Saturday, February 1, 2014

Space, Boredom and the Modern Megadungeon - With ASE Level 1 Examples.

I’ve been running Anomalous Subsurface Environment straight from the book, for what is really the first time. In the first campaign of Land of 1,000 Towers that I ran the party steered clear of the ASE itself and I ended up using scenarios of my own devising. That is happening in this campaign as well, but it seems like for now the adventurers are back in the megadungeon at least for now (the key is offering them revenge for several deaths).

More Morlock means more flavor!
A problem I’m noticing is that ASE has a lot of empty rooms, at least on the first level, and for online play, especially with a large number of players, this can be really slow and a bit boring. I don't think this is limited to ASE, I think this is a central issue with published megadungeon design. It's an issue of not enough flavor, and too little variety in the empty rooms, and ASE has more flavor then a lot of mega-dungeons, Stonehell for example (not to say Stonehell is bad - it's great), but even with ASE the small room descriptions leave a lot up to the GM and there are plenty of rooms that are simple filled with dust leaving a large amount of blank exploration space.

The traditional justification for large amounts of empty rooms is that they create a delay by providing risk of wandering monsters, and make sure that the adventure doesn't become a series of obvious challenges. However, the classic 20% - 60% empty rooms is a bit much for a short session and it's not as if one can simply roll encounters more often. At a table, playing for several hours the classic stocking system might add to tension and danger (one goes further and further from the stairs), and it does help explain why the moment one steps into the dungeon there isn't a force of inhabitants rushing to meet the party, but in a 2-3 hour online game I've come to believe it's too much wasted space and time.

In the past I’ve tried to make things more interesting by changing the construction of rooms, floors and doors based on my opinions about the former uses and ages of the various parts of the dungeon or determined by random generator (usually I break the map into regions and then random it up decide use/or extrapolate details from use). Yet even with this basic set of descriptions, room after room of dust and random encounter checks can be disappointing. Additionally, ASE has these huge levels, and by the time a party gets deep enough into the dungeon to really get an idea of where anything might be they are likely to be 2nd or 3rd level (especially if like my players they often wander off to adventure in other locations). I have come up with a couple solutions to these problems.

1) I am filing the empty rooms with interesting stuff.
2) I am increasing the HD and other stats as well as the numbers of some  creatures  (number is important because I think the parties Pat Wetmore was testing with had 3-5 PCs, while I tend to have 5-9).
3) I am increasing the amount of treasure, both guarded and unguarded.

This last change is yet to be fully implemented, but I like a somewhat steady level gain by PCs (maybe a level every 4 or 5 sessions, with variation depending on success), and I don't like giving XP for killing things. These changes ideally should make exploration both more tense (as the enemies are tougher, and after a few encounters the party expresses real fear of the Morlocks and fungal horrors of ASE's 1st level) and more rewarding (both because there are interesting things to discover and because there is more treasure).

It's not simply treasure, traps and encounters that are rewarding, it's a sense of discovery and 'making sense' of a dungeon that seems to appeal to my players.  To do this I need a better narrative for the sections of the dungeon levels as well as for the level as a whole.  While players will make up some connections between dungeon features on their own, it helps if there is already a narrative there.  In my own design naturalism provides a good source for this kind of nodal system as each faction will necessarily expand to protect it's needs and areas of conflict will occur over resources like water and food.  ASE level one has a bit of a ecology, but it's hardly fleshed out, I believe doing so is helpful for both filling empty rooms and making the dungeon more sensible.

I have a feeling that for many mega-dungeons (and larger module dungeons of the TSR era) similar ‘fixes’, especially the inclusion of interesting encounters, dressing and treasures in formerly empty rooms. Most of these encounters shouldn't be combat (though they may lead to it with random encounter checks), but should add flavor and perhaps a chance for some sort of minor treasure or trap.

The only good Morlock is a dead Morlock
I have made the following assumptions about the first level of ASE - your mileage may vary.

1) It is filled with bones, as many of the humans trapped in the ASE retreated here.  Many died others evolved into the Screechmen or Morlocks after turning to cannibalism.
2) The young goblin hive mind once controlled most of the level and had a rather mystical bent.
3) The Morlocks are fairly complacent and depressive, they don't mess with anything they don't have to and feel safe enough to use much of the level.
4) Dungeon Elementals don't come up here much as it's pretty peaceful.  They do preserve strange things added to level one and reset traps. 

