a wizard did not do it

It is of frequent comment that if D&D had any sort of verisimilitude, there would be no dungeons. (Less commented: no dragons, either.) And if we’re talking about about endless warrens of perfectly dressed stone corridors, an incredible megainvestment left fallow for occupation by grubby little goblins shitting in their middens, those commenters are probably right.

Imagine the cost of something like building a Krak des Chevaliers, only you have to dig out all the space before you can even begin to build, and then backfill over it. Or tunnel every bit of it out, then maneuver all the materials inside. And then . . . abandon it? Invade it and extirpate the inhabitants and not make it the fortress center of your own empire?

Silly, sure. But we need the D in our D&D. (Did you really mean to say that, hella? Probably not.)

So we need other reasons to have massive underground complexes with all sorts of cool shit inside, rather than shivering half-starved refugees and the occasional eyeless lizard. What can we come up with?

Mines.  We need a remunerative reason to go to the effort of scrabbling thousands of cubic yards of earth out of the ground. Defensive structures, at least at scale, isn’t enough: it costs about fourteen billionty times less to build structures atop the earth, and the defensive benefits of digging down just aren’t that great. Unless you’re defending against pitiless airborne firebeasts—and it takes a lot of dragons swirling the skies to makes it worthwhile to just not try and hide—a real fortress is almost as good and many times easier.

But there has always been at least one amazing reason to dig tunnels, and that’s where the digging is the purpose; the galleries and passages left behind, an afterthought. If the substrate is strong enough, or enough care put into shoring everything up, you’ve got a system of adits, drifts, and shafts that will last long after the ore is gone. In a dangerous world, a securable structure impermeable to the elements will always find itself reused.

Caverns. Yup, you already thought of this one, and Patrick Stuart already did it better. The key to it not being stupid is to think in three dimensions and remember that water carves out shapes that don’t give a shit about habitability.

Something else to remember is the weight of history in any easily accessible rockshelter. Something so easily found and used, out of the weather, will have been continuously inhabited—since time immemorial. Think middens forty feet deep. The psychic weight of thousands of generations feeding, fucking, and fighting all in this space. You ain’t the first adventurers burning this place down, and you won’t be the last.

Qanat. Over the longest term, what’s underground and worth more than ore? Water. And how do you get it from the depths onto the crops? Tunnels. You find where the water table rises in the hills. Tunnel sideways into that water table, and let gravity pull the water out along those tunnels to where it emerges into the plains. Shafts down allow you to pull water up along the way, cisterns hold water for when it’s needed, and side-canals widen the area watered.

When the water is flowing, such an underground complex is the single most valuable thing in the area. When the water dries up, then someone else moves in.

Paleoburrows. People didn’t make this. Megafauna did. Whether giant ground sloths clawed them out, or some even more fantastic beast clawed, chewed, or swam through the earth to make the tunnels—some enormous beast burrowed into the earth, making tunnels and chambers that remain long after the original inhabitants have gone.

Or, maybe they haven’t really gone. If that thing clawed through hundreds of meters of stone, you think your hauberk is going to stop it?

Rootspace. Something enormous used to draw its nutrients from the earth. Vast roots sunk deep, supporting an equally enormous plant above. Or maybe enormous rhizomes, the undergirding of innumerable shoots aboveground, lay hidden and hulking below. But it died, and rotted, and scavengers and water and time flushed out the organic material, leaving voids below the earth.

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categorization compulsion: treant edition

I still don’t like that treants are all craggy oak trees.

Too much categorization, I know. But no one I know (so far) has made a game where treants are playable races, so we don’t have to worry too much about statting out different species of living trees—we can just handwave that. A treant is just an entry in the monster book, so when you make an apple treant, or an titanlike coast redwood treant, just wing it.

I blame the ents. The ents cemented the idea of what a normal treant is, and we haven’t ever gotten over it. But I look outside and I see this-that-and-every-other kind of tree standing about, and why the hell should it be only Merrie-England  good-old oaks that get to spark into life and conduct interminable negotiations over whether the party deserves to remain in the forest?

I want little spiky conifer treants and mopey dangling willow treants and enormous stomping baobob treants and quivering dopefiend aspen treants. Enormous douglas fir treants who never go dormant striding through the snow. Mangrove treants huddling in conspiracies of the brackish water, masses of lizardman corpses matting their roots. Jolly ashes bemused by these hyperactive creatures tilling up the land and chasing each other about. Ancient bristlecones in their windswept ancientnesses who have just seen too much of this shit, most alien of all.

Or the orchards full of treant cherries and pears and plums, almonds, domesticated treants—enslaved, tethered down with guy lines to keep them in squared plots—fat with fruit and whispering to each other when the orchardists are away, the young ones split live and a budstem cut from an older treant inserted and bound hard within, using the new roots to feed the unending perpetuation of the elders in continuing violations a flesh golem would weep for.

Christmas treants perversely bedecked with candles and forced to dance for the amusement of children. Living maypoles bound tight with ribbons by ringdancing burghers symbolizing the triumph of men over nature.

Arsonist eucalypts, bending low to take up flame from campfires and lightningstrike, carrying flaming crowns to sprint across the scrublands, lighting the land aflame to melt resinseed and reproduce in the barrens there created.

 

every offended sense of completeness; or, why terriermen don’t work (no edit edition)

I remember TMNT & Other Strangeness and I liked it very much. I remember that iconic picture from Rifts with the four—differing breeds—Dog Boys with a Psi-Stalker pointing the way. If you’re going to have dogmen, you have to have different breeds with different stats and characteristics.

That’s the problem, though, and why I don’t have dogmen as playable races in my settings, is because doing so offends my sense of completeness. That is, if I have dogmen, why not catmen? And if I have dogmen and catmen, I have to have a full set of sub-breeds, for each, reflecting different characteristics. And if I have subraces for each major breed of dogmen, and each major breed of catmen, suddenly we’re not playing D&D, and down that way lies madness.

And that’s why I don’t do it, because the minnow will swallow the whale. Something very strange happens when you have a game with humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs . . . and nineteen races of dogs and cats. At that point, why have the humans and elves and dwarves and orcs?

I was always dissatisfied by the fact that D&D has gnolls—lazy vicious slavemasters—but no anthropomorphic dogs, a creature known for cheerfulness and loyalty and bravery. But now I know why there’s no place for it.

There’s a place for games with dogs and cats and mice and badgers, all being cute and plucky and heroic. But that’s not this game.

claustrophobiac and alone

They will cut cities from bare stone, tear up every vein, embellish every surface, then, when there is no unworked spot or unplanned gap, when every single piece and thing has become a channel for planned creation, when even the pebbles stare up from the floor with idly carved eyes, then they move on. — excerpt from treatise, Veins of the Earth, learned scholar unknown.

There are few surface-dwellers who know of the duergar. Of those who do, the vast many spend their days porne over manuscripts of the older, wiser days; missives from far-off places, passed hand-to-hand and never more than a sentence away from falsity; and indistinguishable from either, rankest fantasies penned the week before. The vanishing minority, those not scholars, bescarred and often as not staring into the middle distance, are those who have made their way through the earth and reemerged.

These people say that there is a race of work-obsessed dwarves, what used to be dwarves, which ply compulsive labors in the casket-black darkness of depths where dwarves find themselves claustrophobiac. Who touch every speck of the stone, who make all in their image, only moving on when all is complete. Who have been doing such since there have been dwarves. The men under the mountain, those who will speak of it—never to toplanders—make it clear that some dwarves go mad and go down, or whisper of a lost expedition sent to harvest a resource or fight a desperate sortie, or of darker things that bubbled up and drained down and took good dwarves to an unending fate.

That is so much bullshit.

Those who are invested in such stories don’t know they aren’t true, but do know—somewhere deep within—that it’s really, really important that people believe them. Everyone believes that those twisted creatures below are degenerate things, hunched by time and dark and compulsion, of being prey and predator, of bodeful energies and cannibal desperation. Good things went too far into the earth and became bad things.

All things come from the earth. Duergar are the dwarves, and the dwarves are duergar who fought compulsion and by slow prudence made mild a rugged people, and through soft degrees subdued them to the useful and the good. A dwarf is a driven creature, goals met and grudges held tight and lifeworks completed. Where does that—usually admirable—drive come from? The dogged follow-throughedness, to achieve, to complete?

From duergar compulsion. Dwarves have found how to work and not be consumed, to create and not (re-, re-, re-, re-) recreate, to set down hammer and tong and eat and drink and fellowship with other dwarves. Duergar do none of these things, but dwarves do. It isn’t dwarves who went, off—it was duergar who shook loose their defining aspect and opened themselves to something else.

To lose some to the Rapture, that some will end up wrong, this is the admitted risk of all who travel the shaftmines and squeezes and black cataracts of the land below. It is to be rued that you could degenerate to such a creature. But it is a shame so vast, incomprehensibly devastating, that the ancestry and ancient kings and received wisdom and such a painstaking genealogy could spring forth from the monomaniacal drive of the twisted toilers below, workmad and insensate.

Best not to spend too much time thinking on that.

elven empires and other nonsenses (no edit edition)

There is no elven empire. Can you imagine such a thing? Such savage, tatterdemalion creatures, not sprinting or hiding, but building structures like dwarves do? Structures as tall as the elves are, so angular, needlespired and sun-reaching? What would such an empire look like, and who in the world could it subjugate?

Elves are sneakthieves and curs, fit to be kicked and run off, the only respect given given at night, when they excel at skulking about.

If you haven’t traveled—no, from the farmstead to canton market doesn’t count—you wouldn’t know, but like dogs, elves have found themselves fit (to call it such!) in every place a man could live; but, also like dogs, they survive on the edges, on what refuse is discarded from those who can make a living for themselves, and darting in when the eye is turned, making off with all that can be grabbed.

In the deserts they are the runners in the night, disappearing from a purple dusk and materializing fifty miles away in the dawn.

