In this project’s initial article we discussed 14 major points that every mega-dungeon should, as a rule, have. (We all know why rules are made, but…) These bulwarks of design will carry through from the initial concept to the final, continually evolving aspect of the mega-dungeons we create. These 14 points are the spark of life for the mega-dungeons; they are the 14 defining elements from which all else springs. While some of these elements themselves may evolve or change over time, they offer a stability to the magnificently balanced whole. Stability and constancy in a maelstrom of epic adventure are the balance we seek, and these elements offer guideposts along the way. They are a sort of points-of-light concept for the dungeon master, and can be referred to at all points during the design, construction, and maintenance of the mega-dungeon.
1. The mega dungeon should have a lot of levels, sub-levels, side-levels, secret levels, etc.
It is a given that a mega-dungeon should be big, where else would the “mega” come in? But how big is big, anyway? My understanding of a mega-dungeon is that it should be big enough that multiple species (of monster) can each carve out enough space for their cultures to survive in niches of their own. It should be big enough that there are multiple environments, such as flooded levels, and areas with molten lava streams, or even extra-planar/dimensional pockets, to name a few. The depths can become so great that the lower levels pierce the Underdark, or a mountain so tall that the upper levels are frigid wastelands where breathing is difficult, or might even brush against the astral sea. The size should be so vast that while exploring the PCs are constantly surprised by its dimensions. In fact, a true mega-dungeon could be considered of unlimited size, since additional areas can and should be added as long as the mega-dungeon is active in the campaign world. These can be added by DM fiat, they could be newly discovered chambers, or recently excavated, for example.
Much of what is now taken as standard and hanckneyed in the D&D game was all new back in 1972 and 1973. Working feverishly to keep ahead of the eager players, I created levels of the Greyhawk Castle dungeons at a rate of one a week.
The goal of the immense size of a mega-dungeon is manifold. For one, it must offer enough adventuring options for a typical party to find adventure for more than one level, in fact, I would be willing to state that a true mega-dungeon should have at least a solid tier’s worth of adventuring. If we take that as the base-line for size, then we can do a basic calculation: 10 encounters times 10 levels, to find that our mega-dungeon must have a minimum of 100 encounters. However, that is just the beginning. A dungeon should be big enough to explore, and also have enough encounters that the PCs can make meaningful choices about where they explore. Branching paths are the best method of achieving this. By means of choice, discovery, or the success or failure of a skill challenge, the PCs will delve ever deeper along the entwining paths of the mga dungeon. And finally, thought must be given to multiple parties. If every group that enters has to follow the exact treadmill of encounters from level 1 to 10, it is not a mega-dungeon.
Other reasons for its size include the discovery, exploration and mapping of the dungeon as its own reward. The mega dungeon house many arcane and bizarre artifacts as well as monsters and other beings of unusual powers. The vaired environments themselves also offer a wealth of opportunity. The earliest editions of the game stressed that in large dungeon complexes, a certain percentage of rooms should be empty. These buffer zone rooms helped add verisimilitude to the dungeon, and they also provided more reason for a skilled mapper amongst the players. Huge sprawling complexes where often times over 50 percent of the rooms were empty, would require literally miles of underground mapping by some poor player, in this case translated into multiple taped together scraps of barely legible maps.
The players love the empty or monster free rooms as they are a jaded bunch, always looking for a safe haven or a chance to set up an ambush of their own. On the other hand, since I have begun my personal renaissance of DnD, beginning with 3e and now 4e, I have evolved as a game master. No longer do I want to frustrate the player and waste time explaining the number of feet before a turn in a hallway. my large 3rd edition dungeon complex, informally known as the Barrow of King Zagyg, was made using old school methods, and it was fun to explore. However, the specificity of the non-battle areas seemed a little unnecessary and cumbersome, not to mention the mega mess of a taped together monstrosity of a players map.
In 4e, this has evolved even further to the point where the areas between the encounter areas are abstract and becomes either a skill challenge or more of a decision tree of choices the same as older editions, eg do we go through the door or down the descending hallway? – however it skips over the needless and time consuming minutiae.In older editions of the game, the experience rewards for the Pcs were based around the value of the treasure accrued, as well as experience for monsters slain. This small difference meant that a parties xp usually was heavily weighted by the treasure to the point where often it was in their best interest to avoid the fight and steal the treasure. Now, the goal is more directly tied to defeating the monster to get the experience and the treasure.
