How to give directions to megadungeon locations without giving players too much info?

One of my favorite blogs, Beyond the Black Gate, had a good post a while back about structuring megadungeon play for episodic (i.e., irregular) games by creating mini-quests or missions that get the party in and out without too much dallying. He offers an example table with entries like "Loot a tomb" or "Recover a lost tome."

I'd really like to try this out, but I'm not sure how the characters would locate this one tome, tomb, or whatever in the whole megadungeon. Obviously you're going to need to give them some sense of direction but don't want to give them a complete map.

Can anyone give an example of how to give useful directions without removing the sense of exploration?

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Clues and Map scraps.

First they need a clue to point them in the right general direction. That's fairly easily accomplished by the usual methods, whatever works in your game.

Next: if the party finds, buys, is given a partial map (mapscrap), that gives them the essential tool to go find the objective (macguffin).

But don't think in terms of classic maps, 5' or 10' squares, or anything near that level of detail! It could be a simple line drawing, or 'route instructions' ala road rallys ("Left at blue eye, right at 4-way, right at 3rd sideroad"). In both cases, however, the unknown creator of such a map fails to specify distances (and perhaps a few crucial details, like traps or monsters en route, any passages that don't go to the objective, etc). Plenty of unknowns still lurk along their path.

The combination of these two elements can quickly aim the group at their adventure while avoiding too much detail. Their exploration will still be adequately mysterious... and, as a bonus, will go faster (and be less exasperating) than cluelessly searching everywhere.

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Give them a map or turn-by-turn directions, but make them slightly unreliable. Maybe an old adventurer tells them the story of the tome he dropped in the pit in the lower level:

"If you go down to the crossroads--you know the one I'm talking about, right?--it's the right passage, which you take for a while till it hits the kobold warrens. On the other side of those is a stairs leading down to some wide halls. There's a pit trap down there, and that's where the tome slipped out of my hands and landed with a thud below. I reckon it's still there, but that was ten years ago. Who knows?"

Then they have some pretty strong directions but still need to match them up to landmarks.

And old map can serve the same function. It can be marked with warnings that no longer apply. It can be missing important new construction, or new inhabitants.

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I like this. It means finding the destination is an adventure in itself, but with enough landmarks it's a reasonable thing to attempt. Also, highlighting the landmarks of a dungeon can only emphasise its "personality" as a place to adventure. – SevenSidedDie Apr 19 '12 at 20:16

The simplest method is the in media res mode: "You finally arrived at the rubble pile beneath the opening, rubble which is relatively fresh. This seems to be the place the patrol mentioned. Now, it falls to you to explore and pacify it. As you look, you notice that the air inside is fresh..."

The second is to have a map of the major central area, the "safe" area, in player hands. From there, various exits, most named, are noted. Some new ones can be added later, as need be; the scale should be fairly large; 50' squares on 4 to the inch paper is a good size... more detailed maps are used when you actually hit the adventure area, tho'.

The third is detailed directions, and lots of option points, with several ready to go based upon which direction they choose to go.

Another is the "Lead by someone"... using a lower level NPC who was part of a group that was too weak to handle it.

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I like the "Lead by someone" option. – SevenSidedDie Sep 9 '10 at 19:07
The biggest problem I've seen with "lead by someone" is the nasty tendency to have them be a Mary Sue... Hence why when I use it (megadungeon or not), I try to have it be a lower competency character (level in games with same) than the PC's. – aramis Sep 9 '10 at 22:38
You don't need to have a "living / acting" leader: it could be a past adventurer that left some kind of trail behind (signs on the walls, coins, pearls... underground tracking skill can help as well) in order to help his return (or similar reasons), but actually never returned (or returned severely wounded and is now sending you on his trail...). – Yaztromo May 2 '12 at 17:53

There are two easy ways, one narrative and one dungeon-structural.

The easy narrative method is to skip the "finding the interesting place" part of the game with a quick narration. Something like:

You enter the Grey Portal and quickly make your way through the echoing, dripping tunnels. Cries of surprised terror and threatening growls pierce the silence occasionally, but you meet nothing more dangerous than the rats that infest this section of the dungeon. The markings on the map to the Lost Library lead you true, and soon you find yourself at the threshold of the Library—a stone arch carved with leering gargoyles and mad scholars. The real test of your mettle begins…

The advantage of this method is that it works for any dungeon without modification, and if well-presented the players will enjoy getting right to the meat of the adventure. The return to the surface can be similarly narrated, although if you want some danger between the "starting" point of the adventure and the surface, there can always be another encounter (randomly checked for, or placed) in a location, connected by similar narration.

Another advantage of this approach is that you can explore interesting parts of a megadungeon while preserving the feeling of vast underground passages.

The easy structural method is to construct or modify the megadungeon such that there are many entrances, with one entrance conveniently leading directly to the area of the dungeon in which you want to adventure. This also breaks up the dungeon into slightly more digestible sections based on proximity to a known entrance, yet players will find particular joy in discovering the in-dungeon connections between places they know. Finding a new entrance to the dungeon becomes a treasure in itself, as it offers access to heretofore unknown sections of the vast underground.

The advantage to this is that you don't need your players to buy in to glossing over movement in the dungeon with GM fiat-by-narration, and makes it easier make the exploration (legitimately) feel more in the hands of the players. There is also precedent for megadungeons built this way—Gygax's dungeons were known to have very many entrances, not all ever discovered by his players.

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I agree with the multi-entrances approach to the "mega-dungeon": that's the way that fits better with your approach of mini-games, casual play, maybe mixed with more regular play from time to time. – Yaztromo May 2 '12 at 17:50

Consider creating non hostile encounters that act as information brokers in the dungeon. (There's a very good example in Dungeonscape for D&D3.5 of a roper that controls a crossroads in the dungeon, but instead of just attacking people moving through he actas a sort of information broker).

A "goblin guide", an NPC-monster, or something like a talking statue or a Magic Mouth could also help guide characters on their way.

Also backtracking a bit on design and put in verbal directions are a good way to do it: "When you reach the room of the Seven Serpents, choose the portal marked with green stone. Follow the instructions in the hieroglyphs beyond to reach the tomb.."

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