Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Megadungeons: Unique Rooms and Encounters

Before beginning, I must state that all artwork used in today's blog is owned by the publishers. I do not claim ownership of any of the art within. I have chosen each piece to represent a part of the topic today. If you find it to your liking, check out the book it is associated with. Links are found within the article.

When designing a megadungeon, a few things will make it stand out as exemplary. First, an evocative name makes it enticing: Barrowmaze, Undermountain, and Rappan Athuk all immediately grab your imagination in different ways. That's your hook.

Second, having a strong theme that pervades levels or even the entire dungeon itself allows the players and DMs to become immersed within. Barrowmaze's undead theme isn't a new one, but Gillespie uses it well to highlight the corruption and dread of the concept.

Finally, having "tentpole" rooms that make your dungeon unique and have people talk about that encounter make the dungeon legendary. Today, I am going to discuss these tentpole rooms. As I read through and review my collection, these are one primary factor in how I view the megadungeon.

Fans of megadungeons know certain places within dungeons that they have never delved: the Font of Snakes in the original Castle Greyhawk, the Well in Rappan Athuk, the Great Chained Doors within the Temple of Elemental Evil are a few examples. Typically, these rooms are a puzzle instead of a combat, although sometimes they are a combat (like the Well) or both (like the Font of Snakes). 

Rappan Athuk's Well

What makes these encounters transcend from a common puzzle to a tentpole, legendary one? Sometimes, it is marketing (like the Well in Rappan Athuk). Other times it is truly a legend from the past (like the Font of Snakes). Others have been played by so many that the location becomes a shared memory (Great Chained Doors).

But, we dungeon masters have one important criterion above all others. It must be fun and interactive. In this, I would like show some shining examples from modern megadungeons.

great winged gargoyle of Barrowmaze
Great Winged Gargoyle
 of Barrowmaze
1. Barrowmaze's Great Winged Gargoyle. When Greg Gillespie released Barrowmaze, he had the forethought to add some artwork from the character's point of view. Largely this is still not done effectively, but Barrowmaze (and his subsequent books) pull it off well. 

The gargoyle itself is a fetch quest, with a decent reward. Simply find and reattach the arm for the prize. This is simple, and the type of puzzle would not typically move the needle for me. But, it is early in the dungeon, so many people who have explored Barrowmaze encountered it. It has great artwork that helps immerse the players in the game.

Dung Monster from Rappan Athuk

2. Rappan Athuk's lair of the Dung Monster is hilarious. A mimic that acts like a bathroom is legendary just based on the concept. Throw in its "unkillable" nature and you have a great encounter. Although it feels like a combat, it is actually a time sink and puzzle. It moves slowly (and can be avoided) but it always reappears when it is inconvenient.

3. The Grande Temple of Jing's Jing Statues. These statues aren't a single encounter. Instead they are pieces of information, puzzles and rewards within the dungeon. Often they have a riddle associated with a particular statue and if answered give a reward. Sometimes it opens a secret area, and others it is wealth or knowledge. Repetition allows the statues to be thought of more frequently, and therefore discussed by groups.


Many megadungeons miss the mark when creating a legendary encounter. Most of these become forgotten on the heap of books in my corner. How do we avoid this fate?

These encounters should not be immediately solvable. In the case of the Gargoyle, you must seek out its other part. Dungy cannot be defeated, only foiled. The Jing Statues can be solved, but there's always another one not too far away. The encounter is talked about between sessions. It becomes a driving goal (either short or long term). 

They must be fun. Opening the Great Chained Doors in ToEE causes a whole new level of chaos. It's fun! Dungy slowly creeping up on you while advancing down a deep level of RA is fun. Finding and completing the Gargoyle quest is exciting (and fun). 

These encounters must be almost immediately recognizable as what they are (Dungy being an exception, based on the type of encounter). With all of this in mind, let's look at making an example.

As many of you know, my home dungeon is Mord Mar. It is a dwarven city destroyed by chaos. With that in mind, I begin to design. If your dungeon has its own theme, start there. 