This 1D10 table consists of encounters that will fill empty rooms or spaces - I don't think every room needs to be filled, but some should.  I am hesitant to add suggest that these are best placed based on speed of party exploration (every third empty room the party encounters say, rather then on the map prior to the session), but from the prospective of running a fun game rather then a game that is ideologically pure that is how I'd use them. Encounters with an "*" after their title are one use encounters.  Once the "*" encounter is found future encounters will be with the alternate encounter.

Goblin Shrine (*)- An ancient shrine to the sky brains, from several generations ago before the Morlocks destroyed the goblin overmind.  It covers an entire wall with an altar of bones and a series of shiny metal discs above.  The wall and altar are painted with luminescent purple paint.  Within the shrine is a magical amethyst studded bone club (1D4) that a wizard (or goblin overlord) can use to shoot a cosmic ray for 1D6 damage every other round.  Targets save vs. Spells to avoid damage, and after each battle a 1 in 8 chance exists that the wand's power is exhausted. The shrine and club are trapped with runes in powdered sick rock that will cause blindness to any who touch the shrine (save v. spells) without first rubbing them out.

Alternate - Room contains 1D6+1 goblin spawn sacks.  A delicacy (suckling goblin!) to the morlocks but otherwise pretty disgusting.
Fungal Topiary – Someone or something has taken a great deal of effort to train a variety of brightly colored fungus into a set of topiary.  There isn’t much worth depicting in the underworld however, so the fungus tends to be in the shape of skulls, geometric forms, spiders, or morlocks.  There may be something of interest at the core of the topiary (often bracing it) if appropriate (1D4) 1- Skeleton of a human 2- Shrieker 3- Hunks of rich incense mushrooms (2D6x20GP Value) 4 - 1D4 Hungry Vagabond Mushrooms.
Tomb (*) - A large jar made of mud clay and painted a vaguely purple color with round symbols in a darker purple.  It contains the remains of one of the dead overmind's servitors.  Besides the dessicated corpse of a larger then normal goblin and a large quantity of inert purple dust are three unopened amethyst geodes worth 100 GP each (they appear to be lumpy rocks but are noticeably hollow if examined).

Alternate - Morlock bone bags. 1D4 grey morlock skin sacks (with white fur trim) filled with obviously cooked bones and dangling from a re-bar spear wedged into the floor or leaning against a wall.  1 in 6 chance each of containing 100 sp or shrunken head of 10 GP value.
Last Stand -The bloody remains of some kind of violent conflict.  1 in 4 chance bodies (1D4) 1-1D4 goblins, 2-1D4 morlocks, 3-1D4 screechmen, 4- 1D2 dungeon vermin.  Blood and gore splashed about, and a few broken spears, clubs or daggers (rebar, bone or office furniture derived) scattered about and a stink of fear and combat.
Miniature City(*) - A tiny city carved of bone, dried fungus and bits of brick, complete with miniature people and a train sets encircling it.  The buildings are fantastical and strange, as if built from some ancestral concept of what a city might be (It's the construct of a long dead screechman savant).  The first spell cast in this room will be absorbed by the city and cause the train to move, windows to light and people to slide along tiny groves to and fro.  If disassembled the whole thing will bring 50 GP to a very curious collector of art brut, but it's magic will be lost. If the any first level faction realizes the party has destroyed it they will be extremely resentful as it is an object all revere.

Alternate - A pile of fresh scat on the floor (your players will ask).  (1D6) 1-2 Morlock - contains teeth 2- Screechman- runny and reeking 3-4 goblin - melena  5- Jawhead - inexplicably square 6- Crab Spider - golf ball sized fly specks
Abattoir - This room is splattered with blood and a pile of bloody bones (morlock, screechmen and goblin) sits into a corner.  A scored block of stone rest in the center of the room and there is a 1 in 6 chance crude rusty cleaver sits nearby. Random encounters in this room are 2 in 6 chance and will always be a party or morlocks or goblins either butchering something, arriving with a fresh kill or packing up carcass.
Murals - Murals cover this room (1D6) 1-Ancient and cracked showing red cheeked children at play wearing bright clothing 2-Ancient Graffitti with stencils of skulls and phrases like "Surrender to the Hunger" 3-4 Purple goblin spirals (studded with 1D10 10 GP chunks of amethyst, lapis lazuli or turquoise) 5-6 Morlock cave art in charcoal and red earth, depicting gruesome feasts, goblin hunts and battles for dominance. 
Personal Protection Pod (*) A grey metal capsule sits in the center of the room.  It has an ancient stencil reading "IMES PPP - For Your Safety".  The pod has a keypad and a locking mechanism, and may be opened with a successful pick locks or science check.  Within are the sad remains of a DynaMat executive wearing a power suit (worsted grey or blue wool not steel and robot parts) and either a pearl necklace, gold watch, efficiency medal etc. of value (1D12 x 100 GP)

