Friday, October 2, 2020

Mad Musings on Streamlined (Mega-)Dungeons, with Strange Rules-Light Inspiration...

 This one will cover a lot of ground, but I promise you it's going somewhere. At least, I think it is. That's why I want your feedback at the end. Pretty please

TL;DR: Dungeons and Geomorphs have been around fuh-revah, I know. But I'm chewing on ways to combine "dungeon flux space," geomorphs, and some principles borrowed from semi-abstract fast-play rpgs to make a dungeoncrawling experience that hits most of the traditional old-school notes while pushing the really fun (to me) stuff to the forefront. In some ways, this is a development of my thinking earlier this year about streamlining RPG procedures even further in old-school play. I'm not really sure how well this would work (or how helpful it really is)...but it's been my hobby distraction during a pretty busy week. What do you all think? 


I GM'd for my kids last weekend. Their characters realized they would need to confront an old enemy, a dimension-hopping wizard tyrant currently in league with a group of volcano-dwelling fire giants planning to drown the local realm in fire. Rather than a direct confrontation, one of my kids favored a risky but cunning idea; since there happened to be another site nearby rumored to house a trio of ancient dragons, perhaps they somehow could persuade or trick the dragons into aiding them against the wizard? Off they went to the dragons' lair, where they ended up face-to-face with a red, a green, and a white dragon. As it turned out, they discovered that the dragons were forever trapped within their lairs, bound there by an even older wizard who now lay entombed in the frozen crypts across the valley. Free them from the older wizard's power, the dragons promised, and they would aid their liberators! Off the adventurers went to look for the old wizard's bonds. In the frozen crypts, they fought their way past half a dozen frozen dwarven mummies guarding the wizard's tomb. Fortunately, once inside, they found the crystal sphere the wizard had used to entrap the dragons. Unfortunately, the wizard's ghost floated into and then animated the skeleton of a dead dragon buried with him! The two heroes defeated this dracolich in fierce combat, and set off to liberate the three living dragons...but there our session ended...

The time I GM'd before that, I ran two adult players through a post-apocalyptic scenario. One controlled a dune-buggy-riding gang of cyborg followers; the other, a philanthropic but ambitious minister, leading a small band of devotees. The two players teamed up to wrest control of a local mine from a cruel ruling bank - but they also had to deal with not one but two invading armies from surrounding foreign states. They struck a deal with one group of invaders, and then defeated a platoon-sized force sent by the other invaders, and shut down the eldritch teleporting gate that had enabled their invasion. All the hubbub had awoken a kilometers-long metallic chaos beast slumbering beneath the region (its face read "BOEING" in the Ancient Script) - but one PC hopped on his motor-bike and let the chaos-beast chase him all the way to the other invading army's camp, just outside the play region. Upon his safe return from the ensuing slaughter, the PCs teamed up to assault the fortified bank, and wrested control of their local community, founding a new and successful small state. 

Whew. Those were fairly epic sessions, with the kind of shenanigans I'd normally expect to read about from a high-level, long-lived campaign. But in fact, in each case I was running what amounted to a one-shot, with character generation included in the same session. Oh, and setting generation as well. How? Because I've been running more of On Mighty Thews, and experimenting with the boundaries of this nifty little sort-of-narrative-game-meets-sword-and-sorcery title. I've recently explained here what I like about this game and how I came to appreciate it, so I won't repeat all that. More critically, though, I will say that after repeated plays, I'm not entirely sure I like handing the players the narrative power represented in that game by Lore rolls (my players come up with very cool ideas, but it makes it harder to run the sort of old-school game I'm accustomed to - not railroading, but building a coherent world with hidden information)., this game sure flies, and it allows players to get so much done, while still facing some meaningful decisions. 

So, hmmm, I've been wondering...what more could it do? I've experimented with simple domain and warband rules for the game...anything else? Could you run an old-school dungeon well using this resolution system, with or without Lore rolls? Would On Mighty Thews' ability to provide sometimes-tense but really fast combats work well in an old-school dungeoncrawl? Well, that's what I was wondering, when...everything below happened, too. 


