Monday, 12 February 2018

The Endless Descent: First Session

(To see the previous post in this series click here)

(To start at the beginning of my blogging about my Veins of the Earth Campaign start here)



For the start of my Veins of the Earth campaign I wanted to do something a bit different than just a typical start to a campaign. I didn't want to have the players start on the surface and begin traveling down into the underdark. I was going to do the underdark as a mega-dungeon and wanted them to essentially be trapped in it, with no choice but to explore, delving deeper and deeper. 

So I needed a way to have them start in the underdark, far away from the surface, unsure of how to get back. I also kind of wanted to start them off where they wouldn't have a lot of advanced preparation, time to know where they were going and to buy items and gear.

I ended up on deciding that they would be lured into the underdark by a dEr0 Dream Machine. A machine that an escaped dEr0 slave/experimental subject (there's not really a huge difference) was using. All dEr0 slaves have had Congruity Knots affixed to them so the dEr0 can control them. The book doesn't describe what they are physically like so I imagined them as metal skull caps that replace the top part of the skull and have long metal pins sticking down into the brain. 

Anyways, an escaped dEr0 slave was using the Dream Machine to lure people down from the surface. Or well, presumably escaped, the dEr0 might have let the slave think he escaped so he could lure people down from the surface that they could use. The machine basically looks like a strange contraption of silver wire and electrified crystals that had wires affixed to the metal skull cap.

It would let a person hooked up to it, when sleeping, send their dreams through the rock. These dreams could be transmitted to other people who would fall into a fugue like state thinking the dreams were real. However, (as most dEr0 technology does) the machine would also influence and work upon it's user as well as those it is used upon, generally causing paranoia. 

To simulate the this fugue like dream state that lured the players from the surface, I started the first session by reading:

"You find yourself in some kind of mansion. You are not sure where you are or how you got here. You look around and see your fellow compatriots."

And using the following chart to generate the mansion as they explored it:


1d12
Room
Exit
Eerie thing
1
Study
Window
Looking glass on a table. Whomever picks it up see’s everyone but themselves reflected in it.
2
Bedroom
Spiral staircase
A marble plinth with a labyrinth carved in it’s top one that looks like a bunch of interconnected rooms. It seems to shift if you try to trace it making it impossible to find it's center.
3
Hallway
Oak door
A painting of a cross section of an ocean. From sail boat on top descending down to black depth where strange things swim. If cut or damaged will endlessly gush water.
4
Trophy Room
Open doorway
A hourglass that is broken and the bottom half is endlessly spilling out sand onto the floor. Petrified bones can be pulled from the sand.
5
Library
Bead curtain
A wooden coffin in the middle of the floor. Inside is another. Like russian dolls nested inside each other they seem to just get smaller and smaller. Inside the smallest coffin is the the corpse of whomever is opening them but as they were when they were a child.
6
Garden
Brass door with strange markings
A marble statue of Atlas holding up the globe on his back. But the globe seems to be a hunk of rough coal black stone. If touched the globe becomes to much for the statue and slowly crushes Atlas.
7
Drawing room
Greenhouse door
A candle burning with a black flame that seems to hiss strange static sounds like burning and bubbling metals at high degrees. If blown out the entire room will go pitch black and a deep sense of loathing will be felt like they are being watched from the darkness.
8
Music room
Doorway covered with drapery
A grandfather clock which ticks slower and slower and louder and louder until it booms so loud and deep around the room it becomes deafening and feels like an earthquake.
9
Kitchen
Serving window
A decanter with two glasses full of water. Ripples seem to form in the glasses which are full like something is dripping into them and a sound is heard like something is dripping but there appears to be nothing.
10
Servants quarters
Descending cellar staircase
A 6 foot tall ant farm with a magnifying glass next to it. If the ants examined they are found to be clock work. Like someone designed them to be looked at but not this closely.
11
Grand staircase
Secret door behind bookshelf
A large scenic painting of a mountain side. If examined there appears to be a number of oddly shaped holes in the mountain that are the exact outline of all the characters. The holes go into the mountain.
12
Cellar
Doorway with open wooden door
A fishbowl on a plinth with only darkness inside. If reached into it feels like there is an immense space inside.

