Happy Megadungeon Monday!
It’s time to continue the grand tour that we started last week. And there really isn’t any need for an introduction. We covered everything last time. So, let’s just pick up the tour where we left off.
Day 11 and Day 12: The End of the Kobold Story
Let’s take a quick review of Day 10 so we can transition into Day 11. Here it is:
On Day 10, the party briefly explored the Flooded Underhalls and discovered a device that allows them to breathe underwater. And that is all it did. And Day 10 is going to present us with a very tricky challenge. Because it butts right up against massive, flooded sections of the dungeon. And with the water breathing item, they might try to press into those areas because of their proximity. Underwater combat is inconvenient. Unless you’re using certain weapons, you’re at a disadvantage. Movement is reduced by half. So we’re going to need to dissuade the players from delving too deep into underwater passages. And we’re going to have to incorporate that into the design. Maybe create a way to force the players underwater right after they discover the water breathing item and give them a nasty fight.
What we WANT them to do is to head back upstairs and head to Day 11. Getting them out of Day 10 will be handled in Day 10. But getting them back to Day 11 is something we need to handle with the kobold plot. Ideally, by this point, the party has learned that the kobolds are in the thrall of a more powerful creature, the green dragon. It is important that the players know about the green dragon. Further, they should also already KNOW where the dragon can be found. The entrance to Day 11 that comes off of Day 6 should scream “HERE IS THE DRAGON’S LAIR.” The problem is, because the dragon is aquatic, the actual passage is flooded.
Now, Super Metroid actually did this EXACT trick. Along the path to the big boss Kraid, you have to take a detour down into a more dangerous area (Norfair) to get the High Jump Boots, then, return to the path and use the boots to reach Kraid, then return to Norfair after you get the Varia Suit from Kraid. And that’s extremely counterintuitive. People tend to explore by proximity (check out the closest stuff first) and memories are short.
Super Metroid uses two tricks to get you to follow that path. First, the door to Kraid’s lair is big and impressive and monstrous and it doesn’t look like any other door you’ve encountered in the game. It is extremely memorable. Second, once you have the High Jump Boots, the rest of Norfair is too dangerous to explore and becomes a dead-end very quickly.
Well, if you look at the critical path setup, you can see we’re doing the same thing. The entrance to the Dragon Lair (the green arrow that leads from Day 6 to Day 11) comes right off of the critical to Day 6. At this point, the players have passed through that room AT LEAST three times, most recently when they went to battle the kobolds of Day 9. And because they get the water breathing thing as the next milestone after beating the kobolds and because beating the kobolds naturally demands the closure of beating the dragon (which we’re going to make sure the party knows about in the environment and in interactions with the kobolds), that should all be pretty memorable. As long as Day 10 does its job and tells the players NOT to keep swimming around the Flooded Underhalls, the next natural location to explore is Day 11.
Inside Day 11 is the heart of the Sacred Halls. And in here is the great green dragon. As we’re going to discover later on, this is also the space through which the water was diverted to get it down into the Flooded Underhalls and the Crystal Caverns. So, this area is a flooded temple. Due to the water, it is probably overgrown and swampy. Not quite a jungle ruin, but it’ll have that vibe. And that’s very cool because that gives it a distinct feeling separate from the rest of the Sacred Halls. It naturally has its own “boss lair” vibe.
Once the party defeats the dragon, they can climb up to a new area: The Source of the Flow. This is a massive underground lake and a series of caves and encounter spaces along its shore. The elves constructed a way to control the flow of the water and ultimately, that left two rivers. The first flows north and east out and spills out over a waterfall into the Great Tree. The second flows south and fills the canals of the Desiccated Sanctuary. At least, it used to. Because they diverted that second river into a channel down through the Sacred Halls into the Flooded Underhalls and the Crystalline Caverns to stop the demon invasion.
In order to proceed, the party will have to operate the Floodgate to send the water flowing back to the Desiccated Sanctuary and allow the Flooded Underhalls to drain. Yeah, we’re going to break some laws of nature and allow the Underhalls to drain REALLY quickly, but that’s willing suspension of disbelief for you.
