Sunday, June 4, 2023

Building Bhakashal - The Underworld

So last week I found out my Friday players wanted to try out the “underdark”, they know about 5e, and they know bits of the lore, D&D is popular enough now, and there is enough available on the internet that they have a vague sense of the different settings. I had eventually planned on creating a Bhakashal underdark as I love the D series modules, and cave exploration is about as D&D as it gets. But that was on the backburner for a while. 

Not now!

My players play in Bhakashal, or at least the playtest version, so there were some changes that had to happen. Bhakashal has no elves, and no gnomes, both of which were prominent in the modules I would be using. I run TSR era modules with a Bhakashal spin. Just to be clear, and for any of the people new to the Bhakashal setting, it is a retroclone, meant to be compatible with any old school D&D game, specifically AD&D 1st edition, and it is meant to mirror aspects of the 1e AD&D settings and game mechanics.

So last Friday the PCs called upon their patron, having failed to complete their last task as things escalated to the point that Quin Faal called them off. They were about to trigger a conflict between parties he wanted to keep in harmony. Instead, he needed their services for an important task. 

Quin Faal is the Scribus Magus warlock of House Quannar, just below the Magus Warlock of House Quannar, Kohr Khan the Magister. As such he is privy to important information, and has recently found out about the underworld. A party from House Himmeghost and another one from House Jin had independently discovered a group of caves that were suspected to be tunnels to the underworld, however, they had arrived at similar times, and one group overtook the other, and a conflict ensued.

Survivors and victors made their way back to the city, honor duels were announced between Houses, and the underworld entrance was forgotten for now, lost in the wash of city politics and rivalries. Quin Faal gained this information as part of a returned favor, and he went to the Temple of Vekka, God of the water, to ask for guidance. The Seers of Vekka performed the ritual of communion, submerging themselves in the holy pool and breathing the water with eyes closed, picturing the endless deep. The portents were good, and Quin Faal decided to act. 

The party was to travel to the entrance to the caves and begin the descent, the cave entrance is a days journey away. Until just recently when discovered by warlocks from House Himmenghost, it had been covered by rubble for centuries.  The party decided to bring mounts, mostly gess (giant lizards) an amaran (giant cat) and a xixia (giant spider), and made the journey without event. 

They entered the cave and began to descend, the slope was gradual, and the tunnel itself was about 200 feet wide and 50 feet tall. There was no vegetation, no water, no large stones, just an uneven rock surface that gradually descended. It was, however, pitch black after the first 10 min or so of travel. At that point, they unsheathed magic weapons and such (the average party level is 8th so they have a few). I informed them that they could only see well 20’ ahead of them with the magic swords, after that it became dark fast, and by 40 feet or so it was inky black. They could not tell how wide the tunnel was anymore, or how high, and their mounts were not happy.

I’m constantly amazed at how much simple darkness can terrify players. Reducing their ability to see really hobbles them, and creates paranoia about what is out there in the darkness. This is why I don’t know why refs worry so much about infravision, it only reaches 60’ out, so there is plenty of darkness to surround them.

The party bard sang to soothe the beasts, and they decided to press on, the beasts moved slowly in the near complete darkness, the ground smoothed out a bit but was still uneven in places. They heard nothing but their own shuffling feet, lizard claws against rock. They traveled for 2 days like that, in complete darkness, once they brushed up against a wall and followed it along for a time, then they ventured back out and continued. There were no encounters as the tunnels were deserted for miles until it was far deeper down.

The complete darkness and relative silence freaked them out! They they had feed enough for the beasts for 2 weeks, and the party carried 2 weeks rations each, so they would travel for a week and head back at that point if they hadn’t discovered anything. 

Finally, on day 5, two things happened, first, they heard noises, scuttling, squealing, buzzing, not all at once, and only for a short time then it was gone in each case, but it was definitely the sound of life. They were still, unfortunately, unable to see very far. It was deliciously terrifying. The party seer suggested a continual light spell at the end of a party member’s pole arm, a 60’ radius globe of light, held up over their heads. There was a lot of discussion about this, as it would make them stand out in the darkness of the caves.

