Chaos and Drowning in the Emerald Spire, with Sean K Reynolds and James L. Sutter

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Emerald Spire Superdungeon is the largest Pathfinder Module ever, which means there's a lot to keep track of for GMs and players braving its perils. Adventurers can end up on a number of different quests, talk to various recurring allies and foes, and acquire a trove of odd relics and treasures. Players without good notes might end up a bit lost somewhere between The Automaton Forge and The Pleasure Garden.

For groups that find visual aids helpful, many of these elements can be managed with the help of Pathfinder Campaign Cards: The Emerald Spire Superdungeon. This set of 53 full-color campaign cards tracks 18 quests on which the PCs may find themselves, reveals the faces of 19 major NPCs, and unveils 16 mysterious items found in the depths of the Emerald Spire.

And what will PCs encounter over 16 levels of dungeoneering? For another sneak peek, this week we talk to some of the designers of the Emerald Spire Superdungeon. We talked to Sean K Reynolds (prolific game designer and developer, founder of Sean K Reynolds Games, and designer of level 5) and James L. Sutter (Managing Editor at Paizo and designer of level 15) about how they approached creating their dungeon levels, what they think a "superdungeon" is, and what inspired them when crafting their portion of the Emerald Spire.

Illustration by Firat Solhan

How do you define a "Superdungeon"?


I define it as "a dungeon that gets its powers from exposure to Earth's yellow sun," as opposed to "Spider-Dungeon," which got its powers from a radioactive spider; "Wonder-Dungeon," which got its powers as blessings from various Hellenic deities; "Invisible Dungeon," which got its powers from cosmic rays; or "Ant-Dungeon," which has a technological helmet that can communicate with bugs.


I think a superdungeon is an old-school dungeon romp that just keeps going—room upon room of traps, monsters, and loot! While I was always more of an urban adventures kid when it came to actual gameplay, I can still recall the way those old-school Gary Gygax dungeon maps captured my imagination. What was in those little gridded boxes, floating in the sea of black ink? It could be anything! There was a sense of possibility that pulled me in at a really visceral level (the same way I can remember how my first Magic cards smelled, or the feeling of my first BattleTech set). Whether I had a game or not, I spent countless summer hours with graph paper, drawing connected rooms without any idea what could be in them. (Even today, I still sometimes like drawing a rough draft of a dungeon map first, then letting that inspire its encounters.)

What is your favorite dungeon or superdungeon experience in your personal gaming history?

Hands down, when Monte Cook ran Labyrinth of Madness for a bunch of TSR people as an all-nighter at his house in Lake Geneva, WI. It was brutal, but we played high-level characters who alternately romped through the challenges and got our butts kicked, and it was great fun.

I never owned any superdungeons as a child, but of the ones I've encountered in the years since, I think my favorite is Maure Castle. I was unfamiliar with it until I started working at Paizo, and once I started editing for it, I was fascinated by all the clues and secrets—who was the mysterious "Y"? It had never occurred to me that a superdungeon could have overarching mysteries running through all of the levels. So when it came time to write Emerald Spire, I was excited to have tie-ins between my level and other folks' (most notably Wes Schneider's).

What is your level of the Emerald Spire Superdungeon called? What theme, if any, does the level have?

It was called "The Water Level" in my turnover, because nobody told me we were supposed to come up with names for our levels. Hopefully they changed the name in development into something cooler, like "The Hydro Level." (Developer Note: We actually went with the MUCH more evocative "The Drowned Level")

Mine is called "Order and Chaos." I'm not going to lie—going into the project, my goal was to be as self-indulgent as possible. Ever since Death's Heretic—and really since I wrote the bit of protean speech that shows up in the Chapter 6 opener of the GameMastery Guide—I've felt a particular bond with proteans and inevitables. They're just so delightfully alien! So in my level, I wanted to give people the chance to encounter both of them, in an environment that's almost as weird as the creatures themselves: partially mechanical and partially warped by chaos. And of course, since I find social encounters as interesting as combat (or more so), you have the opportunity to form an alliance with either side, though neither really have your best interests at heart...

Illustration by Damien Mammoliti

What inspirations did you draw on for your Emerald Spire level, and what are you hoping players get out of it?

In the concept meeting for the book we realized we wanted a water level for characters at about level 4 or so. Much of the level is partially submerged or completely underwater, and navigating the water and the lack of air are common challenges. As a scientist by training, I tried to create a reasonable ecology in the level, with microportals to the Plane of Water keeping most of it fresh and providing suitable food for the inhabitants, and also setting up active currents in what otherwise would be still, stagnant dungeon water. I also like to mess with darkness in dungeons (as mentioned in intern Hank Woon's blogs about my Bastards of Erebus playtest game), and using murky water (filled with silt and gross stuff) accomplishes the same thing as darkness. I'm hoping players will be challenged and annoyed by the water level, but will figure out ways for their characters to routinely overcome those obstacles—basically, to make the dungeon a learning experience for them.

Really, that chapter opener from the GameMastery Guide is probably the single biggest inspiration for my level—I've always wanted to play through that particular scene, and despite the fact that this is a dungeon level, I hope that I've come close to capturing its feel. More than anything, though, I just want players to have fun, which for me always means seeing new (and weird!) creatures and landscapes. So in my level, every room is different, there are bizarre magical effects, and you rarely fight the same critter twice.

Oh, and there are robots. Because robots.

We hope your appetite is whetted by this glimpse of the visions you may find in the lower reaches of The Emerald Spire! Next week we'll look at a few more Emerald Spire tie-in products GMs are sure to find useful, and maybe even preview some of the superdungeon maps!

Owen K.C. Stephens
Developer, Pathfinder Modules

Bonus Blog: Happy Free RPG Day!

Free RPG Day is going on right now! Be sure to head out to your participating local game store and pick up this year’s Pathfinder offerings: Ranzak the Pirate Goblin—a new character for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game—and Pathfinder Module: Risen from the Sands, a complete adventure previewing four new classes from the upcoming Pathfinder RPG Advanced Class Guide. You can get the full story on both of our Free RPG Day products right here. Also, be sure to download your Risen from the Sands pregenerated characters so you can start playing as soon as you hit the game store. Hope you have a blast with all your Free RPG Day adventures!

More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Damien Mammoliti Emerald Spire Firat Solhan Interviews Pathfinder Modules
Shadow Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

What I wouldn't give to have a store the was participating in Free RPG Day, but I'm making up for by running The Emerald Spire for a group :)

Scarab Sages Modules Overlord

I'd love to hear how it goes!

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