Going Underground

Copyright Alan Bell 1999

Going Underground - An extract from a presentation given to the 5th Annual Adventurers Conference by guest speaker Thorli Norlinson held at Dol Amroth

So following on from our earlier discussion of Dwarven caving techniques, we move on to artificial constructions. Let's start with sewers, wonderful thing sewers, many companies in various cities have spent a lot of time down them, they give you a lot of scope, are essential to any successful civilisation and your companions will hate them what more could you ask?

So who builds sewers? It requires a culture with both a reason and resources to build the sort of sewers worth our consideration, i.e. large. Gondor in its hey-day was well able to afford them and seen the wisdom of it. (Of course this need not be so, the arcane powers of magic have in the past shrunk at least one party to 6 inches tall and lowered them down a drain in search of lost goods (a magic gem I think it was). Having to contend with rats, cockroaches, a snake, etc., from a unique viewpoint as it were. If the sewers are new then they will probably be well maintained and occasionally cleared out of infestation by the authorities this provides little scope for profit. Let's assume the classic dilapidated sewers obviously requiring an old settlement, hopefully rebuilt several times, extended and altered by various elements, legal or otherwise. Who has maps and how accurate are they? Not very is the likely answer, still any map will be useful and a well-prepared party should be able to get one, for a price, showing at least the main channels. Maintenance will be patchy at best; probably carried out by the careful well-armed "experts" who know them best. Excellent guides if you can persuade them to join you, however you'll have to persuade them that they will be safe with you and well compensated for their risk, not to mention they're hardly likely to smell the best, still neither will you shortly.

Now how are these tunnels likely to look? Dwarven waste tunnels are built of stone with a ledge and deeper central channel with a flow of water to clear the waste. Dunedain engineers from Numenor built sophisticated systems under the original buildings of their permanent settlements, becoming more primitive later as interest declined and less skilled labourers took over, the original stone being replaced by brick. The ideal system of Gondor at its height can be seen later in our field trip under this very city where high tides are stored in reservoirs and then released at regular times to flush the main tunnels. This provides both opportunities if the opposition can be manoeuvred into the wrong place at the wrong time, and serious risk if it's you and your colleagues trapped by time or ignorance, a classic example where lack of groundwork can be fatal. Main tunnels are in any event usually large enough for maintenance crews to gain the necessary access for repairs, although those closer to the surface may be mere pipes which can be dug up if necessary. They will often have a sunken channel for the more solid wastes and a shallower top level and use is often made of water where available, although some may have to rely on rainwater. Several tunnels will often feed into beehive shaped junction chambers with a deep central sump pool, and it is here that an exit ladder to the streets above can likely be found. Older sewer complexes may have been significantly altered as the layout above changes, some sections may become disused or blocked off by cave-ins, others are reflected on no map, certain elements may even pay to ensure this happens. Smaller settlements will make use of night-soil collectors whose carts transport the waste out of the settlements to spread on nearby fields.

The other major hazard is not monsters as we normally think of them, it's disease. Any open wound is just asking for infection; even breathing the air is going to risk later illness, and humans especially are not as resistant as the rest of us. Speaking of air, a build up of firedamp and a deadly subsequent explosion is likely where circulation is poor or bare rock left exposed, something to watch out for is mineral deposits forming on the walls. Here good mining skills will serve you well, some may even be valuable, if in doubt, do not touch. If the flames don't get you the lack of breathable air afterwards will if you don't move fast, as will the clouds of choking smoke. Other pockets of gas can cause torches to go out, hallucinations, people to pass out and even die - and you haven't even fought anything yet. This means you will have to be careful with sources of illumination, darkness can hide many things here, no naked flames! Even something as simple as a drainage shaft down to a lower level can be fatal to an encumbered explorer, do not assume that that small pool is as shallow as all the rest, you could be in for a surprise, a simple probe pole is a wise investment.

