Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Megadungeon Reflection: What I'd do differently in my megadungeon

A discussion by email with Douglas Pearson led me to this. I mentioned that I'd apply some of what I learned by doing my megadungeon differently, if I could do it again. So what would I do?

If I could do it again . . . let's break this up into "definitely do differently" and "might do differently."

Definitely Do Differently

More Notes On The Maps

I've done this subsequently, but not initially. My maps were direct copies of the style I used when I was mapping dungeons back in elementary school. As such, they depended heavily on map keys. It's better to make the maps visually communicative than visually impressive. It's a tool, not a piece of art, even if some people's maps are art as well (cough, cough, Matt Jackson, Dyson Logos).

Easier to Explain Rooms

Honestly, the crazy room shapes and double-L rooms and 40x50 rooms with a 10x10 block covered up and an attached triangle-shaped room were fun to draw. But they take freaking forever to explain to people. My vocabulary has not been up to the task. Next time, none of that crap. A bunch of easy to explain room shapes 90% of the time would be better. Sure, have some weird ones. But make them exceptional and interesting (even if just visually). But the easier they are to explain to mapping players, the better. The fun is exploration and fighting stuff and taking their treasures, not trying to explain how that room is shaped because you used a 25 degree angle wall to slightly open out to the left before it jughandles around into an L-shaped connecting corridor. Gah.

Mark How Doors Open

I remember how they open, which direction, etc. from repeated play and notes. But damn, I wish I'd just used proper marks for doors. I've marked the newer maps this way.

More Stairs/Chutes/Elevators/Etc.

I think both I and my players would be happier if I had more ways to easily change levels in my megadungeon. I mentioned this before. I have some places with very easy multi-level access. But allowing easier transit would make for, in my opinion, a dungeon experience that provides more choices and yet easier choices for the PCs. They'd be confronted with "go back, stay here, or go further?" much more often. It would also make it much more difficult to fully clear your six, making for more risk at the some time as giving more potential reward (and making it possible to vary your path on the way back to avoid ambushes, too.)

More level changes possible right away, that's what I would do differently.

Not A Mountain

A mountain seemed like a good idea. It isn't, because all too often I've had to think "Well, wouldn't this level extend off the side of the mountain?" Yes, and I've had to re-orient too often. A low hill with extensive tunnels under it would have been fine, because I wouldn't have to consider height and all of that stuff.

Easier Access Into The Dungeon.

I love my megadungeon. I especially like, conceptually, the idea of the fortified entrance. I haven't seen one that quite did what I made. But I was tempted when I wrote it to make a big central room with lots of staircases and choices. Hallways in all sorts of directions, a big damn staircase down connecting a few levels together immediately, and plenty of choices. I didn't for a few reasons.

One is that I wrote my megadungeon for immediate play. I was still writing when the players arrived, and still writing as they explored it (and I'm still writing now). So "you have free access to all of 4 levels" means "I have to have 4 levels completely stocked up, along with all places you can get from them, right now." That wasn't possible. So I had to make at least the upper levels restrictive.

I also had a story - the dungeon was built as an underground fortress, which was connected (either deliberately or not . . . ) with deeper levels. It was stormed and looted. Later folks built a castle on top, and that was sacked as well. So the entrance would naturally be fortified, and choices limited to restrict where successful attackers could get for at least a short distance past the fortifications. So I came up with this:

Pit, pillboxes accessible only from the second level, anti-magical surfaces, multiple choices all fortified heavily, smoothed-over metal doors, and no cover once you start coming down the stairs. It's cool and fairly unusual in a megadungeon entrance.

But it does restrict options. It means you need more access points into the dungeon, that make sense to be open despite being part of a fortification, and the players are much more limited in where they can go.

Easier access would make it easier to explain all sorts of folks in the dungeon, too.

Having a multiple choices (which of the staircases down into the dungeon do you take?) right from the get-go would been nice.

I don't regret my choice, and the reality of needing to limit movement to limit the amount of prep I needed before we could play made this approach make sense. Plus it makes for some unique issues (the way the players have interacted with the orcs in order to ensure easier access to the dungeon but also conceal their activities has been fun.)

Might Do Differently

Even Bigger

It would be tempting to do the megadungeon as a super-dungeon, much like Beedo's Black City. That would make it easier to put very disparate groups down in the dungeon, because they could be very seriously separate.

Wizard Did It

My life would be much easier if I had a Zagyg or Hallaster or W*E*R*D*N*A who'd set the whole damn dungeon up as a test. That lets you explain anything, from crazy puzzles to ridiculous traps. I may do this in miniature but it's too late to do the whole dungeon that way. I could spare myself a lot of headache with a Megawizard in my Megadungeon.

A Bit Of A Trek

Putting the castle a half-day's walk away was fine, and made perfect sense in the game world. But instead of "camp at night and enter in the morning" all it did was have people get up pre-dawn and leave the moment the gates open and explore in the afternoon. Forcing people to deal with the surface at night would have been a nice feature.

The other option would be no trek at all - the dungeon is downstairs, like Undermountain or anything in Petal Throne.

All are good, though, and I don't regret my choice. I would just consider a different one. I kind of liked the walks back and forth to the Caves of Chaos.

Next time (maybe tomorrow, we'll see) I'll take about how I'd run my game differently - different rules options, different game world decisions, etc. Today, it's just how I'd make the maps and labels different in my dungeon.


