Saturday, March 7, 2009

Megadungeon Background

One of the things I think is very important for the creation of a good megadungeon is a solid background for its existence. By that I most certainly don't mean pages upon pages of details about the dungeon's construction and all the little events that took place in and around it. That strikes me as largely useless. I do, however, find utility in a "framing device" that gives some context to the whole thing -- something to provide a rough explanation for what's going on in the dungeon, even if it does obey its ecological and physical laws quite distinct from those of the world outside.

So, in thinking about it, I'm going to go back to the same well from which I drew "The Ruined Monastery" in issue #1 of Fight On! In that adventure, I created an order of Lawful monks dedicated to St. Gaxyg the Gray, who built their monastery on top of an ancient site suffused with the power of Chaos. The monastery thus served to "bottle up" Chaos, keeping it locked away in its subterranean stronghold and eventually, it was hoped, driving it out completely. Unfortunately, the monks grew corrupt and fell victim to greed both within their community and without, which led to the downfall of the monastery about a generation ago. Without the monks there to maintain the wards against Chaos and manning the battlements against its onslaught beneath the surface of the world, evil is growing and expanding once more.

That's the basic explanation of the megadungeon itself, which I plan to use to justify all the oddities within it. As I currently see it, there will be some surface ruins (of the monastery itself), as well as a couple of sub-levels that form the "topmost" levels of the dungeon. Beneath them, behind slowly-unraveling wards are the levels of the dungeon proper. They're a mix of natural caves and hewn rooms, the latter being part of the monks' centuries-old war against Chaos. Consequently, there are some "waypoints" and "bunkers" scattered throughout the lower levels, which in times past were used by the monks in their crusade. Some of them can still provide delvers with temporary "safe zones," but many, if not most, have been overtaken by Chaos and have been turned toward evil purposes. And, of course, as one gets deeper, the power of Chaos grows in strength, especially as one reaches levels that even the monks never entered, for it's here that the sources of the megadungeon's evil are to be found.

How's that sound?

26 comments:

  1. Sounds intriguing. I particularly like how this framing device allows for a nice sliding scale between the mundane and the strange. It gives you the chance to incorporate the dungeon's background into encounter areas while using that to drive the action forward.

    For instance, I could see a hidden chamber of maps hidden within the dungeon, pointing to locations of great power but hidden behind illusions and traps placed by the last monk faithful to his order's original cause.

    It seems to suggest a lot of unique elements to the dungeon, things that might seem out of place elsewhere but perfect here. That's the mark of a good dungeon background, IMO.

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  2. Good idea, though it seems to be...Diablo, yes?

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  3. I think it a very solid framework that will allow a lot of creative leeway when it comes to stocking the overall dungeon.

    My only suggestion is that "one generation" between the fall of the monk order and the opening of the dungeon might just be a little too short of a time frame. I'm not suggesting that it be expanded to hundreds of years, but given a little larger window of time (say 50-75 years with the evil just now in a waxing state), it might allow for a larger influx and outflux of various monster populations. Which would open up the possibilities of more varieties of humanoid monsters dwelling within the upper levels, allow certain artifacts of transient cults, wizards, bandits, etc. to appear and give a valid excuse for the dungeon's restocking as the dungeon "breathes" over time.

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  4. Sounds almost like a PA sewer system.

    Given that I think PA is a form of fantasy gaming, I approve!

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  5. Hmmm! Very interesting stuff, James. For the megadungeon I have planned for my current sandbox campaign, it will be a little bit of interplanar "place" which operates according to different rules than the somewhat ordinary world outside. This also allows me to have things there that have wandered in from other worlds and times. Does this make it "chaotic?" Not necessarily - some of the mystery will be how law and chaos are kept in balanced within it, and what the rules are by which it operates. (And no, I haven't figured that out yet, and might not figure it ALL out before beginning play.)

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  6. I like the idea of safe places and maps. This will work a few times. There will be maps to the next safe place. And one of these days, after some strenuous adventures, when you arrive at the location of the next safe place, you notice that the seal has been broken...

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  7. It seems to suggest a lot of unique elements to the dungeon, things that might seem out of place elsewhere but perfect here. That's the mark of a good dungeon background, IMO.

    That was exactly my plan. Much as I love the whimsical and inexplicable, I'm too rational a creator not to want to find some way to explain even the inexplicable, so this approach seems to give me the best of both worlds.

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  8. Good idea, though it seems to be...Diablo, yes?

    Is it? I played the game way back in '96 or whenever it came out, but I can't recall there being much background to it. Am I missing something?

