As of Sunday afternoon, I put the last of the large details into place for Ol’ Nameless, thus ending the design process that began in earnest some eight months ago. There still remains a small laundry list of last details that I need to tackle, but the upper levels of the dungeon are roughly 99% complete. Overall, the competed sections of the dungeon contain the above-ground manor and keep under which the dungeon is located, another above-ground tower – which I call the Workshop of the Telescopes, Dungeon Levels One and Two, and Sub-levels One through Four. I can safely say that it is the single largest dungeon I’ve ever designed in my twenty-some years of gaming.
The smartest thing that I did during this design phase of Ol’ Nameless was to leave an area that I hoped I would really enjoy putting together for last. I assumed that, by the time I was reaching the end, my creative fires would start flagging and I’d need a shot in the arm to regain my drive. It was a risky gambit, possibly leaving me with a hack-job of an area that I had high hopes for, but in the end it paid off. I think. The ultimate test will be when the adventurers set foot within those confines, but it looks good on paper as of now.
In designing the dungeon, I’ve hewn close to the tradition of the individual levels being roughly equal to the levels of the adventurers. This is not to say that each level is a mathematically-designed group of encounters designed to ensure “maximum fun”, and to allow the characters to be protected by some inherent right to be heroes. There are plenty of opportunities for a careless party to bite off more than they can chew, and any ill-conceived belief that everything they encounter is within their ability is going to lead to bodies dropping on the flagstones. But, for the most part, there are no demon lords on Level One, or demi-liches in the basement.
To ensure that the party never takes anything for granted, however, I play a little looser with those guidelines when it comes to the sub-levels. Each main dungeon level has at least two sub-levels accessible from it. On those sub-levels, they might encounter anything from a cakewalk - allowing them to effectively clear out a bastion of safety from which to conduct further forays, to almost certain doom at the hands of things much more powerful than they are. Hopefully, this will leave places on the upper levels for them to come back to and explore once they’ve gotten a few more levels under their girdles. I like maintaining this balance of uncertainty as a reminder to never take anything in the dungeon for granted.
One of those sub-levels is what I call “The Fane of St. Toad”. Consisting of only twenty-three numbered encounters and completely self-contained, it is nonetheless a sincere love letter to the roots of fantasy gaming. The Fane draws heavily from the works of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard. It makes allusions to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. It draws from both the Temple of Elemental Evil and the Temple of the Frog. In short, it is everything that I love in classic role-playing adventure.
In designing it, I pointed my inspirational automobile straight in the direction of Bat Country, turned on the cruise control, and headed deep into that land. During that creative road-trip, I picked up quite a few odd hitchhikers along the way and brought them home to stay with me for awhile. I also pulled a few choice knick-knacks from the first two issues of Fight On! Jeff Rients and Gabor Lux should be pleased to know someone is getting use out of their contributions to that magazine. When I put the final touches on the sub-level, I took one last look at it, laughed maniacally, and rubbed my hands with glee. If I had to sum up the final product, the words “unnerving”, “nauseating”, and “Oh yea gods, we are NOT going in there!!” come to mind. If I get those responses from the players, I will be a happy referee indeed.