Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Travelling in a Megadungeon Game

Travelling to, from and within a megadungeon is a major design decision. It affects every aspect of play. The further from a safe place the megadungeon is, the less that can be carried to and from. Travelling a half day means that rations must be used before even arriving at the entrance. It means horses and mules need food (and water) of some variety. It allows for less time during daylight hours to explore and safely egress from the dungeon. All of these factors alter the player's decision trees before the game even begins. Rappan Athuk, Barrowmaze and Highfell are examples of far megadungeons. 

On the other hand, a megadungeon close to the safe area allows for travel quickly (and more daylight), possibly even leaving pack animals behind. A nearby megadungeon allows for fewer ambushes and brigands to relieve the adventurers of their gains. Adventurers can attempt to bring more back, as the road is shorter. Undermountain and Ardun Vul are examples of near megadungeons.

Both near and far megadungeons are acceptable forms of play, and both are fun. When determining distance between safety and the megadungeon, find out what the players enjoy. My preference is for the danger to be within the dungeon itself, but this can become stale quickly, as there is no above-ground adventuring to break the monotony of the dungeon.

Travelling within the megadungeon is a different matter, though. There are many ways to move within a dungeon. 

Horizontal movement is the most common: exploring room to room, corridor to corridor makes the bulk of the exploration within the dungeon.

But, vertical movement is arguably more important, whether that's to gain a height advantage in combat, or to descend to greater treasure, or ascend to relative safety. Vertical movement (largely, with exceptions like Barrowmaze) defines danger level.

There are points within good megadungeons where there are multiple height levels (not DUNGEON levels). For example, there may be a mansion level within a megadungeon, where the entire mansion is a single dungeon level. There may be stairs leading to an upper height level (like a landing above a dining room) but the difficulty does not increase. Another example might be a small ledge 20 ft. above the floor in a dragon's lair where the archer can take up perch and be away from the brunt of the breath weapon. These points make combat more interesting, and should be used as such. 

Vertical movement through dungeon levels is more within the purview of this article, though. Many megadungeons have a central something that facilitates quick movement between levels. Sometimes this is a chasm, sometimes a large stairwell, sometimes it is something much scarier like a lake or river. But, nearly all megadungeons have this feature. It is necessary to keep the game moving as it matures into a longer campaign. Keep this in mind when designing (or running) your megadungeon. 

There are also other, smaller vertical transition points: slides, side stairs, traps (like "bottomless" pits), chimneys, water wheels, rivers (that connect fewer levels than the above mentioned central transitionary), mine shafts or anything else that you can imagine going between levels. These small transitions are the bulk of what is used for the early levels of the megadungeon, transitioning 1 (maybe 2, if the group feels particularly powerful) levels. 

Bulette by Jeremy Mohler
of Outland Entertainment
Transitioning vertically is extremely difficult with the few pack animals that might join the group underground. Stairs, especially uneven ones are dangerous for mules. The various pack animals of the dark realms probably grow too large for the small stairwells and chimneys that transition between levels. Getting these pack animals to that 100,000 gp statue is a puzzle that many players find fun. When you reach that point, always remember to make sure that the fun comes first. If they spend hours devising a plan between sessions, I suggest that you allow it. However, there may be a bulette near that heavy treasure just waiting to eat the lizard they bought from the drow a couple of sessions earlier. 

Finally, there are "weird" or "fast" transitions. In my personal megadungeon, Mord Mar, I use a lot of these. I have teleportation circles, elevators, teleportation traps, fast-moving (uncontrollable) rivers, dumbwaiters and updrafts. Fast transitions allow for mid-to-high level groups to rapidly move to a point of the dungeon of their choosing. 

Elevators often take experimentation to work. In Mord Mar, the mystical elevator has 100 buttons, each with a dwarven rune on it. The alphabet, as well as ancient symbols for ideas appear on the button grid. Through experiments, the players can go to almost anywhere within the dungeon, with a couple of button presses. My elevator appears at a door transitionary, and all the doors (archways or doorways) where this is possible have the symbols needed carved on them somewhere. Originally, this was accessible only to the king and his guards, but now anyone who knows where it is can use it. (This is a fun twist when several parties explore the same dungeon, but that's a different blog post.)

Teleportation circles in some form are nearly necessary for a megadungeon, at least a vertical one. Rehashing the same, underleveled areas is boring. Teleportation circles are reusable, reliable transportation to any number of pre-determined destinations within the dungeon. These should appear near entrances and exits, as well as major points of interest, especially ones that may need multiple attempts to solve (like a door that requires the King's Crown to open). Some should be easy to find, and some should be difficult. And always, there should be a key that needs to be discovered before use. Some dungeons allow keys to be re-used, and others make them one-shot. Both are acceptable and fun, but one-shot keys should be replaced easily at mid-high levels.

Finally, there are one-way "fast transitions." The fast moving river that sweeps away the weak magic-user, the unknown teleportation trap that moves a party to an identical-looking corridor two levels lower and the updraft that flies them to the red dragon's lair are all great ways to get the group lost. However, these are dangerous if you use the must leave the dungeon at the end of the session rule. It can unfairly punish those players. But, the excitement of being lost and having to explore a new way out often outweighs that risk. Use these sparingly, but use them. They add an unparalleled level of excitement.

Fantastic Geographic Issue #3 is still live. If you enjoy my blog posts, please give it a look. We funded in about an hour, and it is full of fun things for every type of game and gamer. This issue is about language and includes several articles about usage that apply broadly to RPGs, but also to megadungeons specifically.

If you want to meet me, I am a special guest at Totalcon this weekend. I will be there, at the IPU booth and running a game or two. If you're in the area, look me up!

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