Now, dwarves are famous for mining, making great cities underground, blacksmithing and other tropes. Any of these could be the basis of the encounter. Blacksmithing is calling to me today, however. That gives me the room description: a small forge completely ready to smelt and shape up to the wood and charcoal within the hearth. However, there is no metal to to work within the room. 

Throughout the dungeon, I can sprinkle ingots of different metals for the characters to find. Once the forge is lit, and the ingots are in place the tools then begin working themselves. Depending on what is put inside the forge, different items or hazards can be output (any items are +1 magic):
adamantium = ring of protection
aluminum = small magma elemental attacks
bronze = a jet of liquid metal sprays the room, doing 3d6 (save for half) to everyone inside
copper = a 6-sided die that always rolls 4
iron = helmet
mithril = thieves' tools
steel = dagger

And as I continue to develop the dungeon, I can add more varied materials to allow experimentation. I can add layers (after the 3rd time, a guardian may show up for example). 

Using your own themes, you can develop a fun room too! Just remember:
Don't immediately gratify the players all the time
Make it fun
Make sure it evokes the imagination

And above all, remember that not every room can be legendary! The must punctuate the area or level that they are within. If everything is special, then nothing is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Empty Rooms in Megadungeons

This week I won't be doing a review of a megadungeon. I am finding doing one weekly is difficult and unable to sustain. I will shoot for every 2-3 weeks instead. Next up is Gunderholfen. 

Megadungeons largely follow a rule of 3. 1/3 of the rooms should be empty, 1/3 of the rooms should have a monster or trap, and 1/3 should have a treasure of some sort. Today I am going to focus on the empty rooms.

From a gameplay standpoint, empty rooms seem boring. A good DM changes this, however. Because megadungeons are huge, it is necessary to leave out unnecessary information. This is why rumors and dungeon dressing are often relegated to tables. Tables convey a lot of information in a concise space. However, a good DM with time will take these tables and assign things to empty rooms (or particular NPCs). Dungeons like Rappan Athuk and Dwimmermount give a lot of history that can also be incorporated into these "empty" rooms. 


When adding details to the empty rooms, look to the creatures that reside nearby. A smart DM can use these as foreshadowing of what's to come. Make one of the skeletons ahead missing an arm, that is laying in the empty room along the way. Put a broken tooth in a hastily drawn circle near the orc territory. Add humanoid shaped shed scales in a room near the kobold lair. 

Dungeon graffiti is another category that is often added by the authors of megadungeons. Often they intend for the graffiti to be used in these empty rooms. Taking this a step further, you could use the rival adventuring parties to add personalized graffiti. I often will leave notes like "The Brotherhood of Iron beat Tarina Wakelain to this spot on 12 Diven 128." It motivated players in ways that treasure hunting could not. Make the messages personal, but not attacking. Using both the author's graffiti and the personal messages makes a megadungeon feel alive, have a history and moving pieces in the present.

The hardest part of adding these parts to your empty megadungeon rooms is keeping track of them. In the 1990's I had to use index cards to keep track of the changes made. Today, we have OneNote (and OneDrive), Obsidian Portal, MS Word, Google Drive and Docs and a slew of other modern solutions. 

Notating the notes should be consistent. The following information is necessary (and should be concise) Dungeon level, room number, and page number. Adding a sub-room may be necessary as well. 

For example, in (I probably should have used a multi-level dungeon for this, but Barrowmaze was at hand.) Barrowmaze's file I would label the room: 

163 (pg 96): Blood on the north wall: We found our way here, but the clattering of bones is close by. I fear we shall soon join them.

59 Chamber 2 (pg 52): Stricken the Halfling (Blondie's character) took the studded leather but broke the sarcophagus lid in the process.  

Monday, January 16, 2023

DNGN Review

DNGN is a Kickstarter that funded on March 18, 2022 and delivered in September. It is published by  Singing Flame and written by Vasili Kaliman. It is for sale on DrivethruRPG. (Singing Flame dropped 2 PDFs, one in spreads and one in pages.) Singing Flame has the risograph copies on their own website. (From their Kickstarter: Risography is a print process that will give the zine a retro, hand-made look and feel. It will also make the zine very collectible. The risograph process will print solid colors on stunning vellum paper, and is an environmentally friendly way to produce printed matter. The company we are working with uses soy-based inks and stencils/masters made of natural fiber.) 

