Hello. My name is Ian (hi, Ian). I am a procrastinator. I am the kind of person who waits until the last minute to do nearly everything. It’s a sort of thinly-veiled laziness where I manage to put less than my whole self into things and still somehow squeak by – at least, that’s how it manifested in school. In high school I never studied, and in college I generally chose the “morning-of” method when I really felt like I needed to practice a particular concept. Perhaps that’s why I took so well to improvisation as a form of theater; making stuff up on the fly because I’m totally unprepared is a life skill I’ve been honing for many years.
When I first started playing tabletop roleplaying games, procrastination was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t just prepare for sessions – I overprepared. If my villain was going to have a monologue revealing his evil scheme, you better believe I had it scripted. I planned my tabletop sessions using what I titled the Dishonored approach: there was an established world and linear story to navigate, but how you overcame challenges and got to the key points in that story was more open and free. As my skills as a gamemaster grew, I moved away from this rigidly-prepared approach into one that was infinitely more natural for me: flying by the seat of my pants.
A big thing that helped me make the transition from preparation to procrastination with tabletops was the Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying system, which I experienced first through the tabletop game Dungeon World. This game gives the gamemaster great tools for a low-prep approach, and the partial success and fail-forward mechanisms honestly resist the idea of having a prepared story. Dungeon World encourages you to look at your NPCs through crosshairs, to think of villains are arrows in a quiver rather than grandstanding masterminds with tragic backstories, and most importantly to play to find out what happens. This type of play makes the game as much as surprise for the GM as for the players, and that to me has a lot of appeal. I can sit back, relax, and have a good time doing two things that I love: playing a game and making things up as I go along.
While I certainly find favorites and get comfortable in certain styles when it comes to tabletops, I have also been driven to experiment and to try out new things when running games. A little over a year ago, the new thing I tried with a group of players was the megadungeon format of play. The idea is that you have one massive dungeon that’s impossible to plumb in one go, and a nearby town where players can stock up on the gear they need to explore it. You go in, loot what you can, and try to make it out alive. Because the dungeon is so vast, you’re always discovering new entrances and passages, and the rooms can connect in really interesting ways. It’s an interesting way to structure a campaign, and when I managed to convince some folks to try it out, I was rather excited.
Ultimately, my experience with the megadungeon format left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Pre-preparing a bunch of maps, designing the encounters, and knowing what treasure was in the chests took out a lot of the play to find out what happens elements (in my opinion) and made the game a bit less compelling for me. More than that, I loathed the prep work – every time my players got close enough to an unmapped floor that I needed to create some more rooms, I dreaded having to break out the graph paper and spend a bunch of time planning encounters and traps. The idea of a megadungeon appealed to me, but the preparation it took did not. So the question became, could I find a way to improvise a megadungeon and get the best of both worlds?
What ultimately gave me the toolset I believed I needed to make this work is the Perilous Wilds expansion for Dungeon World. Created by Jason Lutes and Jeremy Strandberg, this supplement for Dungeon World seeks to add some depth and lethality to the travel mechanics, creating more of a survival vibe for the game. In addition to that, though, it also offers alternate rules for hirelings and a bunch of resources for worldbuilding. Among those resources is the chapter called “Plumbing the Depths,” which is all about how to create a dungeon on the fly.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the specifics here, since that’d be getting into “giving their book away for free” territory, but I’ll talk a little bit about how these improvised dungeons work. Using either random tables or your good judgment as a GM, you assign your dungeon a size, a number of themes to explore, and a number of room types based on the size. You assign a die value to each room type and then when the players walk into a new room, you roll. You then use your improvisational skills to contextualize within the fiction whatever room was just randomly created by your roll of the dice.
This effectively makes it so that all you have to do to design a dungeon is to consider what the dungeon is all about and to think about some room types that might be in there. All the mapping and preparing specific stuff goes out the window – at this point just play Dungeon World by the established rules and principles, playing to find out what happens while portraying a fantastic world that fills the character’s lives with adventure. The game itself already gives you a lot of the tools you need, but Perilous Wilds equips you with inspiration as well as helping you to prep only what’s necessary to keep everything else going.
So how did I use this system to make a megadungeon? I started with the same concept I used for the first megadungeon I created: a massive tower made up of small dungeons created by a group of student wizards for a college final. Once the class was done, all the buildings the wizards designed are discarded in a single location, which adventurers eventually discovered and built a community around in order to loot. Using that as my guide, I created a few different floors (right now I’ve done the ground floor, the second floor, and the first basement) each consisting of three small dungeons with unique concepts. While the dungeons are physically connected, they are not thematically connected in any way, allowing them to be wildly different from one another.
Meanwhile, I have a separate list of themes and rooms for the megadungeon itself, the larger themes that encapsulate and add to the themes of the smaller dungeons. Whenever the player characters cross through an area where two small dungeons are linked, they might hit a room or two belonging to the overarching dungeon. The main themes for this dungeon are expansion and transformation – so the very idea of a growing tower filled with disparate yet interconnected dungeons plays into those themes pretty well. Every time the players cross from an interior forest full of wild animals into a laboratory with magically-fashioned automatons, they’ll not only be engaging with the themes of those two dungeons but also with the overall theme of the megadungeon itself.
I’m pretty excited to see how this idea plays out at the table. My main concerns with improving a megadungeon are the clever connections between different floors or rooms. Not preparing those in advance may be a little tricky, but I tried to prepare for that by making these sorts of rooms into the common rooms for the megadungeon itself. Whenever the player characters cross from one dungeon into another, they might encounter a trapdoor that dumps them into yet another dungeon altogether, or they might stumble upon a convenient passageway outside that will allow them to reach the sixth floor directly from town in the future. My hope is that by including these interesting connections as part of the overarching concept, they’ll naturally get “improvised” into the structure of the dungeon so that it will still feel cleverly fashioned while also being totally organic.
Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers! Have you ever played a megadungeon format before? Any experience with Perilous Wilds? Do you think improvising a massive interconnected dungeon experience can work? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below – here’s hoping I can try this out soon and share how everything turned out!