Megadungeon Monday Update: Creativity, Criticism, Cartography, and Catastrophe

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Happy Megadungeon Monday!

The scheduled Megadungeon Monday article has gotten pushed back. It got pushed back for a couple of reasons. And this article is less of an article and more of a project update. This is partly due to some feedback of a less than happy variety I received via various channels after last week’s article. It is partly due to my playing around with some different tools. It is partly due to a flurry of frantic creative activity over the weekend. And it’s partly due to the fact that the flurry of frantic creative activity was interrupted by a personal emergency that kind of f$&%ed up all of my weekend plans.

Now, I don’t have enough for the next article. That’s the long and short of it. But I will have enough by next Monday. Because, thanks to the feedback and the creative energy, I’ve raced ahead in a completely different – and exciting – direction. This article is to explain that crap. And it also because I am trying to hold myself more accountable to this project and to its fans. Basically, if I don’t have enough work to do the next major installment, I figure I damned well better explain myself AND prove that I have been working on something.

A lot of people really liked last week’s article on Information Management. And I stand by it. It’s an important and useful skill. ESPECIALLY if you’re trying to pull off a major feat of environmental storytelling. But there were also some very unhappy campers who are a bit tired of all the planning and thinking and fluffing and they just want some goddamned tangible dungeon design or something. Now, usually when I say I’ve gotten some negative feedback, I get a bunch of people in the comments telling me the negative feedback is WRONG and telling me not to change a thing because the article was good and necessary and all that crap. I don’t want that, okay? Everyone has the right to their opinion. And honestly, I kind of understand where people are coming from with the whole “build the f$&%ing dungeon already.”

I will continue to discuss every step in the process. Don’t you f$&%ing worry. I won’t skimp. But honestly, I’m just as happy to put some maps down. And below, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on. I promise. A sort of preview of the big thing that is coming next week.

See, what’s also been going on is that I have actually been running games again. Online games through the Fantasy Grounds virtual table top. About half of my Victim level Patreon supporters have had their first taste of the ongoing monthly D&D campaign that I promised long ago. The other half will be invited to join in about six weeks when I start the second season. But as a result of running online games through Fantasy Grounds, I’ve found myself doing a lot more mapping. And doing something I don’t do a hell of a lot of: electronic mapping. I’ve always been a hand-drawn kind of guy. As you’ve probably noticed from some of the previous scans of colored-pencil-on-graph-paper drawings.

Remember this?


But Fantasy Grounds needs electronic maps. And, the thing is, I’ve owned a tool for a long time for electronic mapping that I’ve barely ever used: Campaign Cartographer by ProFantasy. Actually, I’m currently using Campaign Cartographer 3+. But I’ve owned every version of Campaign Cartographer since the first one came out back in 1993. Well, actually, I got mine in 1995, I think. Whatever. It’s a pretty powerful mapping program. And unlike most mapping programs that are available today, it isn’t tile based. It’s actually based on the FastCAD engine. FastCAD was one of the earliest computer aided design tools and it went on to form the basis for AutoCAD, a professional architectural and engineering 2D and 3D design and rendering program. It’s a pretty powerful little program, but it’s not the most intuitive thing in the world. But, back in 1995 and 1996, I took some CAD and architecture courses in high school and in college, I majored in engineering for a couple of years, so I was more comfortable than most working in a CAD environment. But I never used Campaign Cartographer. I only dabbled with it occasionally. And paid for the latest versions and add-ons. Because I’m a gamer. Owning gaming crap you never use is part and parcel of the whole gamer gig.

Anyhoo, now that I’m running games online in Fantasy Grounds, I need a way to produce nice looking maps quickly and easily. Obviously, my Victims have already seen the fruits of my labor in our online games. But my Frienemy level Patrons have also been enjoying a growing library of encounter maps in the Angry Secret Stash as a result.