Alternate - 1D4 large rusted and rotting machines.  their use is unknown and unknowable, even to a skilled scientist, but poking around in their innards will (Save v. Wands) garner a 1D4 HP shock. 1 in 4 chance these machines are a dented and rusty (level 1D4) robot casing.
Document Storage (*) - Piles and piles of yellowing paper and old electronic storage devices.  Most of the ink is faded and rotten though some paper has been re-used for crude drawings in charcoal.

Alternate  - Morlock Crafts - Broken chunks of ferrocrete and stone hammers litter the room.  This is a tool production area, where the re-bar is removed from rotten concrete and hammered into crude weapons. Alternatively the room is filed with vile vats of fermented fungus used to tan goblin and morlock hide for the production of clothing and containers.  Any encounter here will be with morlocks, though 1/2 of them will be female. 
The Skeleton Machine (*) – A massive contraction of brass gears and strange nobs sits in this room, draped in cobwebs, piles of bones are scattered about and several ½ finished skeletons are assembled on the floor.   The centerpiece of the machine appears to be a brass coffin with an lid decorated with etchings of flames and skulls.  This machine (broken unless repaired by a scientist) once used galvanic power and dark magic to animate skeletons.  If the coffin is opened the skeleton within will attack, and if the machine is interfered with or prodded at it will electrocute anyone touching it for 1D6 HP damage.  If fixed it can creature one animate skeleton each turn, but they will not be controllable and will simply attack anyone nearby.

Alternate - Room filled with neatly stacked ancient skeletons.  


  1. This empty room complaint comes up a lot, but IMHO, the trouble with everything being interesting, is that ultimately, nothing is. It's like constantly putting hot sauce on everything.

    Exploring a dungeon should have an ebb & flow - the exciting encounters are more exciting because they don't happen all the time.

  2. You're running into pacing issues for a couple of reasons, I think:

    a. You've doubled the number of players, so challenges are weaker. The fix there is to increase hit dice
    b. But even then you're going to have players mitigating risk by putting wounded characters in the back, moving up fresh characters - it's going to be hard to drain party resources
    c. The exploration of the dungeon should average 10 rooms per session, with characters leveling every 4-5 sessions. That's about half the dungeon explored every time they level, and then hopefully they go deeper for further loot. Doubling the number of characters means way less treasure, so yes you'll need to double the loot
    d. Those ten rooms will comprise a couple of traps usually, around 3 monsters encounters, and some weird stuff. And then a few wandering monster encounters on top of that. Are the players just chewing through the non-combat encounters?

    It's a playtested dungeon, and it worked out pretty well for me - you may have too many people? Or maybe it's not to you & your group's taste (that is to say, "This sucks!")

    What I saw in practice was a lot of tension about each room regardless of content - my players were deeply paranoid about everything. I think the pacing is what built that tension. The various players who have gone through have all enjoyed with one exception. So anyhow, I'm thinking either numbers, or you guys just don't like the dungeon (which is fine, and I'd hardly be offended, megadungeons are historically unpopular)

    And note my intent isn't to argue at all, just interested in the problem!

    1. Pat,
      My intent isn't to bad mouth ASE, (for those who read this it's still the best mega-dungeon project I've seen). I am really trying to figure out how to increase my G+ players enjoyment of ASE, because I enjoy ASE. Also as a larger function of megadungeon design.

      I think my issue may be one of online play - last session was a good one, but the party made it through 2 trap rooms (Throne room, eye room) and 3 empty rooms. Then they got to the dungeon highway and explored the niches. HAd 3 random encounters (2 with morlocks and 1 with vagabond mushrooms [death zingers!]) 2 PCs died and at least 2 more were rendered unconcious. ASE as it is far from empty - lots of time spent in the hallways and the number of explorers slowed things down.

