I'm running a game where an entire village, the PCs and its people has been swallowed into the earth by a cataclysmic earthquake. This happened in the first session, and it was explained beforehand that this would be the campaign setting. Now the players are exploring the vast system of caverns below to discover a means of escape and perhaps the cause of such a disaster. This is something I'm experimenting with because I love adventures underground, and because having all the maps be caves makes it very visually clear what the possible paths are (literally this tunnel, or this one?).

That's great, but the one thing I am struggling with is where on earth is the town blacksmith getting the materials and tools to forge masterwork gear? Where is the enchantress getting her reagents and components to brew potions in the potion shop, and so on? The players have created a whole new town trying to survive entirely underground by exploring and saving survivors, and that's good. I want them to have as much access to loot, treasure, shops, items and so on that they would in a 'normal' campaign.

So how can I explain a functioning economy that is closed off from its former civilization? I'm sure I'm not the only person to need to rationalize this kind of thing. How about shipwrecked on a desert island, teleported into a massive flying castle, or trapped on another plane?

We're playing Pathfinder, but I don't think that matters for the purposes of answering this question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You could also consider using alternative rewards, such as spells, abilities, feats, etc, instead of physical loot. This represents the characters growing intrinsically stronger from the harsher environment and not necessarily through material gain. If you're deadset on loot, though, maybe consider shipwrecks and similar events as sources of metal and other hard to obtain materials. There's also transmutation: let the characters magically alter rock into metal, etc. etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 20:12

7 Answers 7


Do you know who else spends all their time underground? Drow, Duegar, Derro, other things starting with D...

There are many races of the Underdark, and they don't have much - if any - contact with the outside world, but they still have plenty of magic items. There's ores and gems to be found, strange crystals that glow, the hides of fearsome beasts, caverns filled with fungi that appear to be from the dawn of time. This can make the potions and other items much more interesting, especially if you describe each item as 'a rough and ready sword, but the cut gem on its hilt seems to lend it an otherworldly grace' or 'a flask of deep amber liquid... as you drink it, you can taste the musk of fungi and the raw flavour of freshly-hewn rock'.

You should see this as an opportunity to really drive home to your players how foreign this environment is, while showing how interesting and flavorsome the setting can be.


This is a huge opportunity! Do restrict access to resources. After all, what is an adventure RPG without obstacles to overcome? This is a golden opportunity to have natural, sensible obstacles that can be overcome with a variety of creative methods, and which will drive your players to more fully engage with your world.

So, the town has lost access to its regular trade routes. The townspeople will simply be forced to adapt, either abandoning their resource-starved professions or finding new sources of needed materials. The smith can't smith because they've run out of their reserve of ingots? No more metal weapons for the PCs... until they find a new source of iron ingots.

The PCs walk into the potion shop, and see the shop owner has her arm in a bloody sling.

"Oh! Sorry, I'm closed. Closed for good, woe is me! I've run out of herbs and powders and I've sold my last potion. I guess I'll have to go work on the new farm Mayor Colby has been organising. I tried to get to the Fungus Caverns to gather things to experiment with, but the way is long and there were monsters. Monsters! If only the way was safe, I'm sure I could gather some things that I could use to brew with again..."

The caverns are wild and dangerous, and the PCs are the only ones who can change that. Give them obvious hooks, backed up by a need (a lack of available stuff to buy), and let them figure out how to solve the problem and "unlock" a town feature they will want for the future.

🔒 Town Smithy
Yury the Smith has run out of iron bars and can't make any new items. Locate a new source of refined iron to unlock the Town Smithy.

(Yes, that's slightly videogame-y, but it's a tried and true formula for a reason. And done via natural PC-NPC interactions, it doesn't have that videogame feel.)

Do the PCs try to broker a trade deal with the deep gnome city they recently discovered? Do they try to sneak in and steal a supply of iron? Do they instead recruit townspeople to set up a mine to exploit the iron veins they found across the underground river, despite the goblin tribe nearby? Do they hire the goblins to work the mine?! Will they set up a smelting operation in town, or will they sell the ore to the deep gnomes in exchange for a percentage of the resulting ingots? Will they just let the smith turn to farming since they've found a neutral kobold town where they can buy basic gear? Or will they do something absolutely unexpected and give the GM that rare opportunity to be surprised by their own campaign?

Each of these is a potential adventure all on its own, and that's only from one unmet need.

Not only that, each of these is a failable mission, which is a rare and valuable beast to a GM, when so often GMs are advised to fudge rolls and use smoke-and-mirrors tricks because "the PCs have to win every encounter, otherwise the campaign ends." Since the success or failure of any of these solutions to the iron supply crisis merely means they'll have to try a different way, you can afford to make success contingent on the PCs' actual skill and players' actual cunning rather than just hand them pre-made success. Having real power to affect the world restores a lot of agency and investment to the players that is often casually denied to them. If they try to broker a trade deal with the svirfneblin and cock it up by going murderhobo on a gnome who annoys them, then they get the chance to experience a meaningful outcome of their actions, and they'll just have to find some other way of supplying the town with iron. And when they succeed, it is a very real victory that they'll savour.

