Happy Megadungeon Monday!
We’re continue our development of the exit map for the entire Megadungeon today. So, let’s see how far we can get today.
The Key and a Quick Recap
A few people in comments, Tweets, and direct messages have asked me if I would include a key in these things because they keep forgetting what the colors mean. And a few others have asked for a brief recap of the gates. So, let’s get that over with quickly. Here’s the key:
Anything labeled as “Open” (that’s light gray) requires nothing special to use the exit. That doesn’t mean doors can’t be stuck, locked, hidden, or whatever. It just means they aren’t gates that are opened via plot point. Basically, anything “Open” is accessible regardless of where the players are in the plot. Red doors are locked and the lock is complex enough that low-level characters will be unable to circumvent the lock except via a specific key. And, by the way, that’s not a video game key. It doesn’t get swallowed by the door and it doesn’t only open one door. The Skeleton Key will open all mithril doors with advanced locks. Some of those doors, the orange ones, have also been affected with a (modified) Arcane Lock spell. And there is a key that dispels those Arcane Locks. Yellow passages are choked with thick, difficult to destroy vines and filled with powerfully poisonous fumes. They are growing from the plant monster that has infested the Great Tree. After the party kills the plant monster, those vines will wither and the poison will disperse and the party will be able to hack their way through. Green passages are flooded and their design is such that a character holding their breath won’t be able to go very far. They are long, windy, filled with obstacles, and probably have aquatic monsters. Even if a single character can turn into a fish or something, they will be forced to leave their party behind and go into hostile territory. However, once the party can either cast the water breathing spell or finds the mystical artifact of casting the water breathing spell, they will be able to last in these passages. Of course, the obstacles and monsters will still make them difficult to navigate, as will the rules of underwater combat. To truly conquer all of the underwater areas, the party will need to find the floodgates and divert the water, draining the flooded portions. Those are the cyan passages. The blue passages cannot be penetrated without a short range, line-of-sight based, site-to-site teleport like a dimension door or blink that accommodates all members of the party. Once again, individual characters may use teleportation powers to overcome them, but until the whole party can take advantage of those abilities, the party is effectively blocked. There is an artifact that is absolutely not basically a portal gun. The purple passages represent doors that are locked, magically locked, and protected by magical walls of fire because they hold some of the most valuable treasures the elves owned. There is a key that will allow the party to penetrate those, which we’re calling the frost key for now. The brown passages require the whole party to be able to fly, either via spell or via an artifact that can be found in the dungeon. They are windy, negating sight-based teleportation, choked with obstacles, and long, negating the use of climbing. Finally, the dark gray passages are part of the end game. After defeating the corrupted elven spirit, the PCs are able to get into cursed, necrotic areas that snuff out all life. In doing say, they can appease the four elven spirits that are maintaining the seal on the lava caves at the bottom of the dungeon and defeat the demon queen once and for all.
Everyone got that? Good. Let’s begin.
When we last left off, our heroes had just recovered the Arcane Key that would allow them to go back to the door that blocked their path in Day 3. You remember, the one we purposely put right next to the WRONG KEY forcing them to BACKTRACK and take a MAJOR DETOUR? One of just TWO locked doors they were forced to ignore? Yeah, that sort of frustration may seem like a “ha ha ha, f$&% you” moment, but it makes things memorable. And memorable is key. But now, they finally have the key and they are ready go back.
Now, Day 6 is the first area in which the party can truly explore the Sacred Halls, which is the nexus of the Elven settlement. The sprawl that encompasses Day 6, Day 9, and Day 11 basically holds most of the useful passages up and down. Through it, the party will reach the Source of the Flow and begin exploring the Flooded Underhalls. They will also eventually open the path to the final boss in Day 25 which is also in this area. Thus, the dungeon should start to open up a little for them at this point. Things have been pretty linear so far.
