Imagine you are going to create a new RPG underworld. This is your Darklands, your Underdark, your Deepearth, your Khyber. Where do you start?
Well, first you take some drow and duergar and aboleths and—
No. That underworld is fascinating, magical, alive—so much so that it stretches from Oerth to Toril to Golarion. It is the template, the standard by which all other realms below are judged. It is many things…but it is not new.
What about a back-to-basics approach? Dragons, demons, goblins, orcs? But the long shadows of The Lord of the Rings movies are inescapable. You want your players in their heads, not Peter Jackson’s.
Then you think of Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Hollow World setting. You could always do dinosaurs. You think of Wolfgang Baur’s cities of ghouls and Lovecraft’s cities of ghouls, gugs, and worse. You think of VanderMeer’s Ambergris and his mushroom people and Jonathan M. Richards’s fungal ghosts, bugs, and chelonians. 4e D&D’s evershifting Underdark has a road made by a crawling, dying god. You could start anywhere.
You open the Bestiaries. You flip through the pages. You don't know where you’re going…but you know where you’re going to start. Like an ancient Egyptian explaining the mysteries of heaven and earth, you start with a dung beetle. A dung beetle the size of a car with the face of a Buddha that bores through the planet’s crust, leaving holes for you to fill.
Eventually there will be flail snail poets and mad dire corbies and glittering crysmals and kyton pain priests and genies made of rock and psionic elasmosauruses and oni prison wardens and fetchling monks and living tattoos that ride flesh golem mounts and who knows what else…
But your new underworld starts with the azruverda.
An oread priest sees the bug-like azruverdas as parasites in the heart of the stone that he worships. He leads a battalion into the dark to exterminate the creatures, failing to recognize their intelligence or benevolence. Depending where their sympathies lay, adventurers might be called upon to aid in the crusade, spirit azruverdas from harm, show the priest the error of his ways, or protect the poor infantrymen who have no idea that they are about bring war to foes who can each control up to two full-grown purple worms…
Drow colonists cannot understand why their spider mounts become more unruly the deeper they travel. The expedition leader wants to get to the bottom of this mystery before the superstitious males decide the Goddess has cursed their endeavor. She’s so desperate she’s even willing to consider hiring the surface-dwelling swine she finds at a shaitan trading post.
Most azruverdas are content to tend their subterranean gardens, but a few exceptional individuals may be found elsewhere. Azruverdas have been spotted in the petrified forests of Tauvin, rearranging the fossil trees and tending the mad escapees from the portal to Leng that lies farther up the slope. Twice-dead berserkers report azruverdas are the last kind faces one meets as one descends the World Ash into Linnormheim. And at least one azruverda holds a position in the desert church of the Sun God, acting out the Allfather’s daily ride across the sky in high holiday ceremonies (and protecting the temple from vermin assaults by the Set-Betrayer’s priest-assassins).
—Pathfinder Bestiary 3 30
You can actually ignore the “face of a Buddha” comment above, because azruverdas weren’t quite supposed to look like that. Wes Schneider tells the entire tale of the azruverda’s origin and unique appearance in a pretty epic blog post. (Given that he’s also schooling the Internet on gorgons and helping to support trans* gamers, this has been a pretty big week for him.)
Also, I’ll once again plug Dragon #267 as a must-find back issue for anyone interested in rethinking the Underdark. It’s positively outstanding.