Thursday, August 29, 2013

Your Path to Real Ultimate Magic

...Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,  
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full  
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;  
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,  
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between  
The effect and it!

The spell system in Dungeons & Dragons works fairly well for the game.  The game is mostly about exploration, puzzle solving, and combat, and the spell system is loaded with utility effects to give players tools to solve game problems.  It's great for the game, it's just not very literary.

Example, the Light spell:  The torch of tomorrow, today!  Why carry a burning stick of wood, when you can have light that's safe, heatless, and brighter than a torch, all for the low cost of a 1st level spell?  If you act now, we'll upgrade you to a permanent heatless lamp at 3rd level, Continual Light!

You see the same thing with the Levitate, Fly, Dimension Door, and Teleport sequence of movement spells.  It's magic as technology.  Narrator:  Why physically walk up stairs with your own muscles when you can fly?  In the future, wizards everywhere will dazzle with feats that defy gravity and both time and space.  Grocery shopping will never be the same when you can teleport to the market!

(Apparently, magic as technology makes me view standard D&D magic effects as a 1950's expo for the world of tomorrow, since that's the voice in my head...)

Literary magic, on the other hand, usually features horrible choices and sacrifice.  There is a price to be paid for power.  Odin sacrifices an eye to learn wisdom at the well of wisdom (Mimir's spring) and in other stories is hung for nine days on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in order to gain wisdom.  Alberich the Dwarf forswears love for his magic powers.  Faust sells his soul to the devil, one of many such literary dealers.  Even characters embedded in a setting where they have superhuman powers often make dark choices for more power - Saruman, Voldemort, Darth Vader.

Then there's the approach we see in writers like HP Lovecraft, where magic frequently has terrible (unforeseen) consequences.  Lovecraft's fiction is full of instances where a would-be sorcerer contacts beings from beyond or summons liminal entities, then gets blind-sided by the repercussions.  That's the twist.  Sure, the Deep Ones will give you gold and valuables dredged up from the ocean muck… just don't read the fine print.  And remember, a deal's a deal.

Earlier this year, one of the cooler OSR type game books that came out was the LOTFP Better Than Any Man for free RPG day.  While folks gritted their teeth about the salacious cover or the full page picture of the cannibal cultists, one piece that flew under the radar was the approach to low level spells in the book.

Consider such "overpowered" first level spells as A Spell to Grant One’s Heart’s DesireJourney to the Past , De-Age, or Deflect Damage.  A Spell to Grant One’s Heart’s Desire is essentially a first level Wish spell, but the caster dies as part of casting the spell; it's the nearby folks that get their wishes granted!  Journey to the Past is a severely limited version of time travel; De-Age is a longevity effect that can force loss of levels and other unfortunate side effects; Deflect Damage provides a powerful combat effect, but the deflected damage lands on random nearby people - ideal for a power mad loner, not so great for an adventuring party looking for utility spells.

The bit that's so interesting about these overpowered first level spells is that it highlights an implied axis in the default D&D spell system: high level D&D spells are high level because they combine usefulness, a powerful effect, and a notorious lack of negative side effects.  Sure - you can have a powerful Wish effect at 1st level, but the short cut is going to cost you more than you can imagine.  If you want to do powerful magic the "safe way", it's going to take a lot of hard work and a ton of experience points.  See you again at level 18.

The benefit to DM's is clear.  If there is a powerful, whimsical, literary effect you want to achieve, there's very little harm making it a first level spell, as long as it's accompanied by terrible costs or awful side effects.  Think of it like a skill test.  Your player character magic users aren't going to be interested in effects that maim their characters; leave that to the NPC's who "fail their wisdom checks" to make short-sighted power grabs.  For instance, I love the idea of a first level Raise Dead spell to bring back a dead loved one, but then the caster has to deal with the Pet Sematary style consequences when the loved one isn't quite the same person on the return side.