      Another big thing is that despite my love of ASE and my time thinking about it - it's not my dungeon, I don't really have a feel for it's deeper intricacies so I don't know what random crap will fill out empty rooms making cryptic references to later levels. There's many of these references actually (far more then in some other megadungeons), but without the knowledge of the why and how of most of the mysteries I can't really do them justice. In Apollyon I know what sort of trash is in an empty room because I know what it used to be, who lives nearby and what might have gone through here. Now another thing may be that I just like very very densely described environments and my players have gotten used to such things. Not sure.

      I really do think my players want "answers" and to figure out aspects of the dungeon. Since ASE is a true mythical underworld that's hard - I need to ramp up the narratives of the specific levels a bit (I am using wall and door type as a sign of what's decaying Dynamat v. resurgent Anomaly)

      You'll note in the above encounters I've mostly just added slice of dungeon life, or strange objects indicating the conflicts between the factions and trying to tell the story of the goblin's loss to the morlocks. While a couple of the color encounters are more involved, the idea of them is feel and explanation or irrelevant mystery. Why are there all these animated skeletons around here? Goblins might not always be garden pests - are they from space? Morlocks are bloodthirsty cannibal freaks! There used to be a research facility down here!

      So yeah the main issue is party size (and level), which is easy enough to solve as the monsters in ASE are all unique/new and hence scalable (ASE LVL 1 is now a 2nd level dungeon, LVL 2 3rd etc - which is fine because there are plenty of outside opportunities for advancement), but I think the online episodic play (the group shifts some) and my own fecund detail preferences are at play as well.

      That's why i don't propose these encounters as additions to the map, but as a random table - and (like an OSR heritic) I suggest they may be suitable for drop in based on game progress (liven up a slow session with the Skeleton Machine!) or player interest (Wonder about the goblins? Here's a goblin burial urn!). They are quantum dungeon dressing I guess (though I ain't completely sold on this idea).

    2. Criticism is important. Not for my sake, I'll just keep making things I like and to hell with "customers", but it's an interesting conversation, and it lets people determine if a product is something they'd like or not. You can get that from the negatives as well as the positives. And I know you like ASE, you illustrated the damned thing!

      Also please don't be shy about changing the map, room contents, and anything else. My experience with my group is hardly going to be universal, and you've already thoroughly owned the topside - mangle that dungeon in proper Gus fashion!

    3. Pat, I didn't suppose you'd mind - just wanted to make it clear to my reader that this isn't some sort of OSR drama fest like taking the piss out of the latest LOTFP product.

      I would recommend everyone mangle every module they use - it's just a question of what system of mangling should one use?

  3. I am also not a fan of empty rooms, but then again I eat all my wings hot, not 2/3 of them. ASE is great, but I think most referees are best served by tweaking published products prior to use.

  4. I like the discussion, and agree there are some interesting variables to balance - how much should the players complete before moving on, how much treasure are they getting, and how to handle the empty rooms to keep a good pace of play. It inspired me to continue the analysis over at the Lich House.

    The empty room table is excellent, and such an artifact would work well with other large published megadungeons (like the aforementioned Stone Hell)/

    1. I think there are two basic schools of Megadungeon design - Pat's appears to be the more classic (and likely more ambitious) where a sprawling level with 100's of keyed areas gets designed and stocked and then linked together. This is a guess, and Pat might have different methods - I would love to hear. The advantages of this are an all encompassing level, and much better maps. The story of the dungeon are spread over the level and the linkages between sections (series of rooms containing one kind of enemy say) and the whole dungeon are fluid and numerous.

      My own method (perhaps lazier) and one I think is shared by most of they GMs I play with (Brendan of Necropraxis' Pahvelorn and Nick of Paper & Pencils' Dungeon Moon) is nodal - with distinct areas that are maybe 10 - 30 keyed locations each and have fairly limited linkages between them. Each node may have it's own purpose and feel, and is likely to have it's own wandering monster table. This makes adding (and keeping track of) feel easier, but it really isn't as expansive as the older total design style. The individual Dungeon Nodes can also be shuffled around in the mega dungeon based on GM whim or need.

    2. I draw a really big map, get extremely chemically enhanced, and wake up later with a keyed dungeon. I think that is the Colorado Method.