Thursday, 28 April 2011

X is for Xeno: Digging for Gems in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide

Xeno, my dictionary says, "indicating something strange, different, or foreign."

This is a physical dictionary mind you, not internet version.

Interestingly, well for me anyway, I have just purchased two dictionaries for another project: Ancient Greek and Middle English.

Xeno: The DSG has lots of xeno. A whole campaign world. One Chapter in the DSG is called, "The Cultures of the Underdark"

Makes me think I would love to run a campaign where a group of characters escape from their deep deep deep, subterranean prison, maybe they have been there for generations, and seek the sunlight. On their journey they come across many of these cultures. Campaign ends when they reach the top.

Lets look at some Xeno with images from Google Images.

Drow - yeah, yeah, drow, let's move straight on.

Kuo-toa, "The kuo-toa have passed their prime as a race, and now struggle simply to retain their current holdings and some degree of cultural integrity." They worship the Sea Mother.

Duergar = evil dwarves

I just love this image from Ben Wootten. Maybe this is how the characters find their way deep underground. Check out his Gallery.

Mind Flayers or illithid.
Don't forget to use this post by Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, when trying to DM these super intelligent monsters.
Another Ben Wootten image

Another great image this one from Goatlord51

"From a human point of view, this sinister and mysterious race is doubtless the most alien underground culture."
Let's go with a classic image from Monster Manual II, and featured in Risus Monkey's Post

A more modern image can be seen here.


A Jim Holloway picture as featured in Jeffs Gameblog

"Members of this mysterious race are referred to as the true children of the earth... strong ties to teh Elemental Plane of Earth"

Here's a nice miniature

Gems we should take
1. Sure we have D1-3, but the DSG does give you ideas for a whole subterranean world - it just doesn't do dungeons. Perhaps, Deepearth Survival Guide, or The Underdark Gazette - hey that would make a nice blog title...


  1. What do people make of the orange links in the blog, distracting? I used to do bold white, nut they weren't very distinct, and disappeared on the white background editing page.

  2. I like the orange. Let me know if you're sick of me commenting...

    Re escaping from your subterranean home: a terrible hack fantasysploitation trilogy by Eric Van Lustbader (I warned you) called, I think, The Epic Quest of the Sunset Warrior starts out with our samurai Conan manque (who may even be called "Ronin") chafing against the hierarchical feudal society inside what seems to be a giant buried office building or bunker, cut off from the outside for generations. He eventually busts out of this to find, not the post-apocalyptic world I was expecting, but Fantasy China and Mexico. Anyway, it seems like picaresque outsider barbarian adventures among the variously depraved upworlders might be something like you're imagining, and it's nearly as full of nice monsters as it is of cheesy writing.

    The other thing your nested underworlds remind me of is the Hermetic/Gnostic idea that we are secretly demigods who have chosen to set aside our powers and take on the influence or yoke of the various planets, so that we might interact with the world/nature. Each breaking through to the next layer is like shaking off an influence AND going up a game level. It would be nice if you could run this in such a way that as you go up levels the challenges become bigger but also somehow more abstract/mythic and less physically grounded, like Dante's journey around heaven. I don't know how you'd make that satisfying to play, though.

  3. Richard, keep commenting, if what I write is interesting enough.

    Ascending to heaven - I like it.

    A one off campaign, with new characters just for the fun, I like. But what if someone wanted to incorporate into their campaign world, with well loved characters.

    How do you get your characters captured and underground in the first place. Without cliche, or de-protagonising the characters, as JB would say.

    DM fiat - you're captured = railroad. The gods send you there as a test = rail road.

    Somehow I would rather start my players there as new characters.

  4. What will they find when they reach the sun (heaven)!

  5. grrr. lost my comment. The short answer is I don't know. I'm having a hard time envisioning an ongoing campaign with Swedenborgian angels, for instance, and it seems even the Hermetics thought the fashionable thing to do once you're in heaven/godlike is to mess with stuff back in the world/multiple worlds. Which maybe means playing something like Amber. This was always a problem with the endgame of Nephilim and Mage: the ascension, BTW: what happens if you Ascend?

    As for starting this campaign frame, I guess the easiest, traditional thing is to reveal that the characters always were underground but didn't know - hollow earth, down is up, your world is the Matrix. Is this railroading or just sneaky campaign framing? Maybe that depends on your social contract with the players. I've always been more of an investigative/story player than a strict sandboxer, though, so maybe I'm more tolerant of that sort of thing than others.

