Sunday 26 August 2012

Anomalous Subsurface Environment

Anomalous Subsurface Environment, by Patrick Wetmore of the Henchman Abuse blog,  is the first installment of a megadungeon. It has been out for about a year, and shortlisted for the Three Castles Award in 2012. I decided to get it at the OSR booth at Gencon this year, not because it would be particularly useful in my current campaign, but as inspiration and possible grounds for a future campaign.

Please note that some spoilers for the ASE settting, inevitably, follow.

Also, this video by The Sword.
Wetmore puts the players in an explicitly postapocalyptic setting bombed back to medieval technology millennia ago, where tyrannical wizards rule the majority of humanity and one free city, Denethix, is hesitantly crawling up the technology tree. This somewhat excuses the dedication of about half of the book to setting up the city and surrounding area. Settings like this are rare in gaming outside of Gamma World and the like, although more common in literary and pop science fiction. There are subtle and not-so-subtle nods to Gene Wolfe (both New Sun and Long Sun series), Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, the film Zardoz, etc. Plus, dinosaurs.

Some goofiness in the art and descriptions is excessive, but easily toned down with a simple twist of the dial - for example, I'd change the cornstalk men to Wolfean chlorophyll-sustained Green Men.

The titular ASE is a self-sustaining, seemingly magical realm discovered in the ancient days beneath a mountain near Denethix, and investigated in secret by scientists. It conforms to the model of a mythical underworld dungeon, with dressed stone walls, ironbound doors, monsters, traps, and treasure. Elusive "dungeon elementals" creep around, closing doors and restocking rooms. After the research facility was sealed four thousand years ago, accelerated mutations in the inhabitants and investigators have left the chambers teeming with rival factions: surviving robot soldiers, standard D&D goblins, H. G. Wells' morlocks, and "Screechmen" patterned after the Weekly World News' Bat Boy.

Part of the charm and dark comedy comes from the multi-layered civilization/barbarism faceoff. You have the schematic and stagey primitive ruin that is the ASE itself, being studied by the high-tech scientists whose works have decayed and degenerated, while your explorers are breaking in from a society on the rise that wants answers, laser guns, and money. The strong implication: your discovery of the ASE complex and its mysteries will seriously upset the political and technological balance of the world. Yes, there's a meaningful megadungeon among all the macabre inventiveness.

The module does a good job of leading potential adventurers into the drama of opening the sealed Environment, and also stands out for interesting map and monster designs, including the memorable corpse jellies and blade zombies. Descriptions are sparse, in old-school style, except when outlining the complications of a mechanism or the history of a particularly meaningful room. However, only one complete level of the megadungeon, plus an entry level and a side adventure, is detailed in the volume.

In sum, I'm glad I picked this up. It would be my first choice right now if I wanted to start running a non-standard campaign setting while still keeping old-school D&D compatible rules. The only question for me is whether and how soon the next installment is coming.


  1. I picked this one up, too, on the recommendation of Frank Mentzer. I read it on the plane back home (and that got me a few strange looks). I agree; neat setting, and I'm very tempted to run this in the near future, though of course with a few tweaks to better suit my sensibilities.

  2. I also really like ASE, though the lack of more levels makes me irrationally want to wait for further product before using it.

    Also, anyone who likes ASE owes it to themselves to check out Gustie's Dungeon of Signs blog (based on his ASE campaign and with a ton of material in a similar style):

  3. As Brendan notes - yeah, I'm pretty darn fond of ASE - I am also pretty sure that ASE 2-3 will be out in the next few months due to the posts on Henchman Abuse.

    Still I don't think that the single level is really too important to running ASE. The ASE world is richly enough imagined in the thirty or so pages covering it that it's easy to think of ones own adventures in it. My own players developed an early aversion to the whole Megadungeon and never even got it unsealed - but there's been no lack of hijinx inspired by Pat's world.

    Roger is correct that the world represent an interesting and playful take on the points of light concept and the interplay can be mined for both laughs and some neat adventures. I play it as gonzo as it's written, but I don't think it's really that Gonzo - yes there is a flying Zardoz head, but it makes sense in context and it should scare any party that encounters it.

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Roger. ASE2-3 will be out soonish. Not much left to write now, just finishing touches.

  5. I just got both 1 and 2-3 a little while go. Loving both so far. A lot of twisted creative genius in there!