Monday, January 30, 2012

Planescape's Missing Megadungeon

It struck me the other day that Planescape is another of those tabletop settings that bitter-sweetly is both well loved and little played. Well...that is except for it's popular computer alter ego, Planescape Torment. Not only was that game played widely in the years around its 1999 release, it's considered a cult hit to this day.

Why the disconnect? Why didn't the tabletop version rocket into cult status too?

Undoubtedly there are many reasons: the rising primacy of computer games over face-to-face, the runaway popularity of the Bioware games of that era, Planescape's appearance at the end of the 2e setting smorgasbord, etc. But it occurred to me that part of it is that Torment managed to hit some deep D&D elements that the tabletop material glossed over in its drive to play toward being a rival with that White Wolf hooha of the time (thanks Robert and other readers for that particular insight).

Namely it made good on the megadungeon lurking under the streets of the setting's literal hub city, Sigil. Enamored by its original bits, most gameplay in the setting revolved around adventure around the planes and less successfully around political intrigue amongst the factions.

Hints at a undercity play arena were only vaguely hinted at. The original Sigil booklet has the haziest of mentions and it's only later with In the Cage: a Guide to Sigil supplement do you even get a peak at what a massively missed opportunity there was:
"The homes of the dabus [the weirdo, rebus-speaking floating worker drones of the city] are deep underground; some Cagers [Sigil citizen] say that the entire torus is a warren of dabus, and that the part of Sigil on the surface is only the face the city shows to the Ring, to travelers. The actual city is a maze of deep tunnels, storehouses, dungeons and corridors...”
That's a hell of a tease. The booklet goes on to continue to tease about the possibility throughout the book, detailing places like the Twelve Factols, an underground tavern where drunken obnoxious diners will on occasion force the serving staff to let them traipse into the deep passages that lead into the Catacombs behind warded doors. You hear a lot about the tavern in that passage but nothing about what lies beyond.

According to the Planewalker wiki this massive underground is only called “UnderSigil” by the Clueless (outworld newbies according to that annoying PS in-game cant), it is mostly known as "down below," "the Catacombs," "the Realm Below," or "the Labyrinths" according to the locals. The mention of it immediately makes me think of the romance of the giant undercities of Tekumel, where the ritual half-millennial clearing and rubbling over of the cities create layer over layer of rich adventure.

Whatever the name it is called (and I am partial to all of them as evocative titles) Torment was the only large-scale exploration of that play area in the setting. Play down underneath in the game simply rocks. Each sub-map of down below just drips with unique flavor and seem ready made for the sub-level punctuation of the sheer mass of a megadungeon.

You have a Buried Village under the heaps of the Trash Warrens. You have an entire underworld realm of sentient skeletons, zombies, and ghouls with a unique civilization, the Dead Nations. Another subrealm, the Warren of Thought, dominated by a collective rodent brain with its cranium rat and wererat minions. An animate skull library, the Bones of the Night, lorded over by a kooky wizard. Weird tombs and catacombs a plenty with talking carved heads and unique critters.

Great stuff in other words.

Play in D&D doesn't have revolve around the eponymous dungeon, but it's often at it's best as a game when the agoraphobia is kept under wraps by the comfort of a tight mortared ceiling. It's a shame that UnderSigil wasn't explored further, but I suppose that's what makes Gygax's famous parting words from OD&D ring so true yet again: “why have us do any more imaging for you?”

Indeed. Go forth and build your own undercity.


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  2. "Why didn't the tabletop version rocket into cult status too?"

    Didn't it? Planescape remains one of the most fondly remembered settings in D&D's history, right up there with Dark Sun. Even after the end of AD&D 2e, I heard about Planescape games being run using other systems (I briefly participated in an attempt using FUDGE).

    In general, the really awesome dungeons were out on the planes themselves. I remember in Hellbound one dungeon made of a giant wire mesh with the souls of sinners bound to it, so that you were trodding on people as you moved around. It was super creepy.

