticlimax of diagram, doubly disappointing since its aesthetic suggests the rich orchestration of chaos. In this landscape of dismemberment and phony disorder, each activity is put in its place.
This is the narrative approach: physical structures aren't important--what players do in them is. Though in reality, they are obeying an entirely different order: order imposed by ideas about how story arcs and character development work. Old Blah blah blah on this subject here.
The programmatic hybridizations/proximities/frictions/overlaps/superpositions that are possible in Bigness-in fact, the entire apparatus of montage: -invented at the beginning of the century to organize relationships between independent parts-are being undone by one section of the present avant-garde in compositions of almost laughable pedantry and rigidity, behind apparent wildness.
Translation: "Some people make games that try way too hard to promote specific values". But, really, fuck those people. They aren't reading this--they can't read.
The second strategy, disappearance,transcends the question of Bigness- of massive presence-through an extended engagement with simulation, virtuality, nonexistence. A patchwork of arguments scavenged since the sixties from American sociologists, ideologues, philosophers, French intellectuals, cybermystics, etc., suggests that architecture will be the first "solid that melts into air"through the combined effects of demographic trends, electronics, media, speed, the economy, leisure,the death of God, the book, the phone, the fax, affluence, democracy, the end of the Big Story...
Preempting architecture's actual disappearance, this avant-garde is experimenting with real or simulated virtuality, reclaiming, in the name of modesty, its former omnipotence in the world of virtual reality (where fascism may be pursued with impunity?).
Translation: World of Warcraft and its cognates. The physical mapping and full descriptive rigor of a megadungeon isn't important in these situations, only the experience of being in one.
Paradoxically, the Whole and the Real ceased to exist as possible enterprises for the architect exactly at the moment where the approaching end of the second millennium saw an all-out rush to reorganization, consolidation, expansion, a clamoring for megascale.
All the concentration and craft required to produce a megadungeon was on the one hand downplayed by WOTC D&D and, on the other hand, demanded by a generation raised to think of "video game designer" as a plausible career option.
Otherwise engaged, an entire profession was incapable, finally, of exploiting dramatic social and economic events that, if confronted, could restore its credibility.
The absence of a theory of Bigness-what is the maximum architecture can do- is architecture's most debilitating weakness.
Is the absence of "Megadungeon Theory" the most debilitating weakness of megadungeons?
Maybe not, however:
No published megadungeon is that good. A body of shared knowledge about what-hasn't-been-tried-but-might-work, what's-already-been-done-so-don't-do-it-again, what-works-pretty-well-and-is-adaptable, might one day contribute to whatever the first actually soup-to-nuts inventive, original, interesting and near-maximum-fun megadungeon open to public view.
Without a theory of Bigness, architects are in the position of Frankenstein's creators: instigators of a partly successful experiment whose results are running amok and are therefore discredited.Because there is no theory of Bigness, we don't know what to do with it, we don't know where to put it, we don't know when to use it, we don't know how to plan it. Big mistakes are our only connection to Bigness.
Because nearly every published megadungeon is little more than a sprawling trail of disconnected rooms designed by crazy wizards containing devices hidden in random dungeon features that do a little bit of damage what we know about how to actually make a megadungeon work any other way is limited.
But in spite of its dumb name, Bigness is a theoretical domain at this fin de siecle: in a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility.
Maybe you really like your crazy wizard dungeons full of devices hidden in random dungeon features that do a little bit of damage but can you argue with wanting to reclaim maximum possibility? No you cannot. There is no devil's advocate position for Think Harder And Be More Creative. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and it would be nice to get at least 2 or 3 more methods on the dissecting table.
Only through Bigness can architecture dissociate itself from the exhausted artistic/ideological movements of modernism and formalism to regain its instrumentality as vehicle of modernization. Bigness recognizes that architecture as we know it is in difficulty, but it does not overcompensate through regurgitations of even more architecture.
It proposes a new economy in which no longer " all is architecture," but in which a strategic position is regained through retreat and concentration, yielding the rest of a contested territory to enemy forces.
Ignoring the rhetoric and focusing on the end bit there: to commit to a megadungeon in a campaign means other things aren't going to get worked on. This is perhaps the toughest hurdle for everybody: the commitment on the part of GM and players--this thing is definitely gonna get explored, so it's definitely gonna get prepped and/or written.
Bigness destroys, but it is also a new beginning. It can reassemble what it breaks. A paradox of Bigness is that in spite of the calculation that goes into its planning -in fact, through its very rigidities-it is the one architecture that engineers the unpredictable.
We all know this. Despite the attention to torchlight, distances, hit points, armor class, encumbrance and all the fiddly bits, it is this attention to detail which makes what happens on the dungeon so unpredictable. Oh if only you hadn't run out of oil...oh if only you hadn't slept in the shrine... Since you pay attention to details, any one of those details can fuck with any other one of them.
Instead of enforcing coexistence' Bigness depends on regimes of freedoms, the assembly of maximum difference
Translation: the isolation and largeness of the megadungeon allows for the antlion to lay down next to the spiderlamb. (Without spoiling the verisimilitude of the world above.)
