Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Did Sophistication Kill the Fun?

I remember my first dungeon (the first one I mapped, anyway).  It had laser turrets and a dimensional portal to a sci-fi universe.  This was an adventure that ended with dinosaurs and intelligent apes with rifles who had to be convinced not to invade the setting.  Yeah, that's pretty much the tone.  I dialed it back in later adventures, but the metaphorical die was cast and a fun-house atmosphere remained.  These were good times.

My games were dungeon-centric affairs.  The wilderness called for a wandering monster check along the way; but the dungeon was everything, and descending into that underworld marked the transition into a fantastic other world.  An exotic place filled with absurd and deadly things.  In short, Wonderland.  Now let's imagine a sorcerer lives in area 13, growing magical mushrooms with unexpected effects when eaten...      

But first, you have the hair salon with an exclusive clientele: a mummy (getting fresh wrappings) and a medusa (