More lessons from working on the old megadungeon.
The rest of the series is linked from here.
Quick Felltower/Grak Yorl Status Update
My own megadungeon has, as of now, 6 main levels and 3 or 4 sub-levels (depending on how you count) mapped out, and everything the players could possibly reach in any two sessions is stocked and ready. I've got notes and outsides on several more levels and sub levels, and I've been slowly expanding the areas I've done already but which haven't been explored. Until the PCs get there, it's still okay in my book to modify it.
The lessons I've learned recently:
The more paths around the dungeon, the better. While it's perfectly logical to minimize the build time of a big-ass underground fortress by minimizing the transit points, intersections, and travel routes and to maximize the chokepoints, it's also a bit less fun. You're doing a 10-level masterpiece, here, and "but the designers would chokepoint repeatedly to maximize their defenses" shouldn't be the dominating theme. It should come up, but it's less exciting and gives the players less meaningful and worrisome choices.
So trace some routes, and ensure there are multiple ways to get to most places. Certain areas should be deliberately bottlenecked, or show signs of "accidental" bottlenecking,
I gather this is all under the heading of "Jacquaying the dungeon" but that's a term I learned only recently. Jacquays didn't write for TSR, and most stores I frequented didn't carry much (if any) Judges Guild material. I learned to map dungeons the ol' fashion TSR tournament module way - one way in, one way out (maybe the same way, maybe not), and everything lined up with a few side encounters for the really thorough. It's a good way to approach it - make the path choices meaningful.
Here are some stocking tips:
Use Your Favorite Monsters Right Away. Every GM has favorite monsters - the really cool ones, the ones you loved as a kid, the scariest and toughest ones. It's tempting to hold onto them for a special occasion, and only bust them out when the situation is ju-u-u-u-st right.
Bad idea, in my experience.
By the time you use them, it's past due. It's too easy to hold them too long. This isn't a battle, where the last one to commit his reserves wins. It's a game, and you've got an endless supply of reserves. Bust out the "special" baddies right away; you can always use a bigger, better, badder version later if it goes well and they work as well as you'd hope. Plus, it avoids unconscious investment in that set-piece encounter later. It's not "the one time I get to use a beholder/the githyanki/a dragon/the black reaver" it's "one of the times." Break them out early.
Be judicious using "In Media Res." Well, not exactly "in media res" but close enough - don't spray in-the-middle-of-the-action encounters around. These kind of encounters are the ones where you walk into the middle of a fight . . . or find a fresh corpse . . . or find the orcs trapped behind a wall of flaming oil from a triggered trap . . . or arrive just in time to see the bridge collapse.
I find these strain believability if you use them too often.
The problem with these is the sandbox nature of the dungeon. You expect the players to keep coming back with their PCs, and expect changes to occur. They players expect this, too.
If the players know that last week they went left instead of right, and this week they go right and encounter a just-killed adventurer and the blood-dripping monster that killed him, they'll suspect he'd have been "just killed" last week instead had they turned right.
What I've done is put in a few of these, and if they aren't resolved that session, I resolve them and put the results down on the key. The bridge is down, the trap is empty and the floor scorched from the flames, the adventurer is dead, the fight is won or lost. Next, I go through and add one or two new ones for this session.
This keeps the dungeon "alive" for you, the GM, as well as the players. Plus, if they figure out that this happens, it eliminates that suspension-of-disbelief breaking "So, these orcs were trapped since we started adventuring?" feeling. I feel like doing this helps you sell the place as a living, evolving place - and lets you make the places that don't live, don't evolve, and stay oddly static seem as odd as they should (and thus a notable change, signifying something to the players that might hold a clue).
Case in point, I had some fresh corpses in the dungeon on my original key. That was months ago. They are now moldering skeletons, with bits dragged off by rats and worse, the best loot taken by nearby denizens (and added to their hordes).
When in doubt, give more treasure. I know the usual advice is "err on the side of stinginess." I disagree, now, having run my megadungeon for a bit. Err on the side of giving too much. Then just give the PCs more things to spend money on - more doo-dads, more ephemeral bonuses (buy a round for the house, get extra rumors, or spend the week in a classy hotel and heal faster), more hirelings, more one-shot magic items, more prestige pieces (houses, nice clothes, unique but marginal items). Taxes suck, so not more taxes - more willing expenditures. They should go from "I'm rich" to "Wait, I need to put some of these back" in no time.
Also, "too much treasure" means "more competition." If the dungeon is a tough grind for just enough treasure, why are other parties showing up? More people flock to a gold rush, or to a land grab, than to a bunch of barely-living-wage dangerous jobs. To more money the PCs pull out and then fritter away, the more equally foolish NPCs will show up and try their hand at it. That can drive the PCs ever deeper into the dungeon, pushing their luck ever harder, to stay ahead of the other guys raiding "their" dungeon.