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Let’s Read: Underdark (4e)

junglefowl26

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Hello everyone! Welcome to my first Let’s Read – covering my favorite source of fluff for 4th Edition: Underdark. Funny thing is, I wasn’t originally that interested in this book, as the Underdark had always struck me as kind of boring: just a big cave inexplicably full of monsters with nothing to eat, like a Dungeon Grande size. By the time I had finished reading it, I wanted to run a campaign set entirely there.

Anyway, I had mentioned this often enough in recommendation threads that I thought it would be good to share with others why I love it so much in more detail.
So, without further ado, the Underdark calls:

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The book opens with a discussion of three of the most common reoccurring themes of the book: the drow, the aberrations that “slip through the cracks in the reality of the flawed creation of the underdark,” and Torog, the god of torture and imprisonment who rules the Underdark, with him as the sole god to exist on the physical realm anymore, with the rest forced to remain on the astral sea by the primal spirits of the world. (As a side note – I rather like the Primal Spirits, but they are elaborated on in other products.)

The View from the Surface: A very brief summary of what the average surface dweller knows about the Underdark: namely that it is a very big cave full of nasty stuff and very far removed from everyday life. So nothing terribly interesting yet, besides the fact that Torog is something a boogeyman in the world. It also notes that adventurers are not average characters, so how much they know about the Underdark before adventuring there in the course of play is up to the DM and players.

Origin of the Underdark: Long story short: Torog did it.

Ok, not really, but as the book itself says, Torog’s story and the story of the Underdark are deeply intertwined, though it does discuss briefly how a DM could remove him from the story or make his role in the Underdark just a tall tale, suggesting both that a DM could make up his own explanation, or simply leave it a mystery as part of the fun and wonder of DnD is “never knowing the entire truth behind the story of the world.”

I am also amused by the phrase “old dwarves’ tale.”

Anyway, the story of the Underdark’s creation has two parts. The first is how the Primordials shaped it with the rest of the world before the Dawn War, though no one now knows its original purpose. However, while the rest of the world was given order and stability by the gods, the Underdark was not. As a result, it was made of rawer, more... well, primordial… stuff. As a result, it is unstable and constantly changing, both in physical form and in metaphysical properties, possessing a diverse jumble of ecosystems and often surreal flaws that affect all who live there long enough. Because of the unstable nature of its existence, it was easy for Torog to smash through the barriers between realities during his great rampage there, so one can easily travel between the Shdaowfell, Material World, and Feywild by following his path, known as the King’s Highway.

The second, and largest, part of the history here is the story of Torog himself, and how he accidently and painfully came into his domain and his domains. Even before the Dawn War started, Torog had really hated one primordial in particular: Garagash, and went into the Underdark hoping to destroy Gargash once and for all (or at least kill him painfully a few times.) Of course, no gods, not even Moradin, knew much of the depths of the world, and Torog knew less than them.
Gargash himself is a fairly interesting figure, described as not only being fluid of physical form (though preferring a form that is basically the Tarrasque on overdrive) but also fluid in terms of his domains and abilities, something common amongst primordial of the time. Gargash was in the Underdark at the time to experiment with the concepts of torture and imprisonment, as “techniques of sealing things off instead of opening them up were a novelty for a creature with a primordia’s anarchic leanings.” That’s some Runequest/Elder Scrolls type metaphysics right there.

They fought and Torog won, but was heavily injured and cursed by Gargash to be unable to heal his wounds or keep his divine powers outside the Underdark “until the gods and primordials lived in peace.” In his pain and desperation to escape Torog raged through the worlds for years creating the king’s highway with his destruction and his divine blood. While Torog eventually calmed down enough to escape, it was too late to undue the curse and he was unwilling to give up his power for his freedom.

Additionally, he had missed the entire Dawn War, which earned him the ire of the rest of the gods who had already thought of him as little more than a bully and a coward. Still, he was too strong to deny completely, especially as the rest of the gods were bound by their agreement with the Primal Spirits to stay out of the material world, and Torog had brought back his experience of imprisonment, which meant that he was the only ones with the knowledge and means to imprison the defeated primordials.
This section ends with a discussion of the implications of his physical presence in the world, giving some examples of his actions with page numbers of where they are explained in more detail later, as well as explaining that for all his bluster and other people’s fears, that his power to affect the surface world is fairly limited, and Torog’s own personality largely makes him a non-actor for many centuries at a time.

Additionally, this section has a sidebar on Torog’s torture dens – the most interesting thing here to me is that each one contains a small section that is paradise in contrast to their nightmarish surroundings, and the book’s speculation that they might be for self-torture to keep himself bitter about what he is denied, simply for the occasional break, or as tools of psychological torment as prisoners are given brief and mysterious reprieves before being taken back to custom made hell holes. The individual torture dens are covered in more detail later.

