Thought Experiment: Society built around a megadungeon

edited June 2017 in Make Stuff!
Civilization has literally grown up around a world-spanning megadungeon. The dungeon has influenced society in deep ways. The races on the planet may have even originated in the dungeon, thousands of years ago.

1. The dungeon is older than society.
2. The dungeon is enormous, potentially spanning the entire world, penetrating the surface in scattered places (not everywhere).
3. The dungeon has a seeming alien intelligence, grows on its own, and reaches out like a tentacled beast, until it finds the surface with one of its arms.
4. The dungeon disgorges creatures and magically warps things it touches.
5. The dungeon probably disgorged most of the D&D races at some point in the past, and they adapted to life on the surface.
6. Wars were fought between the surface and the underground, eventually beating back the swarms of evil the dungeon was vomiting onto the surface. That was hundreds or thousands of years ago, and things are waking up again.

What is this society like? How is it different than a typical D&D society?


  • If human life originates in the dungeon, and the dungeon/surface contact occurred mere thousands of years ago, then I envision a world with small pockets of civilization clustered in farming valleys, with pristine wilderness covering most of the world. A few thousand years probably aren't enough time for things like a pastoralist nomad cultural package to evolve, which means that most of the world is inhabitated by hunting bands at the most. (Exception: did the dungeon peoples bring herd animals suited to grassy plains with them?)

    These centers of civilization would only occur where the dungeon breaches to the surface near to a suitable farming environment. Their existence would require the dungeon-originating people to already have an underground farming paradigm that enables them to recognize and adapt local plant-life to a farming lifestyle. The geography needs to suit agriculture, and the wild plantlife needs to offer something reasonably usable; otherwise the people who come from underground will simply abandon their farming ways (and probably die in great numbers) before starting anew with hunting and gathering.

    Thus, perhaps the global outlook resembles something like the Earth five or ten millenia ago? There are like three or four places on the entire planet where a stable agricultural civilization exists (all in river valleys), while everything else is essentially only inhabited by hunter-gatherers waiting to figure out nomadism. These civilizations would be largely out of contact with each other, as there probably is no motivation or technological culture for overland travel over great distances. They may or may not have similarities based on their common origin underground - origin myths definitely if nothing else. Maybe they all practice ground burial, except the one weird culture that specifically does sky burial because their cultural mythos focuses on escaping the underworld, rather than "returning to the life-giving depths".

    The interesting part, however, is what cultural elements the underground-arriving surface denizens may have preserved from their life underground. Even if their surface life is limited in some ways due to not having had time to figure out certain things, nothing says that they needed to be straight stone age before their emergence. They may not have figured out how to tame a horse yet, but they may have a highly sophisticated quarrying, mining, metal-working, cave-farming culture. Or not - underground is not an easy life, and I would buy the notion that the vast megadungeon simply does not harbor even one true civilization - everybody underground is subsistence level savages, barely getting by eating fungus and such. That's maybe why they emerged in the first place. If that is the case, though, then there's the possibility that nobody's even figured out agriculture yet in this world.

    So yeah, that's what strikes me as the most intriguing facet of this world: how young it is, and what the implications of that are. It may be the case that I am simply boring [grin].
  • You're not boring! You're already giving me ideas!

    That's all really cool.

    Maybe I should give them 5,000-10,000 years to evolve a bit more, but still leave them relatively new (modern humans had a lot longer to master the nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyle).

    I love how the relative isolation between races actually fits well with D&D lore, which is happy to make elves very different than dwarves and so on, with seemingly little syncretism among the "races." It also makes the "points of light" insane sparseness of the D&D setting make a lot more sense.

    I think the races will have discovered a pristine world full of herd animals and birds and stuff. Also, I think "the dungeon" includes enormous cave areas with its own ecosystem and weird light sources, but they're deeper down, and the areas between those deeper livable sections and the surface world are the tentacled cthonic underworld of horror stories.

    I don't want all of the surface races to be super light-sensitive, so they have adapted to life above. I also don't want the surface dwellers to seem TOO ALIEN to players. A handful of odd customs left over, sure, but they were at least civilized below, so they had the notion of permanent settlements, law and writing, ironworking, and so on.

