Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Dungeon Under the City

The City State of the Invincible Overlord (CSIO) is one of those legendary publications from early D&D.  It describes a sprawling city, very much in the Sword & Sorcery mode, with numerous malign temples, shadowy cults, and nefarious characters and activities.  The sewers beneath the city were written up as dungeons in a product called Wraith Overlord.  (I never had the originals, but had the Necromancer Games versions that were updated for 3rd Edition).

Inspired by the CSIO, Scott posted this blurb as a kick-off to such a campaign:

His Incomparable Effulgence the Dread High Dingus of the Great City of Faz has decreed that the Underworld beneath the City is open for plunder, its denizens to be regarded as caitiffs and malefactors utterly without recourse to the otherwise boundless beneficence of the law.

You have consulted with a hooded figure in a soggy reeking tavern, the consensus being that information thus gleaned is unimpeachable in such matters.  His sibilant counsel is that one ingress to the maze lies in the Furtive Quarter, in the cellars of the ruined Temple of Ghonk.  And that is where you, suitably outfitted and girded, find yourselves.
-From Huge Ruined Pile

How awesome is that?  Now, fueled by my experiences running the weekly Black City, I'll point out some additional opportunities why this type of campaign strongly appeals - besides the short walk to the home base.

Human Mayhem
The BX bestiary is filled with human opponents:  bandits, acolytes, mediums, traders, veterans, berserkers, and more.  A dungeon beneath a city could be filled with smugglers, thieves, assassins, rival priests, and all sorts of malcontents and scoundrels.  Encounters with other humans are generally excellent for my game; NPC adventurers are muy deadly; humans offer excellent roleplaying; human encounters alter the equation of attack or flee more directly than monster encounters; every encounter can be a bit of a stand-off or showdown.  Putting the dungeon right under the city ensures a regular stream of human opponents and complications.

The transit tunnels below the ruins of the Black City are like a giant subway system, with 5 medium dungeons and another 5-6 mini dungeons separated by long hauls; spreading them out geographically gives me space to diversify the environments and create a sense of scope and distance.  I think the same effect could be achieved with a sprawling sewer dungeon.


Lately I've been reading HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands, a Call of Cthulhu setting based on the author's fantasy works.  I've added some more Lord Dunsany to my reading queue as well - I have a business trip coming up and expect to get a lot of reading done on the plane; plus, I always thought The Gods of Pegana were a Wilderlands influence.  The Dreamlands has plenty of sprawling cities, beneath which lie passages and ways to the many storied and monstrous realms beneath the ground, like the Vaults of Zin or the Vale of Pnoth, or the City of the Gugs.  Sewer dungeons leading to a mythical underworld are full of possibilities.

(Not saying that I'd use the Dreamlands other than as inspiration, although it does seem awfully ripe for a cool D&D campaign).


  1. Dungeons under cities (undercities) are great ideas.

    I have been thinking about WFRP's Middenheim, and the underdeveloped (WFRP is usually not thought of as a game of dungeon delving, though I don't see why not) mega-dungeon that infests the rock on which that city is built. And Fighting Fantasy/Titan's Blacksand, beneath which the the ruins of Carsepolis. These days, I'm more in favour of the flavour of the latter.

  2. One of the three large dungeons in my 3e campaign was located under the largest city in the game-world. It's a great way to go.

  3. Indeed, Wraith Overlord sets up several human factions in the sewers and dungeons benath the City: the Assassins' and Thieves' Guilds, Amazon mercenaries hired by the Overlord, the mysterious White Lotus...all of whom attack other factions on sight (and may well mistake the PCs for members of same).

    The other great thing about putting a megadungeon under a city is that the city itself functions as a sort of dungeon in its own right.

  4. I've never read the City State stuff,though I've heard about it for many years. Is there a good way to get my hands on it these days?

    Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique setting would be another great place to look for inspiration on something like this. It's full of decaying cities and necromancers living openly among others.

  5. Thank you for the shout out, I'm out of the blogspot loop and just stumbled across it.

    I think of the CSIO as the child of Lankhmar, undercity and all. (Waterdeep and Undermountain are the derpy cousins who hug each other a little too long.)

    Wraith Overlord is a subpar supplement IMO, although I love the name and actually had an Anti-Overlord in my own CSIO Underworld. Of more utility are the unstocked 4- and 5-level dungeons included with CSIO, which are just fantastic dungeon maps with a ton of level connections and flavor bits.

    I'd go through Noble Knight for your classic JG needs, I've ordered from him for years and have never had a single problem.

  6. My only question regarding the CSIO setting is, which edition to get, I believe there has been some bad reviews of the Mayfair edition. Which books/supplements would be recommended?

    I think I will mainly use them as inspiration for my own cities, but it's the kinda thing I've been thinking since I don't wanna have your average "dungeon crawls" involved and have the setting be more Conan inspired.

    1. I personally loathe the Mayfair version - it may be a fine standalone product but bears no resemblance to the JG version.

      All you *really* need is a version of the JG CSIO. I personally like the revised edition, but there's no dealbreaker difference, and the later printings are more affordable. (Caveat: I've never personally seen any revised printing after the 6th or 7th, so there may be differences there.)

      I also like the various Wilderlands of ________ products, mainly for the maps.