Welcome back to the megadungeon! Settle in. This is a long one. Because this one really does tie everything together. And a lot of story very suddenly happens as a result.
It’s a REAL long one. Enjoy.
I don’t have to do a whole lot of intro here. Because most of the intro happened last week. We’re wrapping up everything that might be termed “preplanning” at this point. Last week, that involved finalizing just how much stuff, mechanically, was on our critical path and how much stuff was off our critical path and how much XP it was all worth. And in the end, we had this awesome spreadsheet:
Using just that, we could build the whole damned dungeon. The problem is that we’re kind of hung up on this idea that the dungeon shouldn’t suck. It shouldn’t be like the basement of Greyhawk or the Ruins Under Undermountain. Those things were just big maps filled with whatever random stuff struck the fancy of whatever GM was stocking or running the thing. But we want our game to be tied together by an actual theme. And that means we’re going to have to come up with a story and a progression through the game.
And all of that has to overlay our mechanical progression. Basically, we’re going to drape our plot – our story beats – over the mechanical progression. And in so doing, we’ll have 26 days of adventure planned out. So, let’s do it.
Gate, Goal, and G… Region
So, let’s talk about the three concepts that are going to drive the plotty half of our master plan. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get them all to start with G. But, life can’t be all snappy acronyms and alliteration. Sometimes, function has to win over form.
First of all, the goal. Every day in our dungeon has a goal. Every. F$&%ing. Day. At the end of each day, something significant will happen. We’ve talked about why the feeling of advancement is important. And we’ve talked about why pacing is important. If you don’t understand why every day needs a goal, you have A LOT of reading to catch up on.
And remember, we’re talking about days in terms of a “chunk of the dungeon.” It isn’t a unit of time anymore. The players might explore in such a way that their actual rests line up with the adventure days we’ve laid out, or they might not. All we can do is our best to create a game that works best when engaged that way.
Now, the thing with goals is that they have to vary. Every goal can’t just be a boss fight. And every goal can’t transform the entire dungeon. So, we’re going to have some major goals and then we’ll have some lesser goals and then we will have some tiny goals that are just things like “defeat a slightly more powerful monster” or “find a neat treasure.” In point of fact, once we come up with our major story beats – which are our goals – we’re probably only going to have about half of the days of adventure covered. Which means we’re going to have to insert the lesser goals between them.
Gates are things we’ve talked about before. Broadly speaking, gates are ways of expanding the dungeon. The party will do something that will allow them to access more of the dungeon. Now, there’s a couple of things to note about gates. First of all, most gates are also goals. Or wrapped up in goals. Opening a gate – be it by transforming the dungeon or acquiring a major magical ability that allows the party to overcome new obstacles or simply or simply finding a key – is an achievement. So, each of the gates will also be a goal.
Finally, we have the concept of regions. And regions are a weird sort of concept in this particular megadungeon because of some old-school gaming baggage. And we’re breaking the concept. So let’s hash this out.
You might have noticed when I doodled the doodle map of the megadungeon, that I divided it up into sections. Here, look at it:
See? It’s kind of sectional. And the sections have cool, evocative names like “The Lightless Deeps” or “The Desiccated Sanctuary.” But what ARE those things? What do they mean?
Once upon a time, there was an idea called “dungeon level.” And it was a very big deal. See, way, way back when D&D was still new and people thought orange shag carpeting was a good idea, the basic mode of play for D&D was exploring big-a$& underground catacombs. Basically, just sprawling labyrinths filled with monsters and treasure. And each sprawling labyrinth was divided into multiple levels. The deeper into the dungeon you went, the more challenging things got. In general, the idea was that, when you were XP level 1, you should stick to dungeon level 1. If you were XP level 5, you should be tromping around dungeon level 5. And so on.
And this wasn’t just a structural tool. It was actually baked into the game in a lot of subtle and weird ways. For example, one of the nastiest traps you could throw at a group of PCs was a chute. A chute was basically a pit trap that opened onto a slide that sent the PCs shooting down to some deeper level of the dungeon. And the PCs knew they were f$&%ed when that happened. It was part of the way the game world worked.
Now, things got more complicated over time. Eventually, we gave up on the idea of exploring just one multi-leveled site. You would have different adventures for different experience levels. But even then, the idea that deeper levels of the dungeon meant more danger stuck around for a long time. And it even infected video games. Play your Ultimas and Dragon Quests/Warriors and Final Fantasies of days long, LONG gone by and you’ll find that stairs going down were a big deal. And you never took the stairs going down until you explore the hell out of the floor you were already on.
But other games came along that played around with the concept of levels in a whole different way. Take, for example, the original Metroid or Blaster Master. In these games, the map was divided into different regions or neighborhoods or zones. And those zones were graphically distinct. They looked different, they had different enemies, different challenge levels, and so on. It was like the levels of dungeons of yore, but instead of being vertical, they were all sort of splayed out.
As exploration games became a genre of their own, that structure evolved. The idea of linear progression got set aside or hidden in the background (through concepts like gating and critical paths) and things got a lot more interconnected. The different zones stopped representing different levels of challenge. Instead, they became thematic. This was especially true when the exploration genre reached a point where it started interconnecting smaller numbers of zones that you would keep traveling back and forth through.
