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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

Going Underground

by Justin Unrau
Jun 02,2005


Going Underground

"So when the invaders came, the people who lived in the area fled their villages and went underground."

The tour guide seemed a bit non-plussed about it all as we stood around a small stone well. In truth, the well wasn't much to look at, and she'd probably done this spiel a hundred times before in the hot Turkish sun.

But hundreds of years before, that pile of stones was all people would find of the inhabitants they'd come to slaughter. It was a chimney for a city that extended more than seven storeys below the earth.

Here's the thing about underground cities in real life: They ain't built by dwarves. When early Christians in Cappadocia dug out these hiding places like Derinkuyu they were ordinary people digging holes in the rock to hide in.

Floors aren't flat, those rounded caverny edges we always put on our maps extend to the floor. And everything is small. I mean, it makes sense not to be carving out cathedrals when you're making a hiding place, but really. I went into a bunch of cave churches and things in Turkey and all of them felt about big enough to hold twenty people.

Some of these churches & homes (to digress from the underground city thing for a moment) were caves that were way up in these rock spires, the old wooden ladders long gone. My buddy and I tried to climb to a few of them, but it's way more difficult than it looks for a non-professional. That's a big thing I learned as a traveler: if you're playing a "regular people" kind of game, there really are lots of things that look easy but you just can't do. Even if you're young and fit and reasonably clever. If that bugs you the way it bugged me out in the field, play heroes. And GMs should always remember that realism isn't always fun. Anyway, back underground.

The levels in Derinkuyu spiral down staircases in haphazard fashion with rooms sprouting off of passages and nowhere for a door to go. The levels aren't nicely leveled: in Derinkuyu you can count as many as 18 levels but everything is kind of done in that split level kind of style. There are little narrow bridges up above other rooms that put your feet at about head level. Way down at the bottom was their chapel which was an actually decent sized room.

One of my favourite parts of the city was linked to that well up above ground. Normally it acted as the main ventilation shaft. Way down by the chapel the opening was just a small point of light. Now this was supposed to be a secret city, right? So what happens if someone from the invading horde comes and tries to draw water from the well? Supposedly the shaft did eventually hit water so the well up top was a functional bit of camoflauge. I just picture all these people hiding below the earth listening to a bucket on a rope inching its way down.

But all of that came with really mundane concerns too. Just because they were hiding didn't mean their lives stopped. The people had to have stables underground, and built churches and schools as well. One of the details that I remember was how the latrines were kept in the upper levels, and thus so were the living quarters for pregnant women and the old and infirm.

This little detail could be really useful for GMs. I know most of us don't roleplay calls of nature as such, but if you need to get a character alone (so someone shady can whisper secrets in their ears or whatever) there are lots of opportunities as they trek from the deep levels where the able-bodied are hanging out to the potty.

Sometimes games'll touch on the claustrophobia aspect of being underground. It's amazing how much of that there is as you head down. I was going with a tour group of about 15 people and every room we stopped in we filled to overflowing. It got even worse when you'd meet another bunch of people coming up. And Derinkuyu could purportedly hold over 10,000 people for months at a time. For me, this will influence my characters when they're doing things underground.

And we haven't even touched on the problem of light. I was hiking through these places with the magic of electric lights. Even then, it was shadowy and places to hide are everywhere. Then layering on torchlight and thousands of people? Finding anyone would be a massive surprise.

Of course this is way different from the dwarven metropoli that D&D style adventurers find themselves in. And that just supports the central idea of this column, that going out and seeing real things affects your games. Now when I go back to The Fellowship of the Ring the halls of Moria are that much more fantastic. Look at how much space there is! Boromir isn't hitting his head in the middle of a room on the uneven ceiling. Now when I'm a player and the DM describes dwarven craftsmanship I've got something to compare it with.

Today we don't really carve out underground cities, so my modern day games won't be using these experiences in the near future (unless I were to run a Bin Laden hunt game or something).

But scifi games, well there people carve out asteroids all the time. Sure, Derinkuyu is different from mining and having heavy machinery all over the place, but it's going to form the images of what an asteroid hideout would be like for me. And changing the orientation for a zero-G environment is going to be fun. Those Duncanites'll have some surprises for my PCs.

This may all be pedestrian observation, but the point is to encourage people to go do things themselves to mine for their games. Find a cave and jump in*! It really helps envisioning things better than flavour text in a sourcebook.

And it might change some of your assumptions, which is what we'll deal with next time, when I talk about markets.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda:

* Don't go jumping into caves. It's silly and dangerous and you might get hurt. Explore them carefully. With a buddy and a flashlight (and possibly a rope). And call your mom. She worries about you.

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