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Designing Big

Tabletop Kingdoms

Having determined not to run anymore virtual games (for reasons of personal preference) and having been ambushed by the dreaded "Delta Variant" ----even though all our players are vaccinated----the kickoff for the new campaign has been pushed out to allow all players peace of mind commensurate with health choices. I suspect we will not play again until perhaps January.

I am disappointed, but it does give me extra time.

Part of the reason I'm investing less energy in blog posts is because what I'm designing right now is not just a mega dungeon, but a setting that supports it in a more cohesive and deeper way than I've done before. Whatever time and inspiration I have is going directly into this massive project. And since all that work is basically invisible, I thought I would share the way I'm tackling this for those of you who are interested.

Note that the steps below are not actually steps. They are more like chapters in the process, or places where my thinking and activities shifted.


Step One

I wrote a bit of background for the origin of the dungeon. This background serves as the skeletal beginning and omits many details reserved for the DM. Rather than writing the DM-only portion of the story immediately, I set about instead pulling at themes I'd already established.

By deepening these themes and exploring them, I was able to come up with moods, descriptions and encounters/puzzles that underline the Player introduction to the setting. I then applied many of these to the dungeon's periphery, to locations where PCs will make first contact.

In the process of designing methods to underscore the story, new details emerged along with new spells, magic items, and so on.

I cataloged these as I went and then paused.

Step Two

I began a multipronged attack by listing out the things I wanted:

  • A solid map of the region where details were readily evident (I chose 1 hex = 3 miles for many reasons, not the least of which related to daily travel rates)

Unmarked Regional Map (made w/ Inkarnate)
  • A wide assortment of NPC adventuring companies that would be drawn to this great dungeon. Because the mega dungeon supports many levels worth of adventuring, the companies were broken out to represent level ranges. This means that initially, most of the NPC parties will either strike terror into the hearts of the PCs or serve as role models.

  • Townspeople with personal connections to the dungeon and or the NPC adventuring companies operating in the region.

  • Side quests that would either indirectly or directly affect the ease of PC access to the main dungeon; would explain (in more detail) aspects of the main dungeon's back story; or similarly add to the mystique of the bigger whole.

  • Support for each class archetype in the form of interesting trainers/networks, such that each PC type would have at least one interesting point of contact with local color, which in turn would lead to role playing and further rumors concerning the side quests and the main dungeon. Examples of this would be:

  1. an herbalist who knows of a certain rare flower that grows only in the region of the main dungeon

  2. an NPC with a missing loved one

  3. an acknowledgement that the NPC does or does not trust another NPC (with whom the PCs are working) and an explanation why

  4. an NPC that is keenly interested in one of the unique spells or magic items rumored to exist at the dungeon or in the region; etc.

  • A rich interplay of factions whose interests would not necessitate all out hostility, but would certainly drive intrigue. Therefore, I knew I wanted smugglers, bounty hunters (should murder hobos materialize), local governments vs overlords, the witchocracy, various churches, cults, rogue serial killers, skin walkers, guides, captains to ferry PCs over the bogs and so on. This was dizzying but necessary as I wanted to create additional value derived from NPC interaction. (Why do you need additional value, Anthony? Oh...because I have one or two Players that are role-playing handicapped. They are good at roll-playing but yeah. So I'm trying to incentivize the role over the roll.)

  • Methods of tracking and remembering a bazillion details related to all of the above

So, with what I had so far, I started breaking the adventure and its setting into component documents.

I have one document for each of the two cities that represent the opposing kingdoms on either side of the dungeon. I have separate documents for some of the side quests, even if only vestigial at this point. Then I have a repository for the bulk of the regional overland adventure plus all the new magic items, spells, monsters and so on. The key to the encounters for the main dungeon is its own document. And then I have a separate document that looks at the very big picture----it details the critical, big ticket choices and locations in the dungeon and serves as a cliff's notes on how to beat it. On the side, I also have two spreadsheets: one for tracking all the NPCs and one for rumors.

Example of NPC entry in the excel spreadsheet, sortable by each category

So, work might progress slowly like this: Write a keyed entry for the main dungeon. Link a detail from that keyed location to an NPC, thus forming a connection between the setting and the adventure. Add a rumor to the rumor table concerning that connection so the relationship is discoverable. Design the unique monster or treasure mentioned in the key. Record it in a spreadsheet so that I know it's represented and where. Add a rumor to the rumor table about the unique monster or treasure. Flesh out (at least slightly) the NPC mentioned earlier so that it is grounded and lives in the town or region.

