Building Better Campaigns Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 2

Intro

If you’ve been patiently waiting for this then I can only extend my gratitude. This one’s been a long time in the making. I’ve mentioned it here and there, but this whole series was effectively complete, then after posting the first part I decided I wasn’t happy with the rest and pulled the whole thing apart with the intention of putting it back together as a better product. That last part never quite happened.

This piece continues my series on using ideas from puzzle games to inform dungeon and campaign structure. The last part discussed the classic ‘Zelda-style’ world structure (the Overworld/Dungeon structure). This part is going to start exploring that other kind (the Subdivided Contiguous Overworld), but because it can be more broadly applied I’m going to be focusing specifically today on Megadungeons.

Defining the Megadungeon

First of all, if you’ve never run a Megadungeon then I cannot recommend it enough. It’s one of the more unique experiences one can have running DnD, and every Megadungeon is inherently memorable.

A Megadungeon is essentially just a massive dungeon. Compared to the standard 5-room affair though a Megadungeon may have dozens or even hundreds of rooms. They’re also less defined by what is in each single room and more by what is in each area. One part of the Megadungeon may be occupied by a tribe of Kobolds, and the enemy types in the rooms of that area will reflect that, as will the architecture and potentially even the layout.

A Megadungeon will often contain a variety of factions rather than just a single antagonistic force a-la the 5-room dungeon. Some of these factions may be hostile, some of them may be friendly, some may be neutral. Indeed, the attitude of these factions toward the party and each other may change depending on the party’s actions. It’s useful to think of Megadungeons more like a standard dynamic campaign setting rather than just a big dungeon.

Building the Megadungeon

Before we touch on how puzzle game design can inform our Megadungeons we first need to get a handle on how to build Megadungeons.

I mentioned size earlier – albeit in terms of rooms – and it is defining this size that should more or less be our starting point. We will begin with a question: what do we want this Megadungeon to do? Are we facilitating a delve into the ruins of a massive abandoned city? Are trying to drive the Duergar out of the Underdark? Are we trying to find an ancient buried forge belonging to the Giants?

As you can imagine our city delve needs to be city-sized. Driving the Duergar out of the Underdark might be something even larger with hundreds of interconnected caverns, some of which will contain entire settlements. Our forge-finding quest may need something quite a bit smaller, perhaps in the realm of 20 or so rooms.

Once we know what our size is and what sort of adventure is to be had, we can start thinking about things like what creatures might be present, what factions they might be a part of, what their settlements are like, how they may have affected the landscape and environment, and so on. Honestly there are many great resources on Worldbuilding that can help you out with this part so I won’t go in to too much detail here.

Gates

In the first part of this series I defined this world structure as being a complete area (not divided into a hub world and sub-worlds that branch off it), but with certain portions blocked off by puzzles that have yet to be solved.

In DnD we do not have to take the word ‘puzzle’ literally. Instead we want to think about gated or semi-Gated progression. In the simplest sense this might be impassable chasms that divide quadrants of a ruined city Megadungeon that cannot be passed until the party finds a Fly spell scroll (or better yet, levels up to the point where the Wizard can learn Fly).

For more complicated Gates we want to start thinking about more complicated actions the party needs to perform. This might be things like altering the political landscape of the Megadungeon (perhaps an area is controlled by a hostile force and to explore it the party must win them over). It may even be affecting the physical landscape (such as closing those chasms by winning over the favour of a powerful earth elemental). At any rate, start thinking about large-scale goals that the party must achieve to continue exploring.

Linearity

So far the examples given have come off as somewhat linear, but the overall design does not have to be linear. Indeed, the easiest way to make such a Megadungeon non-linear is to have multiple progression Gates that the party can be working to clear simultaneously. They can choose which Gate to work on, and if they get stuck with one they can turn their attention to another.

Better yet, these Gates may be interdependent (i.e. working on dealing with one may trigger something that allows easier progression with another).

Our Example Megadungeon

To round this off I’m going to lay out the broad strokes of a Megadungeon, and as I go I will be highlighting the concepts discussed here.

The party arrives at a ruined city that once belonged to a race of celestials. There is a trove of forgotten magical artefacts scattered throughout the city and delvers come from far and wide to find them. The party is trying to find the location of a workshop belonging to an artificer once believed to be a mythical figure, however a scholar recently found a source which shows a birth date and has hired the party as a result of this. [Now we have defined what we want our Megadungeon to do, and by extension know how big it needs to be].

