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Building the Halls of Undermountain
Design & Development
by Matt Sernett

A D&D book does not begin in a designer's brain, flow out through typing fingers, pass to an art director, and end up a printed product in a 1-2-3 process of steps. Different parts of the company set to work on different aspects of a book at different times. Designers routinely need to hand in art orders before the book is finished being written, which means art is finished before the book is developed and edited, which means art can end up on the cutting room floor. Similarly, catalogs to promote books are created long before the books are finished, which can mean that books come out differently than the catalog describes or that they don't come out at all due to some change in plans. Sometimes a product's description is leaked before the description's official release date, which means that if the product changed and we normally would have had time to fix the description, we're too late.

All of the above happened with Halls of Undermountain. And as the ground shifted under my feet, I had to drag my long-suffering freelancer, Shawn Merwin, along with me.

Halls of Undermountain originally had these specifications:

Components
Tuck Box
32-Page Dungeon Components Book
64-Page Adventure Book
Part Sheet 1 (Monster Tokens) (35 small or medium, 6 large)
Part Sheet 2 (Monster Tokens) (35 small or medium, 6 large)
Part Sheet 3 (Dungeon Dressing [of various sizes])
10 8"-by-5"Cards (Magic Items and Traps)
2 Double-sided Poster Maps
1 Single-Page Paper Handout
6 New Miniatures

1 Large Miniature (3 piece, 50 paint steps)
1 Medium Miniature (4 piece, 36 paint steps)
1 Medium Miniature (2 piece, 21 paint steps)
1 Medium Miniature (1 piece, 20 paint steps)
1 Medium Miniature (1 piece, 8 paint steps)
1 Small Miniature (1 piece, 16 paint steps)

This was an ambitious plan. In the past we had discussed a product like this and been confronted with the reality that the combination of components was very expensive, meaning we would either make no money from it or we would have to charge so high a price that too few people would buy it for the company to make money. In short, the idea was a dead end.

Yet at the outset of this project, I was assured that not only could we do it, we could sell it for $40. Buoyed by this can-do attitude, I set about describing miniatures and designing an outline for the other components. I suppose in the back of my mind, I knew better, but the awesome potential of the product kept optimism at the forefront.

Pretty soon though, reality started to rear its head. We couldn't do all new miniatures. Most would have to be pick-up from old sets, but they could be repainted versions. And we'd need to reduce the paint steps.

Okay . . .

Actually, they all need to be pick-up.

Right . . .

Actually, there can't be any miniatures.

Gotcha, I'll have to figure out how to fit those guys on the token sheets.

About those token sheets . . . there can only be two.

I see. There's still a box and cards and so on right?

No, we can't do a box and cards at that price.

So where do the token sheets go?

Yeah, about that . . .

Throughout this process I had two stalwart companions: Greg Bilsland, who as the producer for the project had unenviable job of being the bearer of bad news, and Shawn Merwin, to whom I had to relate the news and then force to whipsaw on such "insignificant" design elements like the villains in his adventures. Together we leapt pitfalls, stumbled through shooting galleries, and rallied from setbacks—and we survived the ordeal. Not only that, we made it out with the treasure: Halls of Undermountain.

Halls of Undermountain isn't the product I envisioned at the start. It lost some of the whiz-bang elements of the original specifications. But it has the same heart. Fantastic poster maps accompany three great adventures, and the encompassing material makes Undermountain (and the Yawning Portal!) playable. The tight focus makes for easy use, and you could easily spend the entire heroic tier stomping around the first level.

Although elements like the miniatures and tokens would have been great bells and whistles, they were never necessary. The key to Halls of Undermountain is its flexible structure. My plan from the start was to provide three full adventures but make it so that you could play them all at any time. So you can run Halls of Undermountain by hooking the players into the first adventure and then playing each one in sequence, play the adventures in a sequence of your choosing, or you can let the PCs loose in Undermountain and play whatever elements of the adventures they bump into as they explore. They can stumble into the middle of one adventure, flee through the first rooms of another one, and then end up cornered in the final chambers of the third adventure. The resulting comedy, calamity, and horror is up to you and your players.

That plan for the real meat of the book—the 96 pages of Undermountain goodness—came off without a hitch. Shawn Merwin's adventures are top notch, and it all rings true to the spirit of the dungeon. I'm proud of Halls of Undermountain, and I like to think that somewhere in the dark, Halaster is smiling.

Matthew Sernett
Matt Sernett is a writer and game designer for Wizards of the Coast who has worked on both Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Recent credits include The Monster Vault, Neverwinter Campaign Guide, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, and Magic the Gathering: Scars of Mirrodin. When he’s not making monsters or building worlds, he’s watching bad fantasy movies you don’t realize exist and shouldn’t bother to learn about. You can follow him on Twitter, where he’s @Sernett.
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