Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From an Alternate Universe - Meet the Anti-Beedo

Or, A Theoretical Framework for Building the Sandbox Megadungeon

Yesterday's post concluded with this delightful challenge:
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?

Although I've called out various projects on the blog as "megadungeons", I would submit they fall more into the camp of 'dungeons I may never finish' rather than 'dungeons so large the players may never finish them'.  It's very hard to write both briefly and evocatively, so they end up more detailed and wordy than I'd like, and my pace of development is usually just ahead of the players instead of miles ahead of them.  One snap of burnout or gamer attention deficit disorder, and BAM - we're on to something else, like Cthulhu gaming.  Then who knows if they'll ever get finished.

Let's take a look at how Harrow Home is being constructed.  I've previously stated the map is the very last thing that gets done by me.  I start with a notebook and create a written scheme for each level, identifying set pieces and major characters and encounter areas.  I spend a lot of time in meetings or traveling with my notebook, so I'm able to jot notes all the time.  The scope of the map is bound by the extent of my written notes.  The encounter ideas and set pieces are adjusted as necessary to fit the map, then I circle back and embellish any filler areas or empty spaces.

Maybe what follows isn't serious advice, but it goes something like this:  When you need to do something differently than how you're doing it, imagine how another person behaves, and then just act like the other guy.

So how would the Anti-Beedo approach a gigantic megadungeon project?  (Here's an aside about poor Beedo.  My blogger handle, Beedo, is gone.  I recently took the G+ plunge and it merged my G+ and blogger accounts.  Alas poor Beedo!  I knew him.  A fellow of infinite jest.  Now all of you are stuck with me).

Our imaginary Anti-Beedo starts with the map - the bigger the better.  I'm not terribly creative at drawing, so let's go find an appropriate random dungeon generator.  (If you know of a random generator you like, the Anti-Beedo would be grateful if you shared it in the comments).

Next up, the Anti-Beedo needs to quickly stock this monstrous thing.  I have no problem 'programming' in Excel to create a random dungeon stocker; I've frequently used the algorithms from Moldvay's Basic.  The content is another matter.

First off, you'll need a gigantic bestiary to go along with those gigantic maps.  I really liked the encounter tables from AD&D Monster Manual 2, from back in the day.  All the monsters were given ratings of Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare, and the encounter tables used bell curves assigning rarity based on a slot in the curve.  I could get behind that type of approach for structuring a large bestiary.

The esteemed Hack and Slash blog has a lot of resources for generating tricks and traps - I've used Courtney's trap generation tables plenty (check out the OSR resources area in his sidebar).  That'd be my first place to help fill out random stockers for tricks and traps.  I had heard someone was putting an index together for the 1d12 guy - The Dungeon Dozen (indeed - there is a fantastic index here).  Are there any other resources you guys like to use for tricks, traps, and specials?

You see where this is going.  Phase 1 of the Anti-Beedo's project is to draw maps - huge maps.  Anti-Beedo starts with the task I usually do dead last.  Phase 2 involves the creation of a giant bestiary, and tables for generating flavorful tricks, traps, and specials.  While I spend my time on "story" and cool encounter ideas, the Anti-Beedo mocks at such efforts this early in the process.  Randomize it up, baby.  Run your crazy dungeon stocker algorithm through dice rolls, Excel, a programming language, whatever.  Voila, you have the barebones for an instant megadungeon.  A gigantic megadungeon.

Phase 3 is actually going through the room by room descriptions and jotting in some brief notes that make sense of it all - incorporating the dungeon's back story, adding motivations or plots to the inhabitants, creating explanations for the placement of lairs, and so forth.  The stuff I usually do first, the Anti-Beedo tackles last.  And instead of jotting idle thoughts in his spare time months in advance, the Anti-Beedo saves it for game prep the week of the game.  He's all about the "just in time preparation".

Up until now, this has been a thought experiment.  Should it go any further?  Could I take one of my ideas and jam it through the Anti-Beedo's madness and see what comes out the other side?  I'm intrigued that the end result is potentially a vast, lightly detailed locale that provides a strong framework for improvisation - but allows the referee to elaborate between sessions.


  1. Meaning and coherency are what I'm paying for from a creator - anyone can take a monster & treasure assortment, a bunch of geomorphs,and go crazy. I'd be more interested in what the Beedo was up to than the Anti-Beedo. For what it's worth I'm following Harrow Home with interest and think it has the potential to fill the rare niche of a mini-mega-dungeon (10+ levels but each with only 30-50 rooms).

