Welcome back to the Megadungeon. From crunch to fluff and back again.
Today, we’re going to start work on the most important (and pretty much the final) macroconcept for the Megadungeon. It’ll take us a couple of weeks to work it out. Actually, it only took me a day or two. But it’ll take me a couple of weeks to explain it. But, in the end, we will have a really pretty spreadsheet that will become the master plan for our entire dungeon. It will be that spreadsheet which will lead us to begin mapping.
By the way, I should point out – because of the nature of these articles – that the work I’m doing here probably seems hugely daunting. The spreadsheets, the research, and so on. If you look at how many words I’ve spilled on this whole megadungeon thing, you’d say “this must take years to finish.” But, no, it really hasn’t. In the end, the amount of design work that has gone into everything I’ve done so far has been a couple of days. And not busy days. A few stolen hours here or there. Because, so far, all I’ve really done is work out a master budget for XP, decide how to award XP, and then start thinking about what STUFF is the dungeon about. The fluffy bits. Explaining it to you guys is taking far, FAR longer than designing it.
And the funny thing is that, once we do get to the part where we are mapping and planning encounters and scenes and all of that stuff, it’ll ironically go much faster. Why is that ironic? Because it’s the part of the design that really takes a long time. But the more we build, the more we start to use the same concepts over and over. On the structural side, we’ll cover pacing and tutorializing and traffic control. On the encounter side, we’ll be looking at how to plan environments, create interesting encounters, and create interactive elements that help us tell the story.
But enough forward looking. Let’s focus on today’s topic. We’re going to talk about the thing that brings together many of the major elements that we’ve been discussing. Specifically, we’re going to talk about this equation:
CRITICAL PATH + GATING + STRUCTURE + BACKSTORY = PLOT
And we’re going to begin building the plot of our megadungeon.
What the Plotz is Plot?
Plot is one of those story words. Right? You remember it from your literature classes, right? It was one of those words that gets crammed in with characters and setting and themes and tone and adds up to a story. But the thing about an interactive story – like a role-playing game or a video game – is that the plot is not JUST a fluffy story idea. In point of fact, PLOT is where the story and design come together.
In literary terms, the plot is the sequence of events that takes place in a story. Okay, let’s see if this one sounds familiar. The princess hides the plans for the evil super weapon in a robot and sends it away just before the evil Nazis find her. A farmboy finds the robot. Following the robot’s directions, the farmboy meets an ancient mystic. The mystic enlists the aid of the farmboy and a smuggler and a dog to help him bring the plans to the princess. But they discover the princess is being held prisoner. They rescue the princess, but the mystic is killed by the evil leader. The princess leads the farmboy and friends to a secret hideout where they use the plans she found to determine how to destroy the super weapon. But, the Nazis are preparing to unleash the super weapon. The farmboy leads an attack on the super weapon and destroys it.
THAT is a plot. You probably recognize it as the plot to Star Trek: The Phantom Menace.
The plot just tells you the things that happen in the story. And often, people confuse plot with story. But notice something important about that plot? It sucks. It’s really boring. Why? Because it’s devoid of character and motivation and settings and themes. It’s the blandest distillation of a story. What happens in the story.
Now, let’s try another one. And I’m going to cut out some bits here, just to make an important point.
A young man awakens after he dreams of a princess being held prisoner, just in time to see his Uncle arm himself and disappear into the night. Following the visions he had, the man finds a secret passage in the castle where he finds the princess being held prisoner. He helps her escape to a safe church. The princess and the priest encourage the man to visit a sage so that he can find a sword that will help defeat the evil wizard that holds the kingdom in thrall. The man travels to a village and discovers he’s wanted by the army. The sage has gone into hiding. The man tracks the sage down and is told to visit three sacred shrines to recover the three keys that will allow him to unlock the magic sword. He finds the first key after defeating a powerful monster…
That is the plot of the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Now, what’s interesting is that there’s a lot of other crap that goes on in LoZ: LttP. We skipped the part where Link (the young man) spent a half-hour grinding rupees by fighting octoroks so he could buy bombs. We skipped the dozen heart containers Link found to increase his health. We skipped the times Link got lost and ended up in the Lost Woods. And when he discovered the gambling minigame and the Den of Thieves and found a mushroom and some other heart chunks.