Each eerie thing is meant to kind of give an unsettling sense of the Veins of the Earth; it's immensity, it's claustrophobic nature, how old it is, how time is almost meaningless in it, etc. All without referencing the Veins of the Earth themselves. The mansion itself, with it's endless rooms and nonsensical nature, was supposed to be like the caves themselves

Every time someone investigates one of the odd things in one of the rooms I had everyone make a saving throw vs magic and they heard a tearing sound and feel an earthquake. Once everyone, or the majority of the players has succeeded one of these saving throws, a crack tears open in the wall of the room they are in. The sides of the crack are made of stone and they can feel air gently blowing from it. It’s large enough for them to just squeeze through. If they go into any other room of the mansion it follows them. If they squeeze through this crack they end up in the first room of the cave system I had generated.

They would then all awake from their fugue state and realize that for weeks, or even months, they had been traveling down, down, into the earth through endless caves. That they could remember scattered fragments of their journey as if it were a dream. They have no items, no food, no water. Their clothing is in dirty rags and they are filthy. They have awoken and come to their sense and found themselves IN THE VEINS OF THE EARTH.

*cue exciting reveal music*


Overall this is the most 'artistic' start of a campaign that I've done. It kind of worked well for my purposes where it got them in the underdark without any items, kind of scared and worried about their characters.

Because there was no combat or stuff they really needed their character sheets for in the dream manor, it allowed me to really set the tone and atmosphere of the campaign. Where they were purely in exploratory role playing mode.

It also kind of broke up the first session nicely. Once they entered into the first cave of the system when I revealed they were in the Veins, we then broke out the Veins of the Earth character sheets and transitioned over characters and I answered basic questions about the Veins and what kind of a campaign it would be and their current general situation. I also made them all roll once on the Madness and Insanity Effects chart to represent mental derangements they had picked up from their fugue state. Where they were slowly going insane and adapting to the Veins in unexpected ways.

After this bit they began exploring the rest of the cave system. This was a few weeks ago and my memory is a bit fuzzy on the details but I will try to recap.

The entire cave system they found themselves in appeared to be some kind of salt mine where the walls were made of salt and the rooms looked like they had been mined out.

The first cave they found themselves in had a bunch of crevasses which, at the bottom of one, was a corpse and a softly glowing orb. Having no items they decided to loot the corpse and climbed down into it. They found a few items, I rolled a few times on my Veins item chart. The softly glowing orb was a glass globe filled with water in which a luminescent fish swam. It had a STR of 15 and was their first lantern.

After this cave they entered into the next cave, a large cavern with strange murals hand-painted on it's walls in rough pigments. There was a throne of salt at one end behind which a gigantic setting sun had been painted. This was the throne of the Sun King. Across from the throne were some skeletal remains of prisons that had been chained to the wall. They broke apart the bones of these skeletons and fashioned rough daggers and clubs out of the thighbones.

They found some footprints in the salt dust on the floor leading from this cave and followed it. It led into another cave in which one of the walls was an iron door with a small grate next to it, letterbox size. They were too afraid to open the door so they pried the grate off the wall and the specialist crawled though. They found a body of another adventurer, dead and stuck in the letterbox. They pulled it out and looted it, then the specialist continued through and looked into the next room from other end which also had a grate on it.

I told them it looked like the magnificent bedroom of a king, kind of like the manor they had been in before in their fugue state. They weren't quite sure what to make of this but decided they better investigate. They opened the metal door, it was unlocked but had a trap on it that would electrify the opener. The specialist avoided it. They found a hallway beyond it at the end of which was another door. The strange thing about the hallway was the first half of it was rough stone and cave like but the second half was like the hallway of the manor. It kind of slowly transitioned or morphed from one to the other like the wooden floorboards had been laid over rough stone, etc.

They went down it and opened the door at the end. They found themselves in the stately bedroom. A figure was asleep under the covers in a bed at the far end. They approached it and the figure woke up. He seemed alarmed and called for his guards who rushed into the room from another door. They were well armed.

The character who had been sleeping introduced himself as the Sun King. The party conversed with them and he revealed that he had sent them terrible dreams of being in a cave system to lure them to his manor. And that they were all to swear fealty to him in his throne room and be his faithful servants. The party asked him what this entailed and it basically meant living forever in his court as his courtiers and being at his beck and call. The party, naturally, wasn't too thrilled about this but decided to go along with things until they could figure out the situation more.

The King and his guards led them out of the room back the way they had come into the throne room. Except that wherever he went they noticed that a bubble of the manor seemed to follow the King and that the King and his guards didn't cast shadows and were probably illusions. They tried to explain to the King how he was likely living in a cave in the Veins of the Earth but he just laughed at them and called such ideas preposterous, that it was he who has sent them the dreams of traveling and being in caves to confuse their minds while they traveled to his kingdom.