In Metroid, the first one, the basic progression was Brinstar, Norfair, Kraid’s Lair, Ridley’s Lair, Tourian. By Super Metroid, it became Crateria, Brinstar, Norfair, Brinstar again, back to Norfair, Crateria, maybe plunder Brinstar more, the Wrecked Ship, Maridia, definitely plunder Brinstar, Norfair, Ridley’s Lair, all right I definitely have to clean up Brinstar and Crateria, Tourian, the end.
Most exploration games nowadays are geographically subdivided and progress through the game passes back and forth through various areas. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night divided the castle into the Alchemical Hall, the Chapel, the Catacombs, the Clocktower, and so on. Dark Souls divides itself up into the Undead Berg, Blight Town, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, and so on. Arkham Asylum had different buildings like the Medical Facility, the Arkham Mansion, the Botanical Gardens, and so on.
But if these regions no longer represent difficulty levels, what good are they? Well, first of all, they are design tools. They help you make things feel consistent and contiguous. We’ll put the clockwork golems in the Clock Tower along with mechanic traps and climbing challenges and crushing gears and swinging pendulums. We’ll put diseased zombies in Blight Town. Poison Ivy’s boss fight will be in the Botanical Gardens. And by deciding on particular themes for different regions, they also help you design challenges. If I’m planning the Sulfurous Warren, a volcanic region of narrow windy caves, and I need some environmental hazards, well, my imagination is already going. I have lava, poison gas, heat, earthquakes, sudden steam explosions, and so on.
But the regions also serve a purpose for the players. They help the players keep track of where they are and they signal progress. When an area changes, thematically, from sulfur caves to catacombs, the players know they have made an important transition. That is a discovery and it feels good. And later on, when the players have been wandering around the Sunken Statuary and find a tunnel filled with steam and lava, they can guess that it leads back to the sulfur caves. It either represents a new location in the sulfur caves or a previously undiscovered shortcut. More importantly, it also allows them to make decisions like “well, let’s keep exploring this shrine before we go back into the poison lava tunnels.”
So, the dungeon will be divided into regions – areas that are thematically interrelated. And, for maximum effect, those regions will also help tell the story of the dungeon. For example, in Metroid Prime, the Chozo Ruins were the ancient ruins of an alien race. So were portions of Phendrana Drifts. And those ruins revealed the story of the Chozo race. But the Phazon Mines and other portions of the Phendrana Drifts had been converted to science and industrial facilities by the Space Pirates. And those areas helped show what the Space Pirates were up to.
So, goals, gates, and regions. Let’s modify our spreadsheet a little bit. We need two new columns. First, one for goal and second, one for region. Like thus:
Now, you might wonder why I don’t need a column for gates. Well, that’s because every gate is a goal. So, the gates will be in the goals column along with all the goals that aren’t gates.
The Regions of the Megadungeon
Now, looking back at my doodle, I have way too many regions. I admit this is just a gut thing. But, I trust my gut. Except for the whole diabetes and obesity things, my gut has never steered me wrong. I mean, I have 14 regions. And 26 days of adventure. That means each of those regions will fill one to two days of adventure tops. And there’s a problem there. You want the players to get to know different areas of the dungeon. You want them to get familiar with the themes. After all, you can build some variations within a region anyway. So the number of regions is sort of arbitrary.
First of all, let’s assume that the final goal and the final region are for the final day only. The last boss of the dungeon resides in his or her own special region of the dungeon. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here kind of thing. Looking at my doodle map, I can see that I have this idea of a Burning Deep. So, the last region is the Burning Deep. Though, to be honest, that name sounds sort of tame. The Fiery Abyss. Yeah, that’s good. Whatever is in the bottom of the dungeon, it lives in The Fiery Abyss.
Oh! Hold on! Let me tell you about a trick I’m using right now called “coming up with cool names and then figuring out what the hell they mean later.” Basically, the way this trick works is that you name a thing with something that sounds really cool. Like “The Fiery Abyss.” Later on, when you’re filling it with themes and monsters and other stuff, you figure out what that name actually means. That’s why I call it the trick of “coming up with cool names and then figuring out what the hell they mean later.”
We’re going to use that trick a lot later. Anyway…
Now, we need to cull our list down further. I want players to spend at least three to four days in every region. This can vary a little. Some regions will tend to be more hub-like while other regions will only get occasional visits. To pull that off in 25 days of adventure, I need a maximum of six or seven regions. How do we decide? Well, we’ll have to figure out which regions are our favorites.
First of all, The Desiccated Sanctuary is one I am absolutely married to. I love the name. I love the idea. Even though I don’t know what the idea is other than “once water was here, but it is gone now and the area is dried and withered.” Thematically, it’s just neat.
Speaking of which, I need two other regions. First, the Source of the Flow is the place where the water comes from. We have to have that. Next, we also need a flooded section. That’s where the water was diverted too. Now, I have the Flooded Ruins and also the Root Caves. The Root Caves serve as a connecting hub under the main dungeon. At least, that’s how I drew it. And the Flooded Ruins are just ruins that flooded. There’s no reason I can’t combine them. A series of underchambers, some overgrown with great roots and others not, all of which are currently flooded. So, we have the Flooded Underhalls. I like the word “underhall.” It has an implication of being hidden under everything while connecting everything.
