Thursday, September 06, 2018

how to make a megadungeon without really trying

So I've never found a commercially available megadungeon that really spoke to me, that made me say out loud "Yes! I want to spend the next fifty sessions running this bad boy again and again!"  There are lots of megadungeons out now with lots of good stuff in them, but I've not found one where the totality of it moved me to action.

In the nineties I tried solving this problem by using various random dungeon generators, like the one in the back of the first edition DMG.  That takes a long time for each level to be developed.  And doing this work helped me figure out a couple of things about my own approach to dungeon mastering:
  • Although I have certain gut opinions about the aesthetics of dungeon maps and how they should be designed, I don't take much joy in drawing out levels myself.
  • Ditto for stocking dungeon keys.  
I can looked at a finished dungeon level and key and form an opinion about whether a level is too crowded or sparse, whether the monsters work together, the flow of the passages, etc.  But building levels to conform with those ideas doesn't feel like fun.  It feels like homework.  So here's what I do instead,

Like many DMs, I own a lot of published dungeons.  And given the amount of free and cheap D&D material available on the interwebs, we all have access to approximately one gerjillion dungeons of various sizes and complexity.  My method now is to plunder that archive and assemble my megadungeon out of bits and pieces of other dungeons.

So, for example, you can take the first level of module B1 In Search of the Unknown, the moathouse dungeon from T1 The Village of Hommlet, the sample dungeon from Holmes Basic, and the same dungeon from the first edition DM and put 'em together like this: 

All I did here was drop some images of these maps into  You can use Gimp or Adobe Illustrator.  The B1 map is a low ink version that someone on Dragonsfoot made many years ago.

I resized them all to roughly the same grid scale, no need to be super precise here.  Heck,you can see  I made a boo-boo moving the Zenopus dungeon from Holmes basic that I didn't bother to correct.  (This is a DMs working map, not art for public display.)  I looked for how to arrange these maps based upon where it would be easy to cut and paste a bit of corridor to connect them.  That's how you get from Quasqueton to the Abbey dungeon of the DMG to the Holmes dungeon.  

I rotated the Moathouse and used the paint tool to line up the Zenopus rat tunnels and the Moathouse ghoul warrens.  That's currently the only way the Moathouse dungeon is connected to the rest of the map.  If you don't want to brave Viet Cong style tunnel fighting against ghouls and giant rats, the only way to reach part of level 1 of this megadungeon is to exit and re-enter through the moathouse level entrance.  Or maybe there's an aquatic route.  I lined up the DMG and Holmes maps so that one can imagine the trickling stream of the DMG map flowing into the underground river of Holmes.  Maybe the giant crawdad pool in the Moathouse dungeon also connects to this underwater system.  Add some eggs to the crawdad lair and--if they are still there, say, ten sessions into the campaign--let those eggs hatch.  You can now see some places some young giant crayfish may migrate to in the dungeon.

That's the fun part for me, making connections between these disparate dungeon sections.  There are a lot of undead bumming about this new mega-level.  Are they all part of one necromantic scheme?  How do the berserkers in Quasqueton relate to the bandits under the Moathouse, or the smugglers under Zenopus?  Those are wildly more interesting questions to me than "What's in room 22?".  In this case, there's also the matter of the above ground structures mentions in the texts of dungeons.  Maybe the moathouse, the tower of Zenopus, the tower of Quasqueton, and the Abbey were part of a titantic sprawling fortified abbey that now lies largely in ruins on the surface.

You don't need any skill with graphics programs to use this method.  For the first level of the Vaults of Vyzor, I simply redrew the level maps on some big-ass graph paper:

Not pictured: Orange Lake (north of Citrine 1) and Purple 1 (south of Rose 1).
But this is the main section of level 1.
I got this 11"x14" graph paper (6 squares to an inch) at GaryCon II or III.  Black Blade Publishing was selling it.  Is Black Blade defunct?  Their website seems to have last been updated in 2010.  (UPDATE: Allen Grohe says Black Blade is still an ongoing operation.  Contact him or Jon Hershberger directly or visit You can get similar products from office supply stores, Amazon, etc.  Some day I'm going to get something like this and go real nerd crazy.

Anyway, if you look at these four levels smooshed together you'll see that there's only one corridor connecting each to the next one.  That was sufficient for 50 sessions of play, especially given that other connections existed in the lower levels.

