Happy Megadungeon Monday!
It’s time to take a whirlwind tour of the dungeon.
Sometimes, it’s hard to describe the design process. So much of it is about gut feeling and intuition and game design is an alchemy. It is a part art, part science, and part mysticism. And honestly, it is a LOT less regimented than it appears. I said at the start that this was a big, advanced, massive project. A magnum opus. The culmination of everything I personally believe about game design. And this is where it is really starting to show out.
As I promised, I’m going to walk you through my thought process, day by day and section by section as I created the big ole layout of the dungeon and how I overlaid the critical path on top of it. But as I started writing all of this stuff out, I discovered a few things. First, a lot happened in my brain and it takes a lot to type it all out. Seriously, this became WAY longer than I thought it would be. Which is why it kind of has to be broken down into a couple of parts. Second, there’s a lot I can’t explain from first principles. I mean, I say things like “and here is where want to start tutorializing the structure of the adventure,” and then I explain how to do that stuff. But it’s hard for me to explain WHERE that stuff comes from. So, before I launch in, I’m very briefly going to try to explain two concepts that pretty much drive everything I explain below. It’ll take three paragraphs, tops. I promise.
Where the Hell This Stuff Comes From
First of all, there’s a very basic concept called “the beginner’s mind.” Basically, you assume that someone new to your thing, whatever it is, needs to have EVERYTHING shown to them. We basically wrote out a whole bunch of design principles. We decided how our game was meant to run. How it should be played. Right? Well, we have to assume the players don’t know any of that. But we want them to have the best possible time playing the game. So, everything we’ve decided, we need to find a way to show off. And you’ll see just how deep we’re gonna go down that rabbit hole.
Second of all, a lot of the basic ideas for building the structure and mechanics of the Megadungeon comes from playing a lot of games critically. And that means basically reverse engineering the games you play. What you have to understand is that you enjoy a game because of the way it feels. The Aesthetics of a game are the things that make a player enjoy it. But when you design a game, you can’t just put Aesthetics in. You can’t just make a game FEEL the way you. Instead, you create all the game elements (which include BOTH story elements AND game mechanics) and you try to get them to create the feeling you want. This is called the MDA approach. The game designer creates Mechanics (here meaning all the different rules and systems and story elements and characters and settings and whatever), players interact with the game Dynamically, and the result is certain game Aesthetics. Playing games critically involves figuring out how the game “feels” and then working out what things it is doing to make itself feel that way.
Once you combine those two ideas – that anything important in your game NEEDS to be explained or demonstrated and that you can only create feelings by figuring out the right mix of game elements and sticking them together – then the rest involves a lot of thinking and a lot of practice and a lot of experimentation. So, while I can show you my thought process for all of this, you’re going to have to fill in some of the blanks. You’re going to have to work out some of the “whys” and “how do I knows” for yourself. Sorry.
A Tale of Two Maps
As I take you on a tour of the dungeon, I’m going to refer to two maps. The first is the blocky map that I created to lay out where the days were and how they related to each other. The second is a map of the critical path through the dungeon. And I created it very simply. I just took all the blocks I had used to create the first map and through a line through the encounter spaces to create a path that had the right number of encounters for that adventuring day. The thing is, though, I’m not going to talk TOO much about the critical path just yet. Because it’s just sort of a line right now. A general sense of where the action should go. It’s just a rough idea. When we start laying out encounters, we’re going to rethink the critical path.
The one thing I did have to figure out though was where the milestones are on the map. And also where the vertical connections are between the levels. So, you’ll see big blocky up/down arrows (triangles) that represent vertical connections between the levels which get turned into dotted lines on the critical path map. And on the critical path map, you’ll see colored circles that represent the “keys” that unlock the color coded areas.
Before we start breaking it all down, here’s the big maps again. Clicking on them will enlarge them in a new window. And now, let’s take a tour of the first ten days of our dungeon adventure.