A commenter on Reddit recently alerted me to a new branch of games - Trophy, Trophy Dark, and Trophy Gold. They're about (probably doomed) expeditions into dark woods and ruins. The whole thing feels aesthetically like a hybrid of Symbaroum or WHFRP or Into the Odd. It's very rules light. Whereas Trophy expects the party to die or go insane in almost every session, Trophy Gold (currently running a kickstarter) expands and develops Trophy's simple rules, but aims for a hybrid with a more old-school dungeon-crawling feeling where there is at least some real chance that your poor rat-catchers might survive a few missions. And I do emphasize feeling, because in the end TG still looks very much like a narrative story-game that produces old-school-like narratives. Overall, I don't think this is a game I'd want to run extensively - too prone to railroading in service of story goals, for example. 

But. Oh goody gumdrops but. There are some really clever ideas in this game, and a few of them might just start showing up in my more traditional old-school-flavored rpg campaigns. 

How many of us have wondered about exactly why these foolish adventurers are willing to keep plunging the dungeons over and over again, no matter the attendant dangers, and no matter how rich they get? How many of us recognize the utilitarian benefits of gold-for-xp, but either feel uncomfortable about its inherent ethical message, or - maybe even more of us - just don't find treasure all that interesting after the 15,000th gold piece? How do we motivate players AND player characters in a believable, narratively-interesting way? 

Meet Burdens from Trophy Gold. Treasure in this game is pretty abstract - it seems to work like "this pile of gold counts as 1 Treasure, and so does that magic knife we found, and so does that silver crown we pilfered." This means that by session's end, each player will hopefully have a real but fairly small number of Treasure Points they personally got from the party haul. Well, you had better get more each time than your Burden, because your Burden is the number of Treasures your character must bring back from each session or THE CHARACTER FUNCTIONALLY DIES. Huh? See, the assumption is that these hardscrabble characters are in terrible debt to various cold and uncaring social entities back in 'civilization.' To advance and become more powerful, your character may outfit more impressive gear between missions, or even new spell-rituals - but each of these improvements earns you greater Burden. Fail to find enough treasure per session, and you fail to pay your harsh debt-holders back in town...and they come after you. You narrate what happens - debtors' prison, or just a crushing wage-slavery back home...or even death...but either way, you create a new character and hope for better luck next time.

This system means that characters have room for meaningful advancement, but the act of advancement also raises the stakes in future adventures. You might be more powerful, but you also must accomplish more, or your character is toast. This accomplishes a TG design goal of creating characters who always feel that traditional low-level angst about being a few mis-steps away from failure or death...all the way throughout their character arc. And that's without even mentioning the threat of dangerous beasties eating you in the dark. But Burdens provide a compulsion to go deeper into the dungeon, to take that one extra risk just this once, because you have to do so to save your character. Other games have already played around with indebted characters (Classic Traveller, Electric Bastionland...) but I don't recall seeing one that makes debt-service so urgent and necessary every single time you play the game. 

This is quite a simple yet elegant idea. I could imagine it working well in a variety of old-school style dungeon-crawl games. You could even alter the 'currency', so that whatever kind of accomplishment you want to emphasize becomes the ticking time bomb that could derail a character. 

That being said, I don't like how TG makes simple, mundane weapons and armor the things that add burdens early on - to harness this idea, I'd rather let characters just have the mundane stuff (see the 'no shopping' section of Barbarians of Lemuria for inspiration!) but make more exciting and powerful tools or weapons cost Burden. 

If TG sounds worth checking out, you can buy it on DriveThru in an issue of the Gauntlet's Codex: Gold magazine - but for the time being, the rules are available for free download on the Trophy Gold Kickstarter page. 

Anyway. There are a bunch of other small ideas in TG that I might borrow to play with, (Ruin is an interesting way to handle health) but I wanted to highlight Burdens in particular. And maybe harness them? 

Maybe like this? ... 


So, a few months ago, I had a wild fling with the megadungeon phenomenon. 

