Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mega-Dungeons!


One of the things that writing your own blog does is give you an appreciation of the other blogs out on the net. It seems every day I find a new blog to look at.

Mega Dungeons!

There are different types of dungeons:
1. The lair - These are really just small caves with only a couple of encounter areas.

2. Tournament dungeons - There are designed for 4-6 hour time blocks. Roughly 12 encounter areas.

3. Standard dungeons - these are mostly 2 (although can be 3 if they are small) level dungeons that are found in the standard module.

4. Big dungeons - These are 4-6 levels range, with well over 50 encounter areas.

5. Mega-dungeon - These are monstrous things that know no bounds, and can be as deep as the abyss itself. Now this is what I am talking about!

During the past several months I have taken up an interesting in these behemoths. I have been scowering the internet looking for blogs and forum threads about them. These are the beasts that no one really every completes. A lot of folks start them, but they are hard to finish. Everyone has their favorite mega-dungeon. Undermountain, D series, RARE, World's Largest Dungeon, Castle Whiterock. They are an institution in this hobby. The name says it all. Just the idea of a mega-dungeon has an old school ring to it.

As I have been thinking this over, I have come to realize that the creation of a mega-dungeon is part science and part art form. While the concept of a mega-dungeon is very exciting, the execution of it is often lacking. How do you hold interest through 100+ encounter areas? How do you keep room number 101 different than the previous 100? After scanning through numerous blogs and forum threads, I will offer my ideas on mega-dungeons:

1. Keep the levels short. When I first started designing dungeons, my first 3 level monster, was just that, it was a giant maze of rooms and passages with each level filling up the entire sheet of graph paper. I think the three levels combined, were well over 300 encounters, and may have been closer to 500. Since then, I have realized that smaller levels are better. They are easier to design, they give the players a sense of accomplishment, levels can be used to align with sessions, etc...

2. Each level needs to have its own theme. While gnolls are great, and orcs are outrageous, and trolls are terrible, if they are all repeated for each level, it becomes a bit boring. Each level needs to have its own character. Variety is the spice of life, and it applies to dungeons too.

3. Dungeons need themes and plots. I think this one goes hand in hand with #2. Its about differentiating the levels, and at the same time, provide a bit of a thread that ties them all together.

4. Sometimes silly stuff is ok. On this item, I will preach moderation, as too much silly stuff is way too much. A little goes along way.

5. Go vertical. It is very obvious that dungeons are vertical, but I think levels need to be vertical too. This adds a bit more to the mundane tunnel connecting 1 room to another.

6. Secret levels and secret areas. I think this is a must have. There should be sub levels that are only accessible via secret doors. If you are designing your own dungeon, I am not sure that one would want to design an entire level that would probably not be found. However, there is something special knowing that there are places that still exist, unexplored, waiting to be found.

7. The BBEG at the bottom. This is probably as old school as it gets. The boss monster is at the bottom. Moria is a great example of this. I loved the entire Mines of Moria section in Lord of the Rings. I could read that section and watch the movie 100 hundred times and not be bored with it. The entrance was special, complete with a magic door. The guardian sealed them in. Plenty of empty rooms with all sorts of stuff, including interesting diaries detailing the final moment of a dying race. There were orcs and trolls, and that was good...err..evil. But then, then comes the Balrog, the very definition of BBEG, that sends the fellowship running. What I found to be really cool was that the BBEG went after the fellowships, it did not sit still. Great stuff, with a dash of horror (the stoppable evil) thrown in!

8. Special doors. Gotta have'em. Nuff' said.

9. Tricks, Traps & Puzzles. I am combining several things in this category. Traps are easy to over use. You need them to keep the party on their toes, but you do not want to over do it. Now I agree that the rogue and the dwarf need something to do, and traps are a great way to keep things interesting. Puzzles are encounters that allow everyone to contribute, and they can challenge both the player and the character. I think the best puzzles challenge both.

10. Statues. I love statues. There is just something about them. They can just be a plain statue, they can be a gargoyle in disguise, they can be some sort of other type of guardian, they can be magic, they can be trapped, they can hide secret doors. In my opinion, you can not have too many. One of the great aspects of the first edition Players Handbook is the statue on the front cover. Awesome stuff.

11. Make the map interesting. This one sometimes gets over looked, but this is the cornerstone of good design. Linear flow is very basic, but the complex maze can be just frustrating. It’s the levels that have multiple off shoots, underground rivers, lava pits, dead ends, obstacles that make for interesting play. The map should challenge both the player and the character. Old school is about challenging the player, but I think there is something to be said for challenging the characters as well. (I could not resist going to 11)

Comments are welcome from folks with other ideas!

2 comments:

Brunomac said...

Bret,

Having gotten back into DM'ing, and gaming in general, after several years off, I decided to make a large dungeon the end destination of the current campaign i have going.

I have used this dungeon in past years, but never as something I kept maps on. The couple of previous times in the past, I just came up with a few levels leading up to that game, and just figured things would be different each time - a contantly shifting dungeon (magical forces changing things. Might be similar if you went in twice in a week, but if you came back after a few years, many changes will have taken place).

I want this group to explore it more, and get to deeper levels. Even getting to a "boss." I'm still working on it for use by February, and I forgot how hard it was to come up with a big dungeon.

Your comments are spot-on for what I have planned. Shorter levels, theme levels, and getting to a boss (maybe not a final boss...they will get to maybe level 7th in this campaign, and I picture this as a 9th or even 10th level dungeon - but maybe a medium power dragon or something). Levels so far include a "bug" level (giant ants, spiders, and such), a cavern level with drow and lizard men fighting over a magical area, and a "town" level with temples and a godly gambling hall...

Anyway, I have never created one of these megas with 100 encounters per level and all that. I have never finished one of those, and I suspect that is common among DM's. I'm not sure I have even ever seem a good example of a completed mega.

So one way I think to make a dungeon seem mega, and yet more manageable like you mention, is to hint that the dungeon is much bigger than the area they are going to explore. It requires a bit of railroading, but I think creating a giant dungeon with a ton of it that might never get used, is a worse prospect. Secret doors/areas that are hard to detect, and alternating force fields and what not are some ways I am thinking of getting the feeling of hugeness across, but even so, it is still a lot of work just coming up with the spots you want players to encounter for sure.

Mr Baron said...

To actually create a mega dungeon is quite a daunting project. Recently I have been creating what I would call large dungeons with multiple, but small levels. This has worked out fairly well, as I can write up a small level in a fairly short time span. However, I have found that my write ups are getting longer and longer.

For the mega dungeon in my next campaign, I want to leverage some larger published material, add to it, and then link other works to it. This feels like a good use of time and effort, with the end result of a mega dungeon.

I find it very interesting that there are a lot of posts popping up about this topic, adn I am sure that I will post another one in the coming months!

Good luck with your creation!