Megadungeon Monday: Exit Mapping and Psychological Trickery (Part 1)

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Happy Megadungeon Monday!

Let’s start with the bad news. It isn’t THAT bad, but it will make some of you sad. It is actually HAPPY news for me, though. So, keep that in mind. Well, mostly happy. There’s two parts to it. Over the next two weeks, I will be traveling back to my home in New York. And I will also be undergoing an important medical test. So, there will NOT be a Megadungeon article next Monday, June 19. There will be one the following Monday, though. I’m just taking a week off. Nothing else about my schedule will be affected.

Anyway, news out of the way, let’s pick up where we left off. We’re building the exit map. We’re going to focus mainly on building the exit map for Level 2 today. At least, we’re going to focus on building about half of it. Because a lot of this is going to require some careful thought. In fact, the first few days of the exit map are going to be the most tricky parts of the entire map to plan out.

The Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3 Transition

From the beginning, we’ve known that Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 were going to serve as a sort of introduction to the bigger adventure. Day 1 would start off with a simple quest and, in the end, reveal the possibility of a bigger adventure. Day 1 would be fairly linear, but it would offer enticing glimpses of further adventure.

Day 2 would trap the party and force them to open a few paths to both escape and to go forward. Which would introduce them to the idea of connecting different areas of the dungeon. Moreover, it would introduce them to the idea that their actions would change the dungeon. By opening the paths forward and back, they would also unleash undead on the dungeon.

Day 3 is a transitional day. Day 3 is the day in which we teach the players that their actions empower them to explore the dungeon. And this will be a doubly powerful lesion considering Day 1 was linear and Day 2, by trapping them, robbed them of their agency. Day 3 also coincides with the 3rd level of experience. That’s the level in D&D at which most of the classes – if they haven’t already done so at 2nd level – make major choices about how their character is going to develop.

This whole experience is going to require a lot of careful thought. Let’s look at how it will shake out so far.

The adventure begins when a kobold raiding party attacks a trader’s cart and steals some rare and important medicine. Several people in town need that medicine, but among them is one particular desperate child who will die in a matter of days. The party is hired to recover the medicine and to hurry with it.

The party follows the trail of the kobolds from the site of the attack to a hidden path into the mountains and ultimately to the entrance of Oran Ionath. Thus, begins Day 1. During Day 1, the party encounters some kobolds and ultimately defeats the chief of the raiding party and they recover the medicine.

Now, leading away from that final encounter is apparently a hallway that leads deeper into the dungeon. When the party attempts to use that hallway, it will collapse under them and deposit them in Day 2. And they will be forced to find a way out of the dungeon.

Now, Day 2 has two stairways that lead up to Day 3, right? And the party can use those stairs to get into Day 3. Day 3 connects back to Day 1, allowing the party to leave. Also, somewhere in Day 3, there is a key that lets them open the path to Day 4 and beyond.

Now we have a few potential questions and problems to deal with. First of all, if Day 3 connects to Day 1 directly, what keeps the party from wandering from Day 1 into Day 3 and bypassing the kobolds, the medicine, the collapse, and everything else? And from wandering into 4th-level encounters that will be running around Day 3? We could lock the Day 3 to Day 1 door with the key that is found in Day 3, but that creates another problem. By doing so, the party is REALLY trapped. They can’t leave the dungeon for a rest until they finish both Day 2 and Day 3. We don’t want to do that. They might NEED a rest. We have to give them the opportunity to escape between Day 2 and Day 3.

Now, if you look carefully at the maps I’ve created, I sort of had some of this already worked out. And now I’m going to explain the secret. And put down a few exits. Here, look:

First, what we need are a couple of one way doors. Two to be precise. Those are the little gray triangle exits. Those are doors that can only be opened from the back. We can think of them as heavy, barred gates. Without some serious siege equipment, they can’t be opened unless the bars are lifted. From the back.

Those kind of make sense because Day 3 marks the main entrance of the Sacred Halls, the center of the dungeon. Day 1 is sort of the Foyer. Day 3 is the Great Hall. Once trouble started, the elves started sealing up their shrine.

Now, if the party uses the lower-left stairs coming up from Day 2, they can open the southern gate, end up back in Day 1, and escape the dungeon. If they use upper-right stairs coming up from Day 2, they can open the northern gate, allowing them to explore the rest of Day 3 and leave the dungeon.

Provided the party uses the lower-left stairs first, they have the opportunity to escape after exploring Day 2 but before exploring Day 3. At least now the party doesn’t have to remain trapped.