Whatever was there would know they were there, so surprise would be out of the question. Still, they felt blind and wanted to see more. So they cast the spell, and caught a glimpse of some shadowy things scuttling away, scattered patches of lichen, and perhaps insects that flew into the darkness.

They decided to cast an Augury to determine if they should continue, and the augury suggested that continuing would be rewarding, so they pressed on. Over the next 2 days the lichen increased as did the moss, and the tunnel became damp, water was seen occasionally. Eventually a stream was discovered, which they paralleled for a while until someone pointed out that animals would come to the stream to drink… So after testing the water with a handy Neutralize Poison at the ready, they watered the mounts, refreshed their water, and headed down. 

They past the 7 day mark, so if they didn’t find game and more vegetation within the next 7 days they would have to rely on their Seer casting spells to make food. They continued for another 7 days, though there were no encounters, the tunnels were clearly changing. The sparse moss and lichen was now everywhere, they came across long grass, and some small bushes. Mushrooms were next, in clusters then by day 14 in fields, as well as flowers in small then large clusters. Insects were more common, buzzing around the mounts, and then birds.

Two weeks in, they had met nothing so far, and still could not see more than 60’ ahead using the continual light. The tunnel slope had taken a steeper turn, to the point that switchbacks were necessary for a time, there were the remains of collapsed tunnel in places. They considered returning, but pressed on. By day 16 their xixia and amaran were getting antsy, they will only go so long without fresh meat, and every day without it there was a check to see if they would try to attack and eat someone in the party.

Fearing that the mounts would lose control, one of the PCs used a patch from their Robe of Useful Items, and tossed out the mule. The xixia and the amaran pounced on it and tore it apart, and the tunnels were filled with the sounds of tooth and claw tearing flesh. They decided to press on now that the mounts were satisfied. By day 20 they saw a dim light ahead, and when they got closer they saw that the cave was striated with a strange ore that gave off faint violet light. It was enough to see the entirety of the tunnel for the first time. 

It was immense, several hundred feet tall and equally as wide. They saw a decent sized stream with tall grasses all around, giant flowers and giant mushrooms, a forest of them up ahead. And what was more interesting, was that there was a path ahead of them, this was a route used by others. Insects buzzed in swarms, some were luminescent, some not, some as big as birds, and there were birds as well, due to the violet light washing over everything the colors of the birds were hard to make out, but they were all “giant” in size, with 15 to 20 foot wingspans, they too traveled in groups.

And then, on day 21, they spotted their first game, a large boar with oversized tusks and a fin down the back, it saw them and tore off, when it did seven others burst from the tall grasses to follow. The PCs used missile weapons and took down three of the boars. The mounts feasted on two, the party kept the third and started a fire. That proved to be a problem, as within the caves the smoke did not disperse well, so they put out the fire. They let the beasts eat the third boar and they relied again on the seer’s spell for food. 

Day 25 they were woken at camp by a stampeding noise, and a small herd of giant boars ran by. The PCs on watch woke up the others, and 4 giant dragonflies appeared in the distance. The party got ready and let loose with missile fire and spells as they approached, they weren’t taking chances. Magic Missile damaged one badly enough that it crashed. Arrow fire and crossbow fire was concentrated on another and it also crashed. The third and fourth could not be hit. When they arrived the party fighter jumped off his mount to attack one with his axe. 

The dragonflies are quite agile, so the fighter took big penalties, but the gambit worked as he managed  a critical and doubled his damage, 

“As the creature dives down you leap from your gess and your bardiche slashes open it’s belly, a squeal of agony emerges from the beast as it crashes to the ground.”

My players call that a “Crom” moment.

The last one approached the party Spartan (monk), who rides an amaran, they crouched in wait, and when the dragonfly dove down to attack it leapt and landed atop the beast, claws and tooth rending it apart. The monk then sprung from his mount and struck the creature with hand axes, finishing it off on the ground. 