I also need the Great Tree. That thing seems to play a story role. It’s where I can do plant-themed stuff with my awesome plant boss. It’s where the roots come from. And it provides a focal point for the dungeon. If elves were going to build a big dungeon, they would build it around a giant tree. In this case, the Great Tree is probably a dungeon forest with all sorts of little buildings and patios and walkways and trellises built around the plants. That’s kind of neat.
The Crypt of the Ageless is too evocative a name. And I need a place for undead because undead are cool. And I can do something cool with elven undead to make them unique.
And finally, I like the crystal thing. I want to keep that. It serves as a good transition between the fiery abyss and the undercaves. And it’s crystal. Who doesn’t love crystal stuff. You can have fun with crystal. Maybe the elves were digging for magical crystals.
So the Crystalline Caverns get to stay.
If I quickly doodle all of this stuff out to make a tighter sort of map, this is what I have:
And while it is cool and all, it’s missing something. There’s kind of a hole in the middle. I know, I know, I DREW IT with a hole in the middle. But I did that because I KNEW there was a hole in the middle. There’s not really a central hub. And area that’s thematically a little LESS interesting. Yeah, crazy as that sounds, you need something to sort of tie everything together. To allow for the different areas to all connect to one common region.
Metroid had its Craterias and Tallon Overworlds, Dark Souls had the Undead Berg, Arkham had the actual exterior portions of Arkham Island, and so on. These areas were kind of generic and they were a bit bigger than the others. They served as a palette cleanser, as a connecting point, and so on. And I don’t have anything like that.
Now, you could argue the Desiccated Sanctuary could serve that purpose. But that’s specifically the area of the dungeon that used to have water and now its withered. And you could argue that the Flooded Underhalls connect everything, but that’s an area that won’t be accessed until later on and it’s specifically the area that’s under water until the floodgates are closed or opened or whatever. The Overgrown Statuary could serve that purpose. But that feels too tightly defined. Because your central hub will be your biggest region. And how much Statuary does one place need?
Since this is a religious site (apparently), we’re going to throw in a nice generic religious region in the middle. The Sacred Halls. And, it kind of makes sense. The Sanctuary was kind of natural caves and gardens and canals and arty meditative crap. The Great Tree is the actual holy thing around which the site was built. The Sacred Halls contain all the stuff that makes it a functional religious site. Living quarters, work quarters, halls for worship, and all of that crap. Though we are going to use some pretty clever trickery later to get rid of the more boring utilitarian parts of the dungeon without making it seem like they are missing. Trust me. It’s a trick called “this area has not been shaded or rendered.”
Anyhoo, now we get this.
And those are the regions we’re going to work with.
Now, we need to decide on the actual gates we’re going to use for this dungeon. And this is where all that thought we already gave comes into play. But first, I want to call attention to a few specific things.
A lot of people, in the comment section of my article on Gating, did some amazing work. Fenrir did an amazing list of all the different ways that PCs of various levels could defeat obstacles in D&D 3.5 and David raised a few 5E specific points. But special props go to Thrak’s comment which turned me on to a searchable spell list for 5E that is an AMAZING online resource: The Grimoire.
First of all, I talked about two transformation gates. Those are gates that transform the entire dungeon. First, there is diverting the flow of water from the Flooded Underhalls to the Desiccated Sanctuary. That transformation is probably the centerpiece of the mid-tier of the dungeon. It’s such a big thing. Ideally, I’d like that to come at the start of Level 6.
And that brings us around to the research we did on spells that can defeat gates. See, the thing is, there’s this spell called Water Breathing. It’s a 3rd-level transmutation available to druids, rangers, sorcerers, and wizards. It can be cast as a ritual, which means it doesn’t cost any resources to cast, and it effects the entire party for 24 hours. It might seem like any flooded area of the dungeon is completely invalidated by a party that brings that spell, right?
Except not. See, I’m going to call your attention to a nifty little section of the PHB on page about Underwater Combat. Underwater Combat SUCKS! You have disadvantage on melee attacks except with specific weapons (daggers, tridents, spears, shortswords, and javelins) and most ranged weapons also have disadvantage and miss beyond their normal range. And water breathing doesn’t fix any of that.
There are a couple of solutions to the problem, but they carry unique issues of their own. Alter Self, a 2nd level spell, allows ONLY THE CASTER to adapt to an underwater environment. At 4th level, druids can shapeshift into aquatic creatures. But both of those features expend the use of limited resources AND only apply to one member of the party.
And that brings us to an interesting feature of gating in D&D. An obstacle only one PC can get past remains an obstacle. Sure, the druid can turn into a crocodile, the wizard can grow gills and fins, and the rest of the party can breathe water, but getting into a fight underwater is still a MAJOR problem for the party.
So, the floodgate thing can safely come at Level 6.
The other major transformation is killing Poison Ivy. I like the idea of a giant, parasitic, toxic plant spawning plant monsters that is strangling the giant tree and choking off areas of the dungeon. And, originally, I had this idea that it would fill areas with poison gas. But there is this 2nd-level spell called Warding Wind. Among other effects, it surrounds you with a 10-foot radius windstorm that cleanses all toxic gasses from the area. Which means, by 3rd-level, the right party can get past the poison clouds on their own. I don’t want the plant monster dead that early. So, instead, I notice there is this spell called Wall of Thorns. It’s a very high level spell that creates a wall of durable, painful wooden spikey vines. So, if we assume that the plant monster is creating mundane (non-spell) equivalents of walls of thorns that will wither and die when it is killed, we have our blockade.