In a game, the PLOT is not everything that happens in the game. Not by a long shot. Especially because, in a video game, the events may come in many different orders. The PLOT of a video game tends to be the sequence of high points, major events, the bits and pieces the game HAS TO pass through to get from beginning to end.
And even a game like Super Metroid has a plot. Samus visits Ceres, fights Ridley, lands on Zebes, awakens the Space Pirate Base, finds the Morph Ball, disturbs the Chorizo statue, acquires the missiles, and so on…
In some games, it’s hard to tell whether the plot comes from the mechanical sequence of things that happen in the game or whether it comes from the story of the game. But the fact is, it’s actually both. Plot is where the story and the design come together. Whatever else happens in the game, these events must happen in the story to get from beginning to end.
And that is the point of that whole equation. The plot of our megadungeon, the sequence of major events, is going to come from a melding of how we decided to structure the game, how we laid out the critical path, how we use gates, and the backstory of the setting itself. That’s why we discussed all of those things.
Victories, High Points, and Story Beats
In a movie script, there’s a concept called the story beat. A story beat is a major element of the story on which the rest of the action is hung. Imagine you drove a bunch of nails into a wall at various heights. And then you draped a ribbon over the nails. The story is the shape of the ribbon. The nails are the story beats.
Now, story beats are actually just another word for the individual events that make up the plot. If you take that plot summary of Star Wars: The Next Generation that I wrote down above and wrote a script around it, the script you wrote would look a lot like Star Wars no matter what details you filled in. Because the story hangs on those beats. It hangs on those plot elements.
But we’re not writing a script. And we need our story beats to do more than just shore up a story. We’re asking people to play a game. A long game. A game that will take 24 to 48 sessions of adventure depending on the speed of their progress. That’s six months to a year of RPG.
Imagine that you work on an assembly line. Every day, you come to work, and you attach widgets to widget flanges. Over and over, day in and day out, widget flanges come in and they go out. And then the factory stops and you go home. And you come back to do it again. How exciting is your life?
No matter how cool you personally might find the attachment of widgets and widget flanges, eventually it gets dull as s$&%.
Imagine, instead, that you come to work and you have a project. Assemble 40 widget flanges for a customer. You go to your workstation, turn on the factory belt, and get to work. A week later, you have 40 widget flanges. And you deliver them and your boss gives you a cake and congratulates you. Then, the next day, there’s a new job. You need to assemble six groups of ten widget flanges. You’ve got six different customers. They each need ten. And this time, there’s a deadline. Two weeks. And you get to work. And you succeed. And you get more cake.
You’re not doing anything differently in either case, except getting cake, but what makes the second case more tolerable is the sense of accomplishment. Periodically, you stop what you’re doing and you get told you finished a thing. You have a victory. Good job. And you celebrate a little. And then there is a new job.
Video games are like that too. No matter how fun it is to gun down progressively larger and larger waves of enemies, you will get bored and fatigued if you don’t occasionally finish something. Complete a level. Complete a mission. Fight a boss. Gain an upgrade. Something. You need progress markers periodically. It helps you feel like you’re accomplishing something.
If you map out the plot of most video games, you’ll find that the major story beats aren’t just events in the story, they tend to be victories or signs of progress. Rescue the princess, find the sage, gain the Pendant of Courage, gain the Pendant of Wisdom, gain the Pendant of Power, find the Master Sword, fight the wizard, and so on.
And often, the things that make up the story beats are LOADED things. For example, in LoZ: LttP, you don’t just find the Pendant of Courage. No. You enter the Eastern Palace, explore a maze, fight monsters, and you discover a magical bow. And then, you’re ambushed by the giant Armos Knight statues. You defeat them all and you gain the Pendant of Courage. Da-da-da-dah!
Each of the plot points, the story beats, usually comes as part of or after a climax. Not always, but usually. And each one usually has a reward. And often, that reward creates new possibilities. Thus you have this constant flow: adventure, climax, victory, reward that leads to further adventure. Between every story beat is a little sequence of rising tension, climax, and release.
And if you’re smart, you’re already seeing how all of this ties together.
How All of This Ties Together
So, we have a dungeon that is divided up into days of exploration. In addition, it’s also divided up into sections. And it also happens in a game that involves experience levels. That is in addition to the inherent assumptions that games involve finding cool treasures and defeating monsters and discovering the bigger story.
