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So today I’m going to talk about a few things about the megadungeon campaigns I’m familiar with, and why the ones available – at least for Pathfinder – bother me as much as they do. The two go-to offerings here are Emerald Spire and Rappan Athuk; each bothers me, although in different ways.
The main thing I’m looking for from a megadungeon is the ability to run a cohesive campaign using it, without people getting bored to tears or overly frustrated. Both of the readily accessible megadungeons fail to accomplish this, although for different reasons.
The Emerald Spire fails to be cohesive – this is rather to be expected, given that it’s literally the result of a Kickstarter campaign incentive to try to fund a MMO based on Pathfinder, with the various dungeon levels being made individually by gaming celebrities. There’s no real sense of theme or integral design among the different levels; some of them seem to be built around completely different notions of how the world of Golarion works. The only unifying aspect is the Emerald Spire itself, which removes some of the ‘megadungeon’ vibe by providing a quick and easy way in and out.
When you can go from ‘abandoned lair of malevolent spiders’ to ‘subterranean bandit town’ by going down a staircase, there’s something to be explained, and unfortunately the Emerald Spire fails to accomplish this explanation. There’s a vague attempt to unify it all with an overall plot, but this feels more like an attempt at justification than any real effort on creating something integral.
Rappan Athuk, on the other hand, fails on the grounds that while it certainly has a cohesive, overall design, it certainly does not avoid frustration and boredom. Designed in the spirit of all those old D&D modules that were intended to “put players in their place”, Rappan Athuk is full of ways to die that you literally cannot avoid save by not encountering them in the first place. Don’t get me wrong – if I ever have a pack of players who really want that old-time Tomb of Horrors vibe of death around literally every corner, this is the dungeon I’ll go for.
My problem with Rappan Athuk is that the place is so clearly something that’s intended to be lethal; players are likely to get frustrated when you go with no real warning from a CR 3 area to a CR 12+ area. Opportunities to walk blind into a TPK situation are rife, and the opportunities to get any advance information is slim, as written. Additionally, a quick glance through – particularly among the magic items and deities – reveal that the designers had a certain fondness for tropes and behaviors that are silly at best (looting multiple real-world pantheons for the gods of the area) to kind of sad (an artifact sword whose curse of crippling fear and dropping out of your hand to tremble on the floor can only be removed by spanking it with a “parent” sword. I don’t know about you, but I can do without child abuse in my games).
Someone’s bound to mention the World’s Largest Dungeon, a third edition megadungeon, so I’ll note that while I have this, the design of it leaves something to be desired. It comes off primarily as a promotional stunt where they use every monster in the bestiary, making wild justifications throughout. I’ll take either of the other two over the WLD.
The Dungeon-A-Day Dragon’s Delve megadungeon is also one to mention; sadly it’s essentially impossible to get one’s hands on, as it was only ever a digital product and has gone extinct by now. It’s a pity, because it has everything I’d want from a megadungeon – cohesiveness, a solid plot, and enough variety and action to keep players interested without having surprise TPKs lurking around every few corners.
So where does that leave me?
I suppose it leaves me needing to build my own megadungeon if I ever want to run one. Stay tuned, we’ll see what happens in respect to this.