Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Help! My Megadungeon is a Zoo


I can use some advice.  See, I've got this megadungeon game, and it's rolling along like gangbusters, but it's evolved into something different than how it started.  I started with this idea of creating something inspired by Lovecraft's city of the elder things, only with grey aliens, and vikings.

Along the way, it became a bit like the wild west - with lots of competing viking groups looting the ruins - many of them every bit as amoral and violent as the player characters.  Human encounters are such a good time.  Sometimes those rival explorers get infected with rage madness and become berserkers, lurking in the dungeon like predators, or they mutate into muscular cannibals with bulging eyes.  The dead ones come back as gjengangers - Norse zombies.  Then there are the remnants left over from the Ancients, the alien servitors, robots, and rogue super computers that once maintained the city.  It's definitely weird, maybe even a bit gonzo.  It's plenty of fun.  But it's usually not scary.

Traditionally, horror scenarios feature more atmosphere, building dread, and a shocking revelation.  I originally wanted the Black City to be horror-themed, but quickly abandoned that plan for high adventure and battle-axe-fueled mayhem.  It wasn't a wrong choice.

But as I'm looking ahead to future projects, the idea of a sprawling horror dungeon won't die:  Are the elements necessary to make a compelling megadungeon campaign compatible with running it with a horror theme?  We should be able to do it, right?  We have the technology.  We can make it better, faster, stronger (or darker, scarier, and creepier).  I'd ask for a show of hands, how many folks have run their own successful horror-themed megadungeons, but that's just silly - it’d be an oddball niche within an already small oddball niche.

This might just be my blog's white whale.  Whatever I do after the Black City, it's got to be frightening and dreadful.  A few concepts I've posted in The Junkyard could form the backbone for such a venture - something like the dungeons beneath Harrowhome Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, or the Benighted City of Lichtstadt.  To get my head straight, I may take a day or so to mull and list out the strengths and weaknesses of the megadungeon format, to facilitate discussing which ones undermine the horror theme.

Consider, once again, Lovecraft's city of the elder things from At the Mountains of Madness.  It's a nigh endless cyclopean ruin, on the high wind-swept plain beyond those forsaken mountains.  Massive, sprawling tunnels lie beneath the frozen city.  Is it a megadungeon?  Why or why not?  Food for thought.

47 comments:

  1. I tried to make HMS Apollyon into a megadungeon with a "survival horror" element - I failed, mostly. I think it's something endemic to the megadungeon picaresque. Yet I think I got a few chills. One time I had to quasi quantum ogre it, but dammit I made things creepy at least. Successful creepy things.

    1) Horror requires the sense of being trapped. I tried to do this in HMS Apollyon by making the town, overworld and dungeon the same place. It kinda worked. I also used the convention that "You've gotta bring something of value back to the gates or you're trapped in the dungeon" - this also helped at first. Of course this runs afoul of agency, best to have multiple patrons and wants pushing the party into a series of suicide missions with punishment if they fail to succeed.

    2) Weird monsters, creepy monsters that folks don't recognize. My Haints are glowing blue slime creatures that transform into character's deceased loved ones and try to lure them off. Spectral undead generally scare players as they don't know how to harm them. I think my mimicking crab dogs weirded folks out as well the constant refrain of "help" or "My leg" from around the corner where a trap laying dog beast lurks. So unique monsters that aren't like identifiable monsters helps. Monsters with strange special abilities that wipe out NPC allies also help. Yet your players will try to co-opt the body horror leach creatures and make them friends.

    3) Random tables of horrible cosmetic effects from attacks seem to work a bit. ASE does this as well to a more comic effect, but turning a PC funny colors and giving him antlers is a good start at making the party know they're facing stuff beyond mere HP loss.

    4) Simple, deadly rules - I learned this from Brendan's Pahvelorn - when you use LBB variable HD every session and max AC of 2 it means that even a baddass fighter of 4th level (with 4D6 HP) may fall two four orcs (or strange glow eyed cavemen). Sure he's taking one down a round (they only have 1D6 HP each as well), but there's a lot less power creep than even in B/X. Pahvelorn also uses a lot of attacks on saving throws and other strange effects to become very tense - not horror exactly but tension. Also a minimum of vanilla monsters and lots of reskins.

    4) Even the evil things parley. Yeah you can talk to everyone, they might not even attack, and the good guys don't always look obvious. This makes parties interact with the creepy monsters - let them talk thier way past a spirit or two and they'll hear out the crazy ghost cop's mad rants (mad rants are creepy) or deal with the bug eyed devil, especially if as he's a dangerous unknown.