The classic inhabitants of sewers are of course rats; rabid rats defending their nests are fun, and living off abundant human wastes means some grow to horrendous size. Then of course there are crocodiles (especially under Dol Amroth) snakes (to eat rats of course), lizards, insects, spiders the size of your fist, poisonous centipedes, leeches and since we're talking monsters, smaller Kraken and in older sewers Slig are not unknown. Who else is going to use sewers, well it doesn't take a lot to think, "who doesn't want to be seen moving around?" smugglers and thieves, not to mention cultists, and how about the homeless? Don't go around killing everyone that you meet, it gives the rest of us a bad reputation, even if they are vagrants. Sewers offer possible access to cellars and buildings, either intentional or unintentional. It is not unknown for attackers to try climbing up through the latrine outlet, unpleasant thought, but if you have to gain entrance to a well defended building, worth considering, just don't get stuck. On the other hand if you are defending such a place, don't forget to check it for access to the sewers. If you're lucky, you could also locate some stashes of booty hidden down there for safety, along with valuable fungus and moulds, not to mention items dropped accidentally down drains. Be careful with the various slimes and moulds however, some are poisonous to touch, others expel choking spore clouds when disturbed, so knowing which to harvest and which to avoid is a skill in itself. An entire profession has grown up around searching for these things, the toftsman, who with his pole earns his living by scavenging the debris, we may meet some later, poling their narrow punts, but they tend to be a secretive lot, don't expect any help from them. Of late rumours have reached me of problems in the cities of Harad where the Gul have occupied portions of the sewers to enable them to move about while avoiding the sun. This enables them to stay close to their prey, emerging to strike the heart of the city at night and apparently causing terror among the locals. I understand the authorities are offering substantial rewards for getting them under control, as the Haruze locals are starting to panic as their protective sigils and fetishes are not working. Just remember that the practice of necromancy is long established in those parts and you may find yourself facing some necromancer's mistakes that have been dumped into the sewers to be rid of them along with undead spirits. These creatures do not care about the bad air, darkness or disease, giving them advantages they may not even be aware of, whereas you will have to beware of diseased claws, be sure to clean and bind wounds at once. These spirits are also on the rise in the North, though mainly in conjunction with Barrows, a topic of a later lecture.

To return to users of a more intelligent type, sewers provide a ready-made secret system of routes beneath a city. If you don't want to be seen moving yourself or goods about, and where no one wants to go looking for you then they are hard to beat. Of course many others have drawn the same conclusion, and since few of them are using the network for legal purposes they don't care for your company, so keep your eyes open. Look out for tracks in the muck, for scrapes in the slime on the walls and for unobtrusive way marks to aid in navigation. Changing these may be tempting but bear in mind others may do the same to you, or take serious exception to your actions. The more professional of these groups of thieves, smugglers and assassins may well have altered the sewer layout to suit themselves, bricking up side passages to form storerooms, meeting places or even safe-houses. Remember to protect these they may have installed traps or even guards, you may want to consider doing the same if you need a safe base. Others such as merchants gain greater storage by knocking cellar walls through into the sewers and blocking off certain sections. Finally cultists and other covert gatherings often choose to meet in these unfrequented locations where the authorities seldom follow and where there are many different exit points to ensure they are not followed or easily cornered. It does of course have disadvantages in that the smell of the sewers tends to linger, and it may be possible for trained animals to detect this even long afterwards. You yourselves will rapidly find this, so your attire should be chosen carefully, no furs, leathers and hard wearing but cheap clothing is recommended. A good cleaning as soon as possible will make yourself more presentable if you have to report to someone, arrange with your inn beforehand or you may find yourself unable to return to your rooms.

As I see that it is now time for lunch, I suggest we adjourn to the dining chambers where I will be glad to answer questions before the afternoon session.

Editor's Note

A Slig is a large carnivorous snake with two tentacled arms and suckers on its limbs that allows it to climb. Appearing in the MERP Mount Gundabad module (published by ICE), it is a type of underdeep vermin that has colonised the surface and scavenges or kills lone orcs.