At the gates of the city is a set of 5 buildings that have been converted into a permanent settlement that serves as a base camp for the many delves constantly active within the city. This settlement is owned and operated by the Prospector’s Guild of Lursa, though their interest in maintaining the settlement has waned in recent years. In this settlement an adventurer can find a number of skilled craftsmen – more-so than is common in all but the largest of cities – from whom they can buy weapons, armour, spell scrolls and so on. The scholar that hired the party does not want the Prospector’s Guild to find out about this delve, so whenever the party is in this settlement they must be guarded about revealing what it is they’re there for. [We have begun to introduce factions as well as political tensions].

The city is divided into 7 districts, but the party is mainly interested in the Craftsmen’s District. As it happens, most delves are interested in this area but accessing it has proven difficult as it lies on the far side of the city. Between there and here are the Market District, which is occupied by a tribe of Goliaths who are very guarded, and the Holy Palace, which is overrun with a demonic incursion the source of which is unknown. There are also geographic barriers as the city experienced many earthquakes in the centuries after its abandonment and the Craftsman’s District was the most badly damaged. The very streets and buildings are torn apart by a fractured landscape of deep chasms and liquefacted earth. [Here we have introduced some obstacles which serve as Gates, as well as additional factions with different outlooks].

Tackling the Megadungeon

Much like a puzzle game that throws you in with several directions to explore, the party needs to have several leads that they can follow. The party immediately learns that the local business owners are tired of the Prospector’s Guild taking a cut of sales and is considering taking control of the town for themselves. The party might decide to get involved in this to make things easier for themselves (not having to be guarded about their purpose here would be great). If they get involved in this then there will be actions to undertake to facilitate the changeover of control (such as kicking out guards from the Guild).

The party also spots a Goliath in town who the locals know as a trader. He is the only Goliath who ever comes to this settlement. Knowing that they have to get past the Goliath settlement somehow, the party may press this fellow for information. If they do he will mention that he can put in a good word for them among his people if they bring him a trophy of a great kill they’ve made.

Alternatively the party may just dive straight in, looking to find the Goliath settlement and either sneak past or fight their way through. When they arrive there they may have opportunities to negotiate. Perhaps if sneaking or fighting fails they will be captured and forced to fight in a gladiatorial pit to win their freedom back.

As you can see, there are several branching paths of opportunity all of which contain Gates that the party must figure out how to ‘Unlock’.

You may note that essentially this starts to look much like a campaign in itself, and honestly that’s what a Megadungeon truly is. It’s a campaign, or at least a significant part of one, entirely contained within a defined dungeon-style area.

The Subdivided Contiguous Overworld Structure

You can see now how this structure which I defined in the first part of this series is being applied here to our Megadungeon. The whole place is connected, and at no point do we leave our overworld to enter a dungeon or leave a hub-world to enter a sub-world. We stay in the same place the whole time. The thing that prevents it from being entirely contiguous, however, are the Gates throughout the area that must be dealt with to continue progressing through the story and toward the ultimate goal.

This is a very common idea not just in puzzle games but in video games in general. Indeed many computer RPGs use this exact structure and the Metroidvania game is also form of this (wherein progression is Gated by item unlocks, which themselves are given as rewards for completing certain goals).

I spoke last part about this making things in your campaign seem ‘video-gamified’, but I will parrot my wisdom from that post. Video games use these structures because they create fun, and we should be seeking in our campaigns to also create fun.

But Then Also There’s Puzzles

And this is the final piece to all this. We can Gate progression with physical obstacles, political obstacles, financial obstacles, combat obstacles and so on. But this series is about puzzle game design, and that means I want to discuss how you can use large-scale puzzles to Gate progression. Unfortunately though this part is nearly rounding the bend of 2,000 words and using large-scale puzzles is a whole massive concept in itself. That means, unfortunately, it’s going to have to wait until next part.

An Outro For Now

Again I appreciate people’s patience in waiting for this part, and I know I’ve left it on a bit of a cliffhanger here. The original version of this tried to cram too many concepts into this one part and it was just an absolute mess. I felt instead that laying out these foundational concepts – the Gating of progression and also the structure and purpose of a Megadungeon – would best be done in a part of its own before we move on to puzzles.

As per usual, this piece is going up here before it appears on r/DnDBehindTheScreen, so if you’re reading this here I appreciate you sticking around for my content!

And as always, thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Building Better Campaigns Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 2

  1. I really love how you give examples to make your idea concrete, such as the ruined celestial city. This is super helpful to cement the concepts in my mind and is a beautiful way to present concepts.

    Like

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