Monday, February 10, 2014

You Will Never Finish That Dungeon

Dwimmermount was in the news again.  Tenkar's Tavern, the tabloid news service of the OSR, spurred a discussion last week when it was announced completion of the Dwimmermount kickstarter is changing hands.  Alex M, the publisher and driving force behind the Adventurer Conquer King series of products, is taking over the writing of Dwimmermount.  He's targeting a March-April completion of the draft.

This post isn't really about Dwimmermount.

Actually it is about Dwimmermount, in so much as Dwimmermount represents many problems of the published megadungeon.  There are problems of  time, and effort, and level of detail - what I call the sandbox triangle*.  It's about completing the dungeon.

However, today I'm not talking about the creator, the referee, finishing the creation of the dungeon - putting the pen down and closing the book.   That's one avenue of discussion - but rather I want to talk about the referee's expectations for the players.  Are the players ever going to finish the dungeon?  I had an epiphany the other day.  Consider this whole exercise a variant of the My Precious Snowflake Encounter™  problem.  To wit:  when you sit down and write an encounter, do you expect the players to meet with that encounter?  Or do you create your setting with essentially fungible encounters, and it's fine if the players skip whole sections?

You see, there's this conceit that a megadungeon should be too big to map, too big to fully explore.  The players are only expected to experience bits and pieces of it.  Unfortunately, maps with openings and unexplored areas drive players absolutely farking nuts.  Players are completionists by nature.  They need to explore those unknown areas and finish every last room and corridor.  It's like a form of table top OCD.  Player psychology runs directly contrary to the megadungeon ideal of large areas unexplored.

Here's a novel thought:  maybe the megadungeon ideal runs contrary to the psychology of referees, too.

Let's say I've created my precious snowflake, the Coolest Trick Room Ever™ - the Room of 10,000 Spiders.  I've put a lot of time into that 10k Spider Room - I really want to make sure the players experience it.  What are some scenarios for the extended design?  Perhaps my dungeon is so large the players may never experience 10,000 Spiders before they move to the next level (: sad referee :).  I could put the 10k Spiders right in their path, so they're guaranteed to meet it - perhaps I don't mind a bit of the old Illusionism, shuffling around quantum ogres and whatnot.  Another expression might have the levels sized small enough to ensure the players find everything, giving in to their completionist OCD urges and the referee's need to see his or her work experienced and validated.  A different flavor of that approach is to put in hints, clues, and other pointers to help them find the 10k Spiders room, even if it was off their path - the blaring neon sign approach.

Do you write interesting, detailed encounters and place them in a design so large that there is only a slim chance the party will actually meet your Precious Encounter™?  What are you, some kind of masochist?

I submit that there are very few (published) dungeons that are so large in scope the players are expected to experience only a fraction of each level before descending downward.  Execution of the gigantic dungeon involves one of three basic approaches:

  1. The place is gigantic, but it's only detailed at a high level at first, and the referee will elaborate more details ahead of each game session.
  2. The place is gigantic and detailed at a granular level, and the referee spent a gargantuan amount of time writing it.  Oh the humanity.
  3. The place is gigantic, but only certain pieces are detailed at a granular level, and the referee is moving them around as necessary so the players run into the detailed stuff.

Which brings the conversation back to Dwimmermount.  Dwimmermount seemed to be one of those Type 1 settings - vast in scope, but lightly detailed; and now it's en route to becoming a Type 2 setting - vast in scope but detailed like a much smaller module.  Dwimmermount is somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 rooms; the original five levels of Stonehell is also in the neighborhood of 800 rooms.  Barrowmaze is somewhere under 200 rooms (the second installment brings it up near 400).  I have one of the early versions of Castle of the Mad Archmage, and it weighs in at almost 1,000 rooms - the clear heavy weight of the published megadungeons.

There are plenty of good reasons to run smaller lairs and dungeons.  They become self evident as you read the notes above - you never have to worry about the players missing a Precious Snowflake Encounter™ or your work going to waste, for starters.  For a published module, the experience you're presenting to the reading audience is homogenized - lots of people will have the same reminiscences.

Why would you put together a gigantic, sparsely detailed megadungeon where a fair amount of your work may go unnoticed?  This is what I've been mulling.  It implies that the encounters and areas, which might be interesting and unique, are still representative and fungible.  It’s okay if the players skip areas and head down to a more challenging level.  You've designed it such that the players don't have to complete everything.  (In fact, grinding XP on the easy levels seems anathema to the whole thing - like boiling ant hills or something).

I have some further thoughts on why the megadungeon is so alluring, despite the inherent risks to the referee's time, sanity, marriage, and social life, but I'll save them for the comments or a follow up post.  I didn't mean for this to be so discursive!

Before I forget, here's that funny epiphany I had the other day:

Pick One:  Do I want to spend my time working on the kind of dungeon that I, as referee, will never expect to finish, or work on the kind of dungeon the players will never expect to finish?

*The sandbox triangle is a project management truism adapted to sandbox gaming.  The sandbox game balances freedom (scope), effort (time), and detail (quality).  If you don’t have a lot of time, but you want the players to go anywhere, the sandbox won't have much detail.

If the players tell the referee their plans in advance (ie, we're going to Goblintown next week), the referee can use the allotted time to make Goblintown more detailed.  The referee's prep time in between sessions hasn't necessarily increased, but by self-limiting their scope, the players have allowed the DM to focus on more details in a specific area.