On Gameplay in the Megadungeon

It's different than you might expect.

There are three primary activities that take place within the megadungeon.

Exploration: This is the process of moving within the environment. The key factors in this are moving from area to area, examining things and searching for secrets, avoiding traps, and mapping.

Decisions made while engaged in this activity result in several things. Your choices struggle to conserve resources. Your approach determines your preparedness for battle. And gaining knowledge about your environment allows discoveries of hidden chambers and the ability to flee.

  • Are you scouting ahead? Or will you be surprised by monsters?
  • Will you discover secret rooms using your map?
  • Will you avoid the traps and the relevant reduction in resources?
  • Have you made good choices to maximize your distance moved per turn to minimize your chance of a wandering encounter?
Encounters: This occurs when you interact with other denizens. The key factors in this are surviving the encounter, extracting information from the denizen, and managing your faction relationships. 

When you encounter non-monstrous denizens (which should be the majority of encounters you will have in a mega-dungeon) your choices determine how they feel about you, what requests they are likely to make, and what information they are likely to tell you.

  • Are you playing the factions against each other?
  • What can you gain from the encounter, versus what you have to lose? Information? A quest? Fighting and losing hit points?
  • If you do encounter a monster denizen, can you lure it away? avoid it? make sure you have the advantage when you kill it?
Extraction: This occurs when you have found treasure. Treasure is heavy and a substantial part of game-play is attempting to remove treasure from the dungeon.

When you encounter treasure, you are inundated with choices. What is most valuable? How slowly are we willing to move (i.e. how many random encounters are we willing to expose ourselves to) bringing this treasure out of the dungeon?

  • Did you bring a cart? a mule? Are you willing to take the extra risk of encounters by bringing a tasty mule?
  • Do you have a method of determining which treasure is most valuable? 

Megadungeon activities

In my experience, the idea of what people believe is in a mega-dungeon is far removed from the actual reality of what is occurring in play.

Megadungeon play is not fast, slay all the monsters, and throw the treasure in a bag, type play. It's a slow, methodical, game, where every decision is one of degrees of badness, the tension mounting and mounting as you move further away from safety. When you discover a treasure hoard, there is no possibility you will be able to remove the whole thing, so you must pick and choose, knowing the more you take, the more vulnerable it makes you to death. When you become friendly with one faction, several others dislike you. Every choice is one between what you believe is the least worst option. And when action finally occurs, with the fire and the yelling and screaming and dying, you know you've already failed.


  1. Good stuff! Our last game (after a previous dragon fight) involved the players spending the entire session figuring out what to do with the hoard... moving it to a secure spot in the dungeon, figuring out how to maximize encumbrance and carry out as many coins as possible. They're far enough beneath the Black City that it's literally a 2-day walk back to Trade Town; half of it through subway tunnels, the other half out of the ruined surface.

    Before they move on to the next level (the sprawling caverns I'm calling the Warrens of Decay in my notes), they're going to try and exploit some of the treasures they skipped on previous delves.

    Extraction is seriously overlooked in gaming discussions, but is a major factor in our play, and a great logistical challenge.

  2. Certainly a very good summary of the aims of this kind of play. The question now: what kind of features - in system, in design - encourage it?

  3. Not to be confrontational (at least not on a deep level as I find the topic interesting for discussion) but there are folks who realize those particular pillars of mega dungeon play and still find them uninteresting.

    1. I didn't get the sense that he was trying to argue that, just that people should go into a megadungeon with realistic expectations of what it's going to involve. If you are the sort of person who finds that uninteresting... ...then megadungeon play probably isn't for you.

    2. Oh, no I agree. My experience has been that people expect a bloody tactical slog through enemies or an endless samey dungeon. They aren't games about action. They are games about expense.

      I am certain that playstyle isn't for everyone.

  4. Tracking faction details and dispositions. This is something I need a better system for.

    Tasty mules are also good diversions if you are overmatched. They saved one of my FLAILSNAILS characters from a hungry roc.

  5. Extraction is easily my weakest element. I need to be better at GMing that.

  6. -C: I had the chance to discuss extraction while putting together our last game report, and how much it influences player decisions and planning. Very timely. I certainly wouldn't have explicitly referenced it as a third leg of megadungeon play prior to reading this post, but it stands out clearly to me now. (That's good theory right there - a new way of explaining experiences).

    Extracting Value from the Megadungon

  7. Not a megadungeon, but . . .

    Many years ago I let my players find a Dragon's hoard while the dragon was absent. About every 5 minutes I'd roll a die "to see if the dragon returned", which scared the hell out of them and rushed their treasure choices.

    In fact the plan was that the dragon would not return . . . but they didn't know that.

    A couple of weeks later (after they had "lived it up" and spent lots of money in town) the player characters were "strafed" by a dragon; then approached by a representative of the dragon. He demanded all of his treasure returned plus three times its value.

    And when he said "all" of his treasure, he meant every single coin (he could recognize all of them), not substitutes.

    It took the players a little over a year and a half of weekly gameplay to finally chase down every single coin since some coins had left the town before they were contacted . . . and whenever they flagged a bit, they got strafed . . . dragons aren't easy to fight when they use fly-breath-fly-away tactics.

    The party did think about going back to the dragon's cave to set up an ambush . . . but when they did so, they discovered that it was populated by a family of dragons.

    Lots of fun!

    -- Jeff


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