DNGN is written in Old School Essentials, and a beautiful book. Kaliman (he doesn't list a layout person) does a good job keeping each dungeon level and key to 1-1 page layout. His indigo blue and cherry red look beautiful on the vellum. The book does a great job on saving and using space, starting with the inside cover. A 20 entry random encounter chart evokes imagery immediately upon opening the book "19 Carcass Crawler with entrails dripping from its mouth."

A table of contents is noticeably lacking, with the early pages covering:
Title Page
Full page artwork
Pg 3: What is DNGN?
    Old School Essentials
    The Hook & Rumor
    The Maps
    Writing Style
    How to Use This

Then, on page 4, it dives into Level 1. DNGN immediately reveals its nature with a cybernetic corpse in the very first room. The level is also 6 rooms long. And here's the inherent flaw with this layout, system, size and design. A six-room level in a megadungeon feels very out of place. But, the positive is that Kaliman gives just enough to tease the imagination of the DM. 3/10 (The score is due to the lack of size and being forced to 1 page of text per level. More on this at the end.)

Level 2 doesn't feel "mega" either with 7 whole rooms. Room 2F is my favorite of the lot here, with ice that melts into a poisonous gas. 3/10

Level 3 we are up to 9 rooms. The problem with so few rooms is that everything is linear, or dead end. With so few rooms, it is almost impossible to Jaquays the dungeon. 3/10

Level 4 holds 11 rooms. My favorite is the "hourglass room" where an hourglass slowly drains, with a deadly monster appearing when it is empty. (no spoilers here!) 3/10

Level 5 brings the room count back down to 9 rooms. Vasili's first room on this level is 5A > Drunken Nomad. "Nomad (sitting against south wall) with rusty metal wings haphazardly sewn to his back (is drunk and slurs his words) <stat block>"
As an experienced DM of megadungeons, I can successfully run this encounter, but someone who is brand new to the job is going to find it really difficult. I get why stats are included, but the nomad is lawful. The 1-1 page layout really does a disservice to rooms like this. 3/10

Level 6 is again 9 rooms. I find it hard to reconcile the difficulty here with the levels of the characters. Walking down 1 of the two transitions from level 5 to 6, the PCs will immediately walk into a fire elemental battle. (Okay, technically they need to touch a statue . . .) On a typical Level 6 of a megadungeon, this wouldn't be abnormal. But here, the party is probably level 2-3. In comparison, the other two encounters are a doppleganger (125 xp) and 4 skeletons. The fire elemental's treasure (2 crimson gems) doesn't list a gp value either. 2/10

Level 7 is 13 rooms. Encounters are back down to a realistic level (even if difficult like a wraith). 3/10

Level 8 is 8 rooms. There is a room with a shrunken head holding a gold coin in its mouth. Otherwise, a fairly bland level. 2/10

Level 9 is 8 rooms, largely cavernous. Vasili likes severed heads (there's another interesting one on this level). 4/10

Level 10 is 8 rooms, and finishes the DNGN for the book. The most dangerous monster on this level is a gelatinous cube. (In comparison see the fire elemental on level 6 and there's a purple worm on level 2. Yup.) 3/10

There's more to the book, that I will get to shortly. But first I need to address the low scores on all of these levels. Vasili Kaliman has made a beautiful book. And I mean gorgeous. What Singing Flame hasn't done is make a compelling megadungeon. Largely, I think it is the format that was chosen for the layout. They have some really good ideas, but the format does not work for a megadungeon. That said, I have already chosen 3 rooms to steal for my "best of megadungeon" event at Totalcon. And as you will see when I score the book at the end, I think it is a worthwhile purchase and addition. I am really looking forward to issue 2.

Back to the review . . . 