    Not sure what else to add - Black City always sounded amazing from your reports, but games go where the players want a lot of the time.

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  2. I think the theme of isolation works well for horror-based games. With the PC's isolated from any kind of nearby help builds tension. One of my favorite movies is John Carpenter's "The Thing". If you can get any game to get the players paranoid enough to start doubting who is really a real human being like in that movie, you succeeded. But that is hard to pull off without pulling a couple of players aside to play the doppleganger(s).

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  3. Most dungeons can be made horror by introducing a foe you can't kill (Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time) or by sealing the entrance (The Descent). Although most horror films and fiction are single-monster, you can draw a line between the routine monsters your party dispatches with some ease, and The Horror.

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  4. The level of tension needed for horror is hard to maintain in D&D for a long period of time. Flavour isn't enough. If the horror is just cosmetic, it's not scary; fighting vampires or bug-eyed aliens is gothic or pulp, not horror. The party need to be in genuine, serious peril - stalked by unstoppable monsters, or facing a succession of nasty lesser creatures while their HP slowly erode with no way to retreat, or something of the sort. The rub is that, if your game is like that all the time, the PCs will drop like flies and the investment and tension is lost.

    I think the only way to do a horror megadungeon would be to make a distinction between the "normal" and the "horror" parts of the dungeon. The normal areas have a moody atmosphere and cryptic hints, but play more or less like a normal D&D game, letting the players recharge their emotional batteries. The horror areas are built from the ground up to terrify the players, and it's not entirely clear when the party have passed from one area to the next.

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    1. I agree with you; the adventurous nature of D&D is not suited for horror gaming at all. I strongly believe not even CoC or other "major" horror games are suited for it because their system is still based on the same naturalism and simulationism D&D is built upon - but this is off topic here.

      The dungeon divided into "normal" and "horror" parts, however, sounds something that would actually work. Needless to say, it would mostly still be a non-horror megadungeon.

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  5. Yeah, pacing in Lovecraft feels very different than typical dungeoncrawling pacing to me, and I don't know that stretching that kind of pacing across multiple sessions will really result in fun for the players.

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  6. Give your players something or someone fairly helpless to protect - better if this person needs to travel with them a lot. It's one thing to damage or endanger friends or loved ones in a game, but I don't think players really care that much, so the protection of an active participant works better I think.

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  7. This is all very insightful. The following seems like a reachable goal - to strive for a dungeon setting that has an overarching theme, like "gothic", with its elements of decay and monstrosity, and limiting the actual bits that embody horror or terror to special set pieces, maybe once or twice per dungeon level, so there's a noticeable tonal difference and release of tension. Let D&D stay in "D&D mode" most of the time, to allow a sustainable megadungeon campaign, but change the script periodically to introduce moments of horror.

    @Gus L: great techniques, they warrant a longer discussion!

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    1. Thanks Beedo - I'm trying to steer clear of too many theory posts lately and return my focus to janky PDFs of strange dungeon locales. Perhaps I can try to demonstrate my "horror" approach when I finely get something usable for the HMS Apollyon typed up/laid out.

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    2. @Gus

      I like your theory posts though!

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  8. My (untested) intuition is that a horror mega-dungeon will only work with fewer and more substantive monsters. To keep interest, something else must fill the gap left by all the other monsters and adversaries that populate D&D adventure fantasy games. Probably much heavier on the toybox, trick, and trap features. These things are what keep the tension, in my experience.

    I'm not sure that a truly unending mega-dungeon would work, because you will engage in an arms race with yourself. You will need to keep one-upping yourself with each (deeper?) threat. I've never played CoC, but from what I gather it is more suited to a one-shot, mini-series, or smaller story arc type of game, rather than the perpetual D&D campaign for the same reason.

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    1. In my experience any one-shot makes it difficult to truly scare players. There are no lasting effects.

      Which, in my mind, makes megadungeons more suited for "horror" (think Barrowmaze), since it's long term.

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  9. Also, there's probably an incentive system better suited to this kind of horror than GP = XP. Maybe per dark secret uncovered or something? XP for every point of sanity (wisdom) lost?

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    1. That sounds counter-intuitive. The players do not want to know dark secrets/lose sanity, right?

      Trying to get GP, while avoiding sanity/dark secrets/forbidden knowledge/running out of time/resources/etc fit very well with XP for GP.

      If they benefit from these other "bad things" they'll seek them out and want them to happen. I don't believe that would induce fear in players.

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    2. @burnedfx

      You might be right.

      Why do investigators do things in CoC?

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    3. Because if they didn't there would be no game. There might be a contrived reason (lost relative, help friend, etc) but, in essence, when you sit down to play CoC you are expecting to follow breadcrumbs.