  6. @ Richard - been doing some reading on Dante's heaven, hell and purgatory. Great stuff. I wouldn't have a literal up and down but Dante's levels could be interspersed somewhat more randomly. Chutes taking you down, must go down to get up etc on the way to heaven.

    A great idea for starting play came to me when I read

    The players are zoo animals, kept by some creatures like mind flayers or aboleths. Either they were born there and meet a mysterious stranger from the outside or they are captured and placed in the zoo.

    The final reaching heaven moment could be the characters breaking out only to find the entrance surrounded by clapping immortal watchers. The whole escape was yet another zoo. The next the players know they are back in the original zoo cage deep underground again. Get ready for your players to lynch you!

  7. have you seen Telecanter's stuff for an Island of Dr Moreau creature-combiner? Could be really interesting to have a non-anthropomorphic party, or even have PCs bodies change as they go from level to level... depending on their conduct within each level? The return to start thing is just mean, but suitably Dick/Moorcockian.

    Now I have an idea for an Illithid/mi-go game, where you start out kidnapped and body swapped with some alien form, and part of getting back home has to involve getting an alien to give you your old body back.

  8. Body swap, non-anthropomorphic party.

    I had been thinking the party might have to find someone who could give the humans infravision. Maybe give them eyes from an underground creature.

    But if I reverse what you suggested Richard we have:
    They might need gills to swim through an entire underground level.
    And wings to fly.
    And spider legs to climb walls.
    And brain tentacles to fight psionic combat.

    That order seems perfect to me. Each step not so bad... the end result...

    So they start human in a zoo deep underground, trying to find their way to heaven. But in doing so they lose bits of themselves so that how human are they when they finally escape. Maybe they are quickly captured on the surface ... and put into a zoo, since they have become freak animals!

  9. yes! I love how this progresses - that they might not get it til you bring out the miniatures. I also pitched a little lost shoggoth game to a computer game developer some time ago. I'd still love to run that some day. Basically Pinocchio seeks Gepetto among the English, but with screaming extras.

  10. legs then wings would prompt fewer questions? (like why can't we fly over these walls?) Unless that level's in vacuum...

    Swimming might be rather like flying unless it's cave diving. I like this whole thing a lot.

  11. Yeah, good point Richard about legs before wings. But I thought the players would accept wings (being cooler) over spider legs (Dryder like), much easier. But stopping them flying everywhere would be a hassle. Small tunnels.

    Though perhaps not all the party needs every anatomical change? But that's not great either.

    What should we do with this:

    Dante's Zoo

  12. I loved this so much I linked it on my own blog - I hope you don't mind. If you're interested in developing it further together I'm definitely up for it, but I can't devote serious time to it for at least a month, and I shouldn't for 3. Alas my sea of osr island is also languishing while I get on with work. Of course, it's your idea: I would not mind in the least if you wanted to pursue it on your own, and I'd be happy to chip in with comments/suggestions if wanted.

    It's oh so tempting to offer them Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights as a body part scrapyard, but I also like the purity of having them wind up as something recognisable. There's also something satisfying about real troupe play that you get when the whole party has the same tools. I remember the only time I played werewolf we suddenly realised that with our size/strength ratios we made a killer circus troupe: we could stack up in pyramids, fling one party member long distances, then have that one catch another... we surprised our DM and got some fun physical problem-solving in. I could see this offering similar moments.

  13. shorter, clearer comment: it's your game. I'd be happy to contribute any way I can, as much or as little as is desired (and given my other commitments).

  14. Richard - I'm not planning to forget this idea we generated, but it will have to go to sleep for the time being as work, life and other creative projects take precedence.
    What I would like to do when I get the energy is use Dante's layers of hell, purgatory and heaven, to come up with that many 'levels' or locations. I'd love to have the first event being replacing one's eyes with ones that can see in the dark. Maybe a spell that is taught, maybe a magical golden artefact shaped like an eye sucker. I like the latter better, but the former allows the characters complete freedom to make themselves from those creature they defeat. Therefore the DM doesn't force the changes, the players actively choose them. Yeah, old guy enters the zoo and whispers the words of anatomy binding (something latin for sure). Then the players decide what they want. Just no flying creatures initially. You see, this project is enticing. But no more for the moment.

  15. very good. I'll have more time & attention in September. This business of having to become alien to ward off the alien... it's like the paradox of xeno...