The following is based on material prepared for My ‘Seeds Of Empire’ campaign in mid-2006. It has been rewritten to form a standalone setting for an encounter with an original creature to be found there (amongst others), as part of the February blog carnival. A day or so late, but better late than never…
It also serves as an example to my approaches to game-prep, adventure design, encounter design, and monster creation. When I ran this setting, we got 20 sessions of play from it. However, a lot of character interaction notes relevant only to the PCs and NPCs that took part have been excised; the original version was about twice this length. So my normal level of prep is 1/10th of this for a single session of play.
It is strongly recommended that this setting and encounter be run using the rules in “Sandstorm” from WOTC. Using the information provided in that supplement, in conjunction with the “Monster’s Handbook” by Fantasy Flight Games will make it easy to customise standard encounters from the Monster Manual or other sources to suit the environment. The rules in the “Manual Of The Planes” on adding elemental templates (p193) were also useful.
The Jörð Veröld (Earth World)
The Jörð Veröld is an elemental subplane or pocket reality derived from the elemental plane of Earth with infusions of air and fire. It can be presumed that at one time there was also an infusion from the water-plane but that this was sealed by molten lava and the water boiled away.
The plane essentially consists of 6 layers, each with their own features. Most of these will not be presented in detail here, but some key points will be identified. Each is discussed seperately below and a submap presented.
General Environmental Features:
The plane is spiritually and magically isolated. That means that no spells higher than 5th level can be cast, and no spells higher than 3rd level can be memorised or replenished once cast. Time moves more slowly within the subplane; for every second spent there, 1¼ seconds pass in the outside world.
Many of the terrain features come best as surprises, so the pocket realm should be newly-discovered. While the environment limits the effectiveness of mages, clerics, and other spellcasters, the setting is most effective with characters of 6th-8th level (at least initially). There are plenty of XP and roleplaying opportunities on offer, but not much in the way of treasure unless the party can get creative.
In essence, the place is one huge cavern within a region of relatively ‘soft’ granite and other ignious stone types, except as noted below. The exterior walls beyond the region detailed are a dark grey stone that is harder than granite; tools bounce from its walls and leave it unmarked. At the referee’s discretion, the entrance may also consist of the ‘softer’ stone, enabling Dwarvish miners to dig to the realm.
Place Names etc:
Icelandic is the modern tongue that is closest in spelling, grammar, and pronunciation with the language of the Vikings, which in turn is similar to the language used by native residents. Translations from english were carried out using Intertran and best guesses used for pronunciation. Until the PCs encounter the inhabitants, it is suggested that you let the players name the creatures and features that they encounter; the names used here are those bestowed by my PCs when they travelled through the region.
Each ‘level’ of the map is shown on a square 100 miles x 100 miles. Vertical distances are not to scale. The gaps, from bottom level to uppermost level, are: 1 mile, ½ miles, 15 miles, and 1 mile.
A Note On Gravity:
Gravity doesn’t work the way the PCs are used to, but at first the differences will be subtle and hard to spot. Observation and analysis will permit the PCs to notice the difference but not necessarily understand it. The natives think they understand it and have built a unique culture around the things that it permits them to do, but the PCs may ultimately discover that they have subtly misinterpreted the way that gravity REALLY works and uncover the truth.
- Standard Gravity: Down is apprarantly in a fixed direction and is the result of the attractive force of the greatest mass, which is (presumably) beneath the players’ feet.
- Mistaken Belief: Temperature replaces mass in standard gravity equations and concepts. ‘Down’ is towards the greatest source of heat, but a closer object of lesser temperature may have a greater effect than a hotter source that is much farther away.
- The Truth: Gravity represents the innate attraction between objects of greatest thermal differential – a colder object is more strongly attracted to a hotter one. Since, in any pair of objects at different temperatures, one will always be cooler than the other, the two always attract each other to some extent. A brass ball that has been heated over a campfire will be more strongly attracted to a fireball – OR to a wall of ice – than an object at ‘room temperature’.
Laegstur Undirheimar (Lowermost Underearth)
Entrance to the Jörð Veröld is via the ‘caverns’ at the lower right corner. What appear to be tunnels are ‘rivers’ of dust, mostly red-hot, but with some white-hot ‘thermal currents’. These can blind the unsuspecting. Note that as soon as the entrance is breached or opened, whether by planar portal or by pickaxe, temperatures in the immediate region will rapidly increase; since hot air both rises and expands, there will be a perpetual wind of d10x[d4]+d10 (=21-50) mph, flinging red-hot dust and sand into the air. This is intended as something of a forewarning to the PCs of the conditions they will face within.
