Sunday, July 26, 2015

Towards a Living Megadungeon

Breath some life into your dungeons. A dungeon and more importantly a megadungeon shouldn’t be just a big collection of meat-shields and traps between PC and treasure; a dungeon environment can be a living/dynamic environment for a campaign. When a DM decides to invest a little emote time and effort into presenting a dynamic environment over one carved in stone the campaign and game play should improve.

The classical perceived notion of a dungeon crawl goes like this: party creeps through dungeon being wary of traps and secret doors mapping as they go, party finds a door, party kicks in door and kills monsters on other side of door and rounds up treasure, repeat…
Which at some basic level most certainly works but is also limited and holding the game back from being more exciting, more interesting, and rewarding a wider range of play. Part of this issue lies in the nature of how dungeons are written each encounter area, typically a self-enclosed room, is presented as a constant and fixed situation awaiting the intervention of the PCS; if room 12 has 7 kobolds guards in 800 sp it’s going to have 7 kobolds guarding 800 sp until the PCs get there. This is because of an economy of labor for the DM who has to prepare things for all the other players, there’s only so much that can be done at a time but this is a self-limiting situation. A DM should be updating the dungeon as the players explore it both during the session and between sessions.

Now in the paragraph above one classical feature of the players “mapping as they go” is often ignored and that is because of the static nature of many a dungeon as there is no real point in mapping an empty space that is going to stay empty. A map is only of value if someone plans on returning to a space later and why would someone return to an empty dungeons chamber? Because it isn’t likely to stay empty, just as a section of corridor may go from being a dangerous rout ego one that lets you bypass danger if the dungeon is a dynamic environment. The less dynamic a dungeon the less reason there is to map the place.

The dreaded empty room is a feature associated with boredom and a waste of detail in DM dungeon preparation but this is because of non-dynamic play. Two paragraphs up I mention room 12 with it’s 7 kobolds that are often written as if they will be there forever, in a slightly dynamic dungeon the kobolds in room 12 might be bright enough to notice there is a band of treasure hunters working through that part of the dungeon and they just might be bright enough to evacuate themselves and their loot from room 12 to “empty” room number 9 which is out of the path of the death squad seemingly heading their way.  The empty room now has sensible utility for the DM and value to the players who might have discovered it earlier and are able to figure out the kobolds have relocated to it. The impact on the DM is sos very minimal the details of empty room 9 get replaced with much of the details of room 12, requiring as potentially little work as switching the room labels on the map and keeping the dungeon key as it is.

The room switch mentioned above is handy and simple tactic to making a dungeon more dynamic but an additional mechanic is the room replacement list.  A room replacement list is the bothersome “encounter restocking” done in advance while the dungeon is being created.  The room replacement list can have new and fresh encounters either randomly or specifically assigned to locations on the map to reflect the practices and reactions of the locals, it can be tied to the level or (even better) to sections of a level.  Some rooms can of course be written with their own replacement in place to be sprung on the players the next time they return to the encounter area or next raid into the dungeon depending on the activity level of the dungeon and time spent within it. 

Mobile monsters add to a dynamic dungeon. Wandering monsters have been with dungeon adventuring as long as most of us have known about the concept and the method odes serve to maintain the illusion of a dynamic environment and encourages players not to have their PCs dilly-dally too much but the “mobile monster” is something else. A mobile monster has a plotted route it travels throughout a dungeon and there’s plenty of room to keep track of such things on the relatively spartan maps most DMs employ with a penciled in path showing where the monster roams.  A DM can decide to keep track of where the mobile monster is based on time of day, have a set of points the monster incrementally progress through tied to events (or random rolls) or simply assign a chance to bumping into the mobile monster on its path. A mobile monster needn’t be a solitary monster it can be work parties, hunters, or a patrol  from a larger population/base.  The chief advantage to keeping track of mobile monsters on the DM’s map is it relieves the difficulty of tracking such an encounter through multiple written room and encounter entries. A mobile monster may only be active and “released” on it’s path under conditional situations caused by the PCs dungeon raiding or the actions of villains/NPCs.  A mobile monster that is active upon discovery of the dungeon however is one that the players can learn about ahead of time if they note it’s spore or discover it’s presence talking with dungeon occupants and empty rooms come into play again as places to avoid a mobile monster or perhaps they are places other occupants of the dungeon tend to avoid so as to avoid the mobile monster itself.  The path a mobile monster takes can vary and be redrawn as the environment and other dungeon occupants change around it.

Support staff is an often ignored feature that can add to the dynamic nature of a dungeon and the range of options PCs can use in tackling the dungeon. Support staff are encounters that aren’t treasure guardians or direct threats to the PCs but are part of the verisimilitude of a living dungeon. The support staff may be slaves or laborers tasked to repair the dungeon, cook food, and carry water. Support staff can be keyed into encounters as any other encounter with NPC/monsters, as wandering monster entries, or as mobile monsters.  While there may be long term strategic sense in disrupting the support staff there will likely be limited short term treasure or experience point gain but PC can question, recruit, or lead support staff in rebellion against their masters as opposed to simply vanquishing them.  Less dangerous but involved monster that aren’t there for a fight add to the appearance of a dynamic and living dungeon.

The traditional encounter key of a dungeon isn’t all that is there in a dungeon; expressing who and what is in a dungeon in a wider range of methods will add to the dungeon and provide more reason for players to have PCs approach in a wider range of tactics and play styles  to have a more exciting campaign with dynamic living dungeons.


  1. Another thing for megadungeons would be to figure out likely reactions to being attacked by adventurers. Nothing hugely detailed, just enough so that you know what happens based on how much damage the PCs do.

    For instance, we could have three levels: Attacked, (the PCs get in a fight with static guards but don't cause serious damage), mauled, (the PC kill a large number of warriors and/or wreck resources but leave the group functional), and crippled, (enough deaths and destruction that the group is doomed even without PC inter action). We then include in the overall notes for the group:

    Attacked: Goes on heightened alert for 2d4 days, replaces 2d6-5 warriors every day.
    Mauled: Abandons rooms L4-L12, spiking all the doors shut, reinforces remaining guard posts as possible.
    Crippled: Survivors sell services as warriors to hobgoblins in region K, if only non-combatants remain they are enslaved.

    Of course, sometimes the 'mauled' result will be something like: The orcs in region F notice and attack the next day. Depending on what the PCs do the players might walk into an ongoing fight, or the players might learn one of the forms time pressure can take.

  2. Chakat Firepaw, this method of dungeon population management was outlined very well as far back as The Caves of Chaos in B1: Keep on the Borderlands.
    For me the REPLACEMENT of the old and worn-out Wandering Monster tables with a set of MOB (read mobile) monster encounters that are actively working, building, hunting, or whatever in their environment is whats refreshing. The issue with wandering monsters for me is they all too often lack detail, and purpose in the dungeon setting. This has been perpetuated by the adventure module design that is occurring even today. Having said that a good Judge's prep will help resolve a lot of that.
    A dungeon "event table", or time-clock, replacing the traditional Wandering Monsters table, would go a long way toward shifting the novice Judge's mindset toward the idea of a living dungeon (mega, or otherwise).