Note: To preserve my sanity, just for today I’m not going to link to any of the potentially clickable things below. Google is your friend.
Clearly I need to read some H. P. Lovecraft. (I’ve read tons about Lovecraft, and comic adaptations of Lovecraft, and bushels (thanks to The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series) of stories written in homage to Lovecraft, but—embarrassingly—I’ve never sat down with a book that had “Lovecraft” on the spine.) So I can’t speak knowledgeably about gugs or their role in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. But with split vertical maws, bizarre physiologies, appetite for ghoul flesh, and ties to old, unknowable gods, gugs make it clear to players that the Realms Below are stranger and more terrifying than they even suspected.
A duergar thane directs his miners to dig in spiraling patterns with no regard to lodes or fault lines. Their carvings meet up with the dizzying excavations of the gug savant that holds the thane in his power.
A portal shifts between views of crystal-lit caverns deep below the ground, a shattered asteroid belt, and a misty courtyard lined with statues of serpentfolk and proteans. In each vista, camps of gugs can be seen gamboling and enacting strange rites.
A party of spelunkers is paralyzed and captured by ghasts. Instead being devoured, they are brought miles below the earth to the Pale Kingdom of the ghouls for interrogation and disposal. They are saved when gugs assault the city in an invasion that rips the entire kingdom into the Realm of Dreams.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 2 151
I keep forgetting to mention that last weekend was Free RPG Day! Still going through my haul, though, so no grand thoughts yet.
I love the Underdark by any name. (I typically use the “Realms Below” or the “Deep Lands” or something to avoid copyright issues.) I loved it even before it was called that (I have vague memories of the term “Deepearth” from the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide from browsing it in the store when I was young); I loved Mystara’s Lower Thar, Oenkmar, and shadow elves; I loved Skullport, the temple of Elistraee, and Dunspeirrin in Dragon Magazine; R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland and the 3.5 Forgotten Realms Underdark sourcebook; and Paizo’s Into the Darklands.
That said, the wealth of these sourcebooks has made the Realms Below a known quantity, with whole nations and civilizations. Give me a detailed enough map of the Underdark, and I can tell you what goes where: “Underground sea? Aboleths. Duergar here. Drow on this level. That rift will have cloakers…” etc. I could probably plot out Lost World (“Dinosaurs and yeti here…”) or Weird Fantasy (“Animate fungi and clockwork creatures here…”) iterations just as easily.
Gugs are a return to a darker, more uncertain Underdark. You can easily insert them into whatever versions of the above Darklands you like (“Lower level, where reality is thin, near the ghoul kingdom, keeping undead from threatening the dwarves above…”). But they’re also good if you’re trying to get back to a more Unfamiliar Underdark—a more 1st Ed., pulp-era world of dark caverns and lost, strange cities and weird, alien monsters.
And I do mean weird. Look up Dragon 281 (this isn’t something I usually encourage, but you can find a PDF in seconds if you Google) and check out “Subterranean Scares” by Joseph Terrazzino. In a world of two-headed jawgs, snake-vomiting genocids, and verx swarms, gugs fit right in. If you want your players, especially the experienced ones, to rediscover the wonder and horror of reckless spelunking, gugs are a good place to start.
(Credit where credit’s due: 4th Ed.’s Underdark sourcebook, featuring a constantly shifting Underdark and a King’s Highway tunneled by a trapped, dying god was a great move in the Uncertain Underdark direction…but like all 4th Ed. stuff, it just felt…thin.)