Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Different Kinds of Dungeons - Thoughts on MegaDungeons Part IV.

Another rambling installment in my thoughts about GMing Megadungeons.  The previous installments can be found here for reference - Part I, Part II, Part III. In this post I've tried to lay out my thoughts on alternatives to the classic exploration dungeon.

Lately I've been running HMS Apollyon again, starting with a new batch of characters and taking the lessons I learned from the last game, from running ASE and playing a fair amount in the last year and trying to apply them.

It says it's a dungeon at the bottom - so it's a dungeon!


This may be obvious to a lot of people, but an inclusive 'whole world' dungeon like the Apollyon is limiting in that it eliminates the 'overland travel' aspect of the game.  One can't hex or point crawl very well inside a dungeon (though with a giant level, such as Pat Wetmore has suggested for ASE level 5, or the classic D&D underdark are quite possible) and the HMS APOLLYON with it's fixed dimensions (even if it is a fundamentally un-mappable 11,039,846,400 - 735,989,760,000 cubic feet) is too small and cluttered for a hex crawl even using an underdark style system.  This has lead me to thinking up different kinds of dungeon experiences rather than the adventure of disvoering new lands and interacting with randomly generated wilderness that is standard for mid level play.


Without wilderness, I've had to use different types of dungeon adventures beyond the classic free form exploration dungeon.  Below are my thoughts on the types of adventures and dungeons that support them.  The idea is to create different sorts of fun for different sessions.  Here's the one's I've run and the thoughts I have:

Exploration Dungeon - This is the standard dungeon, an unknown space where the party slowly reveals chamber after chamber of wonders - sometimes battling inhabitants (most often in discreet lair/room sized units), sometimes dealing with puzzles or traps.  The main limit on exploration dungeons is time, as the longer the party spends messing about, quibbling and backtracking the more likely they are to run afoul of wandering monsters.  The danger level of these dungeons is often dependent on the level of wandering monsters in them, and hence the traditional "the deeper you go the more danger there is" model.  Because time is a serious factor in the exploration dungeon, finding shortcuts and knowing the layout is important to success.

Puzzle Dungeon - Similar to an exploration dungeon in that it's a space that must be scouted and slowly peeled back to understand its secrets, but dependent on puzzles and traps rather than wandering monsters for its difficulty.  Time shouldn't be of the essence, except in timed traps, and I like to provide a random encounter table that contains more strange noises, odd experiences and weak enemies then real danger or resource sapping encounters.  Since traps can be lethal to just about any level of PC, and puzzles challenge player ingenuity not character skill, the only issue with PC level in a Puzzle Dungeon is magical and skill based solutions to puzzles.  Given that the dungeon's challenge is almost entirely puzzles (including puzzle monsters) the use of a levitate spell or high pick lock skill instead of 10' pole stilts or solving a logic puzzle are fine - there are more puzzles and traps in the next room.

that's the difficulty of these dungeons for the GM, traps and puzzles are really hard to think up and don't really interact organically.  I get by with stealing them from other GMs and published modules and then reskinning, but it's still a more laborious process than thinking up some monsters and a space and letting them interact in my thought experiment until I have a dungeon.

Aboard the Apollyon I tried a puzzle dungeon recently, but the players found the treasure too limited and the traps apparently seemed too dangerous, so they haven't returned to it. 

Fortress Dungeon One of the key elements of Exploration Dungeons is that the monsters within are not prepared and on alert for invasion.  Think about how band a band of 30 goblins would be if they were fighting behind barricades (reducing AC) and able to launch 20 spear or arrow attacks a round? Now what if they were even better equipped - in a fortress lair that allowed them to use their advantage of numbers and trap building to full effect?  One gets into Tucker's Kobalds territory here.

Still a good fortress can be a lot of fun, the Gm gets to think up devious means of defense and group tactics for monsters, while the party uses whatever is at it's disposal to out think the GM (or the monsters depending on how much intelligence the GM decides to play them with) and wipe out the defenders. In general this is not a hard scenario to run, and time pressure is even more important than in a standard exploration dungeon.  To make a living fortress guards need schedules and spells (especially silence or invisibility) need to have their durations monitored closely.  If an alarm is sounded time shifts to a round by round scale, and just how fast the defenders can get organized as the party will likely lose if they meet them all together.

My own feelings about running these sorts of battles is to avoid mechanical gameplay crutches such as the ability of the defenders to attack and retreat behind cover without surprise, and be scrupulously fair.  The GM should be ready to acknowledge (and even hope) that the party will out think his defenders fiendish plans and be ready to adjudicate complicated schemes fairly.  While this is always an issue I find the temptation to show just how well prepared and smart one's monsters are in a fortress scenario is more tempting than usual.