In the vein of Gillespie, Kaliman next adds an (unmarked) illustration section. Jacob Fleming, Huargo, Ken Landgraf, Chris Malec, Diogo Noguera, Stefan Poag, and Andrew Walter all deliver on the art. Again, where the artists use it, the red and blue is a striking visual combination. 10/10

Husk is a separate add-on dungeon, added due to the success of the Kickstarter. @skullfungus did these beautiful maps. They are striking in comparison to the DNGN levels.  The Husk is "A deserted research lab of a cult that experimented with the artifacts of the star gods." Largely, though, it suffers from the same problem as every level of the main DNGN. 4.5/10

A comic follows the Husk adventure, then a Loot the Body table, with the OGL on the inside back cover.

Overall, I really like some of the hidden gems of this adventure. OSE layout is great for some things, and abhorrent for others. This is definitely the later. 

Before I give my final grades for the book, I want to highlight some other pluses. 
#1: Every map has notes on the floor, and there are some unique ones (like covered in wax). The maps also point out explicitly where there are lights.
#2: Vasili is crystal clear on the state of every door in the dungeon.
#3: Even with the limitations on text, there area lot of really neat encounters.

Now my list of negatives. 
#1: No motivations for any NPCs. Additionally, no factions. Singing Flame, you really need to correct this moving forward. 
#2: The DNGN is tiny.  82 rooms in the main dungeon. Bloch gets halfway there in his first (surface) level. 
#3: I have no idea what levels PCs should be where. Everything is low level encounters except for a couple of super-deadly monsters. Now, I don't mind an over-leveled encounter on an upper level of a dungeon. But, the format doesn't allow for telegraphing straight from the text, and this will be a problem for newer players and DMs.
#4: There is no information on the "star gods," why they built the DNGN, nothing making the place an interesting delve. Sure, I can do all of that back work, but there are better dungeons out there with it done for me. 

Even with these negatives, I love this book. Here's my final thoughts.:

Artwork: Singing Flame did an amazing job getting artists for the book. There is not a single art piece that I don't like, and the aforementioned colors really pop. 10/10
 I am going to have a tough time grading this one.  Knowing what style of layout to use is an important part of the job. Overall, the 1-1 layout style just limits a megadungeon too much. We, as customers, lose too much in translation. Every individual level scored low because of the layout.
On the other hand, it is flawless in its execution, and that deserves credit. And I am sure that other DMs will just fill notebooks with the bits begging to be extrapolated. So, while I graded each level low, I am more generous in the actual Layout category. 6/10
Cartography: The maps are flat, but functional. The addition of notes (like door position/state, floor composition and lighting annotation) helps the flatness a lot. @Skullfungus's maps make the main maps pale in comparison however. And the limit on size really damages the exploration and adventure feel. Without playing the adventure, the maps just look like a straight line slog, with some dead ends along the way. 5/10

This time, my final score is greater than the sum of its parts. The presentation of the risograph style gives a huge boost to an otherwise underwhelming book. I hope that Kaliman can upgrade these problems and make a truly spectacular book. Just make sure to get the physical copy, if you can.


A note to Singing Flame. Instead of doing a separate dungeon as a stretch goal, give us some history, factions (and motivations), and the things that make DNGN different from every other megadungeon in existence. You don't have to ditch the 1-1 layout if you can improve your maps and add lore sections outside of the actual dungeon levels.

I can see the genius within the book, but I don't want to do the exhaustive work to make it shine. I will back the next Kickstarter eagerly, but without improvements, I don't think a third would be in the cards. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Castle of the Mad Archmage - Review

This was expected to be finished last week, but due to holidays and family commitments, it is a week late. Happy New Year, everyone!

Castle of the Mad Archmage, a megadungeon by Joseph Bloch, was released in 2014 and is currently available on drivethrurpg. I am reviewing the Pathfinder version (mainly because I can't find my OSR version). This version is 164 pages with two additional books: a map book and an illustration book. 

As this was an early OSR megadungeon, it begins with an intro for the game master that includes a short history. The section shows Bloch's love for the genre. A note is made about "funhouse dungeon" and this is an important concept, because CotMA is exactly that. 