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  9. Which would open up the possibilities of more varieties of humanoid monsters dwelling within the upper levels, allow certain artifacts of transient cults, wizards, bandits, etc. to appear and give a valid excuse for the dungeon's restocking as the dungeon "breathes" over time.

    Good suggestion!

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  10. There will be maps to the next safe place. And one of these days, after some strenuous adventures, when you arrive at the location of the next safe place, you notice that the seal has been broken...

    I see that someone else is way ahead of me on this one :)

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  11. This sounds rad, I've been planning to run the ruined monastery adventure in an upcoming 4e game and liked the bits in the adventure where it was up to the dm to describe what the PCs could find in the caverns below. One generation later is the perfect amount of time between the fall of the monk order because there is still a chance to encounter monks who may still be down there still with some form of sanity intact, also because it gives the pcs a chance to at least retake some of the upper barricades back from the forces of chaos. If too much time has passed I would think that whatever is down there would have had far too much time to plan and plot to break free to the surface. Within one generations time a number of cults could have entered into the caverns from other points in the surface, and in fact probably existed long before one generation ago and now they have the opportunity to do so without those damn meddling monks getting in there way.

    All in all it sounds awesome, I wasn't to enthused about it when it was first announced but now that there is a framework for the whole project I'm definitely looking forward to this.

    I'd also like to contribute with illustrations if at all possible. I'm not the greatest artist but I have a decent skill at emulating different art styles.

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  12. The backstory sounds great, as are all the suggestions. However, if the interplanar travel is possible, why woud the Evil stay bottled up, if it can simply seep out into the multiverse? Unless that is the reason for the adventuring in the first place. The trick is not to make it like a Diablo or Tempole of Elemental Evil.

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  13. Brooze the Bear said: "[...] if the interplanar travel is possible, why woud the Evil stay bottled up, if it can simply seep out into the multiverse?"

    I bet the monks knew what they were doing (partially, at least) and had special wards for that purpose. Either that, or the Chaos confined within is in such a raw state it has no intelligence; it may be a high concentration (maybe a node?) of metaphysic energy :)

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  14. Sounds like a very good frame work.

    Perhaps the monks factionalized as the corruption spread? Are there some monks that completely succumbed to the forces of Chaos, and are now actually working for it? What secrets did they uncover in their crusade? Is there a lawful contingent of monks still trapped within?

    So many good unanswered questions!

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  15. Is it? I played the game way back in '96 or whenever it came out, but I can't recall there being much background to it. Am I missing something?

    Admittedly, it's pretty close. Excerpt from Wikipedia "Diablo: Story":

    Long before the events of the game, he [Diablo] was captured by a secretive order of mortal magi known as the Horadrim. The Horadrim imprisoned each of the Prime Evils in a Soulstone; Diablo's red stone was buried in caverns deep beneath the town of Tristram [under the temple], and as the generations passed, was forgotten. Though his imprisonment was meant to be eternal, the power of the Soulstone weakened over centuries, eventually allowing Diablo to use limited power from within the stone. He telepathically turned an inhabitant of Tristram, the Archbishop Lazarus, into his pawn.

    The other thing is maybe I wouldn't use quite so pun-tastic a name as Gaxyg. Maybe Gax (as in "ring of") or something entirely different.

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  16. I'd also like to contribute with illustrations if at all possible. I'm not the greatest artist but I have a decent skill at emulating different art styles.

    Anything you can and want to contribute would be greatly appreciated.

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  17. I bet the monks knew what they were doing (partially, at least) and had special wards for that purpose. Either that, or the Chaos confined within is in such a raw state it has no intelligence; it may be a high concentration (maybe a node?) of metaphysic energy :)

    Have you been peaking at my notes? :)

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  18. I like the idea a lot. It reminds me of the Buffy concept of a Hellmouth and lots of other fictional settings where there are areas where evil naturally accumulates.

    I agree with the suggestion about a single generation perhaps being too short a time to justify the ruined status of the monastery and the gradual accumulation of various critters and ne'er-do-wells.

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  19. So many good unanswered questions!

    All the best dungeons have them. One of the things I don't intend to do with this is file down every rough edge and hammer every errant nail. Part of the appeal of the megadungeon is that it's not a polished thing. There's a chaotic energy to it (no pun intended) that gives it a lasting appeal. Being mysterious in many ways is part of that appeal.

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  20. The other thing is maybe I wouldn't use quite so pun-tastic a name as Gaxyg. Maybe Gax (as in "ring of") or something entirely different.