They entered the crude throne room they had been in before to find it a magnificent throne room fit for any king with dozens of watching noblemen and courtiers. The King then told them to all kneel before the throne and forever become members of his court.

The players weren't really quite sure how powerful he was, if he had some kind of magic to actually make the oath they swore binding in some way where they couldn't get out of it. They talked amongst themselves a bit about what to do and decided they weren't going to swear this oath and so decided to make a run for it.

They ran from the room, dodging the guards (who they found out, while were illusions, still had mass and could harm them) and ran back the way they had come, to the Kings bedroom. They managed to get ahead of the bubble of illusion and ran into the room and slammed the metal door holding it shut.

Looking around the room they saw it as it truly was, a rough cave, and in the corner on a dirty mattress was a emaciated old man who was hooked up to the dEr0 dream machine. It loomed at the end of the room a giant thing (so big that stealing it was was impractical, I made sure to highlight this to them) of metal wire strange electrified crystals and blinking lights. Think early Nicola Tesla/Thomas Edison type stuff.

They successfully unhooked the frail old man from the dream machine. The banging at the door stopped as the illusions died. He woke up and seemed shocked about where he was, wondering what happened to his kingdom. They explained things and questioned him for a bit. He didn't seem to know much, only that before he had been a King (he refused to think of himself as anything but) he had been a slave and he and the other slaves had mined the salt mines for their Masters who were lords of the Veins of the Earth.

They began to ask him other questions about his Masters. He began to tell them a little bit but didn't get to far as he suddenly began twitching and his eyes bulged out of their sockets. His head exploded right before them sending his metal skull cap flying high into the air.

Splattered with gore the party then had to decided what to do next. They ended up exploring the cave system a little further, they found a pool of water in the Sun Kings room that lead to an underground river and swam it for a bit before finding another exit in a previous room and coming across a gigantic cave where the river spilled across the rock making crossing the cave treacherous.

Anyways, overall this concluded the first session.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Endless Descent: Rule Changes and Treasure Table

(This is an ongoing blog series about my Veins of the Earth Megadungeon Campaign that I call The Endless Descent. You can read the initial campaign ideas here)



Overall I find most of the rules presented in Veins of the Earth work very well with running it as a megadungeon. However there are a few things I'd like to alter in order to have it work a bit better.

Lumes:

As described in the book lumes are used as fuel for your lamp, the currency of the Veins, and experience points. Time is light, and light is very often food, and food keeps you alive.

However I consider lumes to be a very abstract  measure of time with no set value of minutes or hours. Instead certain actions cost certain amounts of lumes as described below.


Traveling in the Veins

As mentioned previously I am going to be generating the Veins cave system by cave system. Where each cave system is a series of connected caves that can be drawn out like a bunch of nodes and lines as illustrated in the book.  Nodes on the map are caves with something of interest. The connecting lines represent connecting caves that don’t have much of interest.

I'm doing things a bit differently than how most OSR RPGs track time. The lines on the map which are connecting caves make up the majority of caves in the Veins, the interesting caves which are the nodes are only a slim percentage. The Veins is a lonely labyrinthine place. The time spent in each interesting cavern (node) is considered moot compared to the time spent moving between interesting caverns (connecting lines on the map).

Therefore each time the players move from one node to another it costs a certain amount of lumes, generally 1d4 exploding. I calculate this when I initially generate each cave system (which I'll post more about at a later date).

Each movement between caverns invokes a wandering monster roll. If the characters move between caverns without light or run out of light halfway through, it invokes a wandering monster roll for each point of lume they would have spent.


Healing and Sleeping

It takes time to heal. To heal players must stop and sleep or rest. They heal one hit point per lume spent resting. They can rest without light in the darkness and still gain hit points but each hit point they heal invokes a wandering monster roll. This roll may be mitigated if they sleep in a heavily secured location.


Recovering Spells

To regain spells or other things that are regained every day, the players must stop and rest as described above and spend at least 8 lumes. 


Eating

Every session the characters must eat. If they don’t they advance along the starvation track.