On the steppes they ride ponies knock-kneed as they, hunched over manes bow-backed and haggard.

In the mountains they hug the stones as if to stand straight would be to call down the lightning so richly deserved.

In the stone deeps below they never walk, sometimes crawl, but always sidle and slink. And wait.

On the sea, the inconstant sea, their junks and trimarans cast themselves wide to gather like ants around what shipment or cargo or jetsam cannot be defended. And, like ants, they always strip clean.

Elven empire. Such a strange thought. Come speak to me of goblin satrapies and golden hinds and blue-hued suns and men walking under the sea. Such fantasies are where elven empires belong.

 

every dragon was once a kobold shitheel (no edit edition)

Kobolds are dragons. Well, technically speaking, dragons were kobolds.

(Technically correct is the best kind of correct.)

Nobody knows this. Dragons do, but it seems strange to think of a dragon as a “somebody.” That’s like calling a mountain a thing. I mean, it is—technically correct, hella? I read what you wrote five fucking seconds ago—a thing, but it doesn’t sound right to say so. Your buddy Uffie is a somebody, a dragon is the closest thing to a living force of nature.

Each dragon knows that it was once a kobold shitheel. A very special kobold shitheel, but one nonetheless. Dragons also know that this is about the most embarrassing thing imaginable. (Dragons are creatures of towering pride, from which follows that they can also be a vessel of towering embarrassment.) Dragons are very, very invested in making sure that no one else will ever know this.

See, kobolds are kobolds, little mining lizardmen (NOT DOGFACED, NOT PIGFACED LIKE ORCS, THAT IS A DIFFERENT POST) that love to poison you nest-destroyers with vented gases from their underground smelters. There are a lot of them, like mice in your house. For every one you see there are two hundred lurking and watching you sleep. And kobolds are communal. But every once in a while one wanders off. Deeper than the rest. You know it it is one of those ones because somewhere along the way you find the pick, dropped casually like a chicken bone.

The Rapture got that one. And he just headed down and kept going.

Most of them get eaten. Or strangled in the dark by a gnome. Or incorporated into some nameless thing, most valuable for its organic matter. Or down a shaft or buried in rockfall or swept away in a black no-air-just-rock-above current or whatever. The million-and-one ways you die deep below and no one ever knows or would give a shit if they did know.

But of that one who walked away from the smelters and the one of those who actually survived, that one will just shimmy into a narrow squeeze and fall asleep. They stay asleep, and grow. Something of a desire for the wealth below and some atavistic awakening of blood and an anger at having been given the pathetic life of a kobold makes for a powerful upwelling of potential, and that kobold, the millionth of a millionth, will become more lizardlike, grow, age in that millennial slumber and dream of avarice and lofting high up in the updrafts and breathe, breathe out what destroys lesser beings.

That one, that one will become a dragon, and some forever-from-now hence future day will burst free of the earth and reign.

But they never forget that for some few years, they were a fucking kobold.

People think that dragons want nothing more than treasure and obeisance. But higher than that, it wants nothing more than for you to never, ever know that it was once a fucking kobold. It will kill you and everyone you’ve ever spoken to and anyone they have ever might have spoken to. You hear people tell stories of empires laid waste by dragonfire for having forsaken the gods or mobilized an army to destroy a dragon, but likely as not, it was really because someone penned some loonie natural history of dragons and hit too close to the truth and better to be gone a kingdom than have mere men mentioning that a dragon was once a kobold.

a crop of goblins (no edit edition)

(N.B.: NO EDIT EDITION. Normally, there is much more prep involved in this endeavor. However, that takes forever, and I want to post more. SO! HERE WE GO.)

Goblins are not actually humanoids. Well, they are, but they aren’t really mammals, I guess. What I mean to say is, they don’t get it on and have babies pop out some amount of time later. They sprout, and grow.

This is good, on a meta level. Now you don’t have to imagine sweaty grubgoblins humping each other, stinking up the place and leaving greasy humpspots all over. Bonus points if you don’t imagine them doing it dangling from inflated pigskin dirigibles.

Yes I know dirigibles have a solid framework. Bones, guys, bones inside.

Anyway. Goblins come into the world when a goblin corpse is buried, as you do with the corpses of just about any other respectable creature. This is why you see goblins—otherwise nasty beasts—burying their dead. They’re not being respectful. They’re planting new goblins.

Some weeks later some nasty spiny shoots arise from the ground. They are sticky and smell and will poke the shit out of you. Then a blossom, big and watermelon-red and stank. Just underneath this blossom, just underneath the soil, is a fetal goblin. When the blossom wilts, the goblin will shake free of soil and be the slicey self-defeating teenage-stand-in miscreants we all love.

This,  obviously, leaves a bit of a problem for trying to genocide clear lands of goblins. The orcs or humans or elves or whoever tries to kill as many goblins as possible, but then have to leave them to rot where they lie. Some will still sprout—like an acorn tossed to the ground—but most won’t. But try burying the nasty stinking  things, and you’re just investing effort into raising the next crop.

This is why there are so many damn goblins when nobody can put up with the damn things.