Sunday, July 3, 2011

Worldbuilding - Downward to Glory!

It occurred to me that, before the Old School Renaissance, I never in my life read so much about dungeons (and enjoy it) as in these last 6 months. Philotomy's vision of a mythic underworld, in particular, really fascinated me.  In fact, I must confess: dungeons were never important to me as a DM.

When I first played RPGs, I was totally sold on the idea that - theoretically - you could do whatever you wanted and go whenever you wanted with your character. I was a video game player before that and the idea that I was not more “limited” by a television screen or commands was mind-blowing. After my first game session I bought the D&D Basic Game and read it in a few days (a record for me at time, because reading was not one of my habits). In less than a week I had started my own campaign. I guess it was just natural that my game started out of the dungeon. It was my way of following the “total freedom” idea: I wanted liberty to use my imagination and so I literally ignored that you had to start the game in a dungeon (as my D&D Black Box proposed), jumping directly to wilderness quests, urban adventures and big expeditions.

This style colored all my future campaigns and, to this day, I admit having difficult in creating adventure (much less campaigns) based on dungeon settings. Some 15 years ago I remembered buying and running Undermountain. We probably played almost a month inside of that megadungeon (some 2-3 sessions), but after that my group was back to traveling between cities and wild regions. My last dungeoneering attempt was Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil at 2002 (this time, the game lasted one good year). As usual, I couldn't find inspiration (or, a better word: reasons) for staying so much time below ground.

I like to start campaigns with a broad arch and I like to move my groups a lot, so keeping often the same location is very hard for me. When I start thinking recently about an idea for a dungeon campaign I wrote down three basic premises:
  1. It needed to be a mythic underworld;
  2. It should provide ample excuse for different locations and journeys;
  3. It should have a strong, compelling and believable hook (more than the usual "the ancient rune of X, sealed since Y is opened again...")*.

I really liked Monte Cook's approach to dungeon delving: the further below you go the stronger magic gets. Ptolus followed this idea and it is an amazing city-and-dungeon setting (better than Waterdeep I dare say).

So, after all these musings and useless lucubration, here’s my basic (and radical) premise: in my future (and so far hypothetical) mythic-underworld-campaign magic is death. Yup, you heard it right: magic doesn’t work anymore. It existed in previous ages and shaped entire kingdoms, races and continents but it's now gone. Nothing supernatural works. Maybe the gods left the world (or were banished); maybe someone (or something) drained all magic in a massive ritual (or ritual's backlash); it doesn't matter what really happened: different sages, peoples, religions and countries have different reasons for "The Fading", as the phenomena is sometimes called. What really matters is that magic doesn't work anymore...

…on the surface.

Here’s the catch: If you go just a few meters below ground (let's say “one dungeon level or two”), then cantrips, lesser supernatural powers and even some magic items of old suddenly start working again. Nobody knows why this happen, but the only place in the entire world where those old dweomers still work are deep underground.

Theoretically, if you could go deep enough you could summon the ancient rituals of myth. In fact, many believe that if a sufficiently powerful spellcaster of the surface go to the “Heart of the World”, he could summon back magic to the surface. The problem is that no one knows how deep the Heart is (or if it even exists) and there're a lot of dark races, exiled spellcasters from the surface, monsters and worst things in the way – all of them greedy about their eldritch powers.

There it is. A generic excuse for the world (or at least its crazier inhabitants, a.k.a. adventures) to go delving, besides providing a basic premise for a rich, exotic and dangerous (you could also said weird) underworlds. Finally, if necessary, it also gives an intriguing hook for the players to follow – what happened to the magic of the surface?

This approach radically changes many assumptions of Pathfinder/D&D: magic doesn't work at the surface (this means all supernatural, spell-like, spells, psionics powers etc). Out of the "dungeon" (underworld) spellcasters are totally dependent on their martial allies (fighters, rogues etc.). While radical, it presents (at least for me) a good reason for all those crazy adventures and unearthly places that many Pathfinder player character go with an almost absurd frequency.

A few extra observations.

First, this worldbuilding approach provides a strange but useful mix of setting: above ground you could (finally!) have a medieval and traditional world, where all those famous clichés and assumptions of many players and DM finally make sense (like superstitious magic-fearing peasants, feudal villages, castles with defenses that make sense etc.); below ground weirdness and fantasy are kings, and all the mythological mash-up and magic-powered gonzo that we came to love in Pathfinder comes to live – all this without interfering with  the “normal world” above.

Second: the payback of the melee and specialist classes. Many complain that spellcasters steal all the spotlights (and balance) of Pathfinder. If magic doesn’t work above ground, then non-magical classes have an extra edge. Wizards and clerics of a party are vulnerable (in rules terms) on the surface, depending on their Fighter and Rogue allies to survive.  Of course, the Gamemaster will have to craft situations and challenges that requires the skills, knowledge and – most importantly – the social status of spellcasters on the surface world (otherwise spellcaster players will probably not enjoy the game). This dichotomy, while obvious an exception to the normal Pathfinder campaign, can provide strange and interesting adventures.

* I’m talking about Pathfinder campaigns here. If playing OD&D I use a much more loose style of campaign (closer to the freeform suggested setting of the LBBs); in other words: you can say that I don’t need good reasons to go delving when running Old School games.