This is Part 1 of a series where I attempt to build an expansive dungeon through blogposts. None of the other posts are currently written yet, so I can’t link you to them, but when they are this is where you’ll find them.
I’ve decided to undertake the rather ambitious task of designing a large dungeon on this blog. This is, of course, no small or easy thing. It’s actually a monumental task, and anyone who has written an adventure knows that a well put together dungeon takes a lot of time, let alone something like this. Still, it’s more of an exercise for me than anything else, but I thought I’d try to document the process in a unique way.
How’s this going to work? I’m going to do all of my work in these blog posts. Each post will serve as the work space for what I’m doing with the project that week, and then it’ll publish every Tuesday. This means that the length of these posts are always going to be in flux, since they are dependent entirely on how much I put in during the week. This might be a bad process for a creative endeavour, but I do think it’s a bit more stress free than trying to write laser-focused blogposts while I always try to build this thing.
So, that’s it. Every Tuesday, a post publishes, no matter what amount of words I’ve put into it. (This rule will almost certainly be broken. Do not hold me to it, I beg you.)
Before we go any further, I should probably lay out what I’m trying to put together. First, a bit about me. There’s an excellent post by Retired Adventurer about Six Cultures of Play that goes into some detail about the common cultures in the hobby, and how individuals typically sit somewhere in the middle between them.
I personally see myself fitting down the line between Story Games and The OSR, which is a bit of a strange place to be in. But that’s not even a fair shake of things, not really—I also love a Big Damn Heroes game, and those sometimes seem to slot into a Neo-Trad space.
What I think this means is that if you’re expecting a classic style dungeon, you’re probably going to be out of luck. I do think there’s a lot of things to learn from that style of play (we’ll get there soon) but at the same time, I’m not going to be strictly designing for any of the typical dungeon crawl rulesets. I’m essentially looking at things through the lens of my own game, which doesn’t technically have a name yet, so I’ll just call it Codename: Hollovine, but that game is currently operating in some kind of monstrous space between a mash-up of Ironsworn, The Between, with elements from the OSR sprinkled in.
There’s, uh, a lot of information out there in regards to creating something like this. I doubt that this weeks post is going to get past this stage, but we’ll see.
First off, I want to look at Gus L.’s So You Want to Build a Dungeon? post, which I think hits on a few key points that I need to adhere to. Gus is self-described as a Classic player (though I’m honestly not sure if he means it in the same sense as Retired Adventurer’s article) but there’s still a lot of knowledge to take from this post.
One of the most important takeaways for me is the stance of theme instead of story, which I think is the cornerstone of this design. The Trophy RPG also heavily relies on theme, both for Dark and Gold, and I think that designing with theme in mind is a shortcut you can use when you get stuck. MV also talks a lot about the power of theme in their post titled Crafting Adventures with Screenwriting.
I’m going to label Theme as the first thing to nail down and work on, since it’s going to act as a lynchpin to this whole dang thing.
Another thing Gus L. brings up in the post is that history in the dungeon is good, but pre-planned story is not. History can create a lot of “kinetic energy” in the adventure, just waiting for the PCs to get involved and set it off. This is good. Factions and history work together, and for this space I’m considering four factions (one of them subdivided, but we’ll get there eventually.) That may or may not be enough, but I really like the situations that come up with three competing factions. The fourth faction will be essentially the “town” over the dungeon, but I’m twisting that aspect a bit, you’ll see.
(Note: I can already tell I am going to be referencing this post quite a bit, so if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend doing so.)
Another post to read and think about is Ava’s Brief Brainworms: Megadungeon that contains a multitude of resources on dungeons, but also an excerpt at the end of the post, going into detail about what sets “megadungeons” apart from sandboxes or adventure paths.
The system I’m using simplifies equipment and encumbrance into “kits,” which are themed sets of gear that the characters can equip. This is already at odds with some of the references above, so a kit is hovering into the quantum equipment territory you see in things like Blades in the Dark and Trophy Gold, where you can produce equipment you need to solve problems. I don’t have a solution yet, but like I said—this is probably not going to shake out into a strange territory that might not be appealing to typical dungeoncrawlers.
I’m also considering spaces, in terms of the map, and how I’m going to tackle that. I like what Kevin Crawford did with Wolves of God quite a bit: that is to say that there are both “large” spaces and “detailed” spaces. In large spaces, you move through the territory in a more nebulous way, navigating by landmarks and encountering random events. In the detailed spaces, you are much more in control of the territory, including the use of detailed maps instead of the quantum spaces. I believe that Gradient Descent also skirts something similar to this, using it’s “machine-sized” and “human-sized” spaces.
In this dungeon I’m making, I think I’m going to employ a similar tactic. I want large, expansive spaces that the players trek through. Think about the scenes from Fellowship of the Ring when the party is moving through Moria—wide, impossibly large spaces that are awe-inspiring, but also tight and visual spaces like the tomb and the bridge.
Another thing on my mind is jewelbox design as talked about by Gus L. The essential points and takeaway is that you’re dealing with a location based adventure of a smaller size but higher quality and more dense keying.
In the dungeon I’m discussing, the lofty goal is to have the larger, procedural spaces to explore (1 for each faction), and then also smaller, more detailed areas that function as more much typical “dungeons” designed with jewelbox principles in mind.
This is where I’m currently at, and it’s Monday night, so it’s safe to say that the post is ending here. A bit meandering and more researched focus, but I really want to lay out the principles and processes that I’m trying to adhere to (mostly for myself) before I just dive it.
But I think I will dive in next! I’m going to focus on the starting area of the dungeon, and what that looks like, and my take on a “town” or safe space for the PCs to operate out of.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve got suggestions for more content to read or comments about how I’m doing this horribly wrong and should quit now, you can’t leave them here, because this blog doesn’t have a comment system. So, instead, please reach out to me on Twitter if you’d like! Over there, my handle is @eldritchmouse. If you want to shoot me an email, use the same handle but it’s going to a gmail address. On discord, find me @eldritch mouse#3320.
- Part One, Introduction
- Part Two, Procedural Spaces
- Part Three, Factions
- Part Four, Settlement Factions
- Part Five, Main Landmarks
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