Unfortunately, some health issues affecting a regular player led to a pause and change to our ongoing Isle of Dread campaign. To fill the interim space, I decided to set up a drop-in, open-table, zoom-able megadungeon campaign. I pored over my options; I already have Barrowmaze complete, Archaia, and Highfell ... I considered all the main stand-ins...and ended up purchasing both ASE 1 and Stonehell, and compromised by pitching Stonehell, but with a science-fantasy post-apoc background!

We ran a few sessions. We had some very fun moments. I got kind of bored. Now we're playing On Mighty Thews instead for a bit. 

Why was I bored? Not because of any flaws inherent in Stonehell, I think (I'd recommend it, cautiously). But...just...all that pure, unadulterated old-school dungeon-crawling wasn't terribly fulfilling, for me at least. I soon realized that more faction action was needed, so I made sure to insert that, and it definitely helped. But I think I kind of wanted the players to just move through it all a lot more quickly, to spend more time encountering the really cool stuff and a little less time checking out just one more alcove. 

It's quite possible I could have run it better. I also note that the players were traversing the undead-dominated "Quiet Halls" on level 1 for several sessions...and I just read an interesting older blog post about pacing megadungeon "slow" vs "fast" levels that said this: "A series of long hallways with 10' by 10' crypts that monsters burst out of is a tremendously slow level, as anyone who's run the Quiet Halls in Stonehell can attest." Hmmm...maybe I just jinxed myself by running the wroooong laboratory experiment! But it's made me wonder: is there a way to keep the nuts and bolts of old-school-style dungeoneering, but make everything I really want to see jump right out to the forefront, make it more tense and more uniformly interesting? 

And then my various ideas, from the various elements of this post, started to congeal together. 

So I'm messing around with this idea. It might be a really great one, or it might be terrible; or it might already be done and tried and available and I don't realize it. I'm hoping for some feedback on just how fun and useful this approach seems. I'm kind of working through this even as I type, a bit, so thanks for bearing with me here...

The pitch: PCs play probably-doomed heroes and possibly-redeemable rogues who must clear a giant, winding dungeon of evil before it destroys their homeland. But said homeland aboveground is on hard times, and is now ruled by avaricious, heartless brutes who will destroy the PCs if they don't make their regular payments. Thus, the PCs have to get a certain amount of Treasure (Burdens from TG!) each session, and they must shut down and sanctify a certain number of 'dark sources' in the dungeon per session, or the forces of darkness will overwhelm their society and the players lose the campaign (so you can lose the campaign together as a party, and you can lose your player character individually). Oh, and things in the darkness want to eat you. 

Some inspirations: everything mentioned above, plus Blades Against Darkness, Into the Dark, Into the Odd, The Nightmares Beneath, etc., etc. Oh, and especially The Perilous Wilds, which already includes a system for semi-randomly generating themed dungeons quickly or on the fly. This is like that, but with the more concrete map of a geomorph added to provide a bit more tactical content for engagement within each dungeon Area. 

How I envision this working: each dungeon 'level' has two kinds of spaces: Flux Space which stays unmapped, and Areas. Flux Space are the nigh-endless miles of twisting corridors or tunnels that interconnect, wind, double back, and generally cause navigational headaches while actually permitting Jacquay-style movement between different Areas. Areas are those spots where Danger, Reward, and interesting stuff converge, the places worth 'zooming in' to see what happens in play. And yet the areas themselves aren't abstract; they need to permit good ol' fashioned old-school tactical dungeoncrawling. So each Area is modeled by ... a 10x10 dungeon geomorph. 

Geomorphs by Dyson Logos

You need a stack of geomorphs, like the free ones Dyson has on his website, to run this thing. You can use top-down or side-view geomorphs (or mix them up, even better!). The geomorphs don't have to fit against each other, because each Area is surrounded by Flux Space rather than another geomorph. 

Each Area/Geomorph has one Dark-Source that is seeping evil into the world from deeper within the dungeon. These must be shut down and sanctified to make safe each Area, one at a time. Expect 1 Dark Source and therefore 1 Area per player in each session, more or less. If you don't shut down enough Dark Sources, something really bad happens, maybe even campaign-loss, or minimally an XP penalty or something like that (I'm thinking to keep this game tightly focused on the actual dungeoncrawling by linking the dungeon to a city above, but keeping the actual city stuff abstract and out of the direct lens - except when city factions show up, for example). 

Each 'Level' would be a target ideally for a single session of play, allowing the Players to run through approximately # of players x Areas in one session (this will require use of fast play rulesets...I think). Each Level has one or more Factions which will have some presence each session. Each Level also has 1 randomly-generated narrative twist that is triggered when players reach a certain Area on the level, and stays in effect thereafter (maybe the players discover a live human prisoner, for example...or a new schism occurs within a faction present, etc.). At any rate, Factions need to be a big thing in the random encounters - Yoon-Suin-style random-generation for 3 above-ground factions and 3 subterranean factions to make each campaign its own bespoke thang. 

Each Area also has 1d3 Threats and 1d3 Treasures, randomly or deliberately assigned to rooms on the Geomorph. When moving through a Geomorph, a random encounter also occurs with 1-in-6 chance every time you enter  a new room, or every time you take certain actions (resting, testing a secret door, etc.). Each Area/Geomorph is either Garrisoned (intelligent foes who are organized and maybe fortified), has Monsters, or is Abandoned & full of Traps as Threats. Because the number of Threats and Treasures per geomorph will vary within a narrow consistent range, there is constant incentive for players to just push to see if there is another treasure on this one before they go back to flux space to find a new geomorph...but there might be other threats too. 

Another by Dyson Logos.
I feel his geomorphs hit the right balance, small enough to run through fairly quickly amid 1-3 encounters, but just big enough to have a couple corners that might call out for further exploration...

This could work simply as a system-neutral approach to building dungeons, I suppose, but I'm thinking it would work best with something somewhat abstract and probably using conflict-resolution rather than task-resolution. But it could work either way. Maybe Into the Odd could handle it well? 

Folks, this post is much more rambling than is my wont ('s been a really busy two weeks...). Thanks for bearing with me. If you have any input on whether this makes sense, whether it's already been done to death, or whether it looks fruitful to develop, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks, happy gaming, and best wishes!


  1. So, if you use the Mines of Moria as an example, the entrance-gate, the Chamber of Mazarbul, and the Bridge of Khazad-Dum are all "Areas" that would be mapped with a geomorph - and in those areas, something important or rewarding could be found, but so could significant dangers. The rest of Moria - the endless, winding, probably unmappable networks of tunnels and corridors that the Fellowship simply slip through quietly - would be Flux Space.

    I realize that nothing I'm suggesting here is really innovative, but for some reason the particular combination of streamlined approaches I'm thinking about seems new to me. Thanks for reading.

  2. That mines of Moria example is actually really good and I like this idea overall, honestly I feel like a lot more utility and fun could be extracted from Megadungeons if you basically did this Highlights and Flux Space style method.

    One question however, how would you recommend narrating flux space go about, if you want to really get the players to feel like its a big labyrinth?

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! For my response, please see my new blog post. :-)

  3. I'm not big on megadungeons, but I like your idea for creting a sense of truly grand scale without the slog of mapping the whole thing.

    It occurred to me whilst reading it, though, that you would have to make a map of the nodes and their connections (and travel times) as you go to keep it consistent when the players move about the dungeon to revisit or circumvent different areas. If you like keeping it random, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy dungeon generator in the main rulebook could be really helpful.

    But it then occurred to me that you could just use the London tube map, and assign each area a station. It comes pre-Jacquayed! But depending on the tone of your campaign, you might not want to tell your players you're doing it ("We can't go through Euston; it's still full of ogres!").

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! For my response, please see my new blog post. :-)

  4. I like the direction of your thoughts here. Having a number of potentially orthogonal or conflicting drives for the exploration is an interesting idea. I also like some of element categories - factions, treasures, complications etc - that you are inserting in each area. I can start to see the shape of an area.

    The idea of campaign failure through lack of aggression in the delving is one that I have played with in the past. It can work well if the players are onboard (having explicit campaign failure on the table is not the familiar play mode for most of the people I game with). It does seem that in a randomly generated setup there might be a danger of getting the wrong balance between the rate of return from delving versus the level of Burden.

