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Author Topic: Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it  (Read 93589 times)

The Butcher

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« on: January 08, 2012, 09:39:05 AM »
So, I'm preparing an old school D&D game, and right now the only thing I'm 100% sure is that it's going to be a dungeon-centric campaign (an approach which should hopefully come across as fairly novel to my group, a crowd of 30-somethings who grew up playing mostly AD&D 2e). Sounds like a good time for a dungeon-building thread! I've been reading up on the OSR blogosphere (Philotomy's Musings, Justin Alexander's "jaquaying" essays, and sundry stuff from Jeff Rients and Zak Smith and sundry other brilliant, creative guys who are into dungeon-crawling).

For me, this means a fairly big dungeon (certainly bigger than any I've ever designed back in the day; the biggest one I've ever designed so far had 3, maybe 4 levels) with plenty of discontinuous and non-linear construction (forks and loops, secret levels and sub-levels, elevations, shafts which bypass one or more levels, secret passages galore, etc.) the better to instigate and reward exploration for its own sake.

It's occurred to me that, since the campaign will be mostly centered around the dungeon, one could use the dungeon to reveal the history of the setting, with levels acting as archeological strata. The top level, the "tip of the iceberg", might be a relatively recent construction like an abandoned keep or monastery; the cellar might lead to a tomb complex dating to the Old Empire, then to ruined dwarven warrens dating back to before the Dwarf-Elf War, and so on, and so forth, until players reach evidence of the setting's SF roots. As PCs go further down the dungeon, scripts become ancient and unintelligible without scholarly assistance, treasure gets rarer and weirder, traps get deadlier and stranger, and of course, monsters grow bigger, badder and older.

The one thing that's been bugging me is, how do I go about it?
How big do I make the dungeon?
How many levels should I have ready at session #1?
How do I keep PCs interested right from session #1?
How do I keep time during dungeon crawling? How do I compute time spent by PCs at exploring each room, level, etc. so I can keep a meaningful tally on resources like torch, lantern oil, rations, etc.?
How do you like your dungeon? Mythic underworld, quasi-realistic underground complex, or something else entirely?
What software, if any, do you recommend for dungeon map creation? I'm doing it by hand, but having simple and handy software at hand might be nice.
Also, since I don't know shit about archeology, how the fuck do things like entire cities get buried over time? And how would it possible to explore them without, you know, shoveling all the dirt away first?

Advice on this, and on anything else you deem appropriate for a DM who's run his share of D&D (though not a lot of dungeon crawls, and none of them particularly extensive) is most welcome. Share your tips and tricks and success stories and hard-earned lessons. It's all good to me.

Besides, if anyone feels (like me) that theory-wank and edition-warring and general pointless trolling having been taking over the Roleplaying Games forum lately, here's a challenge: let's see how massive can we make an actual gaming thread with practical applications.

Rincewind1

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2012, 09:43:31 AM »
I'll throw you some tricks, but bear in mind - Dungeon Crawls aren't my forte, so take my advice with grain of salt.

Right now, I designed a big dungeon in style of a tower - players just go up and up. Simple, it'd be, right?

Except that the dungeon belongs to a mad wizard who had about 2000 - 3000 years to regret his original actions. So after each fighting levels, the heroes step into a cloud of Black Lotus smoke  that fills the tower, and are transported to the vision of tower's past, in city of elves, where they have to make a choice, just like people there did - for example, the last vision is about a group of guards who hear female screams of pain from wizard's chamber, that are asking for help, while guard's captain, a fearsome Swordsman of Hoeth, tells them that the wizard's taking what's his due and needed for saving the town, and he tosses them a pouch of gold to go away.

If the players will do the wrong moral choice, they will be usually be rewarded with some money or experience or trinkets, which will oddly enough stay after the vision ends.

But if they do the right moral choice, it weakens the amount of Toughness, Strength, Wounds and Magic Points that the wizard will have at the final fight.

So I guess my point is - you can do some really interesting RP opportunities (I know that this is a pretty straightforward and not exactly genius design, but I hope it'll prove a challenge to the players, if even a bit), even on a "dungeon crawl".
Furthermore, I consider that  This is Why We Don't Like You thread should be closed

ggroy

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2012, 09:46:21 AM »
Is this megadungeon going to be the size of a small or medium sized city?

