Thursday, March 12, 2009

The March Mad Mega-Dungeon Month


Signs of spring. One can feel it in the air. March is the month for March Madness and the college basketball NACC Final Four Tournament. It’s the season where everyone puts together their brackets and after two rounds, it looks like a complete disaster. And it’s also the month of mega-dungeon madness. I had no idea, but apparently this is true.

As a self admitted dungeon addict, this is all good stuff. Why should I have to eek by with just one mega dungeon, when I can have 2 or 3 or even 5? Who cares that I might not run any of them! I am the type that will look at a small dungeon and say, “size matters.” That was probably harsh say about all the small dungeons out there. But I am really sorry you are small. Like’em big! Really big! I think the Texas mentality is starting to really set in, as I feel comfortable saying that.

So let’s bring it on.

In my mind, the biggest issue with mega-dungeon campaigns is how to keep them fresh and exciting for long periods at time. If we say that the average campaign goes about 18 months, then there has to be enough interesting stuff to keep the interest there, and not turn it into a meat grinder. Going back to the 18 month concept, if one meets 1/month that means 18 sessions of about 10 encounters each, which would be about 180 total encounters. If a group meets 2/month, that number clearly doubles, and at 4x/month the number doubles again. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s go with 2x/month, so roughly 360 individual encounters total. And, yes, I have a tendency to get wrapped around the numbers, as I am a numbers guy (but not a bean counter).

360 encounters..let’s think about that some more.

Assuming that not much action happens in the town, which means the 360 encounters happen either near the dungeon area, or in the dungeon. If we say that a level has 36 encounter areas, then that would be 10 full levels. Now in a mega-dungeon environment, there will be a number of rooms and encounters that the party never sees, so that could add another 50 encounters, if we assume another 5 encounter areas per level that the characters never get to. Now let’s suppose that there are some hidden levels, or it is possible to skip levels, then that would mean another 2-3 levels that would have to be designed also. This puts us near 500 total encounters for a 13 level dungeon that the players would hit 360 encounters or about 2/3 of the total encounters would be discovered.

So where am I going with all this? Good question.

If we take it at face value that we are going to need to design 500 encounters, they had better be interesting, or the players will not make it to #25. That is the challenge for the designer. How to make 500 encounters interesting to support a campaign that meets 2x/month for 18 months.

Last December I wrote a bit about mega-dungeons, and I covered some design tips to think about when creating them, and I stand by what I wrote. I do want to hit on a couple of additional items about mega-dungeon design that I like that helps keep 500 encounters interesting.

I like interconnected details. I appreciate the work that my fellow bloggers have done in terms of creating summary pages that allow for quick creation of mega dungeons. There are a number of my peers that will spout the virtues of randomness, and there is nothing wrong with this. However, I like a bit of extra detail thrown in. There has to be a plan to the madness. With that, let me begin my list:

1. Keys – I like keys that go to rooms that are located on different levels

2. Maps – I like to find maps to secret areas

3. Unique magic items – I like to find special unique magic items, especially when it comes to magic swords. Magic swords that have a special ability are the best! They just rock. Talking swords are even better. I am not sure why I like talking magic swords, but I just do. As a GM, obnoxious talking swords provide me with hours of entertainment at the party’s expense, especially when they are cynical and sarcastic. But I digress…

4. Special magic items – Items that provide a foreshadowing of things to come are awesome too.

5. Notes – Notes that provide insight and impart knowledge, especially when combined to form bigger notes. This works well with maps too.

6. Castle ruins on top – Castles with dungeons just ooze classic game play.

7. NPC’s in the dungeon – Chances to interact with the players is a must, otherwise it turns into a hack-n-slash fest

8. The hidden stalker – These guys are great to set the mood, and they do not even have to actually engage the party. It’s the footsteps in the dark.

9. Walls with eyes – related to number 8 above, there should be a feeling that the bad guys are always nearby.

10. The treasure horde – There has to be some massive treasure haul at the end to make 18 months of slogging through the dungeon meaningful.

More thoughts on mega-dungeons to come.

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