Wednesday, November 2, 2022

I Lost it All (Lessons about creating, running, and keeping a campaign going)

CONTENT WARNING: If you are a GM, this story will make you cry and scream and throw up. 

Clickbaity title and stupid Youtube joke image aside, I experienced a scary moment today (hereafter, "The Event"). This served as impetus for me to blog about how I run games so you can learn from my mistakes. 


About six (seven!?) years ago, I had a job where I was pretty bored. I started writing a dungeon crawling game called His Majesty the Worm. I began playtesting it. It was fun! I wanted to share it with people outside my immediate gaming circle, so I've been working on it ever since. It's almost ready to be published. 

For the playtest, I quilted together a megadungeon by combining the dungeons being published in the blogosphere during 2015-2016. I've been running a game based in this megadungeon every Tuesday since then. 

The Event

My weekly game recently took a short hiatus while I was on holiday. When I got back from my vacation, Google gave me an alert that I was almost out of data, so I spent some time with their "Clear Space" tool to delete old emails, shared files, big videos, stuff like that. 

When I sat down to play the game tonight and opened up my laptop, the tabs that usually contain my campaign said "No such file exists."

I assumed it was just because I was signed into the wrong account

When I was clearing space and merrily selecting "Yeah, ha ha, permanently delete THAT," I had apparently placed a check next to my campaign document. 

The master document that I've been using to run my game was accidentally deleted. Six years of work - gone

I had deleted about 300 pages of content. Maps. Random encounter tables for each level. Hundreds of keyed entries. Years of notes and restocking based on player events. Gone. 

I was devastated. Without much hope, I opened a Google Support ticket. 

And...dear reader?


The Campaign

Because I am so relieved that I was able to recover my campaign, I want to share how I created it in the first place and talk about how its evolved over years of play.

Megadungeon campaigns aren't Herculean one-and-done efforts. They are a series of small, discrete decisions. And once they're created, they change during play. 

When this works, its really something special.

Creating a Megadungeon

The process of creating a megadungeon is less about making one huge dungeon and more about creating a series of interesting rooms and creating an appropriate flow between them. 

By following these steps, you’ll have a working megadungeon with a few hours of work:
1. Origins of the Underworld: Decide why the megadungeon exists. What's the backstory here? Is it the tomb of God? Was it created by a wizard for her mad experiments? Is it an incursion of Hell? 
2. Generate a Layout: Assemble a series of dungeons and make connections between them. Does the Forest Level connect to both the Undead Level and the Serpent Cult Level? What if there was a secret entrance to the surface in the Serpent Cult Level, too? 
3. Create Maps: Create a keyed map of each of the dungeon’s rooms. 
4. Write Room Descriptions: Write down something interesting in each room for the players to interact with.
5. Create the Meatgrinder: Create a Meatgrinder for each individual dungeon level. 

Steal liberally 

Here's the best part about the five-step process above: you can steal borrow almost everything. The OSR has an incredible generative property. There are people in the blogosphere who have been making free, interesting content for years. There are blogs that are treasure chests of maps, monsters, puzzles, and, well, treasure chests. 

You can also connect together all the modules you've bought and haven't had a chance to run. Do you have Silent Titans by Patrick Stuart? You can just connect all the Titan dungeons together and bury them under your campaign setting's capital city.

Also, remember Dungeon magazine? They are now easily accessible online. 

Take inspiration from a variety of sources. When you see something awesome, put it somewhere in your megadungeon. 

Play frequently

I credit frequent play as the number one reason I have so many finished campaigns. I credit it to playing the same His Majesty the Worm game for six years. (As you can see from "The Event," bad things happen when you take hiatuses.) 

Set a consistent time and date to play. Find a group of people who can make that specific time. Adhere to the schedule as best you can. Play frequently and fall in love with the game.

Players might join or leave the campaign over time as their life circumstances change, but the impact they've made on your campaign will continue through the years. 

Which brings me to...

Update your campaign based on player actions

At some interval, update your campaign notes with the player's actions. If the players graffiti a wall in room 202, it's fun for them to see that graffiti in your description the next time they visit it. It's fun to feel that your actions have real, lasting consequences. 

I do this sort of "maintenance" every time the players return to the City for their downtime phase. You might do it every week. Whatever works for you. 

When I make these notes, I read through the room descriptions that the players have visited. If the players slew monsters, I'll mark them off. If the players made any changes to the physical description of the room, I'll update that text. 

Then, I think about the potential consequences of these actions. If the players killed the goblins in 202, does that mean the hyena men from 204-210 expand their territory? If the hyena men are here, will they trap their new "front door"? 

This doesn't take more than an hour, but is invaluable. Losing this level of detail - how the players changed the dungeon over six years - was what I was most upset about having lost. 


I talk through a lot of these processes with more detail and more examples in my supplement Dungeon Seeds. It's free if you sign up for my His Majesty the Worm mailing list.

And remember - make backups of your important documents so you don't make a mistake like mine. 

1 comment:

  1. This post was scarier than literally any horror RPG scenario I've ever played or seen.