Fair warning: I will try to make my advice generic, but, in general, it will be about D&D (where else would you run an Underdark campaign?) and will conform to 4E concepts. I will try to keep references from specific books to a minimum, but since the 4E D&D Underdark has some very specific concepts to it, I will likely mention them now and then.
Using the Points of Light Model
One problem of using the Underdark is the sheer concerns over safety. If the Underdark is solely a horrible realm crawling with a zillion aberrant creatures that want to eat your face, then why would anyone ever want to go there? Conversely, if it’s a barren ruin of rock and darkness, then how can anyone survive there?
Your Underdark doesn’t have to be uninhabited, or inhabited only with horrors. While most creatures in the Underdark are bad, there should definitely be exceptions. Perhaps a town of dwarves thrives here, mining the mithral that can only be found in the darkest depths, or the most fabulous jewels. Although the svirfneblin haven’t made a significant appearance in 4E yet, there’s no reason they couldn’t appear in your campaign, maybe as a group of gnomes who escaped here from the Feydark, established a stronghold, and never bothered to find the sun. Maybe the drow city of Erkel-snood K’k’kr’k has a firmly established reputation as a place where traders of different races can meet, safely, on market days. Maybe that colony of Myconids can become an ally via the party’s Wilden Druid?
So now that you have some points of light, what lies between? Well, if your Underdark is based on the Underdark from the 4E books, then it can contain virtually anything, as the King’s Highway can extend into the Feywild, the Shadowfell, the Elemental Chaos, and anywhere else you want it to.
This begs the question of course, if you can find anything in the Underdark that can be found on the surface, why bother setting a story there? The answer, essentially, is flavor. During my trip in the Caribbean, we visited a site in Mexico called El Rio Secreto. This is a recently discovered cave system which is partially flooded. Now, I’ve been in caves before, but the unearthly quality of this one could not be denied. There was silence, broken now and then by dripping water. The light gleamed luridly off of the damp stalactites and stalagmites, as well as in the water. When we paused and turned off the lights, there was an unbelievably thick darkness around us.
Now imagine the Underdark versus a simple cave system. Caves that can be almost infinite. Huge mushrooms coruscating with phosphorescence. Huge blind cave fish (we saw the little versions!) splashing in the shallows. The scurrying sounds of furtive creatures in the dark. It’s a setting that conjures feelings of wariness, paranoia, and “we-shouldn’t-be-here”-ness, all of which might just save your character’s life.
It would be worth doing some research, looking at websites or books about caves and reading the wonderful Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Remember that the Underdark isn’t just a cave. The Underdark is a feeling of alien wonder and horror. It can encompass underground seas, vast cathedral-like caverns, and horribly lurid rock formations of disturbing colors.
One other bit of the game’s history that might be useful is the old 1st Edition Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. Although much of it is now obsolete, it does have some great ideas about caves and serves as a primer to how earlier versions of the game looked at the Underdark. And copies are danged cheap on eBay.
Can Getting There Be Half the Fun?
One specific concern is making a long underground journey interesting. In my campaigns, I use Skill Challenges and narrative to try to make getting from point A to point B something interesting. Narrative can be covered using a lot of what I’ve already talked about, but what about the rest?
As over-used as it can be, an Underdark journey is the perfect time to use a Skill Challenge that costs the party Healing Surges. One of my favorite approaches to Skill Challenges is one that I first heard really well used in the Thursday Knights podcast (which I strongly recommend). The DM sets out multiple goals, tells the players how many rounds the challenge will last, and then sets a maximum amount of Healing Surges they can lose, as well as what the benefits are of completing each “track” of the challenge. The players have to decide which elements they want to pursue, and which ones they’re comfortable ignoring or giving lesser attention to. The players know that they won’t actually fail to get from point A to point B, but they may regret what it costs them to get there. He also lets them narrate the various elements they encounter along the way, making it a much more cooperative storytelling experience than many games I’ve seen, including, I must admit, my own.
If I were going to run a “Traversing the Underdark” skill challenge in this style, I might break it down into the following tracks: Preparing for the Journey, Foraging for the Necessities, Keeping a Low Profile, Scaring Off Potential Foes, and Overcoming Obstacles. Since I want this to be the equivalent of a fight for my 5 players, I’ll make each one a Complexity 1 Skill Challenge requiring 4 successes before 3 failures. I’ll assign each one a benefit – the Preparing one, for example, which would have to go first, might give +1 to all skill checks on one other track. I would allow only 1 round to do the Preparation track, and maybe 3 round to do the others. I would also have the Hard DC be worth 2 successes. This will give people with lots of different skills chances to shine and gain successes for the party overall.
It may be that I’ll want to do an article just on Skill Challenges. I love them, but I know many DMs don’t. I’ll revisit this in a later piece.
Themes in the Dark
The Underdark is a wonderful place to play with themes and make some stories around some very creepy themes, like Paranoia, Alien Peril, Isolation, and Corruption.
Paranoia’s easy to trot out in an Underdark story. In the Underdark, pretty much everything is out to get you. If it doesn’t want to eat you…or your brain…or your face…then it wants to enslave you. You can have false guides leading your players into peril, creatures that seem to be one thing and turn out to be another, shadowy happenings that have no real effect on your players but put them on edge, and so on. What do I mean by shadowy happenings? Well, you can describe things like a furtive scurrying just beyond the PCs’ ability to see. Like, if they’re entering drow territory, they might hear a sudden cry from ahead, and, when they move forward, find a dead human slave with hand-crossbow bolts peppering his back. This will put them on edge and get them guessing at every sound. Slowly, the PCs will come to realize that they can only rely on each other, and then you throw in the monsters that dominate, a few doppelgangers, and such, and you can have them doubting each other as well.
The Underdark is a world that’s fairly alien to most PC races. It’s a great place to debut perils that your PCs will react to with a cry of “What the Hell is that?” I can imagine saving really alien creatures, like aberrations, for the Underdark. Maybe the critters of the Far Realm find it easier to slip in when no one is observing them. If your players have been fighting very normal creatures, imagine the looks of horror on their faces when they run into dolgrims, or dolgaunts, or a beholder, or what have you. It’ll be such a shift from what they’re used to!
Isolation goes hand in hand with Paranoia. Players may be used to long distances between the towns they visit, but if the journey is even further and more dangerous, and the destination itself can be dangerous. You can cut the PCs off from resources, such as food, potable water, material components, and air and light themselves. You can heighten the mood further with eerie music and leaning in, lowering your voice, etc. If you catch your players leaning in, too, or whispering to each other, then you’ve got them where you want them.
And then there’s corruption. In 4E, the Underdark is the realm of Thorog, the Crawling King, who is the god of imprisonment and torture. I have no problem with the idea of patches of perilous terrain that can do harm to the PC’s food and drink. What about a patch of mushroom spores that, if the PCs don’t keep it quiet with a Dungeoneering check, spews spores that get into the food, or even into the air. The Underdark is a great place to pull out Diseases, or using the Disease rules for a Corruption effect. Alternatively, you could use the Despair deck to symbolize a moral corruption that slowly overtakes the party as the days go on in total Darkness. This might be an excellent consequence of failing a Skill Challenge as described above.
The Underdark is an alien world, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to tell great stories. It gives DMs a lot of leeway to run strange encounters, eerie themes, and to let their imaginations run wild. It’s another journey, but one with a very different feel, and it’s worth accenting that feel.
What tips can you offer a DM who wants to tell a story set in the Underdark? Are there any favorite resources you’d want them to be aware of? On another level, are there any subjects that you’d want to see me tackle in future articles? I loved having such a strong focus to look at, and I’d invite others to ask me questions.