Minidungeons & Megadungeon: Staying Invested in the Long Haul
Claire Stricklin explains her design process for Cell of the Second Self.
You can thank Monte Cook for this one. It’s been nearly a decade IRL, and my group still hasn’t finished his Dragon’s Delve megadungeon. Sadly, the dungeon’s website is now defunct. The developer that Cook eventually sold to couldn’t keep the lights on, despite a fairly successful Kickstarter. Only vestiges remain. The map of Level 1. The stats of the dungeon’s BBEG on the PFSRD. I’ve been reduced to running the sucker off of PDFs and elbow grease. But let me tell ya, in its heyday it was an absolute blast to GM within a fully hyperlinked web-based dungeon-as-service environment.
Any dang way, my group has been on hiatus for nearly a year now while I finish out my dissertation. Their veteran heroes have been stuck on Level 18 all this while, waiting to free the moon goddess Glarias from the scaly claws of Metterak, the Prince of All Dragons. I am beyond stoked to get back into the game this summer.
But even as the embers of my enthusiasm flicker back to life, I remember how much work it is to keep them banked in the first place. If you hit the hyperlink on that map up above, you can get some notion of the scale we’re talking about. Just think of all those dungeon rooms! That’s not even close to the largest level in the place, and that’s to say nothing of the in-town content or the side-dungeons that populate the Dragon’s Delve experience.
You see, running a campaign from 1-20 takes stamina. It’s not easy for anyone to maintain that kind of commitment, from the player side or the GM side. And knowing that I’ve got some mechanically-inclined gamers at my table, I’ve tried a couple of novel approaches to keep them invested.
Some time around Level 6, we decided to do a time skip. The original party had gone missing on a mysterious tropical island, so everyone rolled up an “alt” to go and search for them. I haven’t looked at this in years, but you can actually check out the old handout I used to get them excited for the reboot. The eventual result of that search-and-rescue mission was a full Guildhall, where each player could choose which of their heroes (“original party” or “rescue party”) they wanted to play that session.
That kept the game going until Level 9 or so. At that point some folks were getting anxious about “misbuilding” their characters. Happily, Cook had already seeded an answer into the megadungeon. The legendary Master Mui Yan was an infamously skilled warrior, and he’d disappeared into the depths of Dragon’s Delve a generation ago. That’s because he was busy setting up a hidden dojo deep in the Delve, there to teach fighting secrets to the worthy. Cook used this setup as an excuse to introduce some custom feats as a special reward. I used it as an excuse to introduce rewards of my own.
“Each of your characters may train with the Master one time only,” I wrote in the group’s forum. “If you commit to his training regimen, work very hard, and don’t give him no lip, he will correct all the subtle errors in your form. You may also rebuild your character as you see fit.”
That’s more or less where my Mini-Dungeon “Cell of the Second Self” comes from. Its central “rebuild as reward” comes from my own campaign. Unlike the hourglass of transfiguration or the mnemonic editor over in Starfinder, however, I wanted to couch the rebuild in terms of an adventure, not a magic item. That’s because you risk breaking the central metaphor of leveling up when you hand out rebuilds willy-nilly. The decisions you make, the skills you learn, and the magic you master are what makes your character. They are the tangible evidence of the quests you’ve completed and the epic foes you’ve bested.
So when you do undertake a rebuild, I think it should come coupled with a major character moment. Like the trials my own players had to endure to study at the Master’s feet, yours too will have to endure much to build themselves anew.
More than anything, I hope that “Cell of the Second Self” will be useful for long-running campaigns. It may be a Mini-Dungeon, but it aims to serve your long-running games. If your group is anything like mine, then you know what it is to get excited about new rules and previously-undiscovered builds. Waiting literal years to get a chance to try out the cool new thing (whatever it might be!) can be torture. That’s the problem I’ve set out to solve.
So in the spirit of overcoming tests of endurance, I hope that you’ll put on your cold weather gear, grab your ice picks, and set out for the shrine at the summit of The Master’s Mountain. The Cell of the Second Self awaits, and i contains the greatest reward of all: A brand new you!
Claire Stricklin is, in no particular order, a California native, planeswalker, Ithaca College grad, warrior poet, arts advocate, greyhound enthusiast, and Game Master. She’s penned a number of adventures for AAW Games set in the great trade city of Hordenheim, developed the monstrous continent of Trectoyri in The Veranthea Codex, and writes the Handbook of Heroes webcomic. She is currently a PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which she has somehow tricked into letting her write a dissertation about TRPG podcasts.