Saturday, April 3, 2010

Micro-Megadungeons

Following proper OD&D pacing, a clever referee should be able to engineer a short term campaign that thrusts the characters into the limelight as rising heroes. The grit and horror of low levels is still there, of course, but gone is the drudgery of dozens of sessions stuck at first level or the foregone conclusion of lethal combats with absurdly high mortality rates. To that end, I propose the concept of the "Micro-Megadungeon" to illustrate the breadth of Dungeons & Dragons campaigning to new players (perhaps in the "con game" milieu). With these mini-settings, you can give a demonstration of the range of play styles essential to the D&D experience - from low level survival, to mid-level heroics and into the stuff of legends at high level play. For our purposes, we will focus on a dungeon that catapults the players through three levels, to the fourth (when characters enter the heroic stage).

Central to the idea of the micro-megadungeon is speed. Trust the players to slow the pace down with roleplaying, exploring, decision making and so on, but the environment you build for them has to be trim and fighting fit to curtail extraneous delay. At the same time, for the locale to count as a megadungeon, it has to be in itself completely sufficient for a whole campaign. Striking a balance between these two aspects in each element of the megadungeon is key.

Environs
If the megadungeon is the tent pole around which an entire campaign evolves, the same remains true for the micro-campaign. Thus, while the megadungeon deserves the greatest detail (and its inestimable depth provides limitless adventure), it is not the only celestial body in its cosmos. Rather, the megadungeon anchors many other lesser locales. With a micro-setting, we can limit the environs to the bare minimum, including a Town and three minor adventure locales (one designed for encounters at each level, one through three).

These five destinations should be within short walking distance of each other, to prevent the need to camp outdoors or incur wandering monsters while traveling. If the Town is in the valley, the forlorn monastery (underneath which is the megadungeon) should be just up the hill (with the three adventure spots down the valley, up the valley and on the opposite hill). Wilderness adventures are still possible, but should only occur when the players are specifically seeking them. Furthermore, it may help to confine traveling to within the immediate environs. There may be a bigger world out there, but for the moment the roads are washed out and the characters are forced to stay in this secluded purlieu.

The Town
Like the rest of the backdrop, the Town is minimal in detail. Dramatis personae should include an armourer, an innkeeper, a merchant, a liege lord and a priest, each with their own estate. The first three provide obvious services, while the liege lord can give quests and hire out his garrison (10 coins per spearman, with 5 coins per week upkeep) and the priest can Raise Dead for a number of coins equal to the characters accumulated experience points (a flexible way to scale costs to player progress, but be mindful of the survival rates for low Constitution).

Adventure Locales
Each minor adventure locale should be tailored to a different level, with perhaps two dozen monsters at each site and a quarter their value of experience in coins and treasure. Typical camps might be bandits (600 coins), Gnolls (1200 coins) and Bugbears (1800 coins). Any victory against these enemies will license a similar reduction of monsters and wealth from the megadungeon, to keep adventuring in that locale on track.

The Micro-Megadungeon
The centerpiece of the micro-campaign, the micro-megadungeon is considerably more dense than your regular megadungeon. Ideally, each level should be crammed onto a single page of Michael Shorten's "One Page Dungeon Template," a 30 x 30 square space (with each square equaling 10'). (Unfortunately, "Chgowiz" has decided to pull out of the online community for the time being, so instead I offer up my version of his famous template.) Each level should have monsters of roughly the corresponding level, with enough hit dice of monsters to provide 50% of the experience towards the next level (where 1 hit die is worth 100 experience points). The remaining 50% of experience should come in the form of coins and treasure. Each level should also have 1d3 magic items scattered about. Assuming a party of four characters, our micro-megadungeon might breakdown as follows:

LevelHit DiceTreasureTotal EXP*
1404,000 coins8,000
2404,000 coins16,000
3808,000 coins32,000
*After defeating this and all preceding levels.


Thus, the first level of the dungeon will contain between 30 and 40 rooms (this is a good example of density), around 40 inhabitants (1 hit die each) and 4,000 coins in treasure. The second level will contain about 20 inhabitants (2 hit dice each) with a similar amount of treasure, while the third level will have around 27 inhabitants (3 hit dice each) with twice the treasure. A crafty party should be able to defeat one stage each game session and reach fourth level by the end of the third floor of the dungeon. The dungeon can go deeper, branch off in areas, grow and develop, of course (in fact, to count as a megadungeon, it must), but with these tightly designed first few levels, your players should be able to get to mid-range fairly quickly. More than anything, this allows you to showcase two distinct stages of Dungeons & Dragons, as fourth level characters are noticeably more competent than first level ones, displaying to new players the different play styles brought through this growth in character power.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this template breakdown. My campaign prep so far has been very simlar. I had mapped a the motte-and-bailey keep and detailed it's most prominent NPC's which seem to match up with what you recommend above (I basically included home-grown versions of the ones in B2.

