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Monday, August 29, 2011

Improving the World's Largest Dungeon

Today I had a very fun session with the Order. I have been running them through a published adventure (with some changes) for Eberron "The Grasp of the Emerald Claw" and they may soon be reaching the adventure's conclusion. During tonight's game I noticed a few rather glaring mistakes in the adventure which had to be corrected on the fly.

This reminded me of another adventure I own that contains quite a few errors: The World's Largest Dungeon. I purchases the WLD purely on impulse shortly after the book was published (I had planned to split the cost with my current gaming group. That sadly never happened) and although I've read through quite a lot of the adventure and used parts for inspirational material I've never managed to get any groups far into the dungeon proper.

As I've said before I'm a game collector so I'm no stranger to plunking down cash for books that will do nothing more than decorate my shelves so that doesn't sting too much. But the WLD is pricey by any standards and it's a lot of money to put down on a book you've basically never used. The biggest problem (aside from the daunting challenge of running the WLD in the first place) is the fact that the dungeon is sadly not put together very well in the first place. The place is riddled with poorly balanced encounters, confusingly random rooms and traps, minimal creativity and general errors (my biggest pet peeve is what the WLD does with the tarrasque...it's just sad). 

Now, I'm sure that there are people who, like me, purchased the WLD planning to use all or part of it for their gaming group and ended up frustrated by the ratio of quality to quantity. This post (and other posts like it) are for those people. Also should anyone plan on purchasing the adventure in the future (pdf versions are available much cheaper than the initial price tag) this may prove a useful resource. The goal of this series of posts is to go through the dungeon section by section (if not necessarily room by room) and work out what makes the adventure flawed, deadly or just dull. The goal is to do more than just review the adventure, it is to repair it!


The Basics

The explanation for the World's Largest Dungeon isn't exactly inspired but it gets the job done at first glance. Basically the place is designed as a massive prison for evil constructed by celestials. The largest prison ever constructed, intended to hold demons, undead and abominations. Over time the dungeon has fallen into disrepair and the strength of its celestial guardians has waned. 

Now, I've got to give credit that this explanation is better than "a wizard did it" but it's still riddled with inconsistencies. The biggest one being...why? Why did the gods apparently demand a dungeon built to contain massive quantities of evil (rather than destroying it)? Why did they then forget about it? Why, once earthquakes begin demolishing portions of the dungeon, did the gods do effectively nothing (sending only a pair of titans to stand guard over two of the dungeon's entrances). It's been centuries since the dungeon began falling apart and there's no indication that anyone has any plans to try and stop it with the exception of the handful of outmatched celestial beings still acting as jailers.

There are a lot of different ways to handle the explanation for the dungeon. The simplest is of course to keep it as is and everything will be fine. After all, by the time the players learn anything at all about the dungeon's purpose they'll probably be several regions in (and therefore invested months of playtime already) so even if they figure out how full of holes the plot is they'll probably roll with it. Another option is simply to make up your own explanation that fits the dungeon seamlessly into your campaign world. The only problem with that is unless you read and absorb all 800+ pages of the WLD ahead of time your explanation will probably end up being invalidated later on. 

So here's my quicky substitution explanation:

Aeons ago there was a battle against the heavens...all the gods of good, evil, law and chaos faced a single goddess of immense power. This goddess embodied pure, total destruction. The end of existence itself. After a titanic battle it became clear that the goddess would lose so she threw herself on the blades of her enemies...ending her own life. However, in the womb of the goddess was a child. A fetal deity that would grow in power to rival his mother. The other gods did realize this however and they took the goddess's corpse and (unwilling to allow such a being to float freely in the astral realm) they compressed it down to a black sphere of destruction the size of a house...a gigantic sphere of annihilation capable of absorbing gods. They constructed a tomb in the mortal world (no deity would allow such a horror on their home plane) to place the goddess's remains. The task was entrusted only to the gods of law and good, whose servants labored ceaselessly to construct the tomb. However, the dark essence of the goddess could not easily be contained. Demons and devils spawned from thin air around the remains of the goddess like horrific spiritual maggots. The scent of divine decay attracted undead and other terrible beings. 

