Roots of worship long forbidden make their way through the soil. A wurm sleeps and dreams of warmth and sand in cold clay. Blind mouldywarps dig their tunnels, hunger relentless.
The Roots, as I call the area, is a relatively inhospitable zone for adventurers. It’s a deep subsoil horizon beneath the Arboretum of Azgard. There is little reason to venture here, unless one is trying to reach Azgard’s Keep under the earth. This is really just an extended low-threat obstacle in a dungeoneering adventure, one that allows for a soft landing for players new to dungeoneering.
We started our campaign with this area, but that was mostly coincidence. I improvised all of this on the fly: the actual adventure concerned finding the Alder Gate of Azgard the wizard deep below the earth, and the adventurers needed to find a way there. The characters found several alternative routes to research (through the deep catacombs of a local church, submarine tunnels near the harbor, and so on), but the one with all the pieces decided to lead the party through this route because she wanted to “scare them”. (Needless to say, that particular character became quite a challenge for the party later on; never trust a half-demon!)
The Arboretum of Azgard is a big part of the city, a sort of a central park. Although a major nuisance for a small (by modern standards) walled city of this sort, the arboretum hasn’t been cut down during the 300 years since the city was founded – Azgard was greatly feared and the locals have many superstitions concerning the arboretum, some of them true. In practice the city spreads around the arboretum’s square mile as best it can, and most people go through it every day on their business. Insofar as landmarks go, the arboretum is the most obvious one here.
The arboretum is kept in a sort of a shape by the merchant houses as a quasi-religious duty – more of a superstition, really, entangled with the rough nationalistic identity the citizens share. One thing in the park, however, is left untouched to grow as it may – the blood Alders of Azgard.
The blood alders are ancient trees that grow in clumps and pretty much define the boundaries of the arboretum, being that nobody dares to cut them down. The trees were planted by Azgard himself for some mysterious purpose unknown to the general populace, and insofar as the stories tell it, they were the only thing Azgard really cared about in his arboretum.
The blood alders resemble normal birches in most respects, and won’t be remarked upon by an ignorant foreigner. Most locals, however, know the stories of how Azgard sacrificed blood of animals and men to make his arboretum grow. Nobody dares to cut a branch from the alders, as they bleed red sap akin to blood. The phloem of the trees is reddish and resembles flesh more than anything. The trees only grow catkins after drinking their fill of blood; nowadays they don’t really bloom, as the citizens certainly are not arranging sacrifices like in the old bad days.
When we played I only remarked on the trees and their background when and if the players thought to ask; about half of the characters were locals, so they certainly knew all of the above. The alders themselves were only relevant as color, as one of the characters broke a branch to use in the tunnels below and remarked upon the creepy sap. Later on, of course, the characters encountered the roots…
There are tunnels beneath the soil in the arboretum, and some few secluded entrances into them. These are covered by wooden lids by the arboretum caretakers, or filled in if they happen on pathways used by people. It’s not particularly difficult to find one of the 1-3 entrances if one searches diligently enough, but stumbling on them is unlikely, as the entrances are grown over and in secluded places.
The defining feature of how our party of adventurers approached the roots was really the aforementioned half-demon character, whose player was really big on making her character an important, mysterious, lone wolf type with lots of cool powers and backstory. Basically, less interest in the adventure and more in her character. I don’t recommend this to just anybody, but I as the GM acceded and used her character to infodump the party: it was revealed that she, ancient half-demon that she was, was actually Azgard’s daughter, and thus intimately familiar with his Keep and the subterranean secrets of the city. Of course she hadn’t visited in a century or two, but she knew in principle where all the entrances and such were.
The tunnels themselves are around five feet in diameter and pretty circular; deeper down in the clay they’re perfectly so. Advancing into the tunnels is far from impossible for humans, but there are several issues that should be considered there. The GM is in fine position to use what I call the checklist approach: just go down this list of difficulties with the players as their characters go deeper into the tunnels and see how they deal or don’t deal with them. This is as simple as gamemastering gets, really. More on each of these below:
- Collapsing tunnels
- Half-collapsed tunnels
- Bad air
- The roots of the blood alders
- The Worm
- Navigating in the tunnels
- The demoness
Also remember that wise characters have gathered information, and thus might know of any or all of the above hazards beforehand. There must be some people in the city who know these tunnels to some degree. As a beginner dungeon, these tunnels are pretty safe for characters who actually know them and take the correct precautions.
