May 24, 2011

The Small Huge Dungeon

When we envision the mega-dungeon, or even a large sized dungeon we picture a series of corridors leading off to wings of rooms. Corridor leads to corridor as the party explores through a system of rooms each with their own purpose. This makes for an epic place for adventure, but after a while it can grow a bit tedious. There are some inherent problems with the typical large dungeon.

-The players may find themselves exploring the same dungeon for weeks or months of real time. If you started the adventure at the beginning of February and following your weekly gatherings you are still in the same complex come June it can feel like you are getting nowhere. It all begins to feel like you are simply doing the same thing over and over again.

-There is also the growing feeling of not really accomplishing anything. Sure you cleared out the wing of vampires, but you also know there are another 4 corridors you still haven’t looked down yet. What lies behind them? Probably more corridors that lead to even more corridors. Eventually the enormity of it all can start to feel overwhelming.

-With an expansive dungeon setting it can be difficult to get away from it all. Sometimes if you are deep in a dungeon, it may take you a couple of weeks of real time simply trying to get back to the surface. When you do get out you might be reluctant to reenter the dungeon for fear of the time sink it will play on the campaign.

And yet, there is something epic and grand about the large dungeon. Is there some way to run a large dungeon, while avoiding many of its pitfalls? One method I use is what I call the Small Huge Dungeon. This is not really a new idea, but I don’t think anyone has ever verbalized the concept before. Basically you take the various wings and sections of the large dungeon and make them each their own dungeon, linking them by location and intent. Here, let me show some examples of what I am talking about.

An adventure may be about a family crypt the player characters have been asked to explore. The crypt is one of a long lost family that eventually came down to one heir and the line perished after his death. Rumors persist that the family’s wealth was buried with the last lord, but to access the vault you would need keys hidden amongst the crypts of his predecessors. Here is a level of such a typical dungeon complex.

There are 17 different encounters and rooms. This is actually fairly small if we wanted a large dungeon. A larger dungeon would run several levels of about this size. Even so, this one level could take some time to explore and deal with, compounded more so for each level we add to the design.

Next we have another design on the same concept. Instead of clumping all the crypts into one massive dungeon level we parcel them out. Basically they are now 8 separate mausoleums spread throughout the family grounds. We still have 17 different encounters and rooms, but this time they have been segmented as distinct entities. The player characters will be able to explore each section separately (though there can be interchange between individual mausoleums once one has been opened if their inhabitants are prone to such things-such as monsters like vampires).

With this new configuration the players will be able to take small bites out the overall dungeon by completing one mausoleum at a time. They will be able to complete a section in a week or two. In the end, roughly the same amount of play time will have been involved in the complete exploration but there will be a sense of progression and accomplishment during this time. Instead of taking forever to complete 1 complex they will complete 8 complexes in the same amount of time. In addition, the players will be able to move onto other things if their interest begins to wane or they reach an encounter they can not defeat immediately. They will be more readily be able to pick up where they last ended. By dividing up the dungeon into more manageable parts we can circumvent some of the problems with larger dungeons.

This system works for anything that can conceivably be compartmentalized. Underground sewer lair of cultists? Make it a group of buildings in a ruined section of the city? A cave complex of orc humanoids? Make it a valley wherein there is a series of cave entrances to each type of orcish humanoid (ala Keep on the Borderlands). A mad wizard’s underground lair? Make a central chamber that allows for teleportation to distinct sections of the lair. A grand pyramid? Allow for multiple entrances an each side that lead to their own segments. An underground bandit lair? Bring it up above ground and divide it into individual buildings.
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