You don't even need to go to the work of making a big map like this.  Levels 2 through 5 of Vyzor were never mapped out this way.  I just corridors leading off the page with a not "connects to room 24, page 7" or something like that.  You have to be careful annotate both ends of each connection and be mindful of the over all layout, but it totally works without the hassle of redrawing a bunch of maps.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

some miscellaneous links

  • Dungeons and Possums is one of my favorite new blogs, and not just because of his rave review of Broodmother Skyfortress.  It's also because Possum interviewed me and fellow co-conspirators Alex and Jez.  No seriously, it's a neato blog and Possum doesn't some absolutely charming illo work.
  • The module I wrote for one of Raggi's GenCon exclusives sold out at Noble Knight the same day it went on sale, but you can now buy the PDF at RPGNow/Drivethru.  Here's a review of all four LotFP GenCon releases by Peter Webb of the blog Instadeath, and here's a video review by Crazy Sheep.  I played the latter for my wife today and she deadpanned "I didn't know Elvira reviewed game stuff."
  • Over the past few weeks I've written some stuff and utterly failed to link it all here.  So have four new classes, three of them of the Random Advancement sort. 
  • Also I made these silly random rules for dwarf names.
  • Finally, here's the first result that came up when I did a Google image search for the terms "frankenstein dragon."
I'm sorry, but those shoes are absolutely ridiculous.  Even I can't justify such absurdities.

Friday, August 24, 2018

a dumb project idea

This would be a good project for someone who got around to more game conventions than I do.  Start with a large scrapbook/photo album.  Something like this one:

The insides are these sturdy, creamy beige pages.  I've used this exact type of album to teach undergrads about medieval manuscript practices.  We'd copy in bits of literature as if we were scribes, then annotate each others' work in the margins.  Those that got it thought it was kinda fun.  You can't tell from the pics above, but this album is pretty large.

The next step would be to take two copies of your favorite old school product and destroy them by cutting them into individual sheets.  That's the crazy part.  With some rubber cement or similar adhesive, attach each page to a sheet in the album, in order.

Then take this monstrosity to conventions and gamestore events and invite people to annotate the text.  Maybe they want to clarify a rule or argue with the author or tell a brief story about their favorite monster or magic item.  Whatever they want to say, invite them to say it.  Maybe they see a comment from someone else and want to respond to that.

The result is that pages in the album would start looking like this:

I think this would be a fun way to collect the opinions and experiences of a wide ranger of gamers.  It'd probably be a hassle to lug this big thing all over a larger convention, though.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Venderant Nalaberong & Godpower

1.  WTF is Venderant Nalaberong?

In Doctor Who, they call this the Skasis Paradigm, the base code of the universe, and/or block-transfer computation.  Tolkien called it the Music of the Ainur.  On Synnibarr, it is referred to as Venderant Nalaberong.

The concept is simple.  Reality, at its most fundamental level, is not made of matter or energy, but rather consists of pure form, pure symbol.  If you can do the right math, sing the right song, or say the right words, you can alter the universe from the ground up.

Ordinary arcane magic doesn't work this way.  Typical arcane magic consists of figuring out how to jump in that one correct spot to leap out of the level proper and into the parts of the game you're not supposed to go.  The people who first figured out the rocket jump, the folks who use glitches to achieve speedrunning records?  Total run-of-the-mill magic-users.  The people who actually get into the code of the game and alter it are the ones using Venderant Nalaberong.

No one teaches Venderant Nalaberong.  You have to encounter it.  The first time an arcane caster comes across a scroll, spellbook, or other inscription written in Venderant Nalaberong, roll percentile dice.  If you get your Int score or less, the secret is revealed to you and you can employ any Venderant Nalaberong magic you find.  If you roll a 99 you go mad and if you roll 00 your head explodes.  Any other roll indicates that you don't get it and never will.

So why would you even want to risk it?  Three reasons:
  1. About 1 in 10 ancient scrolls, spellbooks, etc. are written in Venderant Nalaberong.  They're useless if you don't understand it.
  2. The highest level arcane spells aren't available in any other form.  Since my games start from BX D&D and build from there, that means 7+ level spells are all ancient Venderant Nalaberong technology.
  3. No other form of magic can beat Venderant Nalaberong.
That last one means, for instance, that a standard Globe of Invulnerability is completely useless against a Venderant Nalaberong attack spell.  And a persistent effect powered by a Venderant Nalaberong spell can't be dispelled, unless you know the Venderant Nalaberong version of Dispel Magic.