Day 1 to Day 3: The Adventure Begins
The act of sketching a map like this is not merely an act of laying out physical space. Because the map will ultimately provide the plot and structure for the game and because it will guide the players and because it will tell the story of the adventure, drawing the map entails thinking about a lot of things and making a lot of decisions. And, frankly, the first three days of the adventure involved more thought and decision than any other days. Because they have to set the tone for the adventure. They have to introduce concepts about how the dungeon will work. They have to draw the players into the story. And they have to train the players to think certain ways.
All we know so far about how the story starts is that the heroes are drawn to this place because of a generic hook involving some kobolds. After they deal with the kobolds, they discover the site is a lot more extensive than it seems. And that there is a greater plot going on. So, from a story perspective, we want them to reach a goal, to stop when they reach that goal, and then come back another day. What we need is a quest that is time sensitive – that has a sense of urgency so the players will stop to complete it – but one that goes away once it’s dealt with.
We know these kobolds have been drawn to this site in service of a dragon. And the dragon has been gradually corrupted by the presence of the evil demon. We can assume the kobolds are following the dragon’s orders to search the site for ways to unseal the demon while also doing what kobolds do, looting and pillaging the site. But the kobolds also need supplies. They need food, tools, all of the amenities. So, in the outer area of the site, they have a raiding party. And the raiding party wanders out into the wilderness, hunts, gathers supplies, and brings them back. Suppose the kobold raiders stole something that has to be returned urgently. Maybe the nearby town has been afflicted with a disease? And several people have days to live. The kobold raiders attacked a trader who was bringing medicine from a distant land. When the heroes retrieve the medicine, it is urgent they return it to town immediately and not delay. So, the heroes arrive, defeat the raiding party, are tantalized by the extensive paths they couldn’t explore, return the medicine to town, and then gear up for an expedition.
Of course, the kobolds will have to draw them along a little. They will have to learn that the kobolds serve “someone” and they have a greater plan and they might be dangerous to the local settlement. That will motivate hack-and-slashers and greater-do-gooders. We have to tantalize the party with valuable treasure and magic, to motivate the greedy and power-hungry. We have to imply the site has a complex and interesting history, to motivate the investigators and the archaeologists. And we have to show closed-off paths and unturned stones to motivate the explorers and spelunkers. These things will give the party motivations to return and keep digging.
Now, not only does this story serve as a simple hook for the heroes that creates the structure we need, it also teaches the PLAYERS (not the characters) something about how this game is going to go. And we’ll reinforce. Basically, we want them to understand that it’s okay to break the dungeon down into chunks and make a series of expeditions. And we also teach them to expect solid milestones.
This lesson gets reinforced on day 2. On day 2, the party returns and explores the one path open to them. Conveniently, they become trapped and have to escape. I’ll come back to this idea in a second because we want to work out HOW they get trapped. But for now, just understand that on day 2, we trap them, they find a way out and open a way forward. Not only do they, once again, spend a day adventuring and hit a milestone, they also learn that new paths get opened to them when they explore.
Day 3 builds further on this lesson. Because we want to be repetitive as hell. On Day 3, the party finds the Skeleton Key. That’s their milestone. Day of adventure. Milestone. Open new paths. BUT, they have to backtrack to find the new path. Because it isn’t right in front of them this time.
So, you can see that the first three days of adventure are not just apprentice levels in terms of experience and power, but they are also training levels. These days teach the players the structure of the adventure by repeating it AND by adding lessons to it.
This, kids, is called tutorializing. You teach the players the behaviors you want by forcing them (gently) to behave that way until they internalize it. We’re going to do A LOT of tutorializing in this adventure. Because tutotializing is about empowerment. When you give the players the opportunity to learn how best to play the game and deal with obstacles, you give them the power to earn their own victories and to see how they failed when they failed. From subtle things like conforming to a structure to more overt things like introducing enemy tactics in a controlled way and then creating situations where those tactics can be exploited, everything serves as a lesson for everything else.
But let’s not jump ahead. Here’s the maps.
Day 1 is pretty simple. It’s just a nice little isolated chunk of dungeon with a pretty short, direct critical path and one or two side rooms. Chase the kobolds, find the kobolds, get the medicine. And, conveniently, the kobold camp is precisely where the passage to day 2 is. So we give them a place to come back to.
