Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Megadungeon Design and Philosophy - Part 2
One of the most easily overlooked (or is that underlooked?) features of the Megadungeon is the humble ceiling. More so than walls and floors, even. Ceilings suffer from a sort of "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome, and unless detailed in explicit flavor text, just gets skipped over. Adding some discussion of the ceilings can really give depth (or height?) to your rooms, chambers, and caves. Here's a quick table to randomly determine ceiling type, or pick and choose as desired:
1. Cut from Natural Stone
5. Oculus (Dome w/sky-light)
8. Murder Holes
9. Sound Baffles
12. Decorative Molding
13. Wood Joists
14. Wood Paneled
15. Caisson (ornamental asian style)
16. Arcade (a succession of arches)
17. Rough Natural Stone
18. Dirt with Hanging Roots and Vines
19. Cavern / Stalactites
20. Illusion (appears to be open sky above, etc).
Another way to give your Megadungeon a bit more realism is to consider how your grouping the monsters within it. Encountering some orcs, then some kobolds, then some more orcs, then some trolls, and then some more kobolds, can give them impression that the setting is a bit more random than is realistic. The Megadungeon environment is a harsh one, and birds of a feather will no doubt flock together, as often as possible. If you've randomly determined several chambers are full of orcs, rearrange things so those orcs are close together. Give them some tribal insignia, maybe divide them into two or more tribes if you like.
Grouping not only gives your Megadungeon a more realistic feel, it will help open the door for more roleplaying, give your players a chance to get involved in the politics and power structures of the Underworld. If the basilisks on level four are giving the party a hard time, they may be able to negotiate with the nearby Trolls of the Roasted Halfling, who have long coveted that territory. It will also help your players focus a little more on resource management, and lead to roleplay opportunities outside the dungeon, such as seeking out a reliable source of Stone to Flesh scrolls for that expedition into the basilisk caves, or researching the religious heirarchy of Bugbears for some good ideas on negotiating or intimidating the War Tribe occupying and guarding the Grand Ramp down to level six.
Other power structures can be used for grouping as well. Like-minded or subservient creatures may cluster around religious centers, "agricultural" areas, or powerful "alpha dogs" like Liches, Dragons, or Rakshasas. This will give smart groups the opportunity to clear a large area of foes through careful planning and resourcefulness, as removing the head organizer of a grouping can cause them to flee, disorganize, or lapse into ambivelance. Diplomatically inclined parties can also negotiate for safe passage through a grouping, or even bribe their way through or offer to help out against a competing power.
The Mythical Underworld and Dungeon Ecology
In the game's earliest days, little thought was given to the "ecology" of the Megadungeon, that is to say where everyone got their food from, fresh air, breeding, or even where they poop. From an old-school perspective, these things just aren't very important, but occasionally a player may wonder about these things, or question the level of "realism" in the dungeon.
The Megadungeon as a Mythical Underworld is your best friend when these considerations arise. Philotomy Jurament discusses the subject at length here, and its an excellent thing to keep in mind as you're designing your Megadungeon. Monster's just don't need a "realistic" reason to exist, or subsist, in the Megadungeon. While the uppermost levels of the place may, indeed, be grounded in the material world, say the basements of wizard's tower or the underground fortress of a dark overlord, at its bottom-most roots, the Megadungeon is an extension of the mythical Underworld. It is a supernatural place, and need not follow the laws of our earthly plane.
Similarly, its denizens need not follow those earthly laws. At their most mundane, the humanoids in the Megadungeon are merely squatters, they need not breed and live out their lives in this environment, and their daily fight for survival may be as difficult as that of the adventuring parties that encounter them. At the other end of the spectrum, the monsters themselves can be presented as being more supernatural in origin. Rather than a tribe of goblins being shoehorned into following the earthly requirements of a tribe of aboriginal humans, as they are often presented, it can be far more rewarding to present them as explicitly unnatural. Perhaps they are spawned from the darkness in the depths of the Megadungeon, and feed on the fear and nightmares of their victims, rather than normal food and water.
Never forget, unless the party's main opponents in the dungeon are human, their adversaries are drawn almost exclusively from our own human myths and legends. There is no real reason to try and force human rules onto these creatures, who from the beginning have been presented as being beyond human understanding: elemental and capricious entities of unknowable origins, with unfathomable designs and motivations, united only in their malicious intent toward the human race.
Part three of Megadungeon Design and Philosophy will cover historical research in your campaign world, the effect of the Megadungeon on the local economy, the value of myth and rumor, and more.