Megadungeon Monday: Information Management by the Numbers

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Happy Megadungeon Monday!

It IS still Monday, right? Yeah, my schedule is still a mess, but I’m getting closer to being on track. That’s something.

As we rewarm our engines and try to get back into this project, I figured it might be appropriate to work with a few of the fluffier bits first. And to start to tackle a major part of the story design for the adventure. Today, we’re going to hammer out a bunch of the backstory and talk about a part of adventure design that trips up a lot of GMs: information management. How’s THAT for a nice, quick intro. Let’s just get right to work.

Now, I should warn you that I do have an important article coming up about the concept of Information Management in a more general sense. That’s because THIS article got a little out of control between the underlying theory and the practical application. Since Megadungeon Monday is a design blog that is supposed to provide instruction for more advanced GMs, I’ve stripped this one down to its bare bones and am giving just a very brief introduction to the concept of information management.

Information Management 101

Information management describes how a game designer – or GM – doles out information to the players. That is, how the GM plants information in the adventure. In some adventures – like mysteries and investigations – information management is pretty much the most important f$&%ing job the designer/GM has. Those sorts of adventures are made or broken on information management.

Of course, the Megadungeon isn’t exactly one of those adventures. But, it DOES have one important aspect that requires some attention to information management. Well, two, really. The first is that it is open environment that needs to pull the players along by dangling goals in front of their noses. The second is that discovering the history of the environment is one of the core engagements of the adventure. That is, it is intended to give a satisfying experience to players who like uncovering stories through play. Explorer-type players. Discovery seekers.

To that end, we’ve purposely built in a discovery mechanic. As the players discover information about the Megadungeon, they are rewarded not just with the warm fuzzy feeling of having made a neat discovery, they are also rewarded with experience points. So, we do need to think about how we’re going to hand out information in the adventure.

Now, in general, any bit of information can either Interesting, Useful, or Necessary. Those are my classifications and, again, I’ll cover them in more detail in a future article. For now, understand that Interesting information is backstory and context. It’s information that fills in details about the world and story, it helps the players make sense of things, but it doesn’t serve any useful purpose beyond that. Useful information empowers the players by improving their odds of success or by providing them with additional options that will help them achieve their goals. Knowledge of a monster’s vulnerabilities is an example of the odds-improving kind of Useful information. Knowledge of a secret passage that allows the players to take a secret route around the monster is an example of the options-adding Useful information. Knowledge of NPCs motivations, desires, and fears can also be Useful information. Necessary information without which the players cannot succeed. Basically, without a certain bit of Necessary information, the players might stand around without any idea of where to go next or they might not be able to overcome a specific obstacle. At all. The heroes fail without Necessary information.

Now, listen, that last part isn’t a bad thing. It’s okay for the heroes to be able to fail at an adventure. But you’ll have to wait for the full discussion about information management if you’re confused. For now, you’re stuck just accepting what I say.

The other part of information management is understanding how optional your information is. You MIGHT think that all Interesting information is optional and all Necessary is required, but it isn’t always that simple. A certain amount of Interesting information really does need to appear in your adventure just to ensure that everything makes sense and that the players maintain their suspension of disbelief. Likewise, Necessary information can be optional if you’re willing to let the players fail in that way. A good example would be a mystery or investigation adventure. Especially one like a “find the serial killer before he strikes again” or “track down the cult before they sacrifice the princess to their dark gods.” In those adventures, the challenge IS obtaining the necessary information.

Beyond that, optionalness… optionality… the quality of being optional… whatever. Optionality is on a spectrum. It isn’t merely that things are either compulsory or optional. I like to think of things in terms of a few different levels of optionality. First of all, there really is stuff that the party HAS TO know or learn or discover. We’ll call that stuff Unmissable. On the other end, we’ll have the stuff that is really, REALLY optional. That stuff is a reward for players who really go looking for it. It’s stuff that is hidden away. In terms of the critical path, it’s stuff that’s OFF the critical path. You have to go hunting for it or else you’ll never know it’s there. We’ll call that stuff Hidden. And in-between the two, we have stuff that’s optional but that we really want to give most people the opportunity to find. It’s stuff that’s on or very near the critical path and is findable with a moderate amount of effort. Most people will find most of that stuff as long if they’re remotely attentive or make any effort at all to explore their environment. Let’s call that stuff Missable.

Okay? Got it? Any given bit of information can be Useful, Helpful, or Necessary (and lots of information can be two or three of those). And any given bit of information can be Hidden, Missable, or Unmissable. That’s summarizing information for GMs a lot, but it’s useful for our purposes today.