Thing is, though, we can combine the poison gas AND the wall of thorns. See, Warding Wind is not a ritual spell. So, it’ll cost the party some resources to cast it. So, we can use poison clouds that disappear when the plant monster is killed as soft gates. That is to say, if the party breaks through them, they won’t get in too much trouble. But if we’re really, really serious, we also use the walls of thorns. And the thing about the poison gas thing is that the PCs will feel like they are breaking the rules if they do bypass some of the poison gas areas early. When they kill the giant plant, and the poison goes away, they will be like “oh, hey, when we used Warding Wind to get into that room with the magic sword, we cheated. We’re awesome!”
Now, here’s where things get sort of interesting. Because I like the idea of areas that are zoned off by magic linked to bosses. And I do have this crypt. And I need something major for the transition from 8th to 9th level. So, let’s say there’s a powerful undead. A corrupted spirit. And certain areas of the dungeon are cursed. Something terrible happens to living things that enter the area. And it’s really terrible the deeper you go into those cursed areas. So, round about 8th-level, you have to defeat a corrupting spirit and that removes the cursed areas. That continues the theme of cleansing and restoration. First, you defeat the poison plant. Then, you restore life giving water. Then you destroy a corrupting spirit. It makes a nice thematic arc.
So, those are transformation gates: Detoxify the Great Tree, Open the Floodgates, and Destroy the Corrupting Spirit.
Now, let’s work simpler. Let’s look at some gate gates. Actual locked doors. See, locked doors are another interesting and troublesome quirk of D&D. The thing with locked doors in D&D is that players rarely have keys. Which is kind of interesting because keys are such a staple in other games. Look at the Legend of Zelda series. You spend half your life in Zelda hunting for keys. The trouble is, in D&D, you have other solutions to the key problem. Even at first level, a rogue can pick locks and anyone can try to break down a door.
And we don’t want to remove that option. Again, it’s cool when the party feels like its cheating. But at early levels, a gate that is “here’s the key to a bunch of doors” is a neat way to emphasize the exploration mechanic. And it’s also fun to kind of f$&% with the players a little. Hear me out.
Imagine this. The dungeon has a bunch of locked doors of different levels of security. Some are wood. Some are reinforced. Some are stone. And the complexity of the lock varies. And the doors have visual cues so the party learns that there are different doors with different levels of difficulty. They break a few, they pick a few, and others confound them because the DC is too high. And then they find a key. And the key opens bunches of doors. But not all of them. So, they figure, okay, this is a key hunting dungeon. But they also realize that they cheated because they busted through some of the doors without a key. Cool. That’s fun. And then they find another key. Yes. Confirmed. Okay, we’re key hunting, guys. Look for keys. At that point, they might even stop trying to bust down doors. They might ignore doors they don’t have keys for, figuring they are supposed to follow a path. And then they kill the plant monster and the whole goddamned dungeon changes and suddenly they are like “well, I guess we’re done with keys. That’s pretty awesome.”
It gives a sense of escalating the dungeon while playing with their head. Finding keys is fairly mundane. Its satisfying, especially if they discover they can cheat the system, but it won’t last long. And then, when the game dispenses with the keys and starts playing with the dungeon in other ways, it feels like s$&% is getting realer.
So, we’re going to make the first two gates fairly mundane. The first key unlocks mundane locks. It’s literally just a key. A key that opens secure doors. There’s locked doors in the dungeon. But some of them are too well made and complex for the PCs to hit the DC for a while. The second key is an arcane runekey. It will defeat doors that have the added layer of protection afforded by an arcane lock.
Aha. Now, you are probably bringing up the Knock spell. Good call. It’s a 2nd-level spell that will open any mundane locked or stuck door. But it’s not a ritual. It chews up a spell slot to cast it. And it’s loud and attracts wandering monsters. So, mundane locks that the party needs the key for, they can cheat. If they spend the spell slot and if they risk the monster attack. That’s fine.
As for arcane locks, well, Knock defeats those too. But only temporarily. It suppresses an Arcane Lock for ten minutes. Which means the party that uses it to cheat one of the Arcane Locks could be in real trouble if they aren’t careful. They could get locked on the other side if they spend more than ten minutes.
What’s very interesting though is that the wording on the Knock spell is kind of nebulous and vague. If a door is both locked AND arcane locked, you can read the Knock spell such that it requires two castings. One suppresses the arcane lock, the next defeats the lock. After that, the door remains unlocked but the arcane lock returns. What makes this more complicated is the fact that the Arcane Lock spell can be read in such a way – if you want to get really nitpicky – that it is not meant to be used on something that is already locked.
What does all of this mean? Well, a couple of things. First of all, the Knock spell is probably not a big issue even at 3rd-level, but we shouldn’t expect normal or Arcane Locks to keep PCs out much beyond 4th-level. At 3rd-level, that 2nd-level spell slot may just be too powerful to waste on defeating a lock temporarily.
