How to Run an Underdark Campaign in Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and Fantasy RPG's
Whether a brief interlude in your RPG campaign, or somewhere you plan to send your player characters for the next six months of roleplay, the Underdark can provide a fascinating world for you and your players. The Underdark is a world unto itself and, if imagined well, an Underdark-themed campaign can make yours one of the most memorable your players have ever experienced.
THE UNDERDARK LANDSCAPE
Imagine kingdoms and cities -- some governed by goblins, some by dwarves, and some by gnomes. Imagine tunnels. Some will cover great distances horizontally, like roads connecting cities on the surface. A few will be expansive thoroughfares large enough and smooth enough for wagons of wares to be hauled by larged-eyed, underground beasts. And still other tunnels will lead down deeper into the Underdark, where less civil creatures have their own enclaves.
The Underdark is a world with symbiotic relationships. Cities trade with each other. Some trade with the surface and even get caught up with the conspiracies of surface politics. Others are more predatory -- raiding and attacking rather than growing and making their own. Imagine fortifications. Chokepoints. Where are there lost kingdoms now full of vile creatures; those who just want to be left alone; and secret societies whose activities were too taboo for the surface world? Imagine a cult of humans committed to breeding with drow elves. What are their foul, long-term plans for the surface when their offspring mature?
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THE NATURAL UNDERDARK WORLD
There are waterways. There are huge underground lakes with blind water creatures. Some of the creatures are predatory and can only feed by dragging or luring someone into the depths. Require your characters to float across the surface of a vast underground body of water by torchlight! Describe how some leviathan just pressed itself against the underside of the raft. Imagine a monstrous angler fish using its eerie lure of light to lead the craft into dangerous water, trying to capsize them. Or perhaps translucent glowing mermen!
Sketch vast caverns into your Underdark world. Some will be a “forest” of stalagmites while others will be forests of huge mushrooms glowing dimly. Glowing lichen, and unusual stone, like malachite and amber. What’s that strange, benevolent light hanging from the ceiling? Your characters investigate only to have leathery humanoid creatures with bat-like wings descend upon them.
Caverns full of criss-crossing crystal structures are not uncommon. What power might lurk in such crystals? Or, what power to drain strength from your players? Find a way to make the crystals relevant or simply keep them a challenging terrain to traverse.
Consider what the Underdark does to your player characters’ minds. Based on each character type, what are the players feeling? Why does the NPC elf keep speaking of troubling dreams? Are the humans and hobbits feeling suffocated? Are the dwarves at home and growing resentful of the complaints? The Underdark eats at each character’s thinking. It affects sleep. They can feel the Underdark in their bones!
Your characters could encounter other one-time adventurers who have gone mad in the darkness. Ragged in their clothes, they babble, but at the same time beg to join them, beg for something cooked to eat. The madwoman healer opens her hand to reveal an albino mouse. “My best and only friend,” she claims. Could these be allies or is this yet another trap in the dangerous Underdark?
Mercy upon your characters if the lights do go out...especially if anyone ends up isolated. They will be prone to hallucinations and might even turn on each other. For humans, their emotions will run out of control. They might sing just to hear something and then burst into tears a moment later. All of this noise could attract anything.
It falls on you, the Dungeon Master, to help place your players in this bizarre world. Is there a constant chilling breeze on their skin? What flickers in the shadows of their torch light? What do they hear? Perhaps a constant sound of running water. Strange clicking or crashing sounds. Low rumbles that shake the earth and wake them from their fitful sleeping. Or perhaps booming eruptions that keep them from sleeping at all.
What do they smell?
Taste on the air?
Think about “weather” systems as they move in the Underdark.
Near large underground rivers, the air might be more humid. If they travel deeper, the air might get more hot and smell and taste of sulfur. What might a forest of glowing mushrooms smell like?
The underdark brings specific challenges, too, that can heighten game play. In most cases, a much more accurate accounting of rations, torches, and supplies is necessary. In fact, fighting the clock of dwindling supplies can be a source of suspense and creative thinking. Yes, there are trading outposts and cities, but they are more spread out. And, folks in the underdark might not be willing to trade or barter with just anyone.
THE UNDERDARK ENTRANCES
Remember that when your characters pass close to surface exits they are likely to find more trouble. Creatures of the Underdark use these exits and dwell near them. Sometimes treasure is stored there. Other times bizarre hermits plot magical revenge against the world that banished them or rejected their brilliance. Such entrances are a perfect way to introduce your party into the Underdark world.
Battle also becomes challenging and exciting in the underdark. Some passages might be so smooth, only creatures who can levitate can get across them. Narrow bridges make for unique combat situations. As your players swing or lunge at opponents, they might also need to make “balance” rolls based on their dexterity. A poor roll might mean they plunge into a spike field of stalagmites below. Retreat is a less likely option both from underdark combat and the underdark world -- adding a sense of urgency and doom. A wall of spikes is called a ladder in the underdark and might be your players’ only choice to ascend from danger. Winged creatures fly into their faces, and pale insects climb from the crevices of the walls across their fingers.
You can enhance the atmosphere of your roleplaying space to enhance your players’ Underdark imaginations. Light your roleplaying room with candles or at least dim the lights. Black lights and glowing paint can further add to the alien nature of the Underdark. Find anything that glows in the dark. Turn up the air conditioning. Or, even run a vaporizer to give the room a misty, underground sensation.
With forethought and a commitment to its challenges, you’ll be able to create an incredible Underdark RPG campaign for your players. You might very well be giving them and yourself an experience unlike any roleplaying experience before.
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