Thoughts on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld"

An Excellent Example of Mythic Underworld from Hydra Cooperative
I found something that inspired me. To be honest, I had first heard about it when I read Philotomy's Musings back when it was just a web page. I believe it was Philotomy (aka Jason Cone) that first coined the phrase, but he was not its creator as much as its "namer". For the idea of the Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, as Philo makes clear in his writings, really harks back to the way D&D was originally played in the late 780's (my term for the late 70's early 80's). He describes the experience as exploration of a megadungeon that,

"should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it." (Philotomy's Musings pg 22)

I love this concept for several reasons; but before I enumerate them allow me to share, if I can, a bit of the feel of gaming in this way. I started gaming in 1981 with a group of older guys (I was 12 they were like 13-14) with AD&D. They had learned to play with OD&D + Supplements, but we used the 1e hardbacks exclusively when I played. I recall several salient moments in my early play which highlighted the over the top gonzo weirdness of D&D, going through modules like White Plume Mountain and Expedition to Barrier Peaks particularly. The general oddness and sci-fantasy "fun" made one believe literally anything was possible. D&D wasn't the classical medieval high fantasy game we think of today. Rather it was a strange brew of Lovecraftian menace, Moorcockish chaos and the Dunsanian bizarre. Of course none of us could have described it that way at the time--that simply was D&D.

What was also really clear is that the guys I was playing with simply made up most of it as we went along. This last part is what I'd like to highlight most clearly--we made stuff up as we played. Mostly it was the DM, but players were just as zany and hairbrained as any half mad dungeonmaster unleashing the craziness of his own twisted imagination upon his hapless players. To say the modules were a guide, is putting it mildly. They were more like fuzzy suggestions of some ideas you could use with this map. At least that's the way things were for the first few years. This style of play is actually very conducive to "Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" if you're comfortable improvising and imagining on the fly. It is not the only way this has to be done, but it certainly helps.

I have a personal belief that this is the way that early games went with Gygax, Arneson and the others as well. Proof of this can be had in the papers that have been shared online of the original Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor adventures--and the reason why they went unpublished for so long. Their  campaign materials consisted of maps and notes of sessions made just before and often as they happened. Putting them together in some kind of coherent order was almost impossible unless the DMs themselves did it, and even then they often couldn't do it. The fact is that it is hard to capture what really happened at the table when it may have had less than 2% to do with what you hastily scrawled in your prep session.

Dave Arneson is still renowned as a DM par excellence, and yet when they tried to create the Blackmoor supplement the writers and editors were so frustrated with his notes they had to rewrite most of it, and he was never satisfied with the finished product. It didn't live up to his vision of the campaign, and in fact nothing they tried to produce probably could have. Dave was better live than in Memorex. Most of the magic and the connections and depth of his adventures and campaigns were in Dave's head--not in his notes. And even if he had written them down, and he had, noone could quite make them come alive like Dave. Take, for example, the Arneson papers that were bequeathed upon his death. A literal van load of paper stuffed boxes and stacks and reams of papers and notebooks that were sort of symbolic of Dave's creative mind. It was the way he gamed and the way he wrote. Noone yet has been able to produce anything usable from them. Yet even Gygax lauded Arneson as a better DM than he himself was.

Now, obviously the game changed. Much of what Gary wrote did make it into reasonably organized print. However, even today the PHB, and DMG are criticized as poorly organized, baroque, and horribly indexed examples of how to not write a game book. Irregardless of the fact that these were the first books of their kind, and a vast improvement over the original three LBBs in terms of organization, and readability, they are indeed reflective of a style of gaming that was prevalent in the day. It was the beginning of a direction that would lead to the tightly written, more rules oriented, games of today. Even the early modules, mostly tournament reprints designed to be well organized for the tournaments in question, were sparse and not overly detailed. Often rooms are briefly described with a note of a monster, stats and treasure or left completely empty.

