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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Ihle

Level Design Process

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

Keeping in mind my 4 design goals, and my decision to use minions and area of effect as the primary dangers of this module, I started to sketch some player path ideas. Additionally, I had to consider that my villain would be a rather, but not entirely, stationary creature. To funnel the players into encountering at least some aspect of this centerpiece I know I needed a large central chamber to house them in so is started my sketches with that in mind.


I ended up using the middle bottom one, in large part because it presented a clear major player path while allowing me space to play around with as I designed further. Importantly, it also gave a nice diagonal line between the player's start and end area with the room I could use for the boss straight in between.

Refining the sketch, I added some more chambers and paths and added some more interest at certain points. One thing I kept in mind during this process was the different requirements for fun for my two primary dangers, Area of Effect and Minions. As a player, minion encounters are generally the most fun when you encounter a sizable hroup I with plenty of environmental factors to play with. In a classic D&D dungeon, the latter are often things like traps, chasms, and improvised weapons and cover. To fit a sizable group and allow players to use the environment without instantly shutting down the encounter, a moderately large space is required. area of effect challenges however is usually more fun in more restricted spaces where the player can't simply walk around it but must traverse the affected area in interesting ways, or counter the effect.


These are both opposing and vomplimentary requirements. While they are not easy to combine within one space, having nearly the opposite requirements, they balance each other out, giving variety. I decided to aim for a roughly 50/50 split in play time spent in either environment as a guiding goal for this refined sketch.

At this point, I did some quick playtesting with some of my premade test characters, in various party configurations. This stage consisted of me randomly filling each room with creatures using encounter generators and playing with each of the 4-5 party members as they move through the module. I played it fast and loose, changing environments and encounters as I went and using averages instead of rolls. The primary purpose was not to determine gameplay balance, but to find obvious flaws with the layout, such as if a path might have too many encounters along it, or felt lacking in options. It also helped get a gameplay feeling before actually fleshing out the map, and give inspiration.

As an example, this is the stage I determined I wanted the small stream cutting through the lower left quadrant, as it was a rather linear path, but I was overall satisfied with the level layout. I also started to think about illumination, As the module allows for a lot of stealth, I wanted to include an option for Dungeon Masters to provide some low-light illumination to

players. This would eventually be solved by adding some bioluminescent mushrooms.

Having settled on the major layout, I started assembling my adversarial group. Keeping in mind my Adaptable Difficulty goal, focused on making a cohort where each component can act alone, but supplement each other. The boss, Zandafrax, and the kobold minions form the core of this. The dragon remains primarily stationary unless strongly aggravated, but is very strong. In contrast, the kobolds are plentiful and move a lot, but weak. I decided to also include some more powerful kobolds to provide variety and a bit of an extra challenge among the minions. Specifically, I added the kobold sorcerer and kobold dragonshield variants to pose stronger threats in small encounters.


Having worked out a starting point for enemy compositions, I performed a few rounds of playtesting by myself to hit a very rough gameplay difficulty, aimed at 8th-level characters. Feeling prepared for an external playtest (e.g not just me), I gathered a small group of fellow Dungeon Masters for a playthrough. Most of the key insights gained:

  1. Level needed verticality to add interest.

  2. The smaller kobold cave path felt too linear.

  3. Several of the suggested enemy encounters felt too strong or too weak.

  4. Enemy roaming behavior is boring.


To fix these issues I added a few more rooms, added some height visualization to the map, added a suggested work schedule for the kobold cohort, and played around with the problem encounters a bit further. While doing my second pass on the map, to add more rooms, I also revisited Van Richten's Guide and noticed a trend across several of the described adventures to have small connecting threads in the form of organizations or groups like the Visanti, The Order of Guardians, and Van Richten Society.


This gave me the idea to do something similar, giving the Dungeon Master another thread they can include as they see fit, namely a Yuan-Ti 'ally' to Zandrafrax, supposedly trying to help them. I gave this ally a small chamber near the player starting area, and provided a stat block of a character on par with a 8th-level player character. This way the Dungeon Master has both a narrative and mechanical Lever to pull if they need it, without neccesitating the inclusion of the character. After this I headed into a final playtest, this time with strangers I found online through a community discord, giving them full control in crafting their characters, as long as it was 8th level. This playtest went well, with only minor feedback in regards to balance and map iconography. If I had more time to dedicate to the project I would have playtested even more. But having to finish up the project, I put my finishing touches to the map and created a formatted document and published it! You can download it here for free (Just enter $0 in the price field).


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