What Information Are We Worried About

Now, there’s LOTS of different bits of information we can put in an adventure. There’s lots of different bits of information that SHOULD be in an adventure. And our Megadungeon is no exception. First, we’ve talked about how we want the backstory for the setting to be discoverable. We want this to be an adventure in action archaeology. So, one broad class of information we have to manage is Backstory. Second, in order to keep players from wandering too aimlessly around the open environment with no clue, they need to have some sense of what they should do next. So, the next broad class of information is Objectives. Beyond that, though, we also want the players to have a reason to keep adventuring. We talked long ago about how the thrill of discovery – be it discovering the story or discovering loot – can’t be the only goal. The players have to have some sense of why this dungeon is worth exploring. What’s at stake if they don’t. We can call that broad class of information Motivations. And we need to keep Motivations and Objectives distinct from each other. At least in our Megadungeon. And that’s why I used the word Objectives instead of the word Goals. Objectives are all the little steps that give the players direction and make them feel like they are making progress as they criss-cross the dungeon. Motivations are the reasons they come back to the dungeon at all instead of going literally anywhere else and doing anything else.

And most GMs think that information begins and ends there: Backstory, Motivations, Objectives. But there are other types of information too. For example, there’s Tactical information. That’s information that helps the players overcome obstacles and challenges. And not just combat. That’s information that helps them bypass or overcome ANY sort of challenge. Closely related to that is what I think of Strategic information. That’s information that helps the players navigate the adventure as a whole. For example, a map that shows a secret route might be Strategic information. Likewise, information that helps the players choose between different options is Strategic information. Imagine the players could approach one of three different NPCs to get the help they need. If they discover information about which NPC is the most likely to help or which might be more susceptible to threats of force or bribery or whatever, they can make an informed choice about which NPC to deal with.

Why do I call these two closely related classes of information by two easily confused names? Well, I do that because they are so closely related that it’s usually easier to put the two different types together and just think of Strategic and Tactical information as one class.

There are other types of information too. Like Foreshadowing, for instance. Which is way more important than most GMs think. But once again, that will have to wait.

See, information management is another one of those fuzzy parts of design that happens in fits and starts throughout the process. Some of it can be planned up front, some of it comes while you work, some of it comes only after you’ve done other things, and some of it only comes at the end when you’re cleaning up and polishing and fixing problems. In this project, most of our Foreshadowing and Strategic and Tactical information will have to get worked in while we do the actual room-by-room design. And a lot of our Objective information and Motivational information will have to wait for another step. Today, we’re worrying about how we’re going to dole out the Backstory information. Or rather, we’re worried about WHAT information we’re going to dole out.

Informational Loot

Now, we’ve done a very interesting thing in our Megadungeon. We’ve keyed some of our advancement to discovering the backstory of the adventure site. That is, the more the players discover about the site, the more optional experience points they gain. Remember? We even worked it into our progression chart. And as strange as that sounds, it actually just codifies on the player side a method of information management that most GMs would benefit from adopting anyway. That is to say, there’s a pretty neat way of handling information management that is echoed in the system of providing experience points for discrete “units” of discovery. And it works really, REALLY well with Backstory information.

Basically, it works like this: take your backstory and break it down into some number of key points. Then, treat each of those key points as a little treasure you’re going to hide in your adventure. You don’t have to worry yet about the form each of those bits of Information Loot will take. You’ll figure that out when you actually plant them around the dungeon. But at least you have a list.

This, by the way, also works REALLY WELL with mystery adventures.

And that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll we’re going to do two things. We’re going to solidify our backstory AND we’re going to break it down into Informational Loot. And this is a process we WILL revisit again several times with different bits of information later on. In fact, as we do this, what we’re going to find is that some of our informational nuggets HERE overlap with other bits of information, like Objectives and Motivations.

Building Out the Backstory

Now, we’ve only loosely talked about the backstory before. Specifically, we talked about how most of the backstory I had come up with was merely an excuse for the gameplay. And that was pretty sparse. Which is fine. Because, now we’re going to use an approach to backstory I use a lot. Let’s call it “layering it on.” I can’t think of a good name for it. Basically, how it works is this: you start by writing down whatever short little chunk of backstory (or whatever) you already have. And then you rewrite it, expanding each little piece. And you just keep rewriting and expanding and adding details until it’s as big as you want it to be.

