Saturday, January 10, 2015

Taenarum 2.0

Here's a technique I try whenever I find myself blocked or unable to solve a problem - just imagine how the person that's not you would approach the situation.  For instance, I've been considering how an old school megadungeon might look for 5e D&D.  So I approached the question another way -  how would a trendy designer working for one of the popular 3.x boutiques tackle a 5E megadungeon?

Introducing - Taenarum 2.0.

Taenarum 1.0 was an old school megadungeon I started working on last spring, for the kiddos and neighborhood players.  Taenarum is the legendary entrance to the Greek Underworld.  Hades, the god of wealth and the underworld, covets the souls of mortal heroes, and his undead minions created a sprawling maze that promised fantastic treasures and ready death.  We played Taenarum up until about Gencon, at which point the purchase of Icons (a superhero RPG) and a recent obsession with manga inspired me to run American Ninja Cowboys, our current super hero campaign.  Taenarum had a lot of good ideas, though, and the players never got too deep into the dungeon.

We’re still running Icons, although it's not going to be a long term campaign.  I'm behind on some game reports, in fact.  I can see a time within a few months when giant-sized Kaiju will stomp across post-apocalyptic America in the campaign finale.  When Icons wraps up, I'll have a 5E game ready to go.

Making peace with 5E from a campaign perspective came down to three tenets I'm going to try on for size - 'go small to go big', 'love the five-room dungeon', and 'needs more drow'.

In Order to Go Small, You Must First Go Big
A modern design isn't going to have pages and pages of graph paper, with rooms and passages filling every square of blank paper like those 1970's dungeons.  The modern megadungeon needs to big - so big you can't even graph it.  We're not dealing with squares any more - we're hexing it with the hex paper.  The road to the underworld in Taenarum 2.0 is going to be depicted as a meandering downward path on a hex map, leading to various spacious caverns and vaulted chambers the size of small wilderness areas, like the old Descent into the Depths of the Earth.  The new Taenarum has been biggered and bettered.

How I Will Learn To Love the 5-Room Dungeon
One of my other concerns has been the rate of advancement, and keeping the game moving along quickly without overbuilding the upper works with lots of rooms.  Taenarum 2.0 is going to have lots and lots of lairs - smallish dungeons without too many rooms, very modular and easy to plug in as necessary.  The 3.x crowd has been enamored with "five room dungeons" as a design concept, and that structure would work fine for lair creation and small dungeons.  I haven't been a fan of the five-room dungeon in the past, but I'll work on getting over it.

These two tenets together - a giant sprawling hex map, and lots of lairs and mini dungeons, seems like an interesting way to present a modern megadungeon.  I'm intrigued.

Need's More Drow (And Planescape Too)
I'm not a big fan of Drizz't.  I liked Erelhei-Cinlu and the 1970's introduction of the Drow - they had a decadent, opulent, sword & sorcery vibe.  Their hidden society was presented as a vice-ridden cesspool populated by pointy-eared Melniboneans.  Drizz't romanticized the villains and now the Drow are everywhere.  I haven't read the 5E adventures yet, but I'd hazard to guess there's a Drow villain in the Phandelver thing, in the Hoard of the Rise of Tiamat path, and probably in every book that Paizo still puts out (now I'm going to have go skim the 5E stuff, just for giggles).  All modern adventures need more Drow.  I'm going to put a whole Drow city in Taenarum.

Planar travel is a lot more accessible to modern characters too.  I  fondly remember Neil Gaiman's "Season of Mists" story arc on The Sandman, where all these extra planar and mythological entities come to the Dreamlands to barter for the key to Hell.  The afterlife is prime real estate!  With that in mind, I'm going to put a bunch of extra planar embassies in the depths of Taenarum, just outside the gates to the Underworld.  Everybody wants a piece of Hades.

In a rare burst of creativity, I quickly sketched a side view of Taenarum 2.0.  Check it out:

The Vaults
There are many set pieces, puzzles, and themes from Taenarum 1.0 that I can reuse for the 5E version as I build the lairs and mini dungeons.  The seven major vaults are each a destination, community, and potential base for  exploring the next leg of the journey.

Food of the Gods
The original Taenarum featured a fountain that mutated the surrounding fauna, leading to a chasm filled with giant bugs and lizards.  Seems like it can be ported almost directly.  Like its 1970's namesake, there was indeed a giant killer chicken, which amused me greatly.

