Friday, March 27, 2015

Wyrding The Underworld

The underworld of classic fantasy dungeon adventures has many origins and a cliched one is "A Wizard Did It" and for some that is enough.  Why would a wizard do it, even if mad building a dungeon complex seems a huge and tiresome project, sure there's the security provided by not being easy to attack from the air and enemies teleporting into a library or summoning chamber is probably tricky with a host of rooms, corridors, and chambers spread across multiple levels but is that really enough?  Here I'll look at ways of making the underworld weirder by weirding up the place and offering reasons for any wizard or similar folk to begin construction of a dungeon.

Magic works better in the underworld and this encourages powerful wizards to begin construction of dungeon complexes. Magic working better in the underworld can have a number of different ways in which that can be presented.

  1. Magic is Weak on the Surface But It is Stronger in the Underworld. In this arrangement magic spells only function past their base effectiveness deeper and deeper into a dungeon.  All those variable effects that make a spell more powerful only work deeper and deeper into the dungeon.
  2. Magic is Tricky on the Surface and  Easier to use in the Underworld. In this arrangement spells are not always cast successfully. The deeper one goes into the underworld the more likely spells are to work. Magic-Users don't lose a spell when they aren't cast right, they just don't work and the magic-user has to try again...
  3. Magic Only Works in the Underworld. In this arrangement Magic only works in the underworld or perhaps only works when deep enough in the underworld. 1st level spells only work on level one or lower, 3rd level spells on the third level or the dungeon or lower.
  4. Magic Spells are Quickly Recovered in the Underworld. In this setup magic spells cast by a magic-user instantly return to the caster after an appropriate period of rest and don't require lengthy or bothersome spell memorization/preparation after that (so long as they are the same spells used yesterday). It's probably a good idea to have this feature keyed to dungeon level so 1st level to have those 1st level spells restored, 2nd level for those 1st and 2nd level spells (and so on). The period of rest can be as long as the DM decides is appropriate for the campaign or dungeon. If the rest before recovery is brief Magic-Users are more powerful but it also encourages parties to stick around in the dungeon and clear out a safe area to rest,
Having the power of magic tied to the underworld and having magic be ineffective on the surface could create interesting dynamics for a campaign. Surface lords don't have to worry all that much about the depredations of hostile wizards and can live in castles resembling those of earth with no real threat to verisimilitude; the surface world can be "realisitic" while the underworld can be unusually weird or mystic.

The creation of magic items can likewise be tied to dungeon level. That help's to explain what dungeons are doing under castles and wizard towers in the first place. This can be used in a number of different ways.
  1. Magical Earths and Minerals. In this setup magical earths and minerals required to fashion magicl aitems of all sorts are mined deeper and deeper within the underworld and lose their effectiveness if brought above ground for too long before being used in the construction of a magical item. You could key such materials to levels or a range of levels. Regional variations in what earths and minerals are available will also give cause to dungeons in multiple regions.
  2. Magical Forges Must be in the Underworld. In an underworld where this is the case a forge capable of fashioning +1 magical weapons (or equivalent items) may be no nearer the surface then the 2nd dungeon level and +2 magicla gear may be fashioned no higher then the 4th level. This would give ample reason to dig deep to construct workshops capable of fashioning the required magical gear.
Clerics can have their powers tied to the dungeon depths as well as above but there may be more esoteric reasons for Clerics to descend into the earth.
  1. Clerics Worship Dark Gods with Deep Shrines. Clerics are required to make a pilgrimage to secret temples and shrines deep in the underworld before they may enjoy the abilities of earned with experience points. Sure a cleric may have enough experience points to be 3rd level but until that cleric offers sacrifice in a shrine on the 3rd level of the underworld there will be no benefit gained.
  2. The Dead Must Rest Deep in the Underworld Before Being Raised. For any form of magic that brings one back from the dead may be effective they must rest in a sarcophagus deep in the underworld. This can tie to the level of the person to be restored to life, cleric level, or spell level as the DM feels is appropriate for campaign or dungeon. Time spent in such a sarcophagus shouldn't work against the success of such vilification and there may be special sarcophagi that extend the time the remains can be restored.
  3. Portals to the Afterlife. There are portals to the afterlife in the underworld and these very portals may be opened and the glooms may be traveled to bring soemone back from the dead. The spells may act as a key, or only function when the spirit has been dragged back from the beyond.
The dungeon underworld can certainly be excavated becasue a wizard did it if any or several of the above are applied to a campaign. The dynamics of a campaign will undoubtedly shift and the importance of exploration, mapping dungeons, and forming alliances in the underworld should be more apparent and necessary for successful play, even the nature of the adventuring day and balance of classes will shift (20th level wizards should be very careful in a world where their powerful spells only function deep within the underworld).