How Venderant Nalaberong works in adjacent universes is up to the individual FLAILSNAILS referee.  Maybe Venderant Nalaberong powered spells work just like ordinary spells.  Maybe they don't work at all.  Pandimensional vagabonds are urged to test their Venderant Nalaberong spells before using them in a new reality.

2. Godpower

Godpower is the power used by the gods.  Pretty simple, eh?  Whether the first god found or invented Godpower is a subject of great dispute among theologians.  What they all agree upon is the fact that divine magic as we know it is basically Godpower with all the safety filters turned on so as to not damage puny mortal casters.

Everytime a new level after the first is achieved by a cleric, paladin, or other divine caster (excepting druidic/shamanic sorts; on Synnibarr they use Earthpower), they may roll percentile dice to see if they get access to any undiluted Godpower.  If they roll their Wisdom or less, they gain d3 non-renewable points of Godpower.  On a 99, they have inadvertently cheesed off their patron deity and loss all divine powers until they atone.  On a 00 they have somehow lost access to pure Godpower forever, losing any accumulated points and their opportunity to roll for future Godpower points.  Gods are fickle sometimes.

To spend a Godpower point, Wisdom or less must be rolled on a d20.  A failure indicates the point is lost with no effect.  A natural 20 means that all accumulated Godpower points are unleashed in a blast of (un)holiness doing d20 damage per point to the caster and everyone in a 100' radius.

Cleric just prior to a Godpower fumble.
Spending one point of Godpower allows for the users choice of the following effects:

  • Add d6 to your level for the purposes of the Turn Undead matrix
  • Increase the dice size of the number of Undead turned to d12's (i.e. 2d12 affected instead of 2d6)
  • Go berserk in combat, smiting foes in melee with +2 to-hit, +2 damage, and one extra attack per round for d6 rounds
  • Overpower a spell, adding d6 to your caster level
  • Increase the dice size of Cure-type spells to d12
  • Cast an extra spell off your normal spell lists, as if you had it prepped.
Spending two or more points of Godpower allows the user to negotiate a freeform miracle with the referee.  It cannot completely duplicate the form of a known spell, but it can achieve a similar effect.  For example, say the party once again cannot get the next door in the dungeon to open.  Spending two points of Godpower might allow the cleric to summon a bolt of holy lighting that shatters the door to pieces.  That's effectively a Knock spell, but with cooler window dressing, so it's okay.

Godpower probably only works on parallel universes where your particular god exists.

3. Final Note

Venderant Nalaberong and Godpower are effectively transparent to one another.  For example, a Venderant Nalaberong-powered Anti-Magic Shell is absolutely useless against a Godpower Flamestrike.  And Venderant Nalaberong attacks ignore Godpower defenses.

Friday, August 17, 2018

a little wisdom

Found this quote while doing some research wholly unrelated to D&D type stuff:
The good craftsman seeks out the commonplace and tries to master it, knowing that originality comes of necessity and not of searching.
That's from Edward Johnston's book Writing and Illuminating and Lettering.  Johnston (pictured) is a founding figure in the revival of calligraphy as an art form at the end of the 19th century.

Johnston's remark strikes me as equally applicable to the craft of DMing.  You don't need to strive for a unique style or an individual approach since your own personal way of DMing will emerge spontaneously through an accumulation of seemingly insignificant decisions you make over the course of play.  This is why you don't need to start out with your own special take on, say, orcs.  Twenty sessions into an orc-heavy campaign and you'll have your own local version of orcs pretty much whether you like it or not.

I've seen similar advice offered to illustrators working in comic books.  Don't worry about your unique style at first; do enough drawings and it will appear.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Lazy DM + Ugly Dice = Astrology!

I've never been good at keeping track of time in the game.  I rarely remember to let torches go out, for example.  By Uncle Gary's standards ("YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.") I kinda suck at this part of DMing, which is why I've never had any decent astrological events impacting a game.

So here's how to make some astrology happen in your game.  First get some dice.  You want one of each size (one d4, one d6, etc.).  Break out you ugliest, most colorful dice.  The speckled ones.  The marbled stuff.  Just make sure that no two dice are of the same color scheme.  Just trust me for the moment.  I'll explain soon why you need these dice.

(I suck at taking pictures with my phone.)
Okay, that's too many dice.  Six dice is all you really need.  I'll cut the white percentiles, the yellow d24, and the orange d4.

