Monday, 4 January 2021

Megadungeon mechanics part five: the joys of one hit die and the implications of what has gone before

I mentioned in the previous post in this series that my forthcoming megadungeon campaign will be more like a wargame than our main D&D campaign. That could be  misleading, though, as I mean it in only one very specific sense: that combats will mostly be of the one-hit variety. This is going to be - for most players - a low-level campaign. A character that gets to level two will be cherished. And one that gets to level three will be prized. 

In part, this limited advancement will come down to player decisions. As I've noted before, I'm using gold for XP - but only if that gold is spent on unspecified advancement-related stuff: training, study, sacrifices, etc. I'm also going to make equipment - notably armour - much more expensive than it is in the common iterations of D&D. I want a mail hauberk to be a significant treasure item in its own right. Full plate harness might cost as much as levelling up. And then there's the process of hiring mercenaries that I've set out: the common way to do this is to have them fight for an equal (or double or triple) share of the expedition's loot, which will cut down the amount of gold available to PC. When they can be hired for a day-rate, that day-rate will be high. All of this means that the players will be constantly choosing between advancement, equipment and assistance. 

It also means that most PCs will be on a solitary hit die for much of the time. I'm toying with the idea of having PCs roll their hit dice for each expedition, although that might prompt a mutiny. But as monsters will be doing fighter weapon damage (d8/d10) for the most part, even second-level fighters will be vulnerable to a lucky stroke from a hobgoblin poleaxe (d10).

So characters will be more like Balin (taken out by one orc-arrow) than Boromir (pin-cushioned by countless arrows and still fighting to the last). This has three main implications.

1. Big battles can be handled easily. If the players hire 20 mercenaries to raid a goblin lair, we might conceivably have 50 or more miniatures on the table. But if we know that most of the goblins will be killed in a single attack and that many of the mercenaries (and PCs) will be too, we can look forward to an initial frenzy of d20 rolls and then a rapid clearing of the battlefield. Mass combat won't involve much more book-keeping than a typical skirmish wargame, and the deadliness should keep it exciting. I expect a lot of traditional PC activity (sneaking, stealing, trickery) to take place during large-scale combats as well as as an alternative to them.

2. Shields shan't be splintered. Because I want highly dangerous encounters, I won't be using Trollsmyth's excellent "shields shall be splintered" rule. We use that in our regular D&D campaign, and it's great. But in the megadungeon game of fully equipped expeditions, it will just lead to mules being burdened with umpteen spare shields. What I'll probably do to compensate is have larger shields modify AC by 2 or 3 rather than 1, which will be reserved for bucklers. So a tower/kite/buckler hierarchy of 3/2/1 modifiers is probably the way to go - although I'll be thinking about this a bit more. 

3. Tactical retreats will be common. When running our main D&D group through the Caves of Chaos last year, I though that one of the most satisfying sessions was when a raid on the hobgoblin caves utterly failed. It ended with some PCs badly wounded and the hobgoblins hunting for them with hounds in the forest. And of course, the PCs swore revenge - which was all the more satisfying when it was eventually achieved. If your characters have only one hit die apiece, you're going to be very sensitive to the turning of the battle's tide. And that leads on to the next point.

4. Game sessions may involve multiple expeditions. I really like this concept: that three or four hours of play might not be confined to a single raid, but could feature two or three. In running our 250+-session lockdown campaign, I've observed that the joy of the game comes as much from the story that emerges between the sessions as from the sessions themselves. I want to reproduce that even in an episodic and occasional campaign, so that grudges can form, vengeance can be taken and best-laid plans can gang aft aglae. And the best way of doing that is to have more story in a single session. For that reason, downtime will be almost instant. Once the PCs are out of the dungeon, we move straight on to preparing the next expedition: "Two months pass, and your wounds are healed. Assemble your new party! What's the plan now?". As the megadungeon will have many entrances, there should always be a different approach worth trying - whether that's launching a diplomatic mission to attempt to recruit another faction to your current cause, attacking from a different direction or hiring a squadron of stone-masons to block up some of the entrances of the dungeon altogether.

With the lights out, it's more dangerous ...

