Wednesday, June 14, 2017

OSR Commentary On The Use & Abuse of Funhouse Dungeons In Old School Campaigns

So I've been reading a lot about 'fun house' dungeons & how the OSR as a community is divided about them over the years. I personally don't give a fig what the community thinks. The fact is that the players & dungeon master are the final arbitrators over what's presented at the table end of story. Now back to fun house dungeons & the neo OSR titles because last night I was looking at Alan Chamberlain & Mark Taormino's Maximum Mayhem Dungeons #4: Vault of the Dwarven King. Oh Christ, not another commercial for Maximum Mayhem Dungeons?!? No,no, we're going to take a moment to delve into bridge between funhouse dungeons,weirdness, & mad gods. No not archmages(archmages are merely the salesmen & pitchmen), no I'm talking about the gods!

Nope its not. Instead we're going to take a moment to talk about 
fun house dungeons the two most cited examples are White Plume Mountain and The Ghost Tower of Inverness.   People often hate funhouse dungeons  because of  the fact that they often have overarching room concepts that break the general Tolkein fantasy tropes with more modern pop culture references. Alan Chamberlain & Mark Taormino's Neo OSR adventure creations play with this quite often & repeatedly this leads me to believe that these gentlemen are fans of the 'fun house' dungeon concept.
To quote Jeff Rients here from comments in Grognardia comments section,"I believe that the descent into the dungeon is a symbolic representation of the rational mind attempting to understand the irrational, unconscious self. Therefore dungeons should have something important to say but they are under no obligation to make any sense."   Yeah alright I can get down with that sentiment but let's take this further for a moment down into the depths of the Sword & Sorcery lens for a moment. Robert A. Heinlein' Glory Road came out in '64 & its a science fantasy novel that came out smack in the middle of the Vietnam War. 
Glory Road & fun house dungeons  are   a part of a much older pulp tradition though as we'll see.

Glory Road's sentiments helped to define many of the readers thoughts of the Vietnam in many respects;"There is an old picture of a people traveling by sleigh through deep woods — pursued by wolves. Every now and then they grab one of their number and toss him to the wolves. That's conscription even if you call it "selective service" and pretty it up with USOs and "veterans' benefits" — it's tossing a minority to the wolves while the rest go on with that single-minded pursuit of the three-car garage, the swimming pool, and the safe & secure retirement benefits."
Instantly the reader is hurled into the fact that the main character is an adventurer & lost soul like so many of the 60's & 70's generation who comes across this add;" ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person..."Words of an advertisement E. C. Gordon (later known as Oscar) keeps encountering. Ch. 3 Glory Road.
Now I'm not getting into the policies, politics,etc. that helped to shape the Vietnem war, I get to see those everyday with my father's Parkinson's disease thanks to Agent Orange. No this is about those soldiers & veterans who returned home longing for that undefined quality to fill the hole inside their souls. This is something that has been on going since the Lost Generation. That feeling of adventure & romance is exactly the sort of thing that these folks were after;
"I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, "The game's afoot!" I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.
I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be — instead of the tawdry, lousy fouled-up mess it is.
I had had one chance — for ten minutes yesterday afternoon. Helen of Troy, whatever your true name may be — And I had known it ... and I had let it slip away.
Maybe one chance is all you ever get."

Its this  sentiment that dark gods, wizards, & things from outside love to take advantage of. When you set up a funhouse dungeon with all of the black legends,mythology,etc. your plugging into the very core of adventurers. The funhouse is the challenge of adventure & its feeding some very dark forces in the background. These gods might be Lovecraftian entities, the lords of Chaos,etc. But the specticle of the whole affair keeps the gods entertained. But why? Because the blood, chaos, etc. is the point folks. These funhouses are the 'pay for view' of the multiverse.

In fact I've talked about this sort of a mid point of cosmic entertainment before with a Retro Review C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness By Allen Hammack For Advance Dungeons And Dragons First Edition and Your Old School Campaigns 

In fact these sorts of isolated funhouse locations go way back into the pulp tradition & take full advantage of those 'heroes' & fools who fall into their clutches. The tube is always on & its turned to a dead channel that being your adventurer's soul. The management is always bringing in new acts, prizes, & keeping the gig going.

They might be creating entire segments of reality out of the astral material, importing in monsters,etc. all in an effort to feel far more then what the players or PC's are aware of. Funhouse dungeons are merely the anchors in the PC's reality and that feeds the sink of the evil ala Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  This leads to an undercurrent of evil about these places & yet no one seems to be able to shut these adventure locations down. Why? Because their providing far too much power,excitement, & terror to the gods as well as the masses.

Fantastic Adventure, Goddess of the Golden Flame, cover art by Harold W. McCauley

But why have funhouse dungeons in a campaign setting? Well there are number of old school reasons   for them. 
  1. They provide great public relations, marketing, & advertising for the cults of the gods & provide a venue for their power, glory, & wealth within another god's reality. 
  2. 'Fun house dungeons' give adventurers a 'hero's death' in a fitting way that will long out live them giving the players something to talk about for years. 
  3. In old school post apocalyptic wastelands funhouse dungeons are a perfect venue to introduce fantasy PC's into the mix. These dungeons beg to have cross world origins and existences allowing all sorts of horrors to visit from fantasy & science fantasy. 
  4. Dark cults can operate right out in the open as PC's line up to go for the adventure location allowing dark magick to operate right under their noses. 
  5. Artifacts acting as dimensional anchors can be dangled right in front of PC's and they don't suspect a thing because its all part of the 'funhouse' location. Artifacts spread god's power, mythology, dogma, and religion all in one. 
  6. An arch wizard is the perfect dupe & target for a Lovecraftian god, "Of course the purple mage Fra butt lick created the tower of Lurx' ". 
  7. 'Fun house dungeons ' are the perfect locations to spring monsters you've never used before because you want to. 
  8. Don't over explain the existence of fun house dungeons they exist as entities unto themselves. 
  9. They make excellent otherworldly portals to other worlds  because they've got guardians & reasons for existence built right in. 
  10. Adventurers might be hired to help maintain a fun house dungeon location and act as agents as they did in my campaigns over the years.

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