Saturday, August 27, 2011

Answering all the Questions in Mega-Dungeons

Over at Grognardia, James asked a question about the preferred format for mega-dungeons. Naturally, this is a topic close to my heart, as my own Castle of the Mad Archmage reflects. However, someone made specific reference to my own humble effort in the genre, and although I did answer in the comments, it seemed like a good enough topic to warrant its own discussion over here.

Rach's reflections made this point, mentioning CotMA in particular:
"Step three: it has to make sense. There can be areas of total funhouse if it seems suitable, but let me tell you why, after initially falling in love with Castle of the Mad Archmage, I quickly found myself frustrated by it: what are these human berserkers doing in a previously sealed complex, full of hostiles, a great many stories underground? "
I've got to say, I think that misses the entire point of something like Castle of the Mad Archmage.

At the risk of sounding trite, it's up to you as game master to decide what those berserkers are doing there. Maybe they were sent to that room in CotMA by Odin when there wasn't enough room on the mead benches in Valhalla. Maybe they're cursed, not realizing just how much time has passed. Maybe they know exactly what they're doing, and are gearing up for an all-out assault on the level that never quite materializes. Maybe they're Zagyg's personal guard, kept entertained here until they're needed elsewhere. Maybe it's a combination of all of the above, or something else entirely. Any of those possibilities would take the encounter into a completely different direction, and could serve as the hook for an entire adventure (or more than one) in the dungeons.

As far as the other hostiles on the level go, maybe they know just how tough it would be to take out 50 berserkers, and give them a wide berth. Maybe they've struck a bargain with them. Maybe they don't even know the berserkers are there. If so, why? Figure it out; you're the GM!

The whole point of a mega-dungeon module like Castle of the Mad Archmage is that it is replete with gray areas like that. If I had put in every motivation for every NPC, and a justification for every trap, treasure, monster, etc. the whole thing would collapse under its own weight. It would literally be impossible for any single GM-- myself included-- to internalize enough of that information to the point of being able to run the dungeon without having to endlessly consult the written page. By providing just enough information, and placing a plethora of tantalizing "hooks" like the Mead Hall in there, I allow you to breathe life into the dungeon and turn it into a very very different place than it is when I run it.

And that's what I want to happen. Make it your own! Don't see an explanation? That's on purpose! It's room for you to explore and expand off the cuff if you want, or with a little planning and forethought it you work better that way. Castle of the Mad Archmage is the framework only. You need to fill in the details, by design.

And I should add that some of the best explanations for such things come from the players themselves. While they engage in agonized speculation about what those berserkers are doing down there, don't be afraid to take a good idea they float and run with it. Or turn it on its head, based on their own speculation and expectations. You're not cheating, you're improvising, just like the module demands.

And I certainly don't mean to bash Rachel in this; I think she's a product of her time, 18 years old and come to D&D right at the advent of the 3.5 era. She's used to modules that lay everything out in exacting detail for her, with its adventure arcs and so forth. I hope that if she realizes that she's ready to perform without that sort of net, she'll excel. And that's what CotMA is designed to exemplify.