Monday, June 28, 2010

Episodic Play - Part Four: Adventure Styles continued

from here.


t may seem unlikely at first glance that one of my best resources for episodic play is having a Megadungeon handy. At the moment I have three - my own Forsaken Halls, which I've used dozens of times now, as well as the excellent, and delightfully old-school, Megas Stonehell and Castle of the Mad Archmage, which I am hoping to have occasion to use in the near future.

Oddly, the scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to Episodic Play than for the more common "clear the dungeon" style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign). Simply put, the basic idea behind this adventure style is to give the players a reason to get in and out of the Mega before the session is over.

From what I've been able to read, or heard recounted, from the original designers of the game, sessions in Greyhawk and Blackmoor (the dungeons) seem to have been an in-an-out deal as a matter of course. You entered the dungeon at the beginning of the session, and made damn sure you were back out of it before it ended. I've not really heard it explicitly stated how Gary or Dave managed to get players in and out of a dungeon or adventure in one session. I have however experienced this a couple of times with Dave running his infamous Temple of the Frog, so I'm assuming the basic theory is the same as what was used with Castle Blackmoor.

Exploratory Play

Later in this article I'll be getting into specific Megadungeon missions, but the best reason to explore a Megadungeon, in my opinion, is for the simple joy of exploration. Exploration in a giant Funhouse of Horror! Exploratory play, however, seems to have the fewest explicitly stated reasons to get in and out of the dungeon in one session (unless as mentioned above this is simply assumed). Its all too easy to have the players slogging through level after level, setting up camps as they go. Fortunately, there are several compelling reasons not to go about things that way.

Experience - Players like to level up! Simply enforcing many of the standard rules governing the acquisition of experience points can help ensure your players don't become Megadungeon squatters for weeks at a time. Make sure they fully understand that no xps are given until the characters return to home base.

Treasure - Treasure, also, doesn't count towards experience unless you get it out of the dungeon and back to civilized lands where you can spend it on wine, women, and mandatory training.

Instant Death - The easiest way to make sure no one's setting up a new branch of Jellystone on level 5 is to imply that staying in the dungeon overnight (or after midnight, or after the moon rises, etc) is Certain Death. This is a particularly fun way to do things, especially if your Megadungeon is less mundane and more a Supernatural Underworld. It also makes placing those rare "safe areas" in your Mega a lot more special. Have your dungeon go all Silent Hill at midnight, and watch the players run for home!


Assigning missions can also be a good way to facilitate episodic play in a Megadungeon. If your players have a clear objective, there's no need to stay in the dungeon for weeks at a time - its more rewarding financially, experience-wise, and health-wise, to get in, secure your objective, and get out again. Players that allow themselves to get distracted are likely to die in all sorts of horrific ways, while players that get the job quickly and efficiently done reap all the gold and glory.

This is also a good way to let a Megadungeon into your non-Megadungeon centered campaign.

The types of missions are many and varied, of course. In fact, I feel a random table coming on...

Megadungeon Missions (3d12)
3. Rescue a princess / noblewoman.
4. Obtain pieces of a rare monster for a wizard's library.
5. Recover a lost tome.
6. Recover the remains of a fallen adventurer.
7. Map a portion of a level.
8. Defile a shrine.
9. Confirm the validity of a rumor.
10. Kill a tough guardian monster.
11. Recover historical artifacts.
12. Capture a rare beast.
13. Bring back a rare plant or herb.
14. Discover the fate of a missing hero.
15. Loot a tomb.
16. Raid a wizard's laboratory for a rival.
17. Secure a religious artifact.
18. Disarm/bypass a gauntlet of traps.
19. Open a magically sealed vault.
20. Hunt down a renegade/rival adventuring party.
21. Seal off a level.
22. Carry out a curative fungus unique to the Megadungeon.
23. Recover the magical gear of a fallen adventurer.
24. Capture a valuable jewel with a powerful guardian.
25. Capture a powerful monster alive.
26. Discover a new access to a lower level.
27. Bring back a sample of water from a deep lake or pool.
28. Prepare a series of "safe rooms" with provisions.
29. Copy an important mural for further research.
30. Copy hieroglyphs carved into a wall for deciphering.
31. Kidnap the nymph consort of a powerful enemy.
32. Debunk a great myth.
33. Rescue a trapped adventuring party.
34. Secure five mummified bodies.
35. Trap a number of giant vermin for research purposes.
36. Discover the fate of a famous lost wizard/paladin/thief.

To be continued...


  1. Thank you for writing this! The question of why adventurers don't camp out in a megadungeon has always bugged me, because it seemed so logical. But that's just me imposing my lawful aspect upon a chaotic system!

  2. I am enjoying this series hugely- thanks for writing it.

  3. Another helpful posting. What I love about this is the straightforward acceptance of just what kind of thing the megadungeon is- a sandbox setting, alive, changing, and WAY too big for a bite-size consumption. I've always felt that a megadungeon has to be approached in every way differently to your more garden variety dungeon. The notion of 'cleaning out' a megadungeon should be as instinctively absurd to the players as, say, 'cleaning out' the Citystate of the Invincible Overlord. It should be awe inspiring, and a permanent geographical feature in the campaign setting at large. By this logic, an episodic approach would seem ideal. You should feel as able to write an episodic story sequence about various ill-fated forays into a legendary megadungeon as you would about Sanctuary, the Citystate or Lankhmar...

  4. Eh, some of the best adventures were players trying to carve out a "base" in a megadungeon. Clearing the area of monsters, negotiating with the monsters/powers nearby for safe passage, finding items and passages that otherwise they would have missed because of their intense scrutiny of their area, dealing with repercussions of upsetting the natural "underground" order of things.....very fun.

    A megadungeon base camp can facilitate episodic play if the DM has a large rotating cast of characters...instead of using the town as a safe rest spot, they can use the base camp instead if it's well protected and established.

  5. I obviously have an ulterior motive for encouraging you to use a d30 instead of 3d12 here for your table. But I wanted to point out that because you use 3 dice, you get results on a curve, which means the results at the ends are FAR less common than the ones closer to the center. Maybe you intended that, but it does tend to get old seeing the same 3-4 results crop up so often.

    I'd actually suggest adding a few to the list and rolling d%.

    I like the idea of Dungeon Dooms on a table for characters who don't get out of the dungeon by the end of the session. But I would need to do a megadungeon-focused campaign to do that, since there would be the incongruity of wilderness expeditions. Unless the wilderness got pretty crazy at the end of the session too ... but that limits how far from the town base you can go. I hear that's how the West Marches Sandbox is supposed to go though. Only way to handle it with multiple adventuring groups and/or wildly varying player composition session to session.

    I guess, in short, it sounds awesome but to me, only as a tool for that specific type of campaign. Again, awesome.



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