Megadungeon Monday: It’s Carrot AND Stick

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Happy Megadungeon Monday!

This is going to be another lighter, fluffier, more conceptual one. Sorry. But it’s really your own fault because it sort of started in the comment section of last week’s article. Actually, it REALLY started with an internet video. The trouble is, I can’t remember the video and I’m having trouble tracking it down. But it doesn’t matter. Someone was talking about some video game. I watch a lot of videos about video games, okay? It’s how I maintain my level of utter genius about how to put together actual good games.

Now, as some of you may know, nothing drives me more insane than a misused or misspoken idiom. For example, if you ever say to me “the proof is in the pudding,” I will probably punch the every-loving crap out of you. And if you ever say “that’s the exception that proves the rule” in an ironic way, I’ll rip out your thorax. That phrase is not ironic. The word “prove” is an old word that used to mean “to test.” Like a proving ground. And like proof of concept. Yeah, you’re not trying to provide EVIDENCE your concept works. You’re TESTING your concept. But there are dumba$&es out there who think “well, it was pretty cold today so global warming must not exist” is a funny example of the “exception that proves the rule,” like that phrase is a joke. The “exception that proves the rule” is the situation that arises that makes you reevaluate whether the rule really works. And “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” See, European puddings are big, fancy affairs that look really pretty. But it doesn’t matter how pretty the pudding looks. The actual TEST of the pudding is how it TASTES! The test of the pudding is tasting it. See? SEE?!

So I was watching some video on YouTube and some reviewer or critic or whatever was saying “these are the carrots on sticks” of the game, referring to a thing as an incentive. You know, like how you tie a carrot to a stick and dangle it in front of a donkey to make it move forward. And lots of people think of the phrase as “carrot on stick.” But it actually isn’t. The phrase is “carrot AND stick.” And it refers to the practice of dangling a carrot in front of a jacka$% to make it do what you want and beating it with a stick to make it stop doing what you don’t want.

See, the thing about driving behavior is that rewards are only good to drive people along the right path. Punishments are also needed to get people off the wrong path. At least, assuming the people are jacka$&es. And we’re talking about players here. So…

Anyway, several commenters last week took exception to the idea of including a wandering monster mechanic in the megadungeon at all. They noted that I, myself, have admitted that a wandering monster mechanic is basically a nuisance mechanic. It’s basically a punishment. If the players spend too much time away from the dungeon or don’t push forward or try to rest or are loud and stupid, minor encounters pop up randomly to waste their time and energy and offer very little reward.

Why, asked some of my readers, am I including a punishing nuisance mechanic? Isn’t there some other, more rewarding way of accomplishing my goals? And the answer is no. Because you can’t just get by with the carrot. Sometimes you need the stick. And THAT is why we need to discuss incentives and disincentives (rewards and punishments) in game design. And ultimately, it’s going to lead us to decide to do something absolutely crazy with XP in our little megadungeon. Let’s get down to it.

The Tyranny of Fun

It is quite common nowadays for game designers to labor under a thing I like to call “the tyranny of fun.” Basically, the assumption is that if there is a particular game element that isn’t, of itself, fun, it does not belong in the game. And that SEEMS reasonable. I mean, why include something in the game that isn’t fun? Don’t we do this whole thing for fun?

No. No we actually don’t.

Take, for example, Dark Souls. Dark Souls is a game a great many people love playing and a great many people absolutely hate. The haters decry it for its punishing difficulty, it’s obtuse to the point of almost nonexistent storytelling, and its refusal to explain anything or hold your hand in any way. It’s basically a meat grinder and the only way to beat it is to keep throwing meat into it until the gears get clogged and stop working. One reviewer once described Dark Souls as “banging your head repeatedly against a wall with a scary monster painted on it.” And that’s pretty apt. Meanwhile, those of us who LOVE Dark Souls – you know, the people who are RIGHT – love it for its punishing difficulty, its obtuse storytelling, and its refusal to explain absolutely everything.

If the game designers of Dark Souls had decided that nothing unfun could exist in Dark Souls, it would absolutely suck. At least, for those of us who love it, it would absolutely suck.

See, the word fun is kind of a useless word. It’s vague and general, but we generally associate it with a positive experience that leaves us delighted and happy. Dark Souls isn’t that. And that’s because games can shoot for lots of other emotions and engagements beyond the nebulous concept of fun. Dark Souls is designed around a specific form of engagement and everything it does, fun and unfun, is designed around that engagement. It is designed around providing an extremely challenging experience, but it is also designed to be extremely fair. That is to say, it’s mechanics are understandable and once you understand what it’s doing, it doesn’t break its own rules (mostly). But part of that challenge is figuring out the rules its playing by. And the same goes for the story. If you want to know what the story is, you damned well better piece it together because it sure isn’t going to tell you. The elements that aren’t “fun in the moment” are important to create the specific, satisfying experience that it sets out to create.

And THAT is why the dumba$&es petitioning for the designers to waste resources to put in an “easy mode” to help it cater to fans who aren’t seeking hardcore challenge literally DO NOT GET IT. That’s like saying “this horror movie would be a lot better if you removed the axe murderer, added a romantic plot, lightened the tone, and added a few jokes.”

Now, let me sound like an elitist douchebag for a moment. I mean, like MORE of an elitist douchebag. Chasing “fun” is pretty much chasing the lowest common denominator. If you just fill your game with “in the moment fun,” yeah, people will have fun with it for a while. But the experience will be shallow, it will lack depth. Anyone seeking a deeper or more specific experience will quickly wander away. Worse yet, it won’t lack staying power. Because the people who are there for simple escapist fun – abnegation as elitist douchebag game designers call it – they get bored quickly. They tend to flit from experience to experience. They are like drug addicts. They build up a resistance and constantly need more or better drugs or higher doses. The highs stop being as high and the lows drag out.

You are almost ALWAYS better off tailoring your game to a SPECIFIC experience and then building to that experience than walking to the table – or designing your product – with the idea of just clowning around chasing fun.

