Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dori of the Dungeon or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Keep Mapping

When I began mapping the area I’m currently working on, it was intended to simply be the grounds around an entrance into the megadungeon, but after the “grounds” reached on hundred rooms, I got a little concerned. The “entrance” was turning into an entire level unto itself. Was this okay? Was I going overboard?

Ultimately, I decided this surface level was sufficiently important to the history of the dungeon to justify it as a level in its own right. But with 2+ floors and over 300 rooms fully mapped as of writing this, I was really worrying that what started as just an entrance had grown into what could almost be called a megadungeon in its own right. Was this too big? I probably am going overboard!
Then someone asked a penetrating question about my concerns: “What happens if it is ‘too big’?”
It’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking about answers to it. “Too big” could mean any of the following:
  • So large the players will never explore all of it.
  • So large I waste a lot of time working up rooms that will never see use.
  • So large it takes the PCs too long to reach places in the dungeon.

This is all I could come up with. So now I’ll try to address each one and see if it is a significant concern or not.

Players Can't Explore It All

One of the defining characteristics of a megadungeon is that the PCs will never fully clear the dungeon, even if they do fully explore it, and many megadungeons are so large it would take years and years of gaming to even reach the bottom. In fact, I’ve read that the original gaming group that first created Rappan Athuk never did reach the bottom in decades of gaming. So I can’t say that an inability to fully explore a megadungeon is a con.

I’d even go so far as to suggest it is a perk. Megadungeons are nearly mythical otherworlds whose expanses are intentionally massive for the sake of providing what appears to the players to be an infinite dungeon with infinite possibilities. In this sense, the dungeon cannot be too big because any finite limits mean it could theoretically be fully explored. And, as I have mentioned before in this blog, DungeonFantasy is, at least in part, about exploration, so if there is a limit to what can be explored, at least one aspect of play does have a definite end – something diametrically opposed to the idea of a megadungeon.

It Takes Too Long to Reach Places

This could definitely be a concern – especially in game where the PCs are expected to start and end in Town. You don’t want to spend 80% of your session just trying to get back to where you left off, and worse than that, the length of a session could force multi-session delves or impose a hard limit on how deep the party can delve. Neither of these are positive features. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid this limit altogether, and most of them revolve around Jayquaying the megadungeon.

Nothing says that a dungeon’s deeper levels must be far removed from the surface in terms of travel times. The original Diablo game did a splendid job of making sure there were shortcuts back to town every five levels. These weren’t available until you got to those levels, and that’s something I would advise against, but they did provide easy access to the deeps once they were open. Moreover, Jayquaying can be done so that “highways” through the dungeon are created. This makes for quick movement between levels so that even if you enter at Level 1, you can hit a series of chutes, ladders, stairs, passages, etc. that take you down to Level 9 or 10 or 16 quickly. So even if you can’t access a level directly from the surface, you can get there with minimal time wasted in transit.

Another option is to provide magical waypoints or a portal transportation network inside the dungeon. This harkens to Diablo 2, Diablo 3, Path of Exile, and countless other computer games. Essentially, the players can take a portal, cast a spell, etc. and skip right to a spot near where they left off. This has the drawback of potentially letting them skip wilderness encounters, changes in shallower parts of the dungeon, etc. It also lets them arrive at full strength right away. The up side is that they can go deep fast. Personally, I would limit the use of such portals via their placement and probably not make them usable directly from Town, but that’s my preference.

Yet a third option is to simply have the players tell you the route they want to take to get to an area, if they’ve already been there. It’s not hard to glance at your notes and see if anything worth noting has changed along that route, and what encounters there are. Roll random encounters based on travel time, and then just hit the bits that matter along the way. This can streamline the process by paring it down to just the bits the players might care about without removing any of their agency.

It Wastes the GM's Time

This is always a concern for GMs and is probably the most valid reason for not making a megadungeon of truly mindboggling in scale. It’s worth noting that as the dungeon itself grows in size, the amount of work required to stock that dungeon also grows at least linearly. More rooms mean more stocking rolls, more trap generation, more interesting notes and descriptions, more monsters, more treasure, etc. And generating all of this is time consuming.

One way to work around time constraints is to start by generating the details for the areas the players can reach within a session or two and work outward from there. If you dungeon has heavy Jayquaying, then this might mean a fair amount of work up front, but it’s not too terrible. Communication with players between sessions can help a GM determine which areas require more urgent fleshing out as compared to others, and as the megadungeon sees some play, the GM will get a feel for how the players will go about exploration.

But wait! I said “wasted time!” That raises an interesting question. Is the GM’s time truly wasted by mapping areas the PCs don’t visit? I say no, and here is why. If the GM only maps the bits players will visit, one of two things is happening: (1) the GM made a small dungeon so the players have to explore every room or there just isn’t much to do or (2) the GM is moving rooms he has prepare around so that the players encounter them no matter their choices. The first isn’t a very mega dungeon, since the players feel physically constrained by the extent of the dungeon, and the latter robs the players of their agency. Yes. Italics.

There are two interesting conclusions to draw here. First, if the players feel obligated to explore every single room the GM has prepared because there isn’t much dungeon to explore, it’s not a megadungeon. This implies that for a dungeon to be large enough to earn the prefix, mega, it must have rooms that will potentially go unexplored. Thus, the GM must “waste” some time on rooms the players will never see. Second, if the GM forces the players to see every room he created via some Quantum Room trick, he has robbed the players of their agency. Thus, a megadungeon actually requires the GM to make rooms that won’t necessarily be explored.

What's a GM to Do?

It’s simple enough, really. Make sure to practice good adventure design and Jayquay your megadungeon dungeon, provide lots of entrances and means by which to skip around the dungeon – again, a byproduct of good Jayquaying, and lastly, realize that no work is truly wasted. After all, a megadungeon isn’t mega if there is no possibility of players not seeing rooms. The very concept of a megadungeon requires that the GM make more dungeon than can feasibly be explored.

So what advice am I giving myself? Learn to relax and Just Keep Mapping. Just keep mapping. Just keep mapping . . .

No comments :

Post a Comment