Well, it’s been a long time since we’ve done this, hasn’t it? But now we’re back. Back to building the most awesome megadungeon adventure ever. When this project was brought to a screeching halt by the fact that life became a series of disasters, we were ready to start thinking about the story and layout of our megadungeon. Remember? We’d made all those fancy spreadsheets to plan out how many days of adventure there would be and what level the challenges would be and what optional stuff there would be and everything? And then we realized that if we were going to pull this off, we were going to need a way to control the players’ journey through the dungeon. And that brought us to discussing the idea of a critical path.
But, by itself, a critical path is just wishful thinking and the players are likely going to f$&% it up as soon as you let them loose. After all, we’re imagining this big, interconnected, complicated underground complex. And the whole game is about the freedom to explore said big, interconnected, complicated underground complex. And we’ve also talked about things like shortcuts and backtracking. And, if we’re going to interconnect the whole thing and let the players feel free to explore, we can’t just make the dungeon a linear sequence with the occasional dead-end off-shoot leading to random treasure.
So, how can we have our cake and eat it too? Which is a stupid phrase. I mean, why else would you want to have a cake EXCEPT to eat it. But let’s pretend it’s not a dumb phrase. How do we control the players’ progress through the dungeon without just making a linear sequence?
Actually, before we answer that question, we’re also going to ask another question. Because the solution will answer BOTH questions. Because we’re that awesome.
Victories, Milestones, and Progress
A long time ago, when we were talking about exploration as a principle, we discussed the fact that exploration is kind of a sucky long-term goal. In fact, the true goal of exploration isn’t exploration, it’s actually discovery. Exploration is rewarding when it yields something. It might be new information, it might be a treasure, or it might even be a new place to explore.
The conceptual problem with exploration is that it’s never, ever done. Or rather, it’s done once the entire goddamned world has been mapped. You can SAY the story is about exploring the giant underground complex. But if it takes six months to explore the thing, it just feels like a slog. There’s no moments of victory.
See, moments of victory are psychologically important in a long term game. The players need to feel like they are winning periodically. That’s why video games are broken down into levels or areas or zones or missions or whatever. And that’s why most video games have bosses or periodic major challenges and moments of victory. Imagine if the original Super Mario Brothers was just about walking to the right for three hours. Imagine if there were no level breaks, no castles, no false Bowsers. Imagine if you just kept platforming and platforming and platforming until you finally rescued the princess from the real Bowser.
Players NEED checkpoints. They NEED moments of victory. The NEED a sense of progress that ratchets. They need tension to rise and fall. It’s amazingly important.
If you look at exploration games of the style we’re trying to emulate, like Metroid and Dark Souls and the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Arkham Asylum, you’ll notice that they follow a pattern of giving you major challenges or major discoveries at pretty set intervals. And, often, overcoming those challenges or making those discoveries opens up a new area to explore.
Let’s use Super Metroid as our Ur example, since that’s the game that really did it the absolute best. After wandering around the abandoned planet Zebes for a little while, you are locked in a room and forced to fight an animated alien statue. When you win, you acquire the ability to lay time bombs. These bombs allow you to blow up certain walls. And when you blow up a certain section of wall that you’ve already gone past at least twice, it opens up a path deeper into the planet. In fact, it allows you to gain access to an entirely different ecosystem.
This is discovery at its finest. You overcome a major challenge after a period of rising tension. You get a reward. The reward makes you feel more powerful. And the reward also allows you access a new set of challenges. And you do it all again.
And this leads us to the idea of Gating.
The idea behind gating is simple. Part of the adventure or game is locked off initially. The players can’t access it until they accomplish some sort of goal. The simplest, most obvious form of a gate is a literal gate. Or rather, a locked door. The party finds a locked door and they can’t go through until they discover the key. Assuming the key is hidden away behind a particularly climactic encounter, that ensures that the party will have the climax, the discovery, and then have the sense of the world opening up to them.
Seems simple, right?
Well, it isn’t.
Gating with Style
Here’s the thing: if you just lock off your world behind color-coded doors and have the party keep discovering color-coded keys, the adventure just kind of sucks. Why? Because when the gating becomes very obvious, the players realize that they don’t have any agency. They lose the sense that it is their discoveries that are expanding the options. Instead, they see the rails that are controlling their progress.