This is all part of an underlying philosophy that eschews game balance and treats the campaign world with reckless disregard for the status quo.  My name is Beedo, and I approve this message.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cthulhu Rules the Mutant Future

“And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished, for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare.” 
"These Great Old Ones... were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape — but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die…"
-H.P. Lovecraft

Beyond the blighted zones lie the sepulchral remains of the coastal cities.  Elongated shapes, things that were once people in the distant past but now more insect than man, cavort and gibber around the gigantic, squamous hulks that glisten near the water's edge.  New York is the second coming of R'lyeh, its massive skyscrapers jutting at incomprehensible angles against the pallid sky where the red eye of the sun glares down on inhuman streets.  And always above the sound of wind and surf can be heard a faint, distant piping.  It is a sound that grows no closer, no matter how long the listener follows it back to the source.

The futuristic "golden age" of man was brought to a jarring end after oceanic researchers used deep sea mechs to wrench open a pair of gigantic, cyclopean doors on the bottom of the Pacific ocean, releasing a massive, octopoidal horror (and its teeming followers) back into the world.  Across the globe, coastal cities came under siege as these gigantic, tentacled leviathans surfaced near populous harbors and bays.

The mutagenic effects on the local population were devastating.  The sickening miasma brought to the surface by the Great Old Ones permeated the city streets near the harbors, causing irreversible genetic degeneration through direct exposure.  Leering mockeries of humanity, with attenuated limbs, insectoid eyes, and clacking mandibles shambled from each infection site in waves to feast on their brethren.  The viral infection spread rapidly from the coasts.

History doesn't describe how long the war was fought using the conventional weapons of the time, before  decisions were made to burn the sky and blast the earth with sanitizing atomics.  It was all such a long time ago.  No one recorded exactly how the lotteries were conceived and how selections were made to pick those who would to take refuge in the vast, underground "sanctuaries".  It's assumed people that demonstrated natural immunity or resistance to the mutagenic viruses of the Great Old Ones were prioritized, earning the appellation "pure strain humans".

Life has gone on in the polis-sized shelters for generations, long enough for knowledge of the surface world to fade along with memories of the time before the return of the Great Old Ones.  The shelters weren't made to last forever, and overcrowding, disease, and crime is rampant in the maze-like subterranean cities.  Food stores, medical supplies, and various spare parts are valuable items on the black markets.  Always there is the need to eradicate the apocalyptic death cults that sprout in the slums and back alleys of the polis, worshipping the alien gods that devastated the surface.  Unchecked, the madmen that fall prey to the whispered dreams of the Old Ones would lower the defenses and allow the surface horrors to invade the last refuges.

The governing council needs information about the surface world.  Robotic probes have broadcast footage depicting violent societies of armed inhuman raiders, motoring across the wasted great plains.  Thus, volunteers are trained as scouts and soldiers to infiltrate the surface and bring back specimens, take soil, air and water readings, and determine what still lurks within the urban blighted zones.

I haven’t done a post-apocalyptic game in a long time - like probably not since the 80's, back when the threat of nuclear destruction seemed very real to my youthful brain.  I always wanted to take it just a little bit more serious than Gamma World - flying robotic death machines = YES, human-sized talking bunnies = not so much.

Like the campaign background above, I love the conceit of having the players start in a relatively civilized underground settlement, cut off for generations.  Like the explorers on the original Gamma World cover, they ascend to the surface as true outsiders.  Their characters don't know any more about the "brave new world" than they do as players.  It's really a perfect set up for a gigantic hex crawl.

Of course, I can never decide what kind of apocalypse triggered the scorched earth.  Was it the zombies, the aliens, the rise of the machines, a human conflict that went nuclear, or the return of Great Cthulhu?

Let's go with all of the above.

Has anyone been reading the Dark Horse BPRD comic book series?  They've  been slowly destroying the earth with the Hellboy equivalent of "The Great Old Ones" and it's been a pretty awesome story arc.  I'm also inspired by the movie 12 Monkeys and the way the scientists send out volunteers to scout the surface, looking for signs of the infection.  The dystopian, underground city of 12 Monkeys is perfect as a model for "Sanctuary", humanity's last refuge from Great Cthulhu and his ilk.

I really liked Stephen King's post-apocalyptic "Dark Tower" series featuring the gunslinger; I wish there was some way I could work a Wild West and gunslinger (or samurai) theme into it.  I'm not sure this particular kitchen sink is actually that big.

Of course, I already have a game supplement that describes a war-torn, debased world where the Great Old Ones terrorize and despoil humanity.  I could just place the underground settlement of Sanctuary beneath the surface of Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa.  I may find myself digging out my copy of Mutant Future, nonetheless.

