Prior to May 25th, 1977, Dungeons of Dragons was a weird little cocktail, a Long Island Ice Tea mixed up from literary influences like Tolkien, Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson, Howard, and Vance, with a dash of Vietnam to give it bite. It was a brutal, trippy, occasionally nightmarish little thing. Then came Star Wars. In the wake of the Lucasfilm hijacking of fantasy and science fiction, D&D became increasingly more cinematic, more heroic, and more a clearly delineated struggle between Good and Evil.
I've written about Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing before. The game is a James Raggi-led campaign to take D&D style roleplaying back to those gritty, weird roots. With Old School mechanics dialing up the lethality, and atmospheric writing establishing the grim, eerie mood of the game, one of the most striking elements of the game has been the published settings. All turn sharply away from the high fantasy, Light versus Dark worlds so characteristic of D&D.
There was, for example, Geoffrey McKinney's divisive and controversial Carcosa, set on the world first mentioned by Ambrose Bierce and later more extensively in Robert Chamber's The King in Yellow. Pretty much absorbed into the Cthulhu Mythos, this was a setting of weird science, Lovecraftian gods, and nary an elf or dwarf in sight. The vividly described sorcerous rituals were a turn-off for many, with elements such as ritualized rape, dismembering, and child sacrifice. Less controversial, but no less weird and wonderful was the Zak S. offering A Red & Pleasant Land. This presented the land of Voivodja, a "Wonderland" beyond the looking glass ruled by vampiric dynasties (the Red King and the Pale King, the Queen of Hearts and the Colorless Queen) whose sorcerous warfare had turned the realm into a madhouse of chaos and horror. With inhabitants like the Cheshire Cat, Jabberwock, and the Hatter, Voivodja made even the eerie Wonderland of the Burton films look cheery. Mention must also be made of Kenneth Hite's Qelong, a setting inspired by Southeast Asian mythology. Fought over by two "barely conceivable beings" this land has also been filled with horror and madness. If you are seeing a pattern here; good. The worlds of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing are not showcases for the struggle between Good and Evil, but rather terrifying arenas in which characters struggle for survival and sanity.
Which brings us at last to Veins of the Earth.
The Underworld isn't a new idea, it's one of the oldest known to man, and it is a staple of both mythology and fantasy roleplaying. The word "dungeon" is, after all, the first "D." We are all used to adventures underground. But Patrick Stuart's spellbindingly written setting book, hauntingly illustrated by Scrap Princess, has a sort of weird alchemy to it that fuses Moria, Virgil's Underworld, Neil Marshall's The Descent, and the terrifying endless labyrinth of House of Leaves. This is a fantasy world, a fantasy universe, right below our feet. Where mundane, terrestrial mines and caves end, the Veins of the Earth begin, and woe to the adventurer who crawls into them. For here "the frightful bulk of night, feebly pushed aside for a moment, as quickly, and with an irresistible violence, regains empire." You leave the world of daylight behind for "the deeper, more true world...bordered only by light above and fire below, and perhaps not even that." The entire setting is an endless maze of lightless tunnels and caverns, stretching out for infinity and populated by entities banished from the sane world of light and reason.
This is poetic--and to be certain it is never very clear if the Veins are literally in the Earth or an extradimensional space altogether--but the setting also brings very real concerns to bear. Darkness rules the Veins, absolute and total, making light the most precious commodity in this underworld. While there may be places lit by bioluminescent fungi or magic, do not expect this. It is not the norm. Running the setting, GMs need to adopt a whole new vocabulary. "You walk into a room" will not work. How, if you cannot see, do you know it is a room? Stuart suggests learning to limit your descriptions to "you see" and bearing in mind how few meters ahead the player characters really can see. Couple this with the fact that many of these tunnels will involve climbing, squeezing, or crawling...that there is always the very real danger of a sudden chasm in the blackness ahead. There are detailed and surprisingly realistic 3D cave and tunnel generating systems in the book for just this.
There are other very practical rules as well. Encumbrance becomes a serious concern when slithering throw very narrow passages, and where does the water and food come from ? In case you run short, there are some charming rules for cannibalism. And without light, measuring time has to be done differently. There are no days and nights, just the endless dark. This all tends to make claustrophobia and madness very real threats. Veins of the Earth is filled with well-thought out goodies like this.
But this is also a weird fantasy game, and in the absolute darkness, magic and horror flow deep. There are civilizations down there; the AElf-Adal are a terrifying cross between the Unseelie and the Drow, fae beings born from human dreams and nightmares that still require madness and terror to survive. Long ago, they were driven from the surface by the very humans they used as psychic cattle, and now they hate humanity as much as they hunger for it. There are the Deep Janeen, solitary elemental beings of terrible power. The dErO resemble the UFO conspiracy Greys, and the dwarven Dvagir are a race obsessed with perfecting themselves, a process they associate with Ascent. The first of their kind emerged from the Core, and they have been working their way up ever since. The Substratals are Lovecraftian/demonic earth elementals, and the Gnomen are perhaps the least threatening, a race that values and treasures life above all else in the cruelty of the dark.
Aside from these are monsters, a great many of them, many original and terrifying (think fossils that claw their way out of the stone hungry for the flesh and blood they lost and can never again have). These just add to the value of the book, either as an utterly unique and terrifying setting, or as a grab bag of ideas to add to your own games and campaigns.
Veins of the Earth completely re-imagines the way we look at the dungeon in ways never really seen before, and is yet another example of the outside-of-the-box thinking that makes so much of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing a dark jewel of a game. Use it to add deeper, darker levels to your dungeons, as a particularly grim Land of the Lost into which characters are thrown and struggle to escape back up into the light, or as a sourcebook for inspiration. With high production values, lyrical and evocative writing, and disturbing illustrations, no one with a taste for weird fiction will be disappointed by it.
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