This is when the true horror began for in her dying throes the goddess pronounced a curse against reality: None would remember her and how close the universe had come to destruction. While their servants had labored to create the tomb the gods had simply forgotten that the goddess ever existed. The tomb was a blind spot in the eyes of the gods and their servants. The celestials who worked vigilantly to maintain the tomb could remember so long as they remained in the dungeon, but if one was sent away (to try and seek aid from the gods) they too would forget. Realizing that they had no hope of reinforcements the celestials did the best with what they had. They expanded the tomb as more horrors arrived, weaving magic into the walls to seal it from the world and make it a trap for everything that was lured in by the dark essence of the goddess. They were even forced to recruit mortals to work on the outer regions of the dungeon, although those workers have long since turned to dust or joined the throngs of undead deeper in the dungeon. 

For a while they managed to achieve victory and kept the growing darkness in the dungeon in check. However in the last several centuries things have been going terribly wrong. The horrible spawn in the dungeon's core is finally ready to be born and the tremors caused by this terrible labor are wreaking havoc on the structure of the dungeon: cracking it's foundation and letting in a flood of new terrors. The celestial custodians are now under siege by the beings that they have imprisoned for so long. 

So, that's that. Probably not perfect but I think it's a tighter explanation than the default one provided. 

Now, the start of the WLD includes some recommendations for running the dungeon. 

The first, Ecology, shows the biggest problem with the dungeon: it was never designed to be run as a single, huge dungeon. Even though that's also the only reason to spend 100 dollars on the thing and the only real justification for it's existence. Certainly none of the regions are fascinating enough on their own to justify the price (and many of them don't make much sense without the overarching explanation for the WLD). In fact the first few pages of the WLD really just seem to be the authors trying to explain themselves. That's hardly a good sign.

Fortunately they do provide a few attempts to explain things like dungeon ecology (although some of those explanations are too silly to ever justify being printed) and it's not too difficult to create a half-way logical dungeon ecology from what they've provided. If you're willing to accept the giant lava flow through the center of the dungeon hasn't toasted everyone (I'm willing to at least). 

They then go on to try and explain why it's okay for them to not include every monster, despite claiming that they did. I'm fine with the fact that they didn't include every animal from anteater to zebra but they certainly should have done more than they did. It's very true that it's better to provide a "fun and useful" experience than it is to be completionist...but when you advertise every monster on the back of your 100$ book you should damn well not have an explanation on page 5 explaining why you actually don't.

The next, short, section "Layout and Design" Tries to explain why the dungeon looks like a product of a random map generator in many places (as opposed to a coherent structure). They tell you straight out that there is no logic to the design. Wonderful. Unfortunately rewriting the maps isn't really something I'm up for. I'll try and justify some of the more ridiculous segments as they come along.

The next sections on The Dungeon Environment are mostly fairly useful. They cover the basics of how the dungeon is built, lit and so on. There's some oddities (for instance they tell you each square on the map is 5 feet...but they recommend that you change it to 10 feet...so why didn't you make it 10 feet in the first place?) but for the most part it's fine. They also tell you that it's practically essential to have a rogue with masterwork lockpicks (something a 1st level character can't really afford) then go on to tell you how many picks a set includes and the penalties for losing/breaking individual lockpicks (-2 for each missing piece). Which is bizarre considering that there's only a -2 penalty for trying to pick the lock with no thieves tools at all and that they don't provide any rules for what might cause your tools to break. So their advice there is best ignored. 

Next they talk about the limitations caused by the magic of the dungeon: no teleportation, no extradimensional travel. First and foremost, ignore what they say about bags of holding. This is a giant dungeon crawl with no breaks. Your PCs will desperately want bags of holding and without them it's going to become a huge pain to calculate carrying capacity, volume of packs, etc. Just refluff the bags. They don't create space in another plane, they just warp space literally creating additional space inside the bag but not outside. 

Then, they talk about Experience Points. Here they point out that if you use the normal experience progression then you'll be far too high level by the time you're done with the first section of the dungeon (and again they point out that you really shouldn't be running their huge, massive dungeon as a huge, massive dungeon). They go on to say that you shouldn't hand out xp, but instead should advance players based on region. However, they never go into how this is supposed to work. They tell you section A is for levels 1-3...but never provide any suggestions on when PCs should advance to 2nd or 3rd level. Likewise the next region is for levels 4-6...so should PCs level up automatically the moment they step in? So my advice is just to ignore their poorly thought out and explained lack of a progression system. Just hand out normal XP for any region where the PCS are within the proper "level range" and then when they exceed the level range cut the XP rewards in half. They'll still probably end up higher than normal level (they're going to be short on magic items anyway, a few extra levels won't hurt). 