(For refresher, here's my definition):  Funhouse Dungeon:A dungeon that is rooted more in lighter aspects of gaming. They typically have little "realism" with everything within being based instead on fun. 
And from Bloch: "which has as its central conceit some vehicle to explain the unexplainable, to give a rationale for situations that defy a more naturalistic justification. In such cases, one need not ask why there are monsters crammed together in mazes, large piles of treasure guarded by riddles and puzzles, or the like. They're there because the Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants them there, and that's all the rationale is required." <This introduction intentionally not graded.>

The first real piece of the book is the "General Information" section. Again, I think it is important to mention this is an early megadungeon. Bloch covers making sure that the megadungeon isn't static (to the point of keeping track of fireball singes), He mentions what happens to dead bodies, teleporters (including undetectable ones), "standard rooms and corridors," a lot of Pathfinder information, humanoid lairs, and that there is little or no backstory for the rooms/creatures. Also within this section are the following sub-sections:

Location (how to place the dungeon in your world)
Overview of the Dungeon Levels
Entrances (four are listed here)
Camping in the Dungeon (don't do it)
Dying in the Dungeon (including a chart of what kind of undead may arise)
Quests within the Dungeons (a full page and a half)
Tournament Play
The Greyheim Construction Company, LTD. (why the dungeon changes, including the ability to add new sub-levels) 
Introduction for the Players (a 3 paragraph boxed text). 

Overall, this section is sparse on lore. But, it is in the vein of the early OSR. 6/10

(I found my OSR Copy! I will be using that moving forward. 152 pages)

Getting into the meat and potatoes of the book, we start with the Surface Level: The Upper Ruins. 41 keyed areas are listed within this section. (I am spoiled by Gillespie boldening the monsters within rooms. Bloch should revise and follow suit.) Bandits, giant rats, wild dogs and other common low level faire live here. The deadliest encounter is probably the harpies (but Bloch notes them in the Great Hall, when they are listed in the Gallery adjacent to it).
Overall, the Surface Level is pretty bland and standard. (That's what a low level entry should be) 8/10

Level 1: The Storage Rooms is a very unique and fun-looking map. Immediately I am drawn to "Room" 70, The Maze of Doors: 47 10' square rooms with doors going every direction. When playing this, I remember it being a pain-in-the-ass because our mapper sucked. And our DM wasn't great at glossing over things we had done dozens of times. The first 3 times or so, this was a great encounter though.
Bloch has 110 room listings on this level, giving an idea of the true scope of the dungeon. There are 4 factions on the first level: elves, dwarves, kobolds and zverts. There's also a surprise dragon hiding within this level!
Overall, you really get the funhouse sense of the dungeon here, and the well designed map, paired with several unique factions and even better unique encounters makes this level a really fun one to explore. 9/10

Level 2: The Deep Cellars is 184 rooms, with 6 factions, including rival orc factions (isn't that fun!) Bloch sneaks in a legendary encounter from the original Castle Greyhawk, the Fountain of Snakes, a fun pi puzzle (using the Greek alphabet). There's also room #104 "CLOWNS. The walls of this room . . . with drawings of clowns.  At first they seem normal, but if studied, a more sinister appearance can be noted." I really want to know what the author envisioned here, There's literally no explanation of the sinister appearance. 
More of the Funhouse aspect comes out, but this map weirdly feels like quadrants. 7/10

Level 3: The Dungeons: 202 entries, so the definition of Megadungeon already qualifies in 3 levels (running total: 537 rooms already!) The Bloody Axe Orcs (one of the factions from level 2) controls a significant portion of this level, including the area directly around an entrance to level 2. Having a faction split across 2 levels is great design, and makes the dungeon flow a bit better. The first "mini-boss" (Brekk, the dwarven pain) resides here with a small group of followers, Including those two factions, the level holds 5 total factions (again, the same two orc factions as on level two).
Room 172 is another Clowns room. "Spending more than 1 turn in this room will cause anyone to grow uneasy; a successful WIS check is required to remain longer than that, although nothing overt is causing it" I never ran into these rooms as a player, and if I read them as a DM, I do not remember them. Now, I am getting curious.
Room 196 has 16,807 keys within, and a riddle to solve which reveals the proper key. Bloch does make some clever puzzles.
I really liked the addition of the faction overview at the beginning of this level. 8/10