So you might be tempted to say that every day of adventure needs a plot point. And you’d be wrong as hell.
Because there’s another side to things that you haven’t considered. There’s the problem of acclimation. Imagine that, after every 8 encounters, you fight a boss, gain a treasure, and unlock a new area of the dungeon. That sort of becomes routine. You get used to that. And eventually, it starts to feel like you’re being shuffled along a treadmill.
Instead, what if some days you defeat a boss. And other days, you unlock a new area of the dungeon. And still other days, you make an important discovery. And yet other days, well, you find stuff that’s neat and you fight things, but some days go by without a major victory or a massive change. Some days are just days in the life of the adventurer. Every morning you wake up and you don’t know whether this day will be just another day in the life or whether there’s a dragon at the end or whether you will open the flood gates or whether you will the teleportation stone.
THAT draws you forward. The excitement of not knowing. And it also feels like you’re not just checking off tasks on a list. And that’s important. Because, secretly, behind the scenes, that’s exactly what the players are doing in this dungeon. They are simply wandering from story beat to story beat until the finish the sequence. Sure, they have to figure it out and sometimes they get lost and sometimes they f$&% up. But for the most part, if everything goes absolutely perfectly, the party is just wandering down a very complicated linear path with occasional side passages they should ignore.
So, even though we’re looking at 24 days of adventure, give or take a bit, we don’t want 24 story beats. We don’t want 24 areas. We don’t want 24 bosses. We don’t want 24 awesome relics and magical powers that expand the dungeon. We probably want ten to twelve good story beats. And probably six to eight transformative events. What do I mean by a transformative event? Well, I mean those big events that open huge new sections of the dungeon up.
In Super Metroid, for example, that’s your morph balls and your super missiles and power bombs. In Dark Souls, that’s opening the way to Blighttown or reaching Anor Londo or receiving the Lord Vessel.
The Beginning, The End, and The Boulder
Okay, so we want major story beats to come every two to three sessions, right? That’s about what we’re looking at. And those major story beats will probably coincide with the opening of gates (gating) as well as important discoveries and the defeat of major monsters. That way we get the nice sense of adventure, climax, release, further adventure.
BUT… there’s two other parts to this we want to consider. The beginning and the end.
First, the end. As you get closer and closer to the end of an adventure, there should be a sense of speeding up. Imagine a story is sort of like pushing a boulder over a hill. You struggle to push it up to the top, but then when you crest the peak, the boulder starts rolling of its own accord. Faster and faster it goes. Until it crashes into whatever is on the other side. A good story feels like that boulder. As the story goes on, there’s a sense that it is going faster and faster toward some inevitable conclusion.
No game series illustrates good and bad execution of this concept like the Metroid series.
In Super Metroid, you explore the planet Zebes, searching for your nemesis Ridley. He’s a space dragon pirate for reasons. Much of the game is spent wandering and exploring at your own pace. And you reach an underwater area called Maridia. And that’s the slowest, densest area. And suddenly you face the boss. A massive underwater monster. You defeat and you gain the ability to basically fly. And that ability allows you to access the deepest part of Zebes, Ridley’s lair. From that point forward, there’s a lot less sidetracking and exploration. You’re more goal oriented. And Ridley’s lair is fairly linear. And a lot happens in there too. You fight the Gold Chorizo. You fight the super Space Pirates. You gain the most powerful offensive weapon in your arsenal, the Screw Attack (yeah, that’s what it is called). And you kill the f$&% out of Ridley. And then discover the location of the Mother Brain. You crash into her lair, kill the Metroids, defeat Mother Brain, and escape from the planet before it blows up.
Now, consider Metroid Prime. Weirdly, it is almost the same exact f$&%ing game. Except in 3D. You follow Mecha-Ridley – a space dragon pirate ROBOT – to Tallon IV. You explore it, discover artifacts, yaddah yaddah yaddah. In the most difficult part of the game, a radioactive labyrinth gauntlet, you slog through until you finally fight the massively dangerous Super Ultra Death Pirate Extreme (or something, it was a pirate super soldier). And then, you’re told to return to the Mystic Temple to open the path to the final area of the game. And you know Ridley is there. So, you return to the Mystic Temple…
And the game says “now wait, just hold on a second. I know you’ve got this momentum going and you’re ready to see this done and you’ve got that bada$& suit of radioactive super armor and pretty much all of the best equipment in the game, but I can’t let you through here until you slowly and methodically plod your way back through the entire f$&%ing game and hunt down these keys. Twelve of them. We hid twelve keys. Here’s some vague riddles. Come back when you find them all.”
