The Megadungeon, Urban edition

Lately I find myself more responding to other people’s posts than spontaneously writing my own, but over at Symptoms of Madness Kaeosdad tossed out the idea of a “reverse megadungeon” that would essentially be a large, above-ground city, rather than an underground labyrinth.

That got the old gears rolling, imagining a handful of PC’s exploring the bombed-out ruins of some post-apocalyptic city, picking through rubble and getting ambushed by ragged-looking mutants or whatever the fantasy equivalent might be.
But I also realized some problems with the idea too.  And I’ve broken them down into a list.
First, adventure flow control.  One of the reasons why dungeons have been the iconic adventure paradigm for RPG’s (fantasy or otherwise) is because as a judge you have a great deal of control, not control over what the PC’s do, but control over the order in which things occur. It’s a flowchart, essentially, and it allows a degree of pacing to the action.  There’s almost a boolean process at work in dungeon crawling: you are going down a hallway when you see a door:
  • do you listen at the door (Y/N)
  • do you check the lock for traps (Y/N)
  • do you open the door (Y/N)
    • if N, move onto next door
    • if Y, you see two squat humanoids sucking marrow out of some fingerbones.  Roll for initiative.
To say it another way, you can, to a limited extent predict what comes next based on the choices the player’s make.  You can estimate what areas of a map they’ll explore in a given session, just by looking at a radius of distance from where they are now.  This isn’t 100% reliable–players do all sorts of crazy stuff–but it is generally reliable enough to allow a judge a certain amount of comfort in what they’ll be asked to do.
In a city, even one torn apart, a player could theoretically opt to just ride their horse to the center of town and skip all the buildings.  Now as judge I’d be throwing random encounter rolls like crazy at that point, but you get the picture.
Second, I think you lose some of the innate peril in a city that you have underground.  Underground is dark and oppressive.  There’s tons of stone right above your head.  If the passageway collapses behind you, you may be trapped in there forever.  It’s also alien–it is not where people should be.  It is not our element.  In a city, that’s not the case.  Outside, a fly spell will allow you to hop out of danger without difficulty.  You could explore in broad daylight.  I think to make the megadungeon-city work, you’d need to have it be constantly overcast, even raining.  And maybe with large flying things swooping from skyscraper to skyscraper just to make sure that the players realize that UP isn’t the best way to go.
Finally, and this is less thematic and more practical, mapping out a city, both on the gaming table with terrain and on the graph paper for players is more complicated.  I have several modular dungeons, all hallways and rooms.  It allows the players to easily see what is happening.  And as I said, I already have made those.
Doing a megadungeon city would mean a whole new set, and I’m not sure exactly how it would work.  You’d need outside and interior mapping, theoretically, or perhaps no mapping at all beyond a vague road map?  I don’t know.  That’s what I’m trying to discern out (feel free to comment on this).
Short version, probably a pass for a mega-project, but damn it if doesn’t really sound like how you’d want to do a megadungeon for Mutant Future….


  1. First of all – sci-fi or sci-fantasy city dungeon?

    Making a dark oppressive city can be quite easy, just come up with an excuse to copy London’s air from the Industrial age to Post WW2 – I mean any city that has a fog that has killed people is right up there with a dungeon.

    Can a PC really ride right to the middle of town? Im think of Escape from New York and other movies with a destroyed city in it.

    • I think I’d do something where I mapped out the city in squares, then put one or two encounters in each square nestled amongst the ruins. Then for terrain I’d do eight or nine four inch or six inch square “set pieces” of ruined urban terrain and just mix-and-match them for the encounters.

  2. If you do a large city, you could have settlements (of various types) interspersed among the ruins, similar to early medieval Rome. I’ve always been tempted to use a modern city map (just so I wouldn’t have to start from scratch). I had read somewhere that the U.S. Air Force trained a lot over Baltimore because of its resemblance to older European cities (although I cannot remember where I had read it). Of course, you could just get a map of a European city and then place your set piece encounters and terrain within them. I’ll be interested to what you come up.

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