Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Problem with the Underworld

The Underworld (formerly the Lost Lands) is one of my longest lived ideas.  It entered my brain roughly two and a half years ago, around the same time I got the first inklings of what Nightwick Abbey was going to be like.  I've tried several times to either get a campaign started in that setting or to even run one shots in it.  The play report I posted a few days ago was only the first such attempt.  

Sadly that was the only session of that particular game despite the fact that my players enjoyed it immensely. Every time I've tried to run the Underworld it has stalled pretty quickly.  I never knew why.  I love the idea.  It scratches an itch Nightwick Abbey doesn't and takes D&D in a direction it is capable of going but seldom does. So why the hell do I never get anywhere with it?

Well today I stumbled upon the answer.  Before I say it, I need to offer up a comparison.  The Dark Country has been a fixture of my imagination for an equal amount of time.  Even before it had a name it was a land of dark forests, pagan rituals, corrupt clergymen, and sniveling devils.  Despite the fact that this is obviously not the case, it feels as though I discovered the Dark Country rather than invented it.  Even though little outside of a single village and a neighboring city has been detailed, I feel fairly confident that given merely a minute to think I could come up with the "right" answer.  I haven't done so for everything and my conceptions have shifted over time, but I still have a sense of what the Dark Country is.  In some sense it would be that way if I never detailed it; it simply is what it is.

Conversely the Underworld feels much more artificial.  Perhaps it is because having to make most of the monsters from scratch and redesign the classes makes me more aware that I'm creating it rather then discovering it.  However, I don't think this is the case.  Some of the things I create feel as though they belonged there the whole time.  A good example of this can be found in my recent treatment of Priests.  They just feel right.  Similarly some of the monsters I've created fit the setting like a glove.  In some sense it's almost as though the setting couldn't exist without them, even though I only conceived of them yesterday.

Yet it still feels artificial, but I think I know why.  Some of the restrictions I placed on the setting to make it more fantastic also make it further from my own experience.  While it's nice to say that only extinct animals exist in the Underworld (with the exception of Humans), it's something thats very difficult for me to execute.  I don't know much about dinosaurs beyond what Jurassic Park and even older, less accurate movies (not to say that Jurassic Park is accurate, just think about what that means for the other movies!).  Of course I could just research extinct animals, and  I have.  The problem is that whenever I add an extinct animal some of that artificialness creeps in.  I added that animal to fill some sort of game or ecological need.  It wasn't already there waiting to be discovered. 

This problem goes beyond animals and monsters.  The nature of the Hollow Earth also forces me to admit how "created" everything is.  Demographics too have been a thorn in my side, especially because they seem contrary to what I "know" about the setting.  In my minds eye Ilion is a huge city with a vast network of tunnels extending beneath.  It trades with some of the greatest empires in the Hollow Earth, and it's sailors know no equal.  However such things would require it to be much more settled than all the teeming wilderness around it would allow.  Is Ilion a large fortress that dominates other wilderness forts, or a cosmopolitan trading hub?  One makes sense but the other is right.

Now obviously if I was a player this probably wouldn't bother me.  If the referee was good enough at describing the world and it's mechanics I'd fall for this thing hook line and sinker.  BUT I'm not a player, and I doubt I could convey the setting well enough to be engaging if I realized the artifice involved.

So what am I to do?  I love the idea: Swords & Sorcery Science-Fantasy in the Center of the Earth.  I love some of the details I've built up around it, such as the snake worshiping cult of Apollo.  However, the framework itself seems to be flawed.  I'm not sure how to fix it yet.


  1. Maybe the Underworld feels created because it is created.

    A creation of someone(thing) vastly powerful. With that in mind your players can explore The Underworld and help you discover who created it and why.

  2. A fascinating observation and I wonder if it might apply to some of my own failed games.

    Anyway, GSV's notion is a good one.

  3. I've struggled with a similar thing from time to time. For me, it usually comes about as a result of taking myself too seriously. I always gravitate toward the overserious, "everything must make sense and not be contrived" approach. If I stay there too long, I start to get unhappy. Usually my players are good at reminding me that we are there to have fun, not be serious about monster ecology and things like that. Not through discussion, but by my observation of the choices they make in play. A random mutation table always helps me get back to where I need to be.

    Perhaps your situation is different, but that has been my experience.