And THAT is also why we’re giving players the normal key first. See, if the players find a key to specific doors, they will assume it’s a key hunting dungeon. That means, when they find magically locked doors their key doesn’t open, they are much LESS LIKELY to waste resources opening them. They will assume they will find a key and just treat the arcane lock doors as barriers until they have the key.
So, at 3rd-level or so, they can find the Skeleton Key that opens mundane doors. And at 4th-level or so, they can find the Arcane Runekey that opens arcane doors. Meanwhile, they can also pick or break lesser doors whenever they want.
We’re doing good. Let’s take a look at what we’ve got so far.
Now, let’s build on that whole idea of using a bit of psychological trickery to teach the players not to cheat too much. And also use another Metroid trick to make the players feel powerful.
See, one of the things Metroid does very effectively is to force you to deal with a problem a little bit before it gives you a solution. The clearest example is in Super Metroid when you have to deal with the fact that Samus can’t move easily in water. There’s a few spots where you can get caught in water and have to slog your way back out. And there’s a few spots where you have to make tricky jumps hindered by water. But you don’t really have to cope with serious problems underwater until you gain the Gravity Suit that allows you to function freely underwater.
We already talked about how Water Breathing DOESN’T help. But there’s a danger the idiot players won’t realize that and they will suddenly decide “hey, let’s use my shiny new Water Breathing spell to explore those Flooded Undercaves.” And they will swim too far in, get ambushed by Bloodspike Eels or something, and get slaughtered. At the same time, we also want to let druids and wizards with shapeshifting feel good for having those abilities by adding water obstacles.
That means one of our ability gates – that is gates that can be opened by giving the PCs new powers or abilities – can be Water Breathing. At some point in the dungeon, the PCs gain the ability to breathe water. And if we do it in a controlled way, we can teach them how much Water Breathing doesn’t help when a fight breaks out.
Water Breathing and Opening the Floodgates become another example of Finding the Skeleton Key and then Finding the Arcane Runekey. Sometime before they Open the Floodgates, they get the ability to breathe underwater. Shortly thereafter, once they’ve learned that water sucks even if you can breathe it, they remove the water from some portions of the dungeon and restore it to others. And, in fact, we can build some fun areas of the Desiccated Sanctuary so that they can only be accessed when the water is flowing from underwater. So that Breathing Water isn’t immediately invalidated by the Floodgate.
And gaining the ability to breathe water should come somewhere around level five. And, most importantly, it should be gained BEFORE the party finds the Flooded Underhalls so that we can train them NOT to try to navigate that entire underwater dungeon. That way, if someone does bring the spell, it isn’t an option for them to get killed in the Flooded Underhalls before WE’VE given them water breathing and taught them not to misuse it.
How will we do all of this? Well, when we start designing the individual days, we’ll address it. For now, I’m going to note not just that we’re giving them waterbreathing as a goal, but also that the first time they are exposed to the Flooded Underhalls is when they gain water breathing and not a moment before.
Now, you might wonder how many gates are good? Because, at this point, we’ve got six of them. Well, here’s what my gut says.
First of all, Day 1 and Day 2 do not have gates. They are a linear progression. Apprentice levels. A few side paths, but the party doesn’t start opening up new sections of the dungeon until Day 3 and 3rd-level.
Meanwhile, the last tier of adventure has only one gate. That is the gate to get to the final boss. From Day 21 through Day 25, the entire dungeon is now open to the players. That’s it. They can go anywhere. They are wrapping up. Finding the stuff they missed and working to unlock the Final Day. The dungeon is their oyster.
Now, I had two more gates in mind. I mentioned flying and teleporting. Those are awesome gates because they give the party new abilities that are useful not just for opening locks. Kind of like water breathing. So, let’s look at those.
First, flying. Flying is an interesting one because, if you build the obstacle right, one person being able to fly doesn’t let everyone pass the obstacle. How? I don’t know. We’re not building obstacles yet. We’ll get there though. For now, we’re just going to assume that we can make obstacles that can be defeated by flying but only if EVERYONE can fly.
We can also build obstacles, of course, that can be defeated if only one person can fly. That makes druids and wizards feel good. But I’m talking about a gate here, not just finding a treasure on the far side of a windswept chasm.
When can the whole party fly by the rules? Well, a wizard can cast the fly spell on one creature for ten minutes at 5th-level. For each spell slot higher than 3rd-level, they can target one additional creature. Assuming a party of four, that means they need a 7th-level spell slot to let the whole party fly. And that means the wizard has to be 9th level. That means, as long as we give the ability to fly to the whole party before 9th-level, it’s a reliable gate.
Looking at my spreadsheet, Day 19 seems like a good day. With optional XP, the party might be 9th-level by the end of that day, but they won’t reach 9th-level before. What about teleportation.
Well, what I’m talking about here is short range teleportation. Basically, short range, line-of-sight teleportation for the entire party. Basically, that’s like teleporting through a keyhole or a tiny window. Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn’t seem to be possible until 9th-level either using the 7th-level spell teleport. So we can give it out any time before 9th-level. But when we add the idea of teleporting through windows or keyholes as an obstacle, we have to worry about shapeshifting and turning into gas again. Fortunately, it seems like all of the various options (like shapeshifting, wild shape, and gaseous form) are one-creature-at-a-time, non-ritual issues.
