Monday, September 2, 2013

The Maximalist Dungeon

A few posts back a commenter was not too happy with the push toward minimalism in some parts of our hobby.   Since then I've been thinking of what the opposite would look like.  And, while it would be easy to be snarky, I want to do this seriously: what would a maximalist dungeon look like?  And by that I mean a maximalist dungeon that I, the lover of small and streamlined, would really want to see and use?

I think if you're getting a dungeon from someone else it should be giving you something you can't do yourself, either because you are unable to do it or you don't have the time.  This could be several things including ideas you might never have had or DM experience you don't yet have cooked into the design of the place.  But I think the two most obvious are drudge work and art work.  I'm not an artist so that's something I could get from someone else.  And there are plenty of things that might be worth trying at the table but which take so much prep time you never get around to them.  Let's think along those lines a bit.

The Maximalist Dungeon could have:
  1. Illustrations of every room.  There's precedent with the image booklets in some of the TSR modules like Tomb of Horrors.  I think a lot of those were produced because a trap needed visualization, but even just an illustration to show you the decay and layout of the rooms would be cool.  As a kid I loved David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries and the detailed images of those rooms, in what was essentially a dungeon, unearthed.
  2. Illustrations of cluttered crime scenes.  This is related to the above, because once you have high enough level of detail and once you have illustrations of every room, so that showing an illustration isn't a tip off of importance, you can hide clues in plain sight.  Keys, notes, scraps of cloth.  I have always been interested in solo play and I remember reading about (but never seeing) a solo gamebeook that had some full page illustrations for this kind of close examination/exploration. If you know what it was called let me know.  Of course traps can become more brutal too, if the trip wires or pressure plates are right there in the picture.
  3. Illustrations of every monster, or at least every new monster.  We are limited in our ability to imagine based on things we've seen before.  But if you show us a picture your new monster can look like whatever you can draw.  If you've followed my blog you know that I've tried to come up with new monsters through lots of different angles.  This would be one I haven't tried: something hard to explain or describe but that you can easily understand by looking at a drawing.  There could be all kinds of dreamlike, nightmarish, warped possibilities waiting for the right artist to unleash them on us.
  4. Portraits of every NPC.  Without a face players don't have much to remember NPCs by, an accent, a cliched personality.  Portraits could help with that.  With portraits you could get a sense of class, wealth, general demeanor, scars, familial resemblance etc.
  5. Illustrations of treasure items.  This is pretty simple, one way to make the +1 magic swords unique is to make them look different.
  6. So these have been about art so far how about the drudge work?  Well, related to the NPC portraits above would be NPC personalities fleshed out for all the folks in the adventure/dungeon.  I don't think I would personally need a whole backstory, because after a certain length I'm probably not going to read it.  But if the background could inform how they act and make choices that would be cool to know.  If the person was orphaned and has had to struggle alone they might not like the idea of accepting help, for example, and will become irritated if they can't pay for services.
  7. Along those lines, if we are dealing with factions, or politics, or romance, illustrated and annotated relationship webs of NPCs would be cool.  What is the chain of command?  Who will rumors spread to first?  Who owes favors to whom?  Who do you need to talk to find out intimate details about a particular NPC?
  8. And of course, going right along with the illustrations of treasure items would be unique treasure items with back stories.
  9. This is related to having detailed pictures of rooms but takes it one step farther.  I've posted before about the idea of a grab bag store room, where everything in a room is on cards, so imagine if you combine a room's illustration, with small illustrated cards that you could hand players when they ask about particular objects or details.  There comes a point where this would almost be better suited as a video game with items you can pick up and examine, a whole immersive digital world, but even in those, details are sparse or duplicated because of the work it takes to make things.
  10. Unique spellbooks is a subset of unique treasure items.  And it doesn't have to be a cheesy facsimile, but having some illustration or physical card with the contents for each spell book found would be cool.  And, of course, each would have unique spell variations.
  11. Give me a constructed language and a script or system of runes.  I love this stuff, and I think it adds to the atmosphere in a game, but it takes so much time it falls by the way side in my games.  But having even something that is little more that pig-latin for goblin inscriptions peppered around the dungeon that players can try and decipher would be fun.  Or different aged scripts denoting excursions into a megadungeon at different times, that would be sweet.  You want to talk about something that would be cool but I don't do just because of the amount of work, there it is.
  12. Along the lines of musing I did about sandboxes, it would be interesting to have the locations affected by different times of visit.  So, maybe in the wet season this cave is half full of water and there are different creatures here, maybe during festivals this cult encampment has an entirely different population and feel to it.  That is in essence asking for multiple modules.  Yes.  And players are likely to only ever encounter one of these states.  Yes.  But if you want maximal, that's maximal to me.
  13. Designer notes is something I don't think I've ever seen.  Presumably, if you are selling a dungeon you have run multiple parties through it, multiple times.  So, what did those folks do?  What choices did they tend to make?  I can see not wanting to read this stuff and experiencing my party's choices with them, but I can also see wanting to go back and read how that compares to the other folks that visited here.  Designer notes would also be cool just to get a sense of what the maker was trying for and how this module/adventure fits in with their experience and other creations.
  14. DM notes would be slightly different.  I'm thinking tips and advice gained through experience.  So, this section of the dungeon is invisible, here's some ideas on how to run that at the table.  This monster causes fear, here's a way you might handle what players under the fear power will do.  Etc.  Obviously this stuff isn't necessary to run a night of D&D, but if you are good enough and experienced enough at designing dungeons to sell me one, one of the assets you have is that experience.  So why not share it with me?
What else?  That's all I've got right now.  And I suppose it might seem a little absurd to put so much effort into a single module.  A module you might use with your friends once.  A module that would probably be crazy expensive with all the art and labor involved.  But maybe that's the difference between products and art.  The difference between processed food and a nicely cooked meal.  Anyone can generate random contents for a set of megadungeon rooms, but how are yours notable?

