Posts Tagged ‘dungeons


Megadungeon Mastery III: How Large Was My Level

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire.)

How large is it? Relatively large, apparently.

As often happens when trying something new, when I decided to build my first megadungeon I said to myself, “I’ll try to be different and original and do things my own way!”

Naturally, this led to problems.

Right now I want to focus on matters of scale. Ironically, this sounds like a brief subject but actually covers a lot of ground. I’ll start with a few things I learned about designing and drawing megadungeon maps.

1) Don’t make your levels too large. In designing the dungeons beneath the Chateau d’Ambreville, I sketched out a huge, elaborate castle and decided to put entrances under various towers. In order to fit all these entrances onto one level, I printed out maps on 11″x17″ sheets of paper, then folded them in half so they could fit into my binder. But there were problems!

• 1a) If you fold your maps in half, they’ll fray and tear along the fold. This is no fun, and requires lots of fiddling with adhesive tape to keep them together. It’s better to make smaller sub-levels that each fit onto one sheet of paper, and connect them with long corridors.

• 1b) Large maps can get out of control. Once you’re trying to fill in a huge map, you may realize that now your themed level now has 200 rooms and after filling in 50 of them, you’re stumped as to what to put in the other 150.

• 1c) If your levels are too large, it’s hard to keep track of what’s where. This can be important when trying to figure out how nearby dungeon inhabitants will react to the PCs and their trail of theft and murder! (I’ll include more detail on these issues in a future blog post.)

Note that you can always provide more level-appropriate encounters by making an additional level — a “sub-level” — at the same depth, connected to the rest of the dungeon by a single stair or passage. Multiple themed sub-levels can be strung together to generate the effect of a huge dungeon level while avoiding many of the problems inherent in huge dungeon levels.

2) Use graph paper with large squares. Maps are about more than walls and doors! They’re an invaluable resource for marking down other details: furniture, whether doors are locked, tracks on the floor, light sources, odors, etc. And at five or six squares per inch, there’s just no room for those details. Even the traditional four squares per inch may feel a little cramped. Sure, you can note these things on your map legend, but if too much of this information is written in the legend rather than drawn on the map, it’s far too easy for key details to slip your mind in the heat of play.

* * *

I’ve mentioned that the number of rooms on a level is significant. This isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Rooms contain monsters and treasure; in a sense, they’re buckets of XP for the player characters to fill themselves from. Furthermore, each deeper level is supposed to have tougher monsters and bigger treasures (on average) than the previous level, so that higher level PCs are encouraged to keep delving deeper to get the XP needed to continue leveling up at a decent rate. So each level should contain enough treasure for all of your PCs to level up if they clear it out — plus some extra to account for PC death, level drain and hidden caches that they fail to discover. Too little treasure and they can’t level up; too much treasure and they’ll hang around on that level instead of going deeper. (The specifics of how much XP comes from monsters and how much comes from treasure varies by edition.)

The problem here is that the size of the level roughly determines the number of encounters, which take time at the table and increase the chances of losing XP to PC death. So if you make a really big level, you either need to add more treasure or reduce the number and/or intensity of the encounters.

Reductio ad absurdum: You decide that you need to put 20,000xp worth of treasure on the first dungeon level to ensure your PCs can level up. You’ll distribute this roughly according to the OD&D guidelines: 1 encounter per 3 rooms, half of all encounters have treasure, one-sixth of rooms without encounters have treasure. (This comes to treasure in roughly one-quarter of all rooms.)

• In one instance, you design a 4-room dungeon level containing a single treasure: a 20,000gp gem. Unfortunately, there’s no worthwhile combat challenge available for this purpose; either you’re giving away treasure like Monty Haul, or the monsters are strong enough to kill the PCs (so why did you put this encounter on the first level?), or it’s so well-hidden that no one will ever find it. Failure!

