Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Megadungeon and the Horror

After a busy week that limited my writing, I'm ready to revisit the topic of mixing the megadungeon with horror.  Last time I talked about it, I was pointing out how the current megadungeon, the Black City, has evolved into more of a zoo than I had hoped (Help, My Megadungeon is a Zoo) - now I'm ready to turn to the question whether mixing the megadungeon structure and a strong horror theme is even viable.

Let's take as given that the megadungeon is a good structure for a campaign.  There are plenty of folks that have tried to run one, unsuccessfully, and written off the structure as dull and unviable.  That hasn't been our experience; however, the defense of the megadungeon format is a different post.  I've got other problems to tackle here.  The megadungeon is a good way to manage the Sandbox Triangle.  The triangle comes from the non-gaming disciplines of project management and product development; if you increase the features of something, like software, either the time gets extended or you have to throw more resources on the project.  Newsflash:  your campaign is also a product.  Furthermore, in sandbox terms, the creator is always balancing the freedom the players have, with the size of the sandbox, and the level of detail - particularly during inception.  The dungeon, any dungeon, is a constrained structure that limits freedom logically, allowing the DM to generate greater depth of detail or a broader scope for the same time effort.

There is an appropriate discussion to be had about the merits of a gigantic dungeon with minimalist descriptions, versus the small dungeon with baroque detail.  Both emphasize different corners of the triangle.  We'll come back to that point.

So now I turn my attention to two exercises - listing the characteristics of a good megadungeon, listing the characteristics of good horror scenarios, and then taking a look and see where there are and are not synergies between the two.

The characteristics of a megadungeon:  many large levels, highways in and out to various levels, themed levels and sub levels, interesting set piece locations, multidimensional challenges (including puzzles, tricks, traps, and combat challenges), lots of empty space for exploration, deeper levels = deeper danger, resource management, factions and NPCs and varied threats, and a steady flow of information to the players that allows planning and strategy - typically through patrons, rumors, and treasure maps.  Megadungeons as written products are frequently sparsely described, to support more scope and larger levels.

Horror scenarios usually involve some kind of twist or trick to bring home the horror - I listed a bunch of them a while ago, here:  Horror in D&D.  Everyone has their favorite techniques, and I always learn something when folks share.  Horror scenarios usually have a strong contrast between the mundane world and the nmonsters; monsters are rare, dangerous, terrifying, and unknown.  Horror requires atmosphere, a build up of tension, a reveal.  NPCs antagonists verge on the gothic or grotesque.  There are a wide range of effects you can achieve, creating stress, tension, uneasiness, the creeps, shock, mounting dread, sometimes even scaring the players themselves.  Horror scenarios are baroquely described, to support the depth of atmosphere and detail; the locales are frequently small or limited.

So how do the demands of the two structures match up?  One of the largest issues I see is the difference in scale and detail - the sparseness of description in a large megadungeon vs the baroque detail of a small horror site.  Next is the need for a varied set of threats in the megadungeon, versus the rarity and danger and uncanny monsters in a horror scenario.  Then there's the paradigm of dungeon level = danger level, and GP = XP.  This implies balance and the ability to plan risk vs reward, which frequently has no place in horror.  Finally, in most horror games, the player characters have a hero-complex and are motivated by philanthropic goals or save-the-world morality; D&D characters are free to be heroic, but the game doesn't dictate it, and actually rewards a bit of callous treasure grabbing.

I have some ideas on how to reconcile some of these problems.  The megadungeon could still be large and sparse, for instance, reserving the horror bits for detailed and intricate set-pieces scattered throughout.  The unique and terrifying monsters can be reserved for the same set pieces.

Avoiding the megadungeon zoo and the banality of monsters in the rest of the encounters is a major problem.  I could take a cue from the Black City and make many of the opponents mundane threats like other explorers.  I'm not sure that could carry a large megadungeon on its own.  But I feel like the answer is in this direction - use lots of human opponents, of many different stripes, and perhaps even use recurring monsters that fit the theme and become mundane over time, to fill the role of combat threats.  The monsters in the set pieces are there to bring the weird and the horror and the atmosphere.

I did broach the question of Call of Cthulhu versus D&D style play some months ago (LOTFP vs Call of Cthulhu), and I'm quite confident a D&D style exploration game with the GP = XP paradigm works better for a sandbox than COC's heroic style, which compels characters to follow a plotted path.  I tried a COC sandbox a year back and it left me cold.