    Maybe they left the underground thousands of years ago because of invaders or food shortages as their populations increased.

    Another idea I have is that the people underground came from another world. When their planet died, they were forced underground there, not realizing that their underworld connected to another one (possible more!) at the deepest levels, and after thousands of years, they discovered a path to the surface.
  • It may well be the case that deep in the underworld there are places that are not that different to the upworld. Could even be a simple case of earth-within-earth. People got myths about how they come from this place where everything is upside down, but there is a sun (same color as the upside one?), animals, vegetation and so on. Maybe their myths confuse this place as some sort of afterlife or divine homestead, or maybe it's an Eden that their forefathers were unjustly ousted from.

    (This could even have the ring of truth - I imagine that somebody who opts to move to the more inhospitable parts of the dungeon has to have some good reason for doing it. The forefathers of the modern surface denizens were probably either barbaric dungeon-nomads able to live in the most inhospitable places, or otherwise somehow forced to leave the nicer places and move into the great unknown.)

    I think that dualism of the earth and the sky will be a big, big thing for the imagination and myth of a people with this sort of background. Instead of the flood myths and "all animals disappear" myths that are near-universal to our prehistory they've got religious ideas like "the stars are a terrifying and foreign enemy" and "we all return to the underhome one day" and "foreigners are strange because we're newcomers to this world" and so on. I think that you'll get interesting variety in this regard by making a list of basic cosmological and religious precepts that pretty much all cultures hold dear, but then have most cultures deviate on one or two points each. Like, these guys think that it was a good thing that they came into the upworld, while these other guys think that they're actual aborogines, and so on. Sky-worshippers and earth-worshippers would probably invent each other as enemies, even if there's nobody around who actually worships the stars or holds into the old dungeoneering ways - it's just too good of an "other" to not use it, just like Satanism had to be invented by Christians.

    Also, I find the aforementioned idea of pastoral nomadism interesting. It could be absolutely huge for this world. In our world pastoralism developed slowly and painfully side by side with agriculture, and horseback riding came into the picture relatively late. Despite that, apparently e.g. the original Indo-European peoples absolutely swept up the board when they got the chariots + herding lifestyle package going. And of course, everybody remembers the Mongols, putting civilization down with the direct descendant of that cultural setup several thousand years later, still.

    So a big choice for me with this setting would be whether some group of people has, instead of figuring out agriculture, rather tamed something to ride on and something to herd (potentially, of course, the same animal). That's the tools for a population explosion in a virgin world, I judge, when everybody else is either hunter-gathering or doing some piddly start-up civilizations in ideal rivel valleys. If you've got orc horse lords, that could be almost too much of a challenge to civilization as we know it. Depends on when and how the domestication efforts come online, pretty much - it's also possible that the world doesn't have anything like a horse, or sheep, or cows, and pastoralism thus isn't feasible after all.

    All in all, I'd go towards something reminiscent of John Carter and He-Man with this sort of thing - exotic locales, ancient technology mixed with magic mixed with utter barbarism, a world that is both young and old at the same time. Every city is huge, visually utterly unique and entirely a big deal, because there are only like three or four separate civilization nexuses in the world, and each one has like 3-9 cities, and that's it for the light of civilization on this world - the rest is orc mongols and know-nothing hunter-gatherers, plus dinosaurs I assume. You want actual sophistication, you go underground, but that requires delving below the Fright Zone, to the ancient underhome of myth.

    It occurs to me that socio-politically one could also do a simile of the popular scifi set-up of Homeworld vs. the Outworlds: the surface civilization X, which the PCs call home, is the bold pioneer civilization, but what happens when Homeworld comes in to assert their rights? In D&D terms you could e.g. have the viewpoint civilization be humans, and then one day elven melnibonean English pale noble jerkasses start showing up from beyond the Fright Zone - and of course they desire to reunite the lost colony with the homeworld. Cue certain interesting demographic, cultural and technological assumptions about the coming conflict, as the Outworld perhaps has immense natural resources and an eminently defensible position on their side, but the Homeworld's got both immense numbers and an actual industrial base to go with them. Can the valiant-yet-rough pioneer civilization retain its independence against the sophisticated, jaded, ruthless homeworld githyanki evilmongers?