And this, by the way, enables another lesson. When the players return on day 2, they will run into a random encounter or two. Minor vermin that have filled in some of the spaces the kobolds have cleared. They will learn that the dungeon is alive and things wander in it.
Now, day 2 will build on THAT lesson. On day 2, the party falls into the crypts. And they have to escape. And by escaping, they have to open previously sealed passages into the crypts. We’re going to force them to do that. And once the crypts are open, undead are now free to wander the site. When the party returns, maybe on day 3 or maybe later, they will start to have random encounters with the undead. That will teach them that their actions change the dungeon. They should realize (if we play it up right) that they unsealed the undead and allowed them to escape. This will actually also form a story arc that ends many, many days later when they finally destroy the corrupted spirit.
And thus, in three days of adventure, we teach the players all of the major structural elements of the game. Exploring in chunks, hitting milestones, backtracking to previously inaccessible areas, wandering encounters, and how their actions affect the encounters they have.
But, the funny thing is, none of that really requires anything special of the map. The map could be shaped like anything to accomplish those goals. So we can pretty much just lay out boxes. Right? Mostly, yes. I bet you were expecting me to say “well, no… not really because of reasons.” But, right now, the shape of the dungeon itself doesn’t matter much.
But what’s interesting is we can also start thinking about the different regions of the dungeon. Because, in addition to introducing the cast of characters (kobolds, undead, elven builders) and the structure of the game, we also want to start introducing the geography of the site. And that means, as I’m drawing, I’m also thinking a little about the layout of the place and maybe the history.
The first day takes place in the Desiccated Sanctuary. I chose those words partly because they were cool and partly because they were evocative of the Chozo Ruins area of Metroid Prime. And Metroid Prime did more to make me want to create this dungeon than anything. A sanctuary is a place of safety. A place of retreat. Maybe a place of providence. But it is also a place of peace. Desiccated means dried out, devoid of life, dehydrated. But the Desiccated bit is new. It wasn’t always that way. There was water here. And life.
Why would elves build an underground complex? That’s the tricky question. After all, that’s a dwarf thing. The place would have to be pretty special. And it was. On the other side of this mountain is a volcanic crater, fertile, teaming with life, and home to a giant tree. If the elves discovered that, it would seem like a holy site. But still, there has to be more to it than that. What were they even DOING here? What IS the tantalizing mystery?
Well, we already mentioned dwarves. What if this particular group of elves had an alliance with dwarves? Not just a grudging trade agreement or anything like that. What if a group of martial elves had been in the mountains because they were giving military support to their dwarven friends. Perhaps against the giants. In some ancient war. A detachment of elves was routed and driven into a mountain pass. There, they found a series of natural tunnels and hid to recover their strength. And in wandering the tunnels, they discovered the Great Tree. What a providence from the elven gods, right?
So, they began to build a sanctuary. Once the giant wars were over, elven missionaries came to the site. They started by improving some of the caves and forested grottoes. And, while they received assistance from their dwarven friends, they did it in an elven way. They added art and sculpture to the natural tunnels and carved out open patios and meditation spaces and weird half-underground gardens and waterways. Places to wander and contemplate a different form of natural splendor. Water and stone and the mighty plants that can split the stone and draw the water from the cracks. They build waterways and canals and galleries.
And THAT is the Desiccated Sanctuary. It is the dried out, sand filled, husk of those first spaces the elves made. With the water gone, the plants withered and petrified. The channels became choked with sand and rubble. The air dried. And it became tan and gray and dead.
So, the Desiccated Sanctuary is a mix of constructed spaces, natural tunnels and grottoes, many of which are probably open to the sky, and improved tunnels with pathways and gardens and sculptures. And there, they commemorate part of their historical friendship with the dwarves.
The Crypt of the Ageless is also odd. Elves live for such a long period of time and they probably reproduce very slowly. So crypts would be unusual for them. Extensive crypts, anyway. Unless, of course, they were at war. So, much of the Crypt would be filled with memorials to elven soldiers and bladesingers and warmages who fell against the giants and their orcish allies to help drive them from the mountains and also serve as a bulwark for the elves of the valleys beyond. When an elf dies violently, so much is lost. So many centuries are left unlived. Every elven death is a tragedy worth commemorating. There are no simple shelves or ossuaries filled with the dead. Their chambers are memorials and remembrances.