One of the most powerful things about CC3+ is that it uses layering or sheet tools. If you’ve used graphical editing software like GIMP or Photoshop, you’ll know what I mean. Basically, the various entities in your drawing can exist as a bunch of transparent overlays. You can turn the different layers on and off, apply special effects to different layers, edit entire layers on the fly, freeze layers so you don’t accidentally erase one part of the map while working with another, and so on.

With a little bit of planning, you can actually produce some pretty nice maps. Here’s an example of the sort of stuff that’s been showing up in my Secret Stash lately. This one’s a freebie for all of you. In fact, have two. Click on the images for larger maps you can download and keep. Enjoy.

Now, I HAD used Campaign Cartographer with the Megadungeon Project before. I used it to put together those big diagrams of how the dungeon fit together and to lay out the basic critical path. These things. Remember?



But, I didn’t do it to scale. And I had no intention of designing the dungeon in CC3+ at all. I figured I’d design the thing on paper and then draw it up nicely in CC3. Or just pay a cartographer to do it. But now I’m discovering I’m kind of a dumba%&.

See, one of the most powerful tools in CC3 – the layers and sheets – gives me a powerful tool for DESIGNING the Megandungeon. I can take the informational design crap – the days, the regions, the critical path, etc – and put that on layers UNDER the design itself.

The thing is, I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to organize everything to hand-draw the map. Because I need to be able to see the regions, the days, the objectives, the critical path, and so on. But being able to turn on and off different informational layers and freeze them as underlays solves all of that.

And since everyone wants to see some goddamned mapping anyway – self included – I’ve decided the next big step is what I’m going to call the EXIT MAP. The exit map shows how every single individual encounter area is connected to every other one. Including the optional crap. The shortcuts. The gates. Everything. And I wanted to build it in a format that I could design the dungeon directly on top of.

And that brought about the flurry of activity. I popped open CC3+ and started building a master file for the entire Megadungeon. To scale. I worked pretty feverishly, like I always do when an obstacle is suddenly surmounted. And that would have been great if I could have worked through the weekend.

But, blah blah blah, weekend disaster. I don’t really want to go into the story. It was personal, it was kind of stupid, and it wrecked not only my weekend but also a trip the Tiny GM was taking out of state to visit her family.

Anyway, I wanted to update everyone anyway. The longest part of this is transferring the maps – as they are now – into a master file, figuring out a scale for the whole damned thing, linking up the files so I can easily move between the different levels and make sure everything lines up. I’m almost done with that now. Here, for example, is level two. That’s the main level. It’s got the “days of adventure” mapped out to scale and I’ve overlaid the critical path and blocked out the individual encounter spaces. Check it out. And you can click on it for a larger size. That’s a HUGE file, exported directly from CC3+.

That’s not new though. You’ve seen that before. Just in a different format. What’s neat though is that I went underneath it and added a layer flagging the different regions of the dungeon. Check that out.

If you’re attentive, you’ll notice a map key in the upper right corner. That key also provides little symbols for color-coded doors. Those are just informational doors. Because once the whole dungeon is in there, my plan is to build the exit map. And that will be a map of the traffic flow through the entire dungeon. And then I can turn OFF the “days of adventure” underlay because I no longer need that. That information will be subsumed in the exit map. Instead, I can focus on designing the “dungeon regions.”

Now, lest you think this is all a bunch of wasted time, I want to show you something else. The reason for moving all of this to CC3+. Once the information is all IN CC3+, I can actually design individual dungeon rooms TO SCALE on top of the overlay.

Here’s a couple I slapped together just to fiddle around. I realize they aren’t connected to each other or anything just yet. They are just isolated rooms. And they are slapdash. I was just experimenting. But you can see how they fit into the encounter area map. I drew them over two little encounter regions in the Desiccated Sanctuary (hence the brown underlay). These are just quick screen caps, though, not exports. So they aren’t super high quality. But they COULD be.