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  10. Physically challenging the player characters is only one dimension of horror.

    With clever use of techniques, there could be enough variable ways to have one or two horror tricks per level to have sub-theme to whatever is the larger dungeon theme.

    Alluding to some of the techniques the guys already mentioned above, there's getting trapped someplace awful, stalked by the unknown, faced with a fate worse than death, or the tension of having to protect someone or something from a gauntlet. Each one could be the horror "set piece" for a small dungeon level.

    They might not all be "horror" per se; survival horror is as much about resource strains and desperation as anything, for instance, but putting an opportunity to trap players in a survival horror section of a dungeon would be great fun. (The Death Frost Doom level, or something).

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    1. I think that gaming works differently that fiction in many of these cases. For example, in gaming:

      - Trapped: frustration, not dread. Also, works against the format (the session). I've never seen this work out well in play.

      - Fate worse than death: this usually ends up "now I have this cool mutation! metal!" or "now my character sucks, can I roll up a new one?" Protagonists in fiction don't work quite the same way.

      - Protect someone: maaaaaaybe, but you need to let your players decide what they care about themselves or it just feels like a World of Warcraft quest. In my game, a rescued partial beast-man with antlers ended up being surprisingly sympathetic, and when a bad morale check led to his panic and death, it seemed like there was (some) real sadness.

      Resource depletion and the tension of "one more room" is what I have seen be most successful.

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    2. I absolutely agree. I firmly believe that D&D work substantially differently even compared to fiction that inspired it (Vance, Moorcock, Tolkien, etc.).

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  11. I agree with everything being said here. I think that horror is surprisingly difficult to establish in an on-going, open-ended setting. For example, I wonder is the very notion of a sandbox works against the typical tropes of horror. You've written many times (the dragon, vampires) of situations in which the players came up with unanticipated approaches or in which the dice did not roll your way. My own read of horror is that it requires a pretty significant dose of railroading -- at least in the set up, and on-going pruning of one escape after another. I don't know. Are you willing to give up sandbox for horror? Is there a sense in which these are incompatible impulses. I think that Raggi is on the right track with modules like The Monolith.., but there were certainly many others (see the reviews) who felt like it wasn't DnD in some meaningful sense.

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  12. I suspect you are talking about scaring players as opposed to mechanically scaring the characters. I disagree with the notion that D&D does not do horror.

    Traditional sandbox, unscripted play - the players know anything can happen.
    Rolling dice in the open - the players know that you (the DM) don’t even know the results.
    Traditional time & resource management - the players can't last in this dungeon forever.
    Less is more - the players get all the information they need to let their own imaginations fill in the gaps.

    All of these things you can pull off without the need for "special scenarios." The players will bring their own fears to the table, use those.

    None of the above is related to mega dungeons in general. And, generally speaking, your players will reveal what will scare them (without realize it).

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    1. I always feel lame leaving links to my own stuff as examples, but it is on topic. Generally speaking, my players are more afraid of traps than monsters.

      Towards the end of "Fear and Compromise", they kill a zombie that is already dead. Also in the middle, a simple burial shroud throws them into a panic.
      http://burnedfx.com/4

      Although this episode is named "Overthinking," I should have called it "Overactive Imagination." This happens from beginning to end. They even joke about it, but without confirmation from the DM that things are okay, they still worry. Akin to nervous laughter.
      http://burnedfx.com/6

      "The Last Hour" is the beginning of three random encounters in a row. While reskinning a monster to make it "unknown" to the players is popular, reminding them exactly what a monster is capable of can be more effective in scaring them than trying to cover up the mechanics.

      It's a two way street, since I reveal they are Coffer Corpses, explain the choke mechanic, but I let them figure out what comes next, I explain the turning mechanics, but aside from fire, I never explain that only magic weapons could kill them.
      http://burnedfx.com/8

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  13. I ran a campaign set in a city that was also a type of megadungeon, but it was fairly mission-based and call of Cthulhu inspired in that the players took on the role of private investigators. They had free reign to pick and choose between the cases that came their way, but there was some definite railroading in the fact that building a city was a daunting task and I only came up with about two-three jobs at any given time. I did find that the players were incredibly tenacious about finishing what they started even as things got progressively worse and refused to abandon a line of inquiry even when easier options were available to them. Not quite a free-roaming megadungeon, but it was a lot of fun for me and the players and one of the only times consistent scares ever occurred around our gaming table.

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  14. Two notes:

    (1) Empty rooms can be used to fuel tension, esp. if those empty rooms are indicators of what else might be in the area, have mysterious trappings, and so on.