• In another instance, you design a 4000-room dungeon level with 1000 treasures, each averaging 20gp. Aside from the difficulties of designing over 1000 first-level encounters, it will take your players forever to wade through enough of these encounters to get an appreciable amount of experience, and they’re bound to lose PCs faster than they can bring in treasure to level up. Failure!

So the amount of treasure on a dungeon level needs to be enough to level up all of the PCs, as modified by the number of encounters required to obtain that treasure.

You should be able to calculate this by determining two key variables: how many sessions you want to run before the PCs level up, and how many rooms your group typically gets through in one session. The latter number will vary a lot, of course; sometimes the party manages to cover large expanses of the dungeon by wandering from empty room to empty room, while at other times the party runs right into a big set-piece battle where clearing out a single room takes up the entire session.

So if your party averages four rooms per session (for example) and you want them to level up roughly every ten sessions, if one in four rooms has treasure in it, then you want ten of those treasures to be enough to level up. Moreover, if the party tends to miss about half of the treasures they run across (because the treasures are well-hidden, or they use up half the treasure on raise dead spells, or whatever), you could ramp up the treasures further, so that only five treasures will suffice to level up.

And remember: what’s right for your group isn’t necessarily what’s right for other groups. Some players enjoy mapping complicated dungeon levels, seeking out carefully hidden treasures or unraveling intricate tricks and traps. Others don’t. Unless you have access to a sufficiently broad player base that you can find players who like playing exactly what you want to run, you need to adapt your dungeon design to the needs and desires of your players. After all, the fun is the thing!


Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base.)

“You are in a maze of… oh, never mind.”

Ah, the Great Underground Empire! What would the dungeons of Zork have been like without Emperor Flathead, the Zorkmid, or Flood Control Dam #5? Just a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Ditto for Moria without its dwarven halls, or Castle Timeless without its evil wizards and Great Old Ones. A dungeon is more than mere rooms and corridors, monsters and treasures; it’s an environment all its own, with its own character and context.

For now, let’s just look at the big stuff — the overall structure of the dungeon, its nature and its history. This provides essential context for play.

Every dungeon has its own underlying principles. For the sake of convenience, let’s divide them into the following two categories:

    • Those that developed and remain stocked in a naturalistic fashion: “Gygaxian Naturalism.”
    • Those whose inner workings are fundamentally illogical and occult: “Mythic Underworlds.”

Naturally there’s some overlap between these categories. But the distinction is a useful one, and choosing between them has an enormous impact on dungeon design and the feel of the resulting campaign.

“Gygaxian Naturalism”

Naturalism requires verisimilitude. This limits your options insofar as it requires some sort of explanation for all of your chambers and corridors, your monsters and treasures. But such restrictions are excellent for inspiring creativity! Filling a bunch of random rooms can paralyze you with choices, but if you know this section of the dungeon consists of a city slum that was paved over centuries ago, that section was dug out by dwarves following a seam of mithril and establishing a forge, and the other section contains a nexus of ley lines being used as a hatchery by a naga queen, you can work within those strictures to make interesting and engaging environments.

In addition, a naturalistic environment provides valuable context and connections for the players. Not only aren’t they wandering through the dreaded Dungeon of 10,000 Identical Doors, but they can analyze the environment to draw useful conclusions about areas they haven’t yet seen. You may choose to incorporate some of these ideas! (For instance, PCs may start investigating one area’s ventilation system, or they may take note of the lack of organic debris in another area and wonder as to the presence of a cesspit or sewage system.)

A useful tool for naturalistic dungeon design is the “How to Host a Dungeon” game, which provides a game-like semi-random procedure for generating the overall layout of a megadungeon by tracing its development — showing which regions were built, used, abandoned, invaded, captured or squatted in by various underground denizens and surface dwellers over the course of its history. Click here and here to watch the Mule’s own Greengoat use “How to Host a Dungeon” to build a megadungeon environment of his very own!

“Mythic Underworld”

By rejecting naturalism outright, you can establish your megadungeon as a place where anything goes. Perhaps the dungeon was created by a mad wizard or a vengeful god, or it’s some sort of living entity which spontaneously generates monsters and treasures, tricks and traps within its labyrinthine innards. Whatever its origins, the usual formulae of cause and effect don’t apply within its walls.

