As I mentioned in my previous post on mega-dungeons, it’s vitally important to have the dungeon seem like a living space that the adventurers. Monsters need lairs, locations where they hang out, places even they avoid and so on.
Similarly, the PCs also need a lair; a location to hang out, sell their treasure, purchase new gear, get healed from the horrific injuries sustained within the dungeon and so on.
In video games these sorts of location are commonly referred to as hub location, because they function as a central location that the players can return to periodically. These are places like Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine, Mass Effect’s Normandy (and the Citadel to a lesser extent) or the eponymous keep in the classic adventure ‘Keep on the Borderlands’.
The key to a good hub location is making it feel safe, making it feel welcoming and making it feel useful. I’ll be going over some of the things I’ve figured out and providing you with a few tips and tricks here to make your own hubs feel alive.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the greatest when it comes to portraying NPCs. I can give the players plenty of folks to interact with but I find it tricky to make them truly memorable. It’s something I’m working on improving.
However, memorable or at least friendly NPCs are fairly important in a hub. You need to have your players want to return to the hub to sell their wares. You want them to want to take up the different quests offered by your friendly townsfolk. And most importantly, when you inevitably ratchet up the tension and throw some threats at the town, you need the players to want to leap to the hub’s defense.
My advice would be to go slowly. You could do a rapid-fire introduction of NPCs but I find that my players at least stop caring after the 4th or 5th commoner. Instead introduce one or two NPCs every time they return and let the players have a few interactions with previously introduced NPCs to remind them they exist. Shopkeepers are very good for this, as players will naturally visit them frequently to either purchase gear or sell treasure they’ve found.
However, make sure you don’t just use shopkeepers or your town will feel like a group of walking sacks of coin whose only purpose is to buy and sell gear. Make sure to introduce a few thematically appropriate NPCs and re-use them when you want to underline a theme.
I call these NPCs touchstones. Their purpose is to put a human face on specific themes of your campaign. If orcs and their raids are important, put forth a farmer on the outskirts whose farm and family will suffer from these orcs. If faith is an important theme, consider an NPC who is more than happy to pick up any religious icons and who’s kind of a zealot.
My current campaign has a few themes but one of them is the lure of arcane and forgotten power. The NPC who embodies this theme is Joerg One-Eye, a jolly giant of a man who’s realized that there’s power and wealth to be had. As the campaign progresses, he’ll get stranger and stranger if the PCs don’t intervene. By his behavior and appearance, they’ll be able to track their influence on the world and their exploration of specific sections of the dungeon.
The other kind of NPC are anchors. They’re intended not to showcase themes of the campaign or even provide a useful function but to act as a mirror for the player characters. The PCs and the touchstones are the insane, weird part of the world and these characters are the ‘normal’ version. They want normal things at a normal pace. They want a house, a peaceful home life, to take care of their parents, children and pets. They like hearing the tales of adventurers but sure as hell don’t want to live them. They don’t mind adventurers spending their coin in the inn, but want nothing to do with their actual adventures. These characters are unfortunate bystanders, set dressing and collateral damage. And that’s their purpose.
Another way to make players really care about a hub is to allow them to make part of it their own. The traditional solution (and a very good one) is letting the players build something. A house is traditional, a place to store their treasure, to decorate with their trophies.
Another option is allowing the players to customize a part of the hub. Upgrades for existing buildings that benefit the players are great for this. They function both as a money sink (letting you manage their wealth) and let you dole out upgrades to the players without having to do so directly. Players love this because it feels like they can control the pace of advancement in the town. It lets them feel more successful when the town grows thanks to the treasure they’ve retrieved from the dungeon. Good examples are a blacksmith that can change the shape of magical weapons, an alchemist who sells useful potions or even defenses for the town.
Last but certainly not least, let the players determine some parts of the town themselves. Incorporate NPCs from their backstory, let them choose names or features of the town and ask them for descriptions. A favorite trick of mine, when I have a set location the PCs will return to frequently, is to ask each of them to describe an NPC and their relationship with said NPC and use them.
All of the above points and perhaps a drawing, plan or even picture of the hub (if you’re feeling particularly artistic) and soon your hub will feel like a second home.
As a final point, make sure that the PCs actually get to spend time in their hub. Let them spend a few hours every few sessions there to let them interact and let them relax, let them see the sights, let them interact with NPCs and PCs.
And that’s my thoughts on Hubs with regards the mega-dungeons.