So, yeah, I can envision a module that is a piece of art because of its elegance, how it gives you just what you need to run it and then gets out of your way.  But I can also imagine a module that is a piece of art because of its ridiculous abundance, its richness that spills out at you like coins from a coffer. 


  1. That is a neat idea. Don't forget people performing a play and you actually write the play. Or holy men with a religious book and you actaully write the book

  2. An adventure with ALL these ideas would be, after all that effort, soul-crushing; it would put the rest of the campaign to shame with an impossibly high bar.

    But one or two or three of these in each module makes for great goodies.

  3. "David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries"

    Oh man, we used that in a class back when I was in middle school for a group project. I promptly pointed out that the skeletons clearly indicated the skeleton on the bed (the guy I think) was naked at the time of death which caused quite the 7th grade uproar.

    I also think I've got 3, 6 (partial), 7, 8 and 11 going on. It needs to stop. It's madness. In my heart of hearts I guess I just wanted to world build. >_>

  4. @Patrick: Why not, and riddles, folk songs. On the art tip, I forgot more maps, different hand drawn maps as artifacts players can find.

    @Roger: Yeah, I suppose there is the possibility of a bit of this with any module-- I remember my high school buddy clamoring for more "published modules" after we cleared out Tsojcanth.

    And I supposed this points to another approach, that of producing these all piece meal and introducing them into your campaign whenever you want. There's been some of that with monster books and magic item books-- but they always seem to be books optimized for selling, rather than cards or handouts optimized for using at the table.

    @Jacob: It's fun stuff. If there was some way to crowd source some of this it would make it easier. Imagine a website that allowed submission of magi items and artists could choose those that interested them. Same for monsters. Though I suppose the module doing all these things at once would benefit from a similar tone and artistic vision.

  5. I've always wanted to have the time and motivation to put as much work into my tabletop campaign as I put into the LARP that I run. The final result would be basically what you describe here, and it would be awesome. Real life (and the time spent on the aforementioned LARP) have consistently prevented me from attaining that level of production quality, but I've always felt like time put into writing pays off in the long term of the campaign. It's hard to see the difference from moment to moment, but in comparing sessions and whole campaigns where I did a ton of prep work to ones where I half-assed it and wasn't prepared, the difference is quite striking.

