Tentpole Megadungeon Design Question

I'm trying very hard to move the fantasy zombie apocalypse idea toward something more tangible than an idea I just talk about on my blog.  I thought a good (and fun) place to start would be the dungeon that serves as the game's beginning and "home base."

I'm going to sketch out some rooms and such tonight, but as I am gearing up, I am wondering if the dungeon needs a history.  So here's my question for all you dungeon designers:

How important is a history or some sort of rationale for your megadungeon?

One of the things I really like about Stonehell is that it has a reason for existence that's both simple and that makes sense: it was a series of caves made into a prison and left it it's own devices.

Just trying to get some thoughts on this as I sketch out some rooms and corridors.


  1. It's interesting that you ask this question. Last night I was rereading your play through of KI and was thinking how I could use it as a apocalypse starter kit. Open the chest and let the storm begin. I have been sketching ideas about the pocket dimension within the chest. I would be using the same concept as a mega-dungeon.

  2. @Tim -- That's a great idea (the chest and the apocalypse)! What I am trying to figure out is if I need something more than "Some dwarves and a crazy wizard made some tunnels" which is pretty much the standard dungeon origin story.

    Let's hear your pocket dimension ideas!

  3. My general MO:
    I usually throw down 1/2-2/3 of a page of text about the background of the tower/dungeon/cave system/whatever, and maybe another paragraph about the surrounding area. That is for me to consume.

    I then produce something less than a page in length for the players, something that can be read in 2 minutes, tops, which is based on my initial ideas in the document mentioned above. That gets emailed to the players or read at the table at the outset of the adventure.

    As the players root around the dungeon and town, I make up a bunch of crap on the spot, and add it to the documentation. A lot of this ends up as dead ends, the rest gets weaved in to what passes as "story" at my table.

    I might throw some stakes in the ground in the game world, never more than a week's travel from where they are. The stakes might be towns, "here be monsters" things, whatever, and the process repeats for each new area they encounter.

    There is rarely any sort of story arc, episodes, set pieces, or the like at the outset when I'm behind the screen. The story is only apparent in retrospect.

    Now, if I'm running in a somewhat defined campaign setting like you find in the '83 Greyhawk boxed set, well, most of the up-front work is done for me. We know where Homlett and the ToEE, Snure, and Iuz are already. I just need to improv some stuff along the way.

    I am currently working up a somewhat more organized/fleshed out mini-setting, which is sort of a "oh crap, the local legends ARE REAL!!!" kind of thing, but it's an outlier for me.

    So I guess to answer your question: Backstory is useful to me as a jumpstarter, but I don't sweat the small stuff. DMing D&D is very much a visceral and spontaneous thing by and large, kind of like playing in a jam band.

  4. @Francisca -- Thanks! I like the jam band metaphor.


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