Taenarum 1.0 had an underground market for various dark dwelling races to buy and sell exotic goods, like the troll market.  In Taenarum 2.0, it's the Hagagora.

Faceless Enclave
The Faceless are revenants that escape the underworld by swimming across the River Lethe, losing their memories and identity.  As undead, they can't return to the sunlight of the surface, so they've created their own refuge in the deeps.

Dark City
This is my place holder for the Drow City because, well, 'needs more Drow'.

One of the themes of Taenarum is the imprisonment of the Titans, and the efforts of Kronos's minions to free or awaken them.  The giants opposed the gods during a primeval war called the Gigantomachy.

Planar Embassies
Once you're this deep into the underdark, it's not even clear you're still on the Prime Material Plane any longer.  I'm picturing a Casa Blanca style settlement on the outskirts of the Underworld with representatives (embassies) from various interplanar factions - a place for intrigue for high level characters.

Shores of Styx
Charon, Cerberus, the whole thing, as the very bottom of the dungeon.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mustard or Ketchup with that Dungeon?

Choice is a funny thing in games.  We expect our choices to be meaningful, but the types and amount of choices the players should expect is contextual.  If you're signing up to play in your referee's adventure path game, you already know the campaign is going to take you from scene A to scene B to scene C as you follow the story. Plotted horror scenarios are similar.   But you're expecting that as you encounter the various scenes, there will be a range of potential outcomes and consequences based on how well everyone is playing.  Choosing to abandon the story to go do something random, like joining the traveling circus (the first random thing that came to mind), is probably not an option.  It's against the ground rules.

I like dungeons and hex crawls because they provide a degree of player freedom within a limited geographic scope.  Dungeons in particular are good at reducing options to various binary choices - go forward or go back, turn left or turn right.

One thing I'm ruminating about - what's a good number of plot hooks to float to the players at any given time in a sandbox style game?  Imagine you're kicking off a new fantasy game and you want to build a simple hex crawl with a series of lairs and adventure sites scattered about.  You need at least one adventure site ready to go for that first game.  Do you usually prepare a couple of sites in advance and float some options?

A sandbox game with a bunch of plot hooks is easier to keep going once the game is rolling.  Just ask the players at the end of each session what they want to do next week.  Your detailed preparation is limited by adopting a 'just in time' approach between games.  But kicking the game off and getting started is another matter.

When preparing some of the megadungeons I've ran in the past, I never worried about "overdeveloping" the dungeon or building in too many choices - and risking developing areas the players never choose to visit.  Now that I'm thinking through how 5E campaign development might look, I find myself worried about doing too much up front.  It's a weird mental block I need to get past.  (Maybe I've psyched myself out due to fast advancement!  Blargh.)

To answer my own question, though - I usually like to have two or three distinct plot hooks before the players.  If you put too many out there, you risk a bit of "analysis paralysis"; a beer and pretzels group of gamers can quickly decide between a couple of options.  But here's one thing I stand by - the choices do need to be distinct.  None of this 'all plot looks lead to the same thing' type of tomfoolery.   "You're getting a hot dog no matter what you ask for, but whether you want sauerkraut, mustard, or ketchup is up to you" - that works with my kids.  In an RPG, all roads shouldn't actually lead to Rome.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

How Many Licks to Get to the Center of the 5E Lollipop

I'm fascinated by this idea of the 5E megadungeon, and how many encounters you should expect the players to face before they can descend to the next set of more dangerous challenges.  Important information with which to arm oneself before treading into the unknown!  The latest Dungeon Master's Guide provides everything we need to project a rate of advancement and get a sense on how pacing could look.  Armed only with the power of a spreadsheet and basic math, let's see what I've discovered.

The first step is to look at the experience tables.  The 5E standard party is assumed to be 5 players, just like the past few editions.  You can multiply the experience chart figures x 5 to determine out how much cumulative experience a party needs to gain level 2, 3, and so on.  It's simple to subtract the previous total to find out how much new experience the party needs each level.  Example:  a 5th level character (6,500 xp) needs 7,500xp to reach 14,000xp and 6th level.  A party of five such characters would need to earn 37,500 to all advance from 5th to 6th level.