VectorSigma

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #3 on: January 08, 2012, 02:31:59 PM »
Love love love the 'archaeological strata' idea.

I've never run a real megadungeon, either, so I'll be watching this thread intently for lessons-learned.

As far as 'how much needs to be done before the first session'...it's probably a matter of taste.  If you're the sort who likes all the rooms keyed, then I'd say make sure you have the first two levels done or nearly done in time for the first session.  But if you're content to have the 'fringes' of your map populated on the fly by tables, you can get away with less detail before 'game on'.

I would suggest finding a couple of freebie maps (esp. if populated) on various blogs and keeping them in your notebook.  If the PC's wander off your map down a stray tunnel, you always know you can pull out one of those little mapped areas as a 'sub-level' and might not feel that sense of panic and impending doom.
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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #4 on: January 08, 2012, 04:42:31 PM »
I know it's not the sort of advice/info you are asking for, but I presume you have heard of Derinkyu and other underground cities in Cappadocia?

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #5 on: January 08, 2012, 04:54:04 PM »
I recommend one level fully mapped out, plus some cheats to start. A starting level for a megadungeon should be between 20 and 40 rooms, with a couple of entrances and exits - some to back to the surface, some further down. In general, I try to have at least three entrance/exits per level: the one the PCs come from, one leading further down into the dungeon, and one leading either to a side area or another level. You can vary how accessible these areas are (magical barriers, locked doors, etc.), which allows you to control the pace the PCs advance at.

To map out 20-40 rooms without going insane, as well as to have plenty side areas, here are some useful tricks:

1) The numbers trick from Vornheim, where you take a sheet of paper and draw out numbers at various orientations. This will give you an irregular, complex corridor system to work with, and you can just place rooms hither and thither at intersections, the ends of corridors and wherever else you please.

2) Floor plan maps. If you go to Google and do an image search for "catacomb floor plan", "tomb floor plan", etc., you will encounter tons and tons and tons of readily usable floor plans that serve as great side-areas where you can stick boss monsters, hoards of treasure, change the theme of the level, and otherwise fiddle around. When I run big dungeons, I often keep a ready supply of these printed out that I can pull out as needed.
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Kaldric

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #6 on: January 08, 2012, 05:03:08 PM »
I'm in the spitballing stage of setting up the same sort of thing, for an open-table campaign sometime in the next year or so.

My megadungeon is going to be dug into the face of a chalk cliff - like the White Cliffs of Dover.

The dungeon itself is going to be an elaboration of Petra and the West Wycombe Caves. There will be two main ways in - the more obvious way, from the main entrance in the cliff face and the more hidden ways into the face, and down into the complex from the top of the cliff, above.

The dungeon's levels, in terms of general power of the monsters and such, will be easiest near the face of the cliff, becoming more difficult as the adventurers move inward. The rationale for this is that there have been adventurers coming here for many years, clearing the galleries that are easiest to reach, and retiring or dying before penetrating too far. The more powerful monsters tend to push the weaker towards the entrance, as a buffer against annoying treasure-seekers.

There will be jungle at the top of the cliff, running back to a mountain range. There will be entrances into the deeper levels of the complex hidden in this jungle - perhaps the jungle hides the remnants of the civilization that started building the complex. The jungle is going to be really, really nasty. I'm thinking forgotten temples completely overgrown by the vegetation, a Lost World vibe with dinosaurs and giant apes and lizardmen/snake-people. Still - if you want to venture into the jungle, or have some way of flying over it (without being eaten by pterosaurs, etc), you can reach the hidden entrances to the more remote galleries.

Within the complex, most of it will be excavated from chalk and flint. The lower ranges of the complex extend below sea level, and are mostly, but not entirely, flooded - it would appear the water table has risen since the construction of the complex. Air circulates through the complex through tens thousands of minuscule cracks, holes, natural chimneys- near the cliff face one can often smell the sea, and near the surface there are the root systems of the colossal jungle trees.

There will be areas of natural caves interspersed with worked areas, and many of the worked areas will be expansions of natural caves. One will be able, with time and experience, to have a general idea of how deep beneath the surface one is by a sense of the humidity of the air, the style of the stonework and so on.

