Sunday, October 8, 2023

Mythic Underworld Dungeon Delving Motivations

Given a mythic underworld dungeon that is actually The Underworld, why the heck would PCs want to go there?

The Debtor - Rent, bar tab, wizard college student loans, and/or child support are almost due, and you're allergic to "real work".

The Mad Lad - You're a literal psychopath who knows no fear and thinks exploring the underworld sounds like fun

The Smuggler - You "lost" a shipment of top-quality pipeweed belonging to Don Jobbo the Halfling Godfather.  Surely even his well-dressed goons wouldn't be crazy enough to look for you here.  Roll again for your cover story.

The Merchant - You're looking for new markets to trade with and new goods to import from the overworld.  May or may not ultimately be in the employ of Don Jobbo.

The Gambler - You took a really bad bet and lost, and now there's something in the underworld you need to go find to make good on your end.  Roll again to find out who you lost the bet to.

The Pretender - Aspirant to the throne of the Old High King, you need the royal regalia lost in the underworld to assert your rightful claim.

The Rescuer - You seek to recover the soul of a deceased loved one from the underworld.  Harp optional.

The Lost Soul - Cursed by a wicked sorcerer, your body lives but your soul has been banished to the underworld!  Or so the sorcerer claimed.  You seek to recover your own soul.

The Cultist - You seek to free the Old Ones from their imprisonment in the underworld and bring an end to the rein of the gods of law.  You might want to roll again for a cover story.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - You seek the lore and relics of the Usurper, an archmage who challenged the gods, met a bad end, and had his personal effects and/or body parts scattered through the underworld in retribution.

The Paladin in Hell - You're on a crusade to slay as many servants of chaos as possible, and where better to do it than in the underworld itself?  Smite and cleave, until it is done.

AD&D 1e PHB, page 23

The Inquisitor - You seek to prevent the release of the Old Ones by thwarting the schemes of their cultists, who surely have an interest in the Underworld where their masters are imprisoned.  You may not actually have any authority but you're not going to let that stop you from doing whatever you deem necessary.

The Dead Man - You have suffered a terrible shame, and are now compelled to go on a quest to die well in atonement, so as to erase the shame from your family name.  How better to die well than boldly facing the terrors of the underworld?

The Sworn Brother - You owe your life to another PC and fully intend to follow them into hell and back.

The Clerk - You have been tasked by the Celestial Bureaucracy with serving legal paperwork to an entity residing in the Underworld (possibly one of the deceased, possibly a demon lord).

The Stranger - You're from a distant time and place and heard there might be a way home through the underworld.  You're still just a 1st-level fighter though, be ye astronaut, caveman, cowboy, or samurai.

The Family Businessman - Your father made his fortune with one big score from the underworld, as did his father before him.  Plumbing the underworld is just the done thing.  You have lots of siblings and cousins, and you had lots of uncles before they all tried their hand at "the done thing"...

The Gentleman Adventurer - Her Majesty's archives regarding the underworld are woefully incomplete; perhaps bringing back extensive notes will finally earn you that knighthood.  Sadly it's been a very long trek full of misfortunes and you find yourself bereft of funds...

The Unforgiving - Someone pissed you off so bad that killing 'em once wasn't enough; you have resolved to scour the underworld to find them and inflict further suffering on them in the afterlife.

The Gourmand - Having grown bored of the delicacies of the overworld, you have come to the underworld to sample its exotic and forbidden foodstuffs, however ill-advised this might be.  I hear the pomegranates are great this time of year.

The Simp - You read too many salacious scrolls and now you got the thirst for that succubussy.  Surely the underworld is the right place to seek them?  Accept no substitutes.

The Supplicant - You've done some bad things and you're pretty sure you're not gonna have a good afterlife.  You have come to meet lower powers and see if you can do them some favors now in return for some favors later.

The Evangelist - Your mission is to bring posthumous salvation to the dead by converting them to the true faith.  Your sect is heterodox and there's much debate over which rites are required for posthumous salvation and whether it's possible at all, but you're not about to let some theorizing scholastics stop you.

The Would-Beast - You despise your human frailty and seek to drink deep of the Well of Chaos to "transcend" it through mutation.

Tables by alignment:


  1. The Pretender
  2. The Rescuer
  3. The Paladin in Hell
  4. The Inquisitor
  5. The Evangelist
  6. The Clerk
  7. The Sworn Brother
  8. The Dead Man


  1. The Debtor
  2. The Mad Lad
  3. The Smuggler
  4. The Merchant
  5. The Gambler
  6. The Lost Soul
  7. The Stranger
  8. The Family Businessman
  9. The Gentleman Adventurer
  10. The Gourmand


  1. The Cultist
  2. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
  3. The Unforgiving
  4. The Simp
  5. The Supplicant
  6. The Would-Beast

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Quantity Begets Quality - 15 Room Dungeons?