    I used the name St. Gaxyg the Gray in my original dungeon and, while I'll grant it is indeed pun-tastic (what a wonderful coinage), that's part of the point. And it's an easy thing to change if someone finds it too silly for their tastes.

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  21. Perhaps there can be some other orders that have moved in as well. An order of paladins using the dungeon as a training ground for younger members of the order? Something they consider close to home, and safe to send people in for the first few levels, using the rest of the levels as quests for atonement, or geas on criminals etc.

    Lost specific artifacts of these orders on the lower levels.
    One of them could have taken over a specific area, and take control of a 'lower order' humanoid to pass the time, and try to get up and back to humans.

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  22. I love situations like this because they can plug easily into a typical fantasy campaign, a pre or post apocalypse campaign or just about any situation where evil might be looming or has already broken out.

    This does have a familiar ring to Diablo. The town of Tristan hosted a chapel, underneath which was buried an ancient artifact carrying the "soul" of Diablo. Through countless years, Diablo worked his evil upon the inhabitants of the chapel, finally culminating in the takeover of the high priest and "king" and the events of Diablo 1. There are definite echoes as the whole jist of Diablo 1 was to explore the "megadungeon" under the chapel and defeat Diablo. As you progressed, things got more weird and twisted until you reached "Hell."

    The idea of safe zones is fantastic! I have similar concepts in my sandbox, the players just have to discover them...

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  23. No specific suggestions yet for me, but to use an old saw for a theme, you can't go wrong with a symbolic descent into the layers of hell. Worked for Dante (Inferno), Conrad (Heart of Darkness), and Coppola (Apocalypse Now).

    Or does this describe every dungeon?

    Amityville Mike seems to be on a mission to use clever dungeon idea for his Stonehell. Somebody think up some new ideas, quick.

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  24. Another idea that might justify the extent of the dungeons and provide some weird encounters:

    Sometime in the distant past a hobgoblin horde (or terrible plague, etc.) threatened the lands. The monks had the foresight to greatly extend the catacombs beneath the monastery, and when the time came many many people from surrounding villages came to the monastery to find shelter in the tunnels below.

    They were to be there years longer than they thought. During this time there was a schism as the monks who delved too deep (TM) founded a new secret temple that turned them towards deeds of Chaos. Many of the sheltered civilians were drawn into this as well, and eventually this turned into a bloody running war in the catacombs between the two sides.

    How this resolved is unknown; when the troubles on the surface had finally passed, no villagers emerged from the catacombs beneath the monastery. The monks were simply there as before, if a bit grim and weary, and never spoke of what happened while the monastery still functioned. Slowly the land was repopulated and quickly enough, the fact that dozens of families had disappeared into the monastery's catacombs was forgotten.

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  25. Here’s a thought, hopefully mostly in-keeping with the original premise:

    The First level: “The Front Line”

    This was the monk’s underground fortress. From here they sallied forth into the depths. Originally, they were warded to keep evil creatures out and were at their strongest here. Now, they’ve been perverted into keeping out lawful creatures, while chaos has unfettered access. All access to levels below are magically sealed. The group, via various clues and speaking to the dead, will need to put the wards back into their original state if they want to continue on below.

    This level is extensively haunted by the undead, restless spirits of the monks, who died defending the monastery or went mad from the evil below. They are now the gateway guardian sentinels of the evil below. This level should be very unsettling with many cryptic and not so cryptic markings and evidences of horrid behavior. The monks here on the front line went slowly mad over time. Eventually the last generation worshipped and appeased the thing that their ancestors had been fighting. They were destroyed and damned anyway right after they undid the seals.

    Some of the undead of this level are going to be too powerful for a low-level party to fight. These creatures are there to be entreated with for their knowledge of the level and how it came to be as it is. There are multiple entities on this level that have to be confronted, questioned, appeased, or helped. None of them are friendly, but all have differing motives. Some are totally given to the service of chaos, others fallen and seeking redemption, and some are just mad. Ultimately, acts that sanctify or purify the level must performed to put them to rest and to open up the next level. (Admittedly this is would to be Labors of Hercules/computer RPG/errand boy stuff.)

    To borrow from Stonehell, there should be an asylum area where the mad monks were quarantined. A defiled crypt area with the remains of past heroes and some magical weapons and artifacts. And the usual stuff you’d expect: barracks, supply rooms, living spaces, defensive emplacements, and a chapel (also defiled).

    Clearing this level will provide the group with a safe haven for deeper exploration and a waiting area for replacement characters. Of course, there’s going to be some push back by the evil below for this action.

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  26. As you progressed, things got more weird and twisted until you reached "Hell."

    Well, a good idea is a good idea :)

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