Dragons (and other monsters) will be covered another time, for now the name of the game is dungeons, and these require maps, the more the better. Maps are an easy resource to find or create, and for many dms, myself included, they are one of the true joys of the game. I find maps of all kinds to be beautiful, and dungeon maps are fun and satisfying to create. Before computers, these would be hand drawn lovingly on pads of graph paper, shaded and labeled with pertinent facts, sometimes even little sketches of the monsters therein, for spatial purposes of course.
The art and mechanics of mapping
For most of my dming career I have kept notebooks full of maps. It was a convenient way to keep things together, and as the campaign progressed, I would work through the notebook, filling it with notes during play (alot of hp tracking unfortunately lol). It has served me well, but I have recently adopted a new method, that of using the computer to make my maps. I still keep a notebook, but now it is 85 percent play notes and 15 percent maps, usually rough drafts of ideas, sketches, or improvised maps. Also in this category are the level overview maps which I will get into later.
Aside I have a strict rule, which I call the Luke’s Diner rule, of no electronics at the table, with very few exceptions. This prohibition is on internet and computer usage mostly, but extends down the digital line to the lowly cell phone dangling at the bottom. The few times when I have relaxed the rule, I have looked up to find a table full of noses in netbooks and little attention on the game. “I just want to look something up!” I even include myself in that category, as I am prone to the same thing. Of course, if some one really must do something, I will make exceptions gracefully, however it will always have a negative impact on the game. It is very possible this is a curmudgeonly rule, and that many savvy players use these devices, like their i-pod dice rollers “they really shake!” or their whatever elses. Not for my game, bah-humbug. At least not until I get a dice roller app that really shakes. But enough of that, back to the story.
Since I have become a fan of Dungeon Tiles, I have found excellent software to make maps using the tiles on my PC, and this has revolutionized my mapping. Is it for the better? I dont have a good answer to that, except that it has cut down the time it takes me to prep for a game, and I can take a more casual, connected approach to map-building. Now I prep by making my encounter areas ahead of time on the computer, then on game night, I just arrange the tiles into the maps I made. Sometimes I will play around with the tiles before the game and take a photo of what I want, so there are a number of ways to achieve the same affect. Drawing them free-hand on graph paper, however, is rarely the best way. With the vast variety of dungeon tiles out there, it is easy to keep each encounter areas fresh and different. I have never had a problem building a scene, whether it is a sand blasted street in the desert city of Nazerak or a dungeon beneath Keep on the Shadowfell. The only problem that has cropped up is that of not having more of the one I need, so I advise buying multiple sets, especially of the types specific to your focus, be they wilderness, cavern, or tavern, etc.
The usage of 3d tiles has also added to the versatility of dungeon tiles. The biggest draw back to them is when making big or open areas. Here is its best to find a poster map, of which WotC have released many over the years, including 3 great ones in the original adventure Keep on the Shadowfell.
To bring back the idea of drawing maps out on graph paper, I had the idea to buy a roll of pre-printed graph paper on 1 inch squares in a gift-wrap sized roll from my local game store, and then draw the maps to be used for the encounters on those. This is an idea inspired by Chris Perkins DM to the stars, and the cool maps he had drawn for the Robot Chicken video series. This is especially useful for the above mentioned large open areas, since that is hard to recreate with Dungeon TIles.
So, to re-cap, all of my encounter areas now are done with Dungeon TIles, with poster maps I have acquired over the years, and with my own hand drawn maps on rolls of scale graph paper. This requirement means that I am now drawing my mega dungeon in a fundamentally different way than I was in previous editions, not so much because of a rule change, other than the greater focus on positioning and terrain, but rather as a metamorphosis of the tools I use to build the encounters themselves. Not just the maps, but the idea of the 3-5 encounter delve, and the further idea that a nights adventuring can often be made more episodic and tailored to an evening of gaming, rather than just played as written without giving thought to the natural breaks between play sessions.
This method of mega dungeon creation allows, but is not limited to, letting the mega dungeon grow naturally as a game progresses. As E.G.G. said above, to keep the mapping one week ahead of the players. Each week will see another branch of the mega dungeon explored. Some of these areas will be simple delves, a nights play, or an area that spans multiple weeks. The only free hand map I have drawn is a stylized map of the 1st level. Into this map, I place the paths that lead to the multitude of encounter areas, or delves. The paths can be discovered by many means, form simple exploration and mapping to more complex skill challenges. Each time a new area of the map is opened up for discovery, I will fill in more of my rough level map by hand, then create the encounter areas using software, and finally lay them out on the game table composed of the various tiles and other accessories I own.