Thursday, 31 December 2020

The last lantern-bearer: a mechanism for megadungeon campaigns

He always gets away ...

One thing I want to do in 2021 is get an episodic megadungeon campaign going alongside our daily D&D game. That campaign is inching up into higher levels, with most of the PCs around level six. I envisage the megadungeon game as being dingier, dicier and deadlier - featuring low-level characters with a high chance of mortality. It'll serve as an occasional refresher, an option for when some players can't make it, and a default setting for games with my occasional adult group. Every expedition will be perilous - and players shouldn't expect every character to come back.

That threatens continuity, of course. But I think I've found a way to resolve it: the last lantern-bearer. No matter what happens, he or she gets away to tell the tale - and fall into the employ of the next party. 

A while ago, I mused on the failings of pretty much every RPG encumbrance system I've encountered. Our long Zoom campaign has borne this out. With most of the character sheets out of my sight, the party always seems to be carrying a remarkable amount of stuff. I offset this to some extent with environmental restrictions ("no one wears armour in town/on a ship/in the desert"), yet the sheer volume of items carried continues to thumb its nose at realism. 

The coin-based treasures in older modules makes this worse. Today, I walked a couple of miles into town to obtain £5 in pennies and tuppences: basing for the great many 1/72 miniatures that will feature in this megadungeon. The weight of a mere 400 copper coins was noticeable on the way back - and trudging through the snow with many thousands would have been a struggle, especially if other gear were involved.


All based up and ready for the party ...

That leads to a simple default for the megadungeon campaign. Players carry their own gear, whatever gems and jewellery they can pocket or wear, and about 100 gp (in various metals). Everything else - the looted idols, the stolen artworks, the exquisite temple carpets - goes on the mules. And who tends to those? Why, the lantern-bearers, of course.

Here's how it works. Every party is accompanied by a team of mules or camels, and those are tended by a team of lantern-bearers - probably five or six. They do not usually fight; they do often flee. And at least one of them always gets away.

That sounds arbitrary, and indeed it is. But the concept serves three useful functions. 

First, the lantern-bearers provide a pool of reserve characters. There's nothing new there, of course. But these aren't henchmen. The sole circumstances in which they fight are when PCs die and their gear becomes available (offering, in game terms, the opportunity for the lantern-bearers to become PCs). The assumption is that the lantern-bearers are impecunious local youths. "Well, I guess you'd better put his armour on, son. If you can hold that spear steady, you can earn a share of the loot."

Second, the lantern-bearers remove all the usual encumbrance and lighting concerns. Their main tasks are to steer the mules, which carry the loot, and provide plenty of light. Those concerns are thus lifted from the PCs, leaving them free to concentrate on exploration, larceny and murder: the stuff they really enjoy. Because lantern-bearers don't offer a threat, monsters are likely to deal with the PCs first - and that gives the lantern-bearers ample opportunity to hide or flee (grabbing some light loot, perhaps, placing their lantern on the floor and trusting to the auxiliary torches they generally carry).

Third, the lantern-bearers provide continuity between parties. The problem with really dangerous megadungeons is that the wiping out of a party makes a second foray a little artificial. The players have already been there even though the PCs have not. But a recurring lantern-bearer or two plugs this hole nicely. Now the new party can learn all about the woes of the last one from someone who was there - and lived to tell the tale. It's artificial, sure, this inevitable survival of at least one lantern-bearer (and his inevitable hiring by the next party), but it's much less artificial than having the party learn from their deceased forebears without any connection. And if sessions are intermittent, the meta-gaming conceit can lead to appropriate in-game reminders: "That door, sir! That's the door that swallowed Captain Juras last spring. Be careful, sir, I beg you ...". 

What this allows me to do is to use the mega-dungeon for a series of occasional one-offs that build on each other despite frequent total-party kills. And by making TPKs a very real danger, I'm hoping to keep the players keen for revisiting - and revenge!

Happy Hogmanay!

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