Thursday, April 21, 2011

S Is For Sewer

As I just finished through Stone and Sea, the second fantasy novel in the new Noble Dead series by Barb Hendee, it had a few parts where Wynn and her companions are working their way through an underground entrance that has waterways and such in it. Not quite a sewer, but it tied into my idea for S anyway, which was sewer so though I'd toss that out there. It was something I was thinking of in terms of its long use in both games and books, such as when Sharpe makes his escape in one during one of his various terms of imprisonment.

For me, sewers tend to be fairly iconic to cities. They are the low side of things. The city based dungeon if you will. Their prominence in cities varies depending upon the topic and year of publication. In the old Waterdeep City of Splendors boxed set, there are maps, general overviews really, as well as encounter tables and some ideas of what can be found down there. Movies, especially horror movies, have also made fine use of sewers such as CHUD, also known as the cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. Ah, the 80's, how I miss you so.

In terms of using a sewer in a fantasy game, there are many utilities possible.

1. Item is lost in the sewer.

2. Individual is hiding in the sewer.

3. City is in ruins but sewers are intact and allow users to navigate the ruins.

4. Unique local monsters are down there.

5. Neutral meeting ground.

In terms of mapping, due to the potential maze like nature of the sewers, I generally have a few 'key points' mapped out and use a flow chart to indicate other things that might happen. Most of the flow chart is just movement. After all, if every delve into the sewers was a disaster, it wouldn't be too useful to the city above in its main job. 

So by having a few key points mapped out, generally a straight branch of sewer, maybe two or three versions that have different widths and heights, as well as a few connection points, I can throw out the map when the players do have encounters.

For encounters, generally I see sewers as having a few potential encounters.

1. Nothing. This is what I'm talking about. Just walking around the sewers might not be the most pleasant thing but shouldn't be an automatic death sentence.

2. Animals. These can range from the standard rat to it's larger or more diseased siblings to snakes living in the water or even the dreaded baby crocodiles.

3. Undead. If there's a worse place to die right? You'd be haunting this place as well right? But on a more serious note, any necromancer worth his salt that is using the sewers to conduct his experiments should be able to use the undead, who don't need to breath, as nice little traps for players. Sure, the skeletons are minions or low level hit dice, but when they start drowning you? In that filth? Ugh. Some undead that might be more feral, like ghouls or ghasts, may set up shop underneath say a butcher's shop or a morgue and come out at night and help themselves to some snacks.

4. Humans. For some poor bastards, they actually have jobs in the sewers. This can range from rat catching to plumbing. Some of these folk might act as patrons for characters if a rat catcher doesn't come back or a boss needs to break up those cursed union plumbing thugs and their evil ways! In a city where the thieves guild has no sway, thieves and beggars may make use of the sewers, perhaps using them as a spy network to quickly move around town without being seen. Such a service may prove valuable to players with a price on their necks.

5. A dungeon. What if the sewers are built on top of an even older, more ancient structure that was there? The trip through the sewer itself merely becomes an entrance way into the more traditional roles that players are used to.

6. Unusual. This could be harsh rains that flood the sewer, structural damage to the sewer causing blockage and backing up of materials and waters, cracks and drainage in the bottom of the sewer causing water to drain out, etc...

In short, sewers are a location that despite its humble origin, has long had a place in role playing games and with its many uses, will continue to do so.