Lumes and Experience Points

Based upon the leveling charts in the core LOTFP book you need to acquire hundreds or thousands of silver. Overall to really give the game a survival feel I need drastically reduce the amount of lumes given out to the players to make running out of light an actual danger and have every lume count for more. To this end I am using the following chart to for all characters for leveling up:


Level
Lumes
1
0
2
200
3
400
4
800
5
1,600
6
3,200
7
6,400
8
1,2800
9
2,5600
10
3,8400

It's basically the fighters leveling chart reduced by a factor of 10. I generally give out:

1d6 lumes for every body searched.

1d100 lumes in a cache (treasure chest, monster lair, hidden compartment etc.)

And 100-500 lumes for selling an especially rare item or searching the lair of an especially dangerous monster.

Overall it is very hard to get more than 500 lumes at a time and this keeps the amount of lumes the players gain lower, so running out of light is an issue, and how you want to spend that light more meaningful, yet keeps them leveling at around the same rate.


Gaining Experience Points

How the players decided to divide up the lumes they find is up to them. 

In terms of tracking lumes as experience points, the total amount of lumes collected in a session is tracked by me the Referee. At the end of that session a number of experience points equal to the amount is divided between all players at the session.

Additionally the players can spend their lumes to receive experience points on a 1:1 ratio. Yes, this means they are effectively getting 1 experience point when they first find the lume, and then can spend it for an additional experience point. 

This is to give even greater weight to lumes. For example say over the course of two sessions the party of 6 level one characters acquires 200 lumes. They would each have 33 experience points each. They could decide to pool their lumes and have one player spend a bunch of them to advance to second level. But this would leave them without much left to use for light or buy equipment or heal etc. In this manner the players can decide to blow their lumes to quicly level their characters, but may find it puts them in a worse off position. They will have to careful weigh risk v.s reward.


Equipment and Item Use

Very often in OSR games the players can use items they find or materials they scavenge to aid or problem solve in tasks without needing to roll a dice. Like using a plank as a bridge or rope to climb some rock. For these types of situations I am using the following general guidelines:

The players may opt to make a skill check or roll to overcome some kind of obstacle without the use of equipment or items. If they fail they incur some kind of danger.

OR

The players may opt to make some kind of skill check or roll in order to use materials or items they have to overcome some obstacle to gain a bonus on the skill check. If they fail they incur some kind of danger. The items are not consumed in the process.

OR

The players may opt to take their time with the task and build something sturdy and automatically overcome the challenge but the items and 1 lume for each roll that would have been needed to be made is consumed in the process.

For example say the players want to scale a cave. If they don't have any rope or climbing pitons or iron spikes or anything like this to aid them it's going to be a straight climb check. If they fail they take falling damage.

However if they have some rope they can choose to use it to aid them in their task. Say by tying themselves to each other as they go so if someone slips the others can hopefully help them. It will still require a climb roll but the rope won't be consumed.

Or if the players decide to really take their time they can do the task without having to roll at all, but it will 'consume' these resources. Such as putting the iron spikes in the rocks in ways that it's near impossible to recover them or tying so many knots in the rope and spiking it to the rock face that you're not going to get it back.


Treasure:

Because the characters are essentially always stuck in the megadungeon and don't return to town at the end of each session or anything like this, most of the equipment and items they find are going to have to be scavenged.

I've used the equipment charts and item sections in the book to come up with my own equipment chart.

Overall my goal was to ensure a good distribution of the types of items they would need v.s more interesting flavourful items v.s powerful treasure.

Its a fine balance as I wanted the players to be expending equipment to overcome obstacles, like rope, but also finding equipment to replace it. As overall their access to merchants is going to be limited.

Thus there are three general tiers in my treasure table. The first tier is mostly mundane or garbage items that aren't worth much money and don't have much use although players might be able to find a use for them if they get creative. It features Refuse, Clothing, and Personal items. Items of these types are found 25% of the time.

The second tier is more practical stuff. Stuff the characters are going to need to survive and features Equipment, Weapons, and Armour. The players will be able to sell these things, generally for 1d6 lumes if they really want to lug them around. Items of these types are found 44.5% of the time.

The third tier is more valuable stuff. Stuff that the characters are going to really want to get their hands on. They could sell them for a fair amount of money and they are things which will come in handy to get out of tough situations. This tier features Underdark Equipment, Scrolls, and Art. The players will be able to sell these things, generally for at least 100 lumes although finding a buyer may be difficult. Items of these types are found 25% of the time.