The megadungeon project isn’t just a “fun” dungeon crawler. It’s designed to create a specific experience. Not EVERYONE will like it, sure. But I do believe that it will have pretty broad appeal because the things it does are things that I think a lot of D&D gamers are drawn to. But, of course, that’s the risk with ANY design. On the one hand, a specific experience is always better than the vagary of “fun.” On the other hand, too specific an experience limits your audience. Dark Souls surprised a lot of people because it did so well. It was a very experience, it was designed as a budget title, and it was designed as a spiritual successor to a game that – at best – a niche game, a cult game. Its success surprised a lot of people. Because it turned out a lot of people were looking for just that sort of experience. Basically, it got lucky.

And that is why, in the end, the best thing a creator can do is assume that SOMEONE out there likes the things they like and consequently design something THEY want to play. The megadungeon is the sort of thing I’d love to play and run. I’m assuming there’s other people out there like me. So, by designing for me, I’m designing for them.

Teaching People How to Enjoy Your Game

Now, here’s where things get tricky and where I start to offend a few people. Not that I care. I’m always offending people. Here’s the deal, no matter how broad your appeal and how general the experience you are trying to create, there is ALWAYS a best way to play your game. See, people want to believe that things, especially role-playing games, can and should be everything to everyone. But that falls us right back into the trap of vapid, shallow experiences. Specifically, that’s how you create experiences that are okay at a lot of things but that don’t stand out any anything. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. The primary example is, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. Because, of course, there is no one right way to play D&D. But the thing is, there are lots of BETTER ways to play D&D and there are also lots of BAD and DUMB ways to play D&D. Which is why other role-playing games even exist.

But even within D&D, different adventures and campaigns work differently and do different things and emphasize different forms of engagement. Our megadungeon is not going to play anything like, say, Return of Strahd Ravenloft or whatever the current new hotness is. As if I give a s$&% about “Twilight meets D&D” which is just an update of “Interview with a Vampire” meets D&D.

For example, our game is basically action archaeology. Explore the ruins, overcome the obstacles, piece together the backstory, delve deep enough, find the final boss, and win. And for the players to get the most out of it, we need them to play it a certain way. Our game is about exploration and challenge. So, they need to be willing to wander, to push forward, and be driven by a desire for answers. And they need to face the games obstacles, individually and collectively, as challenges to be overcome as efficiently as possible. If they waste too many resources, they have to retreat and rest. Retreating and resting comes at a cost, an increased chance of random encounters. Those waste more resources. Likewise, exploration is good when it is pushing forward, but the party should also be efficient. Always push forward, don’t dawdle or wander.

In fact, that came up in the comments too. It was mentioned that I’ve built a dungeon that REQUIRES backtracking and also PUNISHES backtracking. Yes. Yes I have. Sometimes, the party has to return to a previously explored area because the next way forward lies in that direction. For example, after they defeat the plant monster, the next way forward requires them return to a side path that is now open to them.

If the players are attentive and the game telegraphs itself well – and it will because I’m good at this – most players will remember where they saw a path that is now opened by the dead plant monster. For now, you’ll have to trust me on that. But I WILL show you how we’re going to pull that off. But anyway, ideally, the players have already seen the path that killing the plant monster clears. And when they kill the plant monster, they will remember where it was and return to it. That’s efficient backtracking. But some players won’t. Some players will forget or they will miss it the first time around or they will get lost or keep bad notes or be inattentive. And those players will end up wandering and wasting a lot of resources on fighting rats and oozes and other obnoxious vermin. Because they are being inefficient.

Players who play the game well will find it the most satisfying. Players who don’t figure out how to play it well won’t find it as satisfying. And so part of the game’s job is to TEACH the players how to play it well. The carrot-and-stick approach of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior not only creates an experience where playing the game the way it was meant to be played is immensely satisfying, it also TEACHES the players how to play the game well.

Sure, we COULD just sit down and say “okay, guys, this game is about being a bad enough dude or dudette to win this dungeon and also being a smart enough dude or dudette to understand the story of the dungeon, and this is how to approach that,” but that’s a sucky approach to introducing a game. Instead, designing a game that dangles carrots and threatens sticks and makes both the carrots and sticks clear, THAT leads to a much better experience. But, of course, clarity is complicated too.

Bunny Farts (And Beaver Farts)

There’s a joke that goes “what’s invisible and smells like carrots?” The answer has already been spoiled by the header. Sorry about that. Also, for the purpose of this paragraph, assume there is another joke that goes “what’s invisible and smells like sticks?” Because we need carrots and sticks and so we need carrot farts and stick farts.

The point is that, while the players do need to be AWARE of the carrots and the sticks, awareness is a tricky beast. We tend to think of awareness as consciously KNOWING something. But there are other levels of awareness too. It’s kind of tough to explain without just providing a list of examples, but carrots and sticks can be pretty subtle. In fact, they are often more effective if they are subtle. That’s because subtle carrots and sticks tend to become more emergent features. They are something that the players only become aware of after playing for a while. And long before the players become consciously aware of them, they are already unconsciously aware of them.

If you want an example of bunny farts at work, go play Portal with the designer commentary on. One of the things the designers of Portal and Portal 2 did was to playtest the games to an obsessive degree. They observed absolutely everything every player did or even looked at. And if too many players focused on the wrong detail for a few seconds too long, they fixed the problem. For example, if they found the players paused too long on entering a space in the game, they would add extra lighting to show off a particular game element like a button or box to hedge the players in the right direction. In the end, players didn’t notice this sort of crap, but it was all driving the experience.

The point is, carrots and sticks don’t need to be explicit or obvious to work. They just need to exist in a way that players will eventually spot the pattern. Basically, the players need to be able to smell carrots and sticks. See? Bunny farts and beaver farts. So, for example, after the players clear a room in the dungeon, that room won’t necessarily stay empty. Instead, sometimes, something new will appear. The players will KNOW they cleared a room. So, if something new appears, they will know the dungeon is alive and backfilling itself. That’s why it’s a waste to have random encounters in unexplored rooms. Because the players won’t be able to tell the difference between a random and an emplaced encounter anyway. So random encounters won’t do any good in unexplored rooms. Thus, it’s a waste of the GMs time to roll for random encounters.

