A parallel world running beneath our feet, where unseen denizens plot the demise of the people on the surface.
It’s an idea you’ll find in Warhammer in the form of the Skaven Under-Empire, the armpit realm of tunnels that underlays entire continents like gas pipes. It pops up in mainstream culture too, in Jordan Peele’s Us, and even the Best Picture Oscar winning Parasite. It’s a shared nightmare that speaks to our unease about class and hierarchy - the comeuppance those at the top fear from those below.
One of its most enduring manifestations is the Underdark: the unfathomably huge network of subterranean caverns in the Forgotten Realms, the Dungeons & Dragons setting that hosts Baldur’s Gate 3. The Underdark’s hidden horrors and cultures have been a subject of fascination for fiction writers over decades, and we’ve every reason to believe that trend will continue with Larian’s groundbreaking (hur hur) new RPG.
What is the Underdark?
Gary Gygax first introduced the concept in the third of his classic trilogy of D&D modules, 1978’s Hall of the Fire Giant King. In the course of that adventure, players find a map depicting “vast subterranean cities or other strange places which are far deeper than any dungeon known”. Over the following year, Gygax conceived the Cthulhu-like mind flayers, chitinous umber hulks, and dark elf drow - Underdark creatures who feature in Forgotten Realms fiction to this day.
"While early footage has been well received, some complaints have centered on the light and colour of environments. The Underdark would allow Larian to revel in the gloom fans seem to associate with Baldur’s Gate"
D&D writers over the following decade expanded the vague parameters of Deepearth, as it was known then. But the Underdark only became firmly defined in the public imagination when RA Salvatore wrote his hit novels about Drizzt Do’Urden, an exile from the underground drow city of Menzoberranzan. Drizzt is still the most famous character in the Forgotten Realms, ensuring its stories will always have one foot below ground.
Made up of many individual caves and tunnels, today’s Underdark is a complex and messy world, like our own. Not every part is accessible from every other, leading to several distinct domains, like continents. Exploration between them is made difficult by the lack of light, freezing water, sometimes-poisonous air, and psychological impact of near-constant, deadening silence.
Who lives in the Underdark?
Rather than a series of disconnected monster dungeons, Gygax established the Underdark early as a loosely organised society for adventurers to navigate.
The drow represent the peak of this underground civilisation, living in vertiginous, glowing cities defined by spidery motifs in tribute to their arachnid god, Lolth. Matriarchal leaders encourage political treachery and infighting, but their own power as priestesses is subject to the whims of Lolth, who can be just as fickle as her followers.
Drow cities are powered by the labour of an enormous slave population that tends to outnumber the elves themselves - and in fact, slavery is a common theme among Underdark races.
The mind flayers, or illithids, rule the deepest parts of the underdark through psionic power. Think of them as the bankers and billionaires of D&D: self-serving sociopaths who back or thwart the plans of other, lesser races so long as it suits them. They reproduce by planting tadpoles in humanoid hosts, and their diet is rich in brains; just imagine their face tentacles writhing in ecstacy across your forehead.
These two dominant races share the Underdark with the duergar and svirfneblin, grumpy variants of the dwarves and gnomes respectively, plus a rogue’s gallery of odd and hellish creatures. Among them are the driders - half-drow, half-spiders, obvs - and the beholders, who are lacking in beauty, but have plenty of eyes.
Why would the Underdark be in Baldur’s Gate 3?
Since the rise of Drizzt, the Underdark has become a regular fixture of Forgotten Realms videogames. Icewind Dale 2’s campaign took a route through it, as did Neverwinter Nights’ Hordes of the Underdark expansion, and of course Baldur’s Gate 2, in which your protagonist chased the outcast elf Jon Irenicus through a drow city.
Although Baldur’s Gate 3 is detached from the story of previous Baldur’s Gate games - it takes place a century later - there’s already reason to suspect the series is heading back underground. For starters, its new antagonists are the mind flayers, who have stuck a ticking tadpole in the player character. Many of the factions caught up in the game’s conflict are being manipulated by the tentacled-bearded bastards, and so it makes sense that you’ll eventually bring the fight down to the illithid in the Underdark.
"Larian has introduced a new focus on vertical play - adding climbing and jumping to its RPGs for the first time. It just so happens that the Underdark is as much vertical as it is horizontal"
Secondly, developer Larian has introduced a new focus on vertical play - adding climbing and jumping to its RPGs for the first time, so that players can explore clifftops or pick off targets from the rafters. It just so happens that the Underdark is as much vertical as it is horizontal; Drizzt’s home city is noted for its rooftop paths and houses built 1,000 feet in the air, while the realm as a whole is broadly split into three levels: the Upperdark, Middledark, and Lowerdark. The studio would be mad not to exploit the full potential of its engine to reach new depths. Or heights, qualitatively speaking.
Larian will be keen, too, to differentiate its new game from the Divinity series. While early footage has been well received, some complaints have centered on the light and colour of environments. The Underdark would allow Larian to revel in the gloom fans seem to associate with Baldur’s Gate - though personally I’d say the series was defined by the sheer variety of its environments, rather than any particular palette.
What’s happening in the Underdark these days?
Not much, hbu? Ah no, sorry: quite a lot’s been going on. For the fourth edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast finally delivered on the threat of the drow and staged an above-ground invasion, the story of which ran through the spring and summer of 2012.
In the current fifth edition, the drow have had a taste of their own invasion medicine, which would probably be sold in pharmacists as ‘Invadipol’. The Rage of Demons storyline saw eight demon lords move into the Underdark, and players of the MMO Neverwinter fought back alongside Drizzt in Menzoberranzan.
Baldur’s Gate 3 takes place in the year 1492, bang in the middle of fifth edition’s timeline, which means these events will either be recent history or ongoing when your party wades into them. Better start eating more carrots, baby: this shit’s gonna get dark.
Baldur's Gate 3 goes into Early Access later this year and features 5 playable companions, with more to follow. It also introduces turn-based gameplay beyond combat. You can read more about Baldur's Gate 3 in our archive.