That’s why games like Metroid and Arkham don’t only use locked doors. Some doors are just locked and require specific keys. Or code breakers. Or super missiles. But some doors aren’t doors at all. They are jumps that are too high to make unless you have the Hi-Jump Boots. Or walls that need to blown apart by Morph Ball Bombs or Bat Explosive Gel. Or chasms that can only be crossed with the Grapple Beam or the Bat Grappling Hook.
Good gating mixes things up. Sometimes, the gate is literally a lock that has to be opened with the right key. Other times, the gate is an obstacle that requires some sort of prerequisite to overcome. Other times, the gate is just a powerful monster standing in the way. Still other times, the gate is a riddle to be solved. Or some sort of action that needs to be taken.
I’m going to completely honest. This idea STARTED with gating. That is, one of the things I knew from the very beginning that I wanted in my megadungeon was an area that was flooded and could be drained. That ballooned into the idea of the party reaching a point where they could remove a blockage, restoring the flow of water to one area of the dungeon and draining another area. Thereby allowing them to reach new places in BOTH areas.
One can imagine an area of the dungeon where channels that once held water are now canyons and chasms that are difficult to cross when empty, but easy to swim or raft across. One can also imagine devices powered by the flow of water, such as huge, heavy doors that can only be raised with the help of waterwheels. One can also imagine an alien region of long-flooded caves now overgrown with strange plants and odd cave formations, filled with dead cave fish and other hapless underwater creatures left high and dry when the water was redirected.
That’s an example of gating.
Gating in D&D is HARD!
If gating is so awesome, why do so few adventures use it to good effect beyond simple locked doors and pull-lever puzzles? Because D&D makes gating extremely hard. Or rather, role-playing games make gating extremely hard. But D&D actually makes gating specifically hard.
Let’s take a simple example of Metroid gating: the Hi-Jump Boots. Samus – the intrepid space heroine who stars in the Metroid games – primarily gets around the world by jumping. She’s a video game character, after all. And her jump is limited to a very specific height and distance. Why? Because she’s a computer program. And there is nothing she can do inside that computer program to change it.
Now, imagine there is a ledge that is too high for Samus to jump to. Without the boots that allow her to jump higher, she can’t do anything. But a D&D party isn’t nearly as limited. Where Samus can’t do anything she isn’t programmed to do, the D&D heroes can try all sorts of things. They can use ropes and grappling hooks and climbing gear. They can stack objects on top of each other. Hell, they can go into the woods, cut enough branches, and make a freaking ladder.
RPGs, by their nature, have few hard limits. And that means any gates that you design have to be pretty damned extreme. An empty canal that is ten-foot wide and ten-foot deep is no obstacle to a party of resourceful heroes. Those empty canals that only become passable when the water is flowing? They are going to have to be some pretty damned extreme canals.
Not that that has to be a problem. But what does become a problem is that many limits that RPG characters are also kind of fuzzy.
Take, for example, the simple gate of a locked door. A skilled rogue can attempt to pick a lock. A strong warrior can break a door down. Fortunately, in an RPG, everything has a level of difficulty. It’s easy enough to say that the door’s lock requires a 35 on a lockpicking check because it’s so well made. Or it’s made of adamantine and will take a 40 on a Strength check to break it down. But with the right combination of bonuses, a really resourceful party can manage to get enough bonuses to get through a door.
And then there’s magic. A wizard with a knock spell can invalidate pretty much any locked door, right? You can make the door as strong as you want and the lock as powerful as you want, but a third level wizard is going to open it if he really wants to.
Here’s the thing: if D&D was designed for this sort of crap, there’d be a logic to the progressions of things. And if the designers had cared as much about non-combat obstacles as they cared about combat, they’d have included tables of things saying: ‘here’s the DCs for locks that only 5th level PCs can defeat’ and ‘here’s the level when water is no longer an obstacle for a party.’ There’d be an advancement track for exploration similar to the advancement track for combat. “A sixth level puzzle should require these sorts of DCs.”
Tomb of Horrors Sucks
Now, in the past, adventures HAVE attempted to provide challenges that prevented certain PCs from circumventing them with the right combination of abilities. I’ll give you an example. Tomb of Horrors. Tomb of Horrors was filled with arbitrary secret doors that couldn’t be detected like normal secret doors and traps that lied to spells specifically designed to detect them. It was arbitrary and it was a screw job. It was unfair. And smart players hate that s$&%.