Finally, throughout the book, there are various quotes from people in the world, to help make the world feel more alive. For this chapter, there is an amusing but somewhat out of place quote:
“What do you mean ‘What kind of rock?’ Rock is rock, right?” A cluessless adventurer to a dwarf miner.
Oh, and while not in this book, here is a cool picture of Torog and Garash fighting: http://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/nuntonlibrary/images/e/e3/Torogandgargash.png/revision/latest?cb=20120223040001

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Overall, a strong start, if one that doesn't exactly reflect the sheer diversity of the later parts of the book with its Torog focus. In particular, I like its emphasis on the Underdark as an alien and mysterious place where the rules of reality may not apply, and its approach of offering options while not setting anything in stone (if not doing so as well here as it will elsewhere in the book). Both become strong themes throughout the book, and the latter I would argue is an essential and enjoyable part of 4e fluff in general.
 
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Outremer

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I've always loved the Underdark. But I think it's better for its origins not to be clearly detailed. The Underdark is a place of dark mysteries and nameless dangers ; knowing the entire truth about its history would take away from its atmosphere.
 

MacBalance

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Toro's new to me. Is he a 4e Nentir Vale thing?

I've got the 2e Menzoberannzan box on my to-be-eBayed pile nearby. Curious about the different takes on the concept of the Underdark, which kind of calcified into the 1e-2e Forgotten Realms/Dungeoneer's Survival Guide inspired version.
 
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The Wyzard

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We played a hell of a PBP campaign based on this book. When The King Comes Knocking.

It's somewhere in the PBP forum if anyone wants to search for it and read it. Oh, yeah, the search function is back. So that wouldn't be too bad to do.
 

junglefowl26

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I've always loved the Underdark. But I think it's better for its origins not to be clearly detailed. The Underdark is a place of dark mysteries and nameless dangers ; knowing the entire truth about its history would take away from its atmosphere.
The book does present that as a recommended option for those reasons. Still, even then, people have their stories, true or not, to explain things.

Plus, despite the name, the actual origins of the Underdark are never explained (beyond the blindingly obvious "was created with the rest of the world" bit.) This was just something that happened at some point.

Toro's new to me. Is he a 4e Nentir Vale thing?

I've got the 2e Menzoberannzan box on my to-be-eBayed pile nearby. Curious about the different takes on the concept of the Underdark, which kind of calcified into the 1e-2e Forgotten Realms/Dungeoneer's Survival Guide inspired version.
I am not entirely sure. Torog is certainly more prominent, but a lot of 4e gods come from older settings, especially Greyhawk, and I don't know too much about them.

That will be an interesting comparison to make. Though the Underdark here takes a lot more from Greyhawk than the forgotten realms, especially when it comes to the Drow, so it would be interesting if someone familiar with that setting could comment as well.

We played a hell of a PBP campaign based on this book. When The King Comes Knocking.

It's somewhere in the PBP forum if anyone wants to search for it and read it. Oh, yeah, the search function is back. So that wouldn't be too bad to do.
That sounds great! I will check that out.
 

Alter_Boy

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I am not entirely sure. Torog is certainly more prominent, but a lot of 4e gods come from older settings, especially Greyhawk, and I don't know too much about them.

That will be an interesting comparison to make. Though the Underdark here takes a lot more from Greyhawk than the forgotten realms, especially when it comes to the Drow, so it would be interesting if someone familiar with that setting could comment as well.
Torog is new, but the concept of a mad deity crawling through the Underdark isn't. Lords of Madness named a mighty aberration that crawled through the Underdark, and Eberron has Orlassk, who travels the Realm Below within his walking Gargoyle castle. The inspiration of all this probably dates back to the Cthulhu Mythos: Shudde M'ell fulfills a similar role, and the danger of speaking Torog's name is reminiscent of Hastur.
 

junglefowl26

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Torog is new, but the concept of a mad deity crawling through the Underdark isn't. Lords of Madness named a mighty aberration that crawled through the Underdark, and Eberron has Orlassk, who travels the Realm Below within his walking Gargoyle castle. The inspiration of all this probably dates back to the Cthulhu Mythos: Shudde M'ell fulfills a similar role, and the danger of speaking Torog's name is reminiscent of Hastur.
Ah, thanks for that. It is interesting to see the various forms the basic archetype has taken over the years.

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Sorry for the delay everyone, things have been rather busy of late. Picking up where we left off


Lords of the Realm:
This section introduces us to the other important powers of the Underdark: the drow and the aberrants.

The drow section while short and fairly basic, is pretty interesting because it is split between the Lolth version of how the drow came to the Underdark, and the Torog version of the same tale, both told through in-universe narration. Even the section labeled “the truth” merely points out the problems with both versions.