Once a character enters the Jörð Veröld, he becomes subject to the natural laws and conditions of the environment within. That means that dust will cling and stick to characters. The harder the characters work, or the heavier the protective armour they wear, the harder the dust will be to dislodge. If inhaled, the dust will quickly coat the interior surface of the lungs, suffocating the character. The dust rivers should be treated like “Softsand” (Refer p26, Sandstorm, and “Drowning” p304, DMG 3.5 for rules guidelines).
Attempting to travel along the passage is like trying to swim up a waterfall: you can’t, you have to climb the cliff-face behind the water while it continually tries to sweep you off. Movement is at normal climbing rates for the character, and all climb DCs are +5 compared to the usual because of the opposing current and the heat. The DM may also need to add +5 if the characters are climbing ‘blind’ due to protective head-wrappings. Those doing so will soon realise that the ‘bottom’ surface is hotter than the ‘upper’ surface, where a series of air pockets (visible in the next layer up) enable regular rest stops.
Despite how nightmarish and lethal this all sounds, the entrance section is actually relatively mild and designed as a warm-up to that the PCs (and players) can begin to adjust to local conditions.
The passage eventually reaches a ‘sinkhole’ which leads through the Efri Undirheimar (Upper Underworld) (where the air pockets are) to the Yfirborð Undirheimar (Surface Underworld). At three distinct locations on the sides of the sinkhole are waterfalls of lava; these strike the softsand, slowly fusing it into a crumbling, fragile, glass. It is not reccommended that characters put their hands (or any other part of their bodies) into a lava waterfall; to avoid them, characters will have to decide quickly where to go from here.
Looking up at the ‘sky’ itself, at first glance it seems that this is merely the roof of a larger cavern, and that it is red hot in places. On closer examination (Spot check, DC 25) it can be discerned that what appear to be cracks in a cooler serface to a glowing hot interior are actually rivers and streamers of lava flowing across the face of the ceiling of the ‘cavern’ as though the team were attached to the ceiling. It seems to be as much ‘down’ there as it is here. The distance to this ‘ceiling’ is impossible to determine.
Yfirborð Undirheimar (Surface Underworld)
Climbing to the ‘surface’ is not difficult, 2 climb rolls at DC 12 will do it. But conditions there are not as comfortable as those enjoyed in a sheltered cavern, softsand or no softsand. Dust storms rage across the surface at 120km/h, blinding anyone foolish enough to raise their unprotected heads (Refer ‘Sandstorm, Flensing’, p17 “Sandstorm”, and Suffocating In A Sandstorm – same page). The terrain above the ‘surface’ consists of sand dunes whose outer surface has been fused into a thin layer of glass. Winding back and forth and criss-crossing the low points between dunes are rivers of slow-moving lava. [NB: They stay there because they are closer to the cooler middle layer, ie not seperated by as much insulating dune.]
Whenever there is an abatement of the sandstorms, it can be seen that gravity takes some strange paths through this place. Magma from the erupting volcano not only escapes from vents, great tears in its side, to flow toward the Great chasm; but some also falls ‘up’ to land on the ceiling of the Great Cavern, from where it periodically rains down or back up – but only in certain spots, forming columns and geysers of lava of such incredible temperature that they imbue everything with a reddish-yellow light strong enough to cast shadows.
Crossing from one ‘dune’ to another is not all that easy either. Like old faithful, the ‘rivers’ of languid lava are sometimes not so languid; they periodically erupt as a superheated gas bubble bursts, spraying red-hot molten earth for some feet in every direction. The glass dunes are extremely slippery (especially when its hard to see your footing), and any slip carries the risk of plunging the character into one of the rivers of lava. The sands underneath some of the ‘glass dunes’ has been ‘washed away’ by softsand, and the glass alone is not strong enough to support a person’s weight. The resulting glass ‘domes’ make natural lairs for nasty creatures. There are 35 ‘dunes’ on this side of the great chasm and 20 on the far side. Each time a character steps onto a new one, roll 1d8-1:
- 0-1: Hollow ‘dune'; reflex save DC 15 to avoid crashing through (no explanation); 20% chance occupied
- 2: Slippery ‘dune': reflex save DC 15 to avoid slipping into lava river
- 3: Hollow ‘dune’ leading to a softsand sinkspot
- 4-5: safe ‘dune’
- 6-7: temporary absence of dust storms and driving winds.
- 8: ‘dune’ is already broken.