Also I hate rolling on subtables and wanted to use this chart on the fly so in order to generate an item you only need to roll twice. Once, 2d6 to determine the type of item the party has found, and then 1d20 to determine the specific item. The entire chart only takes up two pages. Could probably get it down to one if you squished it and got rid of the help text.

Overall I roll on this chart each time the characters search a body or two and several times if they have found a cache or are searching a lair.


Saturday, 20 January 2018

Veins of the Earth Campaign

(Anyone who is currently in my campaign *cough* *cough* Mathew S. please stop reading now!)




Okay, now that I have gotten that out of the way I can talk to the rest of you. I have recently begun a new campaign with my players. We tend to rotate DM's every 4-6 months and each DM gets to start a new campaign.

As I usually do when I sit down to start a campaign, I look at the bookshelf of RPG products that I own to see what I want to use. I rarely use anything wholesale or without modification, but always use something as I don't have the time to create everything from scratch.

I had two vague ideas of what I wanted to do. The first being that I wanted to do a mega-dungeon. I like that style of play and wanted to experiment with it more. The second that I wanted to create the encounters myself rather than running a premade megadungeon.

For each session I'd prep a little 10-15 room section of the megadungeon. The first week would be a bit more week as I'd have to prep the first section plus whatever sections lead off from it. But overall I'd prep the megadungeon in a very modular way where I'd only ever be one step ahead of the players. This would allow me to kind of create content that followed up on whatever the players found interesting.

But overall I still needed a world/setting to 'skin' or theme the megadungeon as I wanted it to be something a bit more than just a generic underground complex.

I have decided to use Veins of the Earth for this purpose. Mainly because I really, really love Veins of the Earth. I read it initially when it came out but then recently went on a trip to New Mexico where I got to visit Carlesbad Caverns. It was a truly amazing surreal and awe inspiring experience, I highly suggest that anyone who has the chance to go visit them. So overall I had caves on the mind.

Veins of the Earth doesn't have a strictly presented default style of play. But adapting it to be more of a megadungeon would involve hacking it in some ways. To this end I have decided to blog about it because, while I have read a lot of reviews about it and how amazing it is, I don't think I've seen any play reports or reports of how people made use of it in actually running a game.

And so we begin!

The Endless Descent...


One theme that I really loved about Veins in the Earth was the whole idea of the endless descent.
There is only the infinite darkness. But not the infinity of outer space, the infinity of endless cofined caverns, each a cloistering chamber, like room in a maze. Time has no meaning; dust could cover the floor, you could find a skeletal body with the trappings of those who lived 1000 years ago; the fossilized remains of something that lived a million years ago; or you could find freshly spilled blood, hear someone's last gasp echoing amid the rock. There is no regularity or consistentcy to time.

Space also has no meaning. Caverns go up, down, twist about, sometimes back upon each other. It's hard to know if you are heading towards a dead end, heading towards where the rock just gets narrower and narrower until you can't continue on but you see it continue before you like the tunnel of an ant. There is a strange dichotomy in caves: that sense of the endless, that each cavern you explore is another passageway, another space, stretches out endlessly; and a sense of the claustrophobic. It is very easy to get lost, very easy to forget that you are deep within the earth, that while the cavern may stretch out before you and seem endless, it is not the openness of outer space. Stone is unforgiving, unyielding. 

There is only the descent. Further, further, into the caves you go, sometimes up, sometimes down. The only point of reference you have is yourself, what you see, what you feel, what you sense or don't sense. You descend, down, down, down, what unknowns await you, you never know. The only way is forward, and to move forward is to move forever down. Past all structure, man and civilization has conceived for itself, deep into the bedrock of time itself. 

It was these themes, presented in the book, and from my own experiencing exploring Carlesbad Caverns, that I wanted to capture with my campaign. 

Cave System Generation Rules


In Veins of the Earth there are two different sets of rules presented for creating and traveling in caverns. One is a set of rules that creates a 'player level' cavern systems. Basically a grouping of caves that the players can explore. Like the weekly mini-dungeon or whatever. The other set of rules creates a more birds-eye-view wilderness type map that the players can use to travel across vast sections of the underdark.

To create my megadungeon I decided to use just the rules involved with creating cavern systems and ignore the birds-eye-view rules. I've modified the cave system generation rules a bit. I'll probably post it at some point when I refine them a bit more. Overall, as mentioned a bit in the above, I would be creating the megadungeon in a modular way. Each cavern system would have 3d6 caves and have a name/theme etc. Additionally each would essentially be the lair of one of the monsters presented in the first half of Veins of the Earth. It wouldn't necessarily be the only monster or enemy that the players would encounter in that cave system. But it would be the apex predator, where while they were in that system they would be on it's turf.

