While developing Below, we created a bible document to guide the process. Here’s an excerpt from it, setting out the game’s inspirations. As much as we love other dungeon delving games, we wanted Below to go back to the roots of the genre, drawing from the literary sources that started it all (and a few more recent ones that went in different directions).
‘He is dead,’ muttered Conan.
‘Dead or alive,’ laughed Pelias, ‘he shall open the door for us.’
- Robert E. Howard, The Scarlet Citadel
The following works are inspirations for Below:
J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, specifically the chapters: “Riddles in the Dark”, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”, “A Journey in the Dark”, and “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” – Moria cemented the notion of adventuring in a dungeon, and it mixes its fight scenes with exploration, research, personal conflict, and the story of what happened to Gimli’s relatives.
Beowulf, lines 1344-1616: where Beowulf descends through a mere into the lair of Grendel’s mother. It’s terrifying, focusing on the physical challenges of traversing the underworld and a visceral fight with the monster.
Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan: for a dungeon that is alive and hateful. Ultimately, it’s sympathy that allows Ged to triumph, not power – could we tell a story like this in Below?
Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Arthur Trilogy and Gatty’s Tale: the inspiration for the Above deck. Short (sometimes half a page) chapters act as windows onto the life of a boy as he comes of age on the Welsh Marches in the 12th century. The Above deck should strive for this sort of specificity and vivid incident.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, chapter 31: where Tom and Becky are lost in the cave. A mix of wonder, fear, and despair. Plus they have to eat a wedding cake (undoubtedly secured from an Above card) to survive. Linky.
Robert E. Howard’s The Scarlet Citadel: a hellish underworld populated with nightmares, where the closest thing Conan can get to an ally is a deranged sorcerer who likes to make corpses dance for him. You know, for giggles. There should be room in Below for horror.
Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson’s Dragon Warriors RPG: for its folkloric take on fantasy that was fresh and frightening, and for insisting the player characters had a place in society. As vassals of a baron they had a home, loyalties, and responsibilities.
Theseus and the Minotaur: a labyrinth that’s as much a threat as its monster. The hero only escapes because of his relationship with someone outside.
Fritz Leiber’s The Howling Tower: obviously it’s a tower, so it goes up instead of down. But! Though only a couple of pages of action takes place there, the whole story is driven by the tower and the madness of the man who lives in it. Grey Mouser has no option but to go in to save Fafhrd and the climax, with its otherworldly excursion, is awful and bizarre. The Mouser triumphs by being cunning and merciless.