Roll d6+2 on the above table instead.
- Larviders: ‘trap-door’ spiders that spit lava. They may cover holes in a broken dune with webbing that holds a character stuck until the Larvider comes along for lunch. In appearance they are more like an 8-legged praying mantis standing 12′ tall. They prey on Magmadiles and Thermagores.
- Magmadiles: Giant crocodiles with insulated skin that swim in the lava streams and hunt Thermagores.
- Thermagores: A cross between buffalo and lobsters, the size of goats, and about as sure-footed due to low centres of gravity. Thermagores eat the dust and drink the lava flows, excreting a ‘dung’ of white-hot molten glass, which spreads and flows to cover, reinforce, and replace the glass surfaces. Skins are metallic lobster-like armour and red-hot. Thermagores are non-sentient ‘magma’ elementals that operate in herds. They don’t drink to replenish fluids, but to maintain their internal operating temperature.
- Fire Scarabs: flesh-eating insects, small, operate in swams. Based on Miniaturised Chuul (3 hd, -4 CR, half stated damage)
- Lavamel: beast of burdon, plant eater, ‘drinks’ the dust for the plant matter. Base on Manticore.
- Gripps: semi-sentient nastys (barbarians) – Use Octopus, Add Earth Subtype as per Manual Of The Planes p192. Behaviour and other abilities as per Dryder. May take character levels in Barbarian.
A number of geographic features (other than the ‘ceiling’) dominate the landscape, clearly visible from the peak of any ‘dune’. Foremost amongst them is a huge volcano, stretching a mile toward the ceiling of the cave; an equally massive chasm ripped across the breadth of the cavern of unknown depth; a ‘waterfall’ of lava down the side of the chasm; and a number of ‘dust clouds’ floating roughly midway between cave floor and cave ‘ceiling’. Some of the ‘dunes’ are connected by great flows of stone which rise up, curve over, and then descend. Some of these stone archway ramps are broken, others are fragile; characters may suffer some bad falls.
These are giant streamers of magma that periodically cross from one side of the cavern to another, the result of a part of the pocket realm getting too close to the elemental plane of fire, which contacts it at top and bottom. This produces an eruption from the surface due to the sudden release of heat; some of the time, this is insufficient to overcome the gravitic attraction the magma has towards the heat that created it, sucking the material back where it came from like a movie of a water spash suddenly being played in reverse from half-way through. About 1/3 of the time, it will get stuck in no man’s land, momentum and gravitic attraction more or less cancelling out; the heat of the magma will attract a wind cloud (described below), the winds will cool the magma and tear it into small particles; colliding with other such particles within the swirling winds will break these up into more dust. And about 1/3 of the time, the magmaspout will be propelled too far and the proximity of the heat from the other side will become more powerful than the attractive force of the propelling heatsource. This creates a temporary bridge from one side of the realm (top or bottom) to the other.
The observant can note a sort of curdling of the magma floor around the base of the magmaspout indicating that it is flowing away from this side of the cavern to the other; the absence of this characteristic effect indicates the opposite. Magmaspouts always spin in a clockwise direction, regardless of whether they are rising or falling.
The Sjór Gólf (Sea Floor)
This is a misshapen collection of mesas, stagmites (or should they be stalactites?), and lava rivers flowing from mesa top to mesa top. Only when approaching it closely can it be observed that there is actually a layer of some form of transparent material, and that it is acorss the surface of this material that the lava rivers flow. Some of the mesas project above the surface and have cooled to the point of solidity. These are inhabited by the Fólk Afsteinn (The People Of Stone).
- Aava: Giant bird of prey, hawklike behaviour except as noted. Typical size as per wyvern, can grow to three times that size. Brave in groups but a little more timid when alone, they will feign attacks in an attempt to drive off what they perceive as competitors. They hunt smaller arial creatures. They remain insubstantial until they attack, and are the second largest predator known to the Fólk Afsteinn. Until they strike, they can sometimes be scared off, but once they attack they lose what little sense they have and will fight to the death. Base on Wyvern with the Ghost template.
Vindurský (Wind Clouds)
These float between the two two ‘floors’ of the cavern, drifting this way and that, captive pockets of rapidly-swirling dust and wind, driven this way and that by the hot air given off by the lava flows. From time to time, one will be driven to make contact with this surface or that; at which point strange things happen to it. If the point of contact is the glass dunes, the ‘surface tension’ holding the writhing spheroid of twisitng winds is broken, and the contents spill out to blow across the surface at high speed; this is the source of the dust storms that plague those who attempt to cross the dunes. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the dunes were originally composed entirely of such ash drifts.
