Pathfinder’s The Emerald Spire is a true megadungeon. Rise of the Runelords was a campaign, but Emerald Spire is an big old fashioned dungeon that just keeps on going and going. I like boutique, meticulously DM-crafted worldbuilding. I like open, sandbox games in unique homebrew settings. I also really like giant, out of the box, hardcore superdungeons. There is no need to be forced into some “new school versus old school” rivalry here. Have some cake. Eat it, too! Then throw it at opponents for d3 non-lethal damage in a giant food fight, that’s what I’m saying.
If you have talked to me at any length in the past year, you’ve probably heard me go off on a rant about defeating The Temple of Elemental Evil; one of the perks of playing one of the great classic dungeons is that you can brag about it, as well as share war stories with other survivors. The Emerald Spire belongs up there with your Tombs of Horrors and Castle Ravenlofts; PCs are going to be delving into the Spire for a long time, and I’ve no doubt it will generate its same share of shaggy dog stories.
The first thing your superdungeon needs, and the first thing the Players are going to encounter, is the town just outside the dungeon—the respite, the urban environment where you can withdraw to spend your gold. Maybe there’s a Thieves’ Guild there, or if you’re in a high magic setting, a magic item shop. I can pretty much promise you’ll stop by the Adjective Noun, the local watering hole. The great thing about “Fort Inevitable,” the town outside of the Emerald Spire? It’s a Lawful Evil outpost of the Hellknights of Chelliax. Lawful Evil is the best NPC alignment. “Oh, we’re a necessary evil, here, have some ethical conflicts to struggle with, PCs!” Now the town isn’t just a place of refuge but a place of careful danger, as you tiptoe around the dark paladins or side with the secret society of rebels…
Two levels of the Spire really stand out for me and made me want to slice them out of the megadungeon and run them back to back as a one-shot or mini-campaign. Which, it bears mentioning, is another reason I like megadungeons. You can break this thing into spare parts. Need a dungeon level in a pinch? Just pick one of the ones out of here and you are good to go. You aren’t contractually obligated to run the whole thing. These are the two that I most want to run and suffice to say, some spoilers follow. I can’t discuss the dungeon without going into a little bit of detail, but skip the next two paragraphs if you think you’d be a Player rather than a GM for The Emerald Spire. You’ll thank me later, trust me, okay? Alright, are they gone?
“Godhome” is designed by Frank Mentzer and it is exactly the sort of stuff I like to see in my dungeons: lots of grey. Ethical grey, I’m talking about! I know I already said how happy making the town LE made me, but this level is even better because it has the flip-side: monsters going about their day to day lives without malice. A bunch of troglodytes and their weird cult worshiping what is basically the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh, sure, the otherworldly space-probe is mysterious, but it is also highly magnetic— enough to suck up folks in chainmail, or rip the gold from your pockets, sword from your hands—and it’s standing in the way of you going any lower.
This is my meat and drink. Roleplay with the troglodytes, get angry and massacre them, suss out the mystery of the sufficiently-advanced-technology; this is a nice sandbox level with story-hooks and conflicts primed and ready. While I’m at it, this is the first time I have taken note of Pathfinder’s troglodytes; their design is really gorgeous. Count me in as a fan.
There are half a dozen rotating sections of the level; three coded “black,” three coded “red.” There are also red and black levers scattered through the dungeon. Switch the black lever up, all of the black sections rotate one way, connecting certain areas. Push it down and they rotate another way, connecting to other areas. Same with the red. The fact that there is a cyborg wizard running the joint is just gravy, if you ask me.
Okay, spoilers over. Suffice to say, there are great ideas in this book. This is a Pathfinder book, which means the rules are ostensibly “3.75,” but you hardly need me to tell you how easy it is to file off the serial numbers and make it system neutral, do you? The maps, the encounters, even the abstract concepts—there is plenty for everyone here. There are unexpected antagonists, unlikely allies, and unearthly places to explore… and really, that’s what the game is about. Explore strange new places and meet new people to kill or befriend. Some “new old school” books focus solely on the hack and slash, and while that is fine if it’s what you want, I vastly prefer the more nuanced style The Emerald Spire espouses.
Oh, sure, you could go through it like a bunch of genocidal adventurers, but there are weirder, more interesting options for those willing to embrace them. Then, when you’re all finished, you can climb out of it and swap takes around the inn’s hearth with other adventurers who played the same dungeon, hear how they zigged where you zagged, how your paths diverged and converged again. After all, grognards exchanging tales of epic weal and woe over ale is how most adventuring parties first hear about a new dungeon, isn’t it? Its the circle of life.