Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Living Dungeons

Yes, this is a post about living dungeons… among other things, so please, bear with me.

First of all, I’m working on my third entry on the Green Book – I finally came up with a workable (and hopeful interesting) concept for the Alala.

I’m also preparing a small post about my campaign’s progress. No, I’m not writing an Actual Play. They’re boring (to read and to write). What I’m thinking to address here are some rules changes that originated from my group unanimous opinion on a lot of little things (like the ever infamous raise dead).

But let’s go back to this post’s title. I finished reading Reaper’s Gale (the 7th Malazan Book of the Fallen) last weekend and found it a blast: the massive plot, though convoluted like everything else wrote by Erikson, was nonetheless engaging and it managed to transmit the idea that things are finally shaping up to a conclusion. A very different conclusion, given the series’ antagonist – the Crippled God – and the way the cosmology and its various characters interact with him.

I still think that Erikson’s skill as a writer is overrated – other authors manage to be both more mythical (like Tolkien) and more dramatic (like Martin). Erikson’s scores of characters all come from two or three basic molds – from angsty and brooding to hilariously overenthusiastic, passing through some archetypical types (like the soldiers, mariners and sappers – ironically, my favorite characters). It’s interesting to note that Erikson seems to associate high intelligence with a heavy dose of cheerfulness and misdirection (as seen in characters like Kruppe, Iskaral Pust and Tehol). However, there’s one place where Erikson totally trumps any other writer: sheer scale. The entire Malazan cosmology is a herculean exercise in worldbuilding, a masterpiece of fictional construction that every Gamemaster should give a try. Besides, there are a lot of good ideas and concepts here. I’ll address just one of them (and from an incomplete perspective, as I have not read the last books). I should warn you that spoilers are in order.

One recurrent idea of late (probably caused by the OSR) is the concept of living dungeons or mythical underworlds as serious setting elements (not just some gonzo background). Take, for example, the 13th Age – a recreation of D&D (mostly 4E mixed with narrative mechanics). In this yet-to-be-released game, living dungeons are real and usually result from reality wracking experiments of the Archmage (the world’s most powerful arcanists), planar interferences and other eldritch phenomena.

Traditionally, by using living dungeons, you’re banning realism – at least in the mind of most players. Living dungeons are sentient entities, an entire place that wants you dead and fights against you – they’re the ultimate excuses for those wacky rules of the original D&D of ’74, like doors locking up behind you and all monsters being able to see in the dark. After wall, why in the Nine Hells would dungeons behave like that?

That’s were Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen comes up with an amazing concept: the Azath.

We don’t know exactly what are the Azath (at least the 7th book doesn’t say it), however we’ve plenty of hypotheses. Azath are strange buildings, towers, dungeons or houses that grow up spontaneously in certain locations. They appear to be made of some sort of stone or wood-like material, but are practically impregnable and impervious to damage (in the novels only one Azath die, but it takes centuries). Azath show up where massive manifestations of power occur. Their most common role is to spawn around a powerful entity (like a demon prince, an archangel or a potent archwizard) and trap it for eternity.

The Azath seems to be the ultimate aspect of Balance (or Neutrality) – strange entities whose role is to trap and contain creatures who could tip the frail equilibrium of forces in the world. The Azath are also living things, which their own (unfathomable) agendas and even chosen servants. Cults develop around some Azath, with followers trying to commune with a particular living dungeon’s intent and desires. These cultists are usually True Neutral in Alignment (fanatically Neutral would be a better description). In the novels this is represented by the Nameless One, the mysterious cabal that serves “the will of the Azath”.

Each Azath is sort of unique, developing its own local legends and histories. An example: the Azath on the Malaz Island is called the Deadhouse and has an entire city around it. It is hinted in the novels that those that managed to gain access to the Deadhouse (either by trickery, force or some pact) gain strange abilities – like prolonged life. Some creatures appear to be chosen by the Azath to act as their keepers or wardens - it is unclear if these individuals must remain within their Azath or can go out on missions. In other novels it’s speculated that the path to Ascendancy (godhood) may be found within the depths of an Azath – this is probably the most awesome and simple excuse for a dungeon crawl (coincidentally, it also reminds me of the Starstone and the Ascendant Court built around it in the Pathfinder campaign setting of Golarion).

The Azath also are used as a sort of “safe haven” for powerful (or hunted) individuals that desire a safe (if dark) place to flee from gods, demon lords, mighty dragons and such. After all, if any entity of power comes within an Azath, it’s instantly trapped. And in the novels this usually means that the creature is grappled by powerful stone-like roots and buried alive, but the Gamemaster could concoct many other types of prison (like an ever changing labyrinth, being petrified alive, diminished in size etc.).

What Erikson did was to create an original and engaging mythology around the concept of living dungeons. One that’s easy to steal and employ in most campaign settings. It’s a much better excuse for a megadungeon than the usual “mad wizard’s playground” used by Gygax. The Azath can also provide a unique and bizarre patron for a group of players – imagine being servants of a living dungeon, tasked with hunting down (or attracting) powerful creatures to those eternal prisons.