They handled it all very well, and were somewhat giddy at actually having encountered something after 20 days in the dark and 25 underground. They let their mounts feed, and they proceeded on. The ore changed color to silver and gave off white light. They traveled for 2 more days, following a river that had crossed their path then turned away, they kept their distance but used the river to guide them forward. 

Then, on day 28, they saw the tail end of what appeared to be a group of creatures up ahead.

They increased pace to catch the creatures, and got close enough to see them in more detail, they only saw the last two creatures in the line that stretched forward, but there appeared to be about 12 of them, they were long necked dinosaurs of some variety. Each had baskets slung across their backs, three pairs, filled with unknown cargo, and were mounted by creatures they had never seen before. They were insect-like, each had two large legs and four arms, mandibles and ruby colored eyes. They were about 8 feet tall, and chalk white, like ghosts.

They wore no apparent armor, but each did carry a large tetsubo and a large spear, and had a round shield on each side of their saddles. At this point one of the caravan members had spotted the party, and called a halt. A raptor-like dinosaur made its way to the back, mounted atop the dinosaur was another chalk-white insect creature, but in this case it wore a breastplate of dark metal, and carried a rod of some kind. The party bard, wanting to smooth things over, tried to speak to the creatures, but they did not appear to understand. 

This was a new experience for the party, they were used to encountering other groups they could talk to, between the 8 party members they have most of the standard languages covered. Watching their reaction was priceless. Several party members were concerned that the creatures would attack, so they took out bows/crossbows and reached for components for spells. The creatures could see this, and the rod-wielding insect creature pointed towards the party.

From behind him emerged four skeletal humanoid creatures with wings, fangs and claws. They had tattered skin hanging off various parts of their bodies, but their wings didn’t work as they were primarily skeletal. This made them lope unnaturally across the tunnel floor, making strange, cackling noises.

That’s where we stopped. 


They had just encountered a Vorunn caravan, heading back down to their city after an expedition to the outer tunnels to retrieve special species of plants that are not as common further on in the cave network. The Vorunn are the dominant group in the Bhakashal underworld, they are an alien race that crash landed a colony ship there millions of years ago, and they have the most power of any of the factions there, having several major cities that occupy entire caves.

The Vorunn’s stark appearance, tall, thin insect men with chalk white skin and ruby like eyes, spooked the party. Vorunn society has laborers and warriors (mercenaries in Bhakashal, fighters in AD&D), as well as two classes of NPC, slayers and necromancers. Every caravan travels with a necromancer and a slayer, the slayer is not with the caravan, they are usually traveling nearby and looking for threats or potential food to hunt as they move through the underworld. The Vorunn necromancer with the caravan was accompanied by 4 gargoyle skeletons, most necromancers have skeletons or zombies around them and under their command at all times, precisely for situations like this. 

The Vorunn do NOT like outsiders, so the modifiers to the reaction roll were quite high.

I love that a caravan was the first major encounter in the underworld, rather than a patrol. If they choose to fight it will be a challenge, and even if they win, when they encounter a fully armed military style patrol, it will be a big surprise as it will be much harder. The idea here, just like in the TSR underdark, is that the environment should be VERY challenging, unlike the surface world where they often skirmish with 0-level bandits/soldiers, etc., the Vorunn, like the Drow, are formidable opponents, in addition to regular low level warriors, the Vorunn have mid-to-high level necromancers that command vast numbers of skeleton and zombie monsters, and slayers (ranger/assassins) who are stealthy, deadly and fast. 

The Vorunn brought dinosaurs with them to the underworld when they descended, and have bred them and domesticated them for millions of years, thus they have dinosaurs for labor, transportation and war. They are the most common mount, and fast, small raptors appear regularly traveling with large groups. 

There are five other factions in the Bhakashal underworld, all with alliances and enmities, trade and diplomatic relationships, and secrets for the PCs to uncover. The Vorunn are necrovores, they consume the dead and gain special powers from the process, and in doing so are contributing to some larger events that are beyond the PCs current interests, but will, in short enough order, become central to their concerns.

So far, so good, the playtesting will continue for a while, and depending on how things land I will make adjustments, but so far the players are all in.

Onwards to adventure!

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