I LOVE Metroid Prime. LOVE IT. But the final Chozo Temple Artifact Hunt Riddle bulls$&% can f$&% off and die. Because what the game did there was the equivalent of let me get the ball rolling and then pull a f$&%ing drag chute on it and then make push it back up to the top of the hill again.
I should point out that it WASN’T the fact that the game through a subquest between me and the end of the game that was the problem. It is that the subquest was slow-paced and dull and wandering. For example, this would have been okay.
Samus enters the Chozo Temple having done all the other things. And suddenly, four giant f$&%ing mutant monster Metroid things burst in and swallow the four keys from the alter. The door to the temple slides shut. And suddenly, a map comes up. And it says “scanning complete, four giant Super Ultra Death Metroids located… go to these four places and kill them for the keys,” that would have been different. There’s a clear sense of where to go and what to do. And instead of losing momentum, the anger at the four bosses for robbing you of victory and the desire to slaughter them to get to the end provides a good catharsis and an easy sequence to follow. It doesn’t burn off the momentum. It makes you want it more.
So, toward the end of the adventure, we want to stop having nothing days. We want a sense of building toward something. We need a sense of gaining momentum. And that means that toward the end of the adventure, we want a series of days with very clear goals leading up to the last day where the goal is something like “… and then kill the giant demon robot pirate dragon Metroid.”
Using the same boulder analogy, we look at the beginning of the adventure and realize that it’s kind of hard to get a boulder moving. And the problem with those goalless, wandering, nothing days is that they don’t add a lot of momentum. They are important to vary everything up, to keep the pace rising and falling, to give the party a breather, and to make the major victories seem more major. But they can absolutely kill the start of the adventure.
So what we find then is that the first few days of adventure and the last few days of adventure are pretty driven. Goals are clear and things happen in succession. It’s the middle of the adventure where stuff opens up and the game can wander and meander.
So, as we plan the plot of the adventure, we’re going to keep in mind that the first few days and the last few days are going to be goal driven. The middle will alternate between accomplishment days and exploration days. And it won’t be a perfect alternation. Because I’ll point out something else.
If you look closely at how we handled experience and how the game maps things out, we’ve identified a couple of key experience levels that carry a lot of meaning. Specifically, 3rd level, 5th level, and 8th level are POWER levels. What does that mean? Well, first of all, that means the PCs are much more powerful than they were at the previous level. Second of all, it means that because of the way we are planning the encounters, the PCs will be slightly ahead of the difficulty curve. At those levels, things should be exciting.
So, if we think about everything we’ve talked about. We see this sort of pattern emerge.
At first and second level, the party’s options should be limited. They should be driven by specific goals and not do too much wandering.
Third level represents a major turning point. That’s when the adventure should really start to feel like its opening up. But that’s also when things should start to wander and meander a little bit. The party should get the sense of expanding their options through third and fourth level. Two or three good gates should open up here.
At fifth level, the party needs a major event. One of those big, big things. Something transformative. They need to open a path to something, fight something huge and awesome, and then gain access to something new.
At sixth level, the party is back on the bottom of the power curve for the next tier. The dungeon needs to change in some substantial way that makes it a threat. And then, throughout sixth and seventh level, the party should again be in wandering mode. Explore, minor victories, wandering. That sort of thing.
Round about eighth level, the party is feeling powerful again. And this is the point where they need another major event. Something big happens, they do something awesome that makes them feel super powerful, and then the signpost appears to tell them how to finish things.
Now, they fight through ninth and tenth level, building toward the final victory. They follow the signposts and they arrange things so they can finish the quest. And finally, whatever the climax of the entire adventure is happens.
So, whatever plot elements we decide to use, they should line up to some degree with that progression.
And as I’ve been analyzing all of this, I’ve been thinking about what plot events I thought would be cool. Because, remember, as we work on structure, we also think about fluff.
Let’s end with a few ideas that I’ve had.