You can’t just arbitrarily shut off abilities. You can’t. It sucks. It’s rotten. Players hate it. And rightly so. Because players spend resources during character generation acquiring their abilities. And if they spend those resources on abilities you decide to shut down, you’re stealing from them. End of story.
The thing is, we’re going to have to be smart about gating. And we’re going to have to accept that it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to come up with ways to gate off certain sections of the dungeon without appearing to arbitrarily shut down character abilities. And we’re going to have to make it difficult for the party to overcome those gates without the proper keys. Whatever those may be. And that’s going to require care and thought.
But it also doesn’t have to be that hard. We just need to come up with a short list of things to work with. And then figure out how avoid problems with them. I’m going to give you an example right now.
Locked doors. There’s nothing that says we can’t have doors that require a specific key. Let’s say there’s a certain type of door, we’ll call them red doors for simplicity, that can all be opened with one specific key the party will discover. Once they have that key, they can open all the red doors.
How do we keep the party from opening those doors early? We make sure the doors are hard to open. They require very high rolls to break or unlock. But how do we avoid making that seem like an arbitrary screw job? Well, what if there are all sorts of doors in the dungeon. Let’s say that there’s several difficulties of doors. And red doors are the hardest. They are made of the strongest material and they have the most complicated locks. The party can pick or break some doors, but they discover some doors are harder than others. And the hardest of doors, they discover they can’t break down or unlock. Yet. But they pledge to come back when their skills are better. But before that happens, they find the key.
What about magic? Well, we KNOW the level at which locks can be magically circumvented. At third level, wizards get the knock spell. If the party brings a wizard, those doors will stop being an obstacle at third level. So, knowing that, we make sure the party finds the key BEFORE they reach level three. Or immediately when they reach level three.
By studying the abilities of PCs at the level ranges we’re working with, we can determine the point at which our gates won’t work. At higher levels, we’re going to have to rely on more arbitrary and fantastic gates. At lower levels, mundane blockages will work.
In fact, we can even go further. For example, if the party brings a wizard and we expect them to find the key at level three. If they reach level three and don’t find the key immediately, they can open those locked doors a little early. Because we’ve still keyed those doors to level three, they won’t be getting in much trouble. They are just jumping a little ahead. But until they find the key, they will feel good about bringing a wizard. They will feel like they cheated.
And honestly, most of our gates are going to come from the spell list. We know when wizards can fly or turn gaseous or teleport. We can build gates in our dungeon around those specific abilities. And if the party doesn’t bring a wizard, we’ll do what Metroid and Arkham Asylum do: we’ll give the party magic items. We can design magic items specifically to replace wizards so that the party doesn’t need to bring specific abilities.
And the best part about those abilities is that they are useful in other ways. Short range teleportation is useful in combat, but it’s also useful for teleporting through small gaps or across impossible chasms. That’s another way Arkham and Metroid tie advancement to exploration. The prizes you find aren’t JUST keys.
The point of this article was just to introduce the concept of gating. Because we’re going to combine the idea of gating with our big schedule of how the adventure plays out and figure out the story beats – the high points. The major victories. Because, remember, we want our gate keys to be tied to victories. The party defeats the dragon and then they discover the controls for the floodgates. They survive the deadly gauntlet of deathtraps and discover the magic key in some hapless delver’s hand at the end of the run. They defeat the necrophidian ultraloth and the fields of rotting death curse vanish from the dungeon.
Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think about a few ways you might gate heroes in D&D 5E. And I want you to look at the various classes and spell lists and figure out when those gates might be invalidated. And I’ll give you two specific ones to check out. Because, as I said, I already have some ideas.
At what point in D&D is a flooded area no longer an obstacle to the PCs. At what point in D&D are tunnels filled with poison gas no longer an obstacle. And how might we make them difficult to circumvent until the party opens the flood gate or defeats the evil monster that is spewing poison into some of the tunnels.
Think about it. Next week, we’re going to do something a little different. We’re going to make some decisions about the dungeon itself. Some fluffy story bulls$&%. After that, we’ll take our fluffy story bulls&$%, our master schedule, and our gating ideas, and try to come up with an overall plot for the adventure. In the meanwhile, try to come up with some ideas for gates of your own.