What of those poor classes with magic tied to the wilderness on may be asking: Rangers, Druids, and the like might not be bound to the dungeon realm and will have greater relative power if allowed in a campaign with a wyrd underworld but mayhaps they must visit stone circles deeper and deeper in the wilds to gain access to their magics in a campaign with a wyrd underworld.


  1. You know, I often wondered where the mystery concerning "a wizard did it" came from. I started playing D&D with the BECMI edition and it was clearly stated that wizards built dungeons so they could gather magical treasures and to capture monsters for "use in magical research and potion making" in the Players Companion (page 19). Considering how spell and magic item creation were handled in that edition, it makes quite a bit of sense that a magic user would be spending the money and time required building a dungeon to acquire "rare materials" needed. Of course that money could also be spent hiring a group of lower level adventurers to go and get those materials for them and the time required represents how long it takes those adventurers to accomplish that task. Personally I'd throw in "books" (any form of written or pictorial information) as one of the things needed for research and consider the time needed as time to translate/comprehend that material.

    I'm not saying I'm against weirding up the dungeon, and the reasons you list are quite useful, especially the section on creating magic items. Although, I think I'd that necromancy (raising the undead in this case) would probably also be better performed underground, with the level of the undead being 'created' being tied to the dungeon level, representing a closer tie to whatever cosmic force animates or powers undead. I'd also throw in religious cults (here used to describe cleric-type organizations devoted to lesser known or ostracized entities) that have either been driven literally "underground" or worship there to bring them closer to their entity of choice.

    1. The undead deal definetly works well. The clerics and the little know gods works adding story to the sacrificing in the underworld. As there are giants in the earth, elder things sealed away.Chained demons and fallen angels there should be plenty of opportunity for spellcasters of all sorts to learn secrets, make pacts, and seriously screw up things.

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  2. One could allow magic on the surface,
    but not during daylight,
    as night falls magic can increase in intensity/ level until midnight
    at which time its efficacy wanes

    from Rachel Ghoul Sept 2014

    “Recently, someone asked what defensive fortifications look like in a high-magic fantasy world. After all, he reasoned, real castles evolved to combat the siege tactics that were being used historically, but a world with magic-users, dragons, and other fantasy elements would present different challenges to a lord looking to protect his holdings.

    “One common answer we use is that these things are so rare that it seldom presents an issue. But that doesn't quite jive with the assumptions most versions of D&D (really, any versions that I can think of) present about the world by default. But there's another answer that does. To put it simply, the keep as we know it is obsolete as a form of defense in D&D. It is replaced, interestingly enough, by the humble dungeon. A thick layer of earth provides a barrier to many forms of divination, and hinders many magical forms of ingress (teleportation becomes a risky proposition if you can't see where you're going, even with otherwise relatively safe short-range methods like Dimension Door), The narrow, twisting passages of a dungeon reduce visibility, create defensible chokepoints to halt invaders from, and discourage the use of area-of-effect spells by an attacking force, and can be constructed to be a difficult or impossible fit for larger enemies.

    “More traditional fortifications do retain some use-- after all, moats, palisades and curtain walls will still serve as obstacles for an approaching army, and towers offer a vantage point for spotting any approach, as well as high ground for archers and mages to rain death from above on. But the construction of these will differ. I would expect to see, rather than the more conventional open roofs with parapets, a wide room or machicolation with a sturdy roof and many arrow slits, the better to protect the defenders from being snatched up or dive-bombed by flying monsters.

    “Most people, and most domesticated animals, will still prefer to live aboveground, so there will likely be buildings inside the bailey. Generally these will be made from cheaply-replaceable wood, as the auxiliary buildings of many real-world castles are, but even the main hall stands a good chance of being made of wood. Any strategically-important business must be conducted underground where prying magical eyes and ears will have a harder time spying on it.”

  3. I like the idea of the underworld enhancing magical abilities. I have an old Rolemaster Companion that details what they call Earth Blood and Earth Nodes. They are basically ley lines, nexus points and isolated wells of magical energy but they occur underground as well as on the surface. In Rolemaster terms, they reduce the cost of casting spells by 75%. For a Vancian system, I would allow a caster to cast 25% more spells per spell level (rounded up) when within the sphere of influence of such location. I'd also consider pulling some rules from Rifts or Beyond the Supernatural that deal with how ley lines & such enhance spell casting. Surface repositories of magic like these would likely be controlled by kingdoms so the enterprising arch-mage bent on world domination would have to go digging for hidden, unclaimed deposits.