All in all, this is a pretty exciting development. Next week, we’ll be able to discuss pathing, exit maps, and advanced traffic flow with fancy-schmancy graphics.

So, that’s what I’ve been working on. And I hope this update proves I have been doing SOMETHING with my time. See you next Monday.

31 thoughts on “Megadungeon Monday Update: Creativity, Criticism, Cartography, and Catastrophe

  1. I am 100% in the camp that says your judgment about what is useful is better than anyone else’s. That’s why you have a successful website and they don’t – because you are a good judge of what’s useful.

    But you have to stop leading into your articles with excuses for why they’re not done, and you have to stop making promises and then failing to meet them (and then making excuses for that). You will lose readers, and more importantly you will make people angry. The last thing you want to do is become the George R R Martin of TTRPG Advice.

    Even though there are some touchy-feely patrons out there who share their warm fuzzies with you when you talk about your personal life, you shouldn’t do it. You have all of the tools to be a professional game designer – one of the VERY BEST professional game designers – but you’re lacking the professionalism. And that’s the only thing you’re lacking.

    No more personal updates, no more excuses, no more overloaded schedules. You could pump out one article and one “extra” for your patrons per month, and you’d still do it better than ANYONE ELSE. You are good enough to do less, and it will give you more time to find balance.

    Less is more. It’s not your quantity that brings us back, wanting more. It’s your quality.

    • My thoughts exactly, you even got the GRRM reference in (depressing analogy, but true).
      While it has tangential value, for me the megadungeon series is also a great case study in why most DM’s do not create awesome adventures from scratch, we use a premade one and mostly polish it up as we go along. That’s a manageable workload, and you can still make it suitable for you and your players without the need for so much heavy lifting.

      • Angry has a format and a formula, including the stuff from his personal life that resonates with a lot of people and pisses off plenty of people apparently. I consider Angry to be an artist rather than an engineer or maybe in addition to being an engineer, and it seems like there is a huge amount of therapeutic value in being comfortable expressing all this personal stuff to an audience that has proven supportive. The story of the skilled but flawed human being resonates with a lot of people (or else House wouldn’t have had 8 seasons).

        Angry often apologizes to his audience for the inconvenience of his life problems effects on his productivity and many of his fans are also bankrolling him so an explanation is often warranted. Since it happens in the beginning of his articles he has also provided you with an easy method of skipping to the meat of the articles. This feels like complaining that DVD’s have directors commentary tracks as an option and you don’t like to use that option. Professionals are often expected to explain missing deadlines to their investors, which in this case, is also a percentage of the audience.

        Personally, I appreciate Angry trying to stick to a schedule because I love gaming and designing games and the articles here are the most useful to me do my specific shortcomings as a DM and every time I turn on my computer I am tempted to go re-read old articles since I’ve already consumed all the new content. Angry has created systems for things I have been wanting to build systems for, but has way more experience to draw from and approaches problem solving in a way that resonates with me

        • I value transparency. Highly. I will not stop doing that just because some people feel it’s too excusey or ruins the illusion. Because, frankly, the people paying me to keep doing this deserve it. Just like if I was late at the day job delivering the project, my boss would deserve an explanation. The only way I was even willing to do this crowdfunding thing instead of just scaling back and cutting down on my website – which is what I was going to do two years ago – was because I found ways to make myself accountable. By remaining transparent AND by tying my funding directly to my output (four articles a month or I don’t get paid). That isn’t going away just because some people don’t like it. Don’t worry about that.

          • I also value transparency, though we appear to mean different things by it. There’s a difference between professional transparency and personal transparency.

            But even granting that you want to be transparent about your personal life to your backers doesn’t mean you should be transparent about your personal life to your audience.

            You may feel the need to explain to your boss that you’re falling behind at work because your partner left you, but you’re not going to start sharing it with the customers/clients.

            It’s your site. Run it how you like. I thought the comment might be helpful.