Let’s start with what we know about the backstory for this setting based on what we’ve already decided must have happened for gameplay purposes and then I’ll show you how it works.

Once upon a time, there was this demon imprisoned under a volcano. Then, a great tree grew in a crater on top of the mountain and there was also a lake and a river that came from inside the mountain. Then, wood elves discovered the place and they liked the tree so they started building a sanctuary there. When they dug, they discovered some kind of magic underground. And they started using the magic. But it corrupted them because it came from the demon. They became greedy for it and kept digging until the demon’s forces were unleashed. The elf champion led her forces against the demons and held them off while the elf leaders flooded the tunnels to trap the demons. The elf champion was killed and her spirit became corrupted by the demon’s magic. The surviving elves fled the site while the four elf leaders used their magic to seal the demon up and that killed them but their ghosts are still there. Recently, a dragon came to the site and made her lair inside and a tribe of kobolds followed her. The demon’s magic called to the dragon. The dragon has her kobolds searching for a way to free the demon. The kobolds have also started raiding local towns for supplies.

And that’s it. In a single paragraph, that’s the backstory that we have for the adventure so far. It’s pretty lame, but it already has the skeleton of a decent story. Notice that it covers the gameplay and environmental details we already know. It has the tree, the fiery rift, and the lake. The elven sanctuary. The flooded caves. The progression from kobolds to dragon to demons. The elven ghosts. Now, the trick is to take each piece and expand it a little bit. Watch how we do this. And it’s simply a matter of taking each piece of the story and just digging for more details.

Once upon a time, there was this demon imprisoned under a volcano. Then, a great tree grew in a crater on top of the mountain and there was also a lake and a river that came from inside the mountain.

Okay, let’s tackle this part first. Normally, we would tackle the two sentences separately, but I’m going to connect them together. See, in my personal universe, I subscribe to the 4th Edition flavor that says that demons are corrupted elementals. And this whole thing of volcanic mountain with lake and tree all smacks of the four elements to me. See, the question that is inevitably going to come up is where did this demon come from, why is she here, and why is she trapped under this mountain.

So, let’s assume the mountain itself is a place where there is a connection between the material world and the elemental chaos. Let’s say there was an elemental rift here. It’s just naturally occurring. Elemental magic just springs from this place. That explains the mysterious lake of pure water, the mountain towering into the sky, and the fiery volcanic caldera. The pure water, wind, and earth are what allowed the immense tree to thrive. Makes perfect sense. As for the demon? Well, she was an exile from the elemental chaos. In ancient times, she raised an army of elemental demons and tried to overthrow one of the demon lords. But she lost and she was exiled. She and her army were thrown through the rift. She can’t return to the elemental chaos because she will be destroyed by the demons there. And she was sapped of most of her power when she was exiled. But she still draws power from the elemental rift. She is physically and magically trapped under the mountain. She didn’t have the power to dig her way out and she couldn’t go too far from the elemental rift because she couldn’t risk losing her power.

We can clean that up, but it works.

Then, wood elves discovered the place and they liked the tree so they started building a sanctuary there.

Okay, this part is weird. Why would wood elves build a home in the mountains. Why would they even be in the mountains to discover the place at all? And if this place was built by elves with long, long memories, how did this place get forgotten at all? Well, what if the tribe that built it were weird wood elves that other elves didn’t get along with? What if the elves got along with dwarves instead?

So, there’s this valley, right? A lush, fertile valley overgrown with deep forests. And those forests were home to a civilization of high elves who always kept to themselves. But there were also wood elves living in the forests too. In the northern forested foothills of the valley, there lived a tribe of wood elves that spent a lot of their time repelling orc raids coming down from the mountains. And because the dwarves of the mountains were also at war with the orcs, they ended up building an alliance over the years. Even trading with the dwarves. They constant wars with the orcs and their friendship with dwarves isolated them from the other elves. One day, a band of elven warriors was chasing a particularly nasty orc warlord into the mountains. They were badly injured and took refuge in a cave in the mountains and there they discovered the tunnel that led to the great tree’s crater. They spent several days camped under the tree, treating their injuries, and then they returned to the war. After the war, the leader of the warband remembered the tree that had sheltered his band and saved their lives, and so he retired there as a sort of spiritual retreat to find peace. Other elves of his tribe eventually joined him and that is how the sanctuary was constructed.

When they dug, they discovered some kind of magic underground. And they started using the magic. But it corrupted them because it came from the demon. They became greedy for it and kept digging until the demon’s forces were unleashed.