    I had customized Chgowiz's 1-page layout yesterday with the idea of using it for the local mega-dungeon.

    Several questions:
    What would you suggest for HD and XP layouts where 1HD does not equate to 100xp (as in B/X or AD&D)...It would get extremely claustrophobic (and dangerous!) on a 300 x 300 foot area. Would this require using a larger level map than the 1 page dungeon to provide more space between encounters or is it more practical to just inflate the monetary value of the treasure to compensate?

    Why 1d3 magic items per level? Are the D&D treasure tables not sufficient to provide enough?


    Where did that town map originate?

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  2. The above example is very controlled and defined to give the basic idea of the micro-dungeon, but the referee is certainly free to modify it to his/her wishes. The goal is to tightly control pacing so that you can get characters to fourth level in a few sessions, perhaps even within a convention game, to demonstrate how the game changes as the characters gain power.

    By the time of AD&D and other later variants of the game, the dynamic had very much changed - combat was exceedingly dangerous, monsters weren't worth much and other sources of experience were required. Until the 2nd Edition, this mostly came in the form of "Monty Haul" games, where players would return from the dungeon with most of their experience from vast piles of treasure. If you are planning to use Supplement 1 (where Orcs became worth a mere 10xp), I'd use the "Distribution of Monsters and Treasure" table from Volume III. According to those tables, a dungeon level with 30-40 rooms will have around 12 rooms of monsters and 10 rooms with treasure (60% defended, 40% hidden and undefended). The first level of the dungeon will have an average of 6,920 gpv of treasure, while levels two and three will have closer to 15,150 gpv of treasure each. With this sort of treasure, fighting monsters merely becomes an indirect way to get at the real source of experience points.

    I don't like this method, because it means your characters will have around 40,000 coins by the end of the third level of the dungeon - far more than they need for that level if you use the OD&D experience point value for monster hit dice. I also prefer to throw a few magic items at the players on each level, as it makes the delve far more interesting.

    The map is a floor plan for the Tatev monastery, featured in the first picture.

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  3. Interesting, but it looks like you're not dividing treasure or monster XP by the number of adventurers. I kind of prefer not to divide monster XP, but I do tend to distribute XP from treasure according to the way the treasure is actually distributed. So, the megadungeon itself is only going to be worth 8,000 XP per adventurer in a party of four. Also, you're assuming that the party must defeat every monster; no room for avoiding the unpleasant ones and just stealing the treasure.

    You might be able to beef up XP through other means, like awarding 10xability score if a character solves a non-combat problem with an ability.

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  4. All the experience point values I give are total amounts (before dividing them amongst party members). Thus, after defeating the first level of the dungeon (assuming equal distribution of the treasure), each member of a four character party will have 1,000 coins and 2,000 experience points (enough to hit level 2 for the average character). Like I said in the previous comment, this is just the skeleton template to give referees a rough idea of the minimum (in actual practice, these values should vary to appear less pre-planned).

    Personally, when it comes to distributing experience, I also give treasure XP according to how the wealth is apportioned. When it comes to other experience awards (slain monsters, spells cast etc), I use something closer to the system Gygax employs in his Castle Zagyg publication (in short, spellcasters get most of their experience from casting spells, fighters from slaying monsters etc).

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  5. Thank you for Evan a great post and for bringing the Tatev monastery to my attention.

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  6. I started reading this and thought - YEAH, this sounds awesome. Totally my kind of thing. Then I got to the example of density - and now I need to make the next part of that dungeon! :D

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  7. Nice photo. Excellent post. I like your concept of the Micro-Megadungeon and thank you for replacing Mr. Shorten's template. Hope he is well wherever he has gone off to recuperate and regroup. You've definitely given me a few very good things to consider for Riskail, thanks again!

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  8. I recently discovered your blog and I'm just reading the older entries. I'm very much enjoying your very astute observations of the the evolution of the RPG, AD&D in particular. The whole while I was reading this entry visions of Temple of Elemental Evil floated through my head. If any of your readers, or you for that matter, haven't read it, it fits the base town + mega dungeon and supporting adventures locale template very well.

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