Wednesday 29 June 2011

M is for Megadungeons (Part I)

This is going to be a long series (M is for Megadungeon), so please bear with me.  If I get through everything that I want to say in fewer than 10 parts, we’ll all be lucky! 

The initial work that this blog entry is based upon/reworked from can be found here, for those who are interested:  I will do my best to respond to comments posted here, or in the original thread.

The initial design work here began with the idea of putting together a megadungeon setting for my own “fantasy heartbreaker” game, RCFG, as a persistent part of a campaign milieu.  There are several advantages to including one or more megadungeons in a sandbox campaign setting. 

The first should be obvious – even lacking any other clear plan, players always have a location that they can investigate in order to play.  This dramatically reduces the amount of “hang time” in sandbox play, while the players decide their characters’ next move. 

Another, less obvious, use is to include history and mythology into the campaign world in small chunks.  Rather than being just a collection of rooms and corridors, with groups of evil humanoids, cultists, and wandering monsters to fight and treasures to be found, a comprehensive megadungeon can be intimately linked to the history of the campaign world.  Imagine, if you would, a megadungeon in a “Medieval Earth” world, that was built by Roman-types on Egyptian ruins, that eventually goes through a Summerian region to reach pre-human caverns.  At the very least, the undead one encounters would be marked by the era in which they first died.

In games using the d20 System, the Game Master can select resources that reflect this.  Green Ronin’s Testament, for example, could be used to lay out the oldest regions, with Hamunaptra being used to lay out the regions atop that.  And so on.  As characters descend further into the dungeon, they encounter monsters, spells, and magic items they have never encountered before.  The wise GM has linked these to stories of the mythical past…so that there is a thrill of recognition, and an understanding of age, as the characters encounter these things.

Gary Gygax had a knack for introducing new places and people, and making them seem old. "The illusion of history" as it were.  I think that Ed Greenwood has this as well, or certainly did when The Forgotten Realms was first appearing in Dragon Magazine. I think that this illusion of history is necessary for a setting to "feel" right.  (I also tend to think that this is why we keep going back to Greyhawk.)  Creating an illusion of history is a skill that the wise GM works hard to cultivate.

Prior to setting pen to paper, I know that I want the megadungeon to contain both "Name" places and "Name" creatures - things that the players can use to mark their PCs' progress through the whole.

It is far more interesting to encounter an interesting location or being that you have heard many rumours about than it is to encounter the same without any buildup. So, I first devised a list of place-names to use, which can be mentioned in rumour, scrawled messages, etc. The goal is to give the players locations to search for, and to allow them the satisfaction of locating some area that they have long desired to find.  This also adds to the “illusion of history” of the place.  It implies an existence beyond what the players can immediately – or may ever – see.

At this point, I don't know what these locations actually are, although the names themselves are suggestive in some cases.  I created the following list by looking at the names of dungeon areas and descriptive elements from the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you look at the Dungeon Dressing tables, you will see many names for various types of rooms, as well as many good adjectives to describe them.  In order to prevent myself from falling into favoured tropes, and in order to spur creativity, I made a list of elements I liked, and then used random rolls to link them together.  This is what I came up with:

  • The Amber Courtyard
  • The Bandit’s Roost
  • The Black Hall
  • The Burning Dome
  • The Cerulean Well
  • The Chamber of the Bronze Throne
  • The Cistern of the Dun Waters
  • The Cloudy Vault of Whispering Leopards
  • The Copper Pool
  • The Crimson Catacombs
  • The Crypt of Red Markings
  • The Crypt of Sleeping Dogs
  • The Dripping Garden
  • The Ebony Grotto
  • The Green Lake
  • The Groaning Arch
  • The Hall of the Bitter Banquet
  • The Library of Bones
  • The Moving Pool of Xar Yggar
  • The Perfumed Machine of Sparkling Crystal
  • The Pool of Shadowed Vermin
  • The Restful Chapel of St. Helmbright the Vigilant
  • The River of Uncertain Dreams
  • The Scarlet Gallery
  • The Sea of Ivory Stones
  • The Smoking Shrine of Ly Valle
  • The Sour Temple
  • The Spinning Chapel
  • The Tapestry of Winds
  • The Tawny Altar of St. McCoy
  • The Verdant Caverns
  • The Vermillion-Handed Idol of Destiny
  • The Wandering Library
  • The Waterfall of Fearful Whispers
  • The Yellow Fountain

The Bandit’s Roost will obviously be a place where bandits gather.  The idea of a roost makes me want this place to span several levels, with criss-crossing rafters and hidey holes in the walls.  I can easily imagine narrow beams that slope across a wide drop, allowing access from one level to another.

