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!