In our game the half-demon was potentially a very powerful source of information for the party; she could pretty much ask for any information, and the most I’d ask in return would be an average difficulty lore check to see how much detail she’d remember from her last visit down here. However, in practice the character proved delightfully averse to any sort of team spirit; she kept the party mostly in the dark during the first visit in the tunnels, and turned hostile towards them during the second trip. What would otherwise be a relatively unproblematic dungeon level turned into a mortally dangerous nightmare thanks to her.
The tunnels are in danger of collapsing. This is probably the worst threat of this dungeon level altogether, as it’s such collapses can run pretty long and are probably fatal to get caught in. Extreme care should be taken when moving in the upper reaches (less than five feet from the surface, say), while the tunnels get a bit more solid down in the clay substrate. In practice the GM can roll fate dice (random chance of collapse) when the characters fight in the tunnels or do other stupid stuff that could cause a collapse. In the case of a collapse the quick characters can run and throw themselves out of the way. In the interest of a fun game it’s a good practice to let players “abandon backpacks to run faster” and “notice the collapse a moment before it happens” with confident claims, sacrifices of advantage and solid ability checks; the uncertain and the passive die in cave-ins.
Characters might get the bright idea of reinforcing the tunnels with mine structures. That’s certainly possible, but probably too difficult for anybody not familiar with tunnel work. Also, this is not a feasible plan for travelling the tunnels, obviously enough.
I made it quite clear that the tunnels were far from stable right from the start. The players figured that they’d prepare for trouble by bringing reinforcement equipment, but their actual preparations in this regard were rather lackluster – they were as pathetic as to look for suitable branches in the park instead of turning back and spending a couple of days actually preparing for mine-building with real tools and woodstock. Consequently they didn’t really get any real advantage out of those branches they lugged in there.
A notable problem with tunnel collapses, even if avoided with keen senses and careful tread, is that they might block the direct route to wherever the characters are going. Likewise it’s possible for the party to get separated by the collapse, which is always fun.
The first tunnel expedition of the party was forced to turn back after they encountered a white molewarp and provoked it into a fight which then collapsed the tunnel they were in.
A fine atmosphere piece is to put in a half-collapsed tunnel that forces the characters to crawl in dirt and fear the collapse of the tight places they try to push themselves through. This is a fine point for a collapse check if the characters do something stupid or impetuous. It’s also an excellent spot to put that mining equipment in use if any was brought – a couple of well-positioned structural plates and a solid wooden pillar might do wonders in certain sorts of collapse situations to relieve the dangers of further collapse.
This whole dungeon level was an improvisation on my part, so all these dangers are really just what I figured out as logical (fantasy adventure logic, anyway). Consequently I had the half-collapsed tunnel part near the entrance, in the soft soil before the tunnel got very deep in the earth. The characters got through by carefully wrigling one-by-one.
The tunnels are dark, obviously enough. The issue of having enough light that lasts long enough feeds into the other logistical challenges if the characters end up spending a lot of time in the tunnels. Then there is the issue of mouldywarps – they are attracted by light.
During the first descent our party entered with the half-demoness who saw well enough in the dark to guide them with minimal light. The second descent happened without her, but then the party already knew about the moldywarps and had lanterns that could be closed quickly as necessary.
Characters who get farther in the tunnels will sooner or later encounter areas with bad air. There is no ventilation here, especially in the parts near the arboretum. The air is good enough for the mouldywarps, but humans will have trouble – perhaps some sort of constitution checks for anybody with no preparations.
This is a difficult issue to prepare for, though – depending on the fantasy level, of course. In my game world there are expensive herbs one might buy that release fresh air when burned (yes, it’s fantasy; I’m sure the folks who remember my raves about the magic flashlights are amused), but simple good constitution and avoiding strenuous exercise will take a man through the tunnels as well. Or somebody might carry you if you feel faint.
Our party got by with the bad air in part due to racial heritage (half-demons and half-orcs do not need to roll for this, we established) and partly due to dice luck. They know of the issue now, though, and know that the air might get worse further down.
Of course, only the most foolish will drive themselves so hard that they faint and die of bad air here.
The roots of the blood alders
This is one creepy encounter for inexperienced adventurers. The blood alders up on the ground have started driving their roots down deep, deep into the earth, as the blood sacrifices have ceased. Now they hunt the tunnels below with sticky roots that careless animals get stuck in.
