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Thursday, February 6, 2014

How Important is the Plot to a (Mega)Dungeon?

How important is the plot to a (mega)dungeon? 

It's a simple question with some not so simple answers, so I figured I'd throw it up as its own post.

Is consistency important?

Is it more important to line up the staircases between levels on the map or to ensure the various plot elements don't contradict each other?

Are contradictions in the plot good or bad?

Does it make a difference if the dungeon is "old school" or "new school"?


  1. I think "plot" term is distracting here. I'm not sure the backstory of what happened in this place before the characters showed up is "plot." I think contradictions in the history are okay if they are surface contradictions that are actually consistent if you have all the information.

    If you have a mythic underworld or funhouse dungeon, then consistency is not terribly important. If you have a site that does not have that kind of warping influence, then yeah; lack of consistency comes across as sloppy.

    If a player says "but wait" and points out a contradiction, I want to say, "Interesting question! Maybe you could find out more" and not "Don't bother with that, it isn't important." If I've bought a dungeon, I'd rather the answer be worked out already than to find the gap and scramble to fill it myself.

    I will always make changes to something I buy before I run it; I can't help myself. But I do want the original product to be consistent and coherent in its own backstory.

  2. I like a framework narrative. I don't think I'd call that a plot though.

    I love the history of Stonehell Dungeon. It gives the dungeon weight and depth while allowing for all kinds of weirdness to turn up.

    Taken further, a dungeon crafted by a Chaos Lord to challenge all comers is enough narrative to allow for all kinds of otherwise inconsistent encounters. It doesn't take much, just enough of a peg to hang my interest on.

    Part of what I like about exploring dungeons is discovering its history. But the framework should be loose so it doesn't take over.

  3. Yeah, I think part of the difficulty here is there are so many moving parts, so many factions, so many historical pieces. Of course it is hard to keep it all straight. For a more traditional dungeon, throttle back on the ambitious history.

    But, if you are going to stuff all these elements in, then do please keep track of them.

  4. Plot? As in 3-10 adventurers meet in a tavern head off into the most insanely dangerous place they can find, kick open doors, and loot?
    Are there other folks in this insanely dangerous place looting it also, hiding some loot, or committing acts best not done of the surface? Heck yeah... I suppose that would be plot also but it isn't more or less important than the adventurers kicking open doors and drinking healing potions (and they are all out of healing potions).

    1. Is it just me, or did JDJarvis just propose the best megadungeon in history?

  5. Site-based locations like dungeons usually present a moment of time - a snapshot of the inhabitants and locations when the adventurers arrive. Sure, those setting pieces should have (brief) backgrounds, they should be internally consistent. If they're intelligent actors, you could even include motivations or goals or include some ideas on how they might react. Tactical reactions and combat plans are fair.

    Use of the word "plot" involves a predetermined ending and a series of actions that are going to result in said end; I don't want to see any of that in my site-based adventure.

    How far do you have to go before motivations and detailed reaction plans become a "plotted adventure"?

    Good question - I know "too far" when I see it.

  6. In a dungeon where part of the exploration is figuring out what went on and using that to leverage further exploration, then consistency is very important, yes. It matters because the information needs to be something that the players can reason their way to through the clues they find. If they can't, then it isn't exploration, it's just reacting to random events.

    1. My experience matches this. A little bit of plot won't hurt, but a lack of consistency will really hurt.

      In published works, you can't sell me maps that don't line up and inconsistencies and tell me it's old school. Or a clever spur to my imagination. It's just shoddy work!

    2. In my Castle of the Mad Archmage, some of the stairs were deliberately designed not to line up. They use a subtle teleportation effect, specifically to frustrate attempts to comprehensively map the place.

    3. Joseph Bloch: That's cool, because there is a subtle teleport effect. If the stairs don't line up in Dwimmermount, it is because there is a cartography mistake. Big difference, to my way of thinking.

    4. Joseph: Which is awesome, and good design for a dungeon that is explicitly the creation of a "Mad Archmage", or one which is affected by the factors in Stonehell that I won't mention because spoilers. In a dungeon like Dwimmermount, though, which is designed to be the long-sealed fortress of a science-fantasy people (plus spoiler-y stuff), that sort of thing would be distracting.

    5. Does that work? Off by a little would have my players just note that the stairs connect and assume they made a small error somewhere. Off by a lot, though, and they'll suspect a trick. They'd still map, though. A consistent anomaly is still consistency, though, so it's all good.

    6. Oh, it certainly doesn't work *forever*, but few tricks do. But when they suddenly find "another" spiral staircase that's 20' wide, and take it up and end up in a place where they think they know what the geography should be like, but isn't, it is a delight to a sadistic DM's mind to watch their mental faculties overclocking trying to figure out where they went wrong. Usually, they don't figure it out right away, which is enough. :-)

    7. The back story on a dungeon like this means you don't need consistency. By way of contrast to Dwimmermount, which I think does.


  7. I do not mind structure, but I'm not interested in narrative. I'm not concerned by inconsistencies especially if they can add some weirdness to the game. I don't think an experienced DM needs a plot to an adventure, they can provide it themselves, make it up as the game progresses. What is needed is a solid adventure with intriguing room descriptions, atmosphere, interesting characters, wicked traps, consistency with monsters and npcs and cartography so that at the very least your stairs line up from one level to the next. Background and story can be fine, but that isn't what I buy a megadungeon for.