    • Eh, I completely disagree. His articles about his personal life can be good for the “touchy-feely” readers, sure, but they also let us know why this or that hasn’t come out yet. It gives us a great level of transparency.

    • I agree with BurgerBeast. It sometimes feels like you’re showing up to give a TED Talk about your world-changing research wearing a dirty t-shirt. Your work is top-notch and if you’re going to do this full time, it’s time to level-up your presentation accordingly.

      In a perfect world, you’d hire a copy editor. Professional writing always benefits from a second set of eyes. I’m not talking about spelling and typos. A good editor would cut 30% off your word count, improve your flow and give overall feedback without changing your style, persona or meaning. Unfortunately, you’d probably be looking a $150-$200 per article. I wonder if you could boost your Patreon funding by that much if you promise to spend it that way. Maybe you could release raw articles to funders immediately and post final, edited content to the website a week or two later.

      I don’t know how you and Fiddleback work out editing and finances, but GM Word of the Week feels quite polished and has become one of my favorite things. I’d pay to have the regular weekly articles read out loud in a buttery smooth voice during my commute. 🙂

      • You hit the nail on the head here. I have priced proof readers and copy editors. Based on my weekly output, I’m looking at over $200 per week. I don’t want to get into numbers too heavily, but that’s too big a chunk of my pay. I would love to have an editor or proof reader, but my bottom line will not bear the cost of $800 a month worth of editing. That said, I have been talking to some people about alternatives.

        Fiddleback is a professional freelance editor. He’s one of the first people I priced, to be honest. He and I are friends, but he has no connection to The Angry GM. We are partners in The GM Word of the Week, but technically, he owns that show. He could fire me if he really wanted to. He is in that $200 per week too expensive for me range for editing services.

        As for recording services, consider this: The GM Word of the Week runs about 3,000 words, plays for 25 minutes, and takes him about 8 hours to edit, record, and produce. The weekly content on my website amounts to four times that. Even cutting out adding music and soundscapes to underscore the action, that would still be a full-time job for Fiddleback. I can’t pay him anything remotely close to the market value of his recording services for 30 hours a week.

        Here’s the thing: I understand what you’re saying completely. And I agree. I’m at the point where I need to be transitioning from amateur production to professional business venture. But I’m in a weird limbo between the two. Right now, I make enough money to either be a profitable amateur production or a bankrupt professional business venture. That IS changing. And I do know what it takes to make that transition (I am a small business accountant). The trouble is I have to prioritize right now and I have to focus on the changes I can afford. I have to cut some costs while also seeking out additional alternative revenue streams.

        I am looking into alternatives for copy editing and proofreading and I’m also in the process of modifying my workflow to allow for an editor (I still write/publish pretty close to the deadline).

        So, that’s the reality right now. Is that the permanent reality? No. A lot of changes have taken place here at The Angry GM headquarters over the past six months. They just aren’t all outside facing. Admittedly, some of them should have happened before now, but I can’t change how I did things in the past. I can only move forward. Eventually, there will be someone proofing my work. But other changes have to happen first.

        • I don’t envy the challenges you’re facing, but I admire how far you’ve come. Keep rockin’ it.

        • Do you think that if you had a single feature going through editing, and everything else was still coming out raw, it would be better or worse in terms of presentation than everything being unedited?

    • Couldn’t agree more. There’s no value to revealing personal information, or providing reasons things aren’t being done. It’s some straight Siembieda level BS.

  2. For the record, your last megadungeon article turned out to be EXACTLY what I needed for a campaign I’m planning: the PCs get teleported through a portal into a ruined city in a whole new continent, which was destroyed by evil wizards doing experiments(Bioshock style). So, I had to come up with a way to give them information about the (new)setting through the ruins. So, long story short, your last article was golden. But, as everything, I can imagine other people wanting more ‘concrete’ stuff.

    As for this article, I can sympathise with having to port everything from one map to another, and it takes an awful lot of work. And now I’m excited after this ‘trailer’.

