The Sunken Pyramid: Design Principles

Only a few miles from a small seaside village, the mysterious underwater edifice known as the Sunken Pyramid lies hidden beneath the waves. To effectively design such a locale of fear and terror, it was important to first set my design principles…

The Shark Jaw Skeleton by Marc Radle

The Shark Jaw Skeleton by Marc Radle


Before I started writing The Sunken Pyramid, I decided on a number of design goals. Many of these were taken directly from Creighton’s excellent essays (you can read his thoughts on Design Principles, ZoningBackstory and Encounter Design) detailing the crafting of Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands adventure. Some needed to be modified, of course, to better suit a higher level adventure set underwater, but overall, I couldn’t have found a better set of design goals to guide me while I wrote!

So, here are the design principals I tried to keep in mind as I wrote The Sunken Pyramid:

  • Meaningful Choices: A good adventure needs plenty of points at which the players should have a choice about what they do next. Although the PCs are going to have some pretty specific goals in the Sunken Pyramid, along with something of a time crunch, I still wanted to be sure that they had plenty of opportunities to formulate their own plans and find their own way as they undertake this adventure.
  • Logically Consistent: The adventure had to make sense. As I talked about last time, I wanted everything, including the strategic inclusion of water breathing magic in an underwater adventure to feel realistic and organic. Each level of the Sunken Pyramid also needed to feel different and reasonably self-contained, while at the same time everything still had to feel part of a cohesive whole.
  • Things for Different Classes and Races to Do: All characters cannot be equally engaged in every encounter all the time. That said, some classes (clerics, rogues, paladins etc.) are particularly suited toward certain kinds of activity and should have their time to shine. There are undead in the Sunken Pyramid for the clerics to vanquish, puzzles and traps for the rogues to deal with and, of course, plenty of interesting opponents for the fighters to pound on!
  • Environment: Combat rarely happens in empty rooms. Luckily, since this was an underwater adventure, I already had at least one unique, built-in environmental challenge! I’d also created a LOT of material for the sahuagin — history, culture, religion and customs, and I wanted to be sure I included as much of that detail in the Pyramid as possible so the players could actually experience it. Including bits of that history, culture and religion in the form of cal’mecac (sahuagin “sayings of the old”) writing carved into the stone walls throughout the pyramid allowed me to do this. It added another interesting environmental element.
  • Problem solving: Paying attention and piecing things together should provide definite, tangible results for the PCs! I wanted the sahuagin and their strange lair to be richly detailed so the players could really immerse themselves in things if they wanted to. In fact, there is a bit of a mystery in the Sunken Pyramid adventure and PCs who pay attention and do their research will have a much better chance of figuring out exactly what is going on in time…
  • Diplomacy: Not all encounters should end with a fight. While sahuagin are definitely not nice to be around, I knew at least a few of the sahuagin had to be…at least open to the possibility of parlay, if not all-out cooperation. This could be exploited through clever play – in fact, in at least one encounter, the PCs are MUCH better off attempting to negotiate with a particular sahuagin than fight!
  • Varied Opponents: Sahuagin are an interesting and dangerous race. Still, if all the PCs encountered were sahuagin after sahuagin, it would become boring pretty quickly. I wanted to be sure that, although the Sunken Pyramid was very much a sahuagin lair, there were still plenty of other interesting creatures to encounter. Besides, how could I do an underwater adventure and not include at least a few of those other, awesome aquatic races?!?
  • Be Easy to Run: As Creighton said in his design goals, this is huge; the best module in the world can be a complete disaster if it is hard to understand, prepare or run. Encounter text should do as much of the work for a GM as possible so that preparation is quick and simple. The adventure had to be self-contained and generic enough that almost any GM could add it to their campaign with minimal effort. Luckily, the Sunken Pyramid, by its very nature, is self-contained and portable. A GM could easily set this adventure anywhere in his campaign world. All he needs is a coastal village and a near-by location at sea to plonk the pyramid itself. And, if the GM doesn’t already have an interesting, fully fleshed out coastal village prepared, he can use White Moon Cove, which is included in the adventure! Oh, and for those that recall my first article on the inspiration and genesis of the adventure, you should have no trouble figuring out to which town White Moon Cove pays homage.

Download the Free Version

Did you know, Raging Swan Press has a free version of The Sunken Pyramid available so you can check out this marvellous adventure? You can get it here: d20pfsrd, DriveThruRPG, Paizo, RPGNow, Warehouse 23. I hope you enjoy it!

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Marc is a graphic designer, writer, and illustrator. He is also the Art Director and primary graphic designer for Kobold Press. His work has appeared in almost 100 different RPG products from various companies. A few highlights include:

Tyranny of Dragons D&D 5E (Rise of Tiamat & Hoard of the Dragon Queen) from Wizards of the Coast / Kobold Press

New Paths Compendium from Kobold Press (writing and graphic design)
Deep Magic (layout and graphic design) from Kobold Press

Advanced Races: Lamia and Advanced Races: Sahuagin from Kobold Press

The Sunken Pyramid and Lizardfolk of the Dragon Fang from Raging Swan Press

ARIA: Canticle of the Monomyth RPG and HERESY: Kingdom Come (writing, editing and graphic design) from Last Unicorn Games

Marc started playing D&D as a kid in the late 70’s – good ol’ First Edition AD&D! He faded out of gaming sometime after 2nd Edition came out – primarily because all his gaming friends turned into grownups, got real lives and moved away when he wasn't looking!

Third Edition D&D pulled Marc back into the hobby and he is a HUGE fan of the Pathfinder RPG! He is absolutely thrilled with what Paizo has done for gamers everywhere and is even more thrilled that he can still enjoy playing (and contributing to) the game he loves. Thanks, Paizo!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “The Sunken Pyramid: Design Principles

  1. Hey there!

    Why, the very adventure this post is about of course!

    The shark jaw skeleton first appeared in the Sunken Pyramid adventure, which is a Pathfinder adventure! 🙂

  2. Hey there! With the Tome of Beasts being released, I have been trying to find PATHFINDER stats for your Shark-Jaw Skeleton. Can you point me in the right direction?

  3. This sounds like a really interesting module. I will have to adapt it to my game. Should be cake. Sounds like this would be a great one to run to give all the players a break from the main story. What better vacation than to explore the Sunken Pyramid!