All that, just from one unmet need. When you consider how many needs a town has – food, water, metals, reagents, cloth, building materials, fuel (different types for different needs, since you can't forge with oil and you can't light a house with coal), salt (and other methods of preservation), and others I'm sure I'm forgetting – you've got an immense number of ready-made adventuring motives, all for free! Just add a need and a reason that need isn't being met, and you've got an instant reason for the PCs to go exploring new parts of the cave system.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, warn the players about this aspect of the campaign concept up front so that they will take (or know it's unwise to not take) Craft skills and item creation feats. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 14:23

Lots of good ideas, here’s another (probably to be used in conjunction with other ideas).

Refluff items as something else

The powers that items grant are often important to keeping players within a system’s expectations, and even barring that, they’re a useful and time-honored way of rewarding playing and marking progress. But they don’t have to be physical objects that someone holds in their hands.

Perhaps the town elder imbues the party members with a special blessing, each suited to their needs and interests. Maybe the players find, deep down in the heart of darkness, that they’ve changed some – grown stronger in specific ways, but is it because of their own strength beating back the black, or has that abyss tainted them? A treasure is found – no great artifact of a mighty wizard or awesome god, but an heirloom, the teddy bear once owned by a character’s long-lost little sister, and it is his connection to it and his quest to find and save her that are the real source of the magic.

So on and so forth. There are endless possibilities for this kind of thing, and the best part of it is, you can take some stock-standard item out of the book that, had you started at higher level/wealth, the players would have just included in their starting equipment – and turn it into a story.


Not all magic item's need to be found, or even made magically.

If you were to find Hercules' Gloves, you'd expect them to be the sort of thing that made you stronger. But that wouldn't be because Hercules used strengthening gloves (why would he need them?) instead it's because Hercules showed great strength while wearing them.

When your players achieve something major let them declare that a particular item they're carrying has gained a property. Perhaps a fighter leaps a pit, and finds his boots have gained the ability to let him fly, etc.

This won't fully solve the issue, but it helps decrease the necessary economy, as only part of their magical supplies are coming from the town.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This could certainly work in some settings. However, I think that there needs to be something in the setting to justify these sudden magical properties and I would generally not allow a player to declare something suddenly magical without expending some sort of resources. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's a setting conceit, one I commonly use. It fits well with the human psyche, and the way magic has often been understood, so it needs no further justification than "this is the way the world works" If you need a resource, give your players "Hero Points" in place of "Gold Pieces", and let them spend their heroicness on the magic items. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 21:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ If I were to do this I would do so with the caveat that this new "magical" item only applied it's effect to the hero that "created" it. So only the Fighter could fly with his boots. (Even then, I'd probably just give the boots a bonus to acrobatics, not flight). Still seems rather game-breaking though. Perhaps only have the equipment ascend into "herodom" with the character after several significant feats? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 21:30

There are many ways you could do this, from the mundane to the fantastic:

1) Ores and reagents are mined or harvested. Metals could be mined; Wildlife could be harvested for parts(the essence of a will-o-wisp could produce risiduum, the scales of a purple dragon could be used in making items which give resist psychic, etc); Plants could be used for poisons or potions.

2) A savvy merchant could deal with the beleaguered townspeople. This could be a Cambion who teleports in and out; Neogi who will probably turn on them eventually; Dark Ones, who will accept hours of labour as payment.

3) Nearby Primordials (or Spirits) enchant items of those who give tithes (or sacrifices, etc) with the goal of eventually corrupting the wearers to be their servants.

4) There is a great source of power nearby (maybe a shard of an ancient artifact, or a precious stone) which can be drained of power to enchant items, but the process drains the enchanter of their life. Maybe a greedy wizard in the town doesn't care about the risks and will enchant items for money. Maybe using this will draw the attention of The King That Crawls(Nobody mention his name!!).

You have a great opportunity here to step outside the box and do something really memorable. Grab it with both hands and run with it!


I recommend reading the book, "City of Ember" or watching the movie.

In that story "The Builders" predicted a cataclysmic event and built an underground city so that humanity would survive. Underneath the city is a labyrinth of storerooms stocked with items that could not be built/grown by city residents. These items are slowly rationed out over the decades.

If you could fit that in to your campaign somehow, it would be a way of explaining where magic items, reagents, and such, come from.

Another aspect of the story is figuring out how to escape the city, which also fits in with your storyline.


You may want to take a look at (supplement) books from several systems that deal with underground, such as the "Drow of Underdark" for 3.5 because they talk a great deal about how races below ground survive.

Other then that I agree completely with SevenSidedDie

  • \$\begingroup\$ Except that with 31 rep he has no ability to do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – E L
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 4:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ This could be filled out as an answer if he explains what in particular this supplement offers. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ This definitely seems more like a (fairly sparse) answer than a comment to me. I'd like to see it beefed up (Drow of the Underdark is not the only book, or even the best book, for this), but I think it’s still a valid answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 13:59

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