As for random encounters triggered by loud players doing stupid things or sleeping in the wrong spot, it’s obviously important for the players to pick up on that crap, right? After all, those are CLEARLY stick moments. As in, moments where we want to beat them with a stick. How will they know about the stick if monsters never show up? Easily. Because every time they do something stupid or take a nap, the GM rolls a die. And then, eventually, something shows up to find out what all the racket is about.

Now, you might argue that this is clearly a case of metagaming, where the players are using information the characters couldn’t have. And if you do, I’m going to have to slap you. Because, first of all, we don’t USE that word like that on this site because we’re better than that. But second of all, we’re actually using the mechanics to tell the players something the characters SHOULD know. That is to say, the characters – as practiced adventures – should have the good sense to move quietly in hostile territory and not have loud arguments about treasure divisions. And they should have the good sense not to curl up and take a nap behind enemy lines.

In terms of design, we might say that the die roll is telegraphing. That is to say, the game element is sending a signal about a potential outcome in the game world.

If the players only f$&% up once in the rare while and never have a random encounter triggered by their f$&% ups, they might never know what those die rolls are for. That’s fine. But note that the chance of random encounters WILL increase as factions become more active. That is to say, by the mid game, if the players haven’t learned how to play smart, they very likely WILL get beaten by the stick and figure out.

So, the wandering monster mechanics are not necessarily an overtly visible stick, but the players can smell them like beaver farts. They will see rooms they have already explored suddenly become occupied by nuisance enemies. And they will see die rolls when they do stupid things and eventually, if they do too many stupid things, recognize what those die rolls are about. They may never understand absolutely every aspect of the mechanics. Some stuff, like the increased chance of random encounters after leaving the dungeon for “too long” might be too subtle for them to pick up on. That’s okay. The players only have to get the gist of things. But very attentive players and might realize that the dungeon becomes a lot more active if they return after being gone for several days instead of just one night.

Sending Signals

Now, there is another part to teaching players how to play properly. Carrots and sticks are nice –whether they are visible or whether it’s just the whiff of bunny and beaver farts – but it’s also useful to create opportunities in the game to show off the carrots and sticks. Now, this isn’t something we’re going to go into a great deal of detail about right now. But it deserves a mention. One of the things we SHOULD do when we design the actual dungeon proper is to make sure we create a few situations in which the players will be exposed to the random monster mechanic. For example, we could create a noisy obstacle early in the dungeon, like a wooden barricade the party has to break down or an encounter with a shrieker that will trigger a random monster roll. With the right bit of flavor text and a visible die roll, this will telegraph to smart players that loud noises might attract monsters.

Of course, we’re going to be doing a LOT of telegraphing as we train the players to play our dungeon AND train our GM to run our dungeon. But that’s something we’ll focus more attention on later.

Right now, though, we have another problem.

The XP Carrot

One of the primary carrots in D&D, one of the few carrots built directly into the system, is experience points. Whenever the players overcome a challenge, they earn XP. When they earn enough XP, they gain a level. When they gain a level, they become more awesome. This feels good. Which is why GMs who dispense with the XP system because they don’t want to be bothered with math are complete dumba$&es.

See, if you look at video games, you’ll notice that every video game that involves leveling and XP does the same thing: they always prominently display XP. There’s a bar or meter right on the screen that tells you how much XP you have and how much you need. And every time you gain XP, there’s a visual cue. And there’s a very good reason for that. Players LIKE gaining XP. And, as a result, XP is a very strong incentive to get players to play the game properly and to reward them for playing well.

Of course, D&D doesn’t USE XP very well and, consequently, most GMs don’t realize that XP COULD be very powerful if they used it better. But then, GMs are also mostly lazy s$&%s who hate math and just want to hand out levels whenever because that’s just as good.

But we’re smarter than that. In fact, we’re PURPOSELY using XP as both a carrot and a stick in our megadungeon. XP encourages the players to clear rooms and overcome obstacles. It also encourages them to clear obstacles completely rather than merely bypassing them. It also rewards interacting with the dungeon and learning the backstory. And XP in our dungeon also makes random encounters feel worse because they give crap XP compared to real encounters.

But here’s the problem: the players probably won’t see any of that s$&%. And that completely ruins everything.

Let’s look, again, to video games to demonstrate what I mean. There is a series of absolutely great RPGs called Paper Mario which take place in a pop-up book version of the Super Mario Brothers universe. The second game in that series, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is simply the BEST Mario role-playing game ever published. Yes, f$&%ers, it is HANDS DOWN BETTER than the Super Mario RPG by Square for the SNES. If you disagree, you’re wrong.

Anyhoo, the point…

Oh, wait. If you do go look up the Paper Mario series, don’t bother. Because after Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, the series took a complete and utter nose dive into a flaming pile of horse manure. Unless you’ve got a Game Cube on hand, don’t bother.

Anyhoo, the point is this. In Paper Mario, you required 100 XP to gain a new level. Every time. That amount never changed. Which made it very easy to tell when you were getting close to a new level. And that helped keep the momentum in the game up. If you’ve ever played ANY RPG, you know how the game feels when you are getting close to a new level. Now, because it always took exactly 100 XP to gain a level, you might be tempted to hang around in an area that was beneath you and keep fighting less powerful enemies to efficiently gain XP. But the creators thought of that. And they didn’t want you doing that. Because that isn’t a mode of gameplay they wanted to encourage. So, as you gained levels, individual enemies that were less powerful than you gave less and less XP.

Now, if Paper Mario handled XP like D&D does, you’d never know what was going on. Because, in D&D, you get all of your XP at the end of a session or at the end of the adventure or whatever. And the GM usually just gives you a big ole pile. “You got 50 XP tonight, good job!” And you can only wonder what you did to earn that XP and why it wasn’t more.

But, in Paper Mario, as in most RPGs, the game literally shows you each point of XP as you earn it. In combat in Paper Mario, enemies literally explode in a spray of XP which is then tallied at the bottom of the screen. And it is then counted up at the end of each battle. No mystery there.

If we want XP to work as a carrot in our megadungeon, we’re going to have to make it visible. We’re going to have to build a mechanic for it. Except… well, we probably can’t. That is to say, there really isn’t a way we can easily rewrite the XP rules to have some kind of visible XP meter. We’re stuck with D&D’s rules for XP.