Characters going with dim light or in darkness might not notice the roots. Some rare roots are also positioned to fall on warm creatures passing by in the passive-aggressive manner we know and love from fantasy plants. The roots are covered in sticky slime and small barbs that make them attach pretty strongly – strong enough to catch small animals.
Humans getting caught can just rip the roots off, they don’t resist or anything. However, doing that will also rip the outer layer of skin if the root got attached to such, so it’s painful and potentially fatal if the character gets the wound dirty and infected (and who wouldn’t, down there). Alternative solutions include a compound a sage of the blood alders could mix and apply to get the root to detach. The simplest solution is to cut the root and let it dry in place; after a day or so it drops off on its own. (This last solution has no real drawbacks, except for characters who believe that the wizard Azgard is some sort of evil alder god who frowns on mutilating his trees, aboveground or belowground.)
If left trapped by the roots, the animal or human will get drained of blood, as the root slowly grows through his skin and starts to leech him. Other roots will come as well slowly, attracted by warmth. The process takes hours to even begin, though, and days to finish.
Two characters in our party screwed their attention checks here and stumbled on some roots when they travelled through an area dense with them. One even managed to walk his throat into a fat root. (The demoness-factor was hilarious from player viewpoint, and especially from the arbitrator’s seat: the character knew fully well what sort of dangers the tunnels held, but she just gave mysterious, vague and ultimately useless instructions to the others. They really should have cut her throat and left her there.)
The D&D taxonomies are full of bizarre creatures to threaten anybody who goes down below the earth. As I’ve often told to anybody who cares to listen, I’m not that hot on the weird kitchen sink approach D&D has to world-building, though, so my D&D adventures are pretty restrained on the monster side. They’re not too monstrous if you need ten different varieties in the same dungeon just to give the players a challenge.
Mouldywarps are simply moles suffering from gigantism, pretty much. The blood alder roots have a mutagenic effect on the local animal populace, which has resulted with time in this variety of giant mole. Yes, that makes little sense insofar as realism is concerned, but I’m quite happy to do some magical and biological babble to let us the players think for a session that it does. It didn’t come up in the session, but I guess the mouldywarps eat blood alder roots for their sustenance when they don’t catch anything more substantial – and of course they’re hungry all the time, ravenouosly so, being of mole stock but not having giant bugs to eat. (The Worm, below, is again a bit too large for them to eat.)
The mouldywarps are the size of a small bear, pretty much. They have a mole’s shovel claws, nasty biting jaws and a curious demeanour. They’re territorial and usually are encountered singularly. They’re attracted to light. Their boars (males) are aggressive even against threatening opponents, sows (females) are aggressive only when with kids. Your basic mindless underground beastie to scare the peasants and inexperienced adventurers with.
If you feel like it, give the mouldywarps a poisonous bite – their saliva causes paralysis, which allows them to drag their victims back to the nest and consume at leisure. This is in line with how moles do things, after all. The purpose is not particularly to make the mouldywarps awe-inspiring predators, though.
The interesting part about the mouldywarps is that there is a market for their fine furs. The black ones are certainly valuable, but the white ones sell for double that, even. There’s not enough of these things to hunt regularly, but insofar as any merhant knows, the only place these skins come from is a certain farming community near the city, where the menfolk trap the mouldywarps now and then. (It’s not general knowledge in the city that there are mouldywarps down below, in other words, or that they originate here.)
There are some considerably greedy characters in our party, apparently. When they heard about the mouldywarps (which would be when they literally heard one in the tunnels, and their erstwhile demoness guide deigned to explain the sounds) and figured out what their skins are worth, one of them provoked a fight with a big fat white male just for the furs. This ended up with the tunnel collapsing on them and the whole team having to retreat. It’s easy to challenge this crew of fuck-ups…
Later on the party had renounced their seek for the Alder Gate, due to their first trip being such a disaster. However, the greedy guy talked most of the characters back into these tunnels just to hunt some mouldywarps and make easy money off the furs. I’m probably going to send some curious merchants after them when they start selling the furs, just so they can find out where the furs are coming from.
Why are these tunnels here? The cheesy explanation (this was an improvised scenario, as we remember) is that there is a huge worm living down below the arboretum, which creates these tunnels. That might seem a bit random, but there is actually a history to it (see the demoness, below). The Worm is a sandworm imported from down south a couple of centuries ago.
The Worm is a huge worm, pretty much, with some adaptations for its size and for being a fantastical beast to be feared. I imagine the reader can draw his own conclusions.
