I will come out and say it. I'm a fan of funhouse dungeons. Some people just groan. Some people can't suspend their disbelief. Some people feel like it's the DM (or module designer) springing 'gotchas' on them. But I personally love the zany, goofy, and the straight up bizarre in dungeons.
I've been trying to add more of that to the West Marches, especially now that I'm keying zones that are three or four bands of difficulty from the home town. Yes, there are tougher monsters. And there are more monsters per encounter. But the farther you get from town, the crazier I want things to get. It's a fantasy game after all!
I finally figured out what to do with a certain famous dungeon map from an early TSR module. I won't say which since I know a few of the players read this blog. Sorry guys! What I've decided to do is make it a funhouse. But not just any sort of funhouse. Dungeons like Quasqueton have their weirdness, but a lot of mundane as well. The Tomb of Horrors (it'll get placed in the Marches someday, but much farther from town than the areas I'm working on now) is a bunch of puzzles with deadly consequences but pretty much all funhouse style.
What I'm hoping to do is make this dungeon more of a carnival of crazy, a place where the monsters are there to challenge you to strange contests instead of to combat, where "traps" are more like weird fantasy game shows, and where the "special" bizarre encounter is pretty much every room on the map. I am a Mel Brooks DM after all!
The purpose of a funhouse dungeon is, in my estimation, two-fold. One, it lets the DM flex their creative muscles. Not needing to worry about ecology or economy or social tensions frees the DM up to think about what would make the game more fun. Two, it provides a challenge for the PLAYERS, not just for their ability scores, skills, and collected magical spells/items/powers. Sure, players could choose to fight their way through the funhouse, but they're choosing to miss a lot of the cool stuff that way.
I remember many years ago, maybe on the old WotC forums, maybe on Dragonsfoot, people debating funhouse dungeons. There was a consensus among the posters (which makes me think it was more likely WotC forums in the 3E days rather than Dragonsfoot in the early OSR days) that funhouse dungeons, or any sort of encounter that relied on the PLAYER'S creativity or knowledge was bad design. The proponents of immersion in setting and character thought this was the ultimate no-no. How could you say you were role playing if you were solving problems as yourself rather than as your made up persona?
Well, I think they were wrong. There's nothing wrong with letting your personal player knowledge, creativity, and problem solving skills help you out of an encounter in an RPG. If you have a clever or creative idea, and it circumvents an encounter or a die roll, GOOD!
I find it funny that some players* find the idea that I might use my real world knowledge to defeat a Grimtooth style trap without rolling any dice to be "cheating" but will happily use real world knowledge to help them in tactical battle situations. They will happily design a squad of adventurers that execute amazing levels of tactical brilliance against monster combat encounters, even though their characters don't all have a military background -- using their real world knowledge. They may also engage with the rules to such an extent that they are always making "optimal" choices for how to engage the game mechanics -- using their real world knowledge. They make plans to engage in social encounters, manipulate NPCs, and find methods to get what they want through role play -- using their real world knowledge.
Why is it suddenly a bad thing if my crazy idea saves us from having to go toe-to-toe with a gorgon or dragon and likely losing a character or two?
Why is designing a series of encounters where combat should not be the preferred method of resolution a bad thing? It's not "fair" to the players who aren't good at coming up with the sorts of ideas that will get you through the dungeon? Well, is heavy tactical play fair to the player who just isn't good at tactics? Sure, in tactical play everyone gets to roll the dice and fortune plays as big a part as planning. That does even things out. Even with a great tactical plan, you'll fail if the dice screw you over. And thinking of it that way, isn't an outside the box resolution, the kind that is expected for a funhouse dungeon encounter, a superior way to engage with the game? If your tactical expertise is still limited by the chance outcomes of the dice, isn't avoiding the dice through your player smarts the better way to resolve the situation? I think so.
Small squad tactical infiltration dungeons are fun, don't get me wrong. I enjoy that sort of thing, too. But don't dump on the funhouse dungeon. It's challenging different player skills than the tactical assault, but both are challenging the player.
*I was going to say a lot of players, but this was a few people on a message board thread, so I probably should not the vast majority of gamers feel this way, I have only anecdotal evidence that a small but vocal number of gamers felt that way like 10 to 15 years ago.
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