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[Setting Riff] The Megadungeon as Indictment

Supplanter

Retired User
A nice essay on the megadungeon as Underworld as nightmare realm articulates the primal draw of the classic dungeon adventure I tried to get at in a blog post a few years ago. And it's also given me a way past the old dilemma:

1. Megadungeons are awesome.
2. Megadungeons make no sense.

Forget the stacked-deck nature of doorway behavior and infravision, and the ecological problems. Those hallways, man: going every which way. So inefficient! Criminy.

One response to the embarrassment of the megadungeon is simply not to have them. Thus the trend toward tidier, more realistic ruins. This takes care of the Problem (2) but at the expense of the Feature (1). And where's the fun in that? Okay, the truth is the "micro-dungeon" paradigm can be lots of fun. I want my Nightmare Underworld though.

But where does it come from? My new answer: nobody builds a megadungeon. Megadungeons build themselves. They are the guilty conscience of rulership; the truth commission against power. Great power corrupts, and absolute power does what we've been told. Even those who want to rule well feel the attraction of expedient murder and petulant torture, the convenience of imprisoning one's enemies without trial, buying off the priesthood and covering it all in a glaze of ceremony and pretty words. On this world, this eventually provokes its own reaction. Beneath the seats of power - castle; trading house; senate building - the accumulated sins happening above begin to literally undo the foundations. Dungeons grow. It might not be so tidy as: 60 starved prisoners in the last few decades means 60 skeletons, with hallways for them to roam through; 20 goblins and some rooms for them to squat in appear as a direct result of last year's punitive expedition against the recalcitrant border villages; one ghoul for each speech in which you cloak your appetites in the honeyed words of dead philosophers, etc.

Then again maybe it is. Maybe a properly educated truth commission that mapped the megadungeon spreading beneath your lair - oh did I say "lair?" What a crass word for a noble house like this. Sorry. - could draw up a very exact indictment of the crimes of you and your line. Not that you would want them to.

At some point, the supernatural (divine? infernal?) forces that "construct" megadungeons break through. Suddenly there's a connection to your actual underground holding cells. Sometime later, a door links the megadungeon to the kitchens. Eventually an entrance appears in the throne room itself. By this point, your house - royal, noble, commercial, scholarly - begins to collapse. Things can now get out of the megadungeon, well inside your defenses, and they do. The castle or counting-house itself falls to ruin. Your former subjects exchange tyranny for anarchy, for a time.

Then the cycle begins again.

This isn't necessarily the best way justice could be visited on the unjust powerful, he understated. And one of the things that appeals to me about this is, not only do I get to have my megadungeons now, in the endgame the PCs may decide to and be able to change the system. That's something your 20th (5e) or 30th-36th (etc.) PC could do to change the world. Maybe they can give justice a less crude form. Maybe they decide that the benefits of order outweigh the cyclical rise-and-collapse the existing system of visiting comeuppance on tyrants entails. But at a minimum, it's another answer besides "A wizard did it" to the Where the hell did that thing come from? question; to my tastes, a better one.

Reactions welcome, though reactions in the form of "You're overthinking it" constitute threadcrapping. (I know Saint Gary wouldn't have any patience with all this analysis.) Overthinking it is how I roll. :) Reactions in the form of "You're underthinking it" OTOH are right in line...


Jim
 

Crinos

Next to me you're all number two!
Validated User
Kind of reminds me of the game Dungeon Keeper, where the dungeons are built by some internal malevolent force that just appears in realms, then kills and converts all nearby peoples while bringing in more powerful and dangerous monsters to do its bidding.
 

simontmn

Registered User
Validated User
It fits well with the Joseph Campbell type notion that the Underworld is the realm of the id - here the id of the noble rulers given form. That also explains why there can be occasional benevolent features within the megadungeon - an act of kindness creates a healing fountain, say.

Just been playing lots of Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), a Roguelike where the dungeons are created by the incursion of Chaos into the Realm of Man/Realm of Law. I like that idea, but I like the idea of dungeons as a sort of psychic backwash of the Overworld, too.
 

