Sunday, December 31, 2023

Year of the Dungeon

2023 was the year of the dungeon. 

For me, at least. But 
among the blogs I've read this year that seems to be the case for many others.

I am not just referring to Dungeon23, where participants construct a dungeon over the course of the year by writing one room per day. I didn't participate, and haven't really followed the projects of those who have. Though I thought it was a splendid idea, I was already underway on a giant dungeon project when Sean McCoy issued his fateful challenge. Alas.

From the end of last year to now, the end of 2023, I have created and am in the process of running a megadungeon, with as much attention to developing a "full" dungeon campaign experience as possible. I'm talking about sublevels, secrets, lore, weirdo NPCs, and as many opportunities for the coveted "emergent narrative" as I could manage.

Pedro Correa

Despite playing D&D on and off since I was but a lad in the 3.5 era, this is the first time I've ever sat down to make a full campaign-scale dungeon. My desire was to create as faithful an approximation as I could to a true old-school style megadungeon, which meant adhering closely to the foundational assumptions of D&D while straying where necessary (ie frequently) for the sake of practicality, cohesion, and personal preference. So there are orcs and pit traps and stuck doors but also enough outside material that certain points might struggle to be recognized as classic D&D fantasy. Turns out, when you work on a creative endeavor long enough your individual tastes sneak in whether you want them to or not. 

Obviously, given that what everyone is doing here can in some way be traced back to a game with "Dungeon" in the title, dungeons are a regular topic of conversation. But instead of merely discussing particulars or sharing inspiration, there was starting in about early/mid-2022 a surge of excellent posts about that raw and elemental process of turning a blank set of rooms into a vivid and textured underworld. 

Emil Nilsson

It started in the Spriggan's Den back in 2022, with Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon. Yora identifies the golden ratio of BX dungeon design, figuring a platonic 18-room dungeon with additional thoughts on treasure placement and experience. The act of turning the probabilities of dungeon rooms in BX into a statistically average dungeon is a simple transformation on the surface, but offers a novel perspective on creating dungeons that is arguably easier to build around than the stocking procedure from the book. 

In Bite-Sized Dungeons, Marcia B. at Traverse Fantasy adapts the statistically average dungeon to OD&D, and then distills it into a 6-room dungeon experience, complete with layout, which in a perfect world would replace all references to the 5-room dungeon. While nothing about these dungeons are "mega," this is the formula I have taken to following for secret levels and monster lairs. 

Phlox at Whose Measure God Could Not Take elevated Yora's already-lofty 18-room dungeon with 20-Block Dungeon Stocking, adding incisive and well-reasoned notes on crucial dungeon elements not covered by stocking procedures. The post goes above and beyond basic room stocking to articulate the actual utility and intention behind each step of the dungeon-designing process. The list of recommended dungeon features, added with the platonic dungeon block, should be recognized as a more specific and utilitarian version of the indispensable Dungeon Checklist

Warren D. of the I Cast Light blog has been doing a sensational job getting gritty and granular on room stocking principles. EMPTY BUT NOT NOTHING: Thoughts on Actionable Empty Rooms is a quick, clear, and concise write-up on just how exactly to use "empty" rooms to contribute to the larger dungeon experience. I know there's that other guide on empty rooms, and as a resource for random tables and lists it's still great, but Warren's post packs more value word-for-word and I find it to be overall more practical. 

Vile Cult of Shapes delivered a one-two punch directly to my frontal lobe with How to start adventuring and dungeon generator, two posts that explain both writing a campaign from zero and also just the entire creative process in uncomplicated terms. No, I haven't actually followed the procedures, and no, I didn't need a blog post to tell me that I can watch movies or go for a walk if I need inspiration, but that's beside the point—these methods shows us a way to make wondrous and meaningful campaigns with as little mental clutter as possible. 

Miranda of In Places Deep revealed her Stocking Procedure, offering a straightforward method of building out dungeon floors accounting for monster placement and treasure distribution that is sensible and conducive to good internal cohesion without compromising on organizational ease. Miranda is a veteran blogger whose work I really admire, and reading her describe the basic blueprints with which she builds her dungeons is like hearing some sort of artist master describe their process and thinking "hey I can do that too."

Honorable mention goes to the honorable Nick LS Whelan, whose post Two Week Megadungeon will, I predict, be instrumental in the creation of thousands of megadungeons in the near future. Like a blade through fine fabric Nick cuts down the myth that making a campaign-scale dungeon has to be a huge undertaking, and that all it takes is clear goals and a couple working sessions. The reason this is an honorable mention is purely because I had already largely wrapped up my megadungeon prep by the time the post hit the feed—turns out my approach to making a dungeon is strikingly similar to this one, except that I took like a year instead of two weeks and my maps are handmade but still kind of garbaggio. Oh well. Next time I get the urge to pull out the notebook and start a new megadungeon, whenever that may be, I will by hook or crook finish it in two weeks because of this post.  

There are probably a bunch of relevant posts I forgot about or haven't read. If you know of one or even wrote one yourself, please send it my way. Maybe even drop it in the comments for others to see. 

Anyway, the true lesson I got from all this, one of those things that you understood intellectually but don't truly grasp until you come out the other side, is that all these procedures and methods and best practices are but means to the end of creating a fulfilling and engaging experience at the table. What this means is, in a sense it doesn't always matter if one floor of the dungeon has four special rooms instead of three, but more importantly, you should find or develop a procedure that you know you can trust to deliver those meaningful game experiences. Once you do, you can sit back and let the system of generation work on its own, and you get to have the experience of dungeon crafting be just as much about discovery and exploration for you as crawling is for the players. 

No comments:

Post a Comment