My fixation with the megadungeon structure is why I keep coming back to it over other project ideas, like that Spanish Main sandbox or the Colonial hex crawl.  An easier horror campaign could certainly be built by creating an early modern sandbox area and populating it with smaller locales made by converting Call of Cthulhu adventures to a D&D format, or using them for inspiration to make something period-appropriate.  After 30 years of short Call of Cthulhu adventures in my collection, there are tons and tons of haunted sites, sleeping monsters, nefarious wizards and cults that could fill out even a large sandbox.  That option is always available, if I end up dissatisfied with the horror themed megadungeon inquiry.

I think when I return next, it will be looking at a few of my Junkyard megadungeon ideas, like Harror Home Manor or the Benighted City of Lichtstadt, and seeing how they'd fare against the challenges I've presented here.


  1. Here's how I might incorporate horror into a megadungeon (if my players had characters that weren't mostly still in a zero-level funnel)...

    1. Figure out what my bogeyman of choice will be, how it got there, and how to eliminate it.

    Maybe a curtain wall recently collapsed, revealing a passage not previously on the map that leads to a small place where said bogeyman has slept/been imprisoned/etc. To remove the threat, trapping it again via another collapse, or use of a religious artifact borrowed from a cathedral on the surface, or something else may be necessary.

    2. Temporarily modify the random encounter tables to account for your bogeyman's appearance.

    Add the corpses of creatures, slain in whatever horrible method your bogeyman uses.
    Add higher level creatures, wounded, in much smaller numbers fleeing upward to escape your bogeyman
    Add weird sounds/smells that are clearly "not normal" for the megadungeon
    Add other standard horror trope-inspired encounters that make it clear to the players that something is amiss, even by megadungeon standards

    If and when they defeat the bogeyman, revise the encounter tables again to eliminate the horror elements, so "normalcy" returns.

  2. OK, based on my comment, I clearly had trouble deciding if this was what I would do, or what you should do. It is most assuredly what I, pending further advice from others more steeped in the genre, would do.

  3. For me, horror goes hand-in-hand with the Philotomian/Prokopian/Holmesian 'Unnaturalism' when coupled with the assumptian of a large number of empty rooms. Although for many the empty room is boring, I see it as an extension of the scene in every horror film where characters are literally wandering around waiting for something to happen to them. If you tweak some of the monster appearances and have low HP for the party, most encounters will become 'WTF was THAT!?' moments of terror after the creature or creatures have been staved off. The ever-present darkness, the need to wedge and break open doors, and the sense as one goes deeper that the dungeon ITSELF is somehow watching you... to me the megadungeon is horrific by design.

  4. I think foreshadowing the horror allows the PCs to still have some control of their risks/rewards.

    They're hastily sweeping a horde of coins into their sacks when they notice they can see their breath, that a chill has entered the air. When they stop sweeping coins they still hear clinks - from chains being dragged across the stone floor, coming their way.

    They're chasing after the goblins who they have on the run, but stop when they see a snake skin... shed from a snake six feet in diameter.

    And so on.

  5. @Dave - I think your Bogeyman is a perfect example of how to work in a horror set-piece into an otherwise normal dungeon level; it opens the players to something far worse than the regular combat challenges they faced previously. Great stuff.

    If that type of horror is nestled in the larger level, there's still the question of creating the "mundane" level around it. Consider an Egyptian style pyramid, with traps, puzzles, challenges, and competing groups trying to be the first to a secret treasury; those other challenges aren't exactly dull, but the don't banalize the supernatural, either.

    1. You can make the "mundane" special by giving it a history and other details at the level of player interest. In other words, if they're budding archaeologists then making the treasures slowly tell a history of the place. If they're more typical players, then the treasures tell a brief story of the place and the people who used them. Things like that which give even the mundane more meaning.

  6. Thanks, Beedo! I've got no trouble with the regular megadungeon level, it's the horror aspect I've never used before but have been thinking about a lot since I started reading your blog.

  7. I think with 'trash mobs', the very ease of killing them can add to the horror. Innocent villagers turned into ghouls/zombies/crazed cannibals by the Great Evil - they're easily slaughtered, but play up the gore and it can still be unnerving. Swarms of rabid rats, with the threat of infection. As I just posted on the other thread, William Hope Hodgson was the original master of this style, and his work is Public Domain - check out both The Night Land and The Boats of the Glenn Carrig for wilderness-crawls that involve strong horror elements, even when the protagonists are hacking through hordes of 'things'.

