&D Producer Greg Bilsland contacted me in February 2011 to inquire about my interesting in working on an Undermountain product. Matt Sernett would be the design lead, and I would be designing the "adventure" portion of the product; detailing several rooms of the Dungeon Level of one of the greatest dungeons every created. I had entered dream-come-true territory.
For those paying attention, I said "February 2011." That means Halls of Undermountain is being released more than a year after design started. This lead time is not unusual for a print product. But with only a month to writing close to 50,000 words, there wasn't much time to waste.
After the initial excitement, I thought about the vast amount of material previously produced detailing Undermountain and its creator Halaster Blackcloak, the Mad Mage. I am no stranger to researching projects, but the canon of the Forgotten Realms is a different animal altogether. I have blogged about this elsewhere, and Jared von Hindman's recent article "Crossing the Grand Canon" says everything that needs to be said. Working with canon material is a joy, but it comes with strings attached.
Exploring in 4E?
Once I had made peace with the research that loomed in my future, my second thought was even more intimidating. How was I going to bring the feel of the original Ruins of Undermountain to a 4th Edition version?
When I played the original adventure my DM, Chuck Hall, did a great job of making the place feel like the ultimate dungeon: both treasure and death awaited at every turn. Even more impressive, Chuck was running two different groups through the dungeon simultaneously. Each would set traps and leave other nasty surprises for the other, ensuring treasure didn't disappear too quickly. This made the experience more fun and deadly, if such a thing was possible.
The question was always the same: do we stop now and rest despite the dangers of wandering monsters, retreat back to Waterdeep where we could rest safely, or push forward just one more room? This exploration-based, dungeon-delving style of play kept us excited and a bit nervous. Even when we found monsters or traps, we never quite knew if they would be pushovers, tough but survivable, or encounters we should run from at top speed.
This sort of game is tougher to design and run using the 4E D&D rules—not because of any fault in the rules; in fact, it is quite the opposite. The rules make it so easy to create challenging, balanced, and fun encounters that it is very easy to end up making adventures that all have a similar pace. The rhythm of the encounters, the rests, and the use of resources create a bit of a safety net. To torture a very useful cliché: the forest of the adventure (and campaign) is often lost in the trees of the encounters.
I began design work telling myself that a priority must be to capture that sense of exploration without falling into the comfortable "3 or 4 adventures then a rest" cycle that is the standard for 4E adventure design.
The best way to accomplish that was to throw out the notion that every encounter must be a complicated fight with carefully balanced parts. That's not to say some encounters couldn't be like that. Probably many should. But sometimes the adventurers should walk into a room and find just a single orc. If they choose to kill the orc, so be it. Often, in my experience, regardless of the edition of the game, interactions with one overmatched foe can be among the most memorable.
In a purely exploration-based game, however, a tradeoff often occurs with story. A limited number of carefully crafted encounters can easily brought together to form a great story. Explorations of large, sprawling dungeons can also be part of a story-based game, but it takes a strong DM to keep the story in the players' minds while their characters explore the labyrinthine complex.
What I tried to do, and what Matt helped me do, was design a game product that offers both exploration and story, giving the DM the tools necessary to take game play in any direction. The space to explore is vast, and the components of an engaging story should be apparent. My playtests turned into a memorable campaign, and I hope other groups similarly enjoy their time adventuring in this great dungeon.
About the Author
Shawn Merwin is a technical writer and freelance game designer who other work includes Dungeon Delve™, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress™, and Halls of Undermountain™. He has been an administrator in many Wizards of the Coast's organized-play campaigns, including Living Greyhawk, Xen'drik Expeditions, and Living Forgotten Realms. Shawn's thoughts on RPGs and game design are featured in his "Know Your Roll" column at Critical-Hits.com.