    I suppose I am, ultimately, just describing the American Independence War here, except England is deep, deep underground.
  • Dinosaurs! I've always rejected them in my settings, but this one seems ripe for them.

    Do you know what other fictional setting has lost world + dinosaurs + weird alien races + underworld locations?

    Land of the Lost!

    (Sorry to take everything you wrote and latch onto that one thing. More later.)
  • I think my strategy will be to figure out what their culture was like underground, and then imagine them 50 years later on the surface, then 100, then 200, and so on. Maybe play some Microscope with friends.

    I want the wilderness to be suitably dangerous, so it isn't Earth where the most dangerous thing out there is a hippopotamus. It's a world that already has dragons or dinosaurs, or something in between that I invent myself.

    It's a world that has a sentient, evil megadungeon puncturing the surface and disgorging nastiness onto the planet for Reasons. I need to figure out the reasons, but it could be alien megamagictech that is a sort of viral thing a captor race unleashed on the inhabitants of the original planet.

    I need to figure out what Gods are in this world, and how divine magic works. I've recently been creating settings where the Gods are dead or shut away from mortals permanently, and people just have to figure out how to get on without them. And then the people figure out that they were always the source of divine magical energy and they create temple batteries that harvest mana and redistribute it to clergy. That probably works here.
  • Dinosaurs! I've always rejected them in my settings, but this one seems ripe for them.

    (Sorry to take everything you wrote and latch onto that one thing. More later.)
    It's funny! That was my reaction, too.

    (Although all the other stuff is great, too.)

    Adam: you may want to look into Tony Dowler's "How to Host a Dungeon", in case you haven't already. It might be perfect for you.
  • Perhaps, if the surface world already has formidable Monsters in it, there is also a Gaia-like nature spirit which people can tap into to develop D&D druidism and such? A Feywild force, if you will? This could still be a new and unknown thing to the peoples, as they're new to the world, while the dragons and such are creatures of the wilderness force. It is probably a passive force in itself, unable to defend itself from off-world incursion - but perhaps people can turn it to purpose.

    This would mean that the world has conceptually two kinds of monsters, two tribes if one wishes to express it that way. The Wild Tribe monsters are things like dragons and dinosaurs and hippopotami and such, grown huge and fearsome by the wilderness force and largely purposeless in the old world - they had nothing to oppose them as a paradigm in a world devoid of people. The other kinds of monsters, the Night Tribe, come from underground, with the Dungeon, of course, and are things like ankhegs and cloakers and all those weird D&D dungeon things.

    So we got these, and of course we have underground religions. Specifically, the Fright Zone itself is a divine force that people can tap, and perhaps they do it in the form of demon worship, or some enlightened people do it without such crutches. So Fright Zone empowers clerics that Turn Animals, which works like Turn Undead except it applies to all the creatures of the aforepostulated wilderness force - natural animals, dragons, other Wild Tribe monsters, and druids. Druids don't get to turn Night Tribe, because their magic works differently (and druids traditionally don't get turn undead, anyway).

    Not all underground religions need to be evil, even if they tap into the Fright Zone - I could see a propitionary worship that focuses on legendary heroes that tamed the dark. For example, perhaps a given city-state has like a triad of god-hero figures whom they worship: one's the guy who led their ancestral tribe to the surface through the Fright Zone, one's the guy who taught everybody to farm, and one's the builder who built the walls of the city. And they get "evil divine magic" from that Scout-Ranger guy, not because he's inimical to life like the Fright Zone, but because he's the one who tamed the monsters and turned away the night. He's the least respected of the triad in the city, traditionally, because he's not really needed in the overworld that much - but when wyverns start to come calling, it quickly becomes evident that his are the clerics who have the power to Turn them back. (The other members of that triad don't give divine magic, by the way, but their priests can get Psionics due to a dedication to regimented lifestyle, although this is rare and objectively they're probably "weaker" than the one priesthood that actually taps real power. Maybe some are Monks, whatever.)

