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D&D 5E If I were to publish a megadungeon, how would you prefer I handle XP?


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Yaarel

🇮🇱He-Mage
I'm a fan of including XP for exploration and social encounters. If the party runs across a trap or hazard for the first time, they get some XP; disarming/avoiding the trap/hazard via ability checks or abilities is the equivalent to combat. Denizens of megadungeons don't always require combat, and offering xp for resolving encounters with social skills rewards this. Additionally, you can offer up special quest XP for accomplishing specific goals, such as unlocking certain areas.

By simply counting encounters, it can be any kind of encounter: combat, social, exploration, puzzle. Anything that seems to receive genuine effort from the players counts as an encounter.

For levels 5 to 12, it (mathematically) takes about 15 standard combat encounters to reach the next level.

But for many reasons, it is better to simply count encounters directly - and count any kind of encounter.

Especially for a sandbox style, players can do whatever they want - anything! If there is effort to achieve any kind of immediate goal, it counts as an encounter.



The DM might decide every level takes 15 encounters to reach the next level.

Personally, I smooth out the math as follows:

Level 1 until level 2: 4 encounters
Level 2: 7 encounters
Level 3: 10 encounters
Level 4: 13 encounters

Levels 5 to 12: 15 encounters each

Levels 13 to 20: 10 encounters each
 

Yaarel

🇮🇱He-Mage
Re the megadungeon.

Personally, for me to buy into a megadungeon adventure, the premise must feel plausible. If there is a room with six orcs in one room, and four in an other, there must be a reason why this would make sense.

Generally, a megadungeon is either a natural cavern, thus a subterranean wilderness. If there is any sapient life, there must be reason why they are there and for what they are doing.

Plausible subterranean structures can include an elaborate sacred burial complex, with the goal of honoring a dynasty while hiding buried wealth.

Otherwise, it needs to be a fully functional city, with all the needs and traderoutes of a city. (Here, "city" can be as small as a football stadium, in which case it is more like a government center for a wider subterranean "rural" population of groups of families.)

It is possible to have a cavern that is 10s or even 100s of miles long, originally formed by flowing water, much like a three-dimentional system of rivers and lakes.

Then there is the D&D Underdark, a world to itself, comprising vast wildernesses pocketed by cities and tradeposts along traderoutes.
 

S'mon

Legend
Megadungeon XP should be for
(a) defeating monsters - 5e BTB works fine for this, especially if most encounters at higher level are with groups of low CR monsters
(b) Goal achievement, in particular getting treasure. Ideally I'd like to see each treasure cache have its own XP award.

Megadungeons should be big. There are plenty of good OSR examples. I've been running (in 5e D&D) Stonehell, Barrowmaze and Arden Vul, they all work fine. I recommend taking a look at these and others, eg Dwimmermount, Forbidden Caverns of Archaia, Highfell et al. Megadungeons should not be designed to be cleared, they should support multiple PC groups, over long term to indefinite play. They are campaign environments in which adventures take place, they are not themselves adventures per se.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Megadungeon XP should be for
(a) defeating monsters - 5e BTB works fine for this, especially if most encounters at higher level are with groups of low CR monsters
(b) Goal achievement, in particular getting treasure. Ideally I'd like to see each treasure cache have its own XP award.
I agree with goal achievement. Something Mad Mage did was have some goal for every level. Now, our DM was running it with milestone advancement, so our only goal was to solve that goal. I think it would have been more interesting to do like you suggest - XP for resolving encounters; and XP for solving goals
Megadungeons should not be designed to be cleared, they should support multiple PC groups, over long term to indefinite play. They are campaign environments in which adventures take place, they are not themselves adventures per se.
This is exactly the perspective I'd take for a megadungeon. It's a setting; not an adventure. Actually a failing of Mad Mage - it wants to be an adventure but really would have been a better product if it a) behaved like a setting and b) gave DMs ways to make a mega dungeon come alive - faction play; creature migration and changes between pc ventures; handling CR / PC level disparity encounters; and more
 

My idea is to present an overview of the dungeon, with 10 'highlight dungeons' that are more fleshed out, each with an associated mini-adventure. You can use as many or as few as you want, separately or together, but if you would like to string together a campaign, here are 10 objectives take take the party through 10 interesting parts of the megadungeon and lead toward a satisfying climax.
 
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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
My idea is to present an overview of the dungeon, with 10 'highlight dungeons' that are more fleshed out, each with an associated mini-adventure. You can use as many or as few as you want, separately or together, but if you would like to string together a campaign, here are 10 objectives take take the party through 10 interesting parts of the megadungeon and lead toward a satisfying climax.
That sounds very cool.

I think one of the hardest things to get right with megadungeons is making it easy for the DM to see the big picture and how the various levels connect to one another. I highly recommend using well formatted call out and if you release a PDF version, have it well hyperlinked. And, please, for the love of your hardworking DM customers, have a couple people carefully review the maps and insure that they accurately match the descriptions and that they are as error free as you can make them.