The Dripping Garden makes me think of a damp, misty place where plants are growing in a sort of hanging garden. Perhaps there is also green slime, oozes, and giant slugs?

The Moving Pool of Xar Yggar is a teleportational device, perhaps leading to other planes, or other regions of the campaign milieu.  Xar Yggar is, if not obvious, an anagram of “Gary Gygax”. 

The Perfumed Machine of Sparkling Crystal is probably an artifact, now malfunctioning, created my a madman. Perhaps I'll name him Mull.

The Restful Chapel of St. Helmbright the Vigilant should be a safe place for adventurers to hole up and rest.

The Sea of Ivory Stones suggests a beach of water-smoothed bones.

The Verdant Caverns is a series of locations with plant-based monsters.

The Wandering Library should appear on the Wandering Encounters tables. Its location literally moves, and it may well move while the PCs are within, depositing them on a different level altogether........ Yet within its mouldering tomes can be found much knowledge of use to adventuring types. The books change location with the Library, so those who "borrow" one discover that they don't have it for long. For this reason, perhaps, there is a kind of truce in the library......Perhaps even a Librarian who enforces the peace?

As with places, there should be creatures within the megadungeon that characters hear about before they encounter....or, alternatively, that they encounter and then learn the significance of. The megadungeon needs about 20 “name” creatures to start with. Again, we don’t have to know the statistics of these creatures, or anything about them really. We just need evocative names.

We also want to include a wide number of creature types.  RCFG follows the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons convention of creature types (although I changed “magical beast” to “beast” because, without a separate “beast” type, why bother to continue with the “magical” adjective?).

We want to have at least one representative of each of these types: Abomination, Animal, (Magical) Beast, Construct, Dragon, Elemental, Fey, Giant, Humanoid, Monstrous Humanoid, Ooze, Outsider, Plant, Undead, and Vermin. It is not necessary that each of our “name” creatures is actually a single creature; it could be a particularly notorious group of creatures, such as a tribe of orcs.  Animals, humanoids, plants, undead, and vermin are especially good for this “notorious group” treatment.

You may think, at this point, that the thing to do is to choose the biggest, baddest creatures that you can, crank them up to 11, and call it done. Certainly, this can be done for some of these creatures. But remember that the goal is not simply to give the PCs a memorable fight.  Despite some claims to the contrary, D&D (and, by extensions, OGL-based fantasy games) are largely about exploration, not fighting.  The fellow who claimed that the game is about fighting vicious monsters, rather than traipsing through Faerie, is just plain wrong.

The goal is to create creatures that, directly or indirectly, the PCs will encounter repeatedly, and which the players will talk about long after the last die is rolled.  Indeed, for some of these encounters, no dice might be rolled at all!

These creatures must include both allies and enemies, and may fill any of the major NPC roles. They can include potential mentors, patrons, rivals, informants, protectors, and even love interests as well as mere foes to fight. Indeed, they must fulfill at least a few of these roles or the whole dungeon will fall flat. “Fight -> fight -> fight” does not a fantasy role-playing game make!  It certainly doesn’t make a compelling setting.

I decided to break down the creature types as follows. Note that “rats” are probably the most obvious animal type for a dungeon, which is precisely why I avoided them. It is harder to get your players interested in a group of rats or bats in a dungeon than in, say, a form of subterranean hound.
  • Abomination: Otyugh
  • Animal: Cat, Hyena
  • (Magical) Beast: Sphinx
  • Construct: Golem
  • Dragon: The Bludgrue Wyrm (we will decide what this means later, and certainly some smaller dragons will be its offspring!)
  • Elemental: Invisible Stalker
  • Fey: Nymph
  • Giant: Stone Giant
  • Humanoid: Dwarf, Orc, Human, Kobold
  • Monstrous Humanoid: Medusa
  • Ooze: Gray Ooze
  • Outsider: The Librarian (type?), Angel of some sort (chained?)
  • Plant: Assassin Vine (representing some form of root?)
  • Undead: Ghouls, Vampire, Ghost
  • Vermin: Monstrous Centipede
That gives us 22 individual “name” creatures to give titles to and to develop.  At the same time, we will want to develop the “name” locations, and (in some cases only) link named creatures with locations where they fit. And we still need those evocative names!


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  2. Very good post. Thank you - very inspirational - and dare I say - educational (in the best sense). I am looking forward to reading up on the rest of your series.