These are the last days of the Earth. All land but a handful of islands, called simply “The Chain” by their inhabitants, has long since been swallowed by the sea. The scientific, cultural, and social achievements of humanity are long gone – not even a memory, for the past has become shrouded and dark. The world is, as in millennia gone by, one of magic and steel.
Only one of the old kingdoms remains, crumbling under the weight of its own indifferent decadence. It is called Xish, and the order within its supposed borders, constituted by the largest island of the Chain, is scarcely more than that without. The Royal Army is employed almost solely in the scattered cities and towns, to stave off the inevitable revolt of the starving, frightened populace. Most of the realm is an untamed, unguarded wilderness. Bandits and goat-men make travel outside of a select few regions a death sentence for all but the most hardy and resourceful.
Unsurprisingly for such times, apocalyptic doom faiths have proliferated. The most (in)famous of these is the Cult of the Devouring Star, and not just for being somehow even more death-obsessed than its rivals – they also control the Crater of Termination.
This vast hole in the ground, about a week’s ride from Gilk, Xish’s sole operative port, is claimed by the cult to have been made by the fiery arm of Null, the star that they worship. It leads to a vast underground complex which they claim was built in the first days of the Earth, by its first inhabitants, beings birthed in the very heart of Null itself. The star has revealed this place, surely hidden for millennia, as a boon to its followers. For all those who enter receive two gifts: the first being a glimpse of the world as it is beyond narrow human constraints, a flash of the terrible secret face of the cosmos; the second, and greatest, being certain death. In its unknowable caprice, Null has sometimes willed it that certain individuals or groups actually emerge from the Crater, laden with treasures, strange relics, and tales of bizarre locales and unfathomable creatures. But in the end it is all the same, for such people inevitably return to the depths – and none, so far as anyone can recall, have ever emerged a second time.
Cult membership is always up when one of these rare survivor-groups surfaces, and such is the case recently, as only a few weeks prior a so-called adventuring company, made up largely of barbarians and wildermen from other islands, emerged several months after months after entering, with a spectacular haul that has temporarily stimulated Gilk’s sluggish economy. Several other adventuring parties have entered, and it is rumoured more are on their way, from within Xish and elsewhere. The Cult does not begrudge such people joining their faith insincerely for a chance to plunder the treasures of the Crater, and indeed they even happily sell them equipment and resources from their temple just outside – for they know that, whatever reasons men claim for venturing into the depths, in their hearts they go because they desire Null’s precious gifts, their reception of which is ordained for them the moment their feet pass the threshold.
"As you can see, the basic idea is your standard weird fiction inspired old school megadungeon setting. The particular flavours of weird fiction which I’m mostly heavily cribbing from are: (1) the Zothique stories of Clark Ashton Smith (which I have my gracious host to thank for hipping me to a couple of years ago); and (2) H.P. Lovecraft at his more cosmological and mythology-creating, especially stories like “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” as well as, to a lesser extent, his Dream Cycle stuff.
Major themes which emerge from these starting points are: a kind of end-of-days decadence and fatalism; human insignificance in the face of unfathomably vast cosmic etcetera; and the insanity and dread brought about by the encounter with the unknown. Nothing particularly groundbreaking as far as this kind of thing goes, but I feel like there are avenues to explore with these themes within the context of what seem to me to be the two implicit themes or premises of old-school D&D: the exploration of strange, otherworldly environments; and the nihilistic subsumption of all other possible values or motivations to the accumulation of wealth, either for its own sake or for its utility in gaining more wealth. Don’t get me wrong, I think both of those are fun in their own right, but I like the idea of a setting that works to amplify those implicit themes.
I’ve been mostly been thinking in terms of setting at this point, and not mechanics, but I’m leaning toward doing this thing in OD&D, just the three main booklets (in their slightly cleaned-up, re-released form as a single document), with house rules (mostly for things like race, and I’m pondering some sort of sanity system.
Unlike my gracious host here, I’m relatively new to this old-school D&D thing (again, something I have him to thank for getting me to look into), so developing this thing will undoubtedly be a learning experience (my previous attempt at DMing an old-school megadungeon, in Labyrinth Lord, resulted in mixed success). Here’s hoping it’s not terrible!"
Here's a little jammer I thought appropriate for this: