I'd really like to make a more story-heavy setting in my next fantasy campaign, but I also love megadungeons. What is a good way to use a megadungeon to tell a story instead of as a place for Hack'n'Slash to take place?

I know I can basically reskin a 'standard' campaign to take place in a megadungeon, but I'd like to keep the whole open-ended idea without dropping an over-arching storyline.

I'm going to be using AD&D 2e, but I think the topic is largely system-agnostic.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you want to design the megadungeon as part of the campaign background, or do you plan to get a published one? \$\endgroup\$
    – p.marino
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 22:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @p.marino I'd design the megadungeon myself so that it will match exactly what I need, although I might borrow from anything good I have lying around. That said, if there's a product out there that matches the question, I'd be interested in hearing about it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dakeyras
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 22:58

3 Answers 3


If I were you I'd go for one of these options:

a) The Megadungeon is a city.

Either someone decided that building underground was a sensible move due to unfavourable conditions on the surface (ice age? magic fallout? a desert world like in Dune?), or your party is a group of outsiders among a race of underground dwellers (Dwarfs, basically - have you considered having an all-dwarfs party?)

Assuming you want to create a Dungeon/City - personally I would take an existing city from a module, reduce it a bit in size (digging is harder than building "up", so this would restrict expansion) and try to re-plan the various areas, main monuments and building etc to make these fit a vertical layout... so for example the poorest neighborhoods/slums would be be in lower tunnels, while residential/business would be closer to the surface (or maybe vice-versa, if you are in a Dwarf settlement). Consider also the potential to have an underground port. A fun challenge could be taking the maps of an existing dungeon and modify the description of the various areas thinking of how a human (or other civilized humanoid) would change the various corridors/alcoves/pits/rooms to make it work as living and business space. (This is probably too complicated to work, because one thing Dungeons seem to consistently lack is sewers and running water).

Alternately, the Megadungeon is still a city, but it's not a classic underground dungeon. See for example "Big Rubble" in Glorantha, which is the ruins of a former great city. Or see this question: Dungeons that aren't dungeons.

b) the Megadungeon co-exists with the city

Personally I think this less "plausible", but to each his own. You have a large city (imperial capital, for instance) which is built on layers of older versions of the same city. Or the city has an impressive sewer system. Or both.

On the surface, the City Guards rule. Under the surface: Thieves Guild, Assassins Guild, Unspeakable cults, Necromancers, Troglodytes, Things Man Was Not Meant to Know...

The City Guards prefer to use deputized adventurers when it's time to take the ... "investigations" below street level.

c) There's a symbiotic relationship between a surface city and underground city

This is a variation of theme (b) above. You have to come up for a reason for a sort of mutual gain. For example, the underground dwellers have lots of valuable things to exchange with the people above. It could just be "metal vs. food" or something more sinister like the Morlocks or the Classic Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders".

Finally, I'd suggest you to have a look at this other question: Are there any non-D&D mega dungeons? The answers give pointers to products for non-D&D games, and they can provide a fresh look at the "problem", and possibly something that may be more amenable to a story based campaign.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for option (b). I ran an extremely successful campaign in the style of Diablo - the city on the surface was 'civilized' and as they ventured further underground the walls became older and older, the cities larger and larger but buildings shorter and shorter (to account for urban anti-sprawl, that is building upwards instead of outwards). All manner of funny. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phill.Zitt
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 23:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like option (a) with an added twist to cover the creatures, etc. We just have to look at the Mines of Moria in LOTR.. the dwarves built a megapolis that was at the height of its power until they dug a little too deep and found goblins and a Balrog. It can explain why a city disappeared.. because the inhabitants were fighting to save their homes and refused to surrender. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 3:12
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Why is "a city" being used here as a synonym for "story?" This doesn't answer the question asked IMO. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 11:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Because to have a "story-heavy" setting you have plenty of NPCs, factions, power groups, sects, political parties, guilds, religious orders. In a non-urban setting you can spread these all over the region, state, confedereation, archipelago... but if you want all of this in a single location (the megadungeon) you have to create a microcosm where all the NPCs forming the aforementioned groups can live and interact. Hence - a city. Maybe it's just me being dense, but I can't see how else you can have anything apart the usual infiltrate/clean-up/invade/loot/explore scenario otherwise. \$\endgroup\$
    – p.marino
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 13:50
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ A dungeon can't have factions? I mean, maybe it's semantics, but any dungeon that some group lives in is a settlement to them. I think you're taking the attributes a dungeon would need to be story-filled (factions PCs can interact with semi peacefully, etc) and directly conflating those with "city," where that might be one implementation of those requirements but certainly not the only one. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 14:21

p.marino's answer covered how to include a megadungeon in a setting fairly well, so I'll talk a bit about how to make a megadungeon a larger part of your setting, maybe even the entire setting.

More specifically, I'll focus on questions you should ask yourself about your megadungeon to help you build the story around it. Once you've decided on the answers for most of these questions, you'll have the general concept of both your megadungeon and your story planned out.

Is There an Outside?

Is the megadungeon the entire plane, or just part of it? If it's the entire plane, is it infinite, or just really really big? If it's not the entire plane, how & why did the PCs enter it? By choice, were they forced in, tricked into entering, or just woke up in there with no idea how/why? Or were they born there?

What kind of entrances/exits does it have? Does it use teleportation or do you just walk through a hole in one edge? Are any of the access methods one-way, due to teleportation, extremely long drops, guards, etc? How much traffic goes through these access points, both now and historically? Did there use to be a lot more traffic but now outsiders are rare, or have new entrances suddenly opened, dumping lots of new immigrants into the megadungeon?

If there is no "outside" the megadungeon (besides other planes) or if it's largely self-contained (yes, it is possible to make a megadungeon that's not self-contained, it's just hard, and tends to involve an interconnected network of flying islands or something equally elaborate/contrived), how does its ecology work? In the real world, plants get energy from sunlight, herbivores get energy from plants, carnivores get energy from herbivores, and fungi and other such things get energy from breaking down dead plants/herbivores/carnivores. Where does energy enter your megadungeon? You can always hand-wave this one away by saying, "it's a fantasy setting, the energy comes from naturally-occurring magic".

Where Did It Come From?

Was your megadungeon created by someone, such as a god, multiple gods, Far Realm entities, etc? Did a wizard do it? Did it form on its own? If so, did it happen naturally over time (and is it still growing?) or was its creation triggered by something? If it was triggered by something, what was the catalyst? Did it grow around some powerful artifact? You don't necessarily need to answer this question; if the megadungeon is merely where the story happens rather than a focal point of the story, then it doesn't really matter where it came from. Maybe nobody knows.

How Does the Megadungeon Connect to the Party's Goals?

Are they trying to escape it? Trying to figure out where it came from? Trying to protect it from corruption from within? Trying to protect it from external attack? Trying to prevent it from corrupting the outside? Trying to figure out why they woke up there instead of the inn they went to sleep in, and how to get home? Or is it merely where they happen to be going through a more standard political/intrigue/heroism/mercenary/collect-the-MacGuffins/kill-the-BBEG story?

Who Lives There?

Are there entire cities down there, or just scattered outposts? Cities tend to be pretty apathetic about new visitors, since you need tons of them to become a city. Scattered outposts, on the other hand, tend to feel strongly about newcomers, usually based on whether they've had bad experiences in the past; if they need every sentient they can find to help fight off ravenous monsters, they may welcome you with open arms, whereas if they're doing OK on their own they probably don't take kindly to people they don't know since they might be raiders/thieves/etc.

What kinds of races are found down there? What races occur primarily outside, and so are uncommon in the megadungeon? Did any races migrate en masse (voluntarily, by force, by hostile magic, or by natural disaster) into the megadungeon? Have any races evolved or been created there? The more races that entered the megadungeon in large groups or came into existence there, the more racially homogenous population centers will tend to be. If most of the racial groups entered in little packets, population centers are likely to be very multi-racial and cosmopolitan, even if immigration from outside has drastically decreased and most population increases now comes from childbirth.

What Are the Different Regions?

A megadungeon should never be homogenous; mile upon mile of identical caves gets boring in a hurry. A lost dwarven city, natural caves, the hive of giant insects, and the magic-carved laboratory of an ancient wizard can all be underground and have walls of stone, but they'll still have very different layouts and feel very different to the party (as long as they're described properly).

Each of the above questions can (and should) be applied to each region of the megadungeon. How does it connect to other regions? How did it form and/or why is it the way it is (why isn't it just more of the next region over)? Who (and/or what) lives there? What population centers are there, and how do they feel about other people (both wanderers in general and their various neighbors)?


In an old session of Spelljammer of mine, I had a planet which has a totally un-inhabitable surface. The stone was so hard that i would have been inpenetrable for plants. So the whole life moved underground. It was a huge (and I mean huge, it was a whole planet!) number of intersecting tunnels with glowing fungi, lurking carnivours, and many, mostly blind civilizations.

However, if you are playing a well-known world, such as the Realms or Shadowrun, I would personally prefer @p.marino's answer.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .