The Word for World is Dungeon

I’ve been reading The Mansion of E pretty much every day since 2003 (Robert Cook publishes every day, I just sometimes had months of slacking off and catching up). If you like weird fantasy/science fiction about worldbuilding, go start at the first comic and just read forward about 5000 comics until you’re caught up.

The current week’s Mortimer plot and the Saturday in the Basement plot make clear something I’ve long theorized: These beings (I wouldn’t call most of them “monsters”) have never been out of the dungeon or the forest directly above it. The Pales have worldwide distribution, but the ones in the Mansion area are different.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying listening to The Iron Realm podcast, which narrates a solo D&D dungeon crawl in a world with no surface, just endless dungeons. Rather than being a smash & grab mission in & out, the Iron Realm’s a horrible afterlife for souls from destroyed worlds. Survival gaming in a barren stone maze.

I haven’t finished my Veins of the Earth review yet, I want to actually test some of it first, but it fits in the Doomed category, and gives more tools for dealing with this idea.

Philip José Farmer’s The Dungeon was an anthology of Farmer-like stories in an endless multiversal dungeon, though many of the “levels” are nearly entire worlds. I read these when they came out, and they’re awesome and gameable (in the past I’ve used the old Pacesetter Sandman rules for it), ★★★★★.

And very far afield, the Minecraft 404 Challenge.

Of course, this is the premise of Rogue, and several of my iPhone/computer games, Brigand and Reaper’s Crypt currently, but a CRPG is hard to get a mood of slow desperation and claustrophobic doom in.

So, the premise:

The surface world was destroyed by:

  1. Atomic fire.
  2. Plague.
  3. Ice giants.
  4. Kaiju infestation (99% of Humanity is destroyed in Godzilla: Final Wars).
  5. Martian ants
  6. Gods appeared/awoke and the world you knew vanished like a bad dream.

Life moved into the dungeons, and sealed off the entrances, the surface can never be returned to. Generations later, you have never known sunlight or open air, nothing but an endless subterranean maze.

The party is out on their own:

  1. The tribe is starving.
  2. The tribe is destroyed by raiders.
  3. The tribe is destroyed by cave collapse.
  4. You offended the gods (the tribal shaman doesn’t like you).
  5. Prophecy demands one party per generation leave and seek The McGuffin.
  6. Stupidly thought adventuring was a good idea.


  • System:
    • Easy option: Stick with Tunnels & Trolls and Monsters! Monsters!, pillaging a lot from Veins of the Earth and/or Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. While there’s no crunchy survival mechanics, T&T doesn’t scale up too fast until around level 10, lets you make any monster as a character, and saving rolls are a great universal mechanic for the weird situations this is going to produce.
    • RuneQuest 2E. Stafford’s Glorantha evangelism has wrecked modern RQ and killed BRP, but the old one’s still playable in random non-Glorantha settings, and had a ton of monster races. 2E starting skills rely on student loans and time studied, which would need to be fixed. “Experience levels” are needed to match the dungeon floor, but ((highest skill – 30) ÷ 10) is probably about right without the student loan system.
    • Rolemaster would fit the survival tone better, but A) The company doing business as the corpse of “Iron Crown” can’t get their shit together to publish any current edition (3 years and counting!), and B) that would be a lot of bookkeeping to do it right, and C) there are very few survival skills in it, unless you add in a bunch of RMSS skills and then make a custom professional skill DP table.
    • D&D 5E is too super-heroic, and D&D 0E/OSR scales up too fast and for the wrong reasons. Pathfinder is crunchy and can kill characters, but still scales up too fast.
  • Air: Let’s presume there’s a connection to the elemental plane of Air, or moss that cleans air & produces oxygen, or some other BS explanation because death is too certain without magic breathing amulets or SCUBA gear otherwise. Moss is interesting because if you desperately eat the moss or burn it away with say a fireball, you’ve made that area airless until it regrows.
    • Mansion of E posits a tree that grows thru all the tunnels and gives air, light, and fruit, but that’s far, FAR too generous.
  • Water: Underground rivers, drippings, steam shafts, wells down to ever-lower aquifers, etc. are all pretty reasonable. The spelunking term for dry caves is “dead” (water carving out caves is “living”), and that’s what you are if you stay there.

  • Food: Moss & lichen, mushrooms, bugs, rats, & other scavengers as bottom-tier meat, maybe plants that use some other radiation. Anthropophagism as your primary diet is a losing strategy, you can’t afford the injuries you’re going to take hunting “the most dangerous game”. Eating whatever you killed for other reasons is fine, if they’re edible.

  • Light: Don’t give any races or monsters true Darkvision, only Nightvision maybe doubling distance seen with light, or different enhanced senses. There’s some great discussion on light in Veins of the Earth; the economics are nonsensical, but otherwise this is the core book on darkness.

  • Disease: Half of the Iron Realm episodes have been them sleeping off “The MALADY“, which is a coughing sickness with exponential damage for resistance failure. Actually kinda boring except as a prod, I’d go back to Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor disease tables and only when characters don’t set up proper latrines, fail to clean at least weekly, squat too long in closed rooms, traipse through sewers, etc.

  • Monsters/Races: Here it comes back to food. This is a “Gygaxian Naturalism” environment if ever there was one. The challenge is in finding resources, so if monsters just spawn or regenerate endlessly, there’s no real challenge after setting up a troll slaughterhouse or whatever; any Minecraft player who’s set up an automated farm knows how boring it gets after that.

    • The Mansion of E has four or more large caverns where each of the major races live and tunnel out, for SPOILER reasons, and then the rest of the tunnels are a DMZ and occupied by the minor races.
    • That’s per-floor. So Goblins, Kobolds, Humans, and Gnomes are the floor 1 races, plus a bunch of “wilderness” areas for animals. Orcs, Gnolls, Dwarfs, and Elves are the floor 2 races, etc. There might be some out-of-level characters, but the big tribal spaces determine if characters ever get any safety and support.
    • Probably very political; adventurers will have to “grind faction”, kill enemies of a tribe and carry out quests to earn brownie points to get any support. Another mouth to feed or a reckless “ally” could push an entire tribe to extinction.
  • Maps: Here’s the great part. Take every dungeon map on your shelf. Mash them together with some new tunnels. Figure out how inhabitants of dungeon A interact with neighboring dungeon B. Connect the home tribal caverns on the edges of several maps. Stonehell connects to Quasqueton (B1), the lower floors of Ravenloft (the castle having been razed & sealed, the tombs now silently waiting for fools to rush in), the sewers of Waterdeep, and Dyson Logos’ Private Jakalla. When adventurers have angered one tribe too much with their predatory ways, they flee down dark tunnels to another dungeon.
    • You could actually keep some castles/surface areas in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider, but that much potential freedom is ruinous to a game of unending stone corridors, so there must be ever worse terrors to drive adventurers back down.
  • Objective: What’s at the bottom of the dungeon that you’re trying to get to? There has to be some reason you don’t just level up and then sit on floor 1 eating Kobold leg BBQ with a chaser of Goblin blood every day. What’s the pressure making dangerous things head downwards? Needs a carrot and a stick.
    • Carrot: On each floor, there are vaults which can only be opened by the possessors of specific artifacts, and puzzle-solving and arms & magic of certain power. Inside are more artifacts which will save a tribe. The artifacts wouldn’t be simple magic weapons and such, but innate spells that aid the group.
    • Religion: Maybe the contents of the vaults are the gods, driven from the surface. There would be no true clerics until adventurers open the first vault, then only of that one random god, and another on the next floor, and so on.
    • Stick: The Black Sun Deathcrawl radiations and monsters only affect those of power above their depth. As long as you stay on the dungeon floor equal to your level, you adventure normally. When you ding another level, you have X turns to reach the next dungeon floor or you’ll be hunted by Black Thoughts, Terrible Thoughts, and Teeth, or transformed into something horrible.

This post title’s a bit flippant, since The Word for World is Forest is an interesting book wrecked by being one of Le Guin’s top 3 preachiest, most didactic screeds, and a preposterous premise (shipping wood across interstellar distances, because you can’t grow it on Earth; even aside from the moronic premise, post-DNA, that Humans didn’t evolve on Earth). I’m not suggesting you fuck little green hobbits or do Avatar-in-the-Dungeon.

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