  3. I tend to work with either boring grid mats with token obstacles sketched in with wet-erase marker or spare dice/tokens, or fully detailed digital maps created by someone else. In the digital space I typically have trouble getting gridlines to match up with the grid on a pre-existing map, I generally found it most reliable to simply count my grid squares and clip the pre-existing map to end on gridline edges so that I can simply rescale the map-as-image to take up that many default grid squares, so the resulting image can simply snap to the grid and just fit perfectly. At least in Roll20, every attempt I’ve made to match a pre-existing map which doesn’t end on perfect gridline edges results in infuriatingly mismatched lines, getting worse the further you get from the point you use to calibrate.

    Is the Fantasy Flight grid-matching consistent enough that you can actually just mouse-define one square and not have the program’s gridlines drifting off from the image’s gridlines?

  4. Those graphics look fantastic. And as someone who is intending to soon start creating his own digital maps for a Roll20 campaign, coming off a pre-gen module, I hope you’ll spend a little time discussing how you create them. I could buy the same software if it will make a huge difference to my complete lack of artistic skills. My current plan is buying dungeon tile add-ons within Roll20.

    Looking forward to next Monday!

  5. Angry I’ve been reading your stuff since long before you started the patreon thing. While it’s sometimes exasperating that your articles are inconsistently timed, it is offset by the thoroughness of thought and heart that is put into each article. I would rather have the gold that you put out on a sporadic basis than $#;! put out on a regular weekly schedule. You are an inspiration to those willing to shut up and listen for the span of several thousand wonderful words. Thanks for all you do. You are bettering this community more than you know.

  6. I like that the process is thoroughly documented, it helps me develop my own (though I do not go the length of incorporating it all). And it reminds me how hard it is for others to stay consistent. And to simply do shit because it’s the only way to get things done. 😉

  7. Gotta agree with Newly minted and BurgerBeast (you sir will be the reason my players will fight a bread and meat based monster).

    I’ve been a fan since I found the slaughterhouse system (when it was still angry DM) while building a ravnica style campaign for 4e. It was a failure (but that’s because i’ve always been a starter. Gotten alot better at actually keeping campaigns alive, mostly because of your advice)

    And i’m not a “everything you do is gold” reader either. You have the uncanny knack to anilyze (not sure if that’s spelt right. Second language sorry) game design in such an acedemic way that even if what you delivered a solution that is total rubbish, you have actually identified the problem. Even mighty old wizards is bad at that (unrelated, can you believe they didn’t think of having an evolving wild variant for the desert type, what is that.)

    Just wanna say as well, that money is tight in my life. RPG’s are a great way to play a lot of games without spending too much money. It is true that I need to homebrew a lot of stuff (even f $&*king rule systems. Thanks 5e). But you help a lot in this regard.

    Point is, much like gaming, you empower. You don’t just spew a bunch of f@#/ing soundbites that i could get in the dmg or any forum on any website on the internet. And that is the reason i’ve been a follower since slaughterhouse.

    You sir are a treasure in a sea of screaming idiots. And its not because of a schedule . . .

    Ps. Sorry if that got ranty. Just wanted to give my opinion (not that’s its worth much i guess).

  8. I don’t like this article, actually I think it’s the worst that I’ve ever read from you, there is always a worst article by definition so don’t feel too upset over it, as long as every article you make is not the worst.

    I’d just ignore it and wait for the next article but because it’s unusual for you to write stuff I don’t like I’ll tell you why I think that I feel it’s bad (reptilian mind and all that):

    – too technical, I’ve used autocad so I understand some of this stuff but I don’t come here to learn how to do electronic maps over hand drawn maps, I come to learn how to do good maps or to get inspiration to make different maps.

    – not funny: it’s all factual, I get that you were all passionate about what you’ve done but I don’t feel your personnal touch in this article, no funny cursing, no peculiar analogy with games or movies or whatever. This can make me forget the first point and spend a good time even though I don’t get anything from an article, but there’s none of this in here.

