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For as long as there have been role-playing games, it has been possible to descend into a hole in the ground, run around, beat things up, and take their stuff. You might think that after all this time, the underground environment has
been pretty well described. There probably isn't much more to say about the mere fact of being underground forty-odd years after Gygax started killing magic-users under Castle Greyhawk, right?
In GURPS Underground Adventures, William H. Stoddard answers, "Well, funny you should ask that." Turns out there's plenty more to say about underground adventuring. Caves have interesting accoustics. There are fun and exciting new ways to die from environmental hazzards, such as sudden floods or various kinds of bad air. People once thought that the earth might be hollow, or that it could be the body of a dead god. And do you have any idea how hot it gets down there?
In 37 pages (32 if you exclude the cover, front matter, and index), Underground Adventures delivers an impressive amount of information you didn't even know you needed for, well, underground adventures. It is divided into five chapters, covering the nature of the underground (real and fanciful), getting around underground, the sorts of people who venture underground, the kinds of critters they meet there, and the types of adventures they might have.
Chapter 1, The Foundations of the Earth, covers caves and the interor of the Earth from a mythological and scientific standpoint. Ancient, medieval, and modern views are all covered, though briefly. Stoddard touches on the flat earth, the hollow earth, occult theories, and modern geology. Most of the information could be gathered by skimming Wikipedia for an hour or two, but this chapter will save you the effort, and there is some information you wouldn't be likely to find without some serious digging. A few things felt like filler, such as the chart of the Earth's ages, which will tell you that the Mississipian Period began 360 million years ago, but nothing about what the Mississippian was like. But there are outweighed by the tasty treats the chapter includes: stats for Ymir, the giant of Norse legend whose murdered body became the world (he's worth more than a hundred million points), for instance, or an answer to the question of what kind of damage it would take to destroy the Earth.
Chapter 2, Tight Places, is all about getting around underground, and it's the most cruch-heavy part of the book. We get rules for seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, and creeping along by touch. There are rules on navigating, climbing, and fighting in dark, twisting, confined spaces, and rules on the dangers of low temperatures, high temperatures, bad air, cave-ins, floods, and simply getting stuck in a narrow space. Designing mines and digging them? That's covered too. There's a box on shooting grapnels with crossbows, and another on using magic underground. The chapter is only five pages long, but except possibly for the magic, every bit of it is solid information you can use in just about any adventure that takes place underground.
Chapter 3, Explorers, features five character templates, a section on new or modified advantages, disadvantages, and skills, and a section on equipment. Templates first: the Caver is a modern (or near-modern) explorer who's in it for the fun. The Chthomancer (a word with fewer than 200 Google hits; use it before it gets all trendy) is a wizard specializing in spells that would be useful in a cave. The Geologist is interested in the rocks on the top of the earth as well as the ones underneath it, and so isn't as adept as the Caver at exploring, but has a wider background of knowledge. The Lurker is an adventurer who's gone native in the underground environment, and not in an entirely wholesome way. The Miner a technical expert at not just going into the spaces of the earth, but also on making new space where Nature never intended. Each template features notes on powering it up or down if you want a higher or lower point cost.
The next section of Chapter 3 covers special tweaks and additions to advantages, disadvantages, and skills for use underground. As you would probably expect, traits such as Dark Vision and Geology are covered, but so are less obvious traits such as Temperature Tolerance and Scuba. There are also a few new techniques and spells. Good, solid crunch the whole way.
Chapter 3 finishes with a section on equipment, including climbing gear, lighting, navigation equipment, protective clothing, scientific equipment, tools for digging, and vehicles. A bit over half have been previously described in GURPS Low-Tech, GURPS High-Tech, or GURPS Ultra-Tech, with the rest new. There is also a section on using explosives to break up rock, and a box on dowsing rods and the like, either as real magic or as quackery.