As for the hallway itself. We can imagine the kobolds were using some sort of side door to come and go. They either couldn’t – or chose not – unbar the big main gates. So, they were using a smaller hallway. You can see where I’ve drawn that in. That is the hallway that will collapse, dropping the party down into Day 2.

More important, there’s now an important failsafe. If the party somehow does something super clever during the collapse and the GM wants to allow them to proceed, they can. The worst that happens is they end up behind the first one way door and can escape easily. They still actually have to climb down to Day 2 and explore to get behind the OTHER gate.

Thus, even though we have the idea of a scripted sequence, we also have a failsafe if the party somehow manages to convince the GM to let them sequence break. And that means we don’t have to tell the GM to do something terrible like “no matter what the party says, you have to trap them in this way. If they come up with clever ideas, tell them no because they have to do what you say.” Instead, we can tell the GM how to run the scene and tell him how things SHOULD play out, but let the GM adjudicate for their own party.

Now, this also explains why we need a dying child who literally must have the medicine immediately or they will perish. We need the party to STOP exploring when they accomplish the first goal. They will probably be inclined to do so anyway. Assuming they push through the encounters in Day 1 all in one go, by the time they finish that last fight, they will be exhausted. They will have their prize. And, ideally, they will have enough XP to gain a level. So, they will be ready to retreat. They can always come back after they deliver the medicine, resupply, and gain a level.

Now, we’re down to just one issue of traffic flow: how do we make sure that MOST parties are VERY likely to stumble upon the lower-left set of stairs in Day 2 and not the upper-right stairs? That question… well, that is not something we can do with exits. That is something we will need to address when we actually design the individual encounters and the physical map. Don’t worry. We WILL do it. We just can’t do it now. For now, we’re just going to trust that we can do it.

By the way, there’s another story transition that needs to be touched on. At the start of the adventure, the crypts are sealed up. The stairways down to the crypt have been locked up. The party will literally have to break out of crypts. And doing so is what will allow the undead to start roaming the dungeon and appearing as random encounters. That’s, again, something we’ll build in at the fine-detail level of planning. But it needs to be mentioned now.

And if you’re wondering how the kobolds use that side door to get back to their lair in Days 6, 9, and 11 given that they haven’t opened the big gates? Shut up, that’s how.

I kid. Yes, it IS a minor plot hole. But we’re not going to leave it there. We are going to close it up on the fine detail level. I’m going to use one of my favorite tricks, but you’re going to have to wait to see it. That said, the truth is that most players would never, ever notice the plot hole. Most GMs who bought the thing wouldn’t. But you’re not experiencing this as a player nor as a GM reading a finished product to run. You’re analyzing and nitpicking the design. You’re MORE prone to notice the plot holes.

There comes a point in the design when you have to realize you can’t spackle over every plot hole. You do have to let some things go. After all, the best way to cover up a plot hole is by creating such a fun experience no one is bored enough to NOTICE the holes.

Anyway, that gives us a very solid script for the first few days of the dungeon and handles one of the most complicated transitions in the entire adventure in a way that teaches numerous important lessons and provides a thematic transition from “training and tutorializing” to “okay, f$%&ers, now go play.” And that feeling – even though most players will never consciously be aware of it – that feeling is priceless. As I’ve said before “they won’t notice, but their brains will.”

Day 3 Exits

While we’re at it, we can polish off the rest of the Day 3 exits. First, we can put in the Critical Exits (including transitions to other days).

Once we do that, we notice something about Day 3. It is REALLY linear. There’s only one room that isn’t on the critical path. Now, that’s because we wasted a bunch of space with our complicated Day 1-2-3 Transitional bulls$&%. Now, that would be fine but we’ve been talking up this oh-so-important thing about “letting the PCs off the leash” and giving them a little more freedom. It’d be nice if we could open the design a little bit.

Now, it is important to note that, when it comes to dungeon design, openness is like salt. A little bit makes the dungeon tasty. A lot of it just overwhelms the flavor and makes the party sick. Seriously. All it really takes is ONE alternate path to make it feel like the party is free to explore. I’ll explain why in a second. First, let me show what we’re going to do. We’re going to branch the critical path. Just a little bit. Just like so:

Now, the critical path is branched. But it branches safely. What do I mean by that? I mean that both of the paths that lead from the start – in this case, either the gates or the upper-right stairs – to the end – the room where the skeleton key is hidden in the upper left – both of those paths are the same length.

Now, since Day 3 comprises 4 planned encounters and 1 optional encounter, that works out just perfectly. Basically, we put three encounters on the path and one in each of the two rooms on the branches. If the party takes either path or the other, they will have four encounters. If they explore the area fully, they will have five. Perfect.

