Last time I discussed a few reasons why The Sunless Citadel–as presented in the D&D 5e Tales from the Yawning Portal book–is such a great adventure. I argued it partly had to do with its pacing; characters leveled up enough to reward effort but not too quickly to appreciate it. The story was useful, but not overwhelming, and players had a lot of freedom for how they completed the adventure. And the encounters are diverse, with players fighting different types of monsters, exploring twisting corridors, and interacting with interesting characters. Identifying these aspects of this great adventure can, hopefully, help us with our own adventure creation.
Here are a few more reasons.
4. Amount of treasure: This can be hard for DMs. You want your players to feel excited about your dungeons, and find them worth running. So you’re tempted to throw in lots of great magic items. But you’re also worried about the players becoming too powerful, or for magic items to become so plentiful they’re kind of ho hum. In some of the D&D computer games, like Baldur’s Gate, there are so many magic items I rarely use most of them. The game, of course, compensates by making many encounters impossible without magic items. A DM from childhood–a math teacher who organized D&D sessions for students–by contrast, liked to randomly “disappear” magic items we found, to avoid us getting comfortable. This made 14 year old me very mad.
Sunless Citadel balanced this well. By the time we finished, we had found some magic armor, a few magic weapons, some spell scrolls (which we used), and the aforementioned potion of firebreath. There may have been more we missed, of course. This was enough for us to feel rewarded. And when we used these items in the future, we’d remember the adventure they came from. But we were hardly over-powered, and none of the items made any fight easy. I don’t know that there’s a good rule for this. The DM’s Guide has tables for loot based on challenge rating, but there’s a lot of randomness there. Sunless Citadel may actually be a good guide for amount of treasure as you create your own dungeons.
5. Memorable-ness: That’s not really a word, I guess, but you get what I’m saying. The Sunless Citadel is kind of hard to forget. Part of this is the encounters: the evil tree, the kobold royal court. But it’s also the setting. The “dungeon” is a citadel that sunk into the earth. Characters have to climb down to the top of the citadel through a steep ravine. They then exit into foreboding woods through the bottom of the citadel. The dungeon could easily have just been a dungeon, but the interesting setting made everything that happened in it more memborable.
It is worth remembering that the dungeon is not just a container for encounters, it needs to be memorable in its itself. I’ve tried to do this with my own adventures. In A Shadow in the Woods, the final battle is in a castle submerged in the mud of a swamp. After the heroes defeat the boss, the castle starts sinking, and the players need to escape as the walls tumble around them. The Elder God’s Cavern–my current D&D adventure I’m running–starts pretty stereotypically in the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. But I try to make it interesting by adding unique encounters, like a containment cell for undead and a rift emitting madness-inducing steam. I also use less conventional locales for lower levels.
So that’s what I think made Sunless Citadel so great. What do you think? Am I missing anything? Do you have any thoughts on how to use these attributes in our own dungeons?