Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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A Response to Peter Dell’Orto on “Other People’s MegaDungeons”

Dungeon Fantastic has a great post up today:

OPM – the problems running Other People’s Megadungeons — “Everything I have down on paper is a reminder. It’s not new information. Even when there is a blank, I know what I was thinking when I wrote it and what would thematically fit. I don’t need to roll on the “What does the faction do?” table. I know what they’d do. I might flip a coin to find out which option they choose out of two, but I know which two and why. Contrast that with a published megadungeon. I’ve seen it with Erik trying to figure out what the heck something is intended to be during out own B-Team delves. You can see it with Jeffro having to puzzle over room descriptions in Dwimmermount. I’ve had it with reading Barrowmaze and Castle Zagyg to see what is in it. You need to become intimately familiar with someone else’s work. Not only that, but they need to have written in a way that’s accessible on a read-through, clearly communicates intent, and which is easy to use in actual play.”

After 41 hours of play in 5 sessions… thirteen total sorties into Dwimmermount, I think I can say that about 45% of the gameplay has been run from the skimming through room descriptions on the fly… and the other 50% is about all wandering monsters. Not even five percent of what’s gone on comes from me synthesizing stuff from across the module.

And that’s the surprising thing about those wandering monster results. They are all mine. I know exactly what’s going on with them in the same way that Peter groks the totality of his own dungeon. Oh… that gelatinous cube? It’s been in this big intersection for a long time and it’s actually cut down on monster traffic though here for a while. These orcs? A patrol responding to all the noise the players have been making. These hobgoblins? They’re going to wait here on the off chance that the players get in over their heads. Same thing with this NPC party that just turned up. They hear the players and are going to wait for them to burn their sleep spell against the monsters. Oh, this other NPC party? They’re running like crazy just like the players did the other day. And this seemingly indestructible slime thing? Hah. The players would have never seen it if they hadn’t hung around this one room for half an hour.

Going into it, I had expected to do more with the various monster factions shifting around and stuff. You know, all the stuff that I thought I was supposed to do with B2: Keep on the Borderlands, but which I never did. The thing is… the players almost always ended up wiping out a faction within a sortie or two. There was some readjustments to the positioning and behavior of the tribes, but not a lot. Only now that the players have taken a couple of weeks off in Adamas to learn their first second level mage spell has the dungeon had time to really “breath”. Only after five marathon sessions has the status quo been impacted enough that I really need to reread a few levels and think about how the designer might intend for the place to respond. That is harder given that this is someone else’s MegaDungeon, sure. But it’s not an insurmountable problem.

If “Other People’s MegaDungeon” Syndrome is giving you a real headache, though, my advice is to stop shying away from using wandering monsters. They are not filler. They are not just some kind of abstract punishment for players that search too much. No… they are your chance to turn the dungeon into a living, breathing place at the cost of almost no prep whatsoever! When you roll them out, you’re naturally going to take into account everything that has happened so far in your game and everything that the game has been lacking thus far. They give you a chance to exercise your creativity without requiring you to do a lot of design work! Embracing the randomness will save you more prep and give you more memorable moments than just about anything else you can do.

Another thing about Dwimmermount that I did was to ignore the wilderness map and the town details and just focus on the dungeon at first. I also explained the nuances of the world history and background with very loose analogies. Or, there’s “Medieval Era” and “Atlantean-looking thing” and “Some Dude Like Prophet Mohammed.” Over the course of several sessions, there were actually several rooms that filled in some more of these details. Players started taking “Lore” type proficiencies and my descriptions began to be more and more consistent with the module as written. In retrospect, it was not hard at all to grow into this.

Finally… the room situations are designed to be relatively static. You can get away with not being intimately familiar with them until the players get there. I’m worried about how much time it takes for players to do their thing between delves as that can actually end up straining suspension of disbelief later on. But the more comfortable I get with it, though… the less dependent I am on the room descriptions for me to “understand” what is “really” supposed to happen. For example, there was this useless machine that nearly killed a player character a couple of times. When I got a certain wandering monster result when the players were near it… it dawned on me what it did. The players had “obviously” triggered this machinery to produce the very magical constructs I had just rolled up!

The human mind has a powerful capacity to see patterns where they don’t really exist. This explains both conspiracy theories in general and the way that a very clear personality emerges from otherwise random results in, say, Traveller character generation. The act of playing someone else’s MegaDungeon contributes a surprising amount of its sense of reality. Yes, your prep will include you having to stop and reread multiple chapters from the module on occasion. But it’s your gameplay that will make you understand what all that text really means!