Finally, day 3 introduces the Sacred Halls. We have to assume that, after the giant wars were over, elven missionaries and scholars retreated here to contemplate the singular wonder of this place. And so, they began construct new halls, probably more akin to other underground structures, though beautiful in their own way. And that is how they discovered the strange Crystalline Caverns beneath the site. And they discovered the mysterious magical ore. And so, workspaces and libraries and mana-forges were built to extract the secrets of the strange magic beneath the place. They also would have discovered the mystical source of water, a rift to the Elemental Planes, above the site.
So, we think about these things while we’re mapping. Day 1 is just simple boxes because it needs to be a straightforward little dungeon, nothing more.
It’s day 2 and day 3 that make things complicated. Specifically, we need to create a situation in which the players can become trapped in day 2 and, by escaping, open the way to day 3.
Between day 1 and day 3, we need a couple of one-way doors. Doors that can only be opened from the back. And, at these experience levels, it’s easy enough to accomplish with stout doors that are barred. That is to say, they are not merely locked, but they are solid metal bars behind them, securing them, that must be physically removed. Day 2 allows the party to come out BEHIND these doors. Opening the way back.
We have to assume the kobolds have some way to get in and out of the site. So, wherever the kobold encampment at the end of day 1 is, there is a hallway that leads deeper into the site. Now, we have a site that is seismically active. We’re not above a little railroading at this stage of the game. So, when the party explores this long hallway, an earthquake strikes. To make it NOT SEEM like a complete screwjob, we can ensure that the place is constantly rumbling with minor tremors. During day 1, the party will experience one or two tremors as they explore.
The floor falls out from under them, depositing them in the lower level and completely collapsing the kobold passage. From there, they can find the stairs up to day 3 that allows them to unbar the big doors and open the way from day 1 to day 3. The actual corridor that will collapse is not pictured on the map or the critical path. It’s just a spot for the event to happen and, in the end, it is completely impassable.
However, as I’m thinking about it, I’m a little worried about locking the PCs in the dungeon. That can be EXTREMELY dangerous. If they are overextended or have a few bad fights, they can’t retreat and recover. That could murder some parties. So, I consider two options. First of all, the room they are deposited in is somehow “safe.” That is, it’s difficult for enemies to enter and therefore the party can retreat there to rest. Due to the cave in, perhaps, the party can only exit the room with a very tight squeeze. With the right precautions, the PCs can rest here. The second thing is that I split the critical path. And you’ll notice this on the critical path map.
Basically, I’m envisioning TWO one-way doors between day 1 and day 3. If the party goes west from the start of day 2, they find the first door, the outer door. And they can easily escape. If they go north (and we’re going to use some map trickery to PULL THEM west, but that’s a story for another time), they can find the inner door, and open the way forward to day 3.
The split critical path combined with the opportunity to rest should serve as a safety net for a low level party. In point of fact, if they are badly injured by the collapse, they might be FORCED to rest. That way, we can teach them that they will occasionally find safe rooms they can fortify in an emergency. That won’t be common, but it is a good to give them a safety net. We’ll have to think more about that mechanic though.
Day 4 and Day 5: Introducing the Great Tree
Days 4 and 5 begin after the party discovers the Skeleton Key and they can now go back to a door they couldn’t open in day 1. And we’re doing a couple of things here. There’s a reason why we placed day 4 where we did.
Notice that the locked door to day 4 begins in the same kobold room where the party found the corridor that collapsed to day 2. This isn’t an accident. First of all, once the party defeats the kobolds, they are going to stop going adventuring for the day. But they are going to remember that that room had TWO exits. Because that’s what they will make a beeline for when they come back. Hopefully, when they find the key, they will remember the lock because they discovered it just as they were moving from goal-oriented mode (kill the kobolds, get the medicine) to exploration mode (I wonder where these doors and hallways go).
The other reason to draw them to THAT particular place is so that they can see that the hallway they collapsed is truly caved in and impassable. Again, we want to emphasize the fact that this dungeon will change as they explore it.
