Subterranean environments are one of the most beloved locales for exploration or adventure in tabletop gaming. Synonymous with the concept of “dungeon delving,” underground realms have been a consistent trope used by GMs for decades. That’s not to suggest that explorations into the world below don’t have their place or serve a very important function—there are many good reasons that world builders, both novice and professional, continue returning beneath the surface to spark both intrigue and wonder as well as cast a foreboding sense of dread.
To understand the natural draw to subterranean adventures and the psychology that sustains the tabletop RPG motif, one must first examine human nature and our history as a species. Since the human race first started crafting stories and myths around ancient campfires, venturing into the earth has always remained a powerful theme—it is often the dwelling place of supernatural beings and spirits, the land of the dead, and the domain of devils, demons, dragons, trolls, and countless other mysterious creatures, as well as a focal point of religion and mythology or places of power. For millennia, our ancestors have assigned mystery to the world beneath our feet more than to any other tangible environment.
As a world forever trapped in night, the ever present darkness in subterranean adventures provides a sense of danger that forms a sound foundation for excitement—a danger that is hard to willfully dismiss (even when taking into consideration magic or other means of illumination). Anticipation and apprehension of the unknown and unseen are biologically ingrained into our very beings, and we are mentally hardwired to perceived risk, providing a psychological route for more fully immersing players, making it easier to create epic and memorable experiences.
In a world of layers the subterranean adventure can encompass immense caverns, winding corridors, steep pitfalls, narrow chutes, and vents that access ascending or descending pathways that all interlink with vast chambers and crisscross over and under one another. Without a reliable means of orientation, it is incredibly easy to become hopelessly lost in these vast complexes, but a grandiose sense of scale can be easily obtained within a multi-tiered subterranean environment. Whether purposefully crafted by sentient minds or naturally occurring, the more this knotwork of connectivity is utilized, the more challenging (and rewarding) the subterranean environment will be to explore. It’s worth noting that you are also able to utilize the entirety of the environment much more easily (making climbing PCs far more mobile, but generally changing the expectations of a regular gaming experience on land rather than inside of it). Underground networks of streams, reservoirs of groundwater, and enormous aquifers can provide the same boundaries and hazards as their aboveground counterparts, and dark waters rich with bioluminescent algae and a surfeit of creatures that have adapted to a sunless world can provide a rich food source to support unique and complex ecosystems.
While a subterranean adventure can be as simple as the basement of a castle, the ground beneath our feet provides a ready palette the beckons for deeper and grander exploration. One good source for ready-to-play content to prepare such adventures is the AAW Games Underworld series that provide over a dozen books filled with races and classes designed specifically for a subterranean setting. If you’re looking for a complete subterranean adventure path, also check out Rise of the Drow.
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