've fallen in love with just about every D&D campaign setting that met my eyes. Before coming to work for Wizards, I plundered toyshops, raided bookstores, delved into flea markets, and explored the internet in search of copies of everything I could get my hands on for those worlds: Planescape, Mystara, Spelljammer, Hollow World, Dark Sun, Birthright, Masque of the Red Death, Jakandor, and more. But the Forgotten Realms was my first love, and of all the places in the Realms that intrigued me, Undermountain reigned supreme. I had a pristine copy of The Ruins of Undermountain, but whenever I found one going for cheap in some cat-prowled secondhand shop, I couldn't resist buying it and giving it a good home.
This was all before Google, of course. Nowadays you don't have to work too hard to find a copy of virtually any old D&D product. You can find most for sale on Amazon. But I digress.
Undermountain was awesome not just because of Ed Greenwood's spectacular writing, but because of its enormous potential: three huge and intricate dungeon maps littered with interesting locations. And as the years went by, Undermountain just kept getting bigger. The Ruins of Undermountain II boxed set provided more levels, and then the Dungeoncrawl trilogy offered even more to explore. Plus, other books offered details about Skullport, the city within the dungeon, and throughout many of these products there were tantalizing hints of still more levels and side dungeons to explore.
Yet the greatest strength of Undermountain is also its greatest weakness. When you run adventures in the dungeon, the PCs can (and likely will) head off into one of the largely blank areas of the map. At that point the DM has two choices: create details for those areas beforehand—a monumental task—or improvise, which can be equally daunting. I tried to give DMs a hand in 3rd Edition with a column called Return to Undermountain, but detailing a few more rooms doesn't cut the mustard.
When the opportunity to return to Undermountain for 4th Edition came up, I was thrilled, but how to do it? The 3rd Edition hardcover Expedition to Undermountain tried to cover it all, and although it was a comprehensive guide to the dungeon, it didn't make running an adventure there any easier. A massive tome or boxed set detailing all the levels and rooms was out of the question: It would take too much time and money to create, and it would need to be enormous. (Maybe someday. In my imagination it looks gorgeous!)
The answer of paring things back was obvious, but how to do it remained murky. Having the product focus primarily on the first level of Undermountain meant that the areas the product covered wouldn't be spread too far apart. And providing a full adventure scenario in addition to various room descriptions would describe contiguous areas of the dungeon and give an example for what DMs can do. But providing three full adventures would do that even better!
In addition, I wanted to give the Yawning Portal its due. The inn is nearly as famous as Undermountain itself, but details about it and the folk that the PCs might meet there have been relatively scant. Having a good foundation for roleplaying (and any potential combats) in the Yawning Portal helps bring Undermountain alive, and it offers a great way to involve the PCs in Undermountain adventures. And of course I wanted to put in all the famous locations—at least from level one.
The tricky bit was the adventure format. At the time, all adventures broke out combat encounters into their own two-page spread. To do this for just one adventure would eat up all the space. Similarly, traps have a stat-block format that takes a lot of room. Older Undermountain products got around these problems by simply not doing it that way. Couldn't we do the same? The answer turned out to be yes, of course. Since the decision to break the mold was made, many adventures have come out in Dungeon that don't use that format, but at the time it was a somewhat controversial choice.
So I had a plan and created an outline based upon the product's specifications. Undermountain would be a boxed set like those of old but with the addition of monster and object tokens, player hand outs, and miniatures! With Shawn Merwin on board as my co-pilot, the course was set for awesomeness!
But there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, which I'll tell you about in my next Design and Development column.