Now, day 4 does something interesting. It lacks a nice hard milestone. The transition from day 4 to day 5 simply reflects passing through the Sacred Halls to the Great Tree. Because day 5 introduces the Great Tree. Now that we’ve taught the players to explore in terms of days and to expect milestones, we’re going to take the milestones away a little bit. That is to say, we’re going to be subtler. You killed the kobolds! You escaped the crypt! You find the magical key! Those are hard, solid milestones. “Hey, there’s more to explore this way,” is hardly a milestone at all. It’s just a transition. Now that we’ve trained the party to think in terms of short forays into the dungeon, we’re going to give them the chance to pick their own milestone. Basically, we’re letting them off the leash now. They might decide to push into day 5 a little more. Or day 4 and day 5 might become three days of adventure. And hopefully that will also help them figure out the push and pull of the random encounter system.
But day 5 does have a solid milestone. The Arcane Key allows the party to backtrack and open more of the sacred halls. However, if you look carefully at day 5, you might notice that day 5 is the first day that has a LOT of encounter space OFF the critical path. That’s a good thing to follow the whole “set your own pace” lesson with. “Set your own pace, also, feel free to wander a bit.” Day 5 is less linear than the other days.
Of course, we’re also thinking about the Great Tree. You will notice that the Great Tree is less “blocky.” It’s sort of jumbled up and haphazard. Obviously, that’s on purpose. But what does this space LOOK LIKE. It’s not just an outdoor, forested space, because it’s hard to make a dungeon out of that. People can wander too freely in outdoor forested spaces. It’s more like causeways and courtyards and patio spaces and small rooms and open gardens and that kind of thing.
But the Great Tree is also dangerous. Here, the party will start to encounter a new type of enemy. The planetoids that serve the evil super plant. They will be dealing with poison and plant enemy types along with the natural vermin. And these, too, they will start to encounter throughout the dungeon. That help emphasize that, as they explore, they will have a growing roster of enemies. Of course, in a few days, those enemies will be no more.
Day 6 and Day 7: The First REAL Boss Fight
Day 6 is an important day which is not immediately obvious. Day 6 represents the opening of the biggest nexus in the dungeon. Day 6 is the most interconnected day in the dungeon. It leads everywhere. But there’s not a whole lot to say about day 6 beyond that. It is just a big space that sits in the heart of the site and touches absolutely everything. It’s important because it greatly expands the scope of the site. Day 4 and day 5 were about letting up on the rails a little and letting the players set their own pace. Day 6 follows up that lesson with “look how much more there is to explore!”
Again, like day 4 and day 5, there isn’t a HARD milestone between day 6 and day 7 apart from the transition between Sacred Halls and Great Tree. So, the party is once again relied upon to pace themselves. We might provide a rest space in one of the extra rooms in day 6, just in case. We’re really going to have to figure out how rest spaces will play into the wandering monster mechanic.
Day 7 is actually a little more linear, despite being in the Great Tree. And that’s because we’re building toward a major boss fight. The plant monster. The thing that is choking the great tree and whose toxic roots and vines have choked off parts of the dungeon. And this is another important tutorial moment. After this boss fight, two things will happen. First, the dungeon will transform. And second, an enemy type will disappear. The plantoid wandering monsters will be no more.
Day 7 also teaches another important lesson: the idea of coming into an area from a different direction. But there’s another part to that lesson. We also want the players to understand that everything IS connected. This isn’t just a hub-and-spoke design. We ALSO want the party to immediately see the transformation they have wrought. So, somewhere between the critical path on day 7 and the one on day 5, we want to add a root-choked passage. The party will see it on their way to the plant boss and see that it is accessible on the way back. If they peek through it, they will discover it takes them back to an area they already know. Thus, they learn about looking for shortcuts and how the space is interconnected and how the geography and theme tell them which areas are close together.
Ultimately, this simple shortcut presents the players their first real choice of path. Because they want to retreat from the dungeon. They can go through the Sacred Halls via day 6, day 3, and then day 1. Or they can travel through the Great Tree via day 5, through day 4, and then day 1. It’s not a HUGE choice, but it’s the first time they have two paths open to them that they are aware of.