  6. This is the first example in recorded history of a comment from Kent sparking something interesting.

  7. It's like you described Numenhalla.

    1. That is the plan for the final product. Most every important thing, random encounters, etc.

  8. I love making up languages, but I don't often do it, since I don't really see a lot of places where it is really worthwhile. Most places some random sounds that sound good do just as well.

    How would players decipher made-up goblin inscriptions, or determine that the scripts in the megadungeon are from different time periods? I'd love a good answer, since that would give me an excuse :)

    1. One may use plain English (or German or Italian or what one's mother tongue is) texts which require decoding; or a foreign language, that all of you speak, ciphered.

      As for the different time period, well, all those scripts could look very different (written in the same language, though): runic, calligraphic, printed, etc.

    2. But that doesn't actually allow me to construct a language. That's really the problem. There are plenty of ways to simulate the existence of languages that the characters doesn't speak. But there aren't a lot of ways to actually use an actual, functional, invented language.

    3. Sorry, I thought your second paragraph was only tangentially connected to the first one. As for using invented languages, I think it is as useless as the pages of dates in the history chapter of the Forgotten Realms setting book. I mean, one could just use a foreign language (I personally would use one of the following: Faroese, Afrikaans, Old English, Old Norse, or Finnish).

  9. I think part of the problem is separating content from its presentation. Since we DMs are also the audiences of our notes, we want maximum information, but also need the ability to dispense it in as few and as small bits as necessary.

    Even if I were to write a maximal presentation, I'd want the quick 'n' dirty bits up front so that I'd have an overall grasp of the room, item, or character.

  10. @Ynas Midgard: Constructing languages is fun in its own right, just like world building. And I would probably never use a real language like Finnish for the same reason I'd never set my campaign in Finland: because there is a whole body of real stuff that I have to master to even start using it. If I make up my own language, hell, I can make up phrases as needed during play as long as I record them.

    @The Rubberduck: Signs, markings, and inscriptions seems like it deserves a whole blog post. Also, a dungeon lexicon is something I tried to get folks communally creating a while back but there wasn't much interest. I'll probably just do it myself and share.

    @amp108: Remember this is maximal as I, the minimalist would want it, not as it currently exists in some game books. I don't want long text-based descriptions of rooms for example. So I think this could be easily compatible with what a DM needs. For example, what if all the quick facts you need about a room are on the back of the room illustration? You review while they are looking at the picture you are holding up. Or, hell, a lot of the above does your work for you: you don't need to remember what is in the storage room, because there are illustrated cards of each items you plop in front of players. To be sure there would be some prep time to organize all these props, but it would be nothing like trying to memorize whole chunks of text.

    1. [OFF]
      Okay, I may be biased on this one. As a student of linguistics, "language" to me most of time is equal to its phonetics and syntax, whereas words, phrases, and their meaning are accidental representations of the underlying system. To me, constructing a language is not making up words or phrases but creating systems of sounds and strings thereof.

  11. I agree, just making up words with out some underlying system would be little more than a code. But I was thinking of using some simple underlying guides like the ones in the Dragon articles I talk about here:

    So you might decide ahead of time some simple sounds and grammar rules for orcish and build words and phrases according to them as needed.

  12. I like the AW "loveletters" - a paragraph or two describing something that has happened to your character, a prompt to roll and outlines for the outcome (for example "you've caused quite a stir, and one night as you wander home you're cornered by a bunch of thugs. Roll a FORT-save. On a hit, you send them running except for that guy whose ankle you broke. Tell the others what you did to him and where he is now. On a miss, you get fucked up badly and start with half HP but you managed to snatch something off them that might reveal their identity - ask the GM what it is").

    For a maximalist adventure, I'd love to have more fleshed out "loveletters" included. Like five minute solo-adventures, that the players can do between sessions to progress the game (like, gather information, learn the powers of the relic you found, spy on the nightly excursions of Vanhapter Singh...)