Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pointcrawling Undercities

Today we resume where I left off with Tuesday's “Designing Undercities” post. (Those late night Google Plus marathon sessions of the Hill Cantons invariably kick the tar out of my aging butt--but then again you get what you paid for on this blog.)

Remember the project here is to create a mapping system that helps wrap your brain around the vast and complicated spatial dimensions of a full-fledged undercity. I turn to my old standby in visual organization, the pointcrawl, for some help here. (Longtime readers may remember that I tried to do this once before in thinking about the Realms Below of Sigil.) 

Let's recap the difficulties I was facing and how a pointcrawl system may help:

Historical layers. Tuesday I worked through a vertical cross-section method (reposted above). That process helped immensely in giving me an overall sense of the relationships and history of the differing phases of the undercity, but to effectively run it my badly-wired brain is also going to need some 2D top-down organization. I can capture that kind of mapping fairly easily using only 1-3 letter-sized pieces of graph paper with the pointcrawl method. 

Vast areas of empty space. Remember unlike a megadungeon which typically has a lot of contiguous space relatively tightly-packed the undercity sprawls both horizontally and vertically over much larger areas. Outside of a touch-every-doorknob OCD obsession there really is no need to waste much time and effort representing them—except for the all important dimension of where they lead, how much time traversing it takes, and potential obstacles in that path. In the pointcrawl we solve this by using a combination of lines and symbols that can tell us at a glance all the relevant information we need to know.

Losing the best bits. Related to the above point is the danger of having your most interesting points from a gaming perspective get swamped by the scale. Instead let's take each of those sites and mark them on the map with nice big distinct squares of their own.

Though only represented by a single abstract square each site will get the full detailed, standard graph paper mapping. The squares are abstracted units but my usual rule of thumb is to have a single piece of letter-sized graph paper correspond to each square. A duller area such as a small, residential housing may get collapsed into a single sheet with a larger ground scale and a really interesting or complicated site, especially one that has distinct sub-levels, may need a second or third sheet to back it up.

Entry points and vertical connections get hella confusing. Because they are big spaces that have seen years and years of habitation (of varying degrees) the chance of connections from the surface and between layers is likely to be exponentially higher than a standard dungeon. While it would likely drive you into a rubber room trying to capture each and every one, it helps create an interesting array of explorations options for the players if you have as many as you can captured. The pointcrawl simplifies the complicated dance of lining up horizontal with vertical space by treating vertical connections as simply as the empty spaces: a single line with some simple notation suffices.

Putting it all together here's yesterday's sample undercity as represented by a pointcrawl map. Click to enlarge.

Pointcrawl Map Key
The Lines
Unbroken lines = normal walkable passages (tunnel, corridor, etc)

Squiggly lines = unusual connector (teleportation, magic gate, etc.)

Arrow on line = vertical drop in the direction indicated (stairs, chutes, pits, wells, abysses, etc)

Two bars on line = barrier in passage (cave in, mudslide, locked gate, turnstile, giant critter, etc.)

Number in circle on line = confusing passage (twisty catacombs, maze, cavern system, etc) with number indicating roll for getting lost on a roll or below on a d6. Modify if party employs precautions such as chalking passages, using appropriate spells, hiring guide, and the like.

Dot on line = 3 hours of walking at normal, unencumbered pace along passage.

The Squares
Uncolored square = Recent human civilization mostly on the surface and drawn here to indicate entry points.

Maroon square = Serpent Woman layer, the uppermost layer of the undercity.

Yellow square = Space Elf layer, the second closest historical layer.

Orange square = Latter State layer, second from bottom.

Blue square = Hyperborean layer, bottom most.

I have marched through organizing the physical and conceptual map of my undercity, now we need to get into dealing with the further complication of this beast being a living, breathing social animal: the city part of the “undercity”. Look forward to at least one or more posts picking apart those angle.

Any questions about today's method? Is it clear what I am trying to do with this and how it fits together? Suggestions or opinions on how you think this could be done in different ways?


  1. Just for two reference points:

    Lesserton & Mor left me cold for many reasons, but the ideas of hexcrawling a ruined city could be adapted for some parts - your "Rubble Feels" reminded me of it.

    4th Edition H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth, is an underground pointcrawl.

    Looking forward to seeing where you're headed & adapting your ideas myself.

    1. What left you cold about Lesserton? It definitely conjured up elements I loved about RQ's Pavis/The Big Rubble, but strangely found myself liking the civilized little town and its weird subsystems more (no pun intended) then the ruins themselves.