While, the first three days were about guiding the players carefully, the next four days are about letting them OFF the rails without really taking the rails away. It’s a delicate balance between freedom and guidance that will create the play experience we’re hoping for.
It is also worth noting that the critical path shows a couple of the optional encounters, a red room off day 2 and an orange room off day 4. I’ll discuss the placement of optional encounters later. But note that these, two, are about gradually letting players off the rails and rewarding them for wandering.
Day 8 to Day 10: ACTUAL Choice
With the giant plant monster dead, the toxic roots that have blocked off some corners of the dungeon are also gone. And that opens two days to explore. But this times, it’s a little different. When day 4 and 5 got opened, day 4 LED to day 5. When day 6 and 7 got opened, day 6 LED to day 7. But day 8 and day 9 aren’t connected. The party can choose one or the other. And ONE is the right answer.
In theory, the party COULD skip day 8 completely. At least for a while. They have to go there eventually. But, if they choose to go right down to day 9 and day 10, that pulls the plot forward and leaves day 8 behind. And, you know what? We’re going to let them. They MIGHT make that choice. But they’ve earned it. We’ve let them off the rails. While, in the end, day 8 HAS TO be explored because it leads to day 22, they could skip it for a long time. Of course, we ARE going to help them NOT skip it until that much later. But we will come back to that.
For now, understand that we’re willfully allowing the players to f$&% up the critical path. But we do have a safety net in day 22. And we are going to add a second safety net.
But with the idea that day 8 is KINDA optional now, we can do something fun with it. We can add a milestone event that wasn’t really in our plot plan.
See, we’re building up this idea of creature rosters. Sort of by accident. The idea is that different types of encounters and wandering monsters belong to different factions. We’ve got kobolds, plantoids, undead, and general vermin so far. And when the party takes certain actions, that makes certain rosters available to wander the dungeon. Or it removes rosters. Right?
What if day 8 allows the party to remove a roster of creature. What if there’s another faction type that has been around from the beginning that we can take out of the game. Metroid Prime, for example, had the war wasps. And I always liked them because they fit the theme of desiccated, once living ruins. And I have always been a fan of kruthiks and burrowing insects and spiders and creepy crawlies. What if there’s a monster type of insectoids and their hive mind or queen or brooding ground or spawning pit or whatever is inside day 8. They are immune to poison, so they aren’t bothered by the toxic death roots and can wander the dungeon. If the party DOES tackle day 8 early, apart from neat optional treasure, they can also defeat the war wasp kruthik spider burrower beetle beasts and remove them from the dungeon.
This is just an idea now. But notice how this idea is also suggesting a mechanic for wandering encounters. They are drawn from particular rosters. The more rosters that are active, the more likely there are encounters. Events in the dungeon make rosters available or remove them. For example, after the party removes the floodgates, demons might become an available roster since they can spill out of the crystal caves. That will replace the kobolds which have to be defeated to even get to the floodgates.
As for day 10, day 10 introduces a new region, the Flooded Underhalls. And we have to think a bit about what they are like. Because they represent the passage between the Sacred Halls and the Crystalline Caverns, some of them were obviously constructed. And they are probably utilitarian work spaces for the elves digging and mining and construction. But they also represent the tunnels through which the tree’s massive roots have burrowed. And many of the spaces are flooded. In fact, the party might actually to adventure underwater a little before they find the Water Breathing object. This is another trick many games do. They present a problem and make you live with it a little bit before you find the solution. Super Metroid’s water areas were actually the BEST example of this. The passages from Crateria through the Wrecked Ship showed you just what a pain in the ass water was in that game. And then you got the Gravity Suit which negated Samus’ weaknesses underwater.
In the end, we have a space like the Sanctuary, partly constructed, partly natural, and shot through with roots. Probably, many of the spaces were built around the roots or were disturbed by the great tree roots. The architecture might even incorporate the roots. And it’s a damp, dripping, flooded, space. It’s the first sign that not everything about this space was once beautiful. After all, even the crypts were beautiful. But this space is ugly and utilitarian without giving up elven aesthetics.