This part is all reasonably self-explanatory. The only thing that needs to be clarified is the form the magic took. Magic is too intangible. Well, honestly, we already know the answer. They discovered veins of a magical gemstone, crystals that had become infused with elemental energy and corrupted by the demon queen. Those crystals proved to be easy to shape and receptive to arcane magic. But it isn’t in the nature of elves to be covetous or ambitious. We don’t think of elves that way. As corruptible or power hungry. We’re going to need to explain why they succumbed.

To begin with, the sanctuary was a spiritual retreat, after all. Which brings us around to the matter of the elves’ spirituality. We haven’t really thought much about it. And thinking about it is tricky.

See, part of the problem with creating a homebrew adventure for publication is that we can’t use any of the proper names for D&D gods. But those gods are still going to provide a jumping off point. At least, they would, but the flavor for gods in D&D’s 5th edition core system is anemic at best. As a result, I tend to fall back on the 4th Edition core religion and cosmology. I find that a rich well to tap.

Most elves in 4th Edition worship one of three elven gods: Corellon, Lolth, and Sehanine. And those names should be familiar to anyone versed in their D&D lore. They are good generic gods. What’s interesting though is that Corellon and Sehanine are also the gods of the seasons of spring and autumn, respectively, in the 4th Edition multiverse. Why is that interesting? Because the number four just keeps coming up. We have the four elements, for example. And there are four leaders of elves. Admittedly, that was done for arbitrary reasons. But still. The point is, these elves could worship an unusual quartet of gods. We have Corellon and Sehanine – or at least generic knockoff versions – which are not unusual for elves. But we can also add a god for summer and one for winter. After all, wood elves would be tied to natural cycles.

So, this sanctuary was built to worship four gods based on Corellon, Pelor, Sehanine, and the Raven Queen. But with a focus on their seasonal aspects. Corellon, the spring god, is the god of beauty and art, but also of the birth of the new year. Pelor, the summer god, is the god of the light and protection. He is also the god of time and of agriculture. And that means that he is a god of bounty and a god of the future. Wise, but ambitious and forward looking. He is also a protector god. He is not generally an elven god. The elves are people of twilight times. Morning and evening, spring and fall. So, the worship of the bountiful summer is one of this tribes oddities. Sehanine is the goddess of the moon and of passion and love. She is also a goddess of illusions and trickery and a goddess of the hunt. The Raven Queen is the goddess of winter, but she is also the goddess of death and she is one of the fates. With winter comes quiet reflection on the year past and a cleansing of the world to prepare it for a new spring. Winter is inevitable and it must be met with calm acceptance. She’s another goddess not traditionally worshiped by elves, but she is less at odds with traditional elven views than Pelor. Elves accept their fate, they do not fight the cycles of the world. They meet adversity with stoic wisdom and they know all adversity shall pass in time.

So, the sanctuary was established to revere and worship four deities representing the four seasons. And it was led by priests of their four faiths. These are themes we can build on throughout the adventure and, in many ways, they are the antithesis of the four elements. The elements represent base instincts and drives. The gods represent ideals and concepts. It’s a neat juxtaposition. And here we get our explanation. When the strange mineral was discovered, it was the elven sage of summer who was taken in. He was probably a wizard – no reason why the sages have to be priests, I’ve suddenly decided – and he saw the possibilities inherent in the strange magical mineral. He experimented, he studied, and he crafted. The spring sage was probably the next to be corrupted by the beauty of the minerals and their magic. The autumn sage and the winter sage held out longer, with the winter sage foreseeing the coming disaster.

Now we have a formula for the downfall.

And, of course, the demon queen’s plan all along was to keep tempting the elves until they dug deep enough to unleash her hordes. For if she could not rule in the elemental chaos, she would at least rule here. Raise a palace. Increase her might. Eventually, she would return to the elemental chaos and conquer.

The elf champion led her forces against the demons and held them off while the elf leaders flooded the tunnels to trap the demons. The elf champion was killed and her spirit became corrupted by the demon’s magic.

The elf champion was doomed from the start. She was probably closest to the summer god and the summer sage, given her drive to be a protector and a beacon. The sage presented her with a weapon and armor adorned with the strange magical gemstones and bearing powerful enchantments. She did not succumb to greed, but she did succumb to pride. She believed she could drive back the demons, to defeat them. Even as her followers fell, she refused to flee. And perhaps the plan, all along, was to defeat the demons. The elves who had survived the initial onslaught of demons pinned their hopes on her.