    I am very attracted by various forms of procedural generation. The concern that I have here is that (if I understand your procedure correctly) there is not much in the way of meaningful choice for the players. They enter the dungeon, move about through flux space until they hit an Area, navigate the (extremely simple) Area - with the basic goal of completely exploring it - then return to flux space; repeat until either a) we have won enough goodies to at least survive; or b) died. There might be an interval between a) and b) where we have to choose whether to push on for more treasure or turn back for safety. But (especially if you opt for conflict-level resolution) there don't seem to be many other real choices in the scenario.

    Some kind of record of the delve might help, so that characters on returning to the dungeon can 'retrace their steps' (trading the cost of extra distance travelled for possible benefits such as easier access to certain dungeon elements, or assured return to a particular Area). In general it seems very desirable that a given Area should invite revisits.

    I've been enjoying your blog, and many of your ideas about campaign planning.

  5. Thanks! I think that's a fair and useful critique about limited player choices. As I had envisioned things initially, player choice would mostly involve decisions about whether to keep pushing to explore an entire Area (there's no basic assumption that they will do so automatically - each Area would be known to have 1-3 rewards, plus 1 mandatory 'mission objective') - so that deciding to risk time and resources to fully explore just in case there's more treasure shouldn't be automatic.

    However, after thinking it over, and thinking about your critique, I fear you might be right. I did run a 'draft' session of this with two players online last weekend. They never got past the first Area (to be honest the dice rolls were really unlucky for one player, and it became a bloodbath!). Having said that, even just working through much of one Area took some time, and I'm re-thinking whether this direction is the right way to scratch the itches I'm feeling these days. :-)

    Thanks for reading and for your input!

  6. Great post - a lot to chew on here. I like how you've really distilled down the genre into a tight loop. I may try a version of this as a one-shot, seems like a good way to introduce new players to high-stakes dungeoncrawling.

    That being said, I'm fascinated by those first two games - that's so much plot to cover in a session! Is that just Thews?

    I'm wondering if you can speak a bit to the pacing of these games:

    * How long were you sessions?
    * How often were players rolling?
    * What was the scope of the rolls?

    Appreciate your thoughts. This is the post that brought me here, have been reading since. Cheers!

    1. Thanks for reading!
      The two sessions that you asked about were both quite compact affairs. The first - the post-apoc one, with two adult players - took...oh, if I remember correctly, perhaps 2.5 hours? That included character and setting generation. The second session (the high fantasy one) was played with my two elementary-school age kids, so it involved less time - maybe an hour or hour and a half of play. I think the kids already had characters generated by that point.

      I'd say that players have been rolling about as frequently as they do when I'm running other systems; it's the scope of the rolls that changed, not their frequency. Instead of saying, "Ok, I want to hit that one guy on the left with my axe," combat tends to look more like "Ok, let's get 'em!" And then you roll to see how it all turns out. (Not to be misunderstood, there's still plenty of room for dictating a specific goal - in fact, this is important - but it is more objective-focused than specific movement-focused - i.e., the classic conflict resolution vs. task resolution thing).

      Fighting in Thews (and in the hack I've been running lately that wanders a bit from 'pure Thews') interestingly makes characters very *capable* but not *overpowered.* Depending on how the dice roll, you really might chop through several opponents in an exchange, but there's also a very good chance that they will clobber you in that exchange too. So it is a little bit swingy, but the game (and then also my hack) provide a variety of simple ways to deal with the consequences of that swinginess (the game is more about managing the hits you take, rather than avoiding them altogether). And it's also quite possible that you will end up with an exchange of blows in which each side gets hurt a little. So although combat is generally very fast to resolve, I wouldn't say that it feels predictable or lopsided. Generally, PCs are unlikely to perish (at least right away), but combat and other challenges still involve a real pucker-factor. In my urban intrigue hack, I've woven in a Stress-and-Trauma-points system to simulate gritty agents slowly being worn down by the job over time. Seems to be working exactly as intended, so far, to judge by player reactions.