So, what to do?

Soft Mechanics: Appealing to the GM

There’s a mechanic built into D&D that most adventure designers never think to play with: it’s called the f$&%ing GM. See, an adventure or campaign or game supplement is really just a set of instructions to be executed by a human GM. So, if we want to affect the game without rewriting the rules, we’ve got to work through the GM. And, honestly, if you are transparent in your design, most GMs will go along with what you say. And the ones that don’t, that’s their problem.

So, simply put, in our introductory instructions to our megadungeon project, we tell the GM how XP is important to drive player behavior and tell the GM how to award XP and then we make it as easy as possible to award XP.

For example, we tell the GM to appoint a player to keep an XP record for the session. Each time the players do something to earn XP, the GM tells the player to record how much XP was earned. At the end of the session, the record keeper can add it all up and dole it out. That’s easy enough. The players can now see exactly how much XP they are earning for what and they get the warm fuzzy for doing the right thing.

Now, this system only works if it doesn’t become a speedbump. One of the big problems with handing out XP is that the GM generally has to add it all up. And then divide it by the number of players. Of course, if OUR system is based on fixed XP totals that are already figured on a “per player” basis and can be easily included in the text of the adventure, then the GM just has to say “you got 150 XP for clearing that room” or “you got 15 XP for killing the rats” or “you learned that the dungeon was built by elves, have 75 XP.” That’s quick and easy. It doesn’t detract from the game.

And since our random encounters are already designed on a per faction basis, even that stuff is math free. We can simply say “this vermin encounter is worth 20 XP.” We could even say “all random vermin encounters are worth 20 XP on the assumption that they are all around the same power level.”

The Best Invisible Carrot of All

And that brings us around to the best invisible carrot of all: if the best way to play the game is easy to do, people will play that way. Thus, if we ask the GM to dole out XP a certain way and then present out game in a way that makes that the EASIEST way to dole out XP, the GM will do it. Because, remember, the GM is a player too. And the GM needs carrots and sticks too. And that’s something a lot of game designers forget.

The simple fact of the matter is that the GMs dispense with XP math and just dole out levels do so because the XP math is time consuming and it doesn’t appear to offer any rewards. More transparency in the system, more ways to use XP to drive engagement, and a simpler overall method of handling XP could change all that. But, in this case, we’re stuck with what D&D has done forever.

So the best we can do is offer our own set of instructions within the system and design our product so that that’s the easiest way to do it.

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43 thoughts on “Megadungeon Monday: It’s Carrot AND Stick

  1. I think there are a few ways to do the whole the players get why they are getting XP thing.

    Your thing of giving XP as soon as they are done defeating/discovering the thing. Having the GM when there totting up the total actually say why the players are getting XP “so you got 80xp for dscovering the elves were this, and 100xp for defeating those goblins on the room, you only got 20xp for those rats when you went back though…”

    Or and this is how I’m doing it, something visual, I’m doing a mystery game which has a big conspiracy. Taking inspiration from cliche investigation films, I’m going to have a board with string that the players will Uncover. Uncover a key person in the conspiracy you get a bunch of XP. I feel this will probably quite good since the players will have a visual reference of what the goal is and why they are getting XP.

  2. Is the goal to punish the players by taking away resources, or is it to punish the players by wasting real time?

    • Does it have to be an either/or situation? The goal is to encourage the players to play the game in the way the designer intended. Anything which does that is having the desired effect. If players feel cheesed off that they’re wasting resources AND game time, they’ll have an even stronger disincentive.

      • IMHO, wasting actual game time is bad. It’s like if when you died at Dark Souls, there was a 30 second timer for no reason before you could start playing again(See BloodBorne). Yes, you need to have sticks, and those sticks are by their nature not fun, but you want to have the least stick that accomplishes your goals. The sticks aren’t there to make the players play ‘right’, they are there because their existence makes the fun part of the game more fun, even considering the less fun part of dealing with them.

        Otherwise, we’d be talking about random encounters that were potentially deadly to players, rather than resource wasting nuisances, because deadly encounters are a bigger stick.

        • I think the point you’re actually trying to make is that wasting game time hurts a lot more in a pen & paper than in a video game. The designers of a hardcore video game can basically work with the assumption that there are people out there who will want to invest the time to beat the game. And it usually just requires one person to invest maybe 2 hours of their time, so the stick of wasting time can be justified.

          Wasting game time on a pen & paper is worse, at least these days. In the early days of RPG in general or in one’s own youth there was time to game. But with age and over time it gets harder to get players to sit down at a table so many RPGs seem to mandate “awesome, all the time.” Which is clearly not what Angry is going for here – he’s going for a back and forth which you can turn in your favor if you play right.

          What I assumed you were saying was: Adding extra encounters burning game time is a huge disincentive that might not be justified. And I agree. But building a megadungeon that contains as many fights as a video game and running players through it might nowadays feel like a punishment to many players anyway. If you’re one of those 3e and 4e players that seem to enjoy getting out the battlemat more than anything else in the game, that might work. But for many others like me, the sheer number of combat encounters is bound to be a disincentive and a saturation point will come even without nuisance encounter.

          Now let’s assume there are players who enjoy this style of play and enjoy this notion of winning which seems to underly this particular megadungeon. For them the nuisance encounters must hurt in some way that even they want to avoid them. But the thing is: They cannot avoid them. Going through empty rooms will still generate nuisance encounters for the sake of “making the dungeon feel alive,” and they will eat up game time.

          And players will want to handle them as quickly as possible and if you’re lucky it will make the rest of the game feel more rewarding. Because this part simply won’t. I can easily imagine players and GMs doing away with it after a while simply because someone says “I understand why this happens. Now can it stop.” I hope they will. Unless you have shortcuts everywhere players will run through their share of locations. Even in a resource expenditure game like D&D this will seem like punishment, and more so over time.

        • I think that’s an inexact parallel.

          In Dark Souls, when you die vs a boss, you respawn instantly at the bonfire, and all the enemies respawn, forcing you to grind through them all again, potentially wasting estus flasks along the way back to the boss.

          Part of the challenge of boss fights, or progress in general in Dark Souls, is getting to the point you died with more resources intact than when you did previously.