    But anyway, that's evil divine magic from the monstrous nature of the underworld. I believe that there is yet a second kind of underworld religion/magic as well, whatever it is that they worshipped back home. This is probably best handled as arcane magic and sorcery, as the living contact with the deities of Below has been severed by the baneful sky-eye. The only people who have divine magic from the Old deities are those with special blood-connection to it, so they're more like Sorcerers in D&D terms than clerics. They also have paladins, I imagine, because their ritual magic (so as to bestow a personal connection to the divine) still works.

    And, one more source of divine power is obviously the Sky - it is strange and foreign and scary. I imagine that the trick there is that the skygods are newly awakened beings, because they never had any worship before people came into the world. However, they have old, fixed natures: the Sky deities are identical to Olympian gods, which the GM knows and plays them accordingly, but which is also obviously completely meaningless to the people inside the world. So Zeus is just this incomprehensible force of kingship and skybreak, which the GM plays and articulates for precisely as Zeus, except that without him ever saying that it's Zeus nobody is likely to realize it.

    Thus, a summary of godly hijinks:
    * The Green empowers druids and shamans and such. They get to control dragons. Aligned against the Fright Zone, championing nothing in particular, because the wilderness only has life, not purpose.
    * The Fright Zone (the dungeon at its worst) empowers divine spellcasters and probably like corrupt psionics that lead to madness. They Turn the Green and are Aligned against it. The Fright Zone embodies evil as a natural force, as befits a D&D setting.
    * The Old Gods of the underworld are too distant to empower clerics, but their ritual magic still functions, and empowers wizards and paladins (people infused with magic). There also exist "sorcerers" who have an inborn connection to the Old Gods, whether they want it or not. The Old Gods are Aligned against the Sky gods for purely inhuman, abstract reasons - they are the gods of the earth, who set the Fright Zone to divide the two worlds, blah blah. They do not need to be inimical to life, but they are greater than human in both concerns and psychology.
    * The Sky Gods are newly awakened, alien and powerful; they empower clerics and paladins and whatever, like gods properly should. They are Aligned against the Old Gods of the Earth for no good reason. Unlike the Old Gods, the Sky gods are very human psychologically, and they interfere in the world actively in person on occasion. Sky God clerics Turn anything that fears the sun, including exclusively underground monsters, but their magic does not reach beyond the Fright Zone, and all except Hephaistos cannot restore spells to clerics who are underground.

    Of course the individual cosmological understanding of any given civilization is not this neat. They just got a bunch of religious ideas that they work with. Like, maybe a given civilization knows a few Sky gods like Artemis and Apollon (not by those names, but those natures), and they have some old earth religions like maybe they worship Asrelia or something, and they've banned both druidism and Fright Zone priesthoods. They remember and understand that their Sky and Earth gods aren't friendly towards each other, but don't really understand why, and take it mostly as a religious formality - you don't invite their priests to the same parties because it results in a fight anyway.
  • edited June 2017

    Adam: you may want to look into Tony Dowler's "How to Host a Dungeon", in case you haven't already. It might be perfect for you.
    Can you give me some spoilers? What will I find useful?
  • That's incredible, Eero. While I'd totally steal everything you just wrote for a home campaign, I'm loath to steal that much from you if I turn this into a Verdigris Press product.

    I like the Gaian Green stuff. I was already imagining this new surface world as unimaginably beautiful and large in a nature sense. Huge canyons, colorful forests, golden plains with magically sparkling wheat tops; herds of 10-foot elk, vee-formations of majestic dragons, 500-foot oaks. Making that a new kind of magic makes it wondrous and fun.

    I simply adore the idea that the old underground clerics draw dark power that lets them Turn Green, though. Wow. That's simply brilliant.

    I don't like the rest of the Fright Zone stuff as much, though lots of it gives me similar ideas. I've just never been a fan on the Cthulhu madness stuff (or psionics) and prefer to keep things in the realm of magic and demons. Perhaps, having been forced underground millennia ago, most people turned to worship of the demonic forces underground, out of fear and obedience. Pockets of "good" still exist underground, but they live under assault.

