The Alexandrian

One of the key concepts of “(Re-)Running the Megadungeon” is that the goal of the adventure is not and cannot be to “clear the dungeon”. Such a goal would be as meaningless as a World War II game in which the goal was, “Kill all the Nazis.”

(I suppose, in a general sense, you actually could hold such a goal. It would be something like the ultimate instantiation of the hack ‘n slash campaign: There’s a dungeon over there. Go slash at it for awhile. The important thing, however, is that one cannot reasonably expect to achieve that goal. That’s just not going to hack it.)

The loss of this clear-cut goal is problematic because “clear the dungeon” has long since become the default tactical solution for virtually every scenario in D&D. Oh, it’s usually gussied up a bit. But you’d be surprised at how often everything boils down to “clear the dungeon”. For example:

  • “The forces of chaos are marshaling for an assault on the last bastion of civilization?” “How do we stop it?” “Go to the Caves of Chaos and… clear the dungeon.” (B2 Keep on the Borderlands)
  • “The corrupt mayor is planning to release the Yellow Sign and drive Freeport into madness!” “How do we stop it?” “Go to the Lighthouse and… clear the dungeon.” (Freeport Trilogy)
  • “Slavers are kidnapping people off the streets!” “How do we stop them?” “Go to the slave pits and… clear the dungeon.” (Scourge of the Slave Lords)
  • “The Giants are arming for war!” “How do we stop them?” “Go to their steading and… clear the dungeon.” (Against the Giants)
  • “Kalarel is trying to summon something terrible from the Shadowfell!” “How do we stop him?” “Go to the Keep and… clear the dungeon.” (Keep on the Shadowfell)

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this formula, of course. As you can see, it can be easily mapped to any number of potential crises. It has the virtue of being easy to set-up (Bad Guys X are trying to do Bad Thing Y and they can be found at Bad Place Z). And the players generally know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing (“Wipe them out, all of them”).

However, it does have the rather unfortunate side-effect of inherently funneling everything through the combat system, drastically narrowing the range of potential gameplay. And when you attempt to apply this default formula to the megadungeon it creates two major problems:

First, it’s a grind.  If your goal is to “wipe out all the bad guys” in a dungeon filled with bad guys, then the megadungeon boils down to a very simplistic dynamic: You go into the dungeon, empty as many rooms as possible, and then retreat. Then you go back and  you do it again. And again. And again. And again.

Second, the formula is inherently designed to use up material, whereas your goal with the megadungeon is recycle, reuse, and remix material. And the more you restock the dungeon while your players are trying to destock it, the more of a grind the whole thing becomes.

SETTING A DEFAULT

Having set aside the default mode of “clear the dungeon”, what are we to replace it with?

It’s not unusual at this juncture for someone to say, “Exploration.” Go poke around in the corners of the dungeon because you’re curious about what might be hanging out down there.

It’s not a bad suggestion, per se. But in my experience, exploration for the sake of exploration can be rather aimless. It lacks the necessary specificity to function as the driving force behind a campaign. I suspect this is because it doesn’t provide a strong enough criteria for decision-making: If you’re standing at an intersection in the dungeon and your goal is merely “to explore”, does it really matter which way you go? Not really. You’ll be exploring whichever way you go.

But “exploration” remains a compelling concept. Is there a way we can make it a more clearly defined goal?

Gold.

Here I once again find myself looking back to the earliest versions of the game, when the default method of play was not “kill the monsters”, but instead “find the treasure” — i.e., exploration geared towards a more specific end. And, notably, a specific end which — unlike “kill the monsters” — doesn’t pre-suppose the tactical and strategic means of success. (“Kill the monsters” implies blasting them with spells and poking them with pointy bits of metal. “Find the treasure” might mean killing monsters… but it could also mean sneaking past them, negotiating with them, distracting them, hiring them, tricking them, trading with them, or any number of other possibilities.)

TREASURE HUNTING

“Find the treasure”, in its most generic form, may not be terribly compelling. But it is sufficient for reliably getting the PCs to the entrance of the dungeon (and universal enough that it provides little meaningful constriction in terms of the types of characters that can be created; of course, there’s also no reason why a player couldn’t find a more unique goal for their PC).

Before one simply writes off “find the treasure” as bland pablum, however, consider that in its more specific forms “find the treasure” has served as the basis for some of the great stories of our time (or any time): Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Maltese Falcon, The Hobbit, The Illiad, The Golden Fleece. They’re all stories about treasure-hunting.

And OD&D builds a method for building towards that specificity right into its rules for procedural content generation: Treasure maps.

