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I'm in the process of designing a Megadungeon, and it seems like people run large dungeons like this using the theater of the mind to avoid giving the layout away and allow players to explore, get lost, do their own mapping, and etc, as well as to utilize techniques like getting loose directions from npc's or giving the players mapscraps. (I've also read some valuable stuff on being sure to give the players good landmarks so they can orient themselves.)

But to me, good combat requires setting up interesting tactical situations, having a physical map, and keeping track of player and enemy positions. (I feel most people agree.)

So how do you balance keeping the players in the dark about the overall layout of a dungeon, while also providing maps of wherever they happen to be engaged in combat? (especially when you want to make an encounter that could bleed over into some surrounding hallways)

Additionally, how do you balance keeping players in the dark about the overall layout, while providing good information on localized geography? (Like if they're in a hallway lined with small rooms, you don't want to specify all the rooms by number while talking, that's just tedious, it feels like a thing that calls for being drawn out.)

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A megadungeon is simply too large to feasibly represent during play at 1in=5ft scale, even if you were wanting to, without a lot of work. I find that drawing out every section either beforehand or during play in battle-map scale is a lot of work for very little value. It's more effective to save miniature-scale maps for where they are most effective.

So instead, represent only the sections where combat actually happens, and during the exploration segments of play rely on just description to convey the layout, keeping your large-scale DM's map only as a private reference. That description-only information preserves the sense of exploration and uncertainty, allowing the players to use/need their smarts to figure out layout secrets, and maintaining the possibility of the PCs getting legitimately lost (as opposed to the kind of "story says you get lost now" approach that doesn't suit a megadungeon).

You can do this two ways. You can have "combat arenas" prepared in miniature scale in as much detail as you want, and lay those down when combat is either already broken out, or when it's obviously imminent even if initiative isn't yet rolled. The upside is you can put a lot of detail into these set-piece maps, but with the downside that for your prepared areas to be predictable, you have to build your whole megadungeon to neatly divide up into predictable combat arenas.

The second way is to draw out the map on the fly when combat occurs, on a vinyl battle-mat or small sheets side-by-side, using your master map for basic layout and your notes for room features that are relevant to an exciting combat. The upside is lots of flexibility in handling combats wherever and whenever they break out and go to, but the downside is that the maps won't be nearly as pretty.

You can also mix and match these methods. Say you decide to draw everything out, but you find an excellent ruined cult sanctuary tileset and want to use them—nothing is stopping you from busting out detailed tiles for one or more special rooms in the dungeon. Similarly, you can prepare all your combat-area maps beforehand in gorgeous detail, but fall back on sketching rooms and halls on a vinyl mat when combats occur in unexpected places or if they overflow outside of the prepared areas.

The thing these share in common is that you don't show your players perfect, miniature-scale maps for every foot of the dungeon, only "zoom in" when combat happens. That keeps the rest of the exploration in the mind's eye, where inexact knowledge of the layout can keep the "megadungeon mystique" alive for your players so it can enrich their experience of the place.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've also used small-to-medium-sized whiteboards for on-the-fly combat grids. Pro: dry-erase markers tend to glide better over a whiteboard than pen or pencil on paper, and they're a little easier to erase and to pass around than a vinyl mat. Con: they're a little easier to erase accidentally, too. We did often have little gaps in all the gridlines from moving around all the miniatures. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Sep 1 '15 at 6:16
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One thing I do may get at the desire to have old/far past portions 'fall off' that you mentioned in your comments: I laminate 8-1/2 x 11 sheets with 1" grid printed on them and use them as "battle sheets."

You can draw up many locations ahead of time and do other ones on the fly, keep them in a binder and lay them out (overlapping) as party enters new areas, then remove ones as they recede into the background. Each sheet may only represent a small chamber, a half a large chamber, or even a bit of passageway. I number each in a corner and jot those numbers onto my full-dungeon map. For example:

battle sheets

The lamination isn't strictly necessary, it just gets you reusability and quick-editing. Running off a hundred copies would work too. (Of course, you can go through a hundred tiles pretty quickly. I probably got close to that number running LMoP for new players.)

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So how do you balance keeping the players in the dark about the overall layout of a dungeon, while also providing maps of wherever they happen to be engaged in combat? (especially when you want to make an encounter that could bleed over into some surrounding hallways) One thing to try, have an assistant GM from the party that has access to the map. You can coordinate with that player your expectations for that role and reward him and the party with extra 'roleplay' xp for tolerating the assymetric roles.

But honestly virtual tabletop gaming simulators can be purchased for the cost of any gaming book and should be part of the GM's toolbox. Use a computer (or better yet, computer with large screen tv/monitor) to create a HUD for the gaming session. It may take hours to learn and configure your virtual tabletop software, but consider it in the same light as learning a new rule set for your specific game.

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Buy a game mat, Draw the map as they progress through it

You can buy a vinyl or laminated play mat for a bit of money from certain websites. Plan out your dungeon layout beforehand, and as your group explores your megadungeon, draw in the features of the map as they arrive at certain places in the dungeon.

This is the best way I've found to keep information out of the hands of the players while still affording you creative license to plan interesting encounters.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ There doesn't appear to be any … balance tackled in this answer. Is your answer "Don't bother with that other stuff, just give the layout to them"? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 31 '15 at 22:09

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