  8. I just read a review of Barrowmaze at Grognardia. What interested me with relation to this discussion is the idea of a theme. Horror is rife with themes, and such a thing (or things) might be worth exploring to give a megadungeon some cohesion as a horror location, and make it less of a "zoo" or "funhouse" as it says in the review.

  9. Examples: Good corrupted; evil, insular family; undead; petrification; nature corrupted; religiosity gone wrong/wild/to the extreme; vermin; violation; dust and woe; dragons; emergence of a new order; decline of the best; atavistic remnants; machines; road to Hell; delved too deep.

  10. All you have to do is take away exit.

  11. This article makes me want to run a Kaer Maga game. Need to finish my Pirates campaign first -- which as a sandbox game where I promised to let them reach 20th level might take awhile.

  12. I run a megadungeon called the Jackal's Gate with some horror stuff going on. The key thing is that the horror has to be local or it doesn't work. Without safe zones, your players just say "Well, everything sucks, so nothing we do matters anyway." It's like Cabin in the Woods: They have to choose to go there and feel like they are reaping the consequences of their own foolishness. I find the best approach is to either stick the horror zones in the choke points or the highest-reward sections of the level. Then, to intensify the horror zones and avoid the zoo effect, what I do is tier the monsters and hazards on any given level.

    First, there's the usual supply of dungeon trash. On my Level 1, Hell's Coatroom, this is vermin, feral goblins, traps, bats, bandits, jackals, spiked pits, the occasional morlock. Normal D&D stuff that the players expect to have to deal with. These are not where the horror is, although you can squeeze a little in sometimes: my players dread being hunted by morlocks while the party is split. These make up about half to two thirds of the things on the level.

    Then there are the things that are not a deadly hazard themselves, but clear indications that this place is Wrong. My L1 uses undead animated by the general aura of nastiness, death cultists, shadow creatures, hive-minded intelligent rat swarms, madmen, that sort of thing. Whatever you use, it should very clearly smell wrong, require unconventional means to deal with, or suggest a bigger lurking danger the monster's stat block alone doesn't indicate. Ideally all three. These things are maybe 40% of the level, and maybe a third of the wandering monsters. You want to bunch them up when you place them on the map, so that the areas that feature them develop a reputation as a Bad Place.

    Then, within the Bad Places, you put down the Horrors. Horrors are deadly and as intimidating as you can possibly make them. The best Horrors pose threats that are difficult to counter or escape (or better yet, require the sacrifice of a scarce resource to do so), and have no obvious way to destroy them. Sometimes there is a hidden way that study, sages, or context clues might reveal. Sometimes, all the PCs can do is run and hope. LotFP is absolutely right about these: don't get them from the book. If it's in the monster book, near their level, your players will not be afraid of it. If you do use a monster book, pick something leaps and bounds stronger than anything the players have any prayer of fighting. I make Horrors in about 10% of the locations and one out of six random encounters - fear of meeting them is the real driver for speed.

    On Level 1, I have a 12HD mass of tentacled oozing maws the size of an elephant, which mind controls the local goblins into kidnapping snackrifices for it and then forgetting it even exists. There is a sand dragon which lives in the quicksand bogs and hunts across the whole level, but doesn't fit down the narrow (more dangerous) side tunnels. In the depths of the former Ratcatcher's Guildhall, there is a rat king whose suffering and hate psychically links the thousands of intelligent rats that live in the walls. There is a temple to a chaos cult into sensory deprivation, inhabited by invisible shadow monsters you can only see if you somehow blind yourself. If you do, not only can you not see mundane threats (like the spiders), but you can hear the shrill piping from beyond the dark that keeps getting angrier and angrier.

    I love the players' reactions to that stuff. They still won't go near the slime beast's egg site (which they call "Nurgle's Bunghole").

    1. That, sir, is a well-put comment from a practical point of view; thank you!

    2. This may be a futile request, as I can see this post was made a rather long time ago, but I would love to hear more details about Jackal's Gate. I'm planning on running a horror-themed megadungeon, and have found these posts while hunting down inspiration. Your brief sketches have got me more excited than anything I've read so far. If you are still around, or receive notification of this reply, it would be great to hear from you.