Silvercat Moonpaw

Quadruped Transhuman
Validated User
I've heard that dungeons in 13th Age's default setting are living things that rise out of the depths and have to be cleared to kill them. It's essentially turning dungeons into a sort of Cthulhoid-scale opponent, an innovative monster that's a bit like fighting a dragon by Fantastic Voyage Plot.
 

Silvercat Moonpaw

Quadruped Transhuman
Validated User
Oh I like that too.
Yours is interesting too. You could even combine them: maybe dungeon "spirits" are attracted to the sins of places of power. Or dungeons form because of the sins of such places, but they don't always remain in place accounting for "dungeons that don't make sense" in "locations that don't make sense". You could even use dungeons in remote places as hooks for PCs to seek out the kingdoms where they were spawned and perhaps cleanse their institutions of the sins of power.
 

Saladman

Retired User
Worst of all for their subjects are those tyrants who try to turn dungeons to their own advantage. Some dungeon dwellers, orcs and werewolves and others, will undertake missions of evil and mayhem for payment in gold, or more rarely even for its own sake. So if you want the heads of the rebels in the woods delivered to you, or a tax-delinquent village burned pour encourager les autres, you can certainly have that done for you... for a time, and as long as you don't mind the collateral damage. Obviously each such mission only expands your dungeon, until the day comes when a larger horde still, or perhaps an unmasterable demon, bursts on you in your own hall.
 

Xenon

131.3
Validated User
an interesting idea, however i would make this occur as the result of a Curse, rather than from any innate property of the world itself. that way you get the Drama of the story about why there is a curse.

Perhaps, rather than physical tunnels below an area, the Dungeon itself is a demiplane. the demiplane of the dungeon may have its own rules, and its size could be quite large. we know that a wizard can create a demiplane with magic (effects vary by edition). so it would make sense if a Curse were to begin opening portals to a demiplane, and the demiplane were slowly growing as the curse progressed, slowly gaining more power. perhaps its was created by research into the Maze spell, combines with the demiplane, to make a more powerful and diabolical version of those spells....
 

Supplanter

Retired User
It fits well with the Joseph Campbell type notion that the Underworld is the realm of the id - here the id of the noble rulers given form. That also explains why there can be occasional benevolent features within the megadungeon - an act of kindness creates a healing fountain, say.
Oh, good point!

You could even use dungeons in remote places as hooks for PCs to seek out the kingdoms where they were spawned and perhaps cleanse their institutions of the sins of power.
Interesting. You mean, like, the dungeon spawned by the crimes of Westphalia might appear somewhere else entirely? Or do you mean finding a dungeon in a remote place indicates there was now-vanished kingdom in the vicinity? (In that case, I don't think I understand yet how you seek it out and cleanse its sins.)

Worst of all for their subjects are those tyrants who try to turn dungeons to their own advantage. Some dungeon dwellers, orcs and werewolves and others, will undertake missions of evil and mayhem for payment in gold, or more rarely even for its own sake. So if you want the heads of the rebels in the woods delivered to you, or a tax-delinquent village burned pour encourager les autres, you can certainly have that done for you... for a time, and as long as you don't mind the collateral damage. Obviously each such mission only expands your dungeon, until the day comes when a larger horde still, or perhaps an unmasterable demon, bursts on you in your own hall.
I've gone back and forth on whether I'd want that to work in my own campaign, but it's a perfectly valid option, sure. You could also have rulers who, as soon as that first entrance appears, commission adventurers to - clear the dungeon for them! Maybe they think it works if they win the race between monster-killing and new construction. (You can happily literalize those old "Under Construction" signs we used to put up in this campaign.) Maybe that's just what those crafty clerics tell them. Or, sadness, maybe that could work...

In the past I also toyed with a Winchester Mansion (legendary version) origin of a megadungeon. Combining it with the Id idea here, maybe some rulers frantically try to expand their own megadungeons hoping it will keep the denizens below-ground.


Jim
 
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