          This wandering mechanic is closer to that. It’s not an arbitrary timer between death and respawn because the player is active the whole way through. It is an efficiency challenge and should be viewed as such.

          • I like the cost in resources. I think it’s a good idea. I like the efficiency challenge aspect.

            My issue is that bundling this with combat incurs all the latency issues with setting up a combat. And, not only are you wasting all the time, you’re also associating one of the fun parts of the game (combat) with a punishment mechanic. In doing so you’re forcing the party into more fights at a given CL, and thus damaging the actual, good fights you’ve got planned.

            My thought was to use gloss over the random encounters after a certain point. You still lose the resources, but now it’s a simple skill check to determine how much, not a full combat. I’m not sure that’s the way, or that its a better way, but it resolves the too much combat issue.

    • Can’t it be both? (I’m also guessing you meant to say “characters” instead of “players” in the first sentence.) You apply the stick both in the game and the metagame.

      IIRC Angry said in an earlier article that random encounters are worth only a fraction of the usual amount of XP, so it also minimizes any desire among the players to grind for levels.

      • The way he talked about them in earlier articles, I also expect (possibly incorrectly) that random encounters are never going to be a serious challenge – they are, as he says, more of a nuisance than a real problem. Five minutes to spend a few combat rounds mopping up some mooks because you couldn’t keep your mouths shut in a hostile dungeon seems pretty reasonable; it’s really only a problem if your combats run slow, and if they do, Angry’s covered that as well.

  3. This is when it helps to be swedish. First of all, swedish people don’t misunderstand “carrot and stick” because in swedish the expression is “whip and carrot”.

    More importantly, it told me that Angry was probably wrong when explaining the idiom “the exception that provet the rule”. It turns out that the origin of the idiom is an alleged Cicero Quote from an old legal case.

    The story goes that a man was threatened with having his roman citizenship remove because he was a member of some outside tribe.

    There were roman decrees forbidding members of a few outside tribe from becoming roman citizens but the tribe the accused had belonged to was not mentioned in any of them. Therefore Cicero, being the legal defender, argued that the specific rules that disallowed giving citizenship to members of these tribes must be exceptions to the general rule that people from outside tribes were allowed to receive citizenship.
    The exceptions proved THE EXISTANCE of the rule.

    P.S. Swedish auto-correct may have affected the quality of my writing.

    • Right. So “no parking on Friday” implies you can park on other days.
      This saying then should only apply to legal discussions out similar, not natural phenomenon.

      • That one just keeps getting added to.

        Technically it can be considered three different idioms:
        “Jack of All Trades” originated as a term for someone pretty good at various things.
        Then “Master of None” got added to say that even though someone is good at many things, they might not excel in any of them.
        Then, much more recently, “but oftimes better than a master of one” was introduced to directly claim in no subtle way that the former was preferable to the latter in most situations.

  4. I don’t dispute sticks, but I’m still not convinced that wasting everyone’s time is an appropriate one. I generally punish the characters when the players screw up. By the nature of role-playing, the players will care as well and aim to avoid the dumb behavior, without me having to make my game worse (for me) in the process.

    Which may be all it is. Maybe I and my group consider wasted time to be a far worse punishment than Angry does. He’s explained enough of his thought process that I feel I can adapt the goodness of the megadungeon to my group’s needs without much issue. Thanks for the explanation article Angry!

    • I’d be super hesitant to use random encounters in 4e because the mental gear shift to load all those powers would really hurt for an easy and likely-uninteresting fight, but 5e encounters tend to move a lot faster, so I don’t expect this to be too bad. Ideally the random encounters will end up making a twist on terrain the players have already seen, and well-traveled locations would be worth potentially altering, players setting traps they know about and can lure monsters into if an encounter is tripped at a chokepoint. That could be a type of reward in itself, huge heavy items that provide fixed benefits in a room (like drawing permanent magic circles). This is real gameplay, not the filler that random encounters usually are.

      There’s an awkward connection here between conserving game resources and conserving game time. It’s more efficient to wipe out mooks with cantrips and regular attacks, but a couple well-placed spells can settle encounters in a single round. Similarly, sneaking by enemies is somewhat more attractive when they’re low-xp anyway, but then of course you should expect to run into them again later; to avoid memory problems I’d re-randomize ‘skipped’ random encounters after a long rest.

      Of course, if all encounters take a long time for you (perhaps everyone is a caster and insists on re-reading the full spell list), or if the dice conspire to add 3-4 encounters to what was going to be a simple backtrack to the new section, then I could see doing something like declaring 10% HP and 1d4 spell levels lost in lieu of playing out extraneous encounters. Still, cheating like that is a little against the idea of the procedural story you’re playing. Being good at cutting encounters early (as mentioned in previous articles here) would also greatly help, save the game time otherwise spent waiting for someone to roll high enough to put the last mook or two out of their misery.

      If random encounters are just punishing players for being horribly lost, then something has clearly gone wrong, whether by not teaching players to track locations or not selling people in general on the idea of a Super Metroid dungeon. At that point it’d be worth taking a step back and taking the brute force approach of outright saying what players are intended to do to get the most enjoyment out of the megadungeon, and re-evaluating whether that sort of game is what the group even wants to play.

  5. I like some parts of what has been proposed so far and some not. I like many ideas about design and everything, but I think so far the dungeon falls short on the idea of a dungeon-as-a-branching-adventure that Angry himself has been harping about. As you explore your main choices are about how to best use your resources. There will be lots of fights, and since having lots of fights is baked into this project right from the first Excels, there’s now even the level-building template to create even more variation in fights with even less prep. And so far it seems fights will be terribly overemphasized. Sorry, “encounters” – though so far I see no mention of how you get around fighting the various factions over and over unless you kick them out of the game – by more fights. And optional fights you can use to grind to a higher level to beat the endgame.

    Maybe that’s what a dungeon crawl ultimately is. But I don’t enjoy running lots of fights and so the project appeals less to me. Similarly many of my players don’t seem to go in for a lot of fights – they enjoy fights but not all the time. So, the likelihood that we enjoy this megadungeon is ultimately small if I look at it honestly. In other words: Too many fights is a punishment mechanic in itself for me. Even if you can solve some encounters creatively.