Only Bigness can sustain a promiscuous proliferation of events in a single container. It develops strategies to organize both their independence and interdependence within a larger entity in a symbiosis that exacerbates rather than compromises specificity. Through contamination rather than purity and quantity rather than quality, only Bigness can support genuinely new relationships between functional entities that expand rather than limit their identities.
"Through contamination rather than purity and quantity rather than quality"--there you go. The Megadungeon is exciting precisely because you do not know what story your 2 fighters, 2 clerics and a dwarf will hitch up between what independent factions while careening through your deathmaze in search of filthy lucre.
The artificiality and complexity of Bigness release function from its defensive armor to allow a kind of liquefaction; programmatic elements returns with each other to create new events-Bigness returns to a model of programmatic alchemy.
The ogre wants this, the witch wants that, they know each other because of you.
At first sight, the activities amassed in the structure of Bigness demand to interact, but Bigness also keeps them apart. Like plutonium rods that, more or less immersed, dampen or promote nuclear reaction, Bigness regulates the intensities of programmatic coexistence.
Although Bigness is a blueprint for perpetual intensity, it also offers degrees of serenity and even blandness. It is simply ; impossible to animate its entire mass with intention. Its vastness exhausts architecture's compulsive need to decide and determine. Zones will be left out, free from architecture.To quote Borges: "A memory of unspeakable melancholy: at times I have traveled for many nights through corridors and along polished stairways without finding a single librarian."
Bigness is where architecture becomes both most and least architectural: most because of the enormity of the object; least through the loss of autonomy -it becomes instrument of other forces, it depends.Unlike a palace or temple or castle, a megadungeon isn't defined by what it was built for, it is defined by what's going on in it.
Bigness is impersonal: the architect is no -longer condemned to stardom. Even as Bigness enters the stratosphere of architectural ambition-the pure chill of megalomania -it can be achieved only at the price of giving up control, of transmogrification.Possibility: because of all the difficulties of producing one, the first actually good and publicly-available megadungeon may have to be a collective effort, not an individual one.
It implies a web of umbilical cords to other disciplines whose performance is as critical as' the arehitect's: like mountain climbers tied together by lifesaving ropes, the makers of Bigness are a team (a word not mentioned in the last 40 years of architectural polemic).
Maybe we'll have to work together. People make monsters, people make trick rooms, people make triggered events, people make maps, people make tables.
Beyond signature, Bigness means surrender to technologies; to engineers, contractors, manufacturers; to politics; to others. It promises architecture a kind of post-heroic status--a realignment with neutrality.
The serial and unpredictable nature of megadungeon exploration suggests a lessening of tight control over the aesthetic of the dungeon. An attention the engineering and organization of tools for possible experiences rather than a dedication to a single kind of experience.
If the megadungeon does become a truly collaborative project, then you have to be even more open to the possibility of aesthetic swerves--from the gritty to the spooky to the whimsical to the nerd-puzzly to the hack to the slash.
Bastion If Bigness transforms architecture, its accumulation generates a new kind of city. The exterior of the city is no longer a collective theater where "it" happens; there's no collective "it" left. The street has become residue, organizational device, mere segment of the continuous metropolitan plane where the remnants of the past face the equipments of the new in an uneasy standoff.
As stated earlier: true dedication to the megadungeon is going to deplete attention to the rest of the campaign. The tavern just turns into a meeting place. We know all this.
Bigness can exist any where on that plane. Not only is Bigness incapable of establishing relationships with the classical city--at most, it coexists--but in the quantity and complexity of the facilities it offers, it is itself urban.Bigness no longer needs the city: it competes with the city; it represents the city; it preempts the city; or better still, it is the city. If urbanism generates potential and architecture exploits it, Bigness enlists the generosity of urbanism against the meanness of architecture. Bigness = urbanism vs. architecture.
If the megadungeon is itself urban, this opens up the possibility of whether it can be done like the city kit: as tools for making a space rather than a space. My instinct is that this defeats the purpose in most cases. The possible portability of certain tools is not excluded...
Another important consideration: relationships between cities and other cities are essential to the nature of cities. Relationships between megadungeons are--at best--an underexplored phenomenon.
Bigness, through its very independence of context, is the one architecture that can survive, even exploit, the now-global condition of the tabula rasa: it does not take its inspiration from givens too often squeezed for the last drop of meaning; it gravitates opportunistically to locations of maximum infrastructural promise; it is, finally, its own raison d'etre. In spite of its size, it is modest.
We all know this about megadungeons: of any adventure format, they require the least outside context to function.
Not all architecture, not all program, not all events will be swallowed by Bigness. There are many "needs" too unfocused, too weak, too unrespectable, too defiant, too secret, too subversive, too weak, too "nothing" to be part of the constellations of Bigness.
And not everything can fit in a megadungeon.
Bigness is the last bastion of architecture-a contraction, a hyper- architecture.The containers of Bigness will be landmarks in a post-architectural landscape-a world scraped of architecture in the way Richter's paintings are scraped of paint: inflexible, immutable, definitive, forever there, generated through superhuman effort. Bigness surrenders the field to after-architecture.
The megadungeon is the exaggeration of every possibility unique to the dungeon. The crawling, the darkness, the unknown, the trapped, the unfamiliar.
Problem: Once we do a megadungeon right, it'll be done. Then we'll have to figure out how to do everything else.