Filling in the lines, the motives, the details, were held to be the province of the DM themselves. In point of fact, Gary and the early designers all wrote into the first three books and the supplements that the point of the game was to do the imagining yourself, write the adventures, create the worlds, take the few rules we have written and "imagine the hell out of it!" Such was the way in which the early games were meant to be played. It was a surprise that players wanted more printed material, especially modules and it was only after how lucrative they realized such products could be that they started churning more and more out and eventually changed the approach to a "right" way to play D&D (c.f. Dragon Magazine circa iss. 76 and onward). All of this can be uncovered and confirmed in some of the histories written, interviews given and the excellent video casts given by Tim Kask and others.

It doesn't mean it was the right way to play, or that other ways were somehow wrong. I'm not saying that. As Tim Kask himself says "If you're having fun, you're doing it right." The point here is to give you a framework against which to understand, to grok, the idea of Dungeon as Mythic Underworld. It isn't just rooted in a style of dungeon design it is rooted in a style of play.

A "Megadungeon" whatever you might define that as, is rarely a finished product. And not only because it is generally considered to be infinite, but rather because it is simply too big to detail beyond reason. And reason dictates a style of detail that doesn't go much beyond

1. Entryway: four large columns stand in the center room, cobwebs, large spider.
2. Cloak room: 8 rotting pegs line the north and south wall, pile of motheaten cloaks are on floor
3. Empty
4. Confused rust monster HP 29
5. Storeroom: rots grubs in grain barrels
6. 10' spiked pit trap center of hall

So for example, these brief descriptions are designed to act as markers for what could be used, and elaborated upon as the DM sees fit. Running as is would be a bit dry, so the DM spices it up as she goes weaving together the environment represented by the above descriptions, the players' actions and the unfolding results of their actions.

But how do you turn a series of encounters like this into an actually Mythic Underworld? Assuming the descriptions above are part of a megadungeon or a portion of the MU (Mythic Underworld) it could go something like this.

The columns actually have series of lights in them, mutlicolored, that flash on and off at seemingly random intervals. A light on one column is burnt out and appears to be able to be depressed. The reason for this is innocuous, they are left over signal lights from a technologically advanced race that used to inhabit the region at one time. When you push on the one button it sizzles slightly and flickers briefly. As the characters are no doubt fiddling with lights the spider will drop on them from the webs above gaining surprise. Dangling in the spider web is the remains of an old half rusted cyborg. He at first appears like a human sized warrior in plate armor. His human half is desiccated, long ago drained of blood and fluids, but with a sufficient intelligence check they can get the robotic part working partly. His head will come to life, a red light faintly glowing where his one robotic eye would be. If they wait long enough the cyborg will begin to respond to questions, but his universal translator is broken and a character will have to cast comprehend languages to understand it. He may serve as a useful guide through portions of the dungeon, but if brought to within 100' of the central command jewel it will become hostile and seek to kill the party with its remaining laser eyes--though they are weak now and only do 3d6 damage per hit. In no case can the cyborg move and will have to be carried and continually nursed into running order.

And you get the idea ... that doesn't even begin to introduce the polymorphed rust monster who used to be an apprentice to a dark sorcerer who now makes his abode in the dungeon--hence his confusion. The point here is, and I just made all this up now, is that the weirdness comes into play as you move along. And so does the developing story of both the dungeon and the campaign.

Believe me, I have tried writing all this out ahead of time. In fact I just spend all day last Sunday prepping for an encounter in my current adventure and ended up using none of it. I mean zero. The party did something else, and I ended up deciding that the smart thing for the remaining bad guys and their leaders to do was to cut and run. But honestly, it all went great, just not as my well written and prepped 12 pages were expecting.

I end up making most of it up as we go out of the barest of bones of a plan and the actions and decisions that occur as we go. Of course every session doesn't have to be gonzo weird, but knowing that none of it has to make perfectly logical sense, relives a ton of pressure from a harried DM. The idea of a Dungeon World designed on these principles is a great help in this regard. The problem is that it is just a dungeon. What we really need is an approach that includes the upper and the lower worlds. Enter Faerie. That is what inspired me about the old post from Monsters and Manuals linked to above. That the Wilderness as a Mythic land of Faerie is every bit as cool and useful as the underworld concept. One could argue that this is what the designers had in mind when they wrote The UnderWorld & Wilderness Adventures of the OD&D set and the Expert Book of the Basic line. Both books were focused not just on dungeons but wild untamed magical wilderness areas as well. And the Mythic world of Chaos a la Poul Anderson's Three Hearts series was just as much about the untamed wilds above as the dark labyrinthine recesses under the ground were.

