Welcome back to the Megadungeon!
It’s time to switch gears. Let’s get away from spreadsheets and XP and pacing concerns. It’s nice that we have an overall plan to guide us in building our maps and placing our encounters and s$&%, but we’ve been making a really big assumption. We’ve been assuming that we’re going to be able to keep the players on script for this whole giant dungeon.
When you get down to it, we’ve been building a sort of contradiction, haven’t it. After all, we’ve been talking about this big, wide open dungeon to explore, right? And the conceit of a good role-playing game is that the players have the freedom to choose their own path, right? And we’ve talked about how we’re going to let the players wander freely and explore, in fact, how that’s the point of the game, and how we’re going to reward it. At the same time, we’ve looked at the XP system and how adventuring days work and the pace of the game and we’ve come up with a pretty heavy-handed script for how the adventure will play out over 25 days of adventure. Can we have it both ways? And how can we have it both ways?
The answer is yes. Yes we can. But it requires us to utilize a couple of specific design tools. The first is called The Critical Path. And the second is called Gating. We’re going to focus on The Critical Path today. We’re not going to plan our critical path today, but we’re going to talk about it so that we CAN plan it. We’ve got to understand the idea before we can start mapping.
But before we do that?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not interested in debating design philosophy here in my Megadungeon. I have a specific vision, I’m working to bring that vision to light, and I’m not going to defend why that vision deserves to exist. That said, I do try to make it a point to acknowledge the potential arguments.
Critical paths and gates set of alarm bells in a lot of GMs’ minds. They smack of railroading. And railroading is something that we are traditionally encouraged to avoid. Mainly because of that whole “freedom” thing.
But when you actually sit down to plan or write an adventure, it’s impossible to offer total freedom. An adventure path that offers TOTAL FREEDOM is essentially a blank notebook and a pen. And no one will pay for that s$&%. Hell, no one who’s looking for a preplanned adventure WANTS a blank notebook. And even GMs who don’t run preplanned adventures usually have SOMETHING planned. It may just be a particular villain or a setting or a few encounters, whatever. But there’s something planned. Because it’s almost impossible to run a GOOD complex RPG adventure completely off the cuff.
GMing – and especially writing your own materials – is always, ALWAYS a matter of finding a balance between structure and freedom. And different GMs and different players enjoy different levels of balance. Moreover, no level of balance is inherently superior to any other. Idiots like to scream at each other about “sandbox games” vs. “railroad games.” Most of the people who use those terms are using them to establish a false dilemma AND a value judgement. That is to say that, inherent in that fight is the assumption that every GM must choose ONE or the OTHER and that there is a RIGHT choice and a WRONG choice. And that’s utter horses$&% and helps no one.
Sandbox and railroad are at opposite ends of a very, very broad spectrum of game structures. And every game lies somewhere in between. There are no pure railroads and there are no pure sandboxes. And if there were, they would be terrible games.
This is a published module. And it’s mainly about two things: explore this dungeon and discover the secret story and all the cool treasure AND are you a bad enough a$& to beat this dungeon? After all, it’s inspired by video games, so there’s a challenge element to it. And lots of players actually like that s$&%.
Now, telling a good story – even if it is just the story of a dungeon – is an inherently structured process. To be satisfying, stories really need to conform to our sense of story structure. Screenwriters know this and audiences respond en masse to it. There’s a structure to a good story, there’s a tempo, our brains are wired to want stories to fit a certain mold. If you don’t conform to it, lots of people (not everybody, but lots) dislike your story.
Delivering a good gameplay experience – one that is challenging but fair – is also an inherently structured process. There’s considerations like making sure the players have the opportunity to be ready for a particular challenge before they face it. If you suddenly blast the PCs with a deadly poison traps that kills half the party and they had no warning, that’s a screwjob, not a challenge. But if they had the opportunity to spend resources or take a risk to build up their poison resistance and if there were clues they needed it and they didn’t interpret those clues in time and gave up that opportunity, that’s fair. Because the players can look back at the situation and see what they could have done differently to create a better outcome.
At the same time, to tell a good interactive story, the game must change in response to the players’ choices. That’s what interactive means. And that’s inherently unstructured. You have no idea what choices the players will make until they make them. Moreover, in order for challenge to mean anything, the players have to have the opportunity to decide what challenges to engage and how to engage them. And their choices have to have consequences that make their lives easier or harder. And that, too, is inherently unstructured.
In the end, however, IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE, the unstructured elements are matters of pure perception. Look at the poison in the face gag. The fairness of that loss is entirely dependant on the players recognizing their mistakes. If they never see any other possibility, they won’t believe there were any. And thus, the situation becomes unfair.
So, the unstructured elements – freedom and fairness – rely on perception. The structured elements are solid, real things. That is, we have to present a megadungeon that appears to offer freedom, but is actually built on a solid structural foundation. We offer the players plenty of choices, but we also use a number of tools – incentives, soft nudges, and hard shoves – to keep the players from wandering too far from that structure.
And that’s the essence of what we’re doing. We’re building a dungeon that offers just enough freedom to allow the players to know they have choices while still keeping them from f$&%ing up too much of the structure.
The Critical Path
So what is “the critical path?” Well, critical path is a project management term, but that meaning doesn’t help us here. We’re going with the video game definition. In a videogame, the critical path is the shortest, most direct route from the beginning to the end. You might think of it as the shortest path through a maze. But there’s more to it than that.
Imagine there’s the Hexahedrous the Euclidean has constructed a dungeon of exactly 16 rooms with only one entrance from the outside world. And imagine that he has hidden the Hexagonal Ruby of Orthagonalian somewhere in the dungeon. The heroes have to go in and find it. Now, first examine this layout.