I'm thinking that near the cliff face, the structure will mostly be organized as a series of galleries - this is where the builders built inward from the cliff face, in stages. There will be many entrances, but mostly inaccessible - you have to climb out along the cliff face, and there are a few nasty creatures that live out there (hang-gliding hobgoblins?), as well as the physical problems of reaching the more remote entrances on a cliff face of eroded chalk. The structure here will be mostly homogenous - one building style, for the first two levels or so in from the face.

After that, there will be sections, vertically organized, leading down from the upper works near the jungle surface. Given the easily workable nature of the chalk strata, it was almost easier to dig down than build up. So there will be identifiable areas which are connect to other bits, but they'll have their own individual idiosyncracies.

Most of these 'silos' will be connected to each other by natural caverns, but over the centuries, individual organizations have come and gone, controlling a number of areas and enhancing their connections, or fortifying their space against the depredations of their neighbors, building invasion tunnels and collapsing them, which leads to each of the individual silos being connected to many others, by more and less difficult/obvious ways.

I'm thinking that the campaign will probably start from the main entrance, and they'll work out ways of travelling deeper and deeper into the complex. When people want out, they'll have to decide whether they can retrace the path to the cliff face, or, if they're lost and turned around, whether it's best to simply head upwards to get out. Of course, then they'll be in the jungle, which brings its own set of problems.

The base of operations, at least in the beginning, will be across a channel (think Calais, across from the dungeon entrance at Dover). The adventurers may eventually set something up on the other side - until then, 'home base' is a day's travel over the ocean, while the forward base will be rather more precarious - a camp on the shore, protecting their boat.

Anyway, that's what I have so far.

Premier

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #7 on: January 08, 2012, 06:34:06 PM »
This short essay written by Melan makes a good point about one certain element of dungeon design. You should definitely read it.
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Arminius

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #8 on: January 08, 2012, 07:10:13 PM »
This all sounds good, including the questions. The only things I have answers for right now are:
Quote from: The Butcher;501805
How do I keep PCs interested right from session #1?

I'd recommend having a home base, which can be as detailed or abstracted as you like. Frankly, I have no problem with just telling the players at the start "there's a town X within a day's journey, at which you can buy anything in the standard equipment list at the standard price". You worry about complexifying that later, should you wish, by detailing the outdoors region around the dungeon & home base, adding personalities to the town, etc. Get playing right away.

For that, I have to say that I'm not keen on dicking around. Players need to get with the program. That means: either they supply a motivation for exploring the dungeon (like: I am eager for fame and fortune), or they will act reasonably when handed one. PCs can have all the backstory they want, and it might even factor into play at some point, but this is where we start. For a "concocted" motivation, I suggest something that can reasonably be combined with outright venality. E.g. back in my micro-dungeon scenario, I picked a PC who had a mentor (by definition, because he was a magic-user in Basic D&D, but in practice this could be a patron, boss, relative, whatever) and had him say, "Please investigate this place, bring me this thing if you can find it, and you can keep whatever else you find."

Frankly, I don't find highly "glorious, heroic" scenarios terribly exciting, partly because they carry too much of a moral imperative to succeed or die trying. YMMV. Players need to have the option to run away. Then again, the "15 minute adventuring day" needs to be overcome--you as GM have every right to make the dungeon respond and regenerate if given time.

Quote
How do I keep time during dungeon crawling? How do I compute time spent by PCs at exploring each room, level, etc. so I can keep a meaningful tally on resources like torch, lantern oil, rations, etc.?
This can be harder than it seems, because as GM you get caught up interacting with the players. Probably the more used to dealing with 3 or more people vying for your attention you are, the easier it is. But you also need the cooperation and assistance of the players; if they're not into bean-counting, you may have to give up or find ways to facilitate. Any edition of classic D&D will give you guidelines along the lines of "1 Turn (10 minutes) to move 10' at exploration/mapping speed". So you just make hashmarks, and also roll for wandering monsters at whatever interval you've determined, whether it be 1/turn or less frequently. More frequently if the players cause a lot of noise in an area where they might be heard. To facilitate bean counting, you might try poker chips, actual beans, etc., telling players to toss them into a discard pile whenever you announce that time has passed, and refresh their pool when they light a new torch, etc.

