Monday, December 19, 2011

Musings on the Mythic Underworld

In which Beedo commends some Fourth Edition and pushes some Wordsworth

I tend towards the "rational" dungeon design, even if the dungeon itself is filled with irrational elements.  "Dungeon X was built by Mad Wizard Y, here is where the laboratory used to be, here is where he built a zoo for extra-planar creatures, the reason the level is overrun with mutated elementals is because the wildlife escaped from the planar zoo."  That kind of stuff.  The players may never figure it out, but the DM always has a plan.

I'm working on the dungeons for the Black City, and although the levels involve weird science fantasy and technology left behind by sorcerous aliens, underneath the covers, they're also very rational.  "These machines are psychic enhancers, the reason the level is infested with loathsome crawlers is because the immortal Hyperborean strapped to the dream engine continues to birth them from the nightmares in his subconscious while he sleeps the unending sleep."

As long as dungeons are big holes carved into the ground, it's hard not to get sucked into the "rational" trap, looking for explanations that support the weirdness you want supported.

It's time like this, I get hit with pangs of envy - the green grass on the other side of design, going with the conceit of "dungeon as mythical underworld".

It seems to me, to pull it off properly, you need to spend some time developing the campaign cosmology up front.  It makes a big difference whether the world is a ball of rock floating in space, or if it's a flat expanse where the descent below the ground is literally a passage out of the world and into another plane or dimension.  The idea that the moment you go underground, you enter the Greek Underworld or the realm of Niflheim or the land of Sheol is such an intriguing counterpoint to my default position - that dungeons are big places carved into the ground by people.  It reinforces an idea of sacred geography - climb a high enough mountain, you can reach Heaven; go deep enough into the earth, you'll end up at Hell.

Torog:  imagine if this gruesome god made your dungeon
This is one area where I loved the Fourth Edition explanation for the existence of the Underdark.  During the prehistoric mythic time, the gods fought the primordials for control of reality - a theme straight out of numerous real world myth cycles.  One of these battles between god and titan went beneath the earth, smashing huge voids in the rock and creating caverns.  The primordial was killed, but the god was maimed and cursed by the dying titan, and trapped by the titan's curse beneath the ground.  This god, Torog, became a god of torture and pain, dragging his broken legs behind him as he smashed huge tunnels in the underworld trying to find a way out.

It also explains the presence of an Underdark in the mirror worlds to earth, the fey realm and the realms of the dead.  As a god, the Crawling King was able to smash laterally into those other dimensions, but still couldn't escape being trapped beneath the ground by the titan's curse, regardless of realm.

Okay - that is a bad-ass reason for the existence of a mythical underworld  beneath the 'real world' - an epic fight from the dawn of time, and to this day, the god of pain and torture still drags his broken body around down there, punishing interlopers and plotting against the surface world like a crazy Mole Man with his Mole Monsters. I've often thought the 4E default setting would be excellent for old school gaming (albeit one would need to include modernisms like Eladrin and Tieflings and Dragonborn to maintain the history). Has anyone in the old school world dared to put together a Dragonborn or Tiefling Race-Class?  (Beedo quickly ducks the barrage of rotten tomatoes).

Whatever I work on after the Black City, I'm expecting it to include a cosmology that describes geography in mythic terms and not rational or scientific terms; that seems best for supporting the mythic underworld as I'm describing it here.  I am curious if folks have had success with this approach - where the sun and moon, the stars, the passage of seasons, day and night, are all explained in mythic versus scientific terms.  I question if the dissonance from a scientific world view is too much for the modern player, or whether it's just trading one type of rational explanation for another.  I'll leave you with some Monday poetry on the loss of mythic meaning:

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth, 1806.


  1. In my old school game I actually do have tieflings as a race. It makes sense from the context I'm going by. I hate Dragonborn though.. Never been a fan of the half-dragon shtick.

  2. I just posted a Tiefling race for Microlite74 over at my blog

    I use the 4E "Points of Light" Nentir Vale setting for my Microlite campaign with my kids. It's been great.

  3. Man, that picture of Torog is creepy as heck. I'm definitely going to work him into my campaign now...thanks!

  4. I listed "Dungeons" as the number one thing I don't like about D&D:

    It is not the conventional cavern, or natural chasm theme that befuddles me, its the large dungeons. The "why are they there", that you talk about.

    I could get behind "some other realm" explanation, but I think that is campaign/setting specific. Thanks for giving me something to consider though. It is appreciated.


  5. Yeah, I was pretty shocked to see that picture on the 4E underdark supplement a few years ago - pretty gruesome. It's one of the cooler visions of the Underdark to come around - all those giant passages were tunneled by a mad god of pain. It's even possible to come across divine ichor and godflesh if the Crawling King has been through recently.

  6. Whew! When you mentioned "Wordsworth", I thought you were referring to the japanese anime "Words Worth" there for a second, which does have an Underworld theme between the tribes of Light (the surface world) and Darkness (underground). Its a fantasy anime, but is a thinly disguised anime porn.

  7. It seems to me, to pull it off properly, you need to spend some time developing the campaign cosmology up front. It makes a big difference whether the world is a ball of rock floating in space, or if it's a flat expanse where the descent below the ground is literally a passage out of the world and into another plane or dimension.

    Strongly agree. I don't think you need to write out a comprehensive cosmology, but to do something like this well and consistently, you need to have a general idea about how things work at the macro-level.

    For example, I think the science fantasy of the sword & planet genre is somewhat in conflict with a mythical underworld in the mode of Hades.

    I had some ideas about merging these two styles, but I'm not sure how it would work in practice and have not really had a chance to experiment yet.

  8. Yeh, the 4e setting has a great deal of flavor that I like ... [[negativity about chargen]] ... the Shadowfell, the Feywild, those are simply terrific shout-outs to real Jungian mythical shit... the Shadowfell has plenty of potential to be all Carcosa, too.

  9. I hadn't heard of that god and mythology. Wow. That's pretty intense.