Still, before all that, the text begins by explaining how odd it was that Lolth chose to come the Underdark after losing her war, since neither she nor her followers had any previous connection to it. It is also considered odd that they managed to not only survive but thrive in the hostile place despite not paying homage to Torog, a fact the drow are predictably smug about.

Torog’s version is called the Invitation, and as the name implies, in this version Torog invites Lolth and the drow to his domain, having long wished for a truly worthy race to inhabit it and believing that Lolth would only waste her followers in hopeless battles. He even encourages the drow to stay loyal to Lolth, aside from a few converts to his own faith, as “He could devise no greater torture for beings of such potential than to let them continually choose Lolth.” I hope she has fire resistence for that burn.

The Lolth story is short and simple. She broke in, beat Torog up, and smashed his face through some walls to make caverns big enough for the drow to build cities on.
The problems with both? Well, Torog destroyed the first city of the drow, so it seems he has the upper hand, but he is a real Scrooge when it comes to sharing power, given he doesn’t even do so with his own exarchs, so this kind of relationship doesn’t seem like something he would agree to.

About the aberrants: I really tempted to just copy this section over because I love the writing of it. Still, best not to tempt claims of copyright infringement. Still, I especially like the description of Far Realm creatures as “eruptions” from “holes in reality beneath the Underdark’s unfinished creation”, as well as how reality frays because it is “chafed by constant scraping against jagged nothingness.” That said, this section is pretty short and while the writing is atmospheric, it is devoid of substance at the moment.



Geography of the Underdark: This section opens with a reminder that the Underdark is a three dimensional structure with many branches and forks, and as such doesn’t have geography in the way that a surfacer would think of it. Instead, it is divided into areas of depth, though even this distinction is noted as incredibly fuzzy, with lots of borderlands that have features common to both areas, and sometimes one can find a cavern with features of a deeper region fairly close to the surface.

The Shallows are the closer of the two areas, though even they are around two miles down at the least. Ordinary basements, caves, dungeons, and even most dwarven strongholds are called out as not being part of the Underdark, saying they are to the Underdark what a tall tower is to the Astral Sea. Still, it is the more normal area, full of familiar races like goblins and dwarves, and connects the surface world and the deeps. The deeps are much larger and more diverse, holding things such as vast sunless seas, wastelands scoured by elemental chaos, and even “godless realms” where the divine holds no power, all of which get flushed out later in the book. The echos are mentioned here as well, though their versions of the shallows and deeps are not distinguished. The Feydark is notably brighter, full of glowing crystals and bioluminescent fungi, with the exception of the strange and twisted lands of the Fomorians. The Shdaowdark is…well, the Underdark but even more lifeless and hopeless. Special attention is paid to how the King’s Highway allows connection between the echos, with examples of races migrating to and from each echo.

Finally, this section has three sidebars. “Reality versus fun” is advice that the harsh environment should be about atmosphere and plot points rather than constant skill challenges just to survive. “Acquiring Shelter” is the biggest of the three, dealing with the fact that since the Underdark has even fewer points of light, the players will need to makes their own, with advice on what they should look for and how it can be used in a story. Finally “Powers of the Echoes” briefly describes the fomorians who dominate the Feydark, and the incunabula of the Shadowdark, a race of shrouded Vecna worshipers (also, I was surprised to be informed by spellcheck that incunabula is a real word. It means books printed before 1501. Fitting if odd). While both races are on the evil side, they are described as being points of light relative to everything else, as the drow will be later on.
Oh, and there is a neat quote about a Deva asking a human and a dwarf about how deep the Underdark really is.
 
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jerandall

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This book is the hidden gem of the entire 4e line. (Well, maybe not 'hidden' to 4e fans?) Looking forward to more of the Let's Read.

Also in one of those weird temporal coincidences, my campaign just started moving in the direction of an extended journey to the Underdark. The PCs' motive: have a face to face meeting with Torog. :eek:
 

AbdulAlhazred

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This book is the hidden gem of the entire 4e line. (Well, maybe not 'hidden' to 4e fans?) Looking forward to more of the Let's Read.

Also in one of those weird temporal coincidences, my campaign just started moving in the direction of an extended journey to the Underdark. The PCs' motive: have a face to face meeting with Torog. :eek:
Honestly, I thought most of the other similar books were pretty good. Open Grave, and the Draconomicons. Some were better than others though. I liked the first Draconomicon, the Demonomicon, the MoTP, and the Underdark one best. Open Grave was interesting, but suffers from being the earliest book in the whole series. The metallic dragon book was just suffering from less interesting subject matter. On the whole I think the Demonomicon is the crowning achievement, only slightly tainted by not fully incorporating the newest monster design of MM3+. Still, this book was pretty good.
 
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