Next we turn our attention to the DMG's recommendations for encounter design and how much experience a party should earn for defeating an encounter.  It's page 82 of the DMG (or page 56 of the free DM rules).  Those pages demonstrate how to calculate experience budgets for encounters based on a difficulty range - easy, medium, hard, or deadly.   In our case, I multiplied the values by 5 for the hard difficulty range to identify an experience budget per encounter level, and got the experience value for the minimum hard encounter for each level.  From there, it's a simple formula to divide the amount of experience needed by the value of an encounter to see how many "hard" encounters a group needs to overcome in order to be ready to advance.  All this is in the attached chart below.

In the comments to one of the recent megadungeon posts, a number of folks noted that advancement slows down quite a bit in the mid-levels, and sure enough, the # of "hard" encounters required shifts from 4, to 8, and stays at 10 for a big chunk of levels.  I don't have much table-time with the 5E rules yet (okay, truthfully, I only did some playtests) but I'm assuming you can clear about 4 encounters in a 4 hour dungeon crawl.  That would let you clear levels 2 and 3 in a single game session, get to level 4 after 2 more sessions, and require 2-3 sessions for each level past 4.  That's right in line with the pacing suggested on "Level Advancement Without XP" on page 261.  It will take you 36-37 sessions of straight encounters to get to level 20 - less than a year if you play once a week.

Caveats apply:  I only used an average value of "hard" encounters, whereas a real campaign will have a blend of easy, medium, hard, and deadly encounters to throw at the party.  Maybe the average to clear level 1 is more like 5-6 sundry encounters, and not just 4 hard encounters.  It looks like the scant published adventures for 5E supplement encounter experience with some quest or milestone based awards, too.

Hope this was interesting!  I'm sure I'll discover additional ramifications of the numbers, but my first goal was just to understand how much content players need to encounter at each level before being ready to move on.  For instance, there's not much point in preparing 30 level-1 combat encounters in an area if the party is going to be ready to move onto bigger and better things after encountering only 4 of them.  How much content to prepare?  That's a question for another day - perhaps tomorrow.

Friday, January 2, 2015

D&D 5E and the Megadungeon

I've been enjoying the 5E rules.  It looks like a good version of the game.  But I keep coming back to how I'd run my style of campaign (preferably involving a large dungeon, nay, dare I say it? - a megadungeon) using the 5E rules.  Here's the problem:  characters level up extremely quickly in the first few 5E games.  You don't need a lot of game content before they're ready to move on to bigger and better things.

To put it in perspective, it's common for an old school megadungeon to have 80-100 rooms per level.  About a third of those rooms will have monsters, and players should be in a position to level up after 10-15 encounters in an old school game - about half of the rooms.  I've run a number of megadungeons the past few years.  It usually takes anywhere from 4-8 game sessions to advance, depending how long you play.  I could go into an explanation how I came by those numbers, but it's not terribly germane here - I want to focus on 5E.

The 5E characters don't spend a lot of time in the early levels - they should level up from level 1 to level 2 after the first game session, and get to level 3 after the second.  From there, the experience curve increases such that it should take 2-3 sessions per additional level.  It's still a fast ascent, about twice as fast as the older editions.  I don't disagree with the approach.  I can see younger gamers appreciating the chance to constantly improve their characters.  For the referee, there's no chance of getting bored with the bestiary - you're constantly throwing new and different monsters at the players.

But let's get back to that problem regarding the content.  You don't want to invest a lot of time creating content for a large dungeon, content that has very little chance of seeing play, because the players are advancing so quickly.  So those are our constraints - fast advancement, and limited prep time.  Constraints breed creativity.  The outside the box approach is to just change the rules.  Nuke the default experience system, and start using gold for experience like an old school game.  Make it work just 1E AD&D.  That's easy, but it's kind of lazy.  Can't we do better?

First, I tend to think of two styles of megadungeon, closed and open.  A closed dungeon is lost or unknown to the world, and the players are the first people to explore it after a very long time.  A closed dungeon is like a ship in a bottle or a fly trapped in amber - if there are living inhabitants in the dungeon, it must be some kind of closed loop balanced ecosystem in there, at least until the players show up and start killing everything in sight.  Designing a closed dungeon to fit the players seems pretty straightforward - just size the levels properly for advancement.

