Designing the Ziggurat

OK, I have been quiet for a week but it is because I have been a busy little G.M. designing last nights game.  You will remember that the players last week decided to take a detour and go looking around the underground city which is all good except there is a lot of material left up to the G.M. to work with at the city and I had tapped it out.  I also had another concern, and that was my players would not be high enough level to move toward the ending of the module so I had two tasks before me;

  1. Get my players to 14th level so they stand a chance in the final stronghold; and
  2. Design something that would engage my players curiosity in their surroundings; 
  3. To be honest, I had a third secret task and that was to bump them along in the treasure department but we are likely to talk about that next week when I deliver part two of this blog.  
Yay me!

For regular readers you will be aware that I am running a pre prepared adventure path which is perfect for someone like me who is time poor but keen to get a game in each week.  I modify bits of the adventure path but generally run them as read on a week by week basis.  This is quite an about turn for me and testament to Paizo’s attention to detail as most of my gaming career I have decried prepared modules or heavily altered them in my own world.  So it has been some time since I sat down and did any true designing (in fact the last time it happened was in module two “Racing to Ruin” of this adventure path where I built a tomb for the players to discover as a random encounter) so amusingly so I was a little nervous to do a good job.

So, what is my process?  Where do I start?  Designing can be a personal thing and everyone tends to follow there own path.  I had a location already as my players made it quite clear they wanted to investigate a ziggurat on the map (think sumerian pyramid).  They wanted to do this as it is a peculiarly human building amongst the alien serpentfolk structures they were used to seeing and wanted to find the story behind it.  So the next step for me was to get a concept built around some kind of theme.  I wanted this to grab my players attention, to have some of my own flair and be true to the overarching plot.  I spent a day just flicking through my monster books and knew I wanted to have some kind of undead theme to the place, but also tie in a sub-plot I had introduced in the tomb I mentioned above, being a deal the players made with a Water Naga.  These two things seemed a little contradictory but I started from this genesis.  There was also a trap that was designed in an essay in the third module of this path that involved a less than stable staircase that I also wanted to include.  I had these three ideas and decided that was enough to start with.  I decided I would perhaps use a lich for the undead side or make it focus on the Naga.  I looked through the city gazetteer in the current module to see what might fit with the human structure and found a place called the Hall of Human Beauty.  Basically a museum where the serpentfolk could make them feel good about their slaves I figured so that is what it became.

The entrance on top

My second step is always come up with some kind of map.  Sometimes these maps are little more than mind-maps on where I think an adventure will go but as it had been some time since I designed I decided to be a bit more hands on with my mapping.  I went out and got a big art sketch book and some pastels to use in making this place and thought about the structure of this place.  It would have four distinct levels, plus an entrance at the top.  The entrance would lead to the winding staircase trap and not have an exit until you reached the lowest level.  With that in mind I started “sketching” to get the lay of the ziggurat.  I have included some of the maps in todays blog for you to have a look at my handiwork.  I will include the remainder in part two of the blogging of this event AFTER my players have completed it, just so they can’t cheat, which of course they would(n’t)!

The lowest level (Naga central!)

I am aware that the use of the pastels make these pictures look like they were made by my 8 year old son but I like them and they help me get a clear understanding of what I was trying to achieve.  I started designing working from the top of the ziggurat entrance and down through the levels.  this allowed me to design the starting point and the ending point immediately and make some decisions about the structure of the place.  I decided that I would not use every available square centimetre of the place which is something I have been guilty a lot of in the past.  I wanted the structure of it to be relatively linear and the way that they get dumped in it by essentially the wobbling stairway meant they would have to work their way back up.

