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The fantasy underground, the underworld, the caves, the depths ... that's a whole new world below the surface ...

... or, at least, it should be the new, exciting world below surface. I'm mentioning that because oftentimes, the world of underground gets reduced into just a few loot-filled dungeons to rob, a bunch of tombs crawling with things to kill, a couple of claustrophobic places to freak out in, a monotonous mist of darkness to feel insignificant in ...

The question follows: how should an author turn the underground into an engaging set of environments of their own? You know - unique places with their own dynamics, flow, life, and style.

The psychological aspect of dark, unknown environments is a rather cheap one; still, if needed, it can be emulated by almost any unlit, enclosed place (no need to reduce the vast spaces of underground into that). On the contrary, it is time to turn on the lights in the underground, to illuminate the spaces and let the spaces breathe ....

Underground cultures, ecosystems, cities, creatures, possibilities ... are they waiting to be discovered? Can the nothings of underground places be transformed into more humanized, appealing, and if not special, then at least distinctive forms?

How would you approach this?

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possible duplicate of How can I more effectively use darkness in a dungeon? –  wax eagle Aug 1 '13 at 12:54
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Hey Johnny - this is pretty broad. You've had a couple (well, four) questions closed on the site so far for being super broad/not really fully on point for RPGs. Can we work with you on this one to get it crafted into a good question that a SE can help with effectively? Workshop in chat, etc. –  mxyzplk Aug 1 '13 at 16:39
    
@Johnny It might help make your question answerable if you describe the specific problems you run into while running games in underground settings. –  GMJoe Aug 2 '13 at 6:24
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Yes. Ask about YOUR problem, not a concept one would write a Dragon Mag article to explore. –  mxyzplk Aug 2 '13 at 14:27
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closed as unclear what you're asking by SevenSidedDie, GMJoe, Phil, wax eagle, LitheOhm Aug 1 '13 at 13:33

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3 Answers

In much the same way as I'd approach making the surface an engaging place: By defining societies and exploring how they interact, by building a detailed ecology, by expressing the wonders and hazards of the locations my players find themselves in, and by letting them see, first-hand, how their actions can change and shape that alien world.

That said, how you should characterize a place depends on what you want that place to be in your campaign. For example, if I wanted to play up how the societies of the underground are different to those of the surface, I'd want to play up those specific elements that are unique to the underground environment: A mile of stone is a more effective geographic barrier than any river or mountain, and maps aren't necessarily two-dimensional; Travel and navigation therefore becomes much more complicated. This impacts on warfare, politics, and trade; Cities mere miles from each other (as the Xorn glides) may be effectively separated by a hundred leagues of twisting tunnels.

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With my games underground and above ground tend to only be separated by stating that there's a ceiling or not - it's all in the presentation of the NPCs. –  CatLord Aug 1 '13 at 4:59
    
Vertical is certainly an intriguing way to go, especially for cities; however, going all vertical makes me worried due to the cities inherently inclining to a caste-like concept too much. Ideas? –  Johnny Aug 1 '13 at 7:21
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@Johnny Cities separated by caste are often used in fiction because it's a useful analogy for making a caste or class distinction blindingly obvious, but it's not a hugely realistic situation. Sure, any city will have its good neighbourhoods and slums, but they rarely have well-policed borders, are rarely laid out in a clear gradient, and they tend to shift as fortunes and fashions rise and fall. More realistically, a city's population will be distributed as required by the major modes of employment: A theoretically rich district will usually have an awful lot of poor servants living in it. –  GMJoe Aug 2 '13 at 6:16
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@Johnny Also note that a vertically-aligned city is actually pretty hard to live in, compared to a horizontal one. As a practical matter, people tend to build cities where living is convenient, so while routes between cities may be vertical, the cities themselves will rarely be. –  GMJoe Aug 2 '13 at 6:18
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Two pieces of historic fiction stand out immediately:

Journey to the Center of the Earth - original book or nearly any movie based on it, comedy or otherwise. The Morlocks from HG Wells Time Machine

The twin-axes you must deal with is familiarity - a super alien world of worms and mole people might not be engaging to your players if they are humans and they are the only ones and they can't even reason/speak/understand to the underworld people - and novelty, where the world must be different enough to be interesting and not just be "like the regular world, only underground".

You'll need a light source for the inhabitants, or reasons they don't need it. It could be an artificial sun - scifi or magic - or "glowstones", flowing lava streams along with tended fires/torches, or whatever suits you.

You will have to have a "why" - wouldn't it be easier to live on the surface?

You have to have the "how", as with the light source - how do they survive down there?

And of course the "who", of who the heck is down there. Feel free to use tropes of catacombs and tombs if your players don't mind (they use to be my favorite in all games until I got tired of the lack of inventiveness and creativity shown anymore), but if they aren't new to gaming please, please, for the love of The Dark Lord, make them not be boring and cliche. :)

The thing is, if it is going to be an extended adventure into the Underworld most people skimp on fascinating insights that make the world vivid and engaging, so it's all about "hey, you are underground!" or "hey, it's dark!" and that's kind of just it. If it's human-like people, they should be relatable and familiar, but there must be aspects of the alien, bizarre, and insightfully creative that make you think, "oh yeah, I see how that would be a big deal to them - awesome!"

If you don't want to put in the time, keep it short - even if you just enter for a while, leave, and come back.

It can help to use a unifying mechanic as the plot of the story - perhaps a search for a rare underground mushroom that leads you to a lost society, or an earthquare/volcano reveals something that demands exploration, etc. The common 'trope' is a slave/underclass that supports the upper class, but that's almost cliche - if you use it, spice it up a bit.

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Another idea (read: another almost-cliche) may be some cultures retreating to the underground in the past, due to the surface world experiencing some environmental issues during those ancient times ... and then waiting a thousand years, and turning the concept by 180 degrees (the surface being fine now, while the underground is failing ... due to, say, an unhealthy concentration of magic blight). –  Johnny Aug 1 '13 at 7:17
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I would approach this from a historical point of view. For example, I would use the Kopalnia soli Wieliczka as a starting example of a working mine environment with some interesting features of its own. There are plenty more examples.

I find things that there for no reasons to be unsatisfying. Why have a massive cave kingdom when you could just as well build it outside? How are you going to feed all the people in your underground cities? How do they see? What do they do for fun?

Over all, keep asking yourself five whys on every aspect of life within your underground.

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+1 for the five whys; It's an excellent way to develop flavourful detail. –  GMJoe Aug 2 '13 at 6:20
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