Perhaps it was only the winter sage who saw what had to be done. And ultimately, it was she who flooded the caverns and convinced the other three to sacrifice their lives to bind the demon once more. As the rush of water came, the elf champion must have thought she had been betrayed. That the sages had lost faith in her. And that is what led her vengeful spirit to take up residence in the lower halls and to corrupt the elven dead.

The surviving elves fled the site while the four elf leaders used their magic to seal the demon up and that killed them but their ghosts are still there.

We’ve already expanded on this, but it’s useful to add just a few more details. We know that the focus of the sages power is inside the sacred halls. Probably in the holiest of chapels with altars to the four gods. But each of the sage’s spirits is in a different location. And each will have to be dealt with if the heroes want to unseal the way to the fiery abyss to defeat the demon once and for all. And, based on our map, we know those locations are in the Source of the Flow, the Crypt of the Ageless, the Desiccated Sanctuary, and the Flooded Underhalls. Can we figure out who is where and why?

Well, the Crypt is probably the easiest. The winter sage’s spirit retreated there because she was the most willing to accept the fact that her soul was bound for eternity. Her spirit has entombed itself. The Desiccated Sanctuary was probably the favorite place of the spring sage. It was filled with gardens and sculptures and artwork. And, of course, there, he can mourn the passing of the trees and flowers. The Flooded Underhalls probably had the summer sage’s workrooms and labs. He has resigned himself there to wallow in his own guilt. And that leaves the autumn’s age. And the Source of the Flow. And that seems like an odd choice. Why would she be there? Well, the autumn goddess is the goddess of passion and love. The Source of the Flow was essentially the weapon with which the champion was killed. Could there be a tragedy there? Perhaps the autumn sage and the champion were lovers. And perhaps, even though it was the winter sage who realized the underhalls had to be flooded, it was the autumn sage who diverted the water, killing her lover after seeing her lover succumb to pride. Perhaps they had grown distant. Perhaps the autumn sage thought to deny the demon queen the chance to fully corrupt her lover. Or perhaps it was that in autumn, things must die to make way for new beginnings. Winter is cold, but autumn is cruel. Winter is death, but autumn is dying. And so, the autumn sage’s spirit resides in the Source of the Flow because her spirit never truly left the place where she killed her lover.

Now that’s powerful.

Recently, a dragon came to the site and made her lair inside and a tribe of kobolds followed her. The demon’s magic called to the dragon. The dragon has her kobolds searching for a way to free the demon. The kobolds have also started raiding local towns for supplies.

And now we come to the simplest part of the story. The dragon was probably driven from her previous lair by a group of adventurers. After all, she’s a green dragon. She doesn’t belong in the mountains. But she happened upon this place and felt the magic beneath it. And it was probably rich with elven treasures and trinkets. And her displaced tribe of kobolds eventually found her and established a residence there. Now, some of her kobolds raid from the mountains to build up their lair again. The rest are exploring the ruins, gathering treasure, and searching for a way into the halls below.

Until some adventurers come chasing after a kobold raiding party and discover a vast underground complex filled with adventure.

And Breaking It Down

So, we have our backstory. It’s pretty complete now, though there are a lot of details that will have to be filled in as we design the adventure. But how does that narrative go from a long wall of prose to a treasure horde of informational loot? Well, it’s simple and it isn’t. What we have to do is break the whole story down into a series of main points. Factoids. Basically, a pile of facts that allow the players to assemble the story.

Or most of it. See, most GMs assume that they must spell out the entire story and every detail. Or else, why bother writing all of those details. Well, the details help design the adventure. The details, for example, tell us where each of those elven spirits are and give us clues about what encounters with them will be like. The details tell us that there will be magical items made of strange gemstones that will probably have elemental properties. They might even have curses. So, having all of the details is important for us as designers.

But, the players do not need every detail. They need enough information to feel like there is a consistent story underlying everything and to get the gist of the story. That way, even if they are missing some details, they can guess at the important bits and not worry too much about the rest. This is especially important given that much of the backstory details represent optional discoveries.

Speaking of: we know that there is room in our adventure for 20 discoveries. Does that mean we need to break our story down into 20 pieces of disparate information? No. We actually need more than 20. Why? Well, first of all, some of the bits of information probably won’t work as discrete discoveries. For example, the fact that wood elves constructed the sanctuary isn’t something that we can firmly plant as a single clue. It’s going to be written all over this place. In the art, in the names, in the script and runes, the love of trees and growing things, and so on. The other reason we need more than 20 bits of information is because some of the information is probably going to need to be unmissable. Certain elements of the backstory, for example, represent objectives and motivations. And those can’t be optional.