So here's the deal.  The six dice you've got now?  Those are the planets visible in the sky of your campaign world (or alternatively, the moons that orbit the gas giant your campaign world also circles).  The die size is the relative size of the orbit (bigger dice are further from their star), while the color scheme is what the planet looks like up close.  I'd suggest naming these planet in a way that helps your remember which die to use.  Thirty-sider=Thea, Icosahedron=Iggwilv, Twelve-sider=Tweenus, etc.

At the start of a session, at the beginning of the adventure, after a week has passed in game play, or whenever you feel like consulting the omens, roll all them dices.

So you see the seven-sider and the d12 have both come up as 6?  That's a conjunction.  That's what you're looking for.  A conjunction indicates something is up with the universe that will impact the PCs' insignificant little lives.  You'll need to write a minor mechanical effect for each conjunction.  In an ideal world, it would be a die table for each one, but by my count 6 planet dice means 15 possible conjunction, that is, 15 different effects (or 15 die tables).  Here are a few dumb ideas for effects.

d30 + d20 - Chaotic characters +1 saves versus petrification
d30 + d12 - Non-humans get one free reroll
d30 + d8 - Dwarves get 150% xp from gold and golden jewels
d30 + d7 - Thieves +1 saves vs poison
d30 + d6 - Arcana casters may make an Int roll to memorize one extra first level spell each day
d20 + d12 - Clerics +1 to turn corporeal undead
d20 + d8 - Humans get +1 reaction rolls when parlaying with dragons
d20 + d7 - Neutral characters +1 saves versus charms and enchantments
d20 + d6 - Fighter types +1 to-hit beasts and animals
d12 + d8 - Henchmen and hirelings +1 saves versus Death Rays
d12 + d7 - Elves may call one trick shot with an arrow on a normal to-hit roll
d12 + d6 - Lawful characters +1 saves to disbelieve illusions
d8 + d7 - Halfbreeds (half-elves, half-orcs, etc) are surprised one pip less
d8 + d6 - First level characters get +1 to all saves
d7 + d6 - Halflings gain d6 bonus hit points

If three or more dice come up on the same number, then you have a multiple conjunction and all the relevant bonuses above apply at the same time.  If a week passes during play, roll all the dice again to find the new arrangement of the planets.

What if people want to game the system?  That's what astrologers are for!  For a fee (100gp, at least), they will be able to tell a querent when the next favorable conjunction will be.  If they just want a conjunction of some sort, it will be d6 weeks away.  If the party is looking for a specific effect, roll d20 for the number of weeks from now and charge 'em double for the extra work.  If the greedy bastards want a triple conjunction, add d100 to the d20 roll and charge triple.

A proper astrology system would also have bad omens that hinder the party.  Frankly, I don't want to keep track of that stuff.  Making all the possibilities into bonuses for the PCs means the players can do all the remembering.  If they forget their little bonus, that's their problemo.  And it gives me yet another excuse to be harder on the poor buggers, as they are getting bonuses the bad guys aren't.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What does this monster know?

Here's a go at something I've wrestled with forever.

Monster's Dungeon Knowledge

Roll Hostile Neutral Friendly
2 or less Walks into nearest trap Wanders randomly for d6 turns Moves in circle 2d6 turns
3-5 Nearest hostile lair Nearest stairs, etc. Nearest potential ally
6-8 Leads into nearest trap Nearest dungeon menace Nearest secret door
9-11 Nearest monster allies Nearest safe room Nearest trap
12 or more Nearest enemy of monster Nearest big treasure Nearest unguarded treasure

Modifiers: Leader or significant NPC +1, Smart +1, Cannon fodder -1, Stupid -1

The party may be searching for something specific.  If it is on the chart and either above and/or to the left of the chart, the informant can help, but with a chance of misinformation equal to 1 in 20 for each step away from the result.  Double the chance if the informant is Stupid.

If misinformation occurs, treat result as if the original roll had been 2 or less.

Example: The PCs meet a sphinx and obtain a Friendly reaction roll.  The net roll for Dungeon Knowledge is a 12, so the sphinx could lead her new friends to the nearest unguarded treasure.  However, the party is desperate to exit the dungeon, so they specifically ask her about stairs or other conveyances up.  "Nearest stairs, etc." is 3 up and 1 to the left from the indicated result, so the chance of misinformation is 4 in 20.  Of course, since this is a sphinx, misinformation is probably the result of her talking in riddles.

Q: Why doesn't the average monster know as much about their immediate environ as most people know about their neighborhood?
A: Because this is a game and letting one dumb kobold ruin all the surprises in the level is no fun.