I've also been considering some other implications of my previous posts. Most obviously, the continuity conceit of the last lantern-bearer won't work if many of the PCs have infravision. So perhaps all PCs should be humans. That frees up dwarfs and elves to be villains, which is just as it should be

Then there's the presence of pack animals. I want these to be essential for expeditions to the megadungeon, for realism (food, blankets, water), to simplify encumbrance considerations and to allow for the removal of large items of treasure. They do, of course, make the party more visible, noisy and exposed - but I think that can be turned to the party's - and the game's - advantage too. If you're pursued by angry dire wolves, you might think about hobbling your mules and abandoning them to their awful fate so that you can get away. That's one option that the last lantern-bearer often has - and it's one reason that he always gets away.

The danger to mules also means that it's not only monsters that move around the dungeon, but treasure too. That provides a great boost to emergent narrative, I think. If the dire wolves dragged down your mules outside the hobgoblin stronghold, what has happened to the golden idol you looted from the troglodytes? The hobgoblins probably have it - but what have they done with it? Could you somehow play the vengeful trogs off against them? Or have they returned it to the trogs and forged an alliance with them as a result? Does that mean that their lair will now be guarded by chameleon-like stink lizards that you won't see until they're upon you? Or has a drooling ogre rescued the statue from the dire wolves' leavings and dragged it to his cave where he's now attempting to woo it by piling severed heads in front of it each day? 

That's for the players to find out ...


  1. Well this is well thought out. It has been years since I role played.. read, `last century'!

    1. Thanks! I'm hoping to find a sweet spot between wargaming and role-playing with this project: one in which tactics matter a lot, and one in which I can do my utmost to thwart the players!

  2. Another interesting and thought-provoking post - thank you. I utilised a different reward system in my last few D&D campaigns - I moved everything to a silver based system except for weapons and armour (and many other metal-based goods), which stayed at their gold prices. These items thus became prized possessions and battlefield looting for arms became just as important as picking up those silver pieces! Treasure dropped down a level too; all gold became silver, all silver became copper etc. This was commented on by players at first but they soon got into the groove.
    I also tried to make my dungeons "living" - if that ogre moved out of his room (i.e. he was killed or captured by a party), then something else would eventually move in (randomly rolled) to fill the void. PCs never knew what was going to be encountered on each dungeon visit, even if they cleared great swathes of it on a previous romp.
    I like the idea of the 1HD character - I always start my PCs off at "0" level for a session or two to make the players feel vulnerable (all have the standard 1d6 for a human), before they level up to 1st and gain some well needed extra HPs in the form of their class hit dice.
    Sorry, gabbled on a bit there - this subject matter is really exciting stuff.

    1. Thanks! And don't worry at all about the length of comments: the more the merrier!

      Your silver-based system is a great idea and a brilliant way of getting armour and weapon prices to a suitable level. I'm toying with the idea of not bothering with thieves, so that unarmoured or lightly armoured fighters fill that role. I'd have to think carefully about how to balance speed against protection, though, unless I use The Fantasy Trip, which does all that through its strength/dexterity balance and penalties. But in any case, I want metal armour to be something that might be worth mounting an expedition to retrieve if its wearer falls in battle.

      And yes, living dungeons are great. I'm going to put a lot of effort into making the locations recognisable and memorable - more so, perhaps, than their transient occupants.

  3. One option I like for re-rolling HP each expedition is to give adjustments to the roll for cost-of-living expenses. The standard flat roll assumes rough living, but if you spend more to stay in nicer accommodations then you'll be more fit and rested for your next expedition. It also turns relationships and hospitality into a kind of mechanical reward - if you get into the Castellan's good graces and are allotted room to sleep in the Inner Keep, now you've got high quality rooms for free (for as long as you remain in good standing at court).

    1. That's a great idea! It could be used both to encourage role-playing and to give a mechanical reward, as you say, for higher expenditure. If you pay for high living (or otherwise obtain it), you could roll twice your hit dice and take the best batch.

    2. Excellent idea. I'm toying with how the gold PCs spend "in town" could affect the relationships and mechanics there, and I hadn't thought of this...

  4. You're on a roll here JC, more solid and thought provoking points. Following this series with interest!

    This reflects how I feel the flow of the game is often best; balancing risk and reward, stories and recurring antagonists emerging through play, fast and exhilarating combat...

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