My experiences playing a megadungeon

Discussion in 'General Fantasy' started by Richard Falken, Nov 20, 2016.

  1. Richard Falken

    Richard Falken The Best Epic Literature Ever Written.

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    Some time ago I posted my thoughts about the possibility of running a roleplaying game campaign around a megadungeon. The thread is located here: Megadungeons - Anybody has experience with them?

    A friend of mine agreed to serve as a Dungeon Master for a Megadungeon campaign, and my gaming buddies and me have been playing it for some months. The campaign is themed around a dwarf expedition of a couple hundred members that camp at the gates of an antique legendary underground dwarf city that has been seized by some unknown dark power. The surface is infested with orcs and other monsters that are dispersed, but some of their leaders are gathering a small army in order to smash the expedition. The goal of the darves is to reclaim the underground city and its awesome over-powerful mystics secrets so they can build a defense when the orcs eventually show up. The city is boiling with thousands of creatures of darkness that seem unable to escape the city, and since the darves don't have the resources to launch a full scale attack and drive the bad guys out, they are sending small groups of commandos in in order to gather intelligence information, documents that may explain what the evil within the city is, and weapons to destroy it. There is more plot to it, but this covers the basics...

    The players are dwarf members of the expedition. Each session, the available players form a fantasy commando squad and go into the city. They are not given metaplot hooks about what to do during the exploration, and the squad usually goes in with objectives related to intelligence gathered in previous sessions ("We have to get one those monsters that attacked us last session, so we can take him back to the base and dissect him so we can learn more about them", "We know there are some zombies guarding a building. We have to sneak in and check what they are guarding"). Every now and then, a squad will be required to accomplish a mission on the surface in order to guarantee the safety of the expedition, such as reclaiming an old guard tower that has been captured by orcs. The player's squad can volunteer to take it, or can go underground as usual.

    We are using the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ruleset. Experience points are awarded for defeating monsters, finishing issued missions, and looting goods and information. So far these are the results:

    The campaign is proving very hard to kill by real life factors. Many story driven campaigns grind to a halt when some players cannot attend to a session. The remaining players can keep on playing by handling over the control of the player characters belonging to the missing players to the Dungeon Master, or try some other problem mitigation, or just play something else. When they keep on playing, the players who were absent will need to be told what happened the following session. With this campaign system, if half the players are missing for a session, IT DOES NOT MATTER. The remaining players will form a squad with their player characters and carry on. There are many players following the campaign, but the squad that goes down into the unknown is never the same.

    An interesting side effect is that, since characters only get experience for activities they participate in, characters that take part in more expeditions get more powerful than player characters that only show every now and then. My character is a wizard that has missed no single session. He is close to level 4 and has some cool gear. There are characters that participate in less expeditions and are level 2, and some players that are rarely seen are still at level 1. If a character dies, the controlling player replaces it with a brand new level 1 character. Power disparity is not proving to be a problem in play.

    Underground incursions are very dangerous. Challenges are not tailored to the party by the Dungeon Master. Once the bad guys ring the alarm, an endless stream of zombies and monsters and bad things starts pouring into the area. When the squad is spotted, it means that the incursion is over more often than not, and that the squad has to run to the outside world with whatever information or looting they have gathered before they botched the incursion. Not Total Party Kill has happened yet, but sometimes it was close. Last session, the squad was surprised by a powerful dark wizzard who rang the alarm. The wizzard was killed, but a player was cornered by a pack of very powerful zombies and left behind to die. The surviving members were surprised by more zombie reinforcements and dispersed in order to escape. We had to made it back to the base camp alone, badly wounded and with our resources exhausted, through a city full of monsters. Not everybody made it. What this shows is that the games are more about stealth and subtlety than about chopping necromancers down with an axe.

    The game is like a fantasy version of the Vietnam War rather than a game about social interaction. There can be a lot of thinking in some sessions, but the thinking is about solving strategic problems -how to best make a trap in order to kill a powerful monster that cannot be defeated in a head-to-head battle, how to best sneak past challenges too hard to face. The Dungeon Master has promised more social challenges in the future, but I have yet to see any worth mentioning.

    So far, I find the campaign style very satisfying, because the players get much of a say in what they want to accomplish during a session, and because the campaign can be run even if your gaming group wildly changes between sessions. The Dungeon Master could totally run an incursion with a group today, and run another incursion tomorrow with a totally different group, and the game would not suffer. The day after, he could run another session with a mix of players from both groups. A plot based campaign cannot run continuously in this fashion with this amount of flexibility.