But let's talk about the reason I really love this. The idea that here be monsters, beyond the maps and domains of men, drives the adventure fantasy of the game and echos the weirdness in our own reality. What I mean by this is that for monsters, magic and wonder of fantasy to stay magical, wonderful and frightening it must remain unpredictable, essentially unknowable, and dangerous. Having spent a large portion of academic and armchair study into evidence of the unseen, the paranormal, the mythic and the supernatural in our world, one thing is clear. That when these things happen everyday normal reality takes a hike. Part of the reason these experiences thrill and interest us is precisely because they are strange. And I'm not just talking about a unicorn happening to walk out of the woods. We're like, "Oh my goodness look at that strange animal I've never seen before!" And after a while if I see it enough its just a horse with a horn on its head.

True fantasy and magic are not just something we normally don't expect to see. True magic, unreal experiences are exceptional because they bring with them, a sense of unreality; a feeling that the fabric of the universe being pulled a part at the seams, and you might just be going a little bit mad. These things, are what what makes the Mythic mythic. It is what the definition of fantasy is in my mind. If we live in a world that is as natural and mechanistic as our seems to be, but where goblins are real and some really smart people can do things with magic--sort of alike an undiscovered science--then the wonder begins to lose its power. Goblins are just another biological species, and can be dealt with as rationally as any other potentially dangerous species--like a bear or a wolf or a lion. In fact we really don't need them to define fantasy--an extended family of twisted serial killers would work just as well, or a widespread epidemic of rabid dogs. If magic is just another science that anyone with enough smarts can learn then we should use chemistry and physics to replicate it. My brother was a chem major for a while in pre-med and also an avid D&D player and I recall him telling me that just about any spell D&D mentions can be in some way replicated with science and technology.

So what makes magic magic? In a word, weirdness. True magic and magical beings are strange, unpredictable, ultimately unknowable, and though we can learn some rules of thumbs and general guidelines for dealing with it, they never quite make sense, and are apt to change at a moment's notice. Magic doesn't follow the normal everyday laws and rules of reality. Now, don't get me wrong. Like Philotomy pointed out, they (MUs) should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency. But they should also be bent, warped and chaotic--cancers gnawing at the world.

This essential ethos was built into D&D in the early days in the essential dichotomy between the lands of Chaos and the Lands of Law. And therein we have the heart of the conflict of the world of D&D. The lands of men with their castles, kingdoms, baronies and villages are the Lands of Law; and the outer wilds, the dark depths beneath are the sprawling realms of Chaos. The two constantly at war one with another, Rule and Misrule locked in eternal battle. And it is the brave, bold and foolhardy D&D adventurer that dares venture down and out into the realms where Chaos breathes and strange magics twist the world to its maniacal whims. These are the few souls who know something of the strange beauty and terrifying nightmare that is the Mythic UnderWorld and the Odd Courts of Faerie.

This is at the heart of Old School D&D and the style of DMing that thrived within it. Something I am going to be incorporating more and more into my own 5e games.


Scott Anderson said…
Thank you, this was well worth reading all the way through even though it trod moderately well-worn territory. In my opinion, so many modules have and continue to miss the mark because it’s impossible to write down what’s really good about d&d. It’s not just Dave who had that. All the best moments are unscripted and impossible to script.

Related tangent:

Things don’t necessarily have to make sense to the referee when he plans the adventure and talks it through with the several players. The players will make sense of things and follow the leads the ref didn’t even know were there.

As for my own reffing style, I have tried to reduce the mechanics down to almost board game simplicity without losing the essential elements that make D what it is. That way I can use my brain’s remaining computing power to play make-pretend at the table.

I’ve never played a campaign that was memorable because of what was planned. They’re all memorable because of what it spontaneous.

New conclusion I just thought of: therefore I would say that one of the great under appreciated gifts of the referee is to listen to his players and put the building blocks down for the several players to use to build their world.
Chris Jones said…
Thanks Scott! I too agree with your new conclusion. There is something at the heart of good refereeing and good playing that embodies exactly what you say.

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