The first thing we’ll do is to branch the critical path. Both branches are the same length, which is something we always try to do. And we include a couple of red doors and an orange door to make sure the party keeps using its tools. Now, you will notice that the passage to Day 9, the yellow area on the left, is actually OFF the most direct route through Day 6. Even though the party might explore every room, there’s a good chance that, when the party comes to that room with the four-way intersection, they will go north first, continue exploring, and not notice the western yellow door. And, honestly, we kind of want that.
Recall that Day 8 and Day 9, the two major yellow areas, are geographically separate:
Day 9 leads the party deeper down into the dungeon whereas Day 8 is basically an optional side area and a dead end at this point. If the party doesn’t explore it now, they will probably end up exploring it after Day 13. But we’d rather they explore Day 8 before they explore Day 9. The FIRST trick we’re going to use is to make Day 9 a little less noticeable and memorable than Day 8 by tucking the entrance away a little off the main path. Some parties will bypass it and end up coming back later as they search for new passages – and we WILL make them want to come back.
Now, the entrance to Day 8 is one the party had to pass every time they enter the dungeon. It’s right in Day 1. So, their memory of that passage has been reinforced. Once they open the toxic yellow passages, Day 8’s door is more likely to be the one they remember. And tucking the Day 9 entrance away and making them search for it helps that. I mean, it’s only SLIGHTLY tucked away. But still. We’re not calling attention to it. And that means, the parties that DO bypass it and are forced to come back and look for it later will feel rewarded for their clever searching. That will also help them feel – once again – as if they are the masters of their own destiny.
But THAT brings us around to a few side passages, a slight problem, and another trick for our dungeon design arsenal. Notice that we have some side rooms in Day 6 that aren’t connected up. And, also notice that, despite the critical path branch, this area doesn’t FEEL very open. It’s hardly a nexus at the heart of the dungeon. It’s just another critical path with some side exits. We need to solve those problems.
But, we also need to make sure that once the part does go back and explore Day 8 and realize it doesn’t get them anywhere, they think to come back to THIS area, Day 6, to look for the next way forward. We need to do something to make this area memorable as a place to go when the toxins have gone away, but not TOO memorable. Tricky, huh?
And speaking of the toxins, we KNOW that the next day of adventure will feature the end of the giant plant monster. After that, the toxic vines will no longer be an obstacle. Ever. Unlike the locked doors, this is an obstacle that simply ceases to exist. It’s a transformation of the dungeon. And right now, that transformation consists of opening one or two doors. Hoody f$&%ing hoo. What a transformation.
So, let’s break our critical path with a bunch of toxic passages. That is, well, here, look at this:
By adding those yellow doors, the entire heart of this area is now one big, interconnected mass of four-way intersection rooms. As the party explores, they will realize that those rooms connect to each other. It’s pretty obvious. They are just blocked off alternate passages. But that does mean that, just before the party destroys the plant monster, they will encounter a bunch of blocked passages connected to the plant monster. And when those passages are opened, that will make them realize they have transformed the dungeon. Moreover, this area is now an area RAVAGED by the plant monster. Look at all the doors blocked by poison roots. Wow. Once the party needs to find the next passage, after they have explored Day 8, where are they going to go? They will come back here. Even though they are pretty sure that the plant monster’s vines were just blocking passages between rooms they already explored, they will still probably wonder if the destruction of the plant monster didn’t reveal something else in this area.
Memorable, but not too memorable.
But that also brings us around to ANOTHER trick of dungeon design. One that makes the dungeon seem more interconnected and alive, rather than a bunch of miniature dungeons which are just a progression of encounter areas. The concept of geographic consistency. We talked about that idea when we divided the dungeon into geographical areas. But now we’re looking at it on the smaller scale. As we put down those yellow exits, it’s easy to imagine all of those blockages – and the two I added leading back into Day 3 and to the optional yellow room OFF Day 3 – as a single, contiguous geographical feature. Like a thick run of roots and vines that have grown through the entire area. Something like this:
The party will crisscross back and forth over that mass of poisoned, knotty roots and vines that has choked off several passages, forced to wind this way and that looking for a passage. Even better, that mass of vines will actually serve as a sort of direction, a goal. If we pick up that geographical feature in the next area, Day 7, it can actually lead the players right to the plant mastermind.