Note that every room is connected to every adjacent room. Now, imagine a group of heroes enters the dungeon looking for the ruby. And imagine, after they clear each room’s challenge, they choose an exit at random. At minimum, the party must clear three rooms before they enter the room with the ruby. At maximum, the party can clear up to fifteen rooms before they enter the room with the ruby.
Put that in a D&D context. Remember that, in D&D, players will face four to six encounters in a day because of the mechanics of attrition and challenge. And those encounters should definitely reach a climax right before the day ends because of the needs of story structure.
We have no idea what path the PCs will take during the day. We can’t plan our encounters or our climaxes. If they randomly end up exploring all fifteen rooms, it’ll take them three to four days of adventure to clear the dungeon. If they end up exploring only three, they are done after half a day.
As a GM, I don’t want that level of uncertainty. It prevents me from building a good adventure from a gameplay or story perspective. So, imagine I use this layout.
Note that every room has exactly one exit. What that means is that I know the exact path any group of adventurers will have to take through the Euclidean Fortress to recover the ruby. And I can plan my challenge curve and my climaxes accordingly.
But notice that, in doing so, I’ve taken any exploration element whatsoever. There’s no freedom. The players simply follow the path I’ve laid out for them, dealing with one obstacle after another. That structure is boring. It isn’t fun. THAT is a railroad.
Let’s look at the third option.
It might look like I just connected the rooms at random, though if you’re clever, you may already have spotted the method to my madness. Take a careful look at that map and see if you notice something. Maybe this will make it easier.
What’s special about this design is that this design has a critical path. Actually, it has two paths, but both of them are the same length. In order to get to the ruby, the party MUST traverse seven rooms. Seven SPECIFIC rooms, though, including the branch, there’s a total of nine rooms they COULD go through.
That knowledge, the knowledge that, no matter what else the party does, they must traverse a specific series of rooms before they can have their goal, that knowledge is extremely valuable. Because I can build an adventure structure along that path. At the same time, I allow the party to deviate from that path by adding side passages. Heck, I even have one branch where the party can choose between two different paths to their goal.
At the same time, there’s all these little side treks the party could take. If they explore at random, they actually COULD still cover fifteen rooms before they find the ruby. And that means they will have to retreat and rest and return a few times. No big deal. But I can still build around a good structure.
For example, room 11 and room 16 are optional encounters. Imagine I put a lava trap in room 11 that, if the party sets it off, reduces the whole room to impassable lava. Well, now I know they can still find their goal. Whereas if they render rooms 3, 4, or 8 impassable, they’ve lost the adventure, right? So I’d better have a plan for how to tell them they lost.
Or, alternatively, I can place a tough fight encounter in room 11 and a tough riddle encounter in room 16, so the party can choose muscles or wits. And because I know the party has to go through room 14 before they see either of those rooms, I can build a clue in there that says “wizards should not tread north and warriors should not tread east” or some bulls$&%.
Also, if I have a boss monster and a sub boss monster and a tribe of henchmen, I can put the henchmen in room 14, the sub-boss in room 12, and the boss in room 3. That way, I know the party won’t encounter the hobgoblin leader before the goblin priest and I know they won’t encounter either until they encounter at least one pack of goblins.
But there’s even more I can do with a critical path. For example, if I want to encourage exploration and reward the players for it? I can stash an icon in room 6 that diminishes some of the goblin priest’s powers. And I can hide a letter in room 13 that explains that a hobgoblin was dispatched the lead the goblins. And in room 1, I can have an optional encounter that has some pretty cool, useful treasure for the next adventure. But I’d better not make that encounter TOO hard because the PCs will have just finished off the dungeon boss.
And if I want to discourage exploration? Well, I can lay a trail that shows the PCs the critical path. Maybe they can track the wizard somehow. Or those passages have been used frequently while the other ones are dark and dusty and misused. And further, the side passages are filled with vermin and don’t have any treasure to discover. After the party hits the dead end at room 13, after fighting giant rats and spiders and discovers nothing but a looted storeroom filled with debris and junk, they probably head back to the path and get the message. And if they don’t, they keep wasting resources until they figure it out. But that’s their fault.
So, the critical path is a pacing and planning tool. It allows us to know where the party has to go, to plan the pace of adventure along that path, and to drive adventure along that path if we want to or else to reward wandering from that path.
But how do you recognize the critical path in your dungeon and plan accordingly?
You don’t, f$&%wit.
How Critical Paths Happen
Critical paths don’t just happen. They aren’t an accident of dungeon design (or any game design). You design the critical path and then you design the rest of the dungeon around them. You probably figured I was going to say that.
And frankly, designing a critical path is easy. It’s just a matter of drawing a windy line and adding the right number of encounters off of it. Seriously. I s$&% you not. There’s no great magic to the critical path. Granted, turning the thing into a dungeon is a different matter entirely. But we’ll get there. One step at a time.
After you lay down your critical path, you can add branches or bypasses. Forks. It’s easiest if the forks all have the same numbers of encounters and obstacles, but they don’t have to. You can make an easier path and a harder path and you can give clues so that players can figure out which is which. Or not. You can just leave it up to luck.
After you lay down the branches, you can add side paths – the optional areas. The more you add, the more difficult it will be for the players to follow the critical path without a lot of extraneous action. But the more side paths you add, the more room you have to add optional content like treasures and hidden rooms and clues to puzzles along the critical path. Whatever.
And honestly, that’s it. I mean, I’m sure you expected something more complicated with more spreadsheets. But some of this stuff is actually kind of simple once you understand the utility. The thing is, though, that the critical path is probably the most important planning tool we’re going to use alongside our big ole spreadsheet of what happens every day.
And don’t worry, next week,. we’re going to complicate things by talking about gating.