Monday, September 19, 2022

Fun and Challenges

One of the things at which the OSR excels is categorization and the creation of jargon to encapsulate these new categories. Though perhaps inevitable in any thoroughgoing examination of ideas, these practices can be somewhat off-putting to newcomers, not to mention conducive to tedious obscurantism. At the same time, categories and verbal shorthand are genuinely useful, despite the confusion they can engender to those not well versed in their intricacies. 

As its title suggests, dungeons are a foundational element of the play of Dungeons & Dragons. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, since its inception, the OSR had devoted a lot of virtual ink examining and re-examining dungeons from nearly every possible angle. Consequently, there's also been a concomitant amount of jargon invented to describe dungeons and aspects of them, such as megadungeon or the term I want to talk about now, funhouse dungeon.

Take a look at this map:

The image above is small, so please click to enlarge it and examine its details. The map originally appeared here and is entitled "The Quintessential Dungeon." It's a really nice piece of work in my opinion, both in terms of the brief way it presents its information but also – and perhaps more importantly for my present purposes – the way it manages to include so many well-worn components of old school dungeons. There's a bottomless pit, an alignment-reversing mirror, collapsing stairs, and a subterranean river, not to mention such de rigueur monsters like a rust monster, a mimic, and green slime. 

I find "The Quintessential Dungeon" utterly delightful in the way it sincerely and unironically celebrates all the things I so strongly associate with my early experiences of playing Dungeons & Dragons. (It also reminds me a bit of Zarakan's Dungeon from Down in the Dungeon, which may explain its appeal to me.) I think it's a good example of the kind of thing that some might call a funhouse dungeon, in that it contains a weird mĂ©lange of tricks, traps, and monsters seemingly lacking in a unifying principle (beyond the suggestion that the place is a wizard's testing ground to recruit adventurers. 

Over the years, I've used the term funhouse dungeon without any qualms. Indeed, I've even use the term in reference to some of my favorite published D&D adventures, like White Plume Mountain and Castle Amber. Though I meant no disrespect to the designs of these modules by my use of the term, I've lately started to think "funhouse dungeon" might be too glib a term for what we're talking about in most cases. The essential feature of dungeons of this sort is not that they're chaotic jumbles devoid of any rhyme or reason but that they include lots of deadly challenges intended to test the mettle and ingenuity of the characters who dare to enter them.

My point – assuming I have one – is that, rather than being silly, what we typically call funhouse dungeons are actually quite serious, in the sense that surviving them requires more than a hack 'n slash approach to its contents. Likewise, the varied nature of those contents should be viewed not as an anarchic mess but as yet another aspect of its challenging nature. Because one room might contain a group of trolls who've captured a halfling and the next a teleportation trap, the players have to keep on their toes in a way they might not in a dungeon that follows more naturalistic principles.

Perhaps I make too much out of what is ultimately little more than a terminological issue. What I most wanted to say in this post is that I think, as I have grown older, I've acquired a much greater respect for dungeons whose primary purpose is to present a gauntlet of clever tricks, cruel traps, and gimmicky monsters for the characters to overcome in pursuit of gold and experience points. I used to think less of dungeons of this sort. Nowadays, I recognize that funhouse dungeons – or whatever better term might replace it – can be every bit as satisfying, not to mention terrifying, as more plausibly built subterranean labyrinths.


  1. Agreed. There is no bad wrong fun. Although when I say there is none I mean, of course, that there is a certain amount... 😀

  2. I think that you should stick with "Quintessential Dungeon". Quintessential is defined as "representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class", which is good enough for me. For me the term links clearly back to how Blackmoor and Greyhawk, and the design principles which were followed.

    While it wasn't my favourite way when I started, I'd say that this more gameist approach (exploration, resources, encumbrance, treasure = points) is my preferred style of play. Being more time limited due to work and family responsibilities, the Q-dungeon is more flexible in who can play that night, is more forgiving if there are gaps and is more easy going if you lose your PC in play.

  3. I mean, that picture of a funhouse entrance at the end doesn't exactly scream 'fun and light-hearted.'

    Funhouses may be fun. They're not silly (well, many aren't, anyway). A lot are intended to be scary or disconcerting or weird. Which...seems to rather fit the dungeon style in question.