Now, you might notice the critical path for Day 12 stops very abruptly in the middle. And that’s because…
Day 13 to Day 15: Going Underground
Once again, we have a situation where the party has multiple paths open to them and only ONE is required. Day 13 and Day 14 do nothing more than connect previously explored areas. Day 13 connects Day 8 and Day 9 as a sort of alternate path to Day 3. Day 14 is a connection between Day 2 and Day 10. The goal is Day 15.
We’re going to use proximity as a way to guide the party to Day 13. And THAT is why Day 12 got sort of split. After the party diverts the flow, it will open up a passage for them to continue exploring Day 12. Which they will likely do. If they follow the path through Day 12, it will lead them down to Day 13, which they will discover is connected to both Day 8 and Day 9. That works out well because, first, it allows them to see the immediate impact of their actions of the Desiccated Sanctuary by funneling them back through it. Second, it allows them to quickly leave the dungeon via Day 8 and then return using the path through Day 8 to Day 13 to reach Day 9 which leads them down to Day 10 where the critical path continues.
However, once they get down to Day 10, there’s a reasonably good chance they will do Day 15 before Day 14. Because of the way they will encounter those paths. And that’s actually fine. Day 14 is merely a connecting path. It is just further proof to the players that the dungeon changes AND they have multiple directions to explore. They WON’T however miss Day 14 for long. Why? Because…
Day 16 and Day 17: What Lies Beneath
Even if the party skips Day 14 and jumps right to Day 15, wherein they discover the Portal Gun or whatever, they won’t be able to go any further because Day 16 connects into Day 14. If they haven’t explored Day 14 yet, they will have to do so eventually. But also note that we have ANOTHER decision. Day 16 is another optional area. Again, notice how we’re allowing more and more freedom as time goes on. In theory, the party could skip Day 13, pass over Day 14 until after Day 15, and then jump from Day 15 to Day 17 without going to Day 16. They probably won’t. But they COULD.
In point of fact, there are a couple of days the party could skip completely FOREVER. Day 8, Day 13, and Day 16 are completely optional. You could finish this dungeon without ever visiting those areas. And the party would be underleveled for the final encounter. It might be very hard. It might even be impossible. Does that mean the dungeon is broken? Or the critical path is bad?
On the contrary, it proves that, for all of our planning, the players are still free to make their own choices AND their choices will directly impact their chance of success. That is the essence of a role-playing game. And the essence of an exploration-based game is empowerment through exploration. If you don’t explore enough, you might miss out on key story elements. Or you might be underpowered. You might not be able to win.
But enough about that. We’re going to come back to Day 16 because it is a REALLY weird area. And in the end, it’s going to be hard to miss. Because of a red herring. We’re going to f$&% with the party. But not for a few days yet.
Let’s talk about the Crystal Caverns. By the time the party reaches the Crystal Caverns, they should have picked up enough lore from the game to be expecting them. But all they will know by this point is that the elves discovered this vein of magical crystal. They delved too far and too deep and had to seal it up because the Balrog happened. And those parallels are not unintentional. The problem is they are not the whole story.
When the party gets down into the Crystal Caverns, they are going to discover that a force of elves drowned down here. The elves sacrificed their own. The party has purged kobolds and a dragon and a monster plant and all sorts of other external threats. Squatters. And they know something evil lurks beneath. But the dead elves begin to suggest that something was rotten here in this place. And that’s important because it kicks off the final plot arc: the corrupted elven spirits. In point of fact, the party may already have inklings of corruption depending on what lore we scatter through the Underhalls.
In the end, the party will discover the magical frostkey thing that opens the elven vaults on one of the dead elves who tried to escape the flood.