The Worm digs these 5-feet wide tunnels for trapping purposes – it eats things that come to its lair, which is where all the tunnels lead. The Worm does not move around much normally, except when it redoes the tunnels every generation or so. The people up in the city know that the earth shakes every generation in mysterious ways, but only the rare few know that this is not caused by the gods or some such tidy explanation.
As a foe, the Worm is probably much too dangerous for any player characters to fight head on, at least without major preparations. The solid move is to avoid it by using its tunnels only part of the way wherever the party is going, and skip the lair altogether by shortcutting through the considerably smaller mouldywarp tunnels that the giant moles dig here and there. Characters going into the lair will need to either stay unnoticed (by smell and tremor sense, and probably some sort of vague light sense), be really quick about it or be ready for the literally Herculean task of facing the monster head-on. Outrunning the Worm is far from impossible (provided the character doesn’t get stuck in the roots of the blood alders), and it won’t regardless follow the character away from its lair unless it’s time to dig new tunnels anyway. The Worm prevents prey from escaping its lair by making the lair a deep pit prey falls in, and by moving itself so its bulk blocks the entrance the prey came in through – which fortunately opens other entrances, which might be reached by climbing the slimy pit-sides.
The half-demoness guide in our play was convinced to tell about the Worm to the rest of the party – they decided that they’d rather spend the 6-8 hours it took to detour than risked the Worm. One of the smart choices they made, I’d say.
Navigating the tunnels
This is really a crux issue that feeds into everything else – if the characters don’t know where they are going, these tunnels are much more dangerous. Either a guide, a map or some real knowledge about the history of the tunnels (see Worm) are required.
A group travelling with little light and carefully will take anything from two hours to eight hours to get from point A to point B in the tunnels. They can cut the travel times by shortcutting through the Worm’s lair, and sometimes by going through the mouldywarp tunnels.
I don’t do mapping on my dungeon play, mostly because I don’t play those fight-and-clear dungeons that are typical of classical D&D. Instead, I have a sense for the logic that is used in structuring the place where the adventurers adventure. For example, in this instance:
The basic outlay of the Worm’s tunnel system looks like a set of loops converging on the lair. Image #1 here shows the idealized structure the Worm tries for instinctually. In practice it has to detour due to substrate changes, and of course the tunnels collapse now and then. The Worm, being a hurt and in many ways a sad creature far from its homeland is rarely in shape to dig the full tunnel system presented herein – most generations it just digs one or two new loops and leaves the rest of the tunnels in whatever shape they’re in.
The surface exits mostly end up in the arboretum area, but sometimes the Worm might well dig to other places in the city. Perhaps it has some instinct to avoid that, or it might be too weak to make the sort of tunnels its kin does in the desert.
Imagine #2 shows a close-up of how the mouldywarps influence the tunnel situation. They use the Worm’s tunnels as they can (and become wormfood regularly), but also make their own where necessary, including detours for collapses. In practice the smaller mouldywarp tunnels come into a balance with the Worm’s due to how only the mouldywarps with territory farther away from the lair tend to survive to tunnel a lot; therefore the mouldywarp tunnels are most common in the farther reaches of the Worm tunnel network. Adventurers are probably mostly interested in mouldywarp tunnels to hunt them or to bypass the lair on their way to somewhere else. This latter is most likely with mouldywarp tunnels that are not quite at the apex of the Worm tunnel loop, as the mouldywarp needs to have connected to two different loops. It can be quite a hassle to navigate this without some sort of special senses or lots of patience.
The mission of the party was a bit vague due to security reasons with their employer, but basically it was about mapping a route to the Alder Gate hidden deep below in the wizard’s dungeon. One of the characters was even hired in the party specifically for her skills as a cartographer. In practice, though, the party pretty much trusted the half-demoness guide they also hired – perhaps this misplaced confidence was due to her being a player character?
The half-demoness Carmelita became such an important part of the dungeon’s history that I really should explain her as one of the dungeon hazards as well. This was a player character, but the player in question seems to have a very peculiar approach to adventure roleplaying; I’ve still to form any lasting conclusions, but it seems to me that she enjoys it most when her character is mysterious, cool and apart from everybody else, with her own secrets nobody else knows. Considering our play paradigm in this campaign she’s pretty much going to be the GM’s little helper, in other words. Time will tell whether we should play something more aligned with her play priorities – Carmelita has been entertaining to me, but I don’t know how OK the players are with a player character who is very difficult to work with.