So, that simple set of contiguous exits – with a matching geographical feature – will serve to guide the players toward a goal, make the dungeon seem like an interconnected whole, and make this area a memorable place to search when the party is looking for new areas later.
Once again, remember, this design is all about psychology.
Day 7 takes us to the Great Tree proper. At the base of the Great Tree, at the end of the Day 7, there is the giant plant monster whose poisonous roots have blocked off a goodly part of the western half of Level 2. After Day 6, the party is ready to remove those roots and they are probably following the poisonous roots to their source. Day 7 would be fairly linear and straightforward if not for a problem. Here’s what the critical path looks like and I’ve circled the problem. See if you can guess what’s wrong:
Notice how we have two exits from that room on the western wall? That’s a no-no. Remember, one of our rules is that no room will ever have more than four exits and no more than one exit in each cardinal direction. That’s part of making our dungeon easy for players to map. Remember? Well, we need to shift the Critical Path to accommodate that. An easy fix. And since the area is pretty linear anyway, I’m just going to go ahead and drop the exits down. You can see what I did.
Simple, right? And that’s what we want. See, Day 7 is basically the lead up to a boss fight and then the boss fight itself. And what we’re doing now is a sort of pacing trick. First of all, we try to mix up the level of “exploration” – as we’ll call it – in the different areas. Day 3 and Day 6 are more open, with branching critical paths and the chance to wander, check side areas, and backtrack. At least a little bit. Day 5 and Day 7 are more linear. They present direct paths with clear goals at the end (an important key and a major boss). Varying the feel of different areas in terms of “path to a goal” vs. “wander the area and look for the way forward” helps vary the exploration experience.
And when it comes to boss fights, from a game design perspective, a linear lead-up is best. If the area nearest a boss has lots of optional encounters and side paths and potential places for the players to waste resources, you – as a designer – can’t be sure how well-prepared the party will be for a boss fight. Especially one they may not be expecting. They may have overspent their resources, for example, exploring too many side areas and dealing with too many problems. So, We try to keep things nicely linear when we’re working toward a boss. This is a pattern you’ll see come up again and again.
Now, we would be done with Day 7, but there is something else we want to address. See, after the party beats the boss, we really want them to head back to the entrance to the dungeon, return, and visit Day 8. And we want them to ignore Day 6, which is much closer, until they’ve done so. Fortunately, after a major boss fight, the party is usually pretty ready for a rest and will happily want to leave. The problem is, after the party opens up a new section of a dungeon, they also have this need to at least poke around a little bit. At least when it’s convenient. “Look, we just opened up that passage, let’s at least stick our heads in that one room and see what’s there before we go home.” But we don’t want them to get distracted exploring Day 6 just yet. And that’s what will happen if we pull them back through Day 6.
So, we’re going to use another trick. And this will require us to change some exits back in Day 5. Check THIS out:
That room that used to be on the critical path is now a room gated by toxic vines. And that’s handy. It means that as soon as the party beats the boss, as they start to head back, they will immediately be able to see the result of their killing the boss. It opened up the toxic passages. Neat. It also gives them a room to check out to immediately satisfy their urge to “just poke around a little” after opening a passage. And when they do move through that room – because they won’t stop at just one room unless it’s very dangerous, and this room won’t be – they will find themselves back in Day 5. And they will recognize it.
Now, if they still have the urge to explore a little, there’s another room that was blocked off with yellow doors leading off the room where they found the arcane key. We changed that, just now, from a normal side passage to a blocked-off yellow room. That will let them poke around a little more if they want to. But then, something else will kick in.