Either way, it seems we’re safe at giving out some sort of Dimension Door-like ability that absolutely isn’t any sort of portal gun.
Both Dimension Door and Fly can drastically change the nature of encounters. Which is exactly what we want them to do. We want them to feel more like abilities than keys.
Now… looking at the spreadsheet:
Looking at the spreadsheet, things seem kind of thin between Day 15 and Day 19. And that might be okay, but there’s one more weird little issue. Notice that, during the last five days of the adventure, there’s a LOT of optional encounters. And the whole dungeon is supposed to be open. That means that we have something around fifteen random encounters gated behind the corrupting spirit and the ability to fly. That’s a lot to hide behind just two abilities. Especially considering we want the party to backtrack and explore the dungeon, so they are going to a lot of previously explored areas. I want one more gate so that I have a few more options to work with for hiding those optional encounters.
Let’s go back to the idea of key hunting. What if, in the end, there is one more key to find. There are some locked doors in the dungeon that have confounded the party all this time until near the very, very end. I don’t just want to f$&% with more DCs and mundane doors. And elves are magical.
See, as I was looking at the wall of thorns spell, I noticed there are other walls. And that gave me this idea.
Okay, so we have these elves right. And they built this sanctuary. And something evil came from the Fiery Abyss and the last thing they did was flood the place. They diverted the water from their sanctuary to flood the Underhalls and seal up the Fiery Abyss.
But what happened before that? What other efforts did they make? What if they decided to start using magic to seal off certain areas of their sanctuary? What if they erected permanent Walls of Ice to ward against the fiery things that came out of the Abyss. And what if those magical walls still survive. Now, the spell by itself may not be quite right. We can make up our own rules. That’s fine. But the elves had to have some way to remove the icewalls assuming they might someday win. A relic that would simply break those walls. And what if they hid some of their greatest treasures behind those walls of ice so the evil things wouldn’t get them.
And one of those treasures was the magical ability to fly.
So, the party finds the Frostburned Runekey or whatever and can break through the impenetrable walls of ice. That allows them to find the ability to fly. And that also allows them to, while they are scouring the dungeon to finish up and unlock the final door, also unlock all these seals on various treasure vaults sealed against fire monsters.
And THAT is a great list of gates.
Goals and Plot Arcs
Okay, let’s try to fill in the rest of the story beats now. The other goals. First of all, let’s try to build a plot arc. What’s a plot arc? A plot arc is a series of interconnected beats that escalate and then come to a conclusion.
I mentioned that I wanted a nuisance enemy. Space Pirates, I think I called them. Something that can scale with the players and provide a nemesis for the first half of the game. Basically, to define what the party is doing and give them an enemy. And ultimately, I mentioned kobolds.
I like kobolds because they are individually about as weak as you can get. So you can build lots of interesting encounters with them just by combining different types of kobolds in different ways, giving them pets, adding traps, and so on. It could have been goblins, but kobolds have another advantage: they usually come with a dragon.
So, let’s build a simple plot arc. First of all, we’re going to need a reason to draw the PCs into the dungeon. And kobolds are a great first level foe. A little warband of kobolds causes some trouble, the PCs follow them, and discover this elvish ruin. They defeat the warband. In so doing, they discover the site is bigger than they first realized and the kobold leader has some final words about how their kobold leader is bigger and badder and she’ll get revenge. Whatever.
So, Day 1’s goal is Defeat the Poisonscale Kobold Warband. Simple. Effective.
After that, the party starts exploring the site. They keep encounter kobolds because the kobolds are looting the site too. And they keep hearing about the big bad kobold leader. Not much they can do at first. But eventually, they cleanse the site of the poison that they can penetrate the kobold lair. See, the poisonscale kobolds are immune to poison because of reasons having to do with sorcery or gods or their draconic ancestry. Whatever. Sometime after they Detoxify the Great Tree, they can Defeat the Kobold Leader.
When the leader dies, they learn the leader was a thrall of a dragon. The dragon was the kobold queen all along. And the green dragon – because green dragons are poisonous and amphibious – has its lair somewhere near the floodgates. The party finds the ability to breathe underwater, finds its way into the green dragon’s lair, and defeats the green dragon. That gives them access to the source of the flow. But it also reveals that the green dragon was actually the thrall of some sort of nameless evil.
And that nameless evil hints at what might lie below.
Now our spreadsheet looks like this:
Okay, that’s a pretty good arc for the first tier of the dungeon.
Let’s talk about the end of the story. Remember that from Day 21 on, we want the party to be rolling toward a conclusion. And the event that touches that off is the Corrupting Spirit that is cursing much of the ruins. Now, as I’ve been writing all sorts of evocative names and ideas, I’ve been thinking about what the actual f$&% is going on here. And we’ve started to see a story emerge.
The elves built a sanctuary and a holy site around this great tree in a fertile crater in the mountains. It was a holy site. A religious retreat. Basically an elven monastery. A place of worship, art, mediation, and all those things elves like.