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12 responses to “A Response to Peter Dell’Orto on “Other People’s MegaDungeons”

  1. newyorkgwythaint May 5, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Dwimmermount was one of the few megadungeons I have read through that has a smooth feel for operation like you describe.The editing is quite good, and it really took only one complete read through for me to get it. I do understand Peter’s reservations, especially about Tower of the Mad Archmage, but I run my Northport almost on the fly with minimal notes, so I do agree with him that there is nothing like the relationship you have with your own creation.

    • jeffro May 5, 2015 at 9:15 pm

      Yes, he really does have a point. But also… I’m glad you pointed out that the different published MegaDungeons might produce differing results on this.

  2. Warren Abox May 6, 2015 at 2:11 am

    Great post, and very inspirational. You keep doing that to me, Jeffro.

    I’ve been struggling with the process of designing a mega-dungeon to share with the world, and most of my brainpower has been devoted to figuring out a way to present it for ease of use at the table. Mine is just an imitation of what has gone before, and as a result crashed after four or five levels.

    Your post has me thinking that the better way to design a mega-dungeon might be to only stock the static situations (statues, locked chests, etc.), and then design better wandering monster tables. If done right, you could put together a product where no two groups could possibly run through the same dungeon, as each instance of the dungeon would grow organically at the table.

    • jeffro May 6, 2015 at 5:23 am

      Please keep me posted on where you go with this. I think there’s plenty to tinker with here and a lot of room for different design approaches, Even Dwimmermount and Stonehell have radically different styles….

      • Warren Abox May 8, 2015 at 1:33 am

        I may just post a few of the first few levels to show folks what I’ve been toying with in my spare time. The other key issue has been trying to figure out how to integrate the wandering monster table with the keyed encounters. Ideally there should be a way for the player actions in wandering monster encounters to impact the more static areas of the dungeon. If nothing they do has any affect, then nothing they do really matters.

        The best I’ve come up with so far is to build a goblin warren – a cave system with something like 15 rooms in it – every time you roll up a goblin result on the wandering monster table, you cross off a room on the map. When you run out of rooms, you’ve run out of wandering goblins. This way, if the party runs from every wandering band of goblins, when they explore the goblin cave, the place will be full. If the party decimates every band of wandering goblins, when they hit the caves the place will be mostly empty.

        The other solution is to borrow from video games and make a ‘spawn point’. When the players break the spawn point, any further result on the wandering monster table defaults to “nothing” or to something else on the list.

  3. Cirsova May 6, 2015 at 10:51 am

    My only issue with Wander Monster tables (and this really is only a problem with smaller dungeons or dungeons with odd layouts) is that it potentially creates a host of quantum monsters. You know empirically that these monsters exist somewhere in the dungeon doing something (especially when you’re working with a table with a “fixed” number of monsters supposedly wandering around) but somehow manage to not be happened upon even during systematic searches of particular regions.

    What I end up doing with a lot of wandering monster charts is taking a look, finding a few that would make for cool encounters and say “It would make a lot of sense for these guys to be here, here and here, and if they’re not here, then they’re probably there.”

    • Cirsova May 6, 2015 at 10:54 am

      On the other hand… “Here we are, the last room of the dungeon!” “You open the door to an otherwise empty 20’x40′. Inside are 8 skeletons, 4 giant beetles, 3 spitting cobras, 12 orcs, 2 ghouls, 16 zombies and a rival adventuring party.” “What the hell?” “Well, they must’ve been hanging out SOMEWHERE!”

      • jeffro May 6, 2015 at 12:43 pm

        Multiple results piling up doesn’t happen too often… but sometimes a cautious WM hangs around as the players leave a stocked location only to run into an aggressive WM. And then the fight attacks something else and the players then run into the cautious monsters as they try to escape! I love that stuff. And it impresses players because it’s not how DM’s typically run the game. It definitely comes off as a fantasy Vietnam type feel– and the fact that it’s not “fair” just makes the panic even greater!

    • jeffro May 6, 2015 at 12:39 pm

      If it’s a week between delves and there are other adventurers coming and going… then really, anything could happen. (And ACKS seems to increase the time between sorties due to the mortality charts and spell learning times.)

  4. PeterD May 7, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Glad you liked my post.

    So the short version is, you really own the stuff you add to the dungeon yourself? WM are a good way to do that “as written.”

    And yeah, factions. Factions are what you put in the dungeon, forgetting that every player who ever say “A Fistfull of Dollars” said, if that was me, I’d just start killing at one end of the town until I got to the other. And then does that. :)

    • jeffro May 7, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Yes exactly. But I never looked at the wandering monster tables as “oh, hey… this is where your creativity is really going to express itself.” I was– like you say– just trying to run it like it was designed!

  5. Pingback: Why ACKS Is One of the Best RPGs on the Market | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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