In essence in my underdark, there is no 'wilderness' in how we commonly think of wilderness in RPGs. There are only endless interconnected systems of caves. A natural megadungon. 


Cities and Civilization


Another thing that I wanted to change is how Veins presents cities and civilization. I didn't want the underdark just to be a upside down or shadow version of the surface. On the surface you have cities and villages and various peoples and a whole social structure. I didn't want cultures/civilizations to be arranged in a similar manner below where you'd have underground cities in vast caverns and trade tunnels instead of trade roads and stuff like this. 

The reasons for this are twofold. The first being that from a realistic point of view, it would be near to impossible to have underground cities. Due to the unique geography of caves, from a social and survival point of view, things would develop dramatically different. The most you could probably have are small bands of people. Things would be much, much more tribal. 

This fit well with my megadungeon idea. Where above all else I wanted the overall impression the players got, was to be of that of the mythic underworld, of endless descent. It's kind of hard to have the game embody this feeling if the players stumble across an underground city. The caverns begin to feel a bit less unknown and unmapped, a bit less wild and strange. Additionally, in megadungeons there are often different factions living in the mega-dungeon that the players can interact with. The idea of having no cities and instead scattered tribal groups of 5-15 individuals, who in a way are a lot like the players, exploring the underdark and trying to survive, fit well with this concept. The only difference between them and the players is they will have either simply been born in the underdark or been there much longer than the players.


Cultures and Races


It may seem natural to have the six cultures presented in Veins of the Earth to be the peoples that form the small tribal groups that are encountered. I decided against this.

The main reason I decided against it is that most of the prevailing mystery around megadugneons is who built them and how they came about. Where you delve deeper and deeper into them to find what lies at it's center, to find some answers to all the weird shit that seems to fill them.

With my underdark serving as a natural megadungeon, there would have no such 'builders'. I still needed some source of mystery though. Something or someone that would make the players want to continue delving to find out if they hold the they seek.

The main cultures presented in Veins of the Earth seemed to fit really well for this. They are presented in a really vague way that make them seem alien. They are also the masters of the underdark. They are the intelligent life that has survived the longest in it and adapted to it the most.

They would serve as my metaphorical 'builders' of the megadungeon. Additionally, they would also likely know routes back to the surface if the players wanted to find their way back there. While there is no explicit or set goal of the megadungeon, if the players wanted to answers to the mysteries they encountered while delving, they'd have to seek out one of these races. 

In this manner meeting one of these races would serve as the endgame for the megadungeon. As to what the meeting will entail or what the players hope to get out of it, or even which race they hope to meet up with, it's up to them.

So while they will encounter tribal groups in the underdark, none of them will be made up of the main cultures presented in Veins. Instead they will be made up of the more intelligent monsters, like the Funginoids, the Knotsmen, the Olm, etc. Or even other more solitary monsters as I tend to run my games where interaction besides combat is generally possible with all but the most dangerous or violent monsters.

The cultures presented in Veins instead would be presented in fleeting glimpses. Strange items found, escaped slaves who are insane, strange marking and writings, shadowy figures seen who appear to be watching, basically fragmented events or encounters which only serve to heighten the mysteriousness and utter alien nature of these cultures. 

Keeping direct contact and interaction with them as limited as possible until the endgame also helps to keep them alien. It's kind of hard to have something that the players encounter frequently; in combat, in parley, getting quests from, doing errands for, as alien. I'm going with the less is more approach.


The 4 Cultures 


In the end I decided on using four of the six cultures presented in Veins. The main reason is that four seemed a bit more manageable and some of them seemed to leand themselves more towards the less is more approach than others. I also wanted them to strongly contrast them against each other and four kind of fit well along the whole, good/evil/law/chaos divides that most RPG players know well. Having them contrast each other would force the players to make a meaningful decision about which race they'd like to try to contact and which they feel might be most likely to meet their objectives.