I love the stuff that Frog God Games put out. But they have released very expensive, premium printed books with expensive add ins like massive cloth maps, but then have really sloppy errors in their editing. Both Rappan Athuk and Tegel Manor suffer from this. You don't want errata discussion threads to be a main focus of customer engagement.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
Assume gritty rest rules. Or, to be more accurate, assume you can only rest at certain safe points.

Have limited numbers of short-rest shrines within the dungeon. Each such shrine is one-use; once used for a short-rest, you can't use it again.

Resting in the dungeon otherwise is impossible.

Block most kinds of extra dimensional travel within the dungeon. Have force magic decay in the environment, so you can't use the hut.

---

Why do I say this?

Because once you have done that, you can now make the dungeon more dangerous with less monsters. So the total XP earned is less, but the total fights required is more.

Fighting 2-3 encounters, taking a short rest, 2-3 encounters, short rest, 2-3 encounters and then long rest becomes far more standard. Beating those 2-3 encounters to reach a shrine becomes key; and some shrines are 4 encounters deep.

At less XP per encounter, more encounters and more content before you level.

And with gritty rests, it becomes 10 days per baseline adventuring day. So instead of 45 days from 1 to 20, it is 450 days from 1 to 20, more than a calendar year.

If we add in any kind of serious travel of downtime it stretches out further. Imagine if different parts of the dungeon can be a week's travel apart, and many areas are 2 weeks from a place to have a safe long rest (how mega is your mega dungeon?). Now an expedition enters the mega dungeon, travels 2 weeks (attempting to avoid fights; maybe gets in 1 or 2) to the goal adventuring zone, does 6-9 fights with 2 short rests (taking 3 days) to defeat that zone, travels 2 weeks back to the nearest place of safety, and then takes a week for a long rest.

That is 14+14+7+3 = 38 days for 1 "adventuring day". At that rate, it is almost 5 years to reach level 20.

While those long periods of rest/travel don't have to take up table time (you can have mechanics for it), they do take up calendar time. And they explain why a partly cleared area recovers and becomes dangerous again if the PCs retreat for a long rest; because it has been a month.

---

Have a higher-level danger economy going on.

Areas of a dungeon are impacted by the player's actions more than just "did they kill creatures here". Some areas will repopulate. Some with change in response to being attacked. Others will clear out even though the PCs never went there.

Most areas repopulate or otherwise become dangerous again after a long rest if you don't clear/finish the entire area. Other areas, the monsters move out if a significant attack happens and refortify somewhere else, taking their treasure with them.

---

Don't make the mega dungeon too crowded. There should be long travel times within it, and areas with multiple routes. Cave complexes, mushroom groves, etc; not just corridors.
 

S'mon

Legend
Assume gritty rest rules. Or, to be more accurate, assume you can only rest at certain safe points.

Have limited numbers of short-rest shrines within the dungeon. Each such shrine is one-use; once used for a short-rest, you can't use it again.

Resting in the dungeon otherwise is impossible.

Block most kinds of extra dimensional travel within the dungeon. Have force magic decay in the environment, so you can't use the hut.

---

Why do I say this?

Because once you have done that, you can now make the dungeon more dangerous with less monsters. So the total XP earned is less, but the total fights required is more.

Fighting 2-3 encounters, taking a short rest, 2-3 encounters, short rest, 2-3 encounters and then long rest becomes far more standard. Beating those 2-3 encounters to reach a shrine becomes key; and some shrines are 4 encounters deep.

At less XP per encounter, more encounters and more content before you level.

And with gritty rests, it becomes 10 days per baseline adventuring day. So instead of 45 days from 1 to 20, it is 450 days from 1 to 20, more than a calendar year.

If we add in any kind of serious travel of downtime it stretches out further. Imagine if different parts of the dungeon can be a week's travel apart, and many areas are 2 weeks from a place to have a safe long rest (how mega is your mega dungeon?). Now an expedition enters the mega dungeon, travels 2 weeks (attempting to avoid fights; maybe gets in 1 or 2) to the goal adventuring zone, does 6-9 fights with 2 short rests (taking 3 days) to defeat that zone, travels 2 weeks back to the nearest place of safety, and then takes a week for a long rest.

That is 14+14+7+3 = 38 days for 1 "adventuring day". At that rate, it is almost 5 years to reach level 20.

While those long periods of rest/travel don't have to take up table time (you can have mechanics for it), they do take up calendar time. And they explain why a partly cleared area recovers and becomes dangerous again if the PCs retreat for a long rest; because it has been a month.

---

Have a higher-level danger economy going on.

Areas of a dungeon are impacted by the player's actions more than just "did they kill creatures here". Some areas will repopulate. Some with change in response to being attacked. Others will clear out even though the PCs never went there.

Most areas repopulate or otherwise become dangerous again after a long rest if you don't clear/finish the entire area. Other areas, the monsters move out if a significant attack happens and refortify somewhere else, taking their treasure with them.

---

Don't make the mega dungeon too crowded. There should be long travel times within it, and areas with multiple routes. Cave complexes, mushroom groves, etc; not just corridors.