They then provide some suggestions on getting players into the WLD. Most are simple but workable. Some are dumb (like the "official" reason that the designers apparently chose). 

They also provide a list of encounter conditions, which is definitely a good idea for a dungeon this size. Creating a standardized set of conditions and rules makes it a lot easier to reference. However they do a very poor job in the book itself of making these encounter conditions make any sense (in fact many rooms seem to have them slapped on at random). 

Now we get to the biggest problem with the World's Largest Dungeon (other than the fact that it was never designed to be played as the World's Largest Dungeon). The basic premise that it was built around is so restrictive and specific that it hurts a lot of classes. The book mentions wizards and druids specifically, but they're hardly the only ones. Here's a list of the different ways the dungeon hurts the various classes...

Fighters, Barbarians, Monks and Rogues: These guys are pretty much unaffected, or at least not anymore restricted than anyone else.

Sorcerers, Clerics and Bards: These guys are pretty much fine in the dungeon. The only issue is material components (which the WLD writers do not address at all). You have two choices: ignore material component restrictions entirely (I typically replace costly material components with 1/25th the gold piece value of the component in XP) or you can enforce the component rules and severely restrict these classes. 

Wizard: Although the WLD claims that wizards get "hosed" it's not really true. There are several enemy wizards in the dungeons and their spellbooks, miscellaneous scrolls and the spells wizards get at each level means that you'll never have a wizard whose completely desperate for new spells. The biggest issue is the cost of the special inks to scribe new spells and that can easily be ignored. 

Paladins: No chance at all of a special mount in the WLD. The ban on summoning effects means that you can't summon one at all. Even if you could, mounted combat is pretty much useless in most of the dungeon environments. But then again, I've never seen a paladin rely heavily on their mount. 

Rangers: Rangers are basically never going to get an animal companion in the dungeon. There are a few places where natural animals are available (assuming your group ever stumbles across them) but for the most part a ranger is going to be stuck going solo. 

Druids: Now, druids really have it the worst. There's no summoning spells in the dungeon. Many of their useful low-level spells are restricted by the nature of the dungeon and the lack of a natural environment hurts them in other ways. Although they can start the game with an animal companion there's almost no chance to get a new one or to replace an animal companion who has perished. The WLD tells you right out that druids should simply be banned. 

This is the biggest indication of poor design in the dungeon. If your dungeon concept is so restrictive that it limits several classes and outright causes one to become unplayable...then perhaps you should have come up with a better concept. 

Here's my advice: 

First, the WLD would probably work better run with the Pathfinder rules (the classes with the most severe restrictions would be able choose alternative abilities) or, failing that, check out the variant rules in the Unearthed Arcana books which allow you to swap out different class concepts and abilities. This should allow you to work around some of the most severe restrictions. 
Second, take the advice regarding spells that the WLD gives you with a BIG grain of salt. They say that summoning spells simply have to be banned. After all the nature of the dungeon completely prohibits it (although they notably say it's fine for demons and devils to keep their summoning powers). This is not true. Just change summoning spells from Conjuration (Summoning) to Conjuration (Creation) and keep everything else the same. Bam. Summon Monster V doesn't literally call a giant bird from another dimension, instead it creates one out of magic. 

They also recommend that you ban spells like web and entangle as these spells are far too powerful in the narrow corridors of the WLD. They claim that they've made sure that the enemies don't have access to these spells and that PCs shouldn't either. That's fair enough...except one of the first spellcasters you run into in region A has Web...and he's a wizard so that means once he's beaten your party's wizard will have Web as well. Wonderful work. I'd say you should think about your party. Are they strategists? If so then it's probably best to take the WLD's advice and ban these spells (and of course make sure to correct the editor's mistakes and remove it from the enemies). If they are more the "break down the door, oh no it's big! Runaway!" variety whose in it for some rough and tumble fun I'd say don't worry too much about it. 

So, that's going to be it for the intro to the WLD. For the next post in this series I'll tackle the entrance to the dungeon and Region A (or at least part of it. we'll see how far I get).

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