Monday, December 28, 2015

Megadungeon Best Practices XV: Themes, Knowledge, and Links

It's been a while since I wrote about Megadungeon Best Practices. This mostly because my DF game was rolled on outside the megadungeon. As we slowly move back towards playing in Felltower, I've collected together a few more of the lessons I learned from doing a megadungeon-centered game. They might be useful to you, as well.

Have Discernible Patterns

I don't necessarily mean themed areas or a one-theme dungeon, although those are fine. I mean have large patterns to your dungeon that are easy for the players to spot with a little attention.

A few of mine are:

The deeper you go . . .

Depth matters in my dungeon. The deeper you go, the more dangerous the monsters. The more lethal the traps. The more knowledge of the dungeon's background and contents you need to understand to solve the puzzles. The more rewarding the treasures. And, in a game world specific twist, the further you go from the eyes of the Good God - and thus the deeper into evil, weirdness, and bent logic (and yes, into some humor as well) you will go.

These aren't unique to my megadungeon, by any means. The lesson I learned is, make these more rather than less obvious.

You can even go as far as just saying they are themes to your players. Then, reinforce it in play. Link up in-game reasons for them. Put in a spin on them so hewing too close to "that's how it is" provides a new challenge - like rich treasure and a tough trap on level 1, easy monsters on level 5, areas of total normality surrounded by pockets of weird evil, etc.

But make it possible to see them, preferably even over the table chatter and worries about HP remaining and how much time they have left to delve today.

If you assume really sharp attention to every word and action by the GM, you're going to end up with players who miss things. There are a lot of things going on at the gaming table in most games, and it's hard to focus perfectly and completely on the GM at all times. Expect details to be missed. But if you make the themes generally discernible enough and self-reinforcing, the players will notice and can act on it.

Corollary: Listen to the player's themes.

As usual, if the players see a connection that's not there but cool, add it.

If they see something that's better than your own theme, consider stealing it.

And if they see something that's patently false and misleading, take a look at it. Is it something you need to correct because it's causing a problem? Or is it something they'll realize it wrong with more information? If it's just a misread that leads to better delving, let it ride. If it's a fundamental rules or game world physics or campaign style misunderstanding that'll come and bite the players in a bad, un-fun, or game-wrecking way, correct them. Tell the guy who thinks druidic magic doesn't suffer dungeon penalties in this game that in fact, it does. Warn the person aiming at domain that this isn't a game that will ever get there. That sort of thing. But if they think that dungeon depth doesn't affect the rules of physics and in fact in your world it does, well . . . that'll sort itself out later with more hints and experience.

Don't be shy about sharing information with the players.

John Arendt kicked off a recent Dwimmermount game by starting at the door and giving a handout with common knowledge about the dungeon. I do this through rumors - and by posting historical bits about my dungeon on my blog before my players go there. I even collect the rumors into one big document for me, and share out an updated list of everything the players heard.

Even then, it's not hard to be too secretive. That might be how it ran in the old days, or maybe it wasn't. But I find that in my games, the more information I hand out the better the game runs.

The challenge in my megadungeon, at least, is a combination of exploration and problem-solving. The former basically is getting around and finding things, the latter is combat, trap clearing, puzzle solving, resource expenditure and replenishment, and similar issues. But it's not a mystery. There are mysterious unknowns, but the game is less about spotting clues and figuring out the big issues than about dealing with clues and big issues. In murder-mystery analogy, I tell you there is a murder and give you clues to solve the mystery, I don't conceal the fact there is a murder. In dungeon terms, this goes hand in hand with discernible themes, maps to lost treasures, known monsters mixed in with the unknown ones, and a general knowledge of the situation.

I don't hand it all out at once, but as you discover the pieces of the new it'll mesh with what you've heard before.

The more maps I hand out, the more details on monsters they might find and factions they might contend with, the more information I rely - the better. The more informed their choices, the more interesting those choices are. Blind choices are fun for a while, but informed choices are fun for a long time.

So err on the side of more information about the dungeon. Don't worry, it'll never be 100% understood, 100% utilized, or 100% recognized as such until after the fact.

Tie it to the side quests and vice-versa.

If you want a megadungeon-focused game, but you still want side quests and outside areas, tie them together. I've mentioned this before on this blog. But make it all connect.

There were links from the dungeon in the Cold Fens and its tomb for Sakatha back to Felltower. And vice-versa - I made sure to modify the AD&D module I spun into the "Cold Fens" so it linked to themes and elements from Felltower.

The Lost City absolutely contains really obvious links to Felltower and its past, present, and - if the players use that knowledge - its future as well. And like the Cold Fens, I made sure to port some of the themes, elements, and enemies (pronounced "apes," heh) to the Lost City.

That way it's not just a side quest with treasure and monsters - its a chance to learn more about the megadungeon before you go back. And to leverage what you learned in the megadungeon in the side areas. Both reward you more, the more you manage to do.

By all means make each distinct side area unrelated in its own way, with a unique element. But either one big link or lots of little thematic connections to the megadungeon will greatly enhance the feeling of it being one world.

You can even physically link side areas with the megadungeon - miles-long corridors to other dungeons, gates, teleport pads, weird confluences of reality where they temporarily overlap and then drift apart, whatever. (Note to my players: these are examples, not necessarily our-game facts or hints.)

That's three more lessons I've realized was waiting out there for me to learn as I did.

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