When I finally got through the designing of the first three levels of maps (levels 4, 3 and 2) it occurred to me how I could use the naga sub plot.  The naga they had met in the tomb gave them a key they needed in return for a service at a later date.  Whilst in the city of seven spears module she returned after the players had located a major artifact known as the Argental Font.  In payment to her she asked it’s location and the players gave it.  I had not decided what I would do with this at the time but the opportunity now arose!  I know there are spirit nagas in the main stronghold so I decided that the sisters to these “chosen” nagas had asked the water naga to bring the font to them so they could corrupt it in a ritual that would destroy their sisters and allow them to become the guardians of the main fortress.  This involved giving the water naga the power to move the font (a ring of three wishes) and a purpose as to why she would do this.  I have that purpose but will keep quiet about it here as the players really want to know the full story and after last night are a bit worried that they have made a powerful enemy last night (at least one with a wish left anyway).  The naga would have been using the column of the central staircase to enter and leave thus leaving the remainder of the ziggurat unexplored by them!  It was the perfect way to have it organised.  I designed the bottom level to be a bit of a vaulted chamber with a secret door in the ceiling that lead further into the ziggurat.  The naga’s knew of the secret door but had no desire to face any of the traps that may be present in the ziggurat as the ground in this chamber was littered with the bones of the dead.

The Hall of Human Beauty starts here…

 With the bottom level done I now worked my way back up the ziggurat designing the contents for the structure that I had created with a particular focus on traps and undead.  On the way up through the chamber I made sure I kept an inner dialogue with myself about what used to happen in these chambers so the players could pick up on that material as they explored.  For example, the secret door in the roof was there for when a slave began to question their lot, or became too powerful, the serpentfolk would take them for a reward down to the opening.  A permanent image on it made it look like some heavenly glow came from below and images on the wall showed humans leaping through the light to a paradise provided by their gods.  In reality they leapt in to their deaths as they fell to the cavern floor below.  Some of the rooms contained artworks created by humans who now protected their works from beyond the grave whilst other rooms was where the serpentfolk would process the slaves and give them access to restricted areas.  By working on this mental dialogue with myself as I was designing the level I was able to give the ziggurat a feeling of cohesiveness that the players would appreciate.  I know now that this is why there is a lot of information like this in the adventure paths to deliver this congruent approach that the players pick up on.

So, how did it play?  Well we traversed about half of the maps involved in the adventure (which equates to about two thirds of the encounters proper) and I felt it went very well.  The group managed to draw the monk back from insanity (see my last post) and enter the building.  The trapped stairwell was awesome and provided a good deal of uncertainty and fun for the entryway and blocked off the way out.  They ended the trap’s effectiveness by a novel use of a spell which was greatly appreciated.  Two of the group then heard a discussion between the nagas that lead them to know that the water naga they had been dealing with has a greater plot about them and that there are other naga in the main stronghold (for a nice piece of foreshadowing).  They killed the spirit naga and tried to steal the ring of wishes from the water naga but she used mirror image to avoid the blow and used one of her wishes to get away, leaving only one on the ring.  The other insane player then had their insanity removed by the artifact that had now found its way here.

From there they entered the Hall of Human Beauty and became quite interested in the story surrounding the place.  They ran into an energy drain trap, then some spectres, then a wraith, dodged a lightning trap after wearing amulets that allowed slaves into higher levels of the ziggurat, avoided another trap with the clever use of dimension door and finally ended the night with an encounter with some Bodak’s.  The flow was working well, the players seemed interested in more than just the treasure and creatures with the monk/cleric of god of knowledge was soaking up the surroundings and storing a whole heap of materials for study later.  The night ended with the players discussing what the water naga is up to and a level up to 14th level for all of them.  It was a good game, and the players are looking forward to the finale to this section as I mentioned that there is a nice treasure haul at the end of the ziggurat.

Little do they know that the toughest is yet to come and the ending of this building design has a nice epic feel to it.  The players will get to test all of their newfound abilities from levelling between last night and next week, get a bunch of loot and a hell of a lot of bragging rights also.  Then perhaps they can get back on track and head toward the major fortress (although they all worringly seem to believe they will be storming the fortress) to get to the end of this module.
I will fill you in on the end of this design process next week after they have come out the other side. Perhaps 🙂


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