Wrangling 16 authors to write 16 levels of a massive superdungeon is no small feat, but after getting the physical copy of The Emerald Spire Superdungeon in our hands we can say that it was totally worth it.
There is enough high adventure and dungeon delving between these covers to keep a group of players entertained for a long time. Although this massive module can take a group of heroes from their meager beginnings as 1st-level adventurers all the way to the high end of 13th level, game masters can run one-night adventures with individual levels. Alternately, a GM could take four or five levels of the dungeon and cobble together a mini-campaign hitting on just a few of the levels that most interest them and their group.
Our own publisher, Erik Mona, designed Level 14, and his dungeon would make a great ending for one of these compacted campaigns. This level also serves as one of the most interconnected levels of the whole superdungeon. But don’t just listen to me—let’s let Erik speak for himself and share some of his experiences designing Level 14: The Throne of Azlant.
How do you define a "Superdungeon"? What is your favorite dungeon or superdungeon experience in your personal gaming history?
A superdungeon is a multi-level collection of mini dungeons that combine to form a locale suitable for an entire campaign's worth of exploration. The best superdungeons allow for repeated forays in and out of the dungeon, and the majority of a character's growth and development (both in terms of story and game statistics) can occur without too much deviation from exploration of the singular, epic location—if that's what the players want.
I've run several campaigns based around the classic Temple of Elemental Evil dungeon (how cool is it that the co-author of that adventure is one of my co-authors on this project?), with general success. The opening levels of that dungeon—particularly the moathouse section—are among my favorite dungeon levels in all of gaming. I had the opportunity to playtest Monte Cook's Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil with the author himself back in the early days of third edition, and I really loved the way Monte updated the adventure I'd run so many times before, so my affection for the adventure transcends three editions (I have not yet managed to run it in Pathfinder, alas). Each time I've run the classic version it's been completely different. One group decided to knock over the village of Hommlet's jewelry store and ended up outlaws. Another got completely wiped out on the third level of the dungeon. No group I've ever run through the temple has ever made it all the way through. Sure, a few of them died, but mostly people just ended up losing interest, or the campaign went on long enough that the real world intruded to make it impossible to game together. That's the problem with superdungeons—it's all too easy for them to get boring, or for them to become so ambitious that it's nearly impossible to play all the way through and experience all of the story the dungeon has to offer.
One of my favorite things about the Emerald Spire project is that the Flip-Mats are like a challenge to play every level. They also contained the authors somewhat, forcing us through the brutality of limited space and a tight word count to focus on the important stuff and not design anything too sprawling. The Emerald Spire, unlike many superdungeons, is designed to be completable. Alternatively, it works as a collection of 16 dungeons that can be used more or less independently, making this a very easy adventure to cannibalize.
What is your level of the Emerald Spire Superdungeon called? What theme, if any, does the level have?
My Emerald Spire dungeon is called the Throne of Azlant. It's the seat of the dungeon's Big Bad, the lich Nhur-Athemon. A lot of the foreshadowing in the dungeon, particularly on the handful of levels directly above mine, points to this ultimate nemesis, so my level pays off elements that the adventure has been building toward all along. Nhur-Athemon was "destroyed" by the Knights of the Ioun Star in the dying days of the Azlanti Empire, his unmortal corpse bound forever to his subterranean lair by mythic magic curses. Naturally, the player characters investigate and discover what an undead wizard tyrant gets up to when he has 10,000 years confined to quarters. Old Nhur-Athemon was exiled from Azlant after a failed attempt to claim the imperial throne, so you can be sure that whatever the lich's plan, it certainly doesn't lack for ambition.
My busy work schedule doesn't allow me to write as much as I'd like to, so over the last couple years I've tried to make my few small projects count by tying a lot of minor elements of subplot together throughout various sources. The Knights of the Ioun Star, Nhur-Athemon's ancient Azlanti enemies, also appeared in a short section I wrote for Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Occult Mysteries. My Emerald Spire dungeon also connects (thematically and literally) to the dungeon level I wrote for the Thornkeep dungeon, the Sanctum of a Lost Age. That adventure dealt with Nhur-Athemon's apprentices, who have influence upon the Throne of Azlant as well. All of this material ties into my home campaign, Kings of Absalom, which involves a lot of ancient Azlanti secrets. I'll be running that campaign next weekend at PaizoCon, and I hope one day to write it up for publication. This adventure is a taste, and a peek at the grand picture.
What where the inspirations you drew on for your Emerald Spire level, and what are you hoping players get out of it?
My inspiration for this adventure comes more from my in-game play experience than from something I'm trying to emulate from fiction or the movies or whatever. I've run (and written) a lot of dungeon crawls in my time, and this one plays off of a few lessons I've learned along the way. There's one of my patented "oh, this fight is more difficult than I anticipated" encounters right near the beginning of the adventure, but beyond that I've done my best to avoid some of the pitfalls a big dungeon brings on both sides of the screen.
The Throne of Azlant is non-linear—there are multiple routes to the final chamber that leads deeper into the Emerald Spire dungeons (for the Spire's "Big Bad" is not the "Biggest Bad" on offer).
The dungeon level is more than just hack-and-slash. I included a few roleplaying encounters amongst all the carnage, a sure-fire way to get across more of the dungeon's backstory and to engage the interest of players who enjoy more than just rolling dice.
The adventure contains interesting elements of world lore and continuity. Though I don't explore the full history of Old Azlant or a major mystery like the origin of the god Aroden (you'll have to find a way to play Kings of Absalom for that!), it does reveal interesting new tidbits about the empire that fans of the Pathfinder world will likely appreciate.
It also contains the meanest trick I have ever played on a player character, a bind so nasty that I continue to giggle just thinking about it. I don't want to give away the secret on the blog post, but folks who read the adventure should find it pretty easy to understand what I'm talking about. Every time I've run the dungeon it's been utterly delightful to see whether the players fall into this trap and create a real conundrum for themselves. It's a glorious thing, if you are the type of GM who appreciates seeing his players squirm when they realize they've made a bad decision.
I'll be running one more shot at the Throne of Azlant at PaizoCon next week, which will make it the 13th time I've run the adventure. I started before last year's PaizoCon, and managed to run the Throne of Azlant about a half-dozen times at various conventions and events before I had to turn in my final manuscript. Unsurprisingly, repeated play produced lots of changes to improve the adventure, and I honestly believe it got better with each play-through. I've now run the Throne of Azlant more than any other Pathfinder adventure, which has earned it a special place in my heart. Each running has resulted in different conclusions and different routes through the dungeon, and it never seems to get old.
Thanks to Erik for taking the time out of his schedule to share some of his insights on this monumental project. Keep your eyes on this blog next week for more exciting reveals.