Carmelita’s personal history is still at this writing in plenty of darkness – partially because I don’t want to write here anything that’d reveal the lower levels of Azgard’s Keep to the players who might be reading this before it’s time. What we do know, though, is that she’s the daughter of a demoness and the wizard Azgard, and she lived her childhood during the early days of the city, when Azgard was still around and ruled the place from his subterranean keep.
(A big part of this peculiar turn in my sword & sorcery campaign is that the player of Carmelita is very keen to use her God-given narrative rights, so she’s been pulling strongly for a conception of demons as the sort of creature archetype that is usually filled by elves or dark elves in fantasy stories – her imagination is very anime-influenced, so these “demons” Carmelita descents from are pretty, misunderstood, mysterious and powerful creatures rather than the ravening inhuman monsters that one would expect in the genre my campaign is supposed to be. Consequently it seems to me that Carmelita’s childhood was peculiar, yet happy, and I’d expect her parents to have been very much in love.)
After the fall of Azgard (or disappearance, anyway) and her as-yet unnamed mother, Carmelita became a traveller, which is what she’s been doing for the last 500 years. She’s a cold creature – beautiful but deadly, with her own passions humans do not understand easily. She’s very difficult to kill and has preternatural quickness to her side as well as inhuman senses. Carmelita works as a very exclusive sort of assassin, killing with mirth when rarely she needs solid currency to support her aimless lifestyle.
All this changed, however, when the merchant prince Gismond uncovered her existence and tracked her down, requiring her to provide her services as a guide to the subterranean levels below the city. Gismond knew not that while Carmelita knows those depths very well, it’s because she grew up there, not because she’s explored them and is keen to pilfer the supposed riches down there.
Carmelita is actually kind of responsible for there being a system of man-habitable tunnels below the arboretum in the first place: she brought the Worm into the arboretum in a fit of demonic pique when she came back from a long journey to the southern lands a couple of hundred years ago. Then it was small, but it’s grown with time – she thinks that she’s friends with the creature, but that’s probably just a fancy.
Carmelita approved of the mission to go down to the keep, perhaps partly because her half-human mind had already forgotten much and she just now realized a wish to see her childhood home again. Soon it became obvious that she was jealous of her heritage, though – when the first expedition down into the roots became a failure, she disappeared from sight and started preparing herself for a lone expedition, with the goal of ensuring that nobody else would lay claim to what remains of her father’s house.
Carmelita, or something similar, might be used to spice up the otherwise pretty natural tunnels of the roots, should one need some genuinely dangerous challenges. In our campaign she’s certainly proved a big friggin’ problem for the adventurers – her second session, when the others dvelved down in the roots to hunt mouldywarps, was pretty much consumed by a trapping project in the roots. And it wasn’t nice sportsmanlike trapping, either: she rigged some of the more dangerous tunnels to collapse on anybody moving about, and bought a shadow demon stone at considerable expense from the Blue Star wizards to lay in wait in the tunnels and slay any who get caught there.
Hooks for the characters to go into the tunnels
The roots, or something like them, could be slotted to any dungeon as a speedbump and a soft landing into the practices of dungeoneering. In my case it’s one of several alternate entrances into the underground keep of an ancient wizard – insofar as the party can trust their guide demoness, she claimed that a part of the keep has collapsed in such a manner as to enable dwelvers to dig themselves in there without too much trouble from some low reaches of the roots tunnel network.
Another potential purpose is to hunt those mouldywarps. If the players make a habit of that, I as the GM make a point of letting them get rewarded for it. Furthermore, it gets easier to catch those critters with experience, so I’d require fewer and fewer details to any expeditions. It’s a fine alternate source of income that will only get disrupted when others want to get in on the good deal, a tunnel collapses and kills somebody, or the creatures get hunted to extinction. A character could live quite comfortably, if not opulently, just on his income from this hazardous practice.
(The above mostly to contrast with some other GMs who make a point of killing off any “safe” sources of income player characters might find, on the principle that having a job interferes with adventuring. Not so in my game – or if a character manages to land a cushy job somewhere, more power to him, that’s one character who won the game. Also: anybody who considers killing bears in tunnels that could collapse on you any second “safe” is out of his mind.)
A yet another reason to go to the roots might be to get from point A to point B underground. The Worm has been digging those tunnels for quite a while now, after all, so who knows where they could take you in the city. At least they’d be a pretty good place to hide from enemies if nothing else.