But, underneath it all is this cave of magical crystals. And elves are magical artisans by nature. So they start playing with the crystals and making magical items out of them. And things are going fine, except that the crystals are corrupted magic. They are there because deep under the place, in the Fiery Abyss, a demon and its servants were sealed away centuries ago. And she’s been spreading her corruption through the ground and it’s been forming into these chaotic, elemental mana crystals.
The elves start to get twisted by the crystals and meanwhile the demon feeds off their energy or some bulls$&% like that. She can’t quite break free, but she starts to send lesser demon elemental whatevers up into the elvish sanctuary. The elves try to seal her with powerful magic and they manage to do so, but there is still the problem of all of elements and demons. And the fact that the seal won’t hold forever. So, while an elven hero, wielding crystal magical items holds off the demons, the elven leaders desperately flood lower chambers. The demons can’t escape and the demon queen remains sealed. The elven hero, though, corrupted by the crystal and feeling betrayed by the fact that her people drowned her, becomes a corrupted spirit. And she binds the spirits of the elven leaders so they can’t move on.
So, our corrupting spirit is the ghost of a crystal clad elven warrior who was drowned in the sealing of the catacombs. That’s pretty badass. And she bound the spirits of four elven leaders. Those elven leaders were the ones who put the seal on the demon queen. Once she’s defeated, the PCs can appease each of the four spirits, helping them to move on. And that will allow them to open the Seal on the Fiery Abyss and confront the Demon Queen.
That works, no?
YES, it’s an amalgam of a bunch of plots from my favorite video games. Who gives a f$&%. It’ll be a good game.
But we still have some gaps. In particular, we have Day 2. We’ve decided that Day 1 and Day are fairly linear and it’s only once the party gets to Day 3 do they really start to have free reign. And that makes sense, thematically, because on Day 3, they find the skeleton key.
We decided that we wanted to have the party end up trapped (briefly) in the dungeon and force them to find a way out. But there’s something ELSE we want to do. Let’s talk about the whole “random encounter” thing. We’re not throwing random encounters at the party right away. Those are going to start in on Day 2 and then ramp up throughout the rest of the adventure.
We also want the random encounters to vary as they explore the dungeon. That is to say, as the party changes things, the random encounter tables should change. Just to take one example, kobolds should stop being randomly encountered once the Poisonscale Kobold Queen is defeated. And when the Great Tree is Detoxified, poison plant monsters should disappear. Meanwhile, when the party opens the Floodgates, elementals and demons are going to start to creep into the dungeon.
We want to show the PCs – in a very obvious way – how their actions affect the dungeonscape.
What if, on Day 2, when the party returns to the dungeon after carrying word back to town of the defeat of the kobold warband, they become trapped. The passage into the megadungeon proper carries them through a hallway that collapses, leaving them trapped in the Crypt of the Ageless. They must search the Crypt for a way back out into the entryway and also a way further into the dungeon. In so doing, they unseal the crypt. After that, they start to encounter undead wandering the dungeon. And those continue to be an issue until the Corrupting Spirit is finally defeated. We will have to do this all very carefully. We have to make sure it is very easy to escape back to the entrance. It’s dangerous to lock a 2nd-level party in a dungeon. So the critical path will have to be carefully designed to let them out after one or two encounters.
This idea might even plant a false herring idea that the corruption of the site is the party’s fault. Until they figure out what is going on, the party might assume the curse and the haunting is their fault for disturbing the tomb. So, when the revelation comes that the corruption was due to an evil spirit, it will be a relief.
And this is where we’re finished with goals. And I know you’re saying “but wait, how can we be finished? You said EVERY DAY has a goal! And there are SEVEN days without goals. We’re not done!” And the answer is, we know what those goals are already. Sort of. We know enough.
We mentioned how we’re going to have a few days with minor goals like “find a neat treasure” or “make a cool discovery” or “defeat a minor boss monster.” Or some combination of two or all three of those. But I’m going to let you in on a secret: always leave yourself some space in your planning for cool stuff later. I have a few ideas bouncing around in my head right now. I want the party to find the corpse of the corrupted spirit. I want the party to discover a workshop where crystal magic items were made. I am thinking about some sort of wandering verminy monster queen like a Shelob or a Kruthik Queen to drive a random encounter faction. But I want to leave myself some space right now to let those ideas plop into place. So, I can leave those minor goals blank.
Now, I can get away with this because I’m very smart and the way we plan each adventuring Day is going to force us to pace things well. Trust me. If you’re making your own dungeon project, feel free to fill in as many blanks as you want. But, for me, this is good enough.
Now, let’s talk about regions. Because I want to plan out the basic traffic flow of the dungeon before I start mapping. From my doodle sketch, I have a basic idea of how the dungeon fits together. And I already know where some of the story beats have to occur because the story of the dungeon has started shaping up nicely.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the regions and let some of the ideas I’ve had gel in my head.
The Desiccated Sanctuary is basically a very complex meditation garden and art gallery. It used to have flowing water, but now it’s completely dried out. It is also the entrance to the dungeon. Why? I don’t know. It just is. Somehow, my brain decided that and I’m going with it.
The Sacred Halls are the center of the complex. They were the spaces for worship and life in general. Basically, they are directly behind the Desiccated Sanctuary.
Beyond the Sacred Halls is The Great Tree, an overgrown outdoor mountain crater with a maze of overgrown buildings and terraces. It’s basically an outdoor forest dungeon. This was the holy site for the elves.