An alternative would be to abstract resource usage into a die roll, or even into the wandering monster table. E.g., instead of a monster, one entry could be "torch gets used up".

Quote
How do you like your dungeon? Mythic underworld, quasi-realistic underground complex, or something else entirely?

Quasi-realistic. Your ideas sound pretty good to me. Maybe watch or read Journey to the Center of the Earth for inspiration.
« Last Edit: January 08, 2012, 07:13:23 PM by Arminius »

Kaldric

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #9 on: January 08, 2012, 11:31:53 PM »
Here's how I keep time in the dungeon.

Get a sheet of cheap, college-ruled paper. There's about 33 lines on your standard sheet. Put hash marks through the blue line across the page - one big mark, five little ones, and another big one. That's one hour. Five more littles and a big, that's another hour. You can easily fit 12 hours across one page. Put a 12 at the end of the line. Repeat, putting a 24. Then a 36, and so on. Usually, dungeon expeditions are going to be a day or two long at most, so 4 lines at the top of the page is normally sufficient. If they're prepared for a much longer trip, just add some lines. It takes about 10 or 15 seconds to hash out a line, so setting up your time-keeper takes a minute or so for your standard dungeon expedition.

Before you start, look through your notes. How often do you need to check for wandering monsters? Mark that down on the chart - if it's every turn, because they're wearing plate armor or something, don't mark each one, just remember to roll each time you move forward a check mark.

When they step into the dungeon, start the count - you scratch forward along the ruled line, moving forward one small tick for every dungeon turn, 10 minutes, that passes. If they light a lantern that has an hour's worth of oil, just move forward six ticks and put a mark. That's when it runs out. If they light a torch, same thing. Same with spells that have long durations - when it's cast, count forward and put a mark where it ends - I use a little cross for torches, and an asterisk for lantern oil, and if it's a spell/disease/effect/whatever, I'll put a number on the line, and below the chart on the same page, I'll put the same number with "mage armor" or whatever next to it.

They should let you know how much food and water they have, when they go in. If their rations are measured by the day, then it's easy to simply say "mark off rations" when you reach the end of every even line. Same with water, if that's not easily available.

Establish a "Dungeoneering speed" and link it to the map you made. If the map has 10 foot squares, then in AD&D the group will move one square per turn per point of movement. So, if they have a 12" movement, they move 12 squares per turn (120 feet) at dungeoneering speed. Just count the number of squares they move on your map, and every time they pass their movement speed in squares, mark off a turn on your timekeeper.

TL;DR: Make a simple chart of 10 minute increments, broken up by hours, with 12 hours per college-ruled line. Make a list of common activities and the time they take, (including a 'dungeoneering movement' rate that accounts for mapping and searching for traps and doors, etc) and a list of expendables and how long they last. When an expendable is used, mark when it ends on the chart. When a common activity is performed, move the time forward the appropriate number of increments.

The Good Assyrian

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #10 on: January 09, 2012, 12:30:47 AM »
I am thinking about developing a "otherworldly" mega-dungeon for my next OD&D campaign.  My thinking has been influenced by Philotomy's musing on otherworldly dungeons and by the Soviet film "Stalker" in which there is an otherworldly place called the "Zone" where desperate people go to in order to seek their deepest desires.

So my imagining of a mega-dungeon is colored by greed and above all desperation.  Why would anyone risk their lives to enter such a place?  That is a question I want each of the players to answer for their characters.  It could just be greed of course, but I want them to think about it a bit.

I figured that there should of course be a ramshackle, filthy town that makes its living off the desperate and the foolish who come to enter the dungeon, almost all of them never to return.  There would be plenty of opportunity to sell the stuff of dreamers - fake maps, "guides" to the outskirts of the dungeon, and of course plenty of booze to buck up one's courage.

It is a pretty depressing vision, I admit, but it is what comes to me when I think of mega-dungeon now.  Although years ago we had a campaign in which the PCs were from a small town that had been bypassed by the new King's Highway and decided to team up with the local monsters to boost tourism by selling package tours to the nearby dungeon on the idea that most of the money that they found could be neatly parted from them afterwards.  It was totally played for comedy.


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Arminius

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #11 on: January 09, 2012, 12:45:23 AM »
Quote from: Kaldric;502050
Here's how I keep time in the dungeon.