  8. Plot must be differentiated between DM driven railroading and background story. It is the latter that you are talking about and it definitely needs to be consistent. Despite this, it would not be unusual if it did not appear consistent to the player characters, because they are only seeing bits and pieces of the whole, or getting secondhand information from monsters.


  9. I want narrative seeds and setting info. "Plot" implies sequences of events that must be experienced in a semi-coherent order. These shouldn't be the main purpose of the scenario/module if it is designed to be an open exploratory experience. Instead, the "plot node" moments need to be embedded in the scenario in such a way that what might be otherwise construed as random encounters in rooms can be interpreted as having narrative coherency if they are experienced in a certain order. The order of those "plot nodes" should not be forced--it is akin to saying, well, if you hit rooms 5, 8, 9, 12, and 24, and in that order, you will learn clues to understand that the bugbears in room 5 are actually the minions of the lich in room 12, and that you can release them from their thralldom by figuring out the puzzle in room 24--and that the PCs can actually string that logic together by going through those rooms in that order. But if they don't--if they hit room 5 and then wander down to room 34 and then go through a teleportation trap to room 24, then they miss the clues and miss some of the embedded narrative. That doesn't make for less of a fun gaming experience--it just means that they've generated and constructed their own particular narrative experience on the scenario rather than experienced the intentional but non-explicit narrative embedded into the scenario by the writer. To me, good scenarios/modules do both: they allow for open exploration of a space by the PCs, but they also have an embedded narrative that can make that exploration more immersive and rewarding if it is not forced upon the players.

  10. It depends on what you and your players want. For my 2 cents I think that there needs to be enough to provide some purpose and depth, but what matters is how that comes forward. There can be an open ended plot. It doesn't have to be narrow.

  11. The answers are more fascinating than the question. By my reckoni, we've interpreted 'plot' to mean story line, structure or organization of the dungeon inhabitants and/or physical structure. Taking them in order, storylines tend to be campaign specific and often lack portability - whereas greed always motivates the majority of the party. So plot= consistent pre-packaged stpry line isn't a concern to me. As mentioned above, the players write their own plot.
    Rational or consistent stocking or why is the troll here and goblins there IS important to me as a DM. The notorius purple worm under the bed in Tegel Manor comes to mind as a violation of this principle.
    As far as consistency in cartography, on a level, sure that a no-brainer. The wall (usually) needs to exist on both sides. But stairways between levels? When you draw by hand it's easy to miscount squares between sheets of paper, but it's even easier to describe the stairs as twisting and turning irregularly between the levels. That little piece of handwavium explains all sorts of minor alignment issues between levels.

    1. Man, Tegal Manor was a hell of a lot of fun.

  12. Reprinted and expanded from the other thread because this thread is more relevant and I'd like to discuss:

    I think commercial adventures need plots, as in "world in motion" kind of plots where a series of things happen a certain way unless the PCs intervene. I'm not talking railroads where the PCs are forced to do anything. I'm talking about a series of events such as "Jon the Butcher is having a drink at the local tavern when he gets into an argument with Bill the Wine Seller. The two get into a fistfight. Jon leaves the tavern, but waits for Bill to exit later and then attacks him with his cleaver."

    If the PCs are at the tavern, they may witness the argument and intervene. If the PCs are walking past the tavern, they may see Jon laying in wait. Or they may happen upon the dead body of Bill the Wine Seller. The "plot" of the adventure centers around the murder of Bill the Wine Seller (and possibly a follow up investigation). A commercial adventure should provide a series of actions and reactions that occur IF the PCs decide to get involved.

    I don't think a product such as a megadungeon needs an overarching plot, as in if you treat it like a city setting supplement, all you need are locations, NPCs/monsters, and tons of hooks. For example, I don't now and never have considered a module like Tomb of Horrors an adventure. It's a great module don't get me wrong, but really it's just a bunch of interesting rooms cobbled together.

    What sets that apart from say a tavern full of interesting rooms in the middle of a city? (I would call that a supplement.) Or the numerous locations inside the city itself? (Another supplement.) You can have player-driven adventures inside the tavern or inside the city just like you can have a player-driven adventure inside the Tomb of Horrors, but the city itself is not an adventure, it's a supplement, and I think the Tomb itself is not an adventure, it's a (highly detailed and location-specific) supplement, which is how I think most megadungeons should be presented.

    Internal consistency depends on the nature of the dungeon. I think if the designer doesn't confuse legend with history, everything should work out fine. For example:

    Chapter 7, Factions, clearly states that the Spawn of Arach-Nacha has given the Mad Dwarf the power to create kobolds.

    Can easily become:
    Legends say that the Spawn of Arach-Nacha has given the Mad Dwarf the power to create kobolds.

    Level 1 says that the Mad Dwarf is just mad, and the Spawn of Arach-Nacha is lying.

    Can become:
    Many believe that the Mad Dwarf is just mad, and the Spawn of Arach-Nacha is lying.