    Now, what exactly would the project have over, let’s say, “Pool of Radiance”, the 1988 video game? I loved it, no doubt. It used a lot of “vary the same enemy in different encounters,” it built – out of game/level design necessity – an endless variety of encounters out of a pool of monsters that only seemed big in comparison to other games at the time. It did not reward random or semi-random encounters very much because AD&D still awarded few XP per monster and considerably more for treasure. Significant treasure was either found by beating key encounters or finding treasure rooms. The game paced itself by unlocking some new areas by difficulty (go too far in the city and you find yourself outmatched) and others by key events (unpoisoning the river opens up more boat routes, for example). But you had a choice. You might not be able to finish some areas because the bosses would kick your ass, but you could wander and finish some areas earlier, or at least score some treasure there. I played through this game several times. I enjoyed it. It was essentially a mega dungeon. And it did a lot of what was proposed here by streamlining the AD&D rules by running them on a computer. (Because running the same thing with the AD&D rules on pen & paper would make me heave. Good rules design was invented later, I’d personally say.)

    Now, I enjoyed that game and have great nostalgia for it. But I don’t see my players enjoying the formula in it if I bring to a game table. Yes, it had bosses and mini bosses and paced you. But after a while the “action archeology” turns into much sameness. You explore and fight a different faction, a different type of monster. At some point, no matter how well you do it, I personally would want to do something else. It has become a punishment mechanic because unlike in a computer game, I have 3 or 4 players to interact with, and we can have all kinds of scenes, and all kinds of encounters and conflicts, not just this one.

    So, Angry makes a snide remark at “Curse of Strahd”, and I very much disagree. Simply because in that game I can have a dungeon, I can have flavorful encounters, I can have tough combats, many other kinds of scenes, but my players also get a lot to chose. Which quest they tackle next. They can easily get in over their head and run away. They can run into encounters well above what they can handle (or expect to win). It has its weaknesses, but for pen & paper it works a lot better. And it does not feel like a video game. It rewards wrapping up quests much more than anything else, though that is because they shoehorned a level 1-10 progression into a level 7-10 adventure because that’s their thing now. And all the glitter and an interview with a vampire criticism? That’s just silly because the core of the adventure is from 1983 and predates all of that. Plus, having real motivations you can actually play the damn villain and it need not be sparkly in any way. Even I like it, and I hate vampires. Because here you can truly work your way into beating the damn thing into the pulp it deserves to be… if you play clever. And the game invites you to. It doesn’t punish you for running away from encounters in many cases. It’s both a good example of what was possible within the constraints of the old school and how it is more than that.

    It’s a campaign within one book and it has its target audience, and I don’t feel its dumbed down in any way to reach them. I think this megadungeon will work for its intended audience very well, but I feel I would rather play Ravenloft than a seemingly endless sequence of encounters no matter how you label them. There’s enough video games for that, already.

    • As far as I’m concerned, Angry wrote the book on encounter design, so I’m going to watch how this out. I suspect a lot of your concern will be allayed, even if it is explicitly combat heavy.

    • I think that this comment falls into the part of this article where Angry said;

      “The megadungeon project isn’t just a “fun” dungeon crawler. It’s designed to create a specific experience. Not EVERYONE will like it, sure. But I do believe that it will have pretty broad appeal because the things it does are things that I think a lot of D&D gamers are drawn to.”

      Now that being said, Angry is very much open to sharing his opinion. He obviously had some dislike or disinterest in “Curse of Strahd” and he believes that D&D is suited primarily for combat encounters. After many years of playing it, I would have to agree. He is designing the Megadungeon to be primarily a Dungeon Crawl with primarily combat encounters. Which will obviously appeal to the group that enjoys that kind of Tabletop play. He has also said that he will work in or plans to work in ways for characters to bypass or circumvent encounters. He has not designed that yet, as you have said, but in all fairness even the encounters themselves are in the design stage still. There are no tables that we have seen yet, so what good would it be to design a way to circumvent encounters that don’t exist?

      And in Angry’s defense, he is doing something that D&D (as far as I have experienced personally) has never even done, and that is rewarding the players for non-combat at all. I respect your opinions and ideas about all things gaming, but you’re being a little harsh when the entire Megadungeon project is a niche thing in and of itself. Criticizing Angry for his ideas and opinions is not going to do anyone any good. If the Megadungeon is helping you, then awesome, that’s why he is doing it! If it has elements you don’t care for, you simply don’t have to play or implement them into your own design process. Angry has taught me a lot about Tabletop gaming in the past few months I’ve been reading, and I believe he’s a cool and very intelligent person, but he’s also just that, a person. He has his own ideas, opinions, and thoughts. If you disagree with any of them, then putting that on the internet does nothing for anyone. It’s totally possible to disagree with someone and still respect them.

    • I, on the other hand, am excited about a well thought out, story filled, munchkin style kick the door, kill the monsters, loot the room combat adventure.

      Eagerly following this series of articles.

    • It does seem like you’re leaping to some conclusions on very tenuous evidence.

      I would also say that Angry’s actual feelings about things are quite hard to determine given the amount of hyperbole he flings about. So I’d suggest not taking it personally.

    • Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976, and as far as I’m aware most 80s vampires are heavily influenced by it, including Curse of Strahd.

      The update Angry mentions refers to Strahd being updated for the more current vampire trend (Twilight), and possibly also how Twilight itself can trace its lineage back to Interview with a Vampire quite directly.

    • Here is my take on the mega dungeon series.

      I’m not too worried about the specific dungeon Angry is creating, but im very interested in his framework, how he structures things, how he plans, how he comes to certain conclusions, how he intends to make it all work.

      Those things i will try to take with me, distill into a recipe for myself on how to create my own stuff.

      For example, Angry has taught us that every adventure is in essence a dungeon, thus a MEGA dungeon could be a full campaign. Therefore I intend to pick Angry’s brain on how to create and run and (extrapolate?) it onto my own campaign(s). Specifically i am running a scifi campaign in hammer40war alot of worptravel and planets and spacestations, but the MEGA dungeon showed me how that is also just a big dungeon, planets and spacestations are dungeon rooms. So on and so forth…

      So i’m not hung up on how combat heavy Angry’s MEGA dungeon will be, as combat is an encounter and you can easily swap between types of encounters. Swap out some of the elements (npc, conflict sources, exits, interactive bits) with other elements and create a different type of encounter. Remember that the game still needs to be processed and run by the GM who can choose how to run it.

