Tuesday, May 12, 2020

How Jaquayed is Tomb of the Serpent Kings?

Now that I'm running Gabor 'Melan' Lux's Castle Xyntillan module, I've been giving more thought to level design, especially the process of creating complex loops The Alexandrian calls 'Jacquaying'. Melan created the diagrams we use to examine these kinds of design, and Castle Xyntillan is deliberately built around that philosophy.

Unfortunately, trying to make a Melan diagram out of CX is very challenging on account of all those loops, and jumping right into mapping the main level is inadvisable. So I got some practice with the diagrams on a much simpler, but well-known and easily available module, which I've also run before: Skerples' Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

The end result looked like this:

Tomb of the Serpent Kings: Is it Jaquayed enough?

I don't know what software The Alexandrian uses to make these all look nice, but this is what I could mock up.

My process is to first draw a line through the area I'm mapping. A line which I can draw without needing to lift my stylus or backtrack can be straightened out into a single, straight line. When rooms or corridors split, we end that line and make another perpendicular line.

The original map contains several staircases, but since the dungeon doesn't bend under itself and it can all be seen clearly from above, we can remove most of the stairs from the diagram without needing to worry.

Straightening out the lines, the flow of the map starts to look more familiar

Now that we have a sketch, we can straighten the lines and make it all look nice (as best as OneNote can), and we end up with our final diagram.

I'd say it's pretty well Jaquayed

We can now see that there's two major segments of the dungeon: the false and upper tombs, which are largely linear, and the lower tomb, which is where the dungeon gets Jaquayed; there are three major, obvious loops, plus a mini-loop in the warrens and three loops closed by secret passages. The loop in the warrens is a part of a larger loop, same with the overlapping loops in the priestly/tomb area. There's a secondary exit to the surface that the goblins use, but there's not much chance of a thorough party missing much.

TotSK buries its complexity deep (no pun intended), likely part of its choice to be a teaching dungeon. For new players, a relatively linear opening that gradually adds more branching paths before dropping them into the maze would be more approachable, and experienced players accustomed to more linear dungeons will feel at home before they get introduced to greater complexity.

In my completely unauthoritative opinion, TotSK is nicely Jaquayed for its size and stated purpose.

It's worth noting what Melan diagrams are good for. The'y're not maps. If you handed a party a Melan diagram of the dungeon they were in, it would probably confuse them more than anything. The diagram deliberately cuts out information like the number, size, shape, orientation and content of rooms, all the features that players interact with in moment-to-moment play, to highlight the major choices in space which sculpt the general experience of the dungeon, but which are invisible at any given moment.

These diagrams can tell you how players are likely to move around the dungeon at a glance, where the chokepoints are, where parties are likely to get lost, or feel overwhelmed by choices. For example, though it's far from the most complex part of the dungeon, the pool room in the upper tomb always gives players pause, because they come into a new room and suddenly see eight objects to interact with. In contrast, the much more complex lower dungeon is easier to approach because there's only a couple new paths at a time, though they're built to compound on each other and create loops.

Meanwhile, this is as far as I've gotten on mapping just one wing of CX.



  1. ToSK's gradually opening structure is probably ideal for a tutorial: it starts with concrete decision-making in a limited environment, and gradually introduces more and more complex problems, until they are no longer tied to a single encounter. The map accommodates that aspect, although of course much more comes from the encounter/area design.

    I haven't even attempted doing one of these graphs for Xyntillan, but I made an attempt on Tegel Manor in 2006, and got a mess and a headache for my efforts! :D All methods have their limits; this one mainly exists to illustrate a point - it is useful, but not universally applicable.

  2. Thanks for the post! Subscribed to your blog :)

    I think the tool is more useful if you abstract a bit more, especially for bigger dungeons : each room should not be represented by a line. For example, I'd say that rooms 1 to 19 are basically a straight line, no branching. That's probably goint to give a better idea of the general "jacquying" by removing lots of "noise".