Friday, October 28, 2011

Rappan Athuk Design Log 2

I probably won't be posting these each and every day, but I have another 20 minutes or so before my computer is done backing up, so I'll post something fairly quickly. There's still a lot of basic introductory thinking from the last month or so to catch up on.

In the first design note in the series, I covered two essential facts about the upcoming Rappan Athuk release:

First, that in order to keep the dungeon's original feel, the new levels are being written in the original rule sets, and then for the PFRPG they are being converted -- the same method that was used for the originally published 3e version. That underlying patina from the old school rules is one of the key features of Rappan Athuk.

Second, that my particular new levels are being concentrated toward the upper portion of the dungeons, in order to provide enough challenges to allow a party using the old school rules to accumulate the required experience for survival in the lower levels.

In this design note, I'm going to start covering a few of the underlying concepts of a megadungeon: what makes a so-called "megadungeon" distinct from a "lair," or a "module," or a "mission," or any of the other various terms that might be applied to adventure scenarios. Obviously, Necromancer Games considered there to be some structural distinction between what was being done with Rappan Athuk as opposed to what was being done with other 3e products that were getting released at the same time. What was this distinction? Most of the old-schoolers who read this blog probably already have a good idea of the points I'm going to make, since this is a topic that has been discussed a fair amount in the blogs and message boards frequented by people who play 0e and 1e.

Megadungeons: the Defining Characteristic
I think the most salient characteristic of a megadungeon is that it's created for use in repeated adventures. It's more in the nature of a mini-campaign than it is in the nature of an adventure that has a conclusion of some kind. Although the grandfather of all megadungeons, Greyhawk Castle, contained a conclusion-like encounter at the very lowest level (like Rappan Athuk also has), failing to reach that encounter doesn't represent failure. Indeed, merely reaching that encounter/situation is an unexpected achievement.

Corollary of Repetition: Size
As with most mini-campaigns, a megadungeon contains the potential for the players to ignore any plot hooks or missions, and simply to define their own missions ... or just wander around to see what they might find. It is equally possible that they might have such opportunities available to them, because the megadungeon is large enough to support "ongoing events" or time-sensitive goals which the characters might be hired to pursue. It's a very flexible environment.

One corollary immediately emerges from this. The dungeon has to be really big in order to support that kind of freedom of action. It needs long corridors and many rooms. This is the antithesis of a module or scenario that's designed to allow the characters to follow one specific mission, because if there is a specific succeed/fail situation then the geographical terrain has to allow the characters to find the objective in a reasonable time frame. Usually when the characters have a mission inside a megadungeon, it is necessary for them to be directed toward a specific area, be given a partial map, or be working in an area of the dungeon that they have already mapped out. For most mission-based adventures it is crucial not to have a situation where the size of the terrain is so big that the mission becomes a random chance of finding the right pathway out of a multitude of possibilities.

Distinction: Missions need Pathways
Although there are several other corollaries to the definition of a megadungeon as an underground mini-campaign, I'll wait for later posts to develop those other corollaries. For the time being, it's worth just looking at the particular design principles that shape a megadungeon's large space as opposed to a mission-based adventure's necessarily smaller or more directed pathways to the mission. Again, this isn't to say that a mission isn't possible in a megadungeon, simply that when the players are following some mission that they didn't invent for themselves in a megadungeon, some kind of geographical direction is probably required to make a mission-adventure feasible. This is not a weakness of the megadungeon format, it is a contrast to an adventure that's designed solely for a mission, a one-shot task, in which most likely it makes no sense to bother with wider-ranging geography beyond that which is required for the particular mission.

How it Applies to Rappan Athuk
Rappan Athuk, from the perspective of post-2000 rules, is already quite immense. However, as mentioned in my past post, it's pretty small from the perspective of the older rules. This is partly also because mapping/exploration tends to have a larger role in old-school gaming than under newer rules -- this is partly a nudge from the rules, but I think it's also just a generational difference from the types of fiction my generation read as opposed to the current brand of fantasy. I'll get to that in a later post, but if exploration is a heavier component of the dungeon, you obviously need room to explore. Rappan Athuk has built toward this from the first printings in which there was limited page space up to Rappan Athuk Reloaded, which included more levels, up to the printing now in development, which is not only going to include even more levels, but in which at least the Swords & Wizardry version will be based on old-school design rather than just "First Edition Feel." For those who play the PFRPG version of the dungeon, there will be some parts of the dungeon that have even a stronger old-school vibe than the existing levels that were published for 3e.

That's enough for now. Again, if anyone is interested in getting some background glimpses into the thinking and the methodology that's coming into play, I recommend grabbing a copy of the Tome of Adventure Design, which is being used by both myself and Bill in our level design, and may also to a large degree come into the way in which the Pathfinder conversions are being done.

Even the Pathfinder conversion is going to be more balls-out old school in nature than the 3e versions, and the Tome of Adventure Design is a partial introduction to why and how. Admittedly that's a bit of an advertisement, but it's true nonetheless. For Rappan Athuk scholars and super-fans, that book will be part of the invisible backbone of the "Big" Rappan Athuk book.

Hope you enjoyed the post!
Matt Finch

First Design Note
Second Design Note
Third Design Note


  1. One of the things I loved about the 3e version was the Matt LeBlanc illustrations (I think that was the artist's name).

  2. Brian LeBlanc -- I agree, his stuff is great. I'm not sure if he'll be available to do the illustrations in the new levels, but his original art will still be in the new book. It wouldn't be Rappan Athuk without it. My favorite one (although it's not his best as a technical piece) is the party looking at the "Beware of Purple Worms" warning.

  3. I love the illustration of the nekkid hot groaning spirits inside the black pyramid.

  4. I'm excited about this, and appreciate your comments on megadungeon design. I also finally got off my duff and ordered your design book. Looking forward to receiving the hard copy!

  5. I wouldn't call a megadungeon a "mini-campaign". A true megadungeon is the campaign.