This offers lots of scope for gonzo weirdness! You can jam in monsters and treasures any which way, without having to worry about niggling questions like “what do the orcs eat,” “where do the troglodytes poop” or “why does this room hold a dragon that’s too big to fit through the door?” Likewise, you can design the most bizarre tricks and traps without needing to justify their presence. Who cares why this door has an elaborate puzzle lock or why that fountain has a fifty-fifty chance of increasing your Strength or turning you into a snail? They’re just there, that’s all, and the PCs must deal with them!

The downside here is a lack of context for the players. Some players may get turned off if there’s no context for their exploration. How can they take advantage of patterns in the layout of the dungeon if there are no patterns to be found?

So you’ll probably want to have some sort of underlying rules governing the place, even if those rules aren’t immediately obvious to the players. The dungeon environment spelled out in OD&D — a place where doors open for monsters but remain stubbornly shut for PCs, where everything but the PCs can see in the dark — clearly follows its own inscrutable principles. Figure out the how and the why of your mythic underworld, its “unnaturalism” if you will, and that’ll both provide you with simple tools for building the place and provide a colossal and inspiring puzzle for your players to decipher!

Valuable analysis regarding the mythic underworld style can be found on the site where — to the best of my knowledge — the term was coined in the context of OD&D and the OSR: Philotomy Jurament’s OD&D Musings.

Mix and Match

The two aforementioned themes can overlap, and there’s much to be gained by doing so. Weirdness is extra weird in a naturalistic dungeon, while bits of naturalism in a mythic underworld can provide a welcome change — as well as generating pathos for the poor suckers who tried to establish a rational lifestyle in the mythic underworld’s phantasmagorical environs.

An early example of this sort of fusion is the Underworld of the planet Tékumel, as found in Empire of the Petal Throne. (See “Developing an Underworld,” pp. 61-63 & 98-102.) It’s a morass of forgotten cities, buried necropoli, wizards’ lairs, alien hives and the eons-old ruins of a spacefaring human civilization. Everything has its own reasons for being there, but the place is nonetheless supernaturally hostile towards intruding PCs, with doors opening for monsters while holding fast against the party as per the OD&D rules.

Other offbeat settings like Arduin, Barsaive, Glorantha, Harmundia, Jorune, Talislanta and Uresia are worth investigating in this regard. Remember, one of the defining characteristics of old-school play is its catholicity. You can never steal from too many sources!


Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base

So this is what “urban adventuring” looks like!

I’ve been running adventures in my megadungeon, the Château D’Ambreville, for over two years now. In the process, I’ve made many mistakes and learned a number of lessons about why Gygax and his fellow old-school DMs made the decisions they did in setting up their own megadungeons — Blackmoor, Castle Greyhawk, Undermountain and the like. The following series of blog posts will be an attempt to compile those lessons into a usable format.

(While I wouldn’t say that I’ve achieved mastery of the megadungeon format, “Megadungeon Mastery” has some nifty alliteration going for it, so it’s my title and I’m sticking with it.)

NB: Anyone interested in megadungeon creation should check out this theRPGsite thread on megadungeon design, and this Knights & Knaves Alehouse thread providing an exegesis of an original Castle Greyhawk map.

The location of the megadungeon has a dramatic impact on play. Placing the dungeon in, under or adjacent to a major city doesn’t just allow for easy PC access — which is itself no small thing, as it can save time every session that might otherwise be spent on describing travel or making wilderness encounter checks. It also impacts on magics like floating disk, slow poison or raise dead which have a limited window of utility. (Slow poison is infinitely more useful if you have time to carry the victim upstairs to the surface and just down the street to a temple.) Lastly, it makes random encounters with NPC parties more rational — an important goal if you’re aiming for Gygaxian naturalism — as those NPCs can enter the dungeon as easily as the PCs.

