My Ancient Lands setting never felt like I wanted it to when I ran adventures in it, and I think I know understand why. Even though the whole concept of the world is one about dealing with alien spirits and witches, almost all my adventures were pretty generic empty ruins inhabited by animals and bandits. There’s some wisdom in the claim that the unnatural only feels unusual if it’s set in contrast to a very natural world, I took it much too far by making the normal stuff dominating the campaigns.
I am still not sure how to give the supernatural otherworld the center stage that it should have, I think it really starts with the idea that there are places and environments where people are not meant to be. Not just are the native creatures are great direct threat, the environment itself gets in the way of the characters and puts them at an even greater disadvantage to the native inhabitants.
Here are some generic factors that make an environment work against the players even when it does not actively try to harm them.
- Don’t let the party have rechargable magical light sources. When torches and lamps run out they are completely blind when underground (or at least some of them) until they can find something to light on fire or glowing worms or something like that.
- Track food and make edible plants really hard to find in dungeons and spiritworlds. Leaves and grass won’t feed people and fruits might not be healthy.
- Use a lot of water. Even when the party has magic to breath underwater their torches and lamps won’t be working there.
- Little weak monsters that wait to attack the party until they are weak and need to recover. And not just once, but repeatedly.
- Great differences in height and monsters that can fly.
- Huge open spaces and monsters with ranged attacks.
- Fog that blocks sight and creatures that are sneaky.
- Ground that slows characters down or hurts them when they trip. But not the native creatures.
- Wind that can make characters fall and interferes with ranged weapons.
- Low ceilings that force characters to fight crouched or narrow passages that make large weapons unusable and keeps parties from fighting as a team.