Friday, September 21, 2012

Four mistakes to avoid when making a megadungeon

In a discussion about megadungeons (in a link now lost to me), someone pointed out the advice in this WOTC blog:

Adventure Builder: Writing Your First Adventure by Wolfgang Baur
He's got four complaints about adventures submitted for publication:

"1) too much useless backstory
2) slow starts
3) random encounters
4) too many encounters"

Although in the thread I read, this was all shot down, I actually think it's generally very sound advice for an old-school game, especially a megadungeon. I'll explain why point by point.

"1) too much useless backstory"

Basically: Write enough for the game, don't write a novel.

Why it's true for old school games:
The key word is "useless." Not "too much backstory" but "useless" backstory. Details you just don't need, and players will never get to learn (or benefit from, if they do).

If the backstory is valuable, and if learning it is both interesting and useful to the players, it's a benefit to the game.

The idea of "Gary's got this cool new game called Greyhawk. You're a bunch of guys exploring an old abandoned wizard's castle full of monsters and treasure and stuff." launched an entire hobby. How much backstory is that? Not much. Just enough to get started.

It's probably not enough to sustain a game, though. You need some backstory. But you don't need more than the players will encounter, or than the players will be able to find out and utilize. Think of those tantalizing tastes of the history of Greyhawk and the madness of Zagyg and the vague hints you get about Blackmoor. Why are they tantalizing? Because you have just enough to go on, but not so much that your imagination has no gaps to fill. That's the middle ground you want for your players. Some backstory, but loose enough that when they imagine something cooler, you can run with it. Not so little that you don't have an answer or your megadungeon doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Just enough.

"2) slow starts"

Basically: Start off with a bang, not a whimper.

Why it's true for old school games:
Nothing sucks more than camping in front of a gigantic dungeon full of monsters, puzzles, traps, and unimaginable treasures and having nothing to do. Or worse, have a lot of boring crap to do. Room 1 can be empty (and usually is), but there better be stuff to do immediately. Decisions to make ("Do we go left, right, or straight?") and things to worry about ("Where do those obviously steep stairs go? What is that odd smell? Who is making that groaning noise?") are really important.

Like the man said, people want to show up and roll dice. This is especially true the less often you play. Make sure there is stuff to do right way in your megadungeon. Make sure entering the place or going down a level or pulling the elevator lever has some kind of effect. You'll never regret starting off with a bang, and that goes equally for sessions, levels (it shouldn't be safe to "just go down to level 4 real quick and look around"), and whole dungeons. Vary what you use, but make it exciting from the word go.

I'm guilty of this - although my upper works had a ghost and some other (as yet unknown) encounters, my megadungeon started with a whimper. I should have had a bang-zoom start and I didn't. We had a "let's mine our own entrance!" thing going for half the session. That's my fault, not theirs.

3) random encounters

Basically: They can be fun, but they don't advance the adventure.

Why it's true for old school games:
This is the one I agree with the least. But I don't think it's totally wrong or without value.

Take this from someone who loves them: Wandering Monsters are a time-use tax. Dawdle? Fight some random monsters that show up to hassle you. You can't just sit around or take your time. They generally advance the adventure indirectly, by forcing players to make decisions and to move. That's what they are for. You don't exactly speed up the session by throwing a random monster at the party, nor do you speed up their exploration. You're punishing them for taking too much time.

Not that this is bad. It's reasonable in the game of dungeon crawling that there is a tax for sitting around. You'll suffer now but keep the pace up more later.

But the author also has a point - they don't need to be random per se. You don't necessarily need a table. You could just say that on a 1 in 6 every X amount of time, there is a chance that monsters that live nearby the disturbance (aka the party) come to investigate. Dumb monsters might wander up and attack. Smart ones might organize an ambush, or provoke dumb monsters to go after you, or use magic to confuse your approach so you can't find them, or another clever response. Hell, they might come and negotiate from a position of strength as you sit bandaging the cleric up enough that he'll wake up and heal your unconscious fighters. This changes them from "a carrion crawler appears from nowhere 10-60' away and attacks you; had you moved faster, it might not have existed" to "a carrion crawler from the room you rested to close to has heard the moans of your wounded and wandered over; too bad you didn't surprise it while it was sleeping."

While I love tables and I use them myself, you really can just make the "random" in encounter just randomly determining if you fight them in their keyed area or outside of it. Keep the roll, but you can ditch the table if you want. It won't break the megadungeon, and it might even make it seem more alive.

"4) too many encounters"

Basically, too many encounters slows down progress.

Why it's true for old school games:
If you fill every room in your megadungeon, no one will get anywhere. You'll be bogged down clearing room after room. Why make it "mega" if you intend to cram it tight with monsters and traps and treasure? You could do that with a smaller dungeon. Part of the fun of megadungeons is that they can contain anything and maybe everything, because they are so big. How do you get across the idea that it's so huge? Leave empty space. Put in hallways that take 20 minutes to cross and stairs that wind down for miles. But if every room has an encounter, you never get to explore all that stuff. So don't feel like you need to fill the whole dungeon. The fact that old-school stocking tables leave anywhere from 1/3 (D&D Basic Set p. B52) to 60% empty (DMG, pg. 170) to 2/3 empty (Monsters & Treasures, p. 6) are a good guideline to this. The dungeon is as big as you need it to be - so don't put in so many encounters it takes too much real-world time to get to the cool stuff.

Make sure there is a lot to do - and yes, this means encounters - but not so many that every session is a slog of room clearing or trap detection. Make sure they can go look around, not get bogged down with too much in too small of a spot.

So that's what I take away from that article. It goes on to expand on appropriate encounter levels, and adventure paths, and stuff I don't care about for my current game. But that first bit, those four mistakes, I really feel like I took away some clarity about the good and the bad. I hope it helps you, too.


  1. Shame that Wolfgang's article is no longer available on the WOTC website :-(

  2. Found it:

    1. Thank you for finding it - I'll fix the link in the post above, too.


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