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As its name suggests, Dungeons & Dragons began its life belowground, with adventurers delving deep beneath iconic castles such as Blackmoor and Greyhawk.
Inevitably, the game expanded into deeper realms and unexplored caverns—and it wasn’t long before those caverns took on a life of their own.
INTRODUCING THE UNDERDARK
The story of the Underdark begins in the AD&D adventure module Hall of the Fire Giant King (1978), the third of Gary Gygax’s classic trilogy of giant adventures. During the finale of that adventure, the characters acquire a map that depicts “vast subterranean cities or other strange places which are far deeper than any dungeon known.”
This hook led directly into Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), where for the first time, adventurers descended into a deep and mysterious land filled with mindflayers, the dark fey known as jermlaines, umber hulks, and more. Descent into the Depths of the Earth was successful at unveiling the vastness of the world below. However, that world came more fully to life in the followup adventures Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and Vault of the Drow that same year. In their depictions of whole civilizations of the fishlike kuo-toa and the dark elves, those adventures elevated monsters from the denizens of random dungeon rooms to members of a living, breathing society. Fighting was no longer the only option for dealing with monsters—and in fact, any group trying to fight its way through Vault of the Drow would be in for a deadly challenge.
Gygax never used the word ‘Underdark,’ but his groundbreaking vision of underground civilization was the basis of everything that followed. It was Douglas Niles who took the next step almost a decade a later, when his Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986) promised to reveal “the unknown depths of the Underdark!” Niles was walking in Gygax’s footsteps when he described the Underdark as “the region of caverns and realms beneath even the deepest of dungeons.” He peopled that realm with many of the same races that Gygax had, including drow and kuo-toa, but also added new denizens such as duergar and myconids.
Though he invented the term ‘Underdark,’ Niles didn’t use it in the same way as later authors. For him, it wasn’t a specific place name, but rather a generic term that encompassed all the underground realms of D&D. His Underdark was a toolkit meant to give DMs the ability to imagine their own underground realms. The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide included one such realm: Deepearth. This somewhat generic campaign zone highlighted the adventuring possibilities of the Underdark, and so became D&D’s second great underground realm after the drow and kuo-toa territories that Gygax had explored.
For a few years after that, ‘Deepearth’ was the name given to underground realms. The adventure The Mines of Bloodstone (1986) thus featured the duergar “Kingdom of Deepearth,” which was very much in the spirit of Gygax’s original underground campaigns but with a new race taking prominence. References to Deepearth realms also appear in other contemporary books such as The Savage Frontier (1988).
With the advent of second edition AD&D in 1989, the term Deepearth largely faded away except when referring to the duergar Bloodstone lands. That’s because a new character was rising to the fore of D&D lore and heralding a new vision of the world below.
THE DRIZZT EXPLOSION
Drizzt Do’Urden was a drow exile who first appeared in R.A. Salvatore’s novel, The Crystal Shard (1988). From the time of that first book of Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy, Drizzt was a breakout success, due in no small part to his mysterious origins and his “years in Menzoberranzan, or in the wilds of the Underdark . . .” With that one sentence, Salvatore ensured that the Underdark would rise up to unseat Deepearth as the collective name for D&D’s underground realms—and that fans would want to know more about those realms.
The next decade was full of Drizzt-related Underdark novels, including the Dark Elf trilogy (1990 to 1991) that told of Drizzt’s past. Homeland was set in the drow city of Menzoberranzan, then Exile revealed Drizzt’s time in the wilds of the Underdark before he came to the surface in Sojourn. In years after, Drizzt would occasionally return to his old home, most notably in the novel Starless Night (1993).