That's excellent. No need to hand out poker chips, just create a timeline.

jeff37923

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #12 on: January 09, 2012, 02:00:21 AM »
The advice that immediately comes to mind is make the first level easily accessible from several different openings, perhaps having a different humanoid tribe living at each one. Have all of them though connect to the deeper depths of the megadungeon. Think of the first level as the ghetto area of a city with several gangs (humanoids) fighting for control of the entrances and defending the sections that lead deeper into the megadungeon.

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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #13 on: January 09, 2012, 02:23:23 AM »
I have always liked what water does underground... It cuts channels and caverns and pools... In some places it dries out completely, only to return as a flash flood filling passageways rapidly if there is a heavy rain on the surface above.

Iv'e seen water cut spirals passageways straight down like chutes, and layered shelves form where water levels remain consistently for many eons and then suddenly drops or dries out leaving a basin, or a stairway of basins...

Canyons with bridges. Chasms... ancient chambers high up and seemingly inaccessible in large subterranean caverns. Phosphorescent light, coming from plants and lichens...

Close to the surface the roots of giant trees delve deep into caverns searching for water, and creating visual and physical obstacles...

Rivers and lakes... Mines that follow unexpected twists and turns in ore veins with sudden drops and equally sudden climbs.

Reflections... in the water, off the minerals in the very walls...

Catacombs, where the remains of the once living are discarded to eternal rest... or maybe not...
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Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it
« Reply #14 on: January 09, 2012, 02:26:44 AM »
Quote from: The Butcher;501805
How big do I make the dungeon?

Are you doing an open table or a steady group? For the latter, a true megadungeon will mean that you'll be wasting a lot of prep. I'd recommend something more on the scale of Caverns of Thracia or Rappan Athuk.

I'm also generally a fan of smaller levels and more of them.

Quote
How many levels should I have ready at session #1?

I'd recommend Level 1 and any level you can get to from Level 1, but this assumes my smaller levels.

As another rule of thumb: Assume 20 rooms of exploration per session. Any place the PCs can reach within 20 rooms of the entrance (same level or otherwise) should be ready-to-go when play starts. (This means 20 rooms of interest; not just 20 empty chambers.)

Quote
How do I keep PCs interested right from session #1?

Depends on the players. I've run two megadungeon-oriented campaigns: For one it was literally just "you guys like treasure; there's treasure in the dungeon". For the other, I had an elaborate background detailing a holy relic that was thought to be located somewhere in the megadungeon.

In either case, that initial hook is just a McGuffin. Once they're in the megadungeon other stuff is going to seize their interest.

(Design Tip: The point of the megadungeon isn't to Get to Level 20. Instead, the megadungeon should be thought of as a lot of different scenarios. There are the orc tribes on level 2; the Necromancer Wars on level 5; etc.)

Quote
How do I keep time during dungeon crawling? How do I compute time spent by PCs at exploring each room, level, etc. so I can keep a meaningful tally on resources like torch, lantern oil, rations, etc.?

Most pre-2008 editions of D&D actually give you some pretty solid guidelines for this sort of thing, although they can occasionally be obfuscated.

In general, what you need are just two guidelines:

(1) How far can the characters travel in 10 minutes?
(2) How long does it take to search one 10' x 10' square?

In OD&D the answers are "speed in inches x 20 feet" and 10 minutes. (You'll note that this indicates a very slow and methodical approach to dungeon exploration.)

In 3E, the answers are "speed x 200" and "1 round (or 2 minutes for taking 20)".

Calculate for the lowest speed in the party and for the party's scout(s). From that you should be able to keep fairly accurate time. (I usually just keep a tally of ten minute intervals.)

For everything else, just roughly estimate it. If the players settle down and start talking plans, glance at a clock. When they're done, glance again. (Conversations are always real time.)

Quote
Also, since I don't know shit about archeology, how the fuck do things like entire cities get buried over time? And how would it possible to explore them without, you know, shoveling all the dirt away first?

They don't. I generally postulate that it's a side-effect of preservation cantrips and blessings that get cast all the time in fantasy-land. It lets me get away with buried cities that don't need to be archaeologically dug up.

(The other option is that you're dealing with subterranean structures in the first place. Caverns of Thracia is an example of this, with nearly all of the original above-ground structures having been long since destroyed.)
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