    2. I'm afraid it's already in the "not likely to be reread" box in the attic, so I can't get past the sleeping kids to remind myself why I didn't like the ruins, but the town itself turned me off because of the degree of anachronism. I think that reinforces for me some of the value of minimalism - Lesserton just so doesn't fit the vibe of any game I can see myself running, and if the author had used 1/4 as many words to describe it there'd have been room enough for me to make it fit.

      Since now at least I'm home and can look at Thunderspire, here are my thoughts taken from it: it's in 3 tiers, color-coded for depth, routes between sites drawn as lines; one page map, 1.5 pages of brief descriptions of the 16 labeled sites, and less than one page of rules for exploring / getting lost / expanding the labyrinth. Then 5 of the 16 labeled sites are expanded in some detail, and have many of the flaws of a published 4e adventure - but it's pointcrawly.

      Oh, and that was meant to be "Rubble Fields".

  2. The only things I'd say is make a determination (for yourself--and maybe you already have) about when information should be "keyed" to a color or code and when it should just be written on there.

    Also, I'm sure you know, but how do the PCs tell the difference between exits 2 and 3 from the human catacombs? IS there another descriptor?

    1. Good point about coloring/keying. Color coding by historical layer (or some other major thematic division) is important as you are both representing: 1. the vertical dimension at a glance and 2. highly distinct discrete areas presumably with different architectural styles, denizens, structural stability, etc.

      The exits are just abstract markers that correspond to more obvious places on the traditional map. (Unless there is a good reason to make them confusing such as a warren of tunnels that look similar or branch back into each other). So say if they are mapping it accurately they will note that the deep set of stairs on the northeast side of this site seems to go down to the Hyperborean citadel and the chute in the southwest goes down to the old Aqueduct.

      In my actual maps I tend to pencil whatever number I have the connection keyed to on the traditional map just under where I have the line drawn.

  3. I do something very similar but I dispense with the graph paper entirely. Instead, each point of the dungeon gets it's own card (5"x7") which contains the map (a small group of rooms), the key and room descriptions and a list of exits from that area. The exit points can go to any other card or to the surface and lists how far the next card is and what type of exit it is (pit, stairs, tunnel, chute, etc). Doing it this way means I don't have to switch between the map and descriptions during gameplay (as all the relevant information is in one place) but it also means I can change the layout of the dungeon just by changing the connections via the exit points. Finally, you can even remove area you don't like or entire sections just by making the exit to one area go straight to the surface.

    1. As a big fan of getting things off the key and directly onto the map, I love this. Are the exit points standardized like a geomorph?

    2. No, not at all. The exits points can be directly connected or, if needed, they can be a long windy tunnel. Just like how when doing traditional dungeon mapping with graph paper, the exits off the sheets don't have to match up 100%.

  4. This is pretty cool. I might steal this frame work to try and sort out the mess that is my attempt at a N'kia themed megadungeon. Right now the notes are all over the place.

  5. I would assume that the specific human catacombs map would make the differences between the exits clear, but I may have misunderstood the concept here.

    Misunderstood or not, I do like this approach. I like and understand maps, but I don't have the patience for a detailed map of every single five foot square or six mile hex, so the pointcrawl is the perfect compromise for me.

    1. This also looks a lot like how old text adventure games were mapped out, so it appeals to me on that level too.

    2. Exactly, that's how it works on my site maps.

    3. Now that you mention it, these do look a lot like the flowcharts we used to draw for Zork and all those Scott Adams games. Given how obsessed I was with them it totally must have influenced how I was imaging this.

    4. That's exactly what I thought of: maps made while playing various Infocom games. I used to draw them almost the same way with the box/arrows - where did that come from?

      Here's someone's fantastic version of the map for Zork I

    5. I think this is an official Infocom one:

  6. from earlier post
    > Well I was imprecise "doing it right" is not meant to be "doing it correctly" (whatever that may be), but "doing it in a interesting and satisfying fashion".

    Yeah, that's what I meant / did not intend my prev post to sound like "complaint". What you've done here, is what I was thinking about.

    Great series, look fwd to next one.

    1. It didn't sound like a complaint, I was just clarifying. Enjoy North Texas next week, Norm.

  7. I've been contemplating an interesting megadungeon idea where its really a collection of gates going back and forth and double back again many times across a dozen or so planes of existence. Not every plane is, of course, an underground complex; but, the pointcrawl idea may just work. Since Euclidean geography need not be assumed between the points, this is sure to drive the players batty.

    Of course, I went ahead and just threw the idea at the players in-game last session. without thinking it through. Now I gotta deliver the goods.

  8. Wow. Great article as usual, Chris. I've got my work cut out for me reading the archives of everything I've missed, but I'm sure it'll be a pleasure working my way through yours. Might even find the inspiration to bang out an article or two myself in the coming weeks, get back into it.