The Space Pirates
As I mentioned, I like the idea of an enemy faction that the party can confront again and again. But, because of the way I’ve decided the dungeon will behave (with wandering monster tables added to the game and removed from the game), I think it’d be sort of cool if the enemy could be defeated part way through the adventure. So that the enemy could be replaced by a different enemy.
Suppose you have something simple like a kobold tribe. I know, lame, right? Kobolds. Well, kobolds are fun. And they serve dragons. And dragons are fun.
What if the beginning adventure finds the party doing something simple like hinting a kobold raiding party and that leads them to our dungeon? They discover that the dungeon is more extensive than they realized. They also discover the kobolds were part of a larger tribe. They serve someone. A queen or whatever. At some point, the party defeats the dragon that leads the tribe. Awesome, right.
And then they discover that the dragon wasn’t the queen. The dragon herself was in the thrall of something else.
THAT makes a really good story beat for the 5th level ending. And as the dragon falls, they discover signs of a deeper evil corrupting the dragon. An evil that cannot be allowed to continue.
There’s this neat moment in Super Metroid and a LESS neat but functionally similar moment in Dark Souls. It’s a moment when you become trapped. In Super Metroid, when you first reach the area Norfair, you fall down a long shaft and only at the bottom do you realize you’re powerless to climb out. Eventually, you find the way to proceed. But it creates a tense moment when you feel hemmed in and a little desperate. In Dark Souls, it happens with Seethe the Scaleless, but that’s a sucky moment.
That might make a good early moment in the adventure. When we’re trying to give clear goals. The party blunders through some one-way passage and have to fight their way out. It’s a risky gambit, because you can accidentally kill the party if it isn’t well planned. But it might be effective.
The Transforming Dungeon
There’s two moments of transformation I’ve become firmer and firmer on. As I mentioned last time, I love the Poison Ivy moment of plants retreating from the dungeon. And I love the idea of a giant plant boss whose lair is its attack form. I’m pretty firm that that is a moment I want. Especially now that I know there’s a giant tree in the dungeon.
See, I’m starting to get this general sense of corruption from the whole site. It was an elvish site. Evil came to it. Twisted it. Cleanse the evil. Standard stuff.
The idea of a giant plant monster that is strangling the great tree, feeding off of it, and whose roots literally grow through the dungeon is kind of cool. I don’t think it’s final boss worth. I just think that’s another story. And when toxic roots retreat from the dungeon, it can open new paths.
I’ve already talked about restoring water to one area while emptying a flooded second area. That hasn’t gone anywhere.
The flood thing would make an excellent transformation for the 5th to 6th level transformation. Maybe the dragon or whatever is in the way of the flood gate.
Teleporting and Flying
One of the things that’s cool about the treasures in Metroid and Zelda is that they aren’t JUST keys. Sure, Links bow can hit switches he can’t reach, but it’s also a f$&%ing bow that kills things. And Samus’ missiles allow her to blow open blast doors, but they are also missiles. The high-jump boots make Samus more maneuverable. They don’t just let her reach the high shelves.
There’s two pretty cool movement abilities in D&D that also act as powerful utilities in combat. The ability to teleport over short distances and the ability to fly. Those are not just game changers in terms mobility, but they also give PCs enhanced combat power. We’ll think more about how to implement next week. But for right now, they have been tickling my brain.
Also, flying solves an interesting dilemma I have been struggling with that I haven’t really talked about much yet. Right now, the dungeon has one door. No matter what, the party has to go in the front door. I’ve given no thought to other entrances. And by burying it in the mountains, I’ve made sure that that’s pretty much the only door.
But if there is a tree crater that is open to the sky, that’s a way to get into dungeon from outside IF you can fly. If there are other rooms open to the sky, suddenly, flying also becomes a back door into the dungeon. A way to finally bypass all of those pesky lower level areas.
The Power of Four
Finally, just a quick one. I’ve noticed that I’ve got both naturalist and elemental themes going on here. And that leads me to the idea of four elements. I’m also going to need a series of quick goals that can be established around level eight or level nine as the momentum gathering toward the final conclusion. So… I’ve got this idea of four things in my mind. I just don’t know what they are. I just know the number four is important. Along with nature and corruption.
And THAT is how themes happen, kids.