Remember, they WANT to rest. And now we’ve put them back in a place they recognize, a passage they’ve already cleared, one they know leads right back to the exit. Basically, they are on a good path to the exit. Rather than turn around and head back through Day 7, Day 6, and Day 3, most players will simply go forward to go back. They will follow this safe path back home. Weird as it sounds, remember, most people don’t like to turn around unless they have to. Basically, we’ve prodded the players to now head toward the exit and we’ve prodded them to do so by bypassing Day 6. And when they return, fresh from their rest and ready to explore some more, the first passage they will find is the passage to Day 8.
This is also the first time the party will encounter a shortcut to home sort of passage. That is, a passage that opens the way back to a previous area of the dungeon. Several of those will play an important role later, so this is good tutorializing.
After the party rests and returns to the dungeon, they will find that a new passage has opened up basically just inside the entrance, and that leads to Day 8. And Day 8 is an interesting first for the party. It’s the first dead end area. That is to say, there is no major goal at the end and it doesn’t transition anywhere else. Not yet. The real purpose of Day 8 is to provide an easy shortcut back to the entrance after the party opens the floodgates. And, of course, it provides access much later to one of the four spirits. But the party can’t go anywhere from Day 8 and they can’t do anything with it.
Why would we include something like that in the dungeon? And why would we go to such great lengths to make sure the party explores it? Because, remember, we purposely did everything we could to lead the party to THIS area now, when it is useless, instead of later when it’s useful. Why would we want to do that?
Well, so far the party has followed our clues from goal to goal. Find the kobold leader, open the crypt, find the key, find the other key, kill the plant. Every area they have explored has either provided a goal or else it has been on the path to a goal. Any side passages have been single rooms or branches along the path.
Now, there is nothing wrong with that. But the party has done very little aimless wandering. That is to say, they haven’t, at any point, actually had to say “guys, where do we go next.” We’ve been pulling them along with the design for some time. They might not notice, but their brains probably are. And that’s why, what we need to do, is have them go the WRONG way and then leave them briefly scratching their heads. Day 8 is the wrong way. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just dead-ends. And we’re going to build on that emotion in a moment.
And so, the party will wander in, poke around, fight some monsters, exhaust the possibilities, and then say “huh, there’s nothing this way. At least not yet. We must have missed something. Where should we go? Oh, wait, there were other areas filled with toxic plants. We’re probably supposed to go to one of those areas first and then come back here later.” And THAT is the thought that convinces the players that the dungeon really is open ended and they really can take the wrong way. They aren’t being led at all. Yes, there are places they are “supposed” to go, but they aren’t on rails. They can make wrong choices. Further, when they do discover the “right” way to go – Day 9 – by returning to Day 6 and searching thoroughly, they will feel clever. They SOLVED the exploration.
With all of that said, it really doesn’t even matter where we put the exits in Day 8. They are probably going to wander all around it. The critical path in that area is just a formality. But the one thing we do want to do is introduce the empty canals, choked off with sand and rubble and debris. The canals with impassable passages until water flows again and washes away all the sand and debris. The reason we want to put so many of those around is partly to introduce those particular gates, but it’s also to emphasize that the party is here “too early.” Later, when they open the floodgate, they will find themselves back in this area, able to fully explore it, and say “see, yeah, we broke the sequence and came here too early. Now is when we should be here.”
So, we’ll liberally scatter those canals around with an eye toward geographic consistency throughout Day 8, the optional side area, and even in Day 1. And there really isn’t much to say about how I did this. It was pretty much arbitrary with an eye toward making the area feel a little open and aimless.
And if we want to, we can imagine where those canals might flow:
Notice how they join up with the optional areas and the cyan exit we put back in Day 1. THAT’S part of the reason we put that exit there. Geographic consistency. When we actually design the rooms, we’re going to need an empty canal or dried water feature through the heart of Day 1.
Day 9 is the last segment of the dungeon I’m going to deconstruct in detail on this level of the dungeon. After Day 9, we’re going to breeze the remaining levels and finish Level 2 today. Next week, we’ll be able to finish the exits for the entire rest of the dungeon in similar fashion.