Chapter 4 is Dwellers in the Darkness. It features five short sections on the various kinds of creatures you might find underground with one or two examples of each. "Spirits of the Underworld" are represented by the spelid, the cave-dwelling variety of nymph. Griffins are given as example of a species of "Living Fossils" from an alternate history, and the Zwerg is a Neanderthal that has survived into the present day. "Cave Creatures" are represented by Scuttlers, fleshy worms with a paralytic bite that swarm over and devour the unwary. Nightfolk, who are trogdolytic humanoid carrion-eaters, represent "Burrowers." And "Life Under Pressure" describes the Crystalloids, sapient creatures who live on the surface of the Earth's solid iron core, in the sea of iron formed by its molten outer core. If you are wondering how a race that lives in such an extreme environment could ever interact with the PCs in your campaign, never fear. The chapter closes out with a Tech Level 11 surface suit for the Crystalloid explorer, and a box giving the under-the-hood mechanics for their stats.
Chapter 5, Adventures Underground, focuses on underground environments as the backdrop or setting for adventures. There is a box describing different sorts of cave, and sections on underground areas as recent discoveries, as ongoing excavations, and as entire worlds. This is followed by a page offering five campaign seeds, covering genres from fantasy to historical adventure to space-faring science fiction. This chapter is very short at only three pages, and I would rate it as the least useful part of the book. I find myself wishing that the ideas here had either been expanded upon or left out.
The book ends with a two-page appendix, Recommended Reading (which actually covers books, film, television, and music) and an index.
Strengths and Weaknesseslink
The main strength of this book, and it is a big one, is the great deal of crunch you get with it. This book packs quite a bit into 37 pages: 5 new templates, 3 new Talents, 2 new Standard Operating Procedure perks, 1 new Code of Honor, 4 new techniques, 6 new spells and 1 new form of Divination, 24 new pieces of equipment, including 3 new vehicles types, and 6 new creatures, not including the god Ymir.
But the book is more than just a big pile of traits. The descriptions of the underground environment and the rules for dealing with them are integrated well, and the templates and creatures span a wide enough range of genres that just about any game will find something useful.
As for weaknesses, it is difficult to find anything significant to complain about. As noted above, I thought the final chapter, Adventures Underground, was too brief to be very useful. Also, there's some inconsistency about wheelbarrows: an "average wheelbarrow load" is given as 0.1 cubic yards on page 13, but on page 26, we are told that a wheelbarrow "carries a load of six cubic feet," which is more than twice as much. If a flaw of that magnitude doesn't ruin your game, you will probably like the book.
Who will find this book useful?
For GURPS players, dungeon-delving games will obviously benefit from this book, but many other campaigns would benefit as well. Old West games have gold mines, horror games have ancient crypts, zombie survival games have ruined, partially-collapsed buildings, supers games have hidden underground lairs, and so on. The rules on senses and moving around in a constricted environment would be useful in environments that aren't even underground, such as a derelict space dreadnaught. I would recommend this book for just about any campaign, because if you read these rules, you will be looking for an excuse to send your players into a cave or a crypt or a subway tunnel or something. There's just something fun about exploring the dark underground that no other location can quite match.
For non-GURPS games, the book still offers many uses. The first chapter, aside from stats for the god Ymir and the damage calculations for destroying the Earth, is entirely system-neutral. The second chapter has information on hazards and unexpected conditions that would help in any system. The third chapter is largely concerned with GURPS mechanics, but the equipment list gives prices in dollars and weights in pounds, so it might not be too difficult to convert. The fourth chapter's creatures are GURPS-specific in their stats, but the ideas behind the stats might be useful. The fifth chapter is again system-neutral.
Style and Presentation
The book is cleanly and clearly laid out. There is a table of contents and an index, both useful. The text is well-written and well-edited, and the only place I noticed a typo was in the index. I rate the text and layout a 5 out of 5.
The art, unfortunately, is typical for a GURPS publication. It ranges from uninspiring to bad, but there isn't very much of it. Apart from two small accent pieces, all the interior art is shown in a collage on the front cover, so if you look at the free preview, you can judge for yourself. There's nothing that's absolutely horrible, so I give the art a 2 out of 5.
GURPS Underground Adventures is an excellent book. If the PCs in your game ever venture underground, buy this book. If the PCs in your game don't ever venture underground, buy this book, and you will suddenly want them to.