Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Look Behind the Screen

Supposedly, the purpose behind this blog is to document my return to my gaming roots through the process of designing a classic megadungeon. I’ve tried to stay true to that goal, even though the path leading there may seemingly wander through strange territory every so often. The notes on poisons and the new spell were laid out so that by the time we got to the random trap table, things would be clear as to what those entries were.

The biggest obstacle in sharing the design process is that some of the folks who stop by here from time to time, have a better than even chance of being the first people to venture through the doors of Ol’ Nameless. As such, I find that I have to limit myself as to what I post here. At least until the initial forays are over. It’s not that I don’t trust these people with the ability to separate in- and out-of-game knowledge, but why ruin the surprise if I don’t have to?

While this would be fine if I was keeping this blog on a private level, it’s poor form to keep everyone out of the loop, seeing as how most of them will never set foot in the place. I’ve been looking for a happy middle ground to appease both camps, and recently, I believe that I might be able to serve two masters. Let me give you a glimpse at what goes on behind the screen during my design phase. I’ve alluded to the process in the past, but never fully described it. Since a lot can change from my initial maps to what appears in the end result, I’ll show a small tease from a section of Level 2 to accompany the process.

The way that I go about setting up each level usually begins with a rough map. Since the goal was to create a pseudo-medieval version of the Winchester Mystery House, I decided that for the initial levels I’d be employing a modified version of the Random Dungeon Generator from the DMG. It’d give me a layout that mimicked the random and illogical nature of the Winchester House.

Level 2 Tease The rough draft of the map is done on a piece of 11” x 17” graph paper on a 4 squares/inch scale. I picked up a tablet of the stuff from an Office Max awhile back, and while I wish the scale was a little smaller, the paper is big enough to suit my purposes. After the dice fall where they may, sometimes requiring that the map be continued on one or more pieces of paper, I have my initial design.

I usually have an idea as to what purpose the level served in the overall design of the initial complex, so at this point, I begin to see which of my randomly generated rooms most look like the chambers that would fit the level’s scheme. I write down the room’s original purpose on the map, using it as a reference when fleshing out the level in my notes.

Sometimes, however, the rooms seem to serve no easily settled upon function within the level. It’s at that time that I pull out my “Wandering Chamber Table” and start rolling the bones again. Usually, I only need to use this table a few times before the design logjam breaks and the map starts filling itself in again. As before, I make notes on the map itself as to what these rooms once were.

Once I have the original functions of the rooms, I start thinking about where I’m going to place my “set piece” encounters. These can be the special tricks or traps that I have in mind, or they can be the lairs of specific monsters that I want to include on the level in question. Tricks and traps usually end up getting placed in rooms that seem odd for one reason or another. Monster lairs get placed in rooms or areas that would seem to be most conducive to long term inhabitation; being close to a water source or food supply, or being easily defendable against outsiders. Again, these notes are included on the rough map.

Once this is all done, I make any alterations to the rough map that I feel are necessary for the level. Rooms are added or erased; doors are placed or removed, etc. When I’m finally comfortable with the rough design, I begin fleshing out the dungeon in my notes. The set piece rooms are stocked and described, the tricks and traps are given stats and descriptions, and the treasure I want included is placed.

This leaves me with just the unoccupied areas of the map. These rooms I fill in via the method described in Vol. 3 and in Moldvay/Cook Basic. Instead of using the generic wandering monster table from those books, I create a custom chart for each level. This table is composed of monsters already placed, as well as critters that could find a home on the level, based on power and survivability. Unguarded treasure is secured and random tricks are brainstormed. Any traps are diced for on the Random Trap Table.

At this point, I’ve got myself a dungeon level. Depending on what else might be lurking on that level, I go back into my notes and change descriptions to refer to these late additions. As an example, if the level has some sort of low intelligent creature in it, the party might find some of the smarter monsters using it as a food source. I’ll change the description of their lair to include the bones of the first monster, or perhaps put a boiling cauldron of centipede stew on the oven in their kitchen.

As the final step, I now redraw the map of the level onto regular 8” x 11” graph paper with a 10 squares/inch scale. This is so that the maps will fit into a regular notebook along with the level notes. In the redrawing process, I blow up the scale to 5’ a square from the standard 10’ square. I’ll add symbols to represent the locations of any objects that might be important during play during this stage as well. I use sheet protectors for these maps. Experience has taught me the need for protecting important game notes from the all-too common spilled beverage.

That’s it. Hardly rocket science or something revolutionary. Referees who’ve not stepped away from the game as I have will probably find this old hat. But for me, it was a process that I had to rediscover upon my return and it took me some time to remember how to do it correctly.

I will explain my reliance on random charts for much of the process. While some might find the use of such things a crutch, to me they are part of the fun of the design process. Using random tables engages my creative energy. When I look at the result, it’s up to me to make sense of it within the overall scheme of the dungeon. The weirder the result, the more creative that I have to get. It’s easy enough to leave the critter/trap/trick in play without explaining it. In many cases, the party will never see the reasoning behind it. But personally, I get a real charge out of coming up with a logical excuse for its presence, based on what I know about the dungeon. And that, for me, is one of the many reasons that I love this game.


Sham aka Dave said...

Good read. I enjoy seeing how others come up with their own dungeon levels. My design approach is a bit different in that actually drawing the map is somewhere in the middle of the process.

I first begin with the region or area of the dungeon, and it's prevailing theme or flavor. Then I consider what monsters will be found upon that level, based on what's above, below, and what level the map is located on.

Next is a list of ideas...I have a master list of one or two word ideas I use a lot. I then decide which of these ideas will be 'major rooms'. I draw these major rooms first, then I play connect the dots and add halls, rooms, pits, etc.

Then I fill it. At this point other than the major rooms, there are no monsters or treasures. The rest is diced using the OD&D method, along with the tailor made Wandering Monsters table for that level. All of this is written on index cards.

So far it's working well, and is a major departure from my old method of writing one-shot dungeons, with the monsters and their HP right in the text. Once those HP's were marked off during play, the dungeon was used and filed away.

I call the above an Archival dungeon, and the index cards allow me to reuse and restock the whole thing without having to make changes to the Archival, typed description.

Nice map, btw!

Amityville Mike said...


The design is a bit of a departure from my normal method, which is similiar to the one you use. Normally, I'll have the overall design and theme in my head before I start in with a map, but the upper levels of Ol' Nameless are supposed to be a chaotic mix of design, with no set pattern. So taking inspiration from the map works well in this case. The lower levels will be more design, then map.

My intent is for this to be an evolving dungeon, so the actions of the characters will alter the appearnce of the dungeon over time. I figured that I'd have to update the notes from time to time to create a "most current" description. I wish I had thought of the index card method. Sounds like it's going to be easier than monkeying with the whole draft.