Above these three main regions, the massive underground lake being fed by who knows what magic is the Source of the Flow. The elves constructed floodgates to fill their canals and prevent the rest of the site from flooding. And they were able to use those gates to divert the flow from the Sanctuary to the Underhalls.
And the Flooded Underhalls were probably once work spaces, though they were cut through natural caves and built around the roots of the Great Tree.
The Crypt of the Ageless is an elven tomb. Basically, the dead who were worthy of such a site were interred here. It is underneath the Desiccated Sanctuary and the Sacred Halls and probably intertwined with the Flooded Underhalls.
Below all of this are the weird Crystalline Caverns that wind all the way down to the volcanic Fiery Abyss.
First of all, we know that the Fiery Abyss is accessible only on the last day. We can fill that in. We also know that, except for briefly dipping into the Flooded Underhalls on Day 10 to Gain the Ability to Breathe Water (and learn how it doesn’t really help open the Flooded Underhalls), the Flooded Underhalls and the Crystalline Cavern are inaccessible until at least Day 12. In addition, the Source of the Flow won’t be reached until Day 12 either.
The kobolds are probably lairing in the Sacred Halls. That’s the center of the dungeon. And the green dragon is probably there too, though his lair relies on an entrance that can only be reached from the Flooded Underhalls. We can thus fill in the locations for the Kobold Arc and a few other obvious ones. Nothing here should be remotely surprising.
And now I’m going to start speaking very fast as we fill these in one day at a time.
After the party passes through the Crypt of the Ageless, they emerge in the Sacred Halls. That will be the next spot they will explore. Day 3 is in the Sacred Halls.
And now begins the rule of not allowing the party to stay in the same place for two days in a row. With Skeleton Key, they can open up doors they couldn’t before. We’ll want to send them back to a previous area to do just that. They can go back to the Desiccated Sanctuary and open a door to explore.
The new path through the Desiccated Sanctuary should allow them their first glimpse of the Great Tree. We don’t want them goalless too long. So, we’ll bring them to the Great Tree. They can fight some plant monsters. There they discover the Arcane Runekey.
The Arcane Runekey will bring them back to the Sacred Halls where a new path opens.
On Day 7, they go to the Great Tree to cleanse the tree of the plant monster, removing all the thorns and poison.
We’ll send them back to the Desiccated Sanctuary again now that the thorns and poison are gone.
After that, because of the thorns and poison being gone, they can reach the Poisonscale Tribe’s lair in the Sacred Halls, then find an entrance to the Flooded Underhalls, learn how to breathe water, and then back to the Sacred Halls through an underwater path to fight a dragon. And that allows them access to the Source of the Flow.
The Source of the Flow connects directly to the Desiccated Sanctuary. Because we want the party to see the result of opening the Floodgates, that will be the next spot on their journey.
At this point, the party will want to head to the Flooded Underhalls to explore. That’s fine. But, the Dimension Door ability is one that I kind of see being gained IN the Underhalls. So, I’m breaking the rule and giving the party two days in the Flooded Underhalls. It’s a sizeable area and interesting enough that I can make it work.
The reason I see the magical ability being hidden in the Underhalls? Because it’s the result of a powerful magical relic. Since the Underhalls are where the workrooms and labs were, that’s where it belongs.
The Dimension Door ability opens new paths. Once again, we should send the party back before we send them forward. Let’s remind them that the Crypt is important because they will want to go back there soon.
Now, I’ve been toying with where the Frostburned Runekey should be. And ultimately, I’m hiding it in the Crystalline Caverns. I want the party to visit there and find the elf hero corpse before they have the confrontation with her.
The Frostburned Runekey opens up new paths in old places. Let’s send the party back into the Flooded Underhalls for a minor goal on Day 8.
Also, with the Frostburned Runekey, the party can access a major vault in the Sacred Halls that has the ability to fly in it. That seems like a valuable treasure.
With the ability to fly, the party can confront the Corrupting Spirit. Although she was not laid to rest, she resides in the Crypt of the Ageless. And her lair is accessible only by flying because she is a spirit. That’s Day 20.
And now begins the cleanup. Each of the four elven spirits is in a place somehow important to them. One is in the Desiccated Sanctuary, one at the Great Tree, one at the Source of the Flow, and one in the Flooded Underhalls. Why? I don’t know. Seems cool to me. We’ll figure it out as we finish filling in the story.
And to finally break the seal once the spirits have been appeased, the party returns to the Sacred Halls to the altar where the four elders created the seal. That means all five areas of the living, working site are included in this final run up.
And then the party descends to the Fiery Abyss to defeat the Demon Queen once for all.
And that’s that. Well, sort of. Because, let’s be realistic here. It’s just not going to match up perfectly when we try to draw a map. We’re going to have to move things around. And, frankly, there’s nothing that keeps us from, say, splitting Day 6 between two different locales. Especially because those minor goal days are generally just about backtracking and opening paths that couldn’t be opened before. But at least we have a guide.
Finishing the Chart
And now we finish the chart with some color coding. Why? Well… it’s a surprise. It’ll be really important next time. See if you can guess the reason for the color-coded goals.
And you can download the Excel version if you want to.