      Think of the MEGA dungeon that is being created merely as an example of how to use the various theories Angry is sharing with us. It could be used to create anykind of campaign you want.

      I for one am very excited about taking these structures, prep and planning tools and attempt to put them to practical use on my own stuff.


      • Exactly – the techniques and approaches here are widely applicable to adventure design in general. That’s what makes it such a fascinating series.

        This should become a book IMHO.

    • I like the mechanic:

      1. There is no reason why random encounters cannot advance the story-line or provide details about the dungeon. Suddenly, there are new enemies about, which provides insight into what is changing and provides the players with meta knowledge about future possible objectives.

      2. There is no reason why an area of the dungeon cannot be social encounter oriented. Angry’s dungeon does not sound that way — but I can design my own dungeon with a social area or multiple factions (Fallout style) that gives the players a chance to ally with a faction against other factions, and causes the random encounters to sometimes be positive (giving information about other areas of the dungeon, or even hints as to things that have opened up). That is not how Angry is using his random encounters, but its easy enough to adapt to that.

      3. We will see later – but the encounters will likely NOT be so onerous to require a 45 – 60 minute fight, they should be able to finish in a short period of time.

      4. The experience of the combat will likely be immediately slightly frustrating, but also create a non-immediate and lasting sense of urgency, which is difficult to create on the table (in my experience).

      5. Have you seen Batman v. Superman? No spoilers, but the theatrical cut was crap but the extended cut was way better (maybe not impressive, but definitely more enjoyable). When we cut out all but ‘the best’ of something, we inadvertently cut out tone and ambiance. There needs to be highs and lows – but a session cannot be ‘nothing but lows’.

  6. “But then it’s time to game. […] Frankly, if you really want to do it right, hand out the XP from last session NOW.”
    —How to Structure a Session, June 8, 2016

    I suspect that this quote and today’s suggestion on XP distribution are meant to be catered to different situations (managing pacing as opposed to incentivizing behavior), but it makes me wonder which approach I should be focusing on.

    In my games I’ve been saying things like “You gained a little / a lot / not very much XP” in the moment and then writing it down, so the players at least know what kind of reward to expect, but then I don’t give out XP until before next session. It’s like a clicker in dog training: if they associate the “click” with the reward, then they will know they’ve done well even before a reward is given.

    It’s a new idea, so I’m not sure how well it works yet. Help me, Angry GM, you’re my only hope!

    • I do the same thing, I think it works great…

      I tell them they earned XP to give them a click, but don’t tell them how much. Instead, it gets posted on our group’s private D&D facebook page, right after the session when I get home.

      I tell them how much they earned, what they earned it for, and most importantly, I differentiate between XP and bonus XP. That way it’s made clear to them what they earned under the “standard rules of the game”, which feels like a grind, and what they earned for themselves by thinking outside the box and playing the way I want them to play.
      Most importantly, it gives me, as a DM, time to think on how much XP I want to award them in order to match up their level progression with the story.

      By telling them why they earned it, you create a link back to the game, they look back on it and are much quicker to pick up on the signals you’re sending them. If you give them XP during the session, I found they just accept it and don’t think about why they earned it.

  7. Paper Mario: the Thousand Year Door does indeed have the best XP system. Too bad level-scaling XP relative to monsters like that would be most likely be entirely too much work for a human GM to do…

    As it is, being transparent about the XP system probably is the best way to use it to incentivize players.

    • That’s exactly what 3.x did. The problem with it was that with level-scaling came XP as a spendable resource, so once the spellcasters started spending XP for casting/crafting, everyone was leveling up seemingly at random; if I wanted to divide XP ahead of time, I had to know before the session which character was at what level and when (and if) they would level up during this session.

      Which kind of defeats the purpose of it being a clear incentive – either I force everyone to engage in everything in the order I’ve prescribed it, or I have to grind things to a halt after every fight by cross-referencing challenge level vs. character level on a table for every person in the group.

  8. You do know your understanding of “exception that proves the rule” isn’t the general understanding of the original meaning, right? The generally accepted original meaning is “this specific exception proves the general rule”.

    Your alternative explanation is common enough that it gets mention on Wikipedia. But you sure got a high horse there for someone backing a less commonly accepted alternative explanation. :p

  9. This is the last article of yours I will get to read for two years Angry. Thank you for teaching all of your fans how to be better Game Masters, and for putting all of your effort into your articles. Because you don’t half do things, and I admire that. Good luck

    • Hopefully when you come back after two years he might be close to finishing the MegaDungeon. 😛

      …I kid, but I worry it might be true.
      I’ve developed an odd relationship with these articles.
      On the one hand I thoroughly enjoy reading them, so I don’t want them to end, but on the other hand I’m getting impatient because it sounds so awesome and I really want to actually play the damned thing!

  10. I’ve skipped most of the Mega Dungeon articles since I didn’t think they’d be relevant to my game and setting, but now I’m thinking of going back. This is good stuff. I especially like the point of not going for vaguely defined “fun,” because I’m planning a horror game. IIRC, Extra Credits had a better term: “Engagement.” You want them to care about the characters, events, and be curious as to what’s going to happen next.

    When I have my characters diving into the shadows to avoid the attention of a lantern carrying monster, “fun” is not the mood I’m going for. I want them to sweat and possibly even panic over the fate of their characters. And when (if) they get away with their limbs still attached, then they can release all that tension.