If this sounds a bit crazy, it is. But it is one way of generating stunning depth. However, the downside is that I was quickly swimming in so many details that it became easy to lose track of the main themes and tenets I'd established early on.

Step Three

I began to retrace my steps, looking for places I might have strayed too far. In some cases I killed off ideas that didn't serve or felt too muddy. I tried to clarify. Instead of adding something new, I began to look for places to knit what I already had closer together. If a special object existed, I looked for an NPC I could tie it to in some way, then wrote a rumor, then added a connection between that NPC to another NPC that knew "something" about "something". By embedding these bread crumbs as I went, all the documents began to swell simultaneously. I made sure to call out references as I went so cross referencing would be easy when I was running the game and so that the document was easily searchable.

In fine, I was looking for relationships of any kind that I could snap together and thereby daisy chain one NPC to another, then to a new rumor a new monster, a new treasure, and so on, so that as the players ask questions, the spiderweb spreads AND (theoretically) I don't have to keep track of it. I suppose my approach is similar to a card game where everything you need to know in the moment is written on the card. The card tells you to do a thing. When you do it, you draw another card, which then leads you further on. In this way, I felt, I would not have to remember all the crazy details. When I ran the game, I would gloss the entry and share a portion of the Players' sense of discovery as I recalled what this location pointed to and why.

my Dispel Dice finally arrived

Random tables additionally point to trailhead clues, further helping ensure reasonable odds of Player exposure to the spiderweb of relationships. I have rumor tables, yes, but I've also sprinkled the encounter tables with NPCs who know specific information.

These instructional-card style [or] bread crumbing methods (combined with my big-picture document) I presumed would be sufficient to see me through. And yet, I was still overwhelmed. I needed to know things I didn't yet know about the dungeon, which required me to step back and look at it holistically once again.

Step Four

This is where I paused after already authoring an enormous pile of information and decided that it was time make some decisions at the highest level. I had determined that there were crucial elements of the dungeon that, in order to solve the dungeon's truest and deepest mysteries completely, the Players would HAVE to interact with. Note that this is very different from saying the Players HAVE to interact with these "crucial elements". The Players are free to drunk-walk through the adventure and pay no mind to the themes and puzzles. They don't HAVE to EVER solve the dungeon's truest and deepest mysteries. They can level up, collect the loot, and perhaps focus more of their interest on the politics of the two cities and the relationships with NPCs therein.

But, in order to bring the desired sense of coherence to the dungeon, and in order for there to be a sense of onion-ringing to the difficulty of the place, I knew I had to make some decisions.

To that end I finally authored the DM-only portion of the Player introduction, gathering bits from all I had written and organizing a final version of the truly dark details behind the dungeon. This helped me underscore even more and further flesh out the McGuffins I had already partially designed. Once I had them all, the next step was to place them. To drive stakes in the ground and commit previously unkeyed rooms and locations to the purpose of housing these "crucial yet not-crucial" elements pertaining to the dungeon's ultimate secret.

My reasoning for committing and allocating the rooms was so that, in the event the adventure is not complete when we actually do begin playing, I will have notions and rumors and directions and clues. Once the essentials are accounted for, there is more flexibility in filling in the interstitial spaces with not only factions and fictions that make sense, but also with pure fun. The gaps become opportunities for great combat and environmental story telling and can be ramped up or down in difficulty to account for character levels.

Step Five

Accounting for character levels in a sandbox is a tricky thing. I decided early to forego standard stat-blocks for encounters as this would eat up too much real estate. Instead, I created a matrix or catalog of all the monsters used and placed it at the back of the compendium. To each monster I assigned a normal, weak, greater or epic set of HP. So if the players are struggling or stomping, I can ratchet the next encounter down or up accordingly. Normal = 4.5 hp/HD; Weak = 2.25 hp/HD and is -1 to-hit; Greater is 6hp/HD and +1 to-hit; Epic is 8hp/HD and +1 to-hit & dmg. Standardizing hp like this is a step away from what I normally do, but much easier for the kind of large melees I enjoy running and especially convenient if the encounters in any given location are VARIABLE.