    (2) Rather than using the standard stable of monsters, strongly consider making the monsters at least partly unique, and have some of them do things other than simply kill you. I.e., the monster leaves you alive, BUT......

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  15. The above dungeon was also run in 3.5/Pathfinder with free-form experience, before I got into the whole OSR thing, so it was a fairly different experience. Good NPCs, subtlety, and letting the players know that I was pretty much using the standard monster manual only throwing out the descriptions were the techniques that worked best for me. Like when a cannibal chef character started regenerating the realization of "Oh shit we're fighting a troll!" was worth way more in scare tactics than "unnamed monster of questionable hit dice and squickiness" would have. Anytime I tried to do too much horror at any given time the players tended to reflexively start joking around so it couldn't get under their skin. Horrifically wounded humans kept alive by nasty medicine = bad joke. A dark-suited agent of their enemies politely insisting to be let into their flat = somewhat unnerving ("is it a vampire?"). A lair style dungeon where Bing Crosby style music coming from tinny speakers activated various traps really started to get at them as well. The cannibal chef angle was perhaps a bit too over-the-top to be scary though. Two of the players ended up cursed with cannibalism and the reaction was hilarity and ribald humor. Which was totally fine and funny, but certainly

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  16. I've found that horror can be induced by making the PCs realize that their actions can have unforeseen deadly consequences against innocents.

    The next time they return to the town they are using as home base, they find the town has been razed in their absence. The few survivors, picking through the burnt-out rubble of their former homes recognize the PCs and treat them with great hostility - because of the PC's meddling, a great evil was awakened and made its displeasure over being disturbed known by descending upon the town and delivering its wrath. The bodies of innocent women and children lie in the rubble, many people are unaccounted for, and the few survivors demand recompense. They also demand that the PCs finish what they started by going out to destroy this seemingly insurmountable evil.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I agree with Mr. Grogg, with the exception of that last bit, the need to destroy evil. That's sounds like a "hero game": a genre I believe would be difficult to instill any fear in players, let alone horror.


      I would add to my list that providing real consequence provokes fear. What if they choose "wrong"? But, more scary is wondering about the unknown consequences before it's revealed.

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    3. I didn't say "destroy evil" - that would obviously be over the top. I said "destroy -this- evil", as in the evil creature that arose and decimated the town.

      If you take a bunch of low-mid level characters and have them realize that their actions have taken out a town of innocents and that they are now morally obligated to go face off against a very high-level foe or else admit defeat and guilt, that's a tough pill to swallow.

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    4. The adventurous nature of D&D gaming implies no moral binding. Obviously, one may simply tell the players that this is not the case here; however, I believe this point should be reinforced somewhere in the rules set.

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  17. Horror - frightening the players - is difficult in any game - even the COC guys will point that out. LOTFP's products have demonstrated you can deliver a horror experience with a D&D-style rule set. Whether horror or adventure is better for long term play is a judgment call; I don't think my players would enjoy 100% horror, rather keep it intermittent.

    You guys have brought up some solid concerns about horror in the megadungeon setting; horror scenarios usually use solitary or unitary monsters, and megadungeons are zoos; horror scenarios feature isolation, megadungeons feature a lot of traffic and ingress; horror isn't sustainable so the megadungeon needs varied experiences.

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    1. I'd hope a megadungeon would aim for varied experiences no matter what core themes it was shooting for. Rubbing those various moods up against each other to create friction.

      In literature I think horror works best as short stories... or in patches. I've never read a horror novel that kept me on edge all the way through... I'm not sure I'd want that.
      Same for video game horrors like Silent Hill. There are pacing moments where you end up in some safe place with a friendly (or seemingly friendly) bit of conversation.
      Still, by far the scariest moments in those games are when nothing is happening... alone in some dark place, a weird sound, a dark doorway that you need to go through to who knows what. I've had to shut the game off sometimes it got so tense.
      Once the monster shambles on screen though... aw, well, it's still kinda scary, but at least I can see it, fight it or run away from it... do something.
      I'm not sure how to pull that off in an RPG, I wish I could.

      Also, I think the prime ingredient of horror gaming is having players who want to be scared. Without that it's all a waste. One guy making a wisecrack about the ghost and it deflates the entire mood.
      There's not a horror fan to be found in the group I currently game with (except me) so I know there's no point my trying to start a game of CoC with them.

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  18. You've got some pretty young players. How much creepy description and atmosphere can you get out before one of them says, "I hit it with my axe?"

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    1. Yeah, we don't invite the kids to Cthulhu game nights - so chances are they'd skip any horror-themed megadungeon, too. Maybe it wouldn't be the main, every-week campaign. Dunno yet.