Anyway, let’s just give our story a quick pass and see how well we can break it down into discrete bits of information. Chronologically.

  1. The mountain is an elemental rift, a place where the power of the elemental chaos bleeds into the natural world.

  2. An exiled demon queen is imprisoned below the mountain.

  3. The demon queen draws power from the elemental rift, but she is bound to this place.

  4. The demon queen wants to raise a palace, conquer a kingdom, and build her power in this world.

  5. The mountain is filled with gems and minerals that have been infused with elemental magic.

  6. A tribe of wood elves from the forested foothills of the valley established this sanctuary.

  7. The wood elves were allied with the dwarves of the mountains.

  8. The wood elves and the dwarves fought the mountain orcs together.

  9. An elf warband discovered the crater and the great tree and established the sanctuary while searching for a refuge after suffering injuries in battle.

  10. The elves worship four deities representing the four seasons, including the two traditional elven gods and two gods unusual for elves to worship.

  11. The sanctuary was led by four sages, each one devoted to one of the seasonal deities.

  12. As the sanctuary expanded, the elves discovered the elemental minerals and began mining them.

  13. The sage of summer began experimenting on the minerals and crafting magical items from them.

  14. A great warrior retired to the sanctuary and became its protector.

  15. The champion felt a special kinship for the summer deity and was given many magical gifts by the summer sage.

  16. The autumn sage and the champion fell in love.

  17. The winter sage foresaw disaster and corruption.

  18. The sage of summer became greedy for the magical crystals as a result of the demon’s corruption.

  19. The sage of spring also began to covet the crystals for use in art and sculpture.

  20. Eventually, the sage of summer’s assistants dug into the crystal caves and found the fiery abyss.

  21. Elemental demons were unleashed on the sanctuary.

  22. Many elves were slaughtered as the demons were unleashed.

  23. The champion led many of the surviving elves to drive back the demons.

  24. The champion became consumed by pride and believed she could destroy the demon queen.

  25. The sage of winter recognized that the champion would fall and the demon’s hordes would break free.

  26. The sage of winter convinced the sage of autumn that they must flood the underhalls.

  27. The sage of autumn flooded the underhalls.

  28. The champion, believing herself betrayed, died in the flood and her spirit became vengeful.

  29. The sage of winter gathered the other three sages and they performed a ritual to bind the demon queens power, using their own souls to power the magic.

  30. The four sages’ souls retreated to distant corners of the sanctuaries, lamenting their fate.

  31. A dragon was driven out of the forests of the valley and took up residence in the sanctuary.

  32. The dragon became enamored of the magical treasures and has commanded her kobold slaves to loot the sanctuary.

  33. The dragon has been corrupted by the demon queen and is using her kobold slaves to try to free the demon.

And there we go. We have 33 items on the list. And we need to get it down to 20. How do we do that? First, we have to remove anything from the list that doesn’t represent optional information. Anything that is either required to complete the adventure or else anything that provides an objective or a goal. Let’s go ahead and flag the required information. Let’s quickly run through it.

2. An exiled demon queen is imprisoned below the mountain.

Required information. It provides an objective.

4. The demon queen wants to raise a palace, conquer a kingdom, and build her power in this world.

This provides a motivation. It’s required.

29. The sage of winter gathered the other three sages and they performed a ritual to bind the demon queens power, using their own souls to power the magic.

Required. Provides an objective.

30. The four sage’s souls retreated to distant corners of the sanctuaries, lamenting their fate.

Also required as part of the same objective as 27.

And that’s honestly it as far as required information. You might think some of the dragon information is required. But honestly, the party really only needs to know that the kobolds exist and that the dragon exist. The other elements of backstory can be discovered later. For example, the players might discover later – or never discover – that the dragon has actually been corrupted by the demon queen. It doesn’t matter as long as the dragon is evil and dangerous. That will be enough to provide a motivation and an objective. The rest is just details.

Now, we still have 29 items on the list. The next step is go back over the list and determine which things just don’t work as discrete information but are rather just qualities of the place to be gleaned from the environment or else that will be demonstrated by many, many different clues.

5. The mountain is filled with gems and minerals that have been infused with elemental magic.

This is going to become patently obvious once the party wanders down to the crystal caves.

6. A tribe of wood elves from the forested foothills of the valley established this sanctuary.

It isn’t actually important that the elves came from the valley. But it will be obvious from the party’s explorations that the sanctuary was built by elves.