Day 18 and Day 19: Plundering the Elven Caches
The idea behind the last real “key” is that the elves locked off some of their most valuable and sensitive areas using these magical walls of fire that could only be dispelled with the proper key. Behind one of these, Day 19, is the thing that grants the party the gift of flight. It makes sense that the elves built a series of vaults beneath the Sacred Halls to store their valuables. Fine. But Day 18 is a bit strange. It COULD be a series of vaults too, but we have an important job to do now. We have to fill in the rest of the story. The party has to understand MOST of the story by the time they get into Day 20. Day 20 is the beginning of the end. Kill the Corrupted Spirit, find and appease the four Elven Spirits, remove the Seal, kill the Demon.
We’ve mentioned that the elves discovered the magical crystals and began experimenting with them and making things out of them. They built workshops and labs in the lower halls. And Day 18 – a protected site – is right there. It stands to reason that this area is the epicenter of the elven experiments with the magical crystals and thus, it is there that the party will probably learn most of the details about that part of the story. Day 18, therefore, is some sort of corrupted magical workshop. And this will be the area in which the party will learn most of the necessary details for finishing the quest.
Day 20: The Fallen Hero
Day 20 is very significant. In Day 20, the PCs confront the twisted and corrupted spirit of the elven hero who died in the Crystal Caverns when the elves flooded the lower halls to stem the demon tide. Except even that isn’t the whole story. We’ll come back to that. For now, that’s all you need to know.
Her vengeful spirit is unable to rest, to move on, and so haunts this place. She has bound the spirits of four other elves to this world and cursed sections of the dungeon so that any living thing that enters them will wither and die. Some sort of curse of necrotic darkness.
Her own lair is located in an odd place, though. She should be with her body, but she isn’t. Instead, she appears to be in a completely inaccessible corner of the Crypts of the Ageless. Because the area can only be explored by flying, though, it is likely that it is protected by vast open caverns or chasms. Perhaps it is a section of the Crypts that were ruined in great earthquakes and then the crystals from below started to encroach as the demon’s power spread. That allows us to create a crumbling ruin over a dark void that is slowly being eaten away by a sort of magical cancer. In this area, we symbolically tell the story of the elves being devoured by evil. And, at the heart, their great hero has been turned to evil.
Again, it’s a nice, powerful boss lair and it also allows us to create an interesting and unique environment.
Now, you might notice this segment of the game is an odd one. There’s only one Day accessible with the magic of flight and it is a boss fight. After that, flight becomes useless. Or does it?
Well no. First of all, flight is a useful combat ability. And we’re going to have to think long and hard about how we want to restrict it. Can the party use their ability to fly in combat? Is this even flight? Is it some sort of levitation? Assuming we aren’t going to put heavy arbitrary restrictions on it, we can assume that we’ll have a PC taking wing in most fights. And we’re going to have to account for that in our encounter design.
But beyond that, as we’ll discover, flight is going to have another major use later on. It’s going to allow players to skip large sections of the dungeon by using alternate entrances. We’re going to mirror that in a couple of optional areas.
Day 21 to Day 24 and Day 25 and Day 26: Endgame
With the defeat of the spirit of the elven hero, the party lifts the powerful necrotic curse that shrouds certain portions of the dungeon. In terms of the story, their next step is to locate the four elven spirits that have been bound to this place. In doing so, the party can venture into the heart of the Sacred Halls and unlock the seal that keeps the demon sealed in the Fiery Abyss. Then, they can go in and defeat the demon.
Now, we’ve decided that each of the spirits is located in a different place: the Desiccated Sanctuary, the Crypt of the Ageless, the Source of the Flow, and the Great Tree. While we did that mainly for gameplay reasons, it does suggest something about each of these spirits.
Ultimately, this is a holy site. And that suggests that overseers of the site were priests. But they were also elves. And elves are long lived and not overly spiritual. We don’t associate religious ceremony with elves. An elven priest is probably wise and in tune with the world, but they also probably have other careers and talents. And any elven religion is going to be tied to the natural world.
Are there any things there are FOUR of that connect to the natural world, relate to disparate personality traits and interests, and would be appropriate for gods? If you said “the four elements,” congratulations, you’re boring. No. The SEASONS.