Now, as I said, this tiny bit of openness represents way more freedom to the players than you or I might realize. You and I – as the designers with the critical path laid out – see it as “choose between encounter A or encounter B; and if you want to, you can pick both.” But look how different it looks if you can’t see the critical path.

Now we just have a bunch of interconnected rooms. To the players, those are rooms they could explore in any order. And considering they might either be coming from outside or from the stairs, they have two different approaches to begin with. They hit a room with four exits. They will enter from one, so they have three potential choices. Then, two rooms later, they hit a room with three exits, leaving them two choices. When they look at the map, they see a bunch of rooms they could “explore in any order.” And they will probably explore them all. But once they find the key, they could just book it.

Also note the critical path once again carries the players past two doors they can’t open yet. A corrupted spirit transition and an arcane runelock door.

Now, that arcane runelock door is a particularly tricky little placement. Because, right now, we’re trying to force the party to backtrack. Once they pick up the skeleton key, we want them to remember the locked door they found on the first day. Now, when we do the fine design on Day 1, we need to make sure that discovery is memorable. And we will. But let’s pretend we’ve done that part.

It’s now been at least two sessions since that discovery. A lot has happened. The party got trapped. Fought undead. Opened some gates. Gained a couple of levels. That locked door may not be fresh in their minds. We need to get them really thinking about locked doors.

So, they walk right past a locked door. Then, they find this key. Neat! Obviously, the key opens the lock, right? Wrong! It’s the wrong key for that lock. And now, in a very subtle way, they no longer have a key. They have a puzzle. The key must fit something. But what? Have they seen any other locks?

See, we’ve now tricked their minds into thinking back. They may have forgotten about that locked door, but now that they are focused on the question of “where else have we seen locks we couldn’t open,” it will jump back into their heads.

Look at it this way: if they could simply use that key in the locked door right next to them, they’d NEVER think about those previous locked doors. And if they found the key and there wasn’t a locked door right nearby, they MIGHT remember the previous locked doors OR they might stick it in a pocket thinking “we’ll come across a lock for this key eventually” and spend a lot of time flailing time. By doing what we’re doing, we get them into immediately trying to use the key, failing, and then thinking about other times they might have been able to use it.

This is an extremely deliberate bit of design.

Oh, speaking of that, there are actually TWO red doors they might remember. One leads from Day 1 to Day 4 – the one they want. The other is an optional little room downstairs in Day 2. They are actually a bit more likely to remember the one in Day 2 since they saw that one most recently. But that one leads nowhere. When they open that one, they will discover some sort of optional treasure or whatever and think “wow, I’m glad we found this key.” But if we make sure we’re very explicit in our descriptions so that both doors look the same, that will send them back to the Day 1 door.

Day 4 (and Day 19)

Are you starting to see how this works yet? Good. Because we need to pick this up if we’re going to finish this exit map anytime soon. Let’s move over to Day 4. But let’s also work on some of the other stuff that connects to Day 4. And talk about a few other important tricks.

Here we go. Training wheels off. I’m not walking you through this one in pictures.

Obviously, I started by putting exits along the critical path. And Day 4 is pretty linear again, so that’s kind of easy. But let’s make note of a few interesting little bits in Day 4.

Notice that the critical path branches in Day 4, again, but that branch is locked. It’s got red doors around it. And that’s for two reasons. The first is to create a non-optional option. And the second is to make the party really happy to have the key.

There’s this tendency among game designers who discover gating to use it minimally. That is, they only put the gates where they are actually needed. For example, here on this path, I only NEED the red door on the transition from Day 1 to Day 4, from gray to red. Strictly speaking, I only EVER need a gate where there is a color transition, right?

But that approach makes it really, REALLY obvious what you’re doing. The players eventually realize “this is the key area, and this is the flying area, and so on.” Savvy players start to recognize that they are being led by the nose. It stops feeling organic. It feels like part of the game design, not part of the world design.

By forcing the players to sometimes use their keys (or abilities) where they aren’t strictly needed by the design, it sends the message that these doors aren’t locked (or whatever) as part of the game design, they are locked because people in the world locked them. For all practical purposes, once the party has the key, red doors are the same as gray doors. There is no good design reason for this little room to be locked up. The party MUST have the key to even get here. So, any player who REALLY sits and thinks about the design will conclude that the room is locked because this door would be locked. The designers of the dungeon locked this room. It’s locked for some story reason.

In general, it’s a good idea to keep forcing your party to use the keys to the various gates beyond pure necessity. It simply provides a more organic experience. Moreover, every time the party uses one of their keys to get someplace, they get a little warm fuzzy. Their brain says “I sure am glad we found this key or teleporter or flying carpet.”