    So I read an article which wasn’t funny and was not interesting. For the first time on YOUR blog.
    I understand that some people want technical stuff and you probably want some too in an effort to bring up the megadungeon again but you can’t just come and say: look I’ve made rooms! I took a pen, a paper and a ruler to have straight walls, which is basically what your article is. Well you can because it’s your blog but people like me are going to complain on the comment section, you’ll have to read our comments and then delete them or answer or ignore them, so spare yourself the effort please.

    In what you give us I see two rooms connected by a corridor, a big room with a bunch of closets, a training ground and a sort of garden with a lake. All of this don’t feel revolutionary to me. So instead of telling us how cool this mapping software is, unless you’ve got some sponsoring going on, how about you tell us what makes the particular maps you’ve given us so special? Or why you put that tree here, rather than there or things we should keep in my when we make this kind of maps?

    • I kinda agree with that, but due to a third reason:

      – too “excusey”: perhaps things in your life have been really rough lately (sometimes I read about it in your tweeter), but in these last few articles, the Rambling Introduction has a tone that screams “sorry people, these are the reasons I messed up/I am late/I changed scheduled subjects”… and I’m not even talking about the real-excusey article about forgiving yourself because that was an awesome article (your deconstruction of GMs burnout was great).

      I don’t mind “too technical”, I don’t mind “not funny”, but for some reason I do mind when your Persona becomes a wimp trying to justify your low-points with sheepish vocabulary. It’s not the Angry side or the Mentor side that turns me on, but the Confident and slightly Arrogant side that almost nobody else in the internet-ttrpg-scene has, and your guts to stay on top even when the world insists on putting you down.

      When you put out your awesome articles, be they theoretical analysis about game systems, or meaty implementations of rules to improve the games, spiced with your unique confident way, they elevate themselves and become golden. I miss that sauce in this article.

    • First: negative feedback is useful. I am glad you posted this.

      I don’t view this article as a helpful how-to style article as much as a personal update. And that is totally fine, in my book. Its okay to not provide a lesson.

  9. All looking and sounding pretty good! I think it all looks pretty solid. The thing that would bug me about that editor are those obnoxious shadows. Do you have fine control over stuff like that?

    • Yes. The shadows are special effects added after the fact. You can control them, disable them, change the size, angle, color, everything. I happen to think they look neat.

  10. I can appreciate the perspective of my fellow readers who want to see shiny professional content, no rough edges, published here on time, every time, no excuses.

    But I prefer things as they are. Consider this:

    As a reader and backer of Angry, I am getting (at least) two value streams. One is the Oracle of Game Design (and game evaluating, and running, and understanding, and getting started, and everything). What we’re all here for. And yes, it will be even better as Angry evolves the publishing process. Although frankly I’m not going to turn down a gold piece just because it has some dirt on it and could use a polish.

    The second thing I get from following Angry is a front-row seat watching an artist/engineer as he dives headlong into his craft, charges down blind alleys, gets lost, has Eureka moments, gets knocked back, breaks through, and keeps climbing to new heights. I sympathize when you run into personal or professional struggles Angry. But I also gain inspiration and instruction from watching you learn, grow, admit where you are failing and finding a way through.

    If you pretended to never get stuck, to never lose the thread, to never be disappointed in yourself, to always have your $&% together, we’d still have the primary value stream of GM Oracle and all would be well. But I would miss the rest of this.

  11. “And unlike most mapping programs that are available today, it isn’t tile based. It’s actually based on the FastCAD engine. FastCAD was one of the earliest computer aided design tools and it went on to form the basis for AutoCAD”

    How do you even know so many facts? It always amazes me how much you actually know about so many topics!

    • Honestly, I just a very good memory. Everyone is exposed to lots of facts. In this case, it’s because I took CAD courses in high school and college back in the mid-90s.

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