Meanwhile, the Underdark was also infiltrating the second edition AD&D line. Early books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monstrous Compendium Volume Two (both 1989) mentioned the Underdark, but a trio of Forgotten Realms supplements brought it to real prominence. Ed Greenwood’s The Drow of the Underdark (1990) took a wide view, extensively detailing the drow race and giving a little attention to their Underdark realm. Greenwood was also behind the Menzoberranzan box set (1992), which more specifically detailed the peoples and geography of Drizzt’s home city. It also touched on other drow cities beneath Faerûn, and even linked in the dwarf realms of the Dwarves Deep supplement (1990). Almost a decade later, Drizzt Do’Urden’s Guide to the Underdark (1999) detailed the entire underground realm beneath the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
While the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms was growing and evolving throughout the 1990s, the idea of an Underdark was also becoming ubiquitous in other D&D settings—from Greyhawk to the caverns of The Illithiad sourcebook (1998), from the world of Birthright to the Labyrinth of Madness adventure (1995). One of this period’s plentiful publications was of particular note—Night Below: An Underdark Campaign (1995). Though Underdark realms had been featured in adventures and setting books alike, Night Below was the first extensive campaign set beneath the earth. This box set detailed a fourteen-level adventure path set in a new Underdark region. It contained plenty of detail on the setting and its inhabitants, including a new monstrous mastermind. Drow, kuo-toa, and duergar were old news; the aboleths were the newest underground villains—and a sign of the rise of aberrations in the Underdark.
As D&D closed out its second edition, the Underdark had become a major part of D&D lore—and would be a major component of each edition that followed.
THE MODERN UNDERDARK
Since 2000, the Underdark has been mentioned in well over a hundred books across the third, fourth, and fifth editions of D&D. Several of these works have been particularly notable.
The twenty-first century’s focus on the Underdark began with War of the Spider Queen (2002 to 2005), a six-book series of novels focusing on the drow of the Forgotten Realms. Meanwhile, the Forgotten Realms supplement Underdark (2003) portrayed the drow realms by building on the rich details of the game’s second edition supplements and the many related novels. The drow got even more attention in a new Drow of the Underdark supplement (2007), but that was more of a monster book than a look at the geography of the lands beneath the earth.
Meanwhile, the Underdark became truly universal with the launch of Eberron in 2004. D&D’s newest campaign setting tightly integrated the Underdark with its new mythology as “Khyber, the Dragon Below,” which “comprises the underdark of the world, the labyrinthine caverns that snake beneath the surface and fill the depths of the planet.”
When fourth edition D&D appeared, it linked the Underdark into its own new mythology. In the World Axis cosmology, the Underdark has two dark twins: the Feydark and the Shadowdark. The fourth edition Underdark supplement (2010) detailed all three realms and integrated them into the backstory of the setting. The Underdark was revealed as the creation of the primordials and the palace of an evil god, the King that Crawls. The home of the drow was also populated by aberrants such as aboleths, beholders, grells, and mind flayers. As with much of the World Axis cosmology, this was an extra-dark Underdark, hellish and frightening.
The Underdark gained even more attention in fourth edition D&D’s Rise of the Underdark storyline, which ran through the spring and summer of 2012. This Forgotten Realms scenario depicted the long-threatened drow invasion of the surface world. Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook kicked off the storyline with new themes and races for Underdark-delving characters. Players in the D&D Encounters program then got to experience the story in season 9, Web of the Spider Queen. Next, the Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue supplement returned to Drizzt’s home, just in time for players to become drow PCs in D&D Encounters season 10, Council of Spiders. The storyline then concluded with the epic final season of fourth edition D&D Encounters, War of Everlasting Darkness.
All told, Rise of the Underdark was the biggest Underdark event ever. With three adventures, two supplements, a number of miniatures releases, and a few ebooks and anthologies, it was also the biggest-ever source of Underdark material. And though it would be hard to top that storyline’s exploration of the world below, fifth edition D&D’s third storyline season, Rage of Demons, is giving it a shot. The new D&D storyline asks the question, “What if eight demon lords took up residence in the Underdark?” The adventures of the new season—including Out of the Abyss—give players the opportunity to answer that question as they travel across some of the best-known Underdark locations of the Forgotten Realms.
About the Author
Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early ’80s. He’s the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons, a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time.