Some thoughts on darkness and the mythic underground

Carry these

Darkness is Bad. We live in a world with light at will and we’ve forgotten how scary the night is. But moreover in a fantasy world it is worse than in ours: it twists and transforms and makes you lost in more ways than just physically.

The places where daylight reach regularly are OK, but the further from the sun you are, the stranger it gets. The darkness is like a strange consciousness with an incognoscible agenda. It moves its pieces against you: their denizens can see in the dark (and lose that ability if they join you, betraying darkness!), the doors close before you and open for its creatures, the traps become weird and jumpy, your careful steps seem to sound amplified, the air thickens making movement heavy and harder (12 feet per minute as movement rate!).

When you spend too much time underground, in the dark, it changes you and makes you part of its files. That’s why dwarves, capable of seeing in the dark, still light their underground cities. Dark dwarves are the prideful cousins who thought they would be stronger than it – they weren’t. Still, dwarves are very resistant to it, being able to remain themselves with only torchlight. The first temptative elven underground cities were grandiose and profusely illuminated, yet they all slowly but without exception declined into dark elves.

Humans are very vulnerable: in just hours they become confused, in a few days their minds start to weaken, in a few weeks they perish or become various kinds of mythical monsters.

It’s not always the same. Sometimes the effect is quicker. Sometimes it’s mild. Sometimes you can spend some days down there, if you rest close to the bonfire, and escape with your self unscathed. The current has some unpredictable weather. But you *feel it*. That’s why most days you need to get out of the dungeon by the end of the game session. The PCs feel the darkness creeping in, soaking their bones. If they can’t make it, darkness takes hold and those characters become lost. If they’re not rescued soon (by new PCs or another party), they’ll disappear forever, turn into dungeon dressing for other group or become one of the dark creatures that can be encountered (recognizable or not. You never know).

Some intelligent and not rarely evil individuals learned to use this to their advantage: Closer to the surface it’s for some time bearable, and its effects can be leveraged to torment prisoners or experiment with strange and weird magicks. Thieves know how to use this weirdness in their favor, and know how to blend into the weird darkness in ways that seem impossible. Sometimes dead bodies rise as undead of they’re left in the dark (like, in a tomb) without being properly sanctified. Some wicked species like beholders or mind flayers are even reinforced in it. In any case, the further deep and way from the day you go, the worse it is (hence dungeon levels).

Maybe the underground craves treasure, or wants back the gold and gems excised from it, so it makes its creatures rob and hoard them. Maybe that’s why it hates adventurers – adventurers steal back what she finally regained. Maybe it doesn’t hate dwarves so strongly because they just work the precious metals and crystals but don’t take them away from it, keeping them close underground.

Sometimes it’s the underground who extends their influence outside, seducing mortal minds into it with whispering voices or the dream of riches and power, bringing kings, scholars and fools alike into it like a spider tending its web.

Put “minor god” on your encounter tables

The god of bowties and spying

Gods are real in the fantasy world. We know that. Clerics specialize in channeling their power. Unlike on Earth, gods in our fantasy works can be proven almost on demand, as they affect the world in immediate and substantial ways. But usually what you get in most worlds are hegemonic panteons over nations and empires, with a handful of gods, maybe a dozen. And they’re distant and part of the campaign background. But the nations in this world don’t need to convince anyone of the reality of their god, nor any others, as the gods make themselves evident. Any holy war is a conflict between actual gods spreading to their followers, not a war on who’s right about the true faith: both worship real gods, just my real god wants your real god out of the game

I guess my point is that the gods you learn about in a campaign setting or we sketch for our worldbuilding probably aren’t our Player Character’s gods. They’re the gods of kings and princes, uninterested in the matters of smaller gods. But there are smaller gods, hundreds of them. Immortal, immaterial, local, and limitedly powerful. Why doing away with them? They’re real, and if you’re a god steering a nation or guiding your paladins to battle you do need someone to keep the ponds fresh and the fields fertile. As long as they’re aligned with you, they can gather the faith of the commoners.

Peasant gods

The gods of low level characters are everyday gods. There are hundreds of them, each day of the year holding the festivities of at least five, and that only considering the ones registered in your kingdom’s archives. Local and with a small field of power, there are as many gods as there are creeks, villages and hills. Each rural population has at least a few local deities of various spheres of influence: this village has a small god of passionate love and stinging insects, but this other village has a frog spirit that is said to be better at long term love.

They’re all, of course, immortal and should be feared by mortals, although their powers could be limited. They could or could not be able to show themselves in humanoid form or speak through a deer or the wind or dream message. They might be able to change the river’s color or attract hunt or make teenagers fall in love and they can’t be damaged by mortals, but they probably can’t do much to them either other than inconvenience or an occasional curse. Still they are real and they hold real and convenient power. Most village clerics worship mainly their local deities as a mixed general “Law” faith. Their powers are similar to 1st and 2nd level spells, except they can exert them with no or few limits, of course. They’re gods, after all.