Placing the megadungeon out in the wilderness, as with sites like the Temple of Elemental Evil, changes the equation. Now the party has to travel to get to the dungeon, which can soak up time at the table. (It’s often best to gloss over the trip, especially after the PCs have gone back and forth several times, though that does lose the sense of scale and distance involved.) It also makes tracking the in-game calendar of events more complicated; if, like some old-school games, you have different PC parties wandering the landscape, it’s much more likely that their timelines will get snarled up if each session takes days rather than hours of in-setting time. Meanwhile, NPC parties also have to travel through the outdoors to reach the dungeon, which can result in the PCs spending whole sessions tracking down and ambushing NPC parties in the wilderness — or themselves being ambushed by those selfsame NPCs!

(Either way, the dungeon should have multiple entrances, but that’s a matter for another post.)

Having run a megadungeon outside of civilization, I have to recommend putting one’s first megadungeon in a population center instead. There’s already tons of bookkeeping involved in running old-school D&D, and it’s worth keeping the dungeon right under the PCs’ home base in order to reduce that workload.

As to the home base itself, this can be anything from a peaceful village to a Gold Rush-style shantytown to a major city. The nature and scale of the place has a number of immediate effects. Smaller and poorer settlements may be limited in what wizardry and priestly magics are available to the party, and their merchants are less likely to sell unusual items, may have limited quantities of basic equipment, and may not be able to pay a decent price for some of the valuables pulled up from the dungeon. (This may mean lots of side trips to the nearest city, which you may see as an exciting diversion or an unwelcome distraction.) Meanwhile, larger cities are more likely to host rival adventurers to encounter the PCs in the dungeon or beat them to key treasure hoards.

In the longer term, the political impact of the PCs will also vary depending on the environment. Third or fourth level PCs may quickly become big shots amid an isolated rural landscape, while the same PCs may still be second-stringers in the politics of a metropolis. Again, your choice should be influenced by how closely you want your game to hew to dungeon delving as opposed to urban adventures.


Keys to the (Underground) Kingdom

“I have dared much for this meeting! Look! The keys to your chains! I stole them from Shukeli. What will you give me for them?”

—Robert E. Howard, “The Scarlet Citadel”

Dungeons are littered with locked doors and locked treasure chests. (Admittedly, no old-school ruleset specifies which or how many are locked, but that many are locked is always clear.) But where are the keys to open these things? Keys aren’t listed on any of the treasure tables.


    • If this is a mythic underworld, there’s no need for keys because the locks are sui generis, existing for no purpose other than to thwart adventurers.
    • For Gygaxian realism, you can add keys to DM-created treasure caches or put them in the possession of whichever creatures run the appropriate part of the dungeon.
    • Lastly, if you want keys to show up randomly, assign them to some part of the treasure table that you wouldn’t otherwise use. Personally, I rarely have treasure maps handy, so if “Treasure Map” turns up on the treasure tables I can assign a key instead.

The availability and utility of any given key depends on its use. The lock on a private room or treasure chest likely only has one corresponding key, while the lock on a display case or armory door might have several associated keys. Meanwhile, skeleton keys may exist that open a number of locks.

Of course, just because the PCs find a key doesn’t mean it will do them any good! Adventurers are in the habit of bashing down locked doors, and once a door’s been bashed in, the key associated with its lock does little good. Similarly, a key found on a body might belong to a room in its former owner’s stronghold hundreds of miles away. There’s no way to know!

Here’s an off-the-cuff table to determine a key’s utility:

    1-4: Opens a specific door in the dungeon. Roll randomly to see which level the door is on, then roll to see which room number it’s associated with, rerolling if the room doesn’t have any doors.
    5-6: Opens a treasure chest, vault, padlock, manacles, etc. Roll randomly as with #1-4 above.
    7: Skeleton key that opens all doors on a dungeon level, except for any special doors that you deem to require their own keys. Roll randomly to see which level it works on.
    8: The key doesn’t open anything in this dungeon, and never did.

Past Adventures of the Mule

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