Monday, December 30, 2013

Dungeon of Signs Muses About the Underdark



“The Brother Lords of the Faith of Light are great, and through their will they brought the lands of man to the Light at the end of the Age of Awakening.  All corruption was cast down, all false idols toppled and all brought forward to bask in the sun.  Those men and women that had served dark gods and false masters were given choice, all wise and all just, as the Brother Lords are great.  Many the of the unbeliever were wroth with these generous choices, and had to be forced to kneel.  The armies of the Light committed no wrongs though they were firm in leading the unbeliever from sin.  The choices given were as always the righteous three: repent and be cleansed to rise again in the Light,  Take the mark of service and the mark of the unbeliever to rise again in the Light after a life of instruction and repentance, take up the arms of the Light to live and die in the Brother Lords service, finding repentance as a warrior against the evil.  Because the soul of humanity shines with bravery and Light, even that of the unbeliever, many chose the last, yet at the end of the age there were no dark empires remaining unhumbled in error, and the armies of the Light were swollen with glory.

Bruegel - Underworld or Triumph of Death or Something
The blessing of bravery and the gift of the Brother Lords was not wasted, so wise were the pontiffs, and so wise their decrees.  Those newly grasping the arms of Light were sent into the deepest darkness of the underworld to bring Light there, so that the world could be cleansed from the heavens to the root.  There was much struggle in the deeps and many were given to rise again in Light.” – From the Chronicle of the 356th child of the Light, a work of commentary on the scriptures of the Brother Lords, published in the final years of the Age of Awakening.


So I just reviewed D3-Vault of the Drow, and as a result was asked by Brendan at Necropraxis what an underdark campaign would look like these days. Over at False Machine much work has already been perfected (really it’s amazing stuff) on what procedurally generating an Underdark would look like, so I’m not going into that. The above bit of mock serious doggerel would be the player handout for my Underdark campaign.
The idea of the Underdark is one of the best 90’s D&D setting conceits and I remember enjoying the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide a lot after borrowing it from a friend back in the day. Little did I realize that the best parts of the Underdark were laid out in 1978’s Descent Into the Earth series of modules. By Gygax of all people. I generally roll my eyes at Gygax’s obsession with detail and bookkeeping in playing table top games, but I think it works well in the Descent modules (well vault anyway) because in the Underdark resource management is incredibly important. This is a real expedition game, a wilderness crawl where supplies and water sources, exhaustion, number of light sources and movement rates become incredibly important. I’ve been getting into the idea of running a resource management game or at least a scarcity economy game for a while – and any Underdark I undertook would be very much about hoarding supplies and trying to figure out which mushroom groves are edible.

Physical setting wise one doesn’t need to change the Underdark, endless lightless caverns deep beneath the surface work just fine. Some thought of course has to go into environment, from ice crevasses, to lava scapes. From grey stone galleries of long dead civilizations to fungal wildernesses – there’s enough underground variation to go around. A nodal route map and geomorphs would also work well, borrowing straight from the D series and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.
Rather then making the Underdark a magic intensive setting for mid-level characters, I like running 1st level games, so I would drop the characters right into the chthonic darkness from level 0. I’d run the Underdark as a funnel. As the above fiction suggests the party would be composed of the losers in a worldwide conquest by ‘good’ forces. Given the choice between death, slavery, and a life of combat the players represent those citizens of fallen tribes, cities and empires that picked combat. They just didn’t know they would receive crappy equipment and get lowered into a 400’ deep chimney into the Underdark. A long creaking ride in a wooden cage into a waterfall filled cavern, with only the flickering flames of burning bales of oil soaked rags dropped from above. Almost immediate attack by maggot pumas (tiger sized [and displacer beat stated] molerat things that have some 4th dimensional agency, speeding up and slowing their flow through time. The survivors of the attack would receive a few tools, weapons, and materials and be told to provide proof of their having slain underworld beasts for weekly food deliveries.

From there it’s a game of exploration, risk, faction play and resource management. The players can do what their masters tell them or try to find a new way to live in the darkness. Obviously light spells become very important, and I would try to emphasize the struggle between getting and using resources from the overworld’s sanctimonious lawful good types (light god clerics are really good at light spells) and adapting to the underworld.

Demihumans of course are deemed abhuman and soulless by the overwrolders, so Dwarves have fled underground, but the regular demihuman races would be replaced by underground variants following the traditional Underdark Pattern. I think Drow would not be a playable race, they would remain too evil and anti-social as in the Gygax modules.


The key to an Underdark that I would want to play in is to tear away all the junk that Wizards poured onto it in the 90's.  The novels, the misunderstood but fundamentally noble Drow, Dark dwarves that are just greedy - not greedy, cruel and given to worshiping horrible things.  With all this pulled back the Udnerdark can be an alien underworld again, the rationales for things exist, but intruders from the overworld can't really ever grasp them, and are disrupting the carefully balanced ecosystem, social and natural by providing a new source of meat and labor.  The Underdark isn't about heroic delvers bringing light into the darkness, it's about the darkness pushing back, and the struggle to survive or adapt to that.

10 comments:

  1. The party just started moving into the underdark in our current Dwarves campaign, and I wanted to do something different with the Dark Dwarves. So I made them into religious fanatics that worship the Cthulhoid worm-deities at the center of the earth. They have minotaur and spider slaves that they control using brain-worms, and lots of them have chaos mutations.

    Their leaders are either robe-wrapped, malformed "Voices" that ride spiders and use lots of illusion magic or they are Wormpriests, composed entirely of wriggling grey maggots. Either way, not just "bad dwarves".

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  2. Faerzress as a mutagenic radiation to any surface race that comes into contact with it, myconid 'guides' for those long stretches of empty lava tubes and caverns, aberrations that would make a craydog seem tame; I've been long been a fan of the alien Underworld even as I've hated the Mary Sue drow ranger and Lucas-esque adolescent redemption stories that form the basis of the collective knowledge of many 3.x players.

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    1. Amen to all that - have you read the D - series, I was rather pleasantly surprised by Vault of the Drow.

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    2. I haven't read them; I vaguely remember playing through them when I was in high school, up to Q1. If I remembered more, it would be an interesting contrast to see what was written vs. how terrible high school DM and players did it. I will have to check the Descent series out.

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  3. I love the bit where the get the crappy equipment and are lowered into the well. It would be great if the evening before they are treated to a banquet (because they are assumed to be virtually condemned to death), and walk to the basket through a cheering crowd throwing flower petals, etc. Then shock of being dumped and left down in a hellish darkness.

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    1. Oh that's lovely - especially because the good guys are the one's doing it. Of course these sanctimonious paladins are going to feast you and then make you pay in monster ears for any additional food, light or affection. MAn now I actually want to run this.

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  4. Is it wrong that I got a bit of a "chubby" reading this? Probably wrong that I posted a comment about it.

    I have been tinkering with a scifi-fantasy old west with dinosaur aliens Aztec flavored lost world hexcrawl and megadungeon with resource management and this post blows my mind with so many great ideas and concepts! Gus L. you the man again!

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    1. All excitement aside - I think there's a post coming soon about town building and resource scavenging coming up soon.

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