10. The elves worship four deities representing the four seasons, including the two traditional elven gods and two gods unusual for elves to worship.

There is probably going to be so much iconography and symbolism around that this fact will become obvious from the environment.

12. As the sanctuary expanded, the elves discovered the elemental minerals and began mining them.

This will probably become obvious from many clues in the environment.

21. Elemental demons were unleashed on the sanctuary.

The party will probably figure out the nature of the cataclysm from the environment itself.

22. Many elves were slaughtered as the demons were unleashed.

And this will become obvious as soon as 21. Becomes obvious.

With those eliminated, we’re left with 23 facts. And it should be pretty easy to get those down to the 20 discoveries just by combining the ones that are pretty close together. For example, we can combine the first and third. I’m not going to walk through this step by step. You can figure out what I did. I’m just jamming some facts together to bring the list down to 20.

  1. The mountain is an elemental rift, a place where the power of the elemental chaos bleeds into the natural world. The demon queen draws power from the elemental rift, but she is bound to this place.

  2. The wood elves were allied with the dwarves of the mountains. The wood elves and the dwarves fought the mountain orcs together.

  3. An elf warband discovered the crater and the great tree and established the sanctuary while searching for a refuge after suffering injuries in battle.

  4. The sanctuary was led by four sages, each one devoted to one of the seasonal deities.

  5. The sage of summer began experimenting on the minerals and crafting magical items from them.

  6. A great warrior retired to the sanctuary and became its protector.

  7. The champion felt a special kinship for the summer deity and was given many magical gifts by the summer sage.

  8. The autumn sage and the champion fell in love.

  9. The winter sage foresaw disaster and corruption.

  10. The sage of summer became greedy for the magical crystals as a result of the demon’s corruption.

  11. The sage of spring also began to covet the crystals for use in art and sculpture.

  12. Eventually, the sage of summer’s assistants dug into the crystal caves and found the fiery abyss.

  13. The champion led many of the surviving elves to drive back the demons.

  14. The champion became consumed by pride and believed she could destroy the demon queen.

  15. The sage of winter recognized that the champion would fall and the demon’s hordes would break free.

  16. The sage of winter convinced the sage of autumn that they must flood the underhalls. The sage of autumn flooded the underhalls.

  17. The champion, believing herself betrayed, died in the flood and her spirit became vengeful.

  18. A dragon was driven out of the forests of the valley and took up residence in the sanctuary.

  19. The dragon became enamored of the magical treasures and has commanded her kobold slaves to loot the sanctuary.

  20. The dragon has been corrupted by the demon queen and is using her kobold slaves to try to free the demon.

And there we have it. 20 discoveries that will spell out the optional backstory of this place.

The Shape of the Loot

Now, it’s important to keep a few things in mind here. Each of the items on the list is just a barebones summary of the fact that we want to convey. It’s a list of the information we need to provide a space for in our dungeon design. Each bit of information will be built out with additional details as we design the dungeon. Right now, that’s just an outline. If the players find all of those little bits, they can understand the general shape of the backstory.

As for what form each piece of information will take? Well, that’s also something that will become a part of the design. Some information might take the form of relics or decorations. The party might find a mural, for example, that depicts the elves marching out of the valley and into the mountains to join the dwarves against the orcs. Or they might find scraps of the summer sage’s journal discussing his discoveries and revealing his downfall. Other information might be gated behind skill checks or interactions. For example, the players might learn of the dragon’s plans by interacting with the kobolds.

We’re not worrying about any of that right now. This is just another bit of the outline, another little list of things that are going to need space in our dungeon. We’ll detail them later.

Note, also, that the items we eliminated as neccessary for providing motivations or goals? Those are still going to be in the adventure. We just have to make sure those bits of information are planted right along the critical path and are completely unmissable. And thanks to some clever techniques, we’ll make sure they aren’t missed.

Meanwhile, this technique of taking a story, breaking it down into a numbered list, and classifying the information on there is a great tool for planning your information management. Hope it helps.

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21 thoughts on “Megadungeon Monday: Information Management by the Numbers

  1. Just wanted to express how much I enjoy Megadungeon Monday; I binge-read your Megadungeon series a few months ago and have been waiting with bated breath for your series to continue. Keep it coming!!!

  2. This is one of my favorite articles recently and I hope you can keep it going. For me, practical, step by step guides help me find my own style and helps me piece together my world any players are thankful for it. Conceptual articles are fine, but this where you shine!

    Thank you!

