I committed to building a megadungeon for the Desolate North a while ago. Quite a while ago. The first thing I started with was an idea of what kind of place I wanted and a tie-in to the campaign. I decided on an old dwarven fortress, abandoned for centuries. I promptly made a side-view map (pretty cool, too, and pretty detailed, if I may say so myself)...and then got swept up in real life. This was back before my recent spate of posting, mind.
When I came back to it, I had this great side-view map, and some of the entrance to level 1 mapped out. And...it sat there. I knew I should work on it, but it sat there. Why?
I just wasn't enthused about the idea. First, there was the setting idea - Oh, great, another dwarven fortress dungeon, just like other classic dwarven fortress dungeons! how original and wonderfully evocative! - and then there was the fact that, even if I liked the setting idea, I didn't want to play with it for a whole megadungeon's worth of space and effort. It sat there.
Until, talking it over with my wife one day, I came upon the solution. See, I still like the idea of an old dwarven fortress. It fits in very nicely with the Desolate North, as the first clue that this is actually an area of ancient history instead of virgin territory. But I didn't want to stick with it for the whole dungeon. So what to do?
Bisociate. The dungeon is two different things at the same time in the same place. (Hat tip to Kenneth Hite. Suppressed Transmission is a big part of my gaming bildungsroman.)
So at the same time as the dungeon is indeed an ancestral homeland for a civlization of dwarves that was never supposed to be here and is only in the crackpot theories of some discredited sage, it is also so much more, weirdly layered over it and shining through it and competing with it. Which set of myths is true? What exactly is the dungeon? Is it inside out?
This has a bunch of benefits. Firstly, I feel less like I'm leading the players on by the nose if I shove in discoverable bits about the lore. After all, through the bisociation they can come to their own conclusions about the history of the dungeon and the Desolate North, and I can't even say that they're wrong.
Further, it allows me to throw in a bunch of stuff that's interesting and Weird and cultish and oh-so-appropriate to what gets my creative juices flowing without feeling tied to the dusty and tired theme of 'underground mountain fortress for short people' that's just, by itself, missing that je ne sais quoi.
What this isn't is an excuse for the dungeon to not make sense or go 'gonzo.' I could use it that way, but I don't want to. ASE is all well and good, but I don't want to play it. Besides, Mr Wetmore is better at it than me by miles, despite sharing a first name.
But it does feel freeing. I can draw rooms without worrying overly about whether or not they fit with the dwarven theme, or (especially on lower levels) even if it exactly made sense for someone to build them this way. I can include whole other themes if I want without breaking stride, so long as I can tie them all together into the larger bisociative picture.
Ultimately, though, it passes the best test of all: I'm actually drawing it. I have the first (of four) sections of level 1 nearly completed (on graph paper, not keyed) despite the fact that my only time to work on it is in snatches and starts. (Mostly in the morning while waiting for my professor to come to class.) And I'm excited about the place, about drawing it and keying it and putting it all together and letting PCs loose to wreck it. Ask my wife; I won't shut up about it.
That's nice for you, but what can I do with it?That's a valid question. After all, you're here reading for ideas about your own gaming. Here's the thing: you can do it too.
Let's say you have an idea for a dungeon. For the sake of an example, we'll go with 'ancient Greek with animal men' in the tradition of Jacquays. That's a good theme, but if you want (or if you're struggling) you can bisociate (the italics are traditional). The dungeon has another theme. Not a complementary one, a completely new one that's sufficient unto itself. Going with our example, you can also have 'original touch-down spot and temple to the Elder Things'.
How does this work? That's up to you and how far you want to take it. Maybe different levels are on different 'planes' or places and interpenetrate. Maybe the dungeon changes from visit to visit (making restocking potentially very interesting, if a lot of work). Maybe if you're on drugs you see things differently - not more or less true, just differently. Maybe if you go right at the fork, you find one thing, but if you go left, you find another. Maybe there are different groups of monsters in your factions that only make sense in one of the idioms but not the other.
The possibilities are endless.
Try it out.