You’re going to notice that we’re going to reuse our keys a lot. In fact, in the purple area of Day 19, you’ll notice I put a blue door in. Same exact reason. The party has already found the teleporter device. They get to use it in the purple area just so that they don’t forget how awesome it is that they have the teleporter and how it lets them get into places they couldn’t otherwise get to.

But creating a more organic exploration feel is only half the story. The other half is to create what I call the “non-optional optional room.”

A Non-Optional Optional Room is a room that, strictly speaking, the party doesn’t have to explore, one that isn’t on the critical path, but that most parties will just naturally end up checking out. Even if they aren’t into the whole exploration thing. Basically, a NOOR is a side-room that lures the party in due to psychological trickery.

As we mentioned when discussing Day 3, we gave the party a key and got them excited. Then we disappointed them because the key didn’t work. Then we made them remember a place where it would work. Probably two places it would work. And they discovered some optional treasure and a way to a new area of the dungeon. At this point, in their minds, that key is an empowering thing. It gives them power over the dungeon. And they like using it.

Now they come to a place where they have a choice between a boring normal door and another cool door their awesome key will open. Many players – but admittedly not all – will be inclined to unlock the door and see where it goes. They want to keep using that cool new tool.

However, many players, when they are exploring, tend to assume the path of least resistance is the way to go first since the path of most resistance tends to advance the plot. Explorer players often prefer to clear out all of the optional paths before pressing forward. If the party exploring this dungeon is a group of explorers and they DIDN’T discover the optional treasure in Day 2 with the red key, they may assume the red key door is the path of most resistance and walk by it, intending to return after they clear the side paths. What happens to them?

Two rooms later, they encounter another locked door of the exact same type, but it doubles back. If they pay any attention at all to the directions they are traveling, they will guess that those two doors probably lead to the same place. And that place is backwards, not forwards. Thus, the second door to the same room requiring the same key will lure the explorer types who don’t get drawn to the first one.

The result, either way, is that the vast, VAST majority of parties WILL check out that room gated behind the red locked doors before they press forward.

That is a GREAT room to put a magical item that the party doesn’t NEED but that will give them a little boost. A magic weapon, for example, that exudes fire and might be perfect for some plant-based monsters that might be showing up in the near future.

And this shows just how sinister we’re being. We’ve created a completely optional room that most players will find unavoidable. They will think they freely chose to explore it. They will discover a magical tool they could otherwise have missed. That magical tool will be useful in the next region of the dungeon. And they will be thinking “wow, we’re such awesome explorers and our clever exploration paid off with this useful tool that I bet lots of people never even discover because they just plow past all of those side rooms; we sure need to keep exploring everything because does it ever pay off.”

Day 5

Okay, let’s do another one. Day 5.

Okay, critical path. Critical path exits. Red door along the critical path because of the reasons we’ve already talked about. Side doors placed so as not to short circuit the main path. Honestly, this one is pretty straight forward beyond that. Sort of. Because, the secret is, we’re coming back to this day for a second pass when we do Day 7. But let’s save that for a surprise and just take this first draft at face value.

As for the unusual bits, first of all, the very attentive among you will notice a few features of this area that weren’t in the original design. First of all, the brown room in the upper right accessible only by flying? Well, that is the volcanic crater. Or the edge of it at least. I’ve lined up a vertical path all the way down through to the lowest level of the dungeon. When the party can fly, they can use that on the last day to skip the whole dungeon and go to the final area. Second of all, the upward path to level one I added on the left side? That is also a special area accessible only by flying. Specifically, that connects to the optional flying area on Level 1. The waterfall. Those two features thus represent the waterfall that comes from the Source of the Flow, feeds the river in the Great Tree, and then cascades all the way down into the outskirts of the Fiery Abyss.

The other unusual bit is the pair of orange doors. Those doors can be opened using the arcane key the party finds here. And, in fact, one of the orange doors leads from the very room where the party will discover the arcane key. That means they can use the key immediately. You might note this is exactly the opposite of what we did with skeleton key.

At this point, the party has been taught to backtrack. Forcing them to backtrack with the red key and allowing them to open optional passages with the red key has taught them the deal with this dungeon. So, we don’t need to trick them into trying to think back to locked doors this time. They will do that on their own. Or they will flounder around for a while until they find their way back to the orange door.

But, that orange door – the first one, the one they couldn’t open – that’s at least going to stand out in their brains because it was a moment of frustration. We gave them a key, put it right beside a locked door, and, HAHA, it didn’t work! Now, we’re giving them another key, a different key, and they should remember that door. We rubbed that door in their faces.