To this end I will usually try to think up a couple plans that might work myself, rather than thinking up why plans won't work, and to make sure I really understand the mental and organizational limitations of the defenders.  What this means is not designing the fortress specifically to stop "the party" but rather as a general fortress.  Bandits don't expect the use of invisibility or clerical special operations powers (find traps and silence) and they will likely be confused when a party of dungeon killers pops into existence in the midst of their log fortress, but they will be prepared for a big gang of local militia and light siege weapons.

I recently ran an undead fortress infiltration session on the Apollyon, and the PCs did well, though I threw some tough enemies at them, they stayed focused on the goal of blasting down the gates and neutralizing artillery positions (animated corpse chariots mounted with save vs. death siege guns) rather than running off to explore or loot.  The nice thing about this session (and fortress sessions more generally) is that the destruction of an organized enemy outpost has very tangible game world effects.

Seiges and Battles are slightly different - best used as perhaps a variety of point crawl where the party randomly faces different enemies as the battle churns about them, and tries to make sense of things.  Momentary goals that shift push the party less through a dungeon and more into a series of contests (usually fighting) in an attempt to change the flow of the battle.

Social Dungeon This is a strange dungeon, in it's most rarefied form.  In it's everyday form, it's one of the backbones of megadungeon play - faction wars.  By social dungeon I mean a location (and it can be a variety of locations) that derives its danger and complexity from the relationships of the NPC factions within it.  Something as simple as the rivalry between the Keep on the Bordelands orc tribes is a great example, but a full on "social dungeon" requires more complexity with multiple factions and likely important secrets that the party must ferret out to better understand their role in the dungeon.

Adventuring parties act most often as the force that can tip the balance between parties in a social dungeon proper, but even the traditional "save the village from bandits" hook can be seen as a social challenge/adventure for the characters.  What will they extract from the village for aid? What if they decide to ignore the bandits completely and go hunting wild boar? Looking at hooks, down time action and the beginning of adventures as 'social dungeons' is helpful in that it discourages lazy GMs from railroading.  One has invented a nice bandit lair to raid and that's where the session is likely to go, but were you to consider this the map of a dungeon one wouldn't completely ignore the other door in the initial room to focus only on what's behind the door you want the players to explore.

Social dungeons are like this - The GM can encourage the players to help one or another faction, but the chance that they won't is always there.  Rather then becoming flustered with players that act outside the script think of the preliminary part of the adventure as it's own sort of dungeon.  This is to say, there may be bad choices (letting the bandits burn down Adventurerburg for example) but these are the players choices and the consequences should have been considered prior to the player's actions.

In the dungeon proper this can be interesting as well.  An adventure where the entire point is reaching a negotiated settlement past the obstacles, or using faction conflict to enrich the characters is a perfectly legitimate adventure even the only fighting involved is as a penalty.

Heist Part Puzzle Dungeon, part Fortress the idea here is to have the characters seeking a specific item or person within a complex environment where the only interaction that ultimately matters is seizing the specific object of the dungeon.  Heists are great fun for one shots because they have clear direction.  They are also good because they often require stealth and ingenuity - usually to avoid alerting guards.  Generally with a heist one makes the opposition very powerful to discourage frontal assault. This osrt of dungeon can readily be combined social dungeons, and when the heist fails becomes a dangerous fortress scenario, because getting out of the protected lair or treasure store is as much an important part of the game as getting in.

Point Crawl Useful in a mega-dungeon of enormous size.  Everytime one rapidly rolls three random encounter checks to see if the party follows their map back out to the surface without incident this is a point crawl of a limited sort. On a larger scale point crawls can be used to make for a useful pursuit or sense of wandering amongst something truly huge.  Describing vague bits of detail (endless narrow metal gangways, with tiny cabins off to the sides, everything smashed and cankered with corrosion) and occasional landmarks (the hall has been torn here as if by a huge shell explosion) can give a feeling of vastness and save the GM from mapping tedious empty spaces between dungeon nodes.

I have used this upon occasion (with special random encounter tables) to create a feeling of quick travel along the internal railways of the Apollyon, and think it works well for movement in and out of a mega-dungeon.  However, there is also the possibility of running something like an underground city level of the mega dungeon using point crawl tactic.  The advantage is that one needn't draft out individual maps of buildings or a scaled map of the entire vast space even, just focus on writing up a few nice random encounters for each general area (the street of temples, ruins of the slums, the district of crumbled insula), up to an including maps of unique buildings/encounters (or general maps for procedural generation of inhabitants/treasures) and the actual nodes where the level's 'adventures' take place. 

The feel is very different then dungeon crawling, and while I fear there might be too much of an element of glossing over movement it can be useful to say "it looks like it will take two-hours to pick your way through the blasted ruins (or fungus forest, or meandering catacomb) to the golden domed palace".

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