Friday, February 8, 2013

Extracting Value from the Megadungeon

Earlier this week, an article at Hack and Slash pointed out how megadungeon play should really be divided into 3 activities; exploration, encounters, and extraction.  I'm due to write a game report before this weekend, so rather than do a usual recap, I'm going to focus on extraction - why it's such a key part of the megadungeon experience, and how it has influenced play in the Black City.

Extraction is all about exploitation of the player's discoveries.  The characters are exploring the environment, discovering new things, and now the players need to figure out what they want to do with them.  In some cases,  the problem is treasure related - how do we get it out of the dungeon to bank some experience?  Other times, it's a resource or enabler that's going to support the player's long term objectives, or send the campaign in an unusual direction.

From a game play perspective, what's important is that the dungeon discoveries force the players to plan and choose their next steps; ignoring the resource is a choice.  Each delve into the dungeon starts with the players deciding a new course of action; over time, many of these goals will revolve around exploiting things that were previously discovered, but put on the shelf.  One of the powerful levers in the DM's arsenal is NPC adventurers; the players should constantly be worried about leaving a valuable resource behind, risking that a resource is discovered and exploited by rivals.  The Black City has a gold-rush and Wild West atmosphere, (but with vikings).  The opportunity costs of decisions are ever-present.  You don’t want a pan-handler jumping your claim!

This is one of the biggest differences between how my megadungeon works versus a traditional dungeon; the megadungeon is dynamic, changing, and influenced by forces outside the players; the players are not exploring a static area at their leisure, which goes into stasis when they leave.

So how have these concepts played out in the Black City?

Last game session was all about dealing with a dragon's hoard.  A mountainous pile of coins is perhaps the archetypical "problematic treasure".  Much of last game session was spent organizing the party, and some of their prisoners, into work crews, to separate silver from copper, to drag the silver, gems, and jewels, to a secure area, and then plan how they could dump equipment and encumbrance to carry out the most loot.  It's a dangerous overnight journey from the Ice Cave dungeon, through the dim Transit Tunnels, and eventually to the surface and Trade Town, so they needed to plan well.

Along the way, there were plenty of wandering monster opportunities, but not too many materialized.  They had another encounter with a "living rock" and caught a rare glimpse of the 'Servant of the Impresario'.  There have been a few encounters where it seemed like someone was spying on them - in this case, they caught a cloaked figure in the distance, with what appeared to be a large video camera for a face, observing the remains of the dragon, before eluding them.  A taste of things to come, perhaps.

The players have left numerous exploitable resources scattered across the miles of Transit Tunnels.  Scrawled into a wall near the "polar bear junction", they discovered an alien version of the Disintegration spell, written in alien glyphs (and deciphered at one point with Read Magic).  Shafat, the wizard of the tower, pays 1,000sp (1,000xp) per spell level for new magic, so transcribing it off the dungeon wall onto a scroll would net them 5,000xp (or their own Disintegration spell scroll).  But it would be an undertaking to secure a remote series of rooms for an encampment that might require weeks of transcription.  What would you do?

There's the Jotun's head frozen in the frost gremlin cave ceiling, and knowledge that the Jotun's body is somewhere in the glacier.  Jotuns are like the titans of old, immortal proto-giants with the powers of a god.  Apparently the blood (ichor) from the Jotun's head turns creatures into bestial lizard monsters like the frost gremlins.  Of course, one of the kids wants to use the ichor to create combatants for a gladiatorial arena back at Trade Town, to compliment the gambling ring the party is sponsoring.  Because it would be cool to make your own fighting lizard-man-gladiators.

They have a couple blanks of pure adamantite, which can be used to craft unbreakable adamantite weaponry in the alien forge - but they need to be able to find a weaponsmith, teach the smith how to use the plasma forges, and secure the forge area (which was near some morlock lairs); they already have one or two "thulium discs" to power the forge equipment.  But seriously - who wouldn't want some unbreakable adamantite weapons?  Don’t leave home without them.

Meanwhile, the next areas they're considering exploring include surveying more of the surface ruins - closer to the glacier - or finally descending beyond the Transit Tunnels to the fetid, swampy mushroom-choked caverns below - the level I'm calling the "Warrens of Decay".

Exploiting these resources requires planning, manpower, and time - and time is the biggest opportunity cost.  Summer passes quickly on Thule - the game-calendar is approaching July (Midsummer month by Norse reckoning) and later in August, crews begin to leave the island and sail south before the winter storms.  Spending days or weeks on extraction reduces exploration time, unless the party divides and conquers, appoints henchmen, hires other crew from Trade Town, and so on - all viable strategies, with different risks.

Since I said this post would double as a game report, let me conclude with more notes from last week.  After moving the most valuable bits of the dragon hoard, and loading appropriately for the long trek, the party returned to Trade Town.  The Jarl's officers collecting tariffs had never seen such a haul of coins, and news spread throughout the camp that the players had slain a wyrm and laid hold of a vast treasure.  They were feasted in the Jarl's hall that evening, regaled him with tales of their great deeds, and the honor and acclaim of the Spitsberg Pirates continues to grow.  I'm beginning to think their leader, Agnar, must be a fighter-skald, with his ability to weave a tale of glory to dazzle eager listeners.

Despite the session being heavily focused on logistics, the players had a good time - the efforts of many weeks of gameplay came to fruition with experience points, recognition by their peers, and the respect of the Jarl.  It helped that they made some generous gifts - politically astute.  The Jarl's advisor, Falki the Odin Priest, will arrange Cure Disease for all the members infected with the radiation sickness after the tussle with the radioactive zombies, though this will cost them a few weeks back in camp (and some money).

When we resume this week, I'm sure they're going to be mulling their options regarding many of the situations I've outlined above - do they plunge right into more exploration, or take time to exploit recent discoveries?  Either way, I'm sure it will be challenging - and fun.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. If there were such a thing as "best blog post of the week" this would be my nomination.

  2. When PCs hide some wealth inside the dungeon and come back for it later, do you have a random table to roll on to decide if it's still there (or what has happened to it if it isn't)? Or do you just decide during down time what's going on and they have to deal with it?

    1. I usually give quiet, hidden PC camps a daily chance for wandering monsters that's much lower than active exploration. For the hidden treasure cache, I'll roll a daily wandering monster check like a camp, then see if it's the type of thing that would be actively searching for hidden loot. It's enough to get the job done without brain damage.

  3. Sounds like a fun game. I'd never considered treasure extraction at all before this week, but it seems to add all kinds of strategy to the game. I'll have to try it out.