A little while ago I wrote a post about the perpetual dungeon, a D&D campaign designed to allow players more flexibility around attendance.
In the perpetual dungeon, each session is called a delve. In a delve, a small group of players start in an inn called the Yawning Portal, head down into the titular dungeon, have some adventures and then return to the inn once they are done.
Its basically a big old exploration focused sandbox.
When my main group switched to this sandbox from their previous campaign, I was worried that a straight-up dungeon crawl would get boring over time. The constant loop of "go down, look around, come back" felt like it could easily get repetitive if there was nothing else spicing it up.
So I added some spice.
Same Dungeon, Same Elevator
Not only does a delve start and end in the same location, it takes place exactly one day after the previous delve. This gives plenty of room for participating characters to take a rest and recover from their adventures.
That's not always good though, because a long rest is a completely full recharge of everything about a character, and I don't necessarily want players to have their full repertoire available every single time they go down. Smart resource management is a common element in role playing games, and as a DM I am loathe to give up attrition as a tool for keeping things interesting.
Enter the risk vs reward mechanic of forgoing a long rest in exchange for a growing XP multiplier. Everyone gets a short rest by default (so there is some recovery after every delve), but a long rest is a choice. One that comes with potential consequences.
From an in-universe point of view, characters who do not take a long rest are assumed to be strategizing about their next delve, preparing themselves for the rigours ahead. The dungeon is a strange place and it exerts a mysterious pull on those who plumb its depths, so obsessive behaviour is not even uncommon.
This particular mechanic has worked well, with players regularly making use of it, especially those looking to accelerate their levelling and improve the power of their characters.
Its not perfect, because some classes are extremely self sustaining, but there are systems in place to keep that in check as well. After all, its easy to justify things like exhaustion and insanity when a character hasn't slept in weeks, and those sorts of things play in nicely with the more meta aspects of the dungeons nature.
Wrong Guy, Wrong Place, Wrong Time
The second system in place to keep things from getting stale is a deadpool.
The proprietor of the Yawning Portal allows any patron to place a bet on characters who delve, paying out if the character does not come back. Every character has a set of odds associated with them, which rises and falls depending on their state when they return from a delve.
The intention with this system is three-fold.
First, its meant to engender participation from those players who are not actively delving, giving them an opportunity to engage in something fun even if they don't necessarily have the time to join the delve in person.
Second, its meant to make the characters that go down feel expendable, reinforcing in the players heads that they might not come back this time.
Last, it allows me to give delvers a regular income stream beyond whatever valuables they plunder from the dungeon itself. Every time they delve and come back successfully, the bookie pays them a share of the nights takings, dependent on the amount of bets that were made.
Unfortunately, this particular mechanic hasn't really worked all that well. Bets are uncommon because the downside is immediate (-money), but the upside is rare and highly unpredictable. Characters mostly come back as expected, though there have definitely been some deaths and disappearances.
It could use some tweaking, but I'm not entirely sure what to do about it. Its good for flavour though, so in that sense its still adding value to the campaign.
Just not as much as I originally wanted.
We'll Get Together, Have a Few Laughs
The risk vs reward resting system and the deadpool are the only two extra mechanics present in the perpetual dungeon. That doesn't mean I don't have other ideas though.
For example, due to the flexible nature of the sessions, sometimes the groups that go down can be quite small. I've run a delve with as little as two characters, and the resulting adventure is somewhat more risk averse than normal.
Its easy enough to dynamically scale difficulty so that the players don't just die horribly through no fault of their own, but I don't always want to fudge the dice rolls in their favour, especially for set-piece encounters. Its okay for there to be challenges that a small group can't handle.
As a result, I've been thinking of introducing NPC (non-player character) adventurers who can accompany the players down into the dungeon, augmenting the smaller groups with additional power. To keep things interesting, said NPC's would of course have their own motivations and desires, mostly aligned with the players, but maybe sometimes not.
The best part of this idea is that there are already a number of NPC's that the players have encountered that would make for excellent allies of convenience. Its always fun when a mostly throwaway NPC comes back into the picture and takes on a more prominent role. That sort of emergent storytelling is one of the best parts of D&D.
The other idea I'm playing with is downtime activities for characters that are not currently delving. Some sort of exchange of money for XP, giving players a means to spend the cash they are accumulating in exchange for progression.
Its obviously not very well fleshed out, but it feels like it could be a good way to stop the less frequently played characters from falling behind and increase participation and engagement with the players who can't make it to a full delve.
The perpetual dungeon is the only D&D campaign that I'm running right now and I would consider it to be a success. I've got a large pool of participants along with a smaller group of regulars and everyone seems to be having a good time.
My initial fear that things would get stale was either unfounded or the extra mechanics have accomplished their goal of keeping things interesting, because we're ~44 sessions in and still going strong.
I still have the lingering desire to run a more traditional campaign though, with a well defined start, middle and end.
With unexpected twists and turns.
Something epic, building up to a climactic finale.
Unlike this blog post, which just ends.