Day 9 is a weird day because it contains both a boss fight and a transition to the next goal. In this area, the players will defeat the kobold queen, learn about the existence of the dragon, and then descend to the Flooded Underhalls to retrieve the water breathing artifact. So, it’s a pretty loaded day.
Now, remember that, once the party killed the plant, we wanted to give the sense that they had really transformed the dungeon. That they had opened things up. And we started showing that with the useless Day 8. We’re going to continue building on the theme of “you’re allowed to f$&% up.” We’re going to let the players decide when to stop.
So far, every section of the dungeon has either provided a very clear transition to a new area OR provided a goal in the last room. Those provide a nice feeling of the end of a chapter. A sort of break in the story. Even in Day 1, which contained both a boss and a transition, we put those things in the same room to let the players know when the chapter was over. We want to play with that, now. Subvert it a little.
Meanwhile, we also want this area to feel open for exploration. We want the party to feel like they are wandering a little, maybe feel a little goalless. That’s the essence of both free will and exploration. Remember, if everything went well, at the end of Day 8, they felt like they had lost the thread of the adventure and were searching for the next place they were supposed to go. We could do that by branching the critical path through the area. But, remember, when there’s a boss fight, we want to stick with more linear critical paths.
The way to accomplish all of this – let the party feel like they are wandering, take away the feeling of when the chapter ends, allow for multiple paths, and allow for a well-balanced boss fight – is to stick the boss fight in the middle of the chapter. That is, we branch the critical path, bring it back together at a choke point, make the party fight a boss, let them keep going, and branch the critical path again. The boss fight is that circle objective.
Now, the party will stumble on the boss fight at some point during their exploration and then have to decide whether to keep going. And if they keep going, we don’t know when they will stop. They might penetrate down into Day 10 for a while before they feel the need to back off. They might retreat after they kill the boss and return to finish Day 9 the next day. Either way is fine. We’re going to have to trust the players, at this point, to know when to quit.
Day 11 contains the dragon boss fight. And there isn’t much to say except to note that we’re going back to a nice, linear progression for this one because it’s a dragon boss fight. That’s something you don’t mess around with. And the players have had their taste of aimlessness and apparent sequence breaking. It’s time to get them back on track. Because, honestly, a little bit of aimless wandering and freedom goes a LONG way.
So, here we go:
It’s pretty straightforward except for one little trick wherein the upper left room of Day 11 is actually not connected to the rest of Day 11 at all. You can think of it as an optional room off Day 6, or you can think about it as a false entrance to Day 11. It serves either purpose, but it’s a good place to stick something optional, like a discovery.
Day 13 is really nothing more than a transitional area. It’s the fast exit from the Source of the Flow, up above. After the party opens the flood gate, they will end up in this area and then, after some wandering, they will find their way back to Day 8. And that will be the moment of revelation when they realize they were exploring Day 8 too early. They will be glad they cleared it, though, so that they have a nice, easy path to the exit. Day 13 also connects Day 8 and Day 9, allowing a shortcut between the entrance the lower levels.
And the Rest
At this point, there really isn’t much more to analyze. Connecting up the exits in the few remaining days and optional rooms pretty much just follows the same thoughts as previous areas. So, rather than belabor the point, I’m just going to post the final exit map of level two (click for a larger view).
I encourage you to look at the optional rooms and remaining days and the few bits I didn’t cover and see what you make of them. I’d also encourage you to look at the maps of levels 1, 3, and 4 and think about where you’d place those exits. We’re going to blow through them much more quickly, but there are still a few interesting ideas that we’re going to encounter. Feel free to take a look at those maps here and now (again, click for larger images).
And finally, let’s remember that our goal in this whole exit map bulls$&% was to remove the color coding by adventure day – to literally erase the days from our map – and to replace it with geographical color coding by region. Let’s take a quick look at how our level 2 map looks without the explicit color-coding by day… (click for larger, yaddah yaddah yaddah)
Yeah, NOW find the critical path and the ends of chapters and days. They are still there. But they are hidden under the design, waiting to emerge during gameplay. And that’s precisely how we want it.