I'm sure many of you are familiar with the excellent Five Room Dungeon. If you haven't read it, I'll summarize it quickly for the purposes of this post. A basic dungeon need only contain five rooms/elements. They are:
- Entrance and Guardian
- Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge
- Trick or Setback
- Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
- Reward, Revelation or Twist
Codifying a dungeon in this way has allowed me to be more improvisational and agile as a GM. The PCs suddenly want to go raid the bookbinders guild? No problem - probably has a guardian, a roleplaying challenge, a trick, a big battle and then a twist. The PCs want to sneak into the lair of Quick John the Thief? No problem - probably has a guardian, a puzzle, a setback, a climax, and the reward.
But if you, like me, are a fan of classic dungeon crawls through sprawling, dark, treacherous terrains pieced together with Plot Glue and Liches, then you might feel that the Five Room Dungeon lacks some...size. Some...grandeur.
I recently sat down and put together a homage to the megadungeon for my PCs. As I was writing, I deliberately tried to incorporate some good ideas from The Alexandrian.
As I moved through the process, though, I saw the Five Room Dungeon creeping into my megadungeon. I then realized - perhaps later than everyone else - that the megadungeon can really just be a series of Five Room Dungeons linked together. To help try and clarify this process, I wrote up the following.
A disadvantage of the Five Room Dungeon is its linear nature. You go through Room 1 (Guardian) through Room 5 (Twist) with little room for deviation. Five Room Megadungeons allow PCs to make meaningful choices on how they'll approach the megadungeon because each dungeon "level" can be accessed independently.
To ensure that the choices are meaningful, put in plenty of information (whether true or hints of truth) about what each level holds.
Even if you need to progress through each dungeon somewhat linearly, put lots of links between the dungeons. Room 4 or Dungeon 3 also links to Room 2 or Dungeon 5. Room 3 of Dungeon 5 also links to Room 5 of Dungeon 1.
- A Five Room Megadungeon is a series of linked Five Room Dungeons.
- Dungeon 1 is the Entrance. The Entrance provides context for the rest of the megadungeon.
- Dungeon 1 needs to provide hints, clues, tantalizing half-truths and lore about how the dungeon was made, what the other levels contain, what dangers you'll be facing, etc. Put in scouts from the Main Bad Guys. Put in ancient pictographs detailing the dungeon's creation. Put in a ghost of the wizard who made the dungeon. Put in graffiti by adventurers who have passed this way before.
- Dungeon 2 provides a role-playing challenge. The best reward to insert here is a "safe zone." If the PCs set up camp here, after the RP challenge is complete, they can sleep somewhat soundly.
- Perhaps Dungeon 2 is a shanty town of dispossessed hirelings looking for work after their contracts died deeper in. Maybe it's home to semi-sentient mushroom folk. Maybe it's home to the ghosts of those who once lived there, who are willing to leave the PC's unmolested in exchange for justice or burial.
- A great RP challenge - and a good meaningful choice - is a dungeon divided by factions. The Warrior Maids hate the Justiciars hate the Magi, but they all have to dwell together in a small space. Have the PCs support one faction or the other and help them advance their objectives throughout the rest of the megadungeon.
- A possible feature of Dungeon 2 is its extreme non-linear nature. Perhaps it has a central hub and you can move to each of the five "districts" and RP with the factions that dwell there.
- Dungeon 3 is a Hidden Objective. Clues from other dungeons should tell of its existence and provide hints on how to access it.
- Dungeon 3 can be skipped. It provides dangers and treasures, but is not necessary to the PC's main objectives. This allows them to weigh the risks/rewards and make a meaningful choice.
- Dungeon 4 is the Main Objective.
- If PCs came to the dungeon to find a MacGuffin, to rescue a princess, to slay a lich - those things wait for them in Dungeon 4.
- Dungeon 5 is the Twist. This dungeon is tied to the PC's quest and dungeon 4.
- If the PCs successfully find the MacGuffin, they find out that they have no idea how to use it and the only tome that explains its purpose rests in the vaults below. If the PCs rescue the princess, they find out that her royal seal was stolen by a blackguard who fled into the catacombs. If they defeat the lich, they find out that his dark god has begun to stir and they need to travel to the demiplane of Shadow to stop the cataclysm the lich set in motion.
Obviously, you can keep adding dungeon sections or factions as you see fit; especially as the PCs' ingenuity gets the better of you. The PCs are always coming up with left turns, and the Five Room Dungeon is great for improvising those. But as you sketch out your megadungeon, you can think about it as a macroscale of a more humble adventure.