  2. It would appear that I am the Anti-Beedo. I usually start with a theme ("abandoned dwarven fortress"), then map and build encounter tables off of that, then roll the random room contents. And I can never prep more than a week in advance. For what it's worth, it works, but not all that well.

  3. This whole post is me saying, "Step into the kitchen, let's look at how the sausage is made". To Roger's concern, the Anti-Beedo's product couldn't be in a publishable state unless it had a lot of serious work applied. The Anti-Beedo technique is just a way to get a giant amount of content out there quickly, before that hard work of generating meaning and coherency from the random results.

    I keep meaning to make a dungeon that's more kid friendly for the family - I bet the Anti-Beedo technique would work well there. Or maybe after level 1 of Harrow Home is up later this week, Anti-Beedo will take a crack at it - that'd provide an interesting point-counterpoint to the two styles.

  4. I see it as the difference between taking a bit of clay and adding it to the sculpture piece by piece vs. lumping a huge blob of clay down and then shaping it from that big mass into the form that it should be. If you see what I'm trying to say. The first way is built to suit a previous inspiration, the second creates a basic form that inspires.

  5. The analogy is apt. My typical approach is additive, building up the sculpture by adding a piece at the time, whereas the Anti-Beedo starts with something large and formless and then shapes it.

    The bit that intrigues me about the Anti-Beedo approach is that it forces you to reconcile elements that wouldn't have been in the design otherwise. If my plan for level one previously consisted of 3 major lairs, when I sit down and draw the map, those are the only 3 things that are going to be there (barring some late-breaking inspiration). Anti-Beedo's approach of sifting through the random results for a much larger level could\should lead to discoveries and new elements that would never get included otherwise.

    “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

    See - I do like that sculpture analogy.

  6. Either approach lends itself to giving an "endgame" mindset. Beedo crafts a story with a beginning and an end, and then crafts the environs around it. It is a very "pilgrimish" approach -- We know that we have landed on the new world, we wish to be prosperous! Lets tame this new land. Conversely, the Anti-Beedo approach is "constructionist" -- I have this plot of land, lets build something just for the sake of building it and see what happens.

    Both can be used even in the story lines they are set in. The "Pilgrimish" approach lets a group of explorers build and colonize, pieces at a time while the wilds that surround them push back against their momentum. The "Constructionist" design lends itself to a crazy wizard who builds a wild crazy massive dungeon just because the voices in his head told him to -- hilarity ensues.

    But coming back to what I think you were trying to get across can be related to music. There are a few composers who craft songs, beautiful in melody and finely tunes to their tastes and the story they wish to tell. Then there is Pop music where a hook of a song is developed by committee and then they sprinkle in the "sizzurp and hoes" lyrics, also by committee. Both are palatable to the audience they are aimed at.

    The question then begs Beedo, and Anti-Beedo -- Who are you writing the games for? :)

  7. If the players like strong back story and plot elements in the dungeon design, regardless of where the referee started with their creative inspirations, then that's what the work calls for. It's back to "do the players need to know how the sausage was made?" They just want it to taste good.

    Different dungeon concepts have a higher tolerance for randomness (ie, reducing the amount of work the creator needs to do reconciling oddball results). I'm sure that's why 'it was built by a crazy wizard' is such convenient trope.

    The question for me is whether something like Harrow Home, with a strong baseline back story, could be delivered with levels that started as the work product of a random dungeon algorithm.

    After I post the rest of level 1, maybe I'll circle back and see how it would look through the alternate lens.

    1. It depends on what materials are included in the randomisation and what greater concept of the dungeon you have in advance. Say, if your generic randomiser spits out a few level with high level wizards, you may interpret the results as various wizard factions vying for power.

      However, if you know you would like a place with wizards and whatnot, you may need to alter the probabilities to get something random and inspiring, yet thematically mostly appropriate.

  8. Not particularly constructive commentary- but nice post. I like the switch of perspective and it helped me re-think some game planning I'd been working on.

  9. So here's the real question: Which one of you has the goatee?

  10. This is 2014 - Anti-Beedo is the clean shaven villainous one!

  11. Interestingly I did this for my home game this week. Using the gygax random dungeon generator with some minor tweaks. I randomly rolled up a four level 180 key dungeon. I used C's empty room, treasure and trick/trap rooms to livin things up. The resultant randomness inserted a few ideas I otherwise wouldn't have come with on my own. The mummy Crypt on level 4 guarded by giant bats. The level one and level two war of gobs and kobolds... Well I probably could have got these on my own. But the bugbears and ogre sealed off from the rest of their kin by a horde of ghouls and skeletons... thanks for the link to blessing of the dice, this site seems to be chaulk full of random goodies.