I'm not saying this is jumping ahead of anything else in the queue, but you know how it is - fish got to swim, birds have to fly, and writers got to write.

Ps: I'm thinking both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Giant Behemoth, two atomic age monsters-from-the-ocean movies, had a sub theme around prehistoric disease or radioactive blight. A mutagenic Old One is in good stead.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Witches of High Helmsley - An Encounter Discussion

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
--TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

A desperate, pox-ridden man stumbles out of the underbrush and into the lane ahead of the party, crying out for help.  Aged and covered in diseased sores, the exertion is too much for his frail state, and he dies after gasping out… "three… they did this to me, they tricked me…"  The dead man has a distinctive hunting knife and sheaf stuck into his loose-fitting belt, assuming anyone overcomes their disgust to get close enough to search him, along with a hand-made fetish around his neck.  Looking down at the map, the main track continues to skirt the moors towards the old abbey and the village of Helmsley down in the river valley, but an underused trail leads off towards the moorlands and the small hamlet of High Helmsley in the direction the man came.
There are big differences between different "versions" of an encounter:  how the encounter area looks in my raw notes, how I'd use those raw notes at the table to bring a scene to life, and how it could be presented as a written piece for an audience.  These variations - it's surely worth some Friday conversation!

For instance, the little excerpt written above would never actually be written out by me as game prep.  I'd probably improvise that scene  (or something similar) as a random encounter for a group that happened to be trudging towards the market town of Helmsley as a combination teaser / plot hook to investigate the witches of High Helmsley.  The encounter teases just enough to indicate there might be something fishy going on in the small community further on.  If they continue on to Helmsley proper, they might learn the hunting knife belonged to a robust young man from a neighboring farm, someone not at all resembling the horrible pox-ridden corpse left behind on the lane.  Following the lead out to the remote farm where "Oswyn Hardaker" recently went missing, they discover he left behind a morose young bride and a now ill-tended farm.  "He was spending too much time climbing up toward High Helmsley, he was, he had eyes for a girl there, I just know it, and now he's left me for her", bemoans the abandoned wife.

A written description of Helmsley as an encounter site might go like this:

The Witches of High Helmsley:
Subtle fear of curses and malevolent spells allow a trio of beautiful witches (Agatha, Rhea, Clara) to rule over the misty Hamlet of High Helmsley from within the small traveler's inn there, The Hanged Man.  The trio long ago signed their names into the Black Book in return for their eternal youth; the Horned Man taught them the Scapegoat Ritual, a piece of dark magic to transfer their illnesses, years, and imperfections onto a sacrificial victim through a hand-crafted cursed fetish, which quickly ages and overwhelms the host.  It's been a few years since they last enacted the ritual, and Agatha is beginning to show a few wrinkles near the corners of her eyes again… 
High Helmsley is a tiny settlement on the edge of the moors, home to clannish shepherds and folks that mutely ignore outsiders and close windows and doors to strangers.  The vicarage has gone abandoned and the church lies in disrepair; only the small tavern shows a sense of upkeep and displays any welcome on a dark evening.
[ I'm omitting the actual game stats and descriptions for the 3 witches since they're not pertinent here]

My actual handwritten notes are even more sparse, since it's mainly sentence fragments and jotted thoughts with a few ideas on how a wandering group might learn all is not well in that remote Hamlet of High Helmsley.

The OSR is as much about publishing (either via blog or book) and sharing creative thoughts as it is about rules and the old games themselves.  We're a movement with many facets, but doesn't it always come back to the table top?  It's difficult to convey the nuts and bolts of the DM's craft via the written word; the presentation of the material can vary based on the decisions and interpretations made during "run time" by an imaginative DM with a bunch of energized people around the table.

Another way of offering the question is the problem of Voice:  how much authorial voice is necessary to convey meaning?  I find it's analogous to presenting an oral play, a drama, with or without the staging or reading directions.