If you’re randomly generating treasure troves using the OD&D guidelines, then most intelligent foes will have a 10-15% chance of having one or more treasure maps. These can, of course, take many forms. (The Judges Guild Book of Treasure Maps supplements included everything from journal entries to scribbled notes to careful exemplars of cartography.) But the point is that a treasure map points you towards some specific treasure: You are no longer just poking around for gold in the general sense; you are specifically seeking for “the Tombe of Aerthering who is called DAMNED” (to take one example).

SPECIFIC DUNGEON GOALS

Moving beyond that, the point of setting a default goal (like “find the treasure”) is not to limit the game, but rather to provide a baseline to ensure that gaming happens. The point isn’t to say “you will go treasure-hunting”, but rather to say “if you can’t think of anything better to do, we’ll default to treasure-hunting”.

More generally, once you’ve used your default goal(s) to get the PCs into the dungeon complex, more specific goals will generally tend to accumulate on their own. In my Caverns of Thracia game, for example, a deep grudge quickly settled in against the minotaur who kept cropping up on an irregular basis. (He had killed or maimed more than a dozen PCs, so the grudge is probably understandable.) There were cheers at the table when he was finally cornered and killed in a recent session.

Have we arrived back at “killing the bad guy” as a viable megadungeon goal? Sure. (You didn’t think I was advocating for combat to be taken out of D&D, did you?) It’s not necessary to completely abandon the “there are bad guys, go get ’em” formula. But it may require a little more subtlety than that mail-order course on strategy from Palpatine University might suggest. “Wipe them out, all of them” might cut it if they’re the only guys in the neighborhood, but picking a fight with every humanoid tribe in the region because you want to put the cultists on level 4 out of commission probably isn’t a great idea.

Which begins to move us in the general direction of a more general precept: While it is necessary to maintain some sense of mystery regarding the depths of the megadungeon (as drawing back that veil of ignorance is one of the rewards for playing in a properly compelling megadungeon), it’s also important to foreshadow those depths by revealing certain details. These details, in turn, become goals for the PCs to achieve.

(The methods by which this foreshadowing can occur are essentially limitless: For example, the PCs may know that Black Donagal fled into the depths because they saw him do it. They may learn about the minotaur court by questioning a prisoner. They may find a map indicating the location of the Hall of Golden Maidens (if only they could identify one of the landmarks on their map). And so forth, not to mention divinations and magical visions.)

At this point, we can successfully return to the idea of “exploration” as a meaningful goal. Because while “exploring for the sake of exploring” is unfocused, exploring because you want to find the Tunnel of Black Rainbows is more than specific enough.

But we don’t have to stop there: The features of a megadungeon are people, places, and things. And all of these features can be foreshadowed and, thus, become goals. And out of people, places, and things every story in the history of the world has been told.

The default gets them playing. But once they start playing, there’s no limit to the things they can find or the goals they can discover.

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9 Responses to “Treasure Maps & The Unknown: Goals in the Megadungeon”

  1. Beedo says:

    I like the endpoint of you analysis; old school gaming rewards treasure over combat, instead of making the megadungeon about clearing monsters, let’s make the goals centered around treasure.

    I started to say the classic treasure map is a bit prosaic – but it’s not. For instance, I’m having a hard time recalling treasure maps even in recent commercial megadungeon offerings like Stonehell or the Mad Archmage one.

    I’ll look forward to seeing how this develops and where you take it next.

  2. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    This is dovetailing with some of my recent thoughts. Due to lack of consistent time available to prep material, our group is thinking about shifting our next game to a published megadungeon-style game. I’m planning to use vanilla 3.5 for the game — we’ve done a lot of house-ruling for the past several years, but at this point I think we’re just looking for comfortable rather than perfect, and we can run & play that game in our sleep (and not too infrequently, one or more of us _are_ effectively playing in our sleep). But the one thing I’m seriously thinking about changing from the default is how to award XP. And what I’m thinking about doing is not awarding XP for combat, but awarding it for treasure. Specifically, probably allowing characters to sacrifice treasure for XP, probably on a 1gp-for-1XP basis. (There are some issues I need to think through about this, I know.)

    I think this will have some desirable effects. First, it gives players an interesting choice to make: do I want to use that treasure to buy better gear, or do I want to cash it in to improve my character’s level? Second, while most treasure will be gained through combat, I think it will encourage outside-of-the-box thinking for ways to get the treasure *without* fighting, especially when the guardians seem excessively dangerous. And as you mention, it will shift the game’s focus subtly.

    Of course OD&D and AD&D both awarded experience for treasure amassed; combat XP was intended to be incidental. And when we played those games, we house-ruled this away and only awarded XP for combat, generally. This made more sense from a “at least I can sort of see why fighting would make you better at fighting; how does getting richer make you better, though?” standpoint, but it really slowed down advancement, and focused attention on killing above all else. Our group is pretty heavily simulationist, but I think we can all get behind a shift of this kind, if for the change if nothing else. We’ll see how it goes.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Interesting question for which I don’t have an answer: D&D’s default goals are “kill monsters” (XP) and “get treasure” (GP). (Note how they’re both given tangible tracking mechanisms.) Basically, power and money rendered into forms which can be infinitely varied and then used to stock dungeon rooms.

