Site-based adventures, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the dungeon

When you think of ‘old school adventures’, what do you think of? Odds are, it’s a dungeon: something like the Temple of Elemental Evil or Castle Ravenloft or the Tomb of Horrors. You might even think of a megadungeon like Undermountain or Castle Greyhawk.

Now consider 5th edition adventures. What do you think of? Chances are, it’s story-driven (Curse of Strahd), modular (Rime of the Frostmaiden), event-based (Dragon Heist), or open world (Storm King’s Thunder). It might even be a mix, like Descent into Avernus. But unless you’re thinking of Dungeon of the Mad Mage – 5th edition’s tribute to the original Undermountain – you probably don’t think of a megadungeon.

Are big dungeons going out of style?

RIP the dungeon?

‘Megadungeons? Urgh, so old school. Tedious slogs, just combat, combat, combat. So limiting for the players. And where’s the story?’

Me, not too long ago

D&D has changed a lot in the last 50 years, and I can see how the concept of a megadungeon might not inspire excitement to modern players. They seem like a throwback: an old-school style of play that has fallen by the wayside. Crawling through miles and miles of stone corridors sounds repetitive and unimaginative, and compared to vast open-world campaigns where players can go wherever they like, limiting. Dungeons even look boring: huge top-down maps with pages and pages of text. And surely they take ages to prep?

After years of scepticism, I have come to see the errors of my ways.

Why dungeons rule

The Tomb of the Nine Gods, one of my favourite 5th edition dungeons so far.

Let’s take these criticisms apart one at a time.

‘Dungeons are repetitive.’

Who says? A megadungeon can be just as varied as any other D&D campaign. Take Dungeon of the Mad Mage, the 5th edition megadungeon: yes, you have the more traditional halls of Undermountains with oozes and goblins et cetera, but you also have a port, an academy, singing genies, a swamp, a forest, and even a star dock. Dungeons are only unimaginative if you want them to be.

‘Dungeons push combat.’

Again, this is no truer for dungeons than any other kind of campaign. Thinking about the three pillars, a good dungeon is packedwith opportunities for exploration – it’s kind of the whole point – but also, quite probably, social interaction. If you don’t believe me, here are just some of the things that happened in our last session of Mad Mage:

  • A revenant agreed to join the party if they helped him hunt down his murderers.
  • The party bard disguised herself as a bugbear and bullied some goblin toadies into clearing out a lair of gricks.
  • A suggestion spell set two groups of bandits against each other.
  • A trapped adventurer told the party everything he knew.

If anything, of the three pillars, combat probably featured the least, and after multiple sessions of running Mad Mage, this is not atypical.

‘Dungeons are restrictive.’

I can see the argument for this one. After all, a dungeon is defined by its walls: the action takes place within a defined, and therefore limited, space. But to some extent, all adventures are bounded. What happens in Dragon Heist if the party loses interest in Lord Neverember’s hoard? Is there a back-up plan if the adventurers leave Icewind Dale? Curse of Strahd falls apart if the party decides Barovia is not worth saving. (‘On second thoughts, let’s not go to Ravenloft. It is a silly place.’) And besides, the mists will stop them. Oh look, a boundary!

Here’s my take on this: all adventures, to some extent, require the players to ‘buy in’. It’s part of the social contract of the game. Obviously it can go too far, as in the notorious ‘railroad’ model where the poor players are merely being dragged through the DM’s personal novel (don’t do this). But agreeing together to lean into the campaign’s themes and direction, implicitly or otherwise, is part and parcel of a functioning D&D group. It’s why we have session zeros and check in regularly to make sure people are still having fun.

Rather than seeing dungeons as a series of closed-off routes, perhaps we should think of them as the opposite: a network of possibilities spreading out from the players’ choices. At the risk of sounding like a corporate killjoy, strip back every dungeon and what you are left with is, in essence, a flowchart. It is a structure that constantly hands choices back to the players. Every corridor is a road less travelled.

‘Dungeons take too long to write.’

And event-based adventures don’t? If anything, the structure of a dungeon is what makes them so much more manageable to prep. Have a look at this, the adventure flow chart, timeline, and ‘encounter chains’ for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist:

Don’t get me wrong – I like this adventure a lot and really enjoyed my friend’s interpretation of it as a DM. But for an adventure that only covers levels 1–5: yeesh! A dungeon map suddenly looks much, much simpler.

(And by the way: you don’t have to write boxed text for every room. In fact, I would strongly advise that you don’t. If you want a tunnel with five giant rats, just write ‘Tunnel: 5 giant rats’. They’re notes, not a PhD thesis.)

‘Dungeons are too brutal.’

I blame Tomb of Horrors for this: a tournament module specifically designed to kill characters sadistically in an era when ‘dwarf fighter’ might be the beginning and end of your character concept. Just like any adventure, dungeons are as brutal as you and the players want them to be.

(Incidentally, dungeons are actually a good counterweight to some of 5e’s pitfalls: namely, that combat is too easy and it’s hard to challenge players once they get past 7th level or so. There’s a whole article in here somewhere, but the fundamental problem is the adventuring day. In the more story-driven, open-world campaigns that many newer players are used to, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of only fighting one or two battles per day. This leads to ‘supernova’ tactics where characters burn through all their abilities, confident that they will have a chance to rest and recoup before the next 18-second combat. In a dungeon, characters have to be a bit more careful, and the rhythm of the game is better for it.)

Vive le dungeon!

Should that be donjon? Whatever we call them, D&D was designed around them. They’re half the name of the game. It saddens me a bit that they don’t get as much love as they used to. Don’t think of them as an old school cliché: they are a powerful and elegant framework for endless fantastic adventures.   

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