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  19. What about adding real time limits to critical decisions? The mention of Silent Hill made me think of Pyramid Head. When a monster like that arrives in the same space as the player, I recall many very fast and panicky decisions to try get to the door. Or needing to solve a real puzzle in a minute or two or else something bad happens. This is why you can get an adrenaline and fear effect in a computer game, so it could work in a similiar way in rpgs, if not overdone.

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    1. This is an interesting idea. The only problem I see is that the scene relies upon the intelligence score of the player instead of the PC. You could adjust for this, though, by giving players with above-average INT more real-world time per game-minute and players with below-average INT less real-world time per game-minute. If they are working together, let the players of the lower-INT PC's know when they have to shut up and stop helping.

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    2. Heh. Of course, I meant players of CHARACTERS with above/below average INT scores. Otherwise there could be some interesting violence at the table. ;)

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  20. DFD works with a sacred trade off (which you might google). There are the Monolith hippies too. Moral anguish, rather than BOO!

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  21. I think that creating Horror is more about the tone you create than about what you put in the dungeon.

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  22. I have to agree with the first poster. There is one reason to go into a megadungeon: loot. Also, horror is more literary in its pacing, in my experience. It works because of tension and resolution, rather than atomistic creepy bits. The creepiness and danger serve to ramp up the tension. If the time element, the story ( yeah, I said it) resolution, is not brought to bear in time, then it will devolve into Predator: "If it bleeds, we can kill it." Once the players have that attitude towards the monster, or worse, the setting, the horror is done. I think that would be the most challenging aspect of a horror mega-dungeon: keeping an horrific pace. You'd have to create serious danger that was meaningful to the players as much as to the characters. In GURPS horror, the author proposes that successful horror games are more cooperatvie between the GM and players than other games. I think that's true. There is a vast difference between th GM opposing the characters and the GM trying to scare the Players! The latter proposition is much more intimate, and would require a great deal of trust from both parties. You'd almost have to agree that "i'm going to scare you and you are going to let me." If your partyis willing to go there, it could work. This is an interesting topic.

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  23. Now that i've thought about this a little, i see the brilliance in the COC insanity spiral, because it adds an element of " beat the clock" to the game play. It adds tension by assuring the players that thier characters are not likely to reach the climax of the adventure.

    I read an interesting blog about the "pathetic aesthetic" of early RPG's. The premise was that early rpg's were generally horrific. There was little concern for game balance, survivability, or any other comforting notion. The story was like Steven R. Donaldson's Lord of the Rings: no eagles, more walking through Mordor, and plenty of amputations.

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  24. Sorry about the multiple posts; the iPad was acting weird. Back to Coc: the horror, in a sense, is partially a shared experience, but partially solitary. Slow spiral ino insanity is a kind personal horror experience, somehow more effective than hit point attrition. I think, also, that there is an invasive aspect to it that is similar to the horror of Alien and some of the Deadlands monsters which actually get inside the character's body and either take over or do harm from the inside. That loss of control is an important aspect of horror as well. Heh...in a sense, the whole wide world is the COC megadungeon.

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  25. Mr. Nelson - not sure if you saw this, it was a few months ago - Call of Cthulhu versus LOTFP where I raise some of these same issues - how even with a horror theme, treasure acquisition supports sandbox play whereas the moral imperative of COC supports plotted storylines. The sanity death spiral adds poignancy to the Cthulhu game, but really isn't necessary for a D&D flavored game; the fact that characters face horror for money is already fairly mental, no quantitative measure is necessary.

    Both styles support a 'pathetic aesthetic', I liked Dr Bargles post as well.

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  26. That was an interesting post. The pathetic aesthetic can engender pathos, or calousness towards the character on the part of the players.

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  27. I'm trying to think of successful work on this theme. The big problem is 'kill loads of critters' yet still be horrified. Most horror stories have a single near(?) unkillable threat - Alien not Aliens.
    William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, set on a dying future earth, is a wilderness-crawl not a dungeon crawl, but I think offers some pointers: the easily-killed trash mobs are still weird and alien. The Watchers are aeon-old pre-Lovecraftian horrors that can only be evaded/survived, not defeated. Personal attachments - the central love story in The Night Land - work to accentuate the horror.

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  28. One thought - perhaps the fatalism of Norse culture - we'll all be dead soon enough, just give us a good death - works against the modern horror feel, which is grounded in Enlightenment tropes of progress and optimism? I think there's a good reason why horror as a genre is centred in the Victorian era, and why Slasher flicks are set in a kind of perpetual 1960s California.

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