Last post's discussion of quantity begetting quality and Dungeon23 got me thinking about dungeon levels.  I've been noodling around with the theory of gauntlet dungeons for checks calendar almost three years (2021 - map generation and wandering lairs.  2022 - disruptive+fodder encounter design.  2023 - thinking about blockers), and I still haven't overcome inertia, because I want what I make to be good.  But this "quantity begets quality" argument suggests that this may be entirely the wrong approach - I should try making lots of potentially-crappy dungeon levels that challenge things and see what sticks.

If one were to approach challenge dungeon construction through the lens of continuous habit, the question becomes "what's a reasonable self-contained minimal unit that I could make a habit of producing, such that I could produce them in quantity?"

I think for a challenge dungeon, it's probably small dungeon levels, not just individual rooms.  A while back I picked up the Mausolean Maze of Mondulac the Mad.  It's an interesting product but I never reviewed it properly.  It's a collection of stocked, tileable geomorphs with a "hedge maze full of undead" theme.  I like its statement of "good vanilla" as an ideal for published products.  I think it has a couple problems though.  The author adopted the constraint that the level map and key much fit on a single pair of facing pages, which forces small maps and short keys.  The most keyed items in any single geomorph is 10, and there are very few (if any) empty rooms.  It just feels very dense, and there are only a couple of 'morphs that support 1st-level characters.  If you stumble in at 1st and actually do random selection when you move from one to the next as suggested, it's going to be a very rough time.

Tileable / composable small levels as a minimum unit is a pretty promising idea.  And in "challenge dungeon" philosophy, each one can challenge one or two tactics.  For a "dungeon dimensions" or "mad wizard did it" funhouse dungeon, tiling in euclidean space is also not required for composability.  Portals and teleporters solve many problems.

So what is the right size?  I think it might be about 15 rooms.  Using B/X's or ACKS' stocking tables, this gets you something like 5 empty rooms (one with treasure), 5 monster rooms (likely one lair), 2-3 traps (one with treasure), and 2-3 specials.  This seems like about the minimum amount of stuff to get a proper stand-alone "OSR dungeoneering experience".  It's enough rooms that it could conceivably be jayquayed, there's enough monsters to maybe pick up some allies against the lair (light faction play), there's likely to be nonzero treasure from the number of empties and traps and maybe the lair.  Sufficient empty rooms to rest in, route through, or mistakenly search for traps.  If you're tiling these, they could easily each be "a lair and its sphere of influence / territory".  Obviously these ratios are a starting point and all parameters are subject to mutation and selection, but it seems about right.

I wonder if such a format is an answer to the Five Room Dungeon meme, which is too small for much jayquaying and usually run very railroady, often quantum-ogre-y, with little interest in player agency...

As for the cadence...  I could definitely see doing a 15-room dungeon level per week.  Spend a night on the concept and encounter table, a night on the map.  The 5 empty rooms are easy, just need a little dressing.  That leaves you with 10 rooms to stock in 5 days, so about two rooms a night, some of which are likely to be pretty trivial.  And if you actually managed a tiny dungeon per week minus sickness/vacation, you're looking at 50 levels a year.  If you take the best 10 of them and glue them together, you've got a 150-room "kilodungeon".  And if your players decide to hare off in some other direction, you've got plenty of "b-sides" material ready to go...

One interesting question that perhaps my old prep logs would answer is - if you're running a game concurrently with trying to do this, would one level a week be enough that you could actually "throw away" a good percentage of it?  If your players burn through 15 rooms a week, and you prep 15 rooms a week, you aren't accumulating any slack for bad experiments.  Maybe this is where the megadungeon comes into play; restocking old areas that players retread frequently might be less work than coming up with new ideas, and the pace of exploration of new areas slows as distances from the entrance increase, so your ability to accumulate a buffer increases over time?

From the logs, it looks like the most new rooms they explored in one session was eight  during the first session, and that tapered down a bit for a while as they went back and forth with a lair, and then picked up again and stabilized around five new rooms per session.  So maybe 15 rooms per week is actually enough to build up a decent lead.  On the other hand, the Dungeon23 approach of one room a day would barely have kept ahead of my old players, provided that the rate of exploration didn't drop off again.

As for actual size of a tile...  I think 16x16 is probably plenty.  Given 15 rooms or so, if the typical size is 30x30, that uses 135 of the 256 squares in a 16x16 block.  So that leaves us with plenty of space for big rooms, long hallways, secrets, etc.  And room to deviate up from 15 rooms, I suppose.  12x12 would be adequate if we were willing to commit to minimal space between rooms.  14x14 might be ideal but it's just such a weird gross number, whereas 256 is pleasingly round.  If I decide I have the wrong tilesize, oh well.  Putting little shim-zones with boring hallways in between tiles seems pretty viable.

I don't know if I want to commit to creating dungeon levels on a cadence, but at the very least embracing the ethos of "don't wait pontificating for perfection, just make stuff and some of it will be good" and fiddling with making levels is probably something I should start doing.