Level 4: The Lower Dungeons: 152 rooms, with a lot of long hallways and a few interesting geomorphs comprise this level. He should have called this level "the Arena" however. My group had a lot of fun interacting with (and eventually taking over a faction) the groups here. We made a lot of money fighting in the arena.
Arena levels are a bit schticky for megadungeons, but this one is a lot of fun with the right DM. 6/10

Level 5: The Deeps: this is where the dungeon transitions to "lower levels". There is a chasm here that connects levels 5-7, and the threats amp up significantly.. Bugbears, trolls, ogres, wereboars (?!), gnolls and flinds (one faction, with the flinds being leaders/aristocracy) are the factions listed within. (Where is the faction breakdown??? It was great on level three and four, but it is gone again. Instead we have a relationship guide, that doesn't cover the wereboars).
The flumphs have a room within the level, and a not-a-beholder shows up as well. 
Overall, I want more consistency with faction breakdowns. But, with some work, it is still a fun level.  6/10

Level 6: The Labyrinth: Bloch says it best in his intro to this level "corridors are boring." I have no time as a player or a DM to make this level enjoyable. 
Oh joy:  Level 6a: The Sub-Labyrinth. I will pass on both of these. It may be someone else's cup of tea though. NA/10

Level 7: The Crypts.
(I really wish that Bloch would put the mini-map in every level. It makes a very easy find-the-page marker. There is plenty of room on the previous page or at the end of the chapter to make room for it,)
I love undead. I love undead levels. I also like cults, and this level has the "Chapel of the Reaper" and a few others in the complex. A chirurgeon dissects bodies on this level too. Rats and ghouls are apparently waging a war over the bodies on the level. 7/10

Level 8: The Lesser Caves the map lists the following: Temple of the Rat Lord, Trolls, and Shadow Dragon as controlling areas on the map. One way doors get a paragraph as well. A sudoku puzzle shows up on one of the doors here. The rats/rat lord feels out of place here (too weak for the level). 7/10

Level 9: The Greater Caves my favorite part of this level is the hidden shrine to the goddess of love and beauty. Hill giants and vegepygmies are the main forces in this level (along with ants, bees and other insects). Overall 6.5/10

Level 10: The Lesser Caverns is a Planar Nexus. Everything else seems humdrum in comparison. 8/10

Level 11: The Greater Caverns (the mini-map is back!) Apes, trolls, mushroom men, jinx midges and a demonurgist are listed as the factions (but the demonurgist keeps to himself).This level is dense. It packs in a demon, wizard, a couple of factions, the demiplane of Sugarland (not described), a teleporter to Bitterbark's Circus (I think this was an expansion printed later with clowns), and a gate to a Red Planet. This level is probably the most gonzo in the dungeon, with a lot of stuff left for the DM to flesh out. The prompts are enough though. 9/10

Level 12: The Catacombs 8 dragons and their followers make up the majority of this level. They plot and scheme against each other and with others. Sub-passages dot the underside of this level, implying false levels below. This level presents itself in many ways, so no two groups who reach it will have the same experience. 8/10

Level 13: The Maze is the smallest level of the dungeon, but it truly is a maze, with teleporters bouncing the PCs around. At the center is the mad archmage himself. It feels very Gygaxian, eventually sending the characters to the other end of the world. 6/10

Final Thoughts

Artwork: 9/10.  I don't have my physical copy nearby, so that is based solely on the PDF.
Layout: 4/10. Lots of white space. Inconsistent mini-maps, inconsistent faction information. I would like the images from the illo book reprinted in the main book. There is a lot of white space, so it should not increase page count
Cartography: 6/10. Simple, but effective maps. The glaring mistake is the side view map, showing the chasm on 6-7 instead of 5-7.

I think that using every level's score is skewing my overall grade. I think the things in final thoughts are the most important parts. Moving forward, I will be tweaking this grade equation until I feel it is right. This time I am averaging the artwork, layout, cartography and lowest and highest level scores. Overall, CotMA gets a