  1. 'One is that I wrote my megadungeon for immediate play. I was still writing when the players arrived, and still writing as they explored it (and I'm still writing now). So "you have free access to all of 4 levels" means "I have to have 4 levels completely stocked up, along with all places you can get from them, right now." That wasn't possible. So I had to make at least the upper levels restrictive.'

    One way is to have some sort of time lock on levels 2 through x.

    Even if that was just meta 'please don't go down stair cases 2 through x please`

    1. This is true - or put some kind of magical key to unlock those levels. But I really just wanted to have consistent access . . . I was never a big fan of games that lock you into a small area to start. But yeah, it would be doable that way!


  2. These are some good observations. There's a big difference between theory crafting and armchair quarterbacks versus running an actual campaign dungeon for a while and reflecting on the lessons learned.

    Easy Room Maps
    It's definitely an important choice - maps that look intricate and interesting usually don't play well at the table, unless you're a) willing to draw it for them, or b) comfortable with the players having fuzzy maps. I err towards simple, easier to describe dimensions as well.

    Stairs and Chutes
    I've been on the same plan of "many ways up and down" but haven't made any chutes or slides so prominent that the party got stranded on the wrong level. This must be remedied! At once! Thanks for the reminder.

    Easy Access - the wizard did it - the trek to and from
    There's an interesting tension in the dungeon backstory between 'easy access', 'the wizard did it', and the 'trek to and from the dungeon'.

    If the dungeon is close, why haven't lots of people looted it? Why don't the monster overwhelm the surrounding area? Why hasn't the local lord marched an army in there to clear it out himself? If the dungeon is too far from town, it's hard to run episodic games with a variable crew, or quickly get replacement characters into the action.

    The back story can help justify some of these data points. That nearby dungeon may be avoided by the locals precisely because "the wizard did it" and no one wants to get cursed or ensorcelled by the horrid stuff left behind.

    Bigger is Better
    I like to think that modular is better - something that allows you to make small areas quickly, but lets you attach and detach more or less areas as necessary - either due to pace of play or bursts of inspiration and creativity. Whenever I've tried to stock a massive, thousand room graph paper monstrosity, I despair and get burnt out. "Interesting empty room syndrome".

    1. I have to say, I referenced your Black City game because I have learned a lot from what I like about your game. So I appreciate the detailed comments. There are a couple things I need to think on more now that I've got feedback on my feedback!

      You should post something similar for your own games - I'm curious what you learned so far from the Black City and from your previous campaign as well.

  3. Couldn't the goblinkin have dug exits themselves after they moved into the dungeon? I agree that multiple entrances and exits do make the dungeon more fun if your PCs have long campaign because it can get boring going in through the same entrance countless times.

    1. Yeah, and you're right on both counts. I was thinking more of the value of multiple big, "official" entrances. As if, say, a ground-level defense fortification was lopped off and left only the 3-4 stairs down to different sections of the dungeon. Lots of choice, all of which gives a lot of flexibility to the players and a lot of interesting options. I didn't allow for that, as fun as them dealing with the pillboxes and finding alternative entrances has been.

  4. I would suggest one more: Have more magical bows available as treasure.

    Just sayin'.

    1. Hey, that magic bow in the spider room has been sitting there since early 2012 or something. It's not my fault you guys didn't look there until after your sprang for a better bow.

    2. Had all that sweet dungeon cash burning a hole in my belt pouch, couldn't stop myself.

  5. If there are other races dominating lower levels, some might actually become "heavens" for PCs, thereby allowing for another "go back to town" checkpoint and removing the "bit of a trek" issue.
    Could be a dwarven enclave somewhere, constantly busy protecting access to their realm. Could be lizardmen with whom the PCs made a deal (saved their king, recovered their god-gem, whatever). Could even be undeads of some kind. I think that's something I'd make sure I'd put in should I design such a place.
    "Going back to town" seems more of a problem to me than anything else, but you probably run quite longer sessions then I do (6h+ per session for you right?). Sure, once in a while, why not, but your PCs seem to do it every single session.

    If there are such systems within the confines of the mega-dungeon, maybe then the players could tap into it properly, trade items, convert coin into valuables (more value per weight), re-supply, recuperate and whatnot.
    I mean, things live down there 24/7 and not all are green ooze. Sentient beings should offer more than just a chance for the PCs to bash things in the face, though it might not fit the concept of GURPS DF :)

    1. Ending in town is actually a GM-imposed rule. It's there to ensure that we don't end with players A, B, C, and D on a session, then next time players A, B, and E show up to play. So I've been very strict about ending in town.

      Putting a town-type thing into the megadungeon is a good idea, and one I think should be done sometimes. Skullport in Undermountain is one of those. I just haven't created a structure where that could happen, not in that way (he says, hinting at depths to the dungeon yet unexplored.)

      Those sorts of things - including tunnels from nearby dwarves, say, or underearth races - work a lot better in a superdungeon, because it's kind of odd if the dwarves tunnel into the dungeon but don't come to town a mile away. ;)

    2. Ending in town also helps facilitate the XP award system with it's 'profitable delve' component. Profitability is a lot harder to determine if a single delve stretches across a couple of sessions.

      Besides, it also helps force us to wrap up a session at a reasonable hour. We lose the ability for cliffhangers (usually), but that's a fair trade for this style of game, IMO.


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