The description of the Witches of High Helmsley encounter is bland, although there's probably enough there for a referee to give the hamlet a foreboding, ominous character when a group wanders into the place.  But if I absolutely wanted someone at home to have the same patented "Beedo Experience™ " as me and mine, I would need to recommend \ encourage \ dictate that they stage the whole thing nearly the same way as me - including that lead-in encounter with the recent victim of the Scapegoat Curse in the prologue, who stumbles out in front of the party,  dripping with corruption like Dorian Grey's secret portrait.  And even then, you can't commoditize an experience or guarantee it would work the same at your table.

There was a kerfuffle some time last year when the drafts for Dwimmermount started to surface after the successful Kickstarter - I think it was Tenkar's copper pieces group that ran one of the levels, sans any kind of embellishment or DM creativity (as a kind of experiment), and then said players complained about how flat and boring was the game.  "But James Mal's sessions lead to such interesting game reports!  We wanted that patented James Mal™  experience at our table, too."  It ended up being hollow.

This is a fascinating dichotomy for me - the contrast between strong, directive encounters vs bare bones - since I favor megadungeons and similar material that's usually meant to be improvised off of sparse notes; contrast that with the micro-setting approach where numerous encounter details are often plotted, scripted, and/or scheduled using timelines.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dream Codex of the Oneiromancer

In the crumbling surface ruins of Harrow Home Manor is the statue of a forlorn angel, shielding a heavy stone book behind her folded wings.  After viewing the statue, characters skilled in magic will suffer a visitation from the dreaming angel the next time they sleep.  Flipping to a random page of the book, a fragment of incantation and formula is highlighted to the dreamer in unnatural clarity.  Upon waking, the dreamer can transcribe the magical symbols into a nearby spell book, the fragments representing a small piece of a great master spell, glimpsed only as wisps of dream.

Other magic users have tried to collect all the dream fragments into one whole and recreate the spell.  The lich-like Petrus Magnus, who lost the ability to dream when he crossed into death's kingdom, has created a scriptorium populated with enslaved dreamers to whom he subjects visitations by the dreaming angel.  His human agents purchase rare opiates from the exotic near East in order to keep his thralls in enchanted slumber, scribbling their disparate pieces of the spell if they receive a somnambulant gift from the muse.  Magnus became obsessed with completion of the incantation after a rival, the sorcerer Absalom, solved the formula and escaped to Deimos Oneiroi, the land of dream.  Petrus no longer dreams or sleeps, engendering a homicidal obsession with completing his own version of the dream spell.  He murders rivals who are compiling their own codices, absorbing their fragments into his growing translation.

Players may learn about the lich while encountering members of the thieves' guild, who might be selling kidnapped victims to join the lich's "Scriptorium of Sighs", or smuggling the rare opiates up from the coast that keep the dreamers in their deep slumbers.  Player magic users that begin to keep their own dream journal become targets of the lich if he learns of their efforts; Magnus brooks no competition.

Eventually, a player learns the title of the dream codex, the Oneirocon, and begins to understand the true nature of the dream spell - an incantation to grant the caster's every wish, to reshape the world, to become "the lathe of heaven".

Unfortunately, the dreaming angel is both persistent and insidious.  Once a magical character views the angel, there's a 10% chance each evening of a dream visit where a page fragment is revealed.  The character must make a Save vs Spells upon waking to avoid spending the next day obsessively writing out the dream-glimpsed formulae, representing 1-6% of the completed spell.  Each time a character adds to his dream codex, the completion percent is the chance the character duplicates a previous night's effort - so if a character has 9% of the dream codex transcribed, and they roll 8% , then their dream has duplicated existing pages; anything over 9% adds 1-6% more to the compilation as they see a new page in their dreams.  In this way, the Oneirocon becomes more and more difficult to complete because they have to roll above the current compilation percent.  Other characters within the dungeons of Harrow Home have taken up the quest to complete the  Oneirocon in centuries past, so dream fragments jotted in spell books can be found from time to time as treasure.  The percentage factors can be used to determine if someone else's dream book covers new material or the same transcriptions already possessed by the character.

A Remove Curse spell causes the visits from the dreaming angel to cease, forever.

(Harrow Home Manor is a gothic-themed megadungeon in something akin to the Yorkshire Moors; I was dusting off the notebook where I was keeping the Harrow Home ideas as I start up more creative work, and pulled this one out for sharing).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gencon 2103 Reflections

We're back from another annual sojourn to Indianapolis.  This year was a lot different for me; over the winter, my oldest son became strongly interested in Magic, and since  I was a card player "back in the day", we've been going to Friday Night Magic fairly religiously for the past 4-5 months.  We made playing in tournaments a big focus for this year's Gencon.  Nonetheless, we did wander around (a little bit).

