Saturday, November 16, 2013

Design Approach for Death Mountain and Harrow Home Manor

I'm finally getting around to answering a reader's question in a comment (Dwimmer Gan) who posted some questions on the Death Mountain post - I got distracted by game reports and the notes on megadungeon topology\design philosophy.  Here's the question paraphrased:

How do you handle conventional dungeon dressing in the megadungeon?  In other words, why would the god of death, Hades, put a kitchen, lounge, armoire or laboratory in his dungeon?

The node-based approach I use to create the dungeon topology allows for smaller areas to explore, with fairly narrow themes.  A level may end up with a similar number of rooms to the traditional approach (where a huge sheet of graph paper is filled in with rooms and corridors), but the varied themes make it easier to create interesting rooms that complement the theme.  I'll still use random tables to help with inspiration and to get some directional guidance, even if I stray from the strict results of the dice.

Death Mountain, the Greek-styled megadungeon, involves a series of unrelated mini dungeons on each level, along with a signature area featuring a "boss" fight, and a trap-laden gauntlet.  Hades created the plentiful levels of Death Mountain to challenge (and preferably slay) adventurers, so it makes sense for each major level to have a "tomb of horrors" style gauntlet that ramps the challenge level.  Each gauntlet is hard to enter, separating the 'inhabited' areas of the dungeon from the artificial challenges of the gauntlet.  Beating a gauntlet earns the adventuring group some special keys, but it's possible to descend without them.  The boss area  represents a tough zone where the inhabitants are directly connected to Hades' agenda.

Level One of Death Mountain has The Entrance Halls, a series of monumental chambers near the entrance to the mountain housing vast statues and trophies extolling the greatness of Hades; there are some secret shrines of the  Olympians hidden there, a bandit camp, some 'safe areas' for new adventurers to buy and sell, and the fantastic shrine to the Moirae, the Fates (a wheel of fortune type of place with random boons and banes).

There's  a deep chasm overlooked by a series of caves; a wayward artifact of Demeter fuels monstrous growth (the Food of the Gods) so this cave complex is crawling with the giant insects and other monstrous vermin that plague low level dungeons.

One of the distant passages leads out to the mountainside and the Mountain Caves.  Raucous satyrs beat their drums to Pan and lure the fierce Oreads (mountain nymphs) to their wild parties.  Satyrs are the ultraviolent, rowdy troublemakers of the dungeon - I'll use them as Greek-style Orcs.  There's even a scenic cave grotto with an underground waterfall, home to a cave Naiad and the tormented artist inspired to sculpt and paint her image across his workspace.

The main dungeon areas are the Legion Halls, home to a small army of skeletons that patrol much of the first level.  There is a vast necropolis where flesh eating scarabs devour those interred, preparing them for future service in the Legion.  You don't want to die anywhere near the Legion Halls.  The "boss" of the first level is an Eidelon of Hades known as the Ambassador of Bones.  There's a Well of the Dead, a dark howling hole that extends all the way down to the shores of the River Styx.  Beyond the Legion Halls is the MoonGate and the entrance to the first level gauntlet.

I think I have the first 3 levels of Death Mountain sketched out in this way, with 4-5 dungeons on each level, and a list of sample or representative monsters.  Death Mountain isn't meant to be too serious, just a fun way to hew fairly close to the tropes of standard D&D, but I also wanted to make a dungeon that would be fairly interesting some day for the kids and family.  They love the Percy Jackson young adult books, and the theme is rife with possibilities.

Another megadungeon taking up space in the brainstorming notebook is Harrow Home Manor.  I don't think I've talked about it much recently but there are plenty of labeled posts on the blog; Harrow Home is a ruined manse on the Yorkshire Moors.  Escaping the fires of the inquisition, sorcerers and wizards from around Europe came to Harrow Home and carved out vast underground palaces and lairs beneath the desolate heath.  There's a dark presence deep beneath the ground there, a growing cyst containing a Neolithic horror.  Many of the magi have made it their life's work to study the otherworldly emanations of the cyst and use it to fuel their experiments.

What's been so interesting about the design of Harrow Home is that each mini-dungeon is the lair of a different mad wizard.  They're all paranoid and chaotic, providing opportunities for enterprising (and unscrupulous) adventurers to prey on the weak, make alliances with the strong, and act as agents for some of the powers.

For example, consider the lair of Nicoletto the Reanimator.  Hook-nosed and ill cast, Nicoletto sits on a crooked throne, wearing a metal cap and rough fur cape.  His warrens are filled with alchemical homonculi imbued with the lustful spirits of outsiders (demons).  (I realized after writing up the character, he sounded a bit like the Moleman with his Moloids).  Nicoletto's lair is full of spacious, well-appointed living spaces with high peaked halls.  Isolated and paranoid, he's filled his living areas with traps and chutes that drop intruders down into the warrens of his misshapen creations.  The ever-present traps makes it tough on his servants and guests!  Because Nicoletto needs a steady stream of reagents and victims for his experiments, he's one of the first magicians that can be targeted when players defeat some of the bandits and thugs that camp in the cellars of the old manse and learn of Nicoletto's contact with the surface world.

Harrow Home is intriguing to me because each mini dungeon is essentially character-driven; the design task is to identify the mad wizard and their project first, figure out how they fit into the wizard politics of Harrow Home, and then start sketching out their personal dungeons and lair.  It would be interesting to tackle the setting as a group of players, because each new mad wizard's lair offers so many opportunities.  Consider the smarmy alchemist above, Nicoletto - do you treat Nicolleto's lair as a heist, learning about him from others, and figure out how to break in, infiltrate, and loot his treasury?  Do you knock down the door and try a frontal assault, like any other dungeon delve?  Or do you attempt a political approach, and find out how he can provide information to take down an even bigger fish?


  1. You are very ambitious. In your Harrow Home project, I imagine the PCs could make alliances with some wizards in order to defeat others (like TOEE). But upsetting the status quo could present new problems.

    Does the cyst have a corrupting or mutating effect?

  2. I learned a lot with the current campaign, The Black City, so I'm always looking for ways to build on those lessons. Harrow Home is more interesting, but isn't something I'd ever get to play with the younger kiddos when they're ready to roll dice.

    Yep, you got it - the cyst sometimes cracks and spews mutagenic spores, or leaks an oily black tar. Both substances are transformative. Some of the oldest wizards are barely human through long exposure.