Thus, my location keys contain almost NO stat blocks and instead simply reference the number and type of monster. All text then pertains to the whats and whys of the monster as well as its tactics. The goal is to have the Key open and then have the Compendium open next to it. The Key will remind me of all the critical details of the location and setting and point me to the compendium for specifics of monster stat-blocks and new treasures. I feel like this has been useful, for example, since both S4 (and GDQ 1-7's booklet that specifically condenses all the monsters).

Point of trivia, it's Queen of the Spiders that provides me with my rule for Giant Slug spit damage!

Cataloging every monster in this way is almost like authoring a customized Monster Manual. It's painstaking but will, I hope, also be worth while.

My cataloging task spread. So, not only did I catalog the monsters, but also the magic items and spells. I tried to keep track of where these items were placed. I also started cataloging the Player Handouts (generally readables) and noted the key where each one was found.

All of this represents more of the "Attack the design from every direction at the same time" approach. Cataloging allows me access to lists that keep all the various bits in RAM memory; therefore I can continually refer to and reinforce the themes, items, characters and locations and continually find ways to not only tie them together but also provide clues and pointers that maximize Player odds of tracking them down while at the same time making the world cohesive.

Remember, the NPC that the DM is channeling can only be as informed as the DM. How many times have you played in a game where the PCs talk to an NPC that SHOULD have ALL the information...but instead of spilling the goods, the NPC offers some vague advice or seems to be holding out even when they have a vested interest in the PCs' success? Sometimes this happens when the DM is cheating (bad DM!) but sometimes it happens because the DM doesn't KNOW those details. I have been guilty of both these crimes!

My hope is that cataloging, combined with keying the essential elements first, will provide the BIG PICTURE and its attending details up front, so that when it comes time to divulge clues or information, I don't have to commit those crimes while running the campaign.

Step Six

I learned as I went that I had to start sketching. I gave my players the choice of starting in City X or City Y. Once they chose City X it allowed me to focus my designs there. But presumably City Y was still going to be vital to the Players' experiences. Factions and NPCs in City Y would certainly try to thwart or persuade the PCs based on as-of-yet unwritten interests.

One of the City Maps (made w/ Inkarnate)

How can I possibly account for it all?

I can't. But I can lay down ENOUGH details that when the moment comes, I can wing it AND at that point I do have a good foundation to extrapolate from and flesh it out for real. In the Greyhawk boxed set (hallowed be its name) you have a ton of this sort of sketch work for the various countries, providing names and interests and enemies.

Now imagine doing that for only the most prominent and influential factions in City Y. I have not completed this work. It is ongoing. But I am also sketching ubiquitously elsewhere as well.

The Other City Map (made w/ Inkarnate)

Once I had my map keyed, I then created a document that provided entries for all the keys. By doing this, I can now search the document quickly and drop in references as I go.

So, for example, if there is a tower that overlooks a battlement and I think it likely that arrows will be fired from the tower onto the battlement, I note this in the key for the battlement and reference the key for the tower. Then I quickly search for the key to the tower and drop in a single sentence that there must be some archers here that might fire on PCs at (ref the key to the battlement).

I don't flesh out the tower key yet because I am busy with the battlement and with all the details and cataloging thereof. But later, when I get around to the tower, I will have a sketch there waiting to remind me.

And that, I think is the essential skill for designing big: having a methodology for remembering ALL THE THINGS (as they say) at the same (or same-ish) time so that the whole doesn't lose sight of itself.

Though ongoing, I would conclude that so far, the crucial elements for keeping the project on track are:

  1. Developing the setting and backstory NOT as a single effort, but slowly WHILE you build the dungeon itself.

  2. Nailing down the key elements of the big picture when you are able to do so but only after having already done SIGNIFICANT amounts of design work.

  3. Cataloging EVERYTHING that is special or unique and having a spreadsheet that allows you to sort by various categories so that every detail is only one search away.

  4. Using a sketching approach to not only remind yourself of what you've done (and want to do) but to help build out multiple locations, items, NPCs, etc. all at the same time.

  5. Keeping information in separate relevant documents so that you can search and reference one while working in another.

And that's more or less the process I'm following even now as I continue to work on the dungeon and setting simultaneously. Hopefully there's something useful for you here. I'll undoubtedly continue talking about this project as I proceed.

Will I ever make this available publicly? I think so. But I am reluctant to do so for a good long while (during which time I hope to be running it for my local group)

Until whenever,

Peace and happy gaming

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