If the clouds get too close to the cracked surface of the ‘ceiling’, they are similarly torn apart, and are instantly liquified by the incredible heat from an almost invisible ocean of glass, the SjórAfGler which somehow retains its transparent qualities; The resulting magma flows across and through this surface, slowly sinking. When this happens, think of a trail of ink being poured into a fishtank of slowly-running water.
If the clouds land apon the surface of the floor or walls of the Great Chasm, the winds are trapped, and eventually blow themselves out, replenishing the rivers of ‘softsand’.
Nor is the traffic all one-way; as the magma expelled from the volcano slowly yields its heat to the environment around it, so it eventually solidifies. Where this takes place apon the ‘ceiling’ of the cavern, it sinks beneath the liquid glass, becoming ‘mesas’ or ‘islands’ that project above the surface of the Sjór Af Gler; where it takes place amongst the glass dunes, it shatters into dust, which works its way through small cracks eroded within the glass by temperature changes and high-speed windstorms. Most of it will be swept up by windstorms to add to another cloud; but some will be swept up into a stream of softsand, replenishing the original source of the lava. Strange as it might seem, this is actually a relatively stable landscape!
A note on the ecology:
The ubiquitous softsand of the realm, like the dust clouds in the air, are not just particles of earth; the dust provides a medium in which various forms of algae thrive, receiving light (periodically) from the volcano and lava flows. These form the basis of the ecology of the region. Clumps of more solid vegetation called ‘bushes’ drift through the air and the softsand, feeding on the smaller organisms in the same manner as fish and concentrating water within their bodies, giving them a bloated, lungfish look. When they take root in a more permanent location, they grow to resemble ‘cacti’, which are larger again, up to 8′ tall. These in turn are harvested by sentient inhabitants and simply consumed by non-sentient inhabitants. There are always predators who consume the weaker inhabitants!
- Aava: (as described previously)
- Veiði Risastór (hunting giant): Giant bird of prey. Behaviour as Eagle. Based on Salamanders, +2 sizes, +4 HD, +lillend flight. 8′ talons, gives 30′ reach.
- Birds (generic): brightly coloured arial creatures with feathers, mostly insect and plant eaters. Describe as small flying mammals – guinea pigs, rats, squirrels, etc. More information on the ‘birds’ can be found below; characters at this point are unlikely to be able to examine them closely.
- Ishka: the smartest of the arial creatures, capable of limited speech, winged (and feathered) monkeys. Feathers look like those of a parrot or other brightly-coloured tropical bird. Can be trained somewhat. Behaviour as dolphins. Given enough food, they can multiply to the point of becoming a pest, but that doesn’t happen often. They like to play games with shiny things (a bit of magpie behaviour). When someone takes the hand of an Ishka, they immediatly become aware of its emotions, eg “a slight hunger, a growing desire to mate with another of its kind now that it has eaten, and enjoyment of the nonsense game that it is playing with the shiny toys”. Once something is out of reach, they tend to forget it. Some sailors like to teach them to retrieve objects lost overboard on the ocean of glass. This is achieved by making a new game with the creature, swapping a gem for a peice of metal and then back again. Each time, the creature will chitter with delight as it examines its new toy as though it had never seen it before. Once the Ishka is familair with the game, the sailor can withhold his peice when the Ishka attempts to make the swap, then give both to the Ishka at once, then hold up a piece of fresh cactus in the ‘swapping things’ gesture and count four using the fingers of the Ishka’s paw. It will usually try to swap the two things it has for the food; the sailor refuses, pulling away the food, and again count four on the Ishka’s fingers. After a couple of attempts, the semi-intelligent ape will learn this new game. The Ishka will then go in search of more ‘bright shiny’ things like the gemstone and piece of metal that it was trained with – it might come back with a lost spearhead, a peice of uncut gemstone, or almost anything else that fits the description. Ishkas live at the bottom of the sea, no-one knows how. Occasionally, the Fólk Afsteinn will find dead ones and they have tried to make gloves and suits from the feathered hides, but they don’t confer any immunity to the heat; all who have tried it were maimed from the burns. While it is searching, any of its own people who it meets will learn the game from it, and there will soon be a dozen or more scouring this part of the ocean for ‘shiny things’. Each will play the game until all have eaten their fill, until they can’t find anything else to trade, or until one of them is turned away unfed. Somehow, they all know when that happens, all over the cavern. But by tomorrow, they will have forgotten, and a sailor can entice a new group to search.
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