I used to think the idea of a dungeon, let alone a MEGADUNGEON, was boring. Going from stone room to stone room, fighting orcs. I was fourteen then, and it wasn't for another 4 years, when Dark Souls came out, that I learned the beauty of the Megadungeon.
1. Megadungeon as a style of play
- In Dark Souls, you measure your progress in several things - areas cleared, bonfires lit, and bosses defeated. In Megadungeons, you measure your progress in rooms cleared.
- Dark Souls uses the idea of a room as a metaphorical thing. A room is any place where a thing is located. Firelink Shrine and the NPCs are a room. The cemetery below is a room with the skeletons which do not stay down. Keeping it simple like this can make designing a Megadungeon much easier.
- Dark Souls tells story through this process - each region has a tale told by the order of its rooms, and the encounters in those rooms. While designing your own megadungeon, think in these terms. How can the rooms and the encounters tell a story?
- In this way, Megadungeon is a style of play, rather than a location. It's a style of play that focuses on the ROOM and the ENCOUNTER and how those are linked together to tell a story.
- Continuing the war example: the battlefield region could have 1.) foxholes filled with terrified soldiers, 2.) a trench with wounded men clogging the route, 3.) front lines with constant machine gun fire and an incompetent commander, 4.) no man's land, with enemies charging with bayonets. This tells a story of the region, and the players that move through it will forward the story of the Party.
2. The Beauty of the 5e Adventure Day
- Dark Souls is a game of attrition. Resources are your only way of survival. Health, Stamina, estus, spells, etc. This. Is. DnD.
- In 5e, health, HD, spells, potions, etc. are the resources you need to continue adventuring.
- In Dark Souls, reaching a bonfire is a goal because it means rest and replenishing resources. In 5e, this is the adventure day.
- The adventure day - typically - says that a party can handle 5-8 encounters from easy-hard difficulty before needing a long rest. During this day you can have short rests to expend HD and replinish certain abilities.
- You can use this in your Megadungeon game to create story. Nothing is more exciting and tension driven in Dark Souls than when you're running low on everything and having to decide whether you are going back or moving forward in hopes of a bonfire.
- Take this example and place safe spots (bonfires) in your Megadungeon. Place them at the end of Adventuring days.
- Taking a look at Dark Souls as an example of excellent design - From Firelink Shrine to the first bonfire, there are 5 necessary encounters: the undead on the stairs, the undead playing dead, the undead where the dragon lands, the crossbow undead, and the undead with the shields and spears. Each one takes place in its own "room", with the crossbow-men being able to fire down on you while taking on another encounter.
- Not only this but there are 3 optional rooms for extra xp and treasure - the rat in the sewer guarding the humanity, the secret jump to get the treasure in the building, and the hidden NPC downstairs which sells stuff.
- THAT'S the perfect example of how to design an adventure day. In DnD that entire thing might take a session, maybe two, depending. And when you start looking at Dark Souls like that, you can see that all areas are the same. And they USE the Adventure Day to build tension. Sometimes making them shorter, and sometimes forcing you to go 14-15 encounters before reaching the next one.
2a Adventure Day Continued
- When designing your regions for your Megadungeon, use the idea of the adventure day to add another layer to the story. The layer which taxes the PLAYERS resource management. With this, you have both layer of the game engaged - the characters and their buy-in, and the players with their character sheets.
- Continuing the war example: after crossing no-man's land, the opposing force is pushed back and the Party can finally rest before being awoken by artillery the next day.
3. The importance of NPCs
- Dark Souls uses NPCs for very few reasons - covenants, buying/selling, and optional story. But all of these impact the world of Dark Souls, a lonely world where you make it on your own.
- Let this influence your own NPC design. Let the theme of your world influence your NPC design.
- Ask yourself what role they fill. Are they here to buy/sell? What would a buyer/seller look like in your world?
- In this hypothetical war campaign, a buyer/seller would be the guy at the barracks, or a medic on the field, or the guy riding around in the jeep with all the bullets.
- The other NPCs, keep their story on an optional level, but don't be worried about having NPCs reappear, like when Big Hat Logan shows up after being freed.
- Have NPCs disappear, like the Cleric that stands near the back of Firelink. If this draws interest, then great, if not, then that's one less NPC you have to worry about.
- NPCs as optional stories in the War Campaign could be a soldier that joins the squad, a tank sergeant that keeps needing help, a daring spy that is offering coin for info, a cartographer that needs help mapping the enemy territory. People that can enrich the world, but aren't necessary if the party isn't interested.
4. Locks, Keys, and Gates
- Dark Souls has some backtracking, to say the least. There are doors that can't be opened, paths that shouldn't be traveled, creatures which can't be beat. These require you to go do some other shit then come back later.
- When designing your regions, don't hesitate to put in rooms that need a key. Just like the room, the key can be metaphorical.
- In the War Campaign, a key can be a new rank that gives access to new areas/information, it can be a commanding officer that you have to get in good with, it can be an injury that puts you in a new location for recovery.
- 5e has some locked gates built in - certain spells such as Fly allow access to the air in a new way. Water breathing potions/spells give you access to new locations. Druid wild shapes could give access to animal areas previous unallowed. Paladin oaths can give you access to locations. Perhaps your wizard school gives access to a certain portion of the library others can't go to.
- You can use both 5e's system and your world's theme to build your own series of locks/keys/gates and place them around your regions to have your own little secrets.
- When someone finally discovers one and unlocks it...it'll make it all worth it.
This is a continuation of my new series where I take a look at some of the things that inspired me and pull out the wisdom that has carried through. You can follow me on reddit by clicking on my name and going to my profile. I have an AMA on the 21st, my book "Haunted" is coming out soon. Got the proof back from the printer and just had to tweak some things. I'm excited for the end of this year and I think there's big things coming.