    Is there another “default goal” which could satisfy those conditions?

    Consider the hexcrawl: Here exploration is given a tangible tracking method insofar as you can “map the hex” (thus extending your map); but this is little different than simply mapping a dungeon (which, as I’ve noted, has the problem of lack of specificity). For the hexcrawl I’m developing, I’m tying this exploration back into the treasure mechanic by offering cash rewards for exploring; but I’ll need to vary those rewards according to the value/interest of what they find. (Chgowiz offers exploration XP to similar results.)

    But is there something completely separate from XP/GP that we could be doing?

  4. Sashas says:

    When I was an undergrad, the gaming group that I played with had a highly mercenary slant. There were occasionally good people in the party, but most of our characters were involved in the adventure primarily as a means to an end. (Sometimes this was even literally “for the loot”.) What I find strange is that even though a significant portion of the party was at all times interested in loot and disinterested in combat, we still played in a basically clear-the-dungeon format. If I were to do something like that again, I think I would advocate for tying XP to rooms discovered and loot acquired, rather than monsters smashed.

  5. Andrew says:

    I have a setting that is a collection of hundreds of tombs from a primeval empire, out on an island. From a base town, adventurers have been going in the tombs for over 800 years. But they keep going; they are downcurrent of islands packed with monsters, and on top of amphibious kingdoms that itch to expand, so there’s always stuff to clear out.

    The point is, scholars study the primeval empire stuff because they want to figure out the lost art of shaman magic. So they have a museum with maps of the tombs, as well as can be done. If you get a better map, they’ll pay for it. If you get a better rubbing from the walls with the cuneiform history, they’ll pay for that too. If you want to get good materials first hand, you can sell them to collectors who don’t have ones from the museum. If you manage to get artifacts that were too heavy or too cheap for other groups to lug out, that’s premium stuff.

    Further, scholars who study these maps in the safety of the museum are always thinking they’ve discovered a new secret passage that MUST be HERE. So they hire adventurers to go get it. Or they want a better copy of a mural on the wall at this depth in this tomb, so the job is to escort the artist in and keep the monsters off his back long enough for him to replicate it.

    Then there’s the matter of adventurers who had good stuff and died in there and did not have their loot recovered; go back through the license logs, find out where someone rich fell, and go looking for their remains.

    In this setting, the guilds send in fresh faces every six months to get blooded and get advanced enough to get better postings in the guild. Keeps the monster population down.

    In this way, exploration IS loot, if you have the proper skills to record them. The better your map, the better your rubbing, the better your artistic approximation with important cultural details, the more loot to be had for standing in a place and looking at something and not having a camera handy.

  6. Andrew says:

    Another main reason players play is they want to see their characters get cooler. How can the dungeon crawl be linked to character advancement?

    If a guild sends a character on a mission, and then rewards the character for good service, this could unlock access to better training, better mission intelligence, better leadership positions, better etc. So political advancement in the organization through obedience and service is a possibility.

    Rising in a list of “reliables” to get choice missions from those in positions to give them is a good motivator.

    Bounties are a favorite. “This minotaur is playing hell with our efforts near the Nuzagothic temple; bring me the head and you’ll be rewarded.” And the best bounties go to the top-notch hunters first.

    Finally, give them a rival group of adventurers, and let the bragging rights at the tavern be the stake.

  7. Andrew says:

    Upon reflection, I think another big reason to “clear the dungeon” is if there are areas a group does NOT explore, that may feel like wasted work to the average DM. You finished up this shiny thing–everyone should see it.

  8. PhelanArcetus says:

    Andrew’s point is good; nobody likes wasted effort.

    The party I’m in tends to go in not with the goal of clearing the dungeon, but of either killing a specific foe in the dungeon, or acquiring a specific treasure. The treasure is rarely of direct monetary value. Rather, it’s a key item or bit of information related to our ongoing goals. (A few times it has been straight cash, when we had no pressing needs plot-wise, and felt our cash supply was low.)

    Combat does take up a huge portion of our game time (a large party contributes, certainly), but our goal is never to clear the entire dungeon. We might check that room that we’re sure doesn’t have the treasure to secure our backtrail, but we’re almost always in a dungeon to secure the item we need for plot progression or eliminate the important part of a threat. Often we have allies so we don’t need to worry about clearing the rank & file enemies to eliminate the threat; we need to eliminate the leadership, or the key magical support, or similar.

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