I had drifted from downloading the WOTC playtest packets of D&D next, so our group was excited to get into one of the playtest sessions.  Overall, it was a fun playtest and the action moved along quickly - I was Spock the Elf, a few guys were named Red Shirt 1 and 2, and the star of the night was Sulu, the monk who embodied the drunken master style.  Combat was abstract and fast-moving, and had quite a bit to endear it to the old school crowd.  No need for minis or grids or excruciating tactical movement.  The action was fast and furious.  Thought the combat was great.

On the other hand, it still has clerics with searing laser-pointer-fingers and wizard characters that shoot fearsome magical blasts every single round like the Gauntlet video game.  I don't know enough about 5E to say whether only the player characters are the special unique snowflakes that walk around with such reality-bending powers of destruction at 1st level, or whether the entire implied setting is like an over-the-top high magic comic book.   I have a hard time envisioning a class-based world, with sensible demographics, where characters with such flashy powers rub shoulders with ordinary folks, but it could be an interesting thought exercise to imagine a place where a plurality of characters float around and can blast things at will.  To try and rationalize how society functions with such powerful individual characters,  I keep coming back to the Marvel or DC universes and the comics.

Anyway, it sounds like the multiple years of play testing is coming to an end this fall, so perhaps WOTC has it figured out.  I loathed 4E as a world-building system, and I'm strongly suspicious of 5E due to the character power levels (but I'm not writing it completely off, either).  We'll see.

There were multiple times we found ourselves wandering by the gigantic Pathfinder hall late at night on our way to the parking garage, and couldn't believe how packed it was around the clock.  There are no edition wars; Pathfinder has won, plain and simple.  It's all over but the crying - the anemic D&D Next crowd isn't any competition.  At least WOTC keeps doing one thing right (Magic, below).

While four of us spent time in the Magic Hall grinding out games, a couple of the guys wandered the RPG areas trying to find pick-up games, and they came back from one such venture as devotees of the cult of Hobomancer.  Apparently, Hobomancer (an actual, real, I'm-not-kidding RPG) involves a secret society of 1930's era magic-wielding Hobos, fighting to save the American Dream while riding the rails, calling on such uncanny skills as Beard-Magic or Stinkomancy or the Shakes.  Despite the absurdity, a couple of the guys are all in on the Hobomancer now, particularly after playing through an intro scenario, "The Town That Loved Hobos".  One of the players kept wearing his "My Name is Harmonica Jones" name tag for the rest of the con.  I have a suspicion  that getting roped into a bizarre one-shot play test and embracing some silliness is now lurking in my future.

Last month I wrote a review of Eternal Lies, the upcoming campaign for Trail of Cthulhu.  The book was on sale at Gencon and I picked up my pre-order copy - it's massive and spectacular.  This is probably next in the gaming queue unless we get back to some fantasy gaming as the season turns to autumn.  Either way, I'd like to start this one before the year is out - it looks challenging and fun.

We've been "winning" (or at least going 3-0) at just about every FNM draft or constructed we attend, so I was looking forward to playing a diverse and competitive field at Gencon.  Plus, the kiddo wants to start attending some larger tournaments in the area, and needs seasoning (he's 11).  It's funny how many 'serious' players figure it's an auto-win when they sit down across from a goofy kid (in a Legend of Zelda Lync costume, no doubt) and get surprised when his Domri Naya beats down with the Thundermaws.

I was on Jund for the weekend and got knocked out of a top 8 on day one due to some really questionable opening hand keeps on my part.  That was my wake up call that you needed to make strong technical decisions and the margin for error was much lower than the local scene.  Sometimes you just need to get punished to learn.  On day two, the boy changed up his Naya deck for R/G Dragonmaster Aggro (after a dealer-hall quest for a 4th copy of Burning Earth in the board) and we played in a standard grinder to win a box.  He beat an American Flash deck before getting combo'ed out by the Black-White Humans deck (with Blood Artist triggers), while I beat that deck in the finals to win the box - it turns out Curse of Death's Hold and Olivia Voldaren are pretty good against tokens and humans.