    • As i have just stated in anoter comment reply, i look at the MEGA dungeon series as an example of how to use Angry’s prep n plan theories for any kind of game that involves a longer run.

      if any adventure is a dungeon then a mega dungeon could be a campaign no? You should give them all a reading through, i’m sure if you look at it as just an example of how to implement Angry’s “teachings” you will find the perspective that fits your game 🙂

  11. Holy crap, I’m staggered at how often people view Wandering Monsters as a “”time waster”. Seriously, if one is too lazy to be a DM, one should not be a DM. Wandering Monsters are what breath life into an environment! They tell stories about the area, who lives there, and maybe even who will work with the party given a little incentive. Maybe I can’t be a lazy DM because my group of PC’s will seriously destroy my night if they realize I haven’t done my homework. Give em an inch, they’ll take the world. Outside of a village/city, adventurers should NOT feel relaxed and safe, imo anyway. “No plan survives contact with the enemy”, this should hold true whether your charging into a horde of goblins or trying to plan a route through a terrible mountain range. Wandering monsters are part of what makes that mountain range the obstacle that it is. And your really missing so much surprise and new ideas without Wandering Monsters. Just the other day my PCs stumbled into a family of wandering griffons. They were letting their young drink at a watering hole and, due to a good Reaction, they flew off when the party appeared non threatening. This innocuous event ended up turning kind of beautiful as the party’s Dwarf — who LOVES to Fly via magic at any opportunity –admired the majestic creatures for their beauty and power. Then he asked if they dropped any feathers, and when he found some he carefully wrapped them in a cloth, so that one day he could give them to someone to make him a Helm of Flying. That pretty little moment, and the peek into an otherwise gruff character’s personality, would never have happened if I had said “you walk across the empty tundra for four days, arriving at the ruined city exactly when you meant too”.

    • Wandering monsters being a waste of player time has nothing to do with the GM being lazy. That doesn’t even make sense. If you have something useful to say, don’t preface it with a broad insult towards all who disagree with you. That’s Angry’s job, and he’s the best at it.

    • Random encounters by and large are considered time wasters by PCs mainly because:

      1. They’re pretty much always combat encounters. Honestly I wish more DMs did noncombat random encounters, but you just don’t see that often enough.
      2. They’re pretty easy, so you generally complete them on autopilot.
      3. They usually have no useful treasure.
      4. No actual progress is made on the quest as a result of winning a random encounter.
      5. If it’s a wilderness encounter, you generally don’t care about resources used because you’ll have a day to rest, which makes it feel more pointless. Also often times random encounters are just there to pad out a wilderness trip so it feels longer.
      6. In dungeon random encounters, often times the goal of random encounters is in fact to annoy the PCs and get them moving.
      7. In sandbox games especially, DMs often throw REs at the PCs to stall them so the DM can generate an area that he didn’t plan on the PCs going to.

      While I’m not saying I think random encounters should be tossed, I’m saying their reputation in many cases is well-deserved, because a lot of times they do feel like time-wasters. While ultimately they can produce some positives like getting PCs moving faster in a dungeon, in the short term they do end up wasting time that could be done doing actions that advance the PCs progress.

  12. Interestingly, the 5e Starter Set actually does tell you to award XP immediately after an encounter, and for the first few chapters it states after every encounter how much XP that encounter is worth (later chapters tell you to look up the monster’s XP value yourself, but even then I think you’re expected to award that value immediately).

    Personally I much prefer this method of awarding XP, as it feels more rewarding to say “You did the thing! Here, have some XP!” than to wait until later when they might have forgotten what they did to earn it.
    Also, I feel that it plays back into the Denouement aspect of story structure as mentioned in multiple previous articles; it signals that the fight is now over, and allows the players to add the XP along with any other rewards to their character sheets before they move on to the next activity.

    If it makes a difference, I might suggest that although XP is acquired immediately during a session, levelling up might not be so immediate. Whether it occur during a long rest or at the end of a session is up to the GM, but I would suggest there be a specific point at which the players tally up their accumulated XP and check whether or not they gain a level. Firstly to avoid having to total and check after every encounter, but also to avoid the hassle of levelling up in the middle of play.

  13. Oh, man, I’ve been catching up on the Megadungeon articles, and I was all ready to come in here and badmouth random encounters, but damn, Angry, you’re right again! It’s almost like you’re a genius or something. The difference between “fun” and “engaging” is so important.

    On the subject of bunny-farts and beaver-farts, I think there’s an answer in this Ask Angry in the bit on agency ( for people (like me), who don’t love the idea of making a big ominous dice roll to telegraph stick mechanics. Phrasing the result properly can have the same result. When they try to bash a door, saying something like “the crash echoes resoundingly down the hall, but nothing seems to have heard” makes it obvious that something ~could~ have heard. Or when they run into an RE after being in town, we could introduce it as “in your absence a crew of spider space pirates has made this room their home”. Just tweaking the description a little makes it clear that their actions have consequences.

    I’m a little less sure about how to use the low XP stick without it feeling like a screwjob. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the mechanics, but as a player I could see myself getting frustrated that some kobolds are worth 10x as much as others. Even with some explanation, it feels like it would mess with the internal consistency, which would drive me up the wall, as I have a feeling it would for Angry as well.

    Anyway, thanks for the amazing work, can’t wait to read more!

    • I suppose you could explain it as those kobolds being worth more because they are being defeated in the name of exploration and progress towards the goal, whereas the random encounter kobolds are worth less because they are just annoyances that get in the characters’ way.

      Not sure if that’s a good enough excuse for your group, but it might be worth a shot?

  14. I found it incredibly amusing that you start out with a diatribe about misusing idioms and phrases, then misuse “jack of all trades, master of none.” The full phrase is actually a sentence: “Jack of all trades but master of none is better, by far, than master of one.” Other than that I thought you had some interesting ideas that I’ll think about as I design my current campaign.

    • See my response to the guy who tried to point that out earlier.
      The “full phrase”, as you call it, is a much more recent idiom that was invented in direct response to the older one that Angry used.

  15. It’s “The proof is in the putting,” which roughly means “We’ll never know until we actually do it.”

    I couldn’t tell if you were kidding about the whole pudding thing, but it really seemed like you weren’t. So, I dunno, Google it next time.

  16. Jim Sterling did a video review of the Zelda: Breath of the Wild game. Of course it was presented in some amount of non-seriousness, he really disliked the weapon durability mechanic in that game. Moreover, he claims that science has proved that durability mechanics aren’t fun. again, I feel it was in jest, but it rubbed me the wrong way, and now I know why: The Tyranny of Fun concept is an important one to understanding game design.

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