Tuesday 13 June 2023


DNGN #1 (2022)

by Vasili Kaliman

Published by Singing Flame

Levels 1 and up

The Terminator is a marvel of design and engineering, a sleek technological terror moving with superhuman precision. Its body is surgical steel, its eyes penetrating optical cameras, its blood high-grade machine oil. It hunts and kills according to the precise programming with which the machine overlords had imbued it. The Terminator is very efficient, but is it good for us? The jury is still out on that one.

Anyway, DNGN #1 is a weird science-fantasy megadungeon published as a risographed zine; the whole thing is printed in pleasing red and blue ink, with 10 really neat full-page illustrations that could be used as an illustration booklet, and even a comic strip! The initial issue covers ten levels and a bonus side-adventure (same author using a skullfungus map). This is a zine which follows all the layout and writing trends championed over the last few years, and used particularly in various Old School Essentials releases. The text is terse, using bullet points to convey information exactly and briefly. Monster names are not only bolded, but highlighted in red. Dungeon maps are annotated with extra room information on floor type and illumination, simple dungeon dressing tables, and so on. Each of the ten levels in this issue uses a page for the maps, and the facing page for the room descriptions.

Here lies the problem, though. As a result of this ruthless and sleek efficiency, what we get is not necessarily what we were looking for in an adventure. How can ten levels of a megadungeon  fit into a 40-page zine (that is, 20 pages of that 40-page zine, since the art and the comic take up the rest)? Well, we have to adjust our expectations for a megadungeon. These dungeon levels have around 8-10 keyed rooms on the average. It is also not like they are 8-10 keyed rooms in a network of corridors and empty rooms (which would be the Castle Greyhawk model). It is really all there is to it.

Puny meatlings! This is, in fact, my final form!

The maps are on the simplistic side, mostly a few basic geometric shapes strung together. Levels connect to one another through one or two stairways, but they follow in succession, without side-levels or the possibility of choosing between a risky deeper delve or a safer expedition close to the surface. Secret rooms are found, but the discovery of cleverly concealed hidden sections, larger room complexes, themed sections, staging areas, and the stuff that makes megadungeon campaigns exciting are all missing. Pit traps, slopes, stairs within levels, water, collapsed terrain, level-spanning rooms – not present either (although there are two cavern levels). It is notable how much of a difference a good map makes. If the whole zine was dedicated to mapping out a single, sprawling dungeon level with decent map design and all sorts of interesting exploration choices, it would solve a lot of the scope/content issues. Here, you just cannot explore too much, since there is so little to explore, and your ability to make meaningful choices is likewise limited by the constrained environment. This is, simply put, not a megadungeon in any shape or form that meets the commonly accepted criteria. Even as a dungeon dungeon, it is smallish and very linear. It all fits on neatly arranged page pairs. It is geometrically perfect, no exceptions. Is that really a feature here? Does it help create a dungeon that is fascinating to a group of players, drawing them back again and again to go further and see more?

The room keys are a step better. A technological/cosmic weirdness theme connects the dungeon, from star god altars worshipped by duergars to vampires slumbering in a glass tank to magnetic statues wearing cybernetic armour and animating if the weapons captured by their magnetic powers are removed. Here, you can see good ideas and well-designed encounters, even if they are mostly simple. You can assemble a good dungeon from a handful of simple, good ideas. However, the strict double-page format serves as a barrier to what can be done. If there is a dungeon room that actually does something interesting an complex (like the magnetic statue room), there are inevitably a few more that amount to “empty”, “here is a bizarre item”, or “they are here and they attack”, because that’s what you have layout budget for (“7F > EMPTY ROOM. Completely empty.”). Does that make the adventure better? Are we better off following this super-efficient and scientifically perfected formatting? Is it to our benefit? Some designers – and this takes a keen skill and sharpened practice – can produce terse, enigmatic room entries which stimulate the imagination in just a few lines, and help the GM imagine the rest. There is an almost oracular quality to these entries, seen in Bob Bledsaw’s Tegel Manor or Michael Curtis’s Stonehell, since they tell much more than they actually speak, and can be interpreted very differently by different GMs. In these cases, minimalism works. But it does not work for everyone (for example, Gary Gygax developed a different style with different strengths), and it does not work reliably here. Sometimes the author gets it right, but he clearly has not mastered the format. Which is no surprise, since it is actually hard to get minimalism right.

Mechanical Skelebro
Offers a Helpful Hint
The room mixture is a mishmash. Instead of concentrated mini-themes emerging from dungeon areas, it is just all random – a room inhabited by an illusionist berating 1d6+2 zombie servants lies next to a room of tapestries, which lies next to a room with three sarcophagi containing mummies, which lies next to a room with bandits, which lies next to a room of stalactites you can lick for 1 Hp of healing. The room-by-room entries can be good, but the big picture is incoherent – not by the standards of conventional realism, but even by the standards of a dungeon with a funhouse slant. The monster count is really low in both the room entries and the random encounter chart. You could see it is 1d6+2 zombies or 4 bandits or 3 mummies. You don’t really see OD&D’s hordes of lower-level opponents that come at you in an onslaught, to overwhelm the weak or get chopped into pieces by the strong. On the plus side, you can meet some really tough stuff that would require the characters to think before engaging, and run if they meet something they can’t handle. There is a purple worm right on level 2, hiding within a mass of tangled vines in a side room. That’s quite fun, although I suspect this module would have a high TPK potential if actually run.

And that’s the deal with DNGN #1. It shows strengths in some room entries, but it is a dungeon where the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. More than that, it shows, very clearly, how meme layout and graphic design fetishism have misled old-school designers. This zine uses a format which actively works against delivering a substantial, interesting adventure, and is particularly ill-suited for presenting a megadungeon. Old-school gaming’s efficiency movement has produced a perfected end product which does not work. And here is where we return to the Terminator analogy. It turns out we defeated the Terminator and kicked its shiny metal ass. We survived its initial attack, we outwitted its mechanical perfection, we learned its programmed tricks, and we crushed it under a hydraulic press. If it comes back, we will do it again. And that is because we are human. That is because we have something more than the machines have. We will prevail.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: ** / *****


  1. Looks like this is doing the same thing as Mike's Dungeons, but with much less content, slightly better formatting, and a slightly higher price tag. And I already own Mike's Dungeons! If you want a minimalist, non-naturalistic B/X megadungeon, just buy that or roll one up yourself with the dungeon stocking tables.

    1. Good point! The style and structure is fairly similar. I also believe Mike's Dungeons is a mistake - however, Mike's Wilderness is one of the all-time greats.

  2. I like the clean design and the red works much better than I thought that it would. But these things need to be A4 size at least with around two dozen areas per level, enough to get two or three sessions out of.

  3. That there isn't a megadungeon...by my count, that's not even a kilodungeon. It's a dungeon, at best...less charitably, it's a series of linked lairs: https://coldlightrpgpress.weebly.com/home/defining-dungeons

  4. it's a shame. cause the cover and art are quite amazing