In 4th Edition D&D, you could break down the gods into bunches of different groups. There were three Gods of Fate, three Gods of the Bright City, three Gods of the Elves, three Gods of the Celestial Mountain, four Gods of Freedom, and so on. And one of those groupings was the Gods of the Four Seasons. The Raven Queen ruled death, fate, and WINTER. Corellon ruled beauty, art, magic, and SPRING. Pelor was the god of the sun, agriculture, time, and SUMMER. And Sehanine was the goddess of illusion, love, the moon, and AUTUMN.
In addition to all of their other portfolios, they covered night and dark (sun and moon) and the passage of time and the seasons. While it would be obvious for our elves to worship the Elven gods or Melora or some sort of druid bulls$&%, I like the idea of them worshipping an unusual grouping of gods by picking out their nature aspects.
Of course, we can’t USE those gods. Those gods belong to WotC. And if we use those names and those gods, we’ll get sued or some s$&%. But what we CAN do is invent our own gods that are almost EXACTLY LIKE those gods and then suggest in a sidebar that people can replace them with gods from their own world. And suggest, moreover, that the elves are worshipping unusual aspects of those gods and grouping them in a way most of the world doesn’t.
Why? Because that makes the faith and spirituality of the elves another part of the backstory worth exploring. And it maps to the four NPCs in this adventure. Wait, four NPCs? Yes. Apart from the elven hero, the four elders of this place represent the human element in this adventure. This site’s story is also their story. And they give the PCs something to connect to. In fact, in various ways through journals, carvings, and other artifacts, we’d ultimately like to tell some of the history of this place in the voices of the people who lived here. And these five NPCs, Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and Hero are our five characters.
And THAT means that we can do more than just have the PCs kill four more ghosts. We can allow for different ways to deal with those spirits. The party can appease those spirits. Bring them peace and release them OR they can destroy the spirits. We can also use the spirits to help fill in the backstory. That is, if the PCs make peace with the spirits, they spirits can fill in any parts of the backstory they don’t understand.
What that means is we have a lot more backstory to figure out and a lot more history to write.
As for where the spirits are and the critical path, very little needs to be said. They are basically just four side areas. Except one bears special mention.
And this is where we go back to the Day 16 thing. When we planned our little flowchart, we decided we wanted one of the spirit days (Day 24) to shunt the players back through the Crystal Caverns to give that area a little more love. The idea was that, even though Day 24 was part of the crypts, it was inaccessible through the crypts and that the party had to come up from underneath. If they tried to search the crypts, they’d find a passage to area, but it’d be blocked off. There would also be signs of the Crystal Caverns growing into it. That plays nicely into our idea of the Crystal Caverns spreading like a cancer that we added to Day 20.
But now that we see how closely Day 19 clumps up to Day 16, we can take a further step to make sure the party isn’t TOO lost looking for Day 24. We can add a “back door” between Day 19 and Day 16 right near the end that is accessible with flight. That way, the party can try out their new cool flying toy right away and get shunted into Day 16. If they’ve already been there, it’s just a shortcut back to the surface. If they HAVEN’T been there, they discover the area they missed AND see the Day 24 entrance.
This is the advantage of laying things out the way we have. We can see how the areas connect together and add passages between them to make the dungeon less linear and more open-ended without sacrificing the critical path. And by doing so, the critical path morphs from a railroad into a planning tool for encounter balance and adventure pacing.
Beyond that, there’s really nothing more to say about the pathing for these days. They are pretty much exactly what we already decided.
But our tour isn’t quite done. Because there’s two other parts to this tour. First…
When we started doing that flow chart, we decided to stick a whole bunch of optional encounter spaces on our adventure spaces and key them to certain plot points and keys. Remember? Well, now it’s time to stick them on the map. Now, the critical path maps ALREADY include them (so you’ve already seen a bunch of them), but let’s take a look at the big map and talk about what we can do with some of those.