  3. An awesome article for anyone trying to write their own adventures. Keep up with the flow, Angry!

  4. It’s so obvious, and yet until you spell it out it’s such a mess to deal with. I’m looking forward to the detailed article.

  5. This is interesting, but I really hope you get to the adventure writing part of this subject. I feel like as a GM I’m pretty good at giving the information to the players but as an adventure publisher I’m always curious to see how you plan on conveying the information to the GM in this publish project. It’s one thing to have a lot of information players and bits and pieces but you have to convey all of this somehow to the GM both as an efficient summary and also integrated into the maps or mind maps or whatever of the text of the adventure. The whole room by the room key can be kind of clunky.

  6. I loved the article and I’ll be sure to use this technique for the megadungeon that I’m working on right now. However, I did notice something odd to do with the story and where Angry put the elven sages. Didn’t you originally have the summer sage kill himself over his grief at corrupting the champion in the Source of the Flow and the autumn sage in the area of the Great Tree? I wouldn’t think it’s too big of a deal to change who is where, but doesn’t moving one of the sages back into the Flooded Underhalls and out of the Great Tree mess with the master plan that you created?

  7. At the end of the 101 section, you say that information can be “Useful, Helpful, or Necessary” but I think (from earlier in the section) you meant “Interesting, Useful, or Necessary”.

    (Feel free to delete this comment on fixing)

  8. It continues to amaze me how you take something we give so little thought to and make it apparent that we should give it thought. Very insightful and extremely helpful.

    Thank you Angry.

  9. Wow. Never commented on one of your articles before, but this one made me absolutely have to on account of how brilliant it is. Thank you so much for this. So helpful, insightful, and fun to read. Also, I really appreciated how little a deal you made out of the romance between the champion and the autumn sage beings same-sex. Thank you for that as well.

  10. I know it’s a little soon for that, but a really cool way of showing the aliance to the dwarfs would be for the party to find an dwarven axe with inscriptions. The axe would be a gift from the dwarves to the founder of the place. The inscriptions would describe the valorous deeds that merited such a gift, probably saving some dwarves putting his own life at risk.

  11. I’m now even more interested in this project than before, and I can’t wait to see how those elements are developed.

    Also, you mentioned Foreshadowing, which I hope you will explain better in the near future, as it’s an element that I find quite difficult to implement effectively in games and adventures, and probably your help will make it seem easier than I thought.

  12. Awesome as usual, Angry, but there’s one loose end ticking at me. What happened to the dwarves? Surely such staunch brothers-in-arms would not have abandoned their comrades in their hour of need. It seems, too, that making the sanctuary a collaborative effort would fill in some of the holes in the logic of a bunch of wood elves building an underground complex for their spiritual retreat.

    • Random idea: we also need a way for the players to find out about all these things, and the old “journal entries left behind by elves” would be convenient, but would also look quite forced if used more than a couple of times.

      So.. we need something for the dwarves to do; we also need someone to have already gone through parts of the dungeon to leave behind ways to discover the story… I say we fix both problems at once.

      The dwarves, after losing contact with their comrades, send a few expeditions to find out what happened. Of course, they all fail, and die during the exploration. After a few groups have disappeared in the temple, the dwarves start thinking the place is now incredibly dangerous, or maybe haunted, and stop sending soldiers to their death.

      Players can now come across remains of those squads. Finding journals about their discoveries actually makes a lot of sense: considering the fact that they were sent here to report on the state of the temple, they would have probably have something written down already before their unlucky death.

    • The dwarves were invaded by a horde of Illithids who brainwashed them and made them forget the elves forever. But the players won’t know unless they actually go looking for the dwarves who are not connected to the megadungeon so it doesn’t matter.

  13. Great article as always, Angry. I think I’ve got a term you can use for “layering it on”. You could call it “crystallizing” your ideas. Each bit of the original backstory acts like a seed crystal, with each expansion of the story acting like another layer of crystal.

  14. Excellent. I’ve been stuck for a while now writing the middle parts of my current campaign. I’ve got a decent beginning, with the first few adventures covered, and I know how it ends, but the way I’ve been trying to connect them is wrong. For the most part I’ve simply been picking out a few meandering threads extending from the previous adventure and hoping they keep heading in the general direction of the ending without being forced too much.

    Although this isn’t a megadungeon but a grand cross-country quest, it can still be reduced to a set of required key discoveries to serve as landmarks on the plot map, and just by having that list laid out somewhere, it’s much easier to understand what needs to happen in the Middle Adventures.

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