    The Sky Gods as Olympians (or something like that) works well, I think. Ultimately, they might be able to help the surfacing races with their fight against the demonic gods below.
  • If you want to add some grimdark corrupted parts in the world, I'd recommend to check Blame! for some ideas.

    It's more of a sci-fi setting where the net that controls the whole planet functions gets infected with a virus that can turn any droid into a violent anti-life organism. The net is still there, but people can't connect with it and are registered as trespassers that must be eliminated on sight. Society collapsed on most places, evolved on others that managed to disconnect on time and survivors employ all kind of either ancient machinery or limited new ones to survive and fight the droids. The automated building machines that operated on the cities kept building out of control and so the infinite labyrinth was made.

    Switch a few terms/concepts here and there, it might fit somewhere.
  • Cool, WM.
  • That's incredible, Eero. While I'd totally steal everything you just wrote for a home campaign, I'm loath to steal that much from you if I turn this into a Verdigris Press product.
    Eh, do what you would - ideas are cheap.

    How to Host a Dungeon is pretty great for working out this sort of stuff, I agree. It's sort of a SimDungeon game that helps in creating the history and the broad strokes of a mega-ish dungeon. The one methodological issue it has is that it's somewhat difficult to slot into a creative process like this mid-way, rather than starting from scratch with it.
  • I'll check out How to Host a Dungeon then!
  • Adam,

    Yes! In the process of play you develop some of the history of the dungeon, then fast forward a bunch (maybe centuries later?) and develop some more.

    It might be interesting for you, here - I'd imagine it would scale up nicely to a megadungeon concept.
  • Wow, I'm away from Story Games for like, 5 years, and I come back to some people talking about How to Host a Dungeon.

    I like the idea that the Dungeon is older than society. The world is shaped by laws and forces that are being than person-kind.

    If the dungeon warps things, are there institutions, rituals, and societies dedicated to preserving themselves from that corruption? Maybe races warp over time, but their stories can be preserved as long as bards continue to sing and share them.

    What if a "Paladin" in this setting is someone who has set themselves against a certain kind of corruption. A Paladin of Stasis is antithetical to transmutation magic, fights lycanthropes and can't use a potion of Giant Growth. A Paladin of preservation fights decay, hates fungus, and makes sure the dead are well embalmed. A Paladin of laws is sworn to a strictly Originalist interpretation of the legal code.

    Maybe allow only monster races for adventurers.
  • Hey Adam, email me at tony DOT dowler AT gmail DOT com and I'll set you up with a copy of How to Host a Dungeon.
  • I grabbed a copy off DTRPG. $5 well spent.
  • While great heroes who tamed the dungeon are certainly celebrated—there is a great nervousness about entering such a place, and would-be heroes are looked down upon. After all, the creatures within are slumbering in Rooms until disturbed, or worse, Wandering Monsters appear out of the adventurer's own shadows and footprints. If no-one goes into the dungeon, nothing will come out—but someone always goes in.
  • Adam,

    Is your intent to flip things on their head? Is the assumption that, in most games, the populace loves and celebrates dungeon adventurers? I'm not sure that's universal...

    I think in a society that just came out of the ground a while ago, they'd still make good use of the tunnels close to the surface for cool storage, cheap housing, transportation, and who knows what else.

    I also think their city design might feel more dungeonlike than medieval. Layers stacked on top of each other and crowded, no worries given to blockage of light, and so on. (Maybe that's not so non-medieval after all.)
  • If the dungeon warps things, are there institutions, rituals, and societies dedicated to preserving themselves from that corruption?
    I love this idea, especially your notion of focusing paladins on different types of dungeon corruption. I'd have to really think through how their powers are balanced though.
    Maybe allow only monster races for adventurers.
    Meh. I feel like "reverse dungeon" has been done to death with little success. It's a curiosity that people might play as a one-shot and never look at again.
  • Just today Blood of Prokopius posted about a 13th-century saint and hermit who lived in certain caves. What about religious orders who go and live in caves as a kind of penance and religious practice, gaining wisdom and experience through their practices.
  • There could be religious orders who "return to the ground" to seek out the wisdom of their forefathers, now lost to the surface dwellers.
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