These gods can and should appear in your games, as frequently as orcs or kobolds. They can be part of a puzzle, a nuisance, a comic relief, part of a local plot or a dungeon. A door only opens if you offer the god some honey. And this oak’s spirit will tell you how to enter the tomb. A local god of cooking makes this tavern’s food delicious but it loses all flavor when it gets out of the village. Here we have benevolent goblins because a Lawful goblin god of kindness lives by the crossroad. And by our fields the plains are confusing, 5 in 6 of becoming lost, because of our trickster god of wind and grass. Use them to define different world rules and expectations for different places, for interesting encounters or as a way for almost anything mysterious happening. They can teach spells, provide boons or give minor magic items. Add “minor god” to your wilderness encounter tables.

Bourgeois gods

When gods are more talented, powerful, interesting or otherwise successful, they gain some popularity beyond their immediate surroundings. They can be worshipped throughout larger regions, usually by the “best men”: city dwellers, minor nobles, merchants, artisans, officials and readed people. They encompass more useful or wider spheres of influence and have more active agendas, so they don’t have much time for the smallest issues of the peasants. The god of textile commerce. The lady of bridges. A spirit of pestilence protecting the faithful from bad sewer work, and a deity of convenient and punctual marriage. They are more powerful, 3rd or 4th level spell equivalent, and their influence and agendas can shape the culture and aspect of your region and its politics in very sharp ways.

Yes there are gods of magic. They don’t take clerics, but wizards instead as servants.

Use them in your urban plots and your first intrigues. They can be behind a main antagonist or become quest givers or benefactors. They’re the kind of god that the castellan and their men are most close to, so picture how The Keep in the Borderlands would change if the castellan had a favor and service relation with a god of discipline and accountability or a god of adventure and discovery. They can convey the major themes of your region being an active part of the adventures.

Royal gods

These are the big ones, the small pantheon with the official kingdom holydays. Big hitters doing their stuff with only a handful of another pantheons competing with them in the world. Here we find the father, mother, queens and king of gods figure, with their direct families plus a few other big powerful ones. They encompass spheres of influence such as war, love or death, and they have followers all along the kingdom, often through many kingdoms. Of course they only interact directly with the most powerful and influential mortals, and a cleric in contact with one of them hit the jackpot and can be considered a true Patriarch.

These are the background gods we’re used to, outlining the general themes of the campaign world and the bigger potential plots once our PCs mettle with monarchs, emperors and other high power characters. They are also good Big Boss antagonists if you get your campaign to survive that long. They spark the holy wars and protect or threaten the plane.

d12 Birthsigns

Totally not a bootleg zodiac

Today it’s my birthday so I’m putting together a simple birthsign table intended to be compatible with classic D&D-ish games. It’s not an original idea, actually a bit overdone, but it’s fun nevertheless! And also a good way to incentivize tracking timen and character birthdays.

Each is taken from western zodiac, sometimes adapted so everything is either an animal or some human figure (a deity?). I also add a more-or-less-babilonian-inspired equivalent if you want to go for a less obvious route, have differing cultures like modern/ancient, lawful/chaotic etc.

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Cantrip powder: a fistful of magic

wizard doing wizard stuff
Cleanus Underpantus!

Cantrips or level 0 spells were introduced in AD&D 1e and have been part of D&D since then. Most of us don’t use cantrips in our old-school games, but it’s undeniable that the image of a magic user doing small effects and tricks is powerful, and it fits a big part of the source literature for fantasy games. So naturally people look for ways to codify that into the game even if it’s mainly for flavor, with no expenditure of “serious” resources.

This is an attempt at doing that while staying old-school.

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Combat Maneuvers, The Easy Way

A rather unorthodox maneuver

My parents had a genius parenting technique to avoid my sibling and I fighting over shared things, like a cake: One of us split the thing in two, and the other one got to choose. It worked for shared playtime too. The basic principle was that one of us created the choices, trying to make them equally attractive. We knew that if they made one option clearly better, the sibling would chose that one; the other part then chose freely between those choices. Nobody had reason to complain and it taught us to be fair, if only for self-interest.

Why am I telling you this? Because the same principle is the foundation of my favorite rule for combat maneuvers on classic D&Dish games.

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Still Searching For My Beetle

Stay good, my friend

When I was 10 I went with my parents to a wedding. After the celebrations, while the grown ups stayed talking over drinks and coffee, the children went to play in a small playground the place had. An older kid proposed us to play this game where he would make questions and we had to answer them. I knew this kind of games: Usually you answered two or three questions and there was some kind of punchline at the end where your choices told something about you. It was like a special kind of humorous riddle.

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