    1. I am thinking of it in relative terms, I would reckon that those who have fond memories of the computer game are of several orders of magnitude larger in number than those that had. And even compared to the big workhorse tabletop settings like Forgotten Realms and (maybe) Greyhawk that it is relatively more obscure.

      Which is a shame.

      That's a good point about the extra-planar dungeons, there are great suggestions thrown in the material for such. But for a low to mid-level entre into the setting it's a shame that you don't have something like an undercity to run players through.

  3. My trouble with the Catacombs is that, in a way, they're too big. On the one hand I like the idea of the entire torus being riddled with dungeon passages. But if I have one entrance in the Twelve Factols and another entrance in the skull library, ten miles away, how can I ever link them up in a way that matters? For all practical purposes they're two separate dungeons. Do I "cheat" with miles and miles of empty passageways? Weird dungeon spatial warping?

    1. It's a similar problem (though several miles larger in surface area) that the Tekumel undercities have. Barker's original map for Jakalla's underworld was a massive piece of tiny-squared paper and it still is way too small to account for the square mileage that it should represent if you take the surface map at it's scale.

      In my own Jakalla my woefully small sections are banded off with convenient tunnel collapses. If the party was really determined I thought I'd flesh those areas out if they managed to excavate them.

      Personally I think this is a good kind of problem to have--having lot's of room to spread out in.

      I think you could account for it in a number of ways: 1. use something like my pointcrawl system where you have sub-levels represented somewhat abstractedly on a large-scale map with connectors representing such and such amount of time/space with empty tunnels, or 2. use a hex map like what was used in the old D series of AD&D modules to represent the vast underworld.

    2. My main concern would be keeping the feel of "dungeon navigation", which off the top of my head means: the players' choice of direction is limited, their choices are semi-informed (there's something to differentiate between directions), they can't always directly travel the route they want, and there's a time/danger factor (wandering monsters and so forth).

      What I'm thinking now is a hex map with hexes belonging to different "dungeon terrains", e.g. 'grottoes', 'unstable passageways', 'grand halls', etc. Connections between adjacent hexes are marked, and where there's no connection there's no way to travel between those two hexes. Where there is a connection, the players can tell what sort of terrain lies in that direction, or at least get a general indication ("The tunnels leading north seem to be very old and crumbling"). Specific hexes can be marked as holding sublevels, landmarks and so on, any of which can be expanded down or outwards as need be. You can add new areas by placing them below or above the main tunnels of any hex, or by requiring players to "search" a hex, wilderness style, before they find a dungeon.

    3. Weird dungeon spatial warping?

      This. It's the dungeon underneath the City of Doors. Of course there are going to be weird space(time) warping effects.

      Want to get across the city quick? Head down into the Catacombs and start hiking. Just watch out for the otyughs, the CHUDs, the hydras that got flushed away by bored kids...

    4. True this, if there was ever a place that would be considered to have the reality-bending of the Mythic Underworld it would be Down Below.

    5. True, although I'm not sure whether all the entrances connecting to the same relatively small area would come across as strange and mythicky, or small and constrained. Like if the players explore part of the dungeon, leave, hike across the city and re-enter only to shortly find themselves in the same vicinity, is the feeling that they're still exploring the same dungeon worth losing the feeling of there being endless miles of subterranean corridors? Maybe.

      I suppose this being Sigil, intra-city portals linking together distant dungeon levels are another way to go.

  4. As I've never played the computer game, and the option really isn't in the cards for me currently, is there a place on the web I can visit for more information about the dungeons under Sigil?

    Failing that, would you be willing to work up a setting supplement for the Sigil Catacombs Chris? :)

    1. Since there isn't much in the canonical material you won't get much online other than from the walkthroughs for the computer game (some quite exhaustive). There's a brief write-up on UnderSigil here:

      Hmm so I might just put together some edited stuff from the walkthroughs and the few crumbs in the canonical material. It's too bad I am up to my eye-ball's in projects or I would take up doing a mega-dungeon there in a heartbeat.

      I can only encourage others haha.

  5. "some edited stuff from the walkthroughs and the few crumbs in the canonical material."

    This would be all the encouragement I need :)