I definitely think it's important for megadungeon play to use 1 week long rests or similar. Been doing that for years. I find short rests work ok at 1 hour if limited to 3 per day. I also recommend use of 1:1 time as per Gygax in the 1e DMG, so that the IRL calendar generally matches the game calendar. This makes book keeping very easy.

My main 5e Barrowmaze group have played 30 sessions so far, 25/4/21-19/3/23. In that time the two highest level PCs have reached 10th level (second one last session), and just under two years have passed in-world. Helix & the Barrowmoor
 
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S'mon

Legend
I've written a fair number of story-driven adventures, but I've also had fun with games where the focus is on good tactics and problem solving over characterization and narrative. Like, I can enjoy The Witcher 3 (highly character driven, with narrative quests and an overarching plot) and Dark Souls (challenge-driven, with exploration and environmental storytelling).

To give myself a change of pace in game design, I've got an idea for a megadungeon that I want to playtest with my friends and then maybe write up and publish. But when it comes to leveling and XP, I could go a couple ways.

Metroidvania vs Milestone?
View attachment 276328
Not my map.

One of the appeals of Metroidvania style games is that you can explore and try different paths, and then you get new abilities that let you double back and unlock previously-unavailable areas. In D&D, it's a bit harder to forcibly gate off different areas, because players can be tenacious, but you can still have different 'levels' of a dungeon that are harder than the party is ready for. But if the PCs go that way, while they might get their butts kicked, I think it's fun if they can earn a good reward should they survive. So I don't want to just do milestone leveling (e.g., you beat level 1 of the dungeon, so you go up a level; you beat level 2 of the dungeon, so you go up another level), because I want it to be fine for the party to go 'out of order' and to make incremental progress in multiple places.

On the other than, the default rules of D&D kinda limit how 'mega' a dungeon can be. You might have seen where another poster did the math and found that if an adventuring party uses its resources at the expected rate, they can go from 1st to 20th level in 45 days. Level Up (A5E) - How to reach 20th Level in 45 days — An analysis of "adventuring day" per character level

The Emerald Spire Style?
View attachment 276330
Much emerald. Very spire. Wow.

A few years ago I played a campaign that used Pathfinder's Emerald Spire 'Superdungeon'. Its design mentality, to my recollection, was that each level's map had to fit on a poster-sized sheet, and have enough XP to have the party go up a level. A different person wrote each level of the dungeon.

It was neat to have a bunch of dungeons with different themes, but I'm pretty sure we managed to see every room in the place, kill every monster, and get the 100% completion achievement unlocked trophy, plus hit 13th or 14th level, all in the span of a couple in-world months. It kept us busy for maybe 5 months of real-world play time, and I certainly had fun, but nothing in it especially stuck with me (other than an abiding hatred of how Pathfinder 1e handles 'precision damage' characters like swashbucklers, making them pretty moot against undead, elementals, swarms, oozes, constructs, and probably other stuff I'm forgetting; but I digress!).

Is a dungeon that you can potentially beat 100% sufficiently 'mega'? Is it just a 'superdungeon'? Is that good enough?

Or should I go for a bigger scale, and just tamp down on the XP value of encounters? Have more enemies than you can possibly actually defeat, but perhaps have 'keystone' boss fights that, once you win, causes an area to clear out?

I know megadungeons aren't for everyone, but for those of you who might be interested, how big would you want a published one to be? Do you want a megadungeon where you can wipe out the last boss monster right as you ding to 20th level? Do you want something more like a city that's bigger than you can possibly tackle, for you as GM or player to use as a backdrop for your own stories? Do you want a tightly-scripted adventure where, oh no, the BBEG is your long-lost twin cousin?!

I've been running Barrowmaze and Stonehell for years, using standard 5e XP rules, full combat XP plus some awards for treasure, exploration & other achievements. The only continuously played Stonehell PC is 15th level after maybe 80 online sessions ca 3 hours; The highest level Barrowmaze PCs are 11th after 34 live 5-hour sessions - full accounts at Roll20 - Virtual Tabletop for Playing D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, TTRPGs.

One major thing I do is 1 week long rests, I think this is vital for any Megadungeon campaign (as opposed to 'epic quest'). The dungeons have increasing threat levels the deeper you go, but not 3e-5e style encounter balancing. Many encounters are with mobs of individually low threat monsters that generate limited XP. Exploration also generates limited XP.

From my rules:

Typical Noncombat XP Awards by Achievement
Tier Minor/Major Award (per PC)
1 100/200
2 200/400
3 500/1000
4 1000/2000
XP awards tend to increase over time, as the scale of achievements increase.
Acquiring significant Treasure is usually worth some XP, as is rescuing prisoners, infiltrating a guarded keep, exploring a cavern network, etc. A typical session award for non-combat achievements might be 100 XP at Level 1-4, 200 XP at Level 5-10, 500 XP at level 11-16, 1000 XP at level 17-19.


Another important factor that slows levelling is that XP is individual, not group. Only participating PCs earn session XP. There is a 'level floor' of half the highest PC level, but a significant level disparity works fine in this sort of campaign.

Overall: IME the 5e XP rules work fine for megadungeons and don't result in excessively fast levelling, if you discard a few 3e+ assumptions about how to run the game.
 

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