And if they doubt that THIS key will work in THAT door, we’re giving them the opportunity to unlock a door that looks identical to that first door. Right away. Right here. And there’s another orange door back in Day 4.

So, they will find this new key, immediately unlock a door right in front of them, then start to think about other doors – because we’ve trained them to think in terms of backtracking – remember that frustration, realize that door looks identical to this door, and they will set their next goal accordingly.

You will also note that the room behind the orange doors creates a Non-Optional Optional Area yet again. And this one will lead them right past their first glimpse of an area accessible only via water breathing. They will encounter more in the heart of the Sacred Halls. Now, the thing is, this particular one probably won’t be very memorable. It’ll just be a submerged passage they can’t swim through. They may even dismiss it as a water feature. And then they finally do obtain the ability to breathe water, they may not even remember this spot.

Guess what? That’s okay. Just like it’s okay to create some areas that lure the players in so well that they are completely non-optional, it is also okay to create some areas so subtle that the players are likely to forget about them.

That said, we will be doing something to increase the odds, slightly, of the players discovering this spot. Or at least giving them a second chance.

But that’s all there is to Day 5.

And Beyond…

Wow, that’s a lot of thought that goes into placing the exits for one fifth of our dungeon. Yeah, it is. But that’s game design for you. And, when you get down to it, the exit map essentially controls most of the pace and flow of the game. It is CENTRAL to the adventure. That said, it does get easier. Honestly, once you start thinking through the flow and the psychology, actually building the exit map is a quick process. The problem is that EXPLAINING IT sure as hell isn’t.

When Megadungeon Monday returns in two weeks, we’re going to keep going with this exit map thing. And we’ll be covering a lot more ground a lot more quickly. After all, I’ve now covered A LOT of the basic tricks. And most of the rest is just exploiting those same tricks again and again.

See you in a couple of weeks.

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11 thoughts on “Megadungeon Monday: Exit Mapping and Psychological Trickery (Part 1)

  1. So Angry wrote the word “lesion” instead of “lesson”, but in his case I wouldn’t be surprised if that was intentional.

  2. I’m going to call you out on your teaser last time, you did promise to tell us about the turquoise (flooding) gate right at the entrance. I’m confident we’ve guessed some of the reasons (showing off changes from flooding the dungeon, streamlining that initial entry point now that players are around halfway through), but we might have missed some.

    It’s nice to see a bit of redundancy to allow safe attempts at sequence breaking, I’m looking forward to the thought put into water breathing areas due to the races and druids that can operate underwater early. I do also appreciate the continued use of keys; especially with the later ‘keys’ like the dimension door effect, you can get pretty creative with the obstacles they gate off.

  3. Really enjoy this series a lot. Thanks for continuing it.

    I’d like to ask that you include the color key at least once in each article, so “Would you please include the color key at least once in each article?”

    Thanks and have a day of whichever kind you like!

    • Agreed, can be hard to remember what each colour means as you read through each screencap/paragraph. Especially on mobile.

      Love the series though, can’t wait for the next article!

  4. To be honest thinking that the players will remember anything in sessions before is kind of wishful thinking in my experience. I’m not to sure players will remember to go back to a door they discovered several sessions ago without good note keeping(never happens either) or the GM basically telling them to.

  5. One of the things I like about this article is the sort of “holistic” approach. I think that it is easy to get into designing adventures, dungeons, campaigns, whatever, and end up focusing on the details of each encounter or NPC or other element so much that sight of the ‘big picture’ is lost.

    Also, I think it is easy to only consider an encounter (or groups of encounters) solely from the perspective of “how it should go”. I know that in the past, when I’ve designed adventures, I usually have an idea of how I think things will proceed. What the players will encounter, find, conclude, and ultimately pursue. But as it has been said many, many times, the players will most certainly do something completely different from what was originally intended. The design methodology presented here brings up that very important point and actually works to address it. And not only does it address this, it does it in a way that makes things feel like they are part of a “bigger picture”. Of course, that’s because everything is designed from this “bigger picture” framework.

  6. This is really excellent and inspiring. I’ll probably never find time to do dungeon design as properly and thoroughly as this. So I really hope you finish this as a published work. If you could get it done within say nine years time , I’ll definitely use it to introduce my three youngest children to D&D.

  7. On the subject of the bridge from Day1 to Day2, and motivation to come back. After some searching yesterday I found where you acknowledged the motivations for the 8 player types need to be addressed after they kill the kibolds, are those details still coming in a future article or am I just failing to remember/find it?

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