First of all, on the main level, we jammed a few interesting optional spaces tied to water breathing (green). Basically, these are just areas that require a long swim and dealing with some underwater problem (so that trying to do the swim WITHOUT being able to breathe) will take too long. For example, you can’t pick a lock underwater. It takes too long. You’ll drown. But we do want the party to get some use out of waterbreathing. By the same token, because the frostkey (purple) is supposed to be protecting elven vaults and valuable spaces, it would stand to reason if there were a few smallish vaults around locked by firedoors. We also get some extra mileage out of the floodgate (aqua) and toxin (yellow). There are two optional areas, one teleporty (blue) and one necrotic (dark gray) that stick off of Day 11. I like the idea of turrets or enclosed rooms that look out over the Great Tree. Just a random thought.
We’ll talk about the flight areas (brown) later. Because we need an extra step to figure out where they go.
On the lower level, we have an optional area that is pretty substantial connected to Day 14 and Day 18. We’ve already identified Day 18 as the focus for the dark crystal experiments. So it’d stand to reason that this space is the space where the main crystal lab takes place. And now we can add another interesting story element here.
So, we have these four elven priests, each representing a different season and personality. We can assume ONE of them was the one who started the whole thing with using the magical crystal. The Corellon stand-in, might have become obsessed with the crystal. In a sense, he was the first victim. And he became consumed with using the crystal to create amazing magical items. This SHOULD be the place where his spirit was bound. And, in fact, maybe we will tell the players it is. That is, when the party gets the riddle of “find the four spirits in these places,” THIS is where the riddle sends them. But when they get here, they discover he didn’t die here. We can assume that the summer/agriculture/nature priest went to die in his garden in the Desiccated Sanctuary that he cultivated with his own hands. The winter/death/fate priest saw the end coming and went to the Crypt of the Ageless to await her end. The autumn/passion/moon priestess went to lose herself under the night sky in the Great Tree. But the spring/magic/art priest didn’t go back to his mana forge and artifactor halls. Instead, he went to the Source of the Flow because he was consumed by guilt. In the end, it was his actions that forced the elven people to drown their own champions while they held the demons long enough for the area to be sealed and flooded. And so, as an act of contrition, he went to drown himself in the Source of the Flow. And there, that is where his spirit really is. The party can find his journal in the red herring space and discover his last entry was to go kill himself.
Speaking of optional areas tied to great corruption, we can also absolve the elven hero here. In the Crystal Caverns, there is a big, cursed optional area. And this is where the party can discover the body of the elven hero who was drowned while holding the demons at bay in the Crystal Caves, buying time for the elders to enact the seal and then flood the Crystal Caverns. And there they will discover that she is outfitted in a complete set of magical equipment made of the magical crystal. She wasn’t vengeful or evil. She – as an elvish war hero – was given all these great magic items the artificer had built before anyone knew the crystal was evil. And she held off the corruption as long as she could. And so, she can be absolved in the minds of the PCs. It wasn’t until after her death that the corrupting influence of the demon finally took hold, driving her spirit mad.
And thus, those optional areas close the story.
Now, let’s talk about flight.
Day Fight and Day Terrain
So, we didn’t do much with flying. And that’s okay because, as we said, we’re going to make the flight useful in gameplay. But by the time the party can fly, they are starting the end game. It’s time to cut out all the backtracking crap and make it easy for them to get around. Flying is the ultimate shortcut.
In Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, the game ends with a scavenger hunt for keys scattered all over the world. But, to ameliorate some of the inconvenience, they also provide you with a very open fast-travel system that allows you to teleport between key locations so you don’t have to walk around as much. Flying is our equivalent of the Light Suit/Energy Collector/Teleportation Network.
How? Well, we’ve already decided that lots of locations in the Great Tree, Sacred Halls, and Desiccated Sanctuary are open to the sky. Elves and plants need sunlight, after all. So we can place those spaces pretty much wherever we want as we map those areas for reals.