The kid really shined in Sealed Deck, getting 4th place in a large 72-person sealed (I was merely 20th), and then winning a sealed grinder outright.  I played him in one of the games; he dropped his Kalonian Hydra, swung next turn for 8.  Swung on the following turn for 16 (the Kalonian doubles its power every turn).  Meanwhile, I was holding Act of Treason and chump blocking just enough to stay alive.  I stole his Hydra for a turn, swung for 32 damage lethal, and he calmly played his final card - a Fog spell - and took his hydra back with a slight smirk.  Funny stuff.  Needless to say, I didn't survive the 64 power crack back - Kalonian is a bomb.  On the last game of that match, there was no stopping his Vampire Warlord with Mark of the Vampire and an endless supply of sacrifices to keep regenerating it.  It just kept beating down.

Here's our booty:

I've been thinking about starting a Magic blog to catalog our quest to graduate from FNM heroes and join the spawning masses trying to land in the money of an SCG Open or top-8 a PTQ by navigating the ever-changing standard meta.  (Hah - If you're reading this and can even wade through that jargon, let me know if that's remotely interesting.)

Back to regular RPG posts this week.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Promethean Prison

What kind of prison would be built for a god?  How about a prison for an entire race of rebellious servitors?

I've had the Prometheus myth on the brain the past week.

There's poignancy around the myth of the titan that steals fire from the gods to bestow knowledge and wisdom on humanity.  Why is Prometheus punished, and why are the gods so jealous of the stolen gift granted to humanity in the story?  The modern mind rankles at the injustice.

In a fantasy game, couldn't the "heavenly fire" given to mankind be the knowledge of magic itself?  It's fascinating that there are so many similar stories in comparative mythology that involve stealing fire or knowledge for mankind.  (For reference, the ones I'm most familiar with are the Native American stories, the Greek myths, and the early Bible stories.  I'm sure there is more).

I started to come to the idea last week when I posted The Age of Monsters, a campaign idea that posited a war in heaven and imprisonment for the losers in a vast dungeon.  There are too many similarities between the Biblical war in heaven and Prometheus not to mix and match themes - forbidden knowledge, punishment and incarceration of the divine rebels, and wiping out the corrupt age through a disastrous flood.

The Promethean Prison is made of the kind of vast, cyclopean architecture hinted at in Lovecraft's writing, like the lost city of the Great Race in the Australian desert.  Because it was the gods themselves that built the prison, the architecture is on a massive, inhuman scale.  The place is inhabited by caretakers, automatons, and ageless horrors left behind to ensure the primordial prisoners never again feel the sun on their faces.  Artifacts and relics within those Stygian depths harken back to a time when the world was young and wizards were far more powerful than the base variety of the modern day.

There's a theme in "lost ruins desert movies" of ancient  knowledge passed through generations to a secret sect of guardians keeping the secrets hidden - you see that theme in The Mummy, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  So we need some secret religious guardian sects.  Part of the cadre of caretakers is an underground race that abandoned the surface in the antediluvian past in order to maintain the dungeons - I'm picturing something like the Cynidiceans from The Lost City module, albeit without the mushroom trips.  Like a "cargo cult", they remember the forms but not the meaning behind the things they do.

I just saw the movie The Life of Pi this past weekend, and really loved it.  The ambiguity behind the versions of the story is remarkably deep and essentially an existential challenge to the viewer.  I bring it up because I vacillate between whether "the Ancients" imprisoned in the Promethean Prison are rebellious aliens punished by other members of their race, or supernatural messengers imprisoned by the loyal angels.  In one case, the prisoners could be something like Marvel's Dreaming Celestial, rogue agents of a cosmic force (the Celestials) now buried deep beneath the earth.  Perhaps they're aliens like Ridley Scott's "Engineers" from the Prometheus movie, advanced travelers that meddled with early Earth biology.  Or they could really be fallen angels, chained in darkness until Judgment Day.

As creator, I've decided I don’t really need to decide.  The inhabitants of the dungeon and the guardians that have lingered there have certainly drawn their own conclusions, and the only thing that matters to them is their personal truth.  The players will just have to make up their own minds.