Dec 23

December ‘16 Carnival: Sewers & Civilization


The year has wound down, and December brings the travelling RPG Blog Carnival to its final stop for 2016. The latest host is the team at 6d6 RPG.


They nominated an often over-looked theme for the month. Depending upon your viewpoint, this may also be a suitable metaphor for 2016.


The 6d6 RPG site outlines the topic like this:

In this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, hosted by 6d6, the topic is Garbage and Sewers. It is a subject ripe for exploration and over the course of the month we’d like to hear about:

  • Plot Hooks – Your ideas for using garbage and sewers in adventures. These could be starting points for quests, places to explore or ways in which the topic influences how the story progresses.
  • World Building – Societies produce prodigious amounts of waste that must be dealt with. What solutions are there in your setting?
  • Resources – maps for sewers (small for combat, large for puzzles), adventures amongst the waste, images and artwork.
  • Life Amongst Waste – characters and monsters that inhabit refuse and pipes.


To learn more, see the 6d6 RPG site.



Civilization Down the Drain

A sewer network has become a fantasy staple, a kind of damp urban dungeon running just below the streets. On the whole, this level of waste disposal is not historically accurate for the period. An open sewer running through the street is more suitable, if unpleasant to modern sensibilities. Nor does the open sewer offer any adventuring opportunities for our intrepid Heroes.


Thus, most GMs add a basic sewer network to their cities. The presence of sewers is a fantasy trope, and readily accepted by the Players. If there can be deep dungeon complexes beneath a wizard’s tower, then why not have a few brick tunnels beneath a city. Ratfolk, thieves and hideous slime monsters now lurk under the streets, ready for adventure.





The Roman Cloaca

Yet for all the historical inaccuracy of a 19th century sewer beneath every fantasy city, there is some precedent. The Romans, masters of civil engineering, created a system of sewers under Rome. This network connected to the Cloaca Maxima, or greatest sewer, which survives today.


Roman sewers were originally built to drain rainwater, only later connecting to public latrines and the houses of the rich. Even the Cloaca Maxima was originally an open ditch in the middle of the street. Later, the Maxima was roofed in stone, and took on the classic tunnel structure.


In Your Game: The open ditch model of sewer network offers little scope for gaming, compared to the classic tunnel design. However, seasonal drainage offer the potential to transform a city into something like Venice. The rainy season, or perhaps just winter, brings heavy rain to the mountains surrounding a city. This rainwater transforms the open sewers into a canal network for several months. Your Venice-of-the-Mountains will have a very different feel during the rain season.


Alternatively, you may prefer the traditional covered sewer. If you follow the Roman model, then these tunnels are perfect for thieves, as they all lead to the houses of the rich. Burglars will be common in the tunnels, and rich patrons eagerly send adventurers into the tunnels to clear out the thieves. Perhaps the rich use these tunnels as a secret means to travel around the city, away from the prying eyes of commoners. All manner of cults and conspiracies flourish in these sewers.


Goddess of the Sewers

The Romans worshipped a varied pantheon of deities, finding a god for every aspect of life. This was even true for the sewers, sacred to the goddess Cloacina. Originally, she presided over the Cloaca Maxima, but we can expand her influence to sewers and cleanliness in general.


In Your Game: As a patron of sewers, Cloacina offers a useful portfolio of abilities to Heroes. Her focus on cleanliness is a philosophical match for crusading Heroes, and could be linked to purifying and healing abilities. Plus, Cloacina bestows an assortment of engineering and spelunking abilities associated with subterranean tunnels.



In Victorian London the term tosher was applied to the scavengers who made a living in the sewers. These were the equivalent to the more famous mudlarks found on the banks of the Thames, only more odorous.


In Your Game: Adding a gang of toshers to your urban campaign broadens the scope of sewer encounters. As well as being a useful source of information about the tunnel network, the toshers help make the sewers less dangerous. No longer is every encounter in the sewers likely to turn into a combat. Toshers could guide lost Heroes to safety, act as scouts or spies and even rescue them in an emergency.




A network of sewers has become a fantasy trope. By looking to historical sources, you can find interesting ways to implement sewers in your setting. Adopt a Roman-style cloaca sewer leading only to the houses of the rich, and a few public baths. Add an interesting goddess of cleanliness for the network, and a gang of toshers for aid and light relief. Now the fantasy trope looks a little more original.


Do you have a sewer network in your city? Where do the tunnels lead? Who is down there? Is it just a handy dungeon, or are there civic employees at work in the tunnels? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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4 pings

  1. My blog noting the halting development of prophecy in D&D

    • Phil on January 8, 2017 at 2:39 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Clark,

    Thanks for participating in the Prophecies and Omens round of the Blog Carnival. I will copy your link to the launch page, to keep all contributions listed in the same place.

    It is fantastic to see RPG Geek join the roster of Carnival contributors. Your essay is a fascinating look at the history of prophecies in D&D. I loved all the linked references, something made easier by RPG Geek.

    Many thanks

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