The other style of dungeon is different.  An open dungeon is well known, and visited.  It's assumed areas of the dungeon have been mapped and explored, perhaps cleared out by other adventurers.  There's foot traffic involving rival parties, and monsters from the surrounding areas may come and go.  It's a much more dynamic environment.  I tend to prefer open dungeons, it's fun to think through what it means to the surrounding areas to have a known source of adventure, danger, and dungeon gold just sitting in the nearby wilds.

Here are some options that are going across my brain for a large dungeon that attempt to work within the constraints - fast advancement and limited content.

The upper levels could be small.  Perhaps they are geographically small (meaning the maps don't cover a lot of ground), or the maps are large and relatively empty, and the content coverage is small - like maybe there are only a few areas of the upper levels that are unexplored territory.  A small map works fine for a closed dungeon, the large empty map (with only a few unexplored areas left at the fringes) is fine for an open dungeon - especially if the players can learn about the unexplored areas in advance, through rumors back in town.

What about collapsing levels 1-3 down to a single large level?  5E was supposed to bring 'bounded accuracy' to the table, so the danger curve isn't as steep.  It could satisfy the old school blood lust for a high mortality rate amongst freshly minted characters by mixing in 2nd and 3rd level threats throughout the dungeons upper works.  Dungeon level 1 would cover character levels 1-3, dungeon level 2 would correspond to character levels 4 (and possibly more), and then each new level would have a corresponding offset (dungeon level 3 is for 5th level characters, and so forth).  Hmmm, that idea seems pretty good as well.

A related idea might be to skip directly to the level 3 action.  The characters would still have the chance to advance from level 1 to level 3, but all of that happens outside of the dungeon as the players get introduced to the setting.  They get some experience fighting bandits, help an old lady across the street, find and return Farmer Maggot's lost pig, the meat and drink of high adventure.  PC's wouldn't actually be ready to take on the dungeon until they're at least 3rd level, and then we follow a similar offset as above (dungeon level 1 is for level 3 characters, dungeon level 2 is for 4th level characters, and so on).

5E uses a lot of shortcuts from the older games - simplified stat blocks, for instance.  It seems like it could be amenable to a barebones treatment - big maps, sparse notes, lots of random content.  Maybe the 5E megadungeon can be as barebones as an old school dungeon; the referee just needs to be okay if a large part of the maps don't get used.  I'm hesitant about this approach because 5E seems to invite more set pieces and detailed encounter areas as opposed to improvisation - although it's not nearly as dependent on encounter design as 4E.  I supposed there's an implied constraint - we don't want to create too much content up front, but we want it to be deep or rich.

There really wasn't a 4E megadungeon to look back on as a reference, from what I can recall.  Because there was tight integration between the challenges and the player's capabilities, the focus in 4E was on smaller encounters and lairs that each culminated in a set-piece boss fight.  The nearest analogues to the megadungeon in the 4E world was Thunderspire Labyrinth or Chaos Scar.  Thunderspire Labyrinth was a mid-level adventure in a giant abandoned maze - it used a sprawling hex-crawl sized map.  In theory, the place was full of side passages and chambers that were unmapped, but the game product only covered a handful of lairs within the larger labyrinth.  The players typically got directions and guidance on how to find the lair as part of the plot hook or mission briefing, and it was assumed they stuck to the directions.  If you want to go big - like Mines of Moria big - then Thunderspire Labyrinth is a model that could work for 5E, too.  I shook the dust of 4E off my boots  a long time ago, but that was my favorite product from that period.

The 4E Chaos Scar was interesting because it created a game context for deeper = more dangerous, and I love those types of ideas as frameworks.  The Chaos Scar was a lair-filled valley, carved in the past by a falling meteorite.  Somewhere deep in the valley, the chaos meteor was still present, lurking.  The deeper the players penetrated into the valley, the more dangerous were the lairs nestled in the canyon walls.  It basically flipped the dungeon from a vertical construct to a horizontal construct.  Neat concept, but I didn't stay with 4E long enough to see how the final campaign played out.  The lairs were published in WOTC's  monthly online Dungeon magazine.  Does anyone know off hand if they were ever made free \ public?

I'm going to play around with encounter design and experience budgets over the weekend and see how the suggested numbers work.  I like the idea of collapsing the top levels down to a single level (covering levels 1-3) assuming there's a way to make it challenging but not instantly deadly - like having some gradients of encounters across the level.  I like the node-based lair approach of Thunderspire Labyrinth, too.