Friday, December 30, 2011

My megadungeon mapping "best" practices - Part I

Or at least what I've been doing. I can't show you evidence of these because putting my maps up would be giving out in-game information, and at least one of my players reads this blog. I don't know this is really great advice, but it's working well for me.

Side View First

Check out this very cool side view I found on the Mythmere site, or this cool variation. It tells you a lot about the dungeon, I think, in a way that a top-down map just cannot. Levels in a big dungeon stack, so decide how they stack. This really helps tie it all together, and gives you a chance to see what connections "need" to be between levels.

Corollary: Showing the connections is important.

My first thoughts on a seeing a bunch of maps is "How do these connect?" and a side view does that visually. Not to bash on this sideview, but the one at bigdungeon is cool but doesn't show connections. So to me it looks unfinished. If I can't see the connections I can't do my little mental maze game of "How can I get to the bottom? Can I get from here to here? What levels are isolated?" They are all isolated until you put on some connections.

Corollary: Leave whitespace for more levels.

Pretty simple. Don't fill all the possible spaces for levels on your first pass. Leave room between the levels for sub-levels, room on the side for cul-de-sac levels, room below for deeper levels. Don't box yourself in. A good bit of the coolness in a big dungeon is that feeling of "holy crap . . . this could go on forever!"

Plus you want to leave room for "oh cool, I can put that dungeon level I just found on the internet . . . here."

Level Connections

Do a quickie overview of the levels on paper, and write down what those connections are. You can change this later, but start with some ideas. I have notes like:

Level 1:
3 Entrances
- Main Gate
- Stairs down from ruined tower
- Secret entrance from the Evil Shrine

4 Exits
- Stairs to Level 2
- Pit to Level 2
- Trap Door to Level 2A
- tunnel exit to Level 3

This at least gives me a starting point. What is an entrance and what is an exit is arbitrarily top-to-bottom. Comes in from the surface or an upper level? Entrance. Goes deeper into the dungeon? Exit.

Corollary: Map the connections on the level map first.

This gives you a bit of structure. You can always change them later, but it's a pain to erase a whole section of map because you didn't line up the entrances with the exits from the previous level.

Map Early and Often

Write and don't erase (unless it's an obvious error). Don't scrap and redraw. Just draw. Themes and commonalities (see #3) will emerge just from your own style and preferences emerging over time.

If possible, draw a room or two or ten every day. Twice a day. I've got one and a half levels done and part of two more. How I do this is simple - the same way I write books. I just write down everything, and I make myself draw a room or two everytime I see the map. It fills in quickly that way.

Corollary: Random rooms are fun.

Steal an idea from Vornheim and just dump some dice on the graph paper. Where they land is a room. The pips on the dice indicate the size of one dimension. Roll again (or roll another die, your choice) to determine the other dimension. You can orient them to the map or just say screw it and draw the edges with the dice.

Corollary: Leave whitespace.

Again, leave some places to explore and add stuff. You might need it later. That which is defined is limiting, so leave some places undefined.

That's all for now, more another time as I come up with them.


  1. This verges on a piece of more general writing advice that I've found useful: resist the temptation to switch from Composition Mode to Editing Mode. Some people advocate not even correcting typos - but certainly don't go back and start moving stuff around while you're still creating new things. You can move stuff around some other time when the prose isn't flowing.

  2. There's all kinds of good ideas referenced here that I've never even heard of. Wah.

    It gives me that feeling of "holy crap . . . this could go on forever!"

  3. Nice; more resources to add to my megadungeon notes. I love it when I come across excellent new sites like that bigdungeon blog. Thanks for posting the link.

  4. That which is defined is limiting, so leave some places undefined.

    A strength in rulesets and settings too. :-)

  5. @rogerbw: This verges on a piece of more general writing advice that I've found useful: resist the temptation to switch from Composition Mode to Editing Mode. Yes. It's true. A lot of people get hung up on "get it right before you move on." That works for some people, but odds are it's better to just crank stuff out and go back and fix it later. Worse comes to worst, you've got some corridors and rooms down.

    @jeffro: Hahah. Thanks.

    Brendan: You are welcome, and thanks. You are totally right about rulesets and settings. I play a very "complete" system, but it's critical to know not to use all of it. I choose what settings I'll use rigorously and then wing the rest. It's an important thing to learn - the Observer Effect. It's undefined until it's defined and seen. Rules, settings, everything. Leave it vague and then define it when you need it. Or just define the outline and be willing to change it right up until the players see it and "grave it in stone."


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