Friday, February 12, 2021

Thoughts On Making A Big Artsy Fartsy Megadungeon

So, I think I mentioned during my fantasy heartbreaker post I’ve been working on my Megadungeon for some time now. It feels like three years. Although more likely just over one. I take a long time to brainstorm, and then write stuff down. 

I initially told my friends in private about my idea in 2018 (I’m hoping to do initial play through this year), after having played a few sessions of another megadungeon, a big artsy-fartsy one. It was my first time playing both an OSR system and also first time playing in a dungeon in years. When WebDM says Megadungeon play is Mainlining D&D heroin directly into your eyeballs, I wanna let you know that’s exactly what it is. I’m gonna be chasing that dragon till I’m mouldering in my own crypt. It firmly solidified my love of old-school play and also dungeons. 

Since then I’ve constantly read about dungeons, watched videos, looked at crazy places for ideas. Copious research. All the while tinkering with this thing I decided I wanted to build. An epic, bloated, monstrous thing that cannot be wrangled or handled in one go. I’ve stuck world-ending monsters, primordial giants, celestial gods, and the foulest nightmares in the deepest parts of this thing. All the while learning, plotting, whetting my blades in anticipation of adventurers to devour.

Also it’s a giant pile of bullshit, and I cannot draw a map to save my ass.

So, I have done and added in all kinds of weird shit into this thing/place and invented levels and had “good ideas” left and right. Example: making one level a giant worm-god, who’s organs are the rooms of the dungeon, be speared in two by a fallen space ship, and thus wrapped around it like a needle/fishing-hook. 

That does not map well, at all. Nor does it, like, lend itself to super traditional treasures/etc. This makes it hard to steal liberally from other authors and borrow the usual kinda of things like coins and magic weapons from them. To say the least of things like the sheer availability of maps and such online. 

Don’t get me wrong: it’s beautiful, it’s different, it’s weird-ass shit man, but that has to be tempered with ease of playability. And I think that, when I make my next Megadungeon, that might take precedence. I might run with something pre-made like Barrowmaze, Arden Vul, or Castle Whiterock. Something that’s a little more forgiving in its design so that I can like... just grab a map pack and work on inventing monsters. 

Clearly, a cartographer, I am not. 

I wasn’t kidding about the world-ending monsters either. My players could intentionally or inadvertently let them loose. So much for my homebrew world. That being said, the danger being very real is a clear OSR concept I love to death, and I welcome having my homebrew wrecked. Others, like Cavegirl with her especially fantastic “Gardens of Ynn” have certainly brave enough to include some Horrific monsters. 

After I get through with this, I’m gonna be working on figuring out the various challenges and puzzles to perplex my parties that play through this place. Unlike combat, which has been a codified and mainstay focus of D&D and other TTRPGs for years, the design and application of puzzles is mostly anecdotal, limited to blogs and one book (which I’m not currently enjoying as it has too many combat encounters).

And and after that I get to make up all the treasure. Did I mention the map again? 

The point is that my last blog about holistic design in a dungeon and Megadungeon is taxing and can make your head fell like your brain is mostly runny eggs. It’s at this point in time (where I’m at now) that I’m mostly feeling a “Thanks, I hate it” element to my monstrosity as it wheezes in the various notes of my slush pile. I’m reminded of the advice of one of my favorite mini painters in that, as you work on a creative piece, you’ll eventually get to a point where you hate it, and you can’t stand the sight of it, and you think it’s garbage. But the answer is to keep working on it.

So in an effort to shirk my work on this thing, and also in the interest of writing just to see my words on screen, lemme tell you how I have made and/or am making this thing: 

  1. I brainstormed up a bunch of different levels with various “themes” or elements I loved, like giant psychic bees, or mixing Saturday morning cartoons with classic modules from ages past. 
  2. Completely fuck everything up by not knowing what direction to go in next. I’ve made dungeons before, but not nine levels of a Megadungeon with 30+ rooms a level.
  3. Decide that one level should be a 60+ hex grid crawl full of elves you have to write your own elf names for, which is weird cause you don’t even like elves. 
  4. Recycle old content from something you wrote years ago that’s only slightly incongruous to your current play style. Write some major NPCs for each level.
  5. Keep recycling. Use that slush pile, this is why it exists. Start naming rooms and figuring out what is weird and special about each level, things like magical forges and cosmic torture racks, etc.
  6. After idly and unfocused working on bits and bobs here and there, get yourself together and make this list: 

1) Map Each Section

2) Populate the areas afterwards, including cross pollinating from other areas

3) Take Each Area Through the Rule of 3

4) Go through Goblin Punch’s Dungeon Checklist

5) Playtest

This is actually where I’m currently at. I’m not even done with step one of part six, but obviously I’m gonna be including magic items and other loot for my players. I also need to revisit some blog articles to try and steal some better ideas to restate for my stuff. 

Some of you may be asking, “Crypt Thing, what’s the Rule of 3?” Well, it’s this:

Per 10 rooms Your dungeon should have:

3 should have NPCs

3 Should Have Interesting Things

3 Puzzles/Traps (all should have multiple ways of being solved)

3 Secrets/Knowledge

3 Treasure (2 mundane 1 magical, keep magic feeling like magic)

3 Combat (2 Potential and 1 direct, more if your party is especially warlike)

1 Empty

And I know what you’re thinking “What?! That’s way more than 3! That’s way more than the ten rooms! Your math is whack!” Well, duh. The idea is that... too many empty rooms makes for a dull dungeon. And all rooms become empty when you kill everything else inside. The concept is you want to keep dramatic tension and narrative flow happening. This can be done many ways, but NPCs are the primary means of exposition. Beyond that, it encourages good social role-play in the dungeon. And there’s nothing that says you can’t lump multiple of these things in the same room. Or that you can’t have the treasure or the monster be the interesting thing. Or that the NPC is the combat, or the Monster itself is the treasure. It’s kind of mix and match and loosey-goosey that way. It’s really just a guideline that I use to remind myself of how “busy” the dungeon should feel.

I think the most pertinent element of all this is: a Megadungeon doesn’t get built unless you’re working on it. Do the work. And my current method of building it wholly now ahead of time isn’t the easiest way of doing things. But I am working on it, and I think that my method is gonna pay off, it just doesn’t feel like it right now.