Friday, November 17, 2017

My own private Anomaly

I've mentioned here before how I've adapted Patrick Wetmore's brilliant Anomalous Subsurface Environment for my house campaign.  Or rather, I'm mentioned that I've adapted it, if not how.  Which is mostly fair, since I didn't start out with any major changes besides the stats and mechanics.  After all, I had a rationale to explain that the party traveled to the Land of One-Thousand Towers from their homeworld, allowing the two settings to be almost entirely distinct.  In other words, there was no need to figure out how to integrate ASE into my home setting.

I dig the metal bard in the lower right corner wailing on his ax

Given that I've been moving to a somewhat more ad hoc approach to GMing (perhaps better described as just-in-time design i.e. desperate brainstorming the night before and not a moment earlier), it makes sense that I didn't bother to think about things in great detail.  I'm into a more organic approach to world building, although I'm careful to avoid the pitfalls of illusionism.  Suffice to say, my approach was to just start with straight-up ASE and let it evolve from there.

And evolve it has.  At this point, some of the heretofore unimagined backstory is starting to coalesce.  I now know a lot more about what makes this world tick.  I know why wizards are all insane, and why their magical tools don't work after they are killed.  I know what happened to the ancient civilization that discovered/created the ASE.  Heck, I even know what the ASE is.  

At least, now I know all these things in the context of my own campaign.  And I'd like to share it with you.  It all started to come together when I tried to imagine a reason that my players might venture forth from Denethix to visit a distant village by the name of Carrowmere...

Those of you who are as immersed as I am in the OSR scene may recognize that's the site of the classic adventure Deep Carbon Observatory (Aside: What is it with these names? Three Scientific Words...).  I've always wanted to run DCO, and now it was up to me to figure out how it could fit into the world of ASE.

Claytonian's take on the DCO maps is highly legible!  That guy is cool!

Recently, a path presented itself: the party had acquired a lump of sick rock, which would have provided entry to the titular environment, only to have it confiscated by authorities.  As they sought out leads on new sources of the stuff, I realized that the titular observatory would make sense as a place to store radioactive materials.  This lead was being delivered to players through a scholar whom their characters had consulted, so I had to think up a smidge of explanation.

DCO makes frequent reference to its own ancient civilization, which it calls the Builders.  Not much is known about them, except that they were advanced and weird, and had contact with underground cultures.  The culture that created ASE and the various technologies of the wizards had been dubbed the Ancients.  What if there were two great civilizations in this world's history?

I imagined that the Builders were strange and enigmatic, one day emerging from the bowels of the Earth to contact the empire of the Ancients.  They would construct a few weird monuments and colonies, come into conflict with the Ancients, and eventually recede from the surface.  I even have it in mind that these Builders could have some relationship to the peoples of Patrick Stewart's well-received Veins of the Earth, or another "underdark" setting like Harley Stroh's Lost Agharta or Jason Sholtis' Operation Unfathomable. But that would come into play if the party ends up following the appropriate leads.

Making friends deep underground

The true Builder civilization is much larger and older than the Ancients could possibly realize, since the vast bulk of it lies beneath the Earth.  For a time, the two societies coexist peacefully and trade, but eventually they come into conflict over resources.  Over the course of a century or two, the Ancients drive the Builders from the surface of the world, and even learn some of the secrets of their unusual forms of magic.  This last accomplishment leads to a golden age immediately following this victory, itself followed by the cataclysm that shattered the Ancient culture.

The Builders imbued their most sophisticated tools with a kind of magic that allowed them to respond and even feed off the psychic state of the user.  Such objects could be reshaped and recombined with other objects in powerful and unexpected ways, and a skilled operator could use such devices to perform miraculous acts.  This technology unleashed great prosperity in Ancient society, as it spread to all corners of their lives.

Unfortunately, this magic proved to be the undoing of the Ancients.  They only partially understood what they were playing with, and ended up using it indiscriminately even as they were learning to do so.  This power led to decadence and rot on one hand, and outbreaks of chaos and disaster on the other.

Was looking for an ASE wizard and found this amazing Twitter feed

ASE itself was an attempt to use this technology to reproduce a controlled version of Builder society.  A potent seed of Builder technology was planted deep in the earth, and from there it spread unpredictably with explosive fractals of transformation.  The complex produced a number of wonders, the most noteworthy of which was protonium.  Unfortunately, it also produced many horrors, and when Ancient society was in collapse, the complex was sealed once it became unprofitable to maintain.

The wizards and their artifacts are only the most contemporary and degenerate use of Builder magic.  Uncovered artifacts on the Ancients often utilize Builder magic, but the skills to use this power have been largely lost.  However, one group of people are able to use these devices without much training: psychotics.  As a result, almost all the wizards are highly unstable individuals, and use of Builder technology causes gradual mental distortion in the untrained.

Mecha knight vs. plasma dragon

That's the long and the short of it.  Along the way, I was thinking about what my take would be for "Underdark" settings.  It always occurs to me that the big nagging problem with these kinds of underworlds is the simple physics of it; I'm always wondering where the Underdark ecosystem gets its input energy.  On the surface of the Earth, the sun is the original source of energy for the vast majority of living beings.

Most Underdark seem to hand-wave it away with some mumbling about a fungus-based ecosystem.  As though that answers anything.  For a long time, I was leaning towards geothermal energy, but my recent experiences with ASE brought another idea to mind: what about radioactive materials?  Perhaps the crust of your fantasy planet could be incredibly rich in uranium or radiomithril or whatever.  

It could even be tied into the nature of magic in the campaign.  I like the way the notion of mutation and magical corruption could be conflated.  Perhaps wizards have to consume trace amounts of refined uranium to maximize their power.  And perhaps rods of uranium could be contained in some kind of special crystal so they would emit ultraviolet light enough to cultivate crops and even trees.

It's not much, but somewhere to start if I ever end up GMing any Underdark-style adventures.

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