But there’s two OTHER areas we want accessible to fast travel. First, we want the party to quickly be able to access the Source of the Flow so they can hunt down the Artificer Spirit (notice we’re starting to nickname our NPCs). Second, we want the party to quickly reach the Crystal Caverns so they can both travel UP into the Crypt and find the Fate Spirit and so they can travel DOWN into the Fiery Abyss for the end game.
How the hell can we connect those two areas to the open sky? Well, remember our first little sideview sketch. We had this river that flowed from the Source of the Flow, through the Great Tree, and then down into the volcanic rift of the mountain. Well, why can’t players fly along that? In fact, that geographic feature provides an excellent visual connection to help the players figure out they can fly along that route.
So, if we look at our map… our graph paper map… we can count squares and figure out how the areas line up vertically. And what we find is we can add a long, sinuous optional area off the Source of the Flow, assume it spills into a waterfall, flows through the Great Tree, and then falls into a big hole. And then, we can add another optional area off the Crystal Caves to catch it at the bottom.
While we’re at it, we can also figure out where the tree actual IS. We can also place the lake in the Source of the Flow and figure out how the water flows from it to the Desiccated Sanctuary and down through the Sacred Halls into the Flooded Underhalls. We can even locate a few underwater tunnels that allow the water to flow through the different sections of the Flooded Underhalls.
I actually added these features as the dark kelly green, thick lines on the computer map so that I could make sure everything lined up EXACTLY. As a side note, I also shrunk the rift a little as it goes down (click to enlarge the big map).
What Lies Ahead
And THAT is it. That’s the entire map of our space. And in laying it out, we’ve discovered connections between areas, thought about ways to get the players to go where we want, and we’ve also uncovered more of the backstory of our dungeon.
Now, the question is, what do we do next? Because, honestly, there’s a lot of s$&% we have to do now. This basically represents the end of the pre-planning. We know where everything goes, we’ve got a good sense of how the game is going to flow, we know the major adversaries of the adventure, we know where the major magical items go, and we have a few other things to think about. And from here, we’re going to start bouncing around A LOT. So, let’s look at what we have to do now.
- We have to draw the actual, detailed dungeon map, room by room.
- We have to figure out the mechanical details of all of our magic items and keys and the major obstacles they unlock.
- We have to come up with enemy rosters and start thinking about our monster and encounter design.
- We have to work out the details of the random encounter system.
- We have to decide how to handle resting in the dungeon.
- We have to figure out how we’re going to handle OTHER treasure.
- We have to finalize the backstory and break the backstory down into revelations and figure out how to hand those out.
- We have to develop traps, hazards, and obstacles for each of the regions in our dungeon that we can scatter around the map as non-combat encounters or parts of encounters.
- We have to figure out how to empower the players to understand the layout and remember the important parts of the adventure so they can explore it.
Now, that sounds like a huge amount of work. And it is. Because, really, all we’ve done so far is PRE-planning. We’ve figured out how the dungeon is going to be planned out. Now, we actually have to design the whole goddamned adventure.
The big problem with this series is that it has drastically warped the sense of how much work has gone into this. If I weren’t trying to write all this s$&% up and explain WHY I’m doing the things I am doing, the preplanning stage would have gone A LOT faster. Ultimately, to reach this point might have taken two weeks if I weren’t also trying to present it.
What’s REALLY odd though is all of the actual planning stuff is probably going to fly by a lot faster in the presentation but take a lot more work on the back end. That’s because most of what I’ll be doing is executing what we’ve already preplanned. I have to explain a lot less. And I’ll do a lot more off camera. I won’t build every custom monster with a 5,000-word article. I’ll build a few and assume you can figure out how I built the rest.
After that, there’s going to be a third phase. We have pre-planning, design, and presentation. The presentation step is going to be a lot less about encounter design and a lot more about figuring out how to package and sell this thing as an adventure. And between the design and presentation phases, just be warned, there is probably going to be a hiatus for the megadungeon project because I will need to educate myself a lot more.
But, for now, look forward to starting up the design phase. The meat and potatoes of actual adventure creation.