In order to have them encountered indirectly, rather than directly, I have modified the following four cultures in the following ways so I have more to work with in terms of dropping hints, shadowy encounters, signs and foreshadowing, etc.

dEr0


As presented in the book the dEro are paranoid dwarf like creatures skilled in strange, almost steampunk like technology, except heavily focusing on crystals and diamonds and other minerals and electricity rather than brass and steam. The players will find bits and pieces of their technology and gadgets scattered about. Periscopes watching them, be attacked by strange experiments gone wrong, find horribly mutilated and abused test subjects. Kind of like your mad scientist sterotypes with paranoia cranked up to 11. Like an Island of Dr. Monreau or Mysterious Island type situation.

As for the endgame what other fantasy creature tends to be solitary, is incredibly powerful, and often works it's will through intermediaries. Lichs! Often in their incredibly dangerous lich lairs which are mazes of deadly traps. 

Except instead of a Lich it's a dEr0. They're so paranoid they're inherently solitary (they trust other dEr0 the least of all) and build their lairs to protect themselves. Instead of having access to powerful magic, it's strange and alien technology. If the players want to talk to one thy are going to have to reach one at the center of it's deadly lair. Which will be an exercise in deadly mindgames as the dEr0 probably wants people to test it's defenses. So you kind of get around that whole problem of why the fuck would somebody build a deadly maze only to bait people into it problem that most deadly dungeons have.

 Imagine the dEr0 watching their progress and shouting at them constantly through some kind of intercom while they delve into it's maze. 

"AHA! YOU HAVE SURVIVED MY ELECTRIFIED FLOOR PANELS! I WANTED YOU TO SURVIVE MY ELECTRIFIED FLOOR PANELS. THANK YOU FOR TESTING MY ELECTRIC FLOOR PANELS. WHEN YOU WAKE UP FROM THE SIMULATION YOU WILL BE REWARDED. I AM NOT THE dEr0 YOU SEEK. I AM PART OF THE SIMULATION. THE OTHER dEr0 ARE PART OF THE SIMULATION. I AM THE OTHER dEr0. IF THE OTHER dEr0 SENT YOU THEN YOU ARE FAILING THE SIMULATION. HOW CAN YOU NOT PERCEIVE YOUR FAILURE OF THE SIMULATION. THE SIMULATION SIMULATES FAILURE TO SEE HOW THE SIMULATION CAN FAIL. YOU WILL FAIL THE SIMULATION. YOU MUST FAIL THE SIMULATION TO WAKE UP. THE SIMULATION CANNOT NOT FAIL."

Aelf-Adal


As they are presented in the book the Aelf-Adal in my underdark are elven creatures of immense hatred that is so self-contained it is as capricious as it is cruel. They are as likely to laugh their cold laughter, like the twinkling of sliver bells, as they are to slit your throat. Their motivations are utterly chimerical. They seem childlike in nature but are even more alien that this for even children have understandable, base motivations. The Aelf-Adal do not.

They are creatures of pure shadow. You don't hear or see them first. You sense them. Sense an immense hatred. It falls upon you oppressively. You look around lifting your lantern high, half expecting to see someone staring at you out of the darkness, or behind you, but there is no one. 

Sometimes this presence of immense hatred leaves and they are gone. Sometimes it stays, and you hear laughter like a cold sun that sends shivers down your spine. Sometimes you see darkness fluttering on the edge of your vision, like when you turn your head too fast and the image blurs. Someone falls down dead, their throat slit, a monster that you were fighting is disemboweled, a pile of pure white diamonds lie on the floor, a strange symbol is drawn in chalk.

The few who know of the Aelf-Adal know that during these moments, instead of looking around for them, if you douse the flame of your lantern, if you stand in complete darkness you can see them. They stand around you as black outlines, silhouettes of a deeper darkness in the black. Tall and elfin in form. You see them. If you talk to them they may answer. They may not. They may just vanish once they realize they are being observed.

The endgame for the Aelf-Adal would probably involve two parts. The first being finding something they desire. Some innocuous or strange item that it seems like no one would want. An ordinary boot on the skeleton of some long dead adventurer. A flower carved out of dimond. A beautiful purple mushroom that grows alone. And then finding some kind of portal or way to travel to their shadow realm so you can parley with their sexless and ageless Queen giving the item in return for something that you want. 

Dvargir


As described in the book they are work obsessed. They literally live to work. They build, they construct, and then once it's done they abandon it and move on. It's kind of suggested in the book that they build cities. Instead of cities, in my underdark, they build graveyards; mausoleum cities of the dead.

From birth every single Dvargir works endlessly on it's own tomb. They work until it is complete and then once it is complete they entomb themselves inside, lie down in their sarcophagus and close their eyes until they die. It is only when they lay thus, like the final capstone in an arch, is their work and life considered complete. 

Dvargir cities are cities of the dead. Streets laid out, flagstones laid, everything perfectly crafted, everything in perfect symmetry and style. Except instead of rows of houses or buildings you have mausoleums and tombs. Each doorway covered with Dvargir runic equations to protect the bones of those who lie within.

They probably carve their strange runic equations on the bones of lesser creatures to instill the undying will to work in them. To essentially keep them alive and working even when dead. To protect their empty and lifeless cities.

For the endgame the players are going to have to find one of these cities. It probably won't be extraordinarily hard. They're not kept secret. But they are seen as cursed places which are full of all kinds of weird and strange vengeful ghosts and undead. And if they want to talk to a Dvargir they are going to have to remove it's bones from it's tomb and conduct some ritual in the grand temple. A temple that is probably more like a Freemason temple than a church temple, if they want to raise it from the dead. 

I'd probably mix in a bunch of weird Masonic stuff into them and their runes to stop their rune magic from seeming too much like viking magic. Make their runes spell out mathematical equations. Mix in stuff like the whole Master Builder thing in Freemasonry and divine or sacred geometry where the universe is seen as being designed with divine proportions and if you can understand the divine math you can harness the power of god or something. They understand this sacred math.

Gnomen

Like in the book in my underdark the Gnomen are going to be free-spirited creatures that tend to live in the moment. I'm going to basically make them like your sprites or faeries of folklore.

They are diminutive in side. No more than 12 inches tall. You also hardly ever see them. Instead like the story about the cobbler where he wakes up every morning and finds all his shoes have been cobbled in the night and then stays up all night to see the faeries doing it and then they disappear and never do it again, the Gnomen are going to be like that.

The players may wake up and find their gear fixed. Or be stuck in a chasm and find a rope unfurling from above to help them but when they climb up find no one there. Or find miniature tools lying about at times. Or miniature clothing. The Gnomen are the only purely good culture of the 4. They'll be helpful to the players but incredibly shy. Only helping them in ways where they can avoid being seen and can probably turn invisible or something.

The endgame for them is they probably need the players to do something. Like their race is trapped or enslaved. Maybe not necessarily physically but they have been bound and enslaved in some way. They yearn to truly be free, to escape their bonds of slavery. But they can't act directly against whatever enslaves them. It's part of the geas upon them. So they have to act indirectly. To kind of do good things for the players and hope the players become interested with them. Give the players signs about their predicament and hope that the players kind of figure it out and solve the riddle that they need to solve to free them and defeat whatever enslaves them.

  

The Knotsmen

I know I said I'm having only four major cultures that serve as the dungeon 'builders' and a source of the endgame, but the Knotsmen deserve special mention as they will be the glue that kind holds a lot of it together.

Like in the book they are obsessed with debt, never give anything away for free, and inherently untrustworthy, etc. In my undedark they are essentially the main merchants/sources of information. You don't encounter villages of them or even tribes. You only encounter they individually, and never encounter the same one twice (although they look similar). But they all seem to know about your previous encounters and dealings. If you kill one and encounter another, no matter how well you covered up the murder, the next ones will know. They may not care, probably won't care, but they know.

They always travel about on skiffs and are always encountered on bodies of water. Underground rivers, lakes, pools etc. They seem to use these waterways to travel about although it's never seen how and they never offer to take the players anywhere. They always have items for sale or barter, sometimes mundane, sometimes magical, and always information to sell. If the players want to get info about the 4 main cultures, the Knotsmen are an excellent source.

They never give anything away for free. Additionally they refuse to sell or barter anything that the players desire most. No amount of money or promises or anything will sway them. They will only provide what is most wanted for debt: they will give you what you want but someday, someway, they will come to collect upon that debt. What that debt entails is largely ambiguous but if the players roleplay it well enough the Knotsman may agree to conditions. If they agree to conditions they will always try to cheat them. They are kind of like a combination of the devil at the crossroads and Charon the ferryman

They probably show up every session or two. As I'm doing the underdark as a megadungeon and the players are stuck in it, there will be no opportunity to exit the megadungeon and go back to the nearby village to rest and buy stuff as there is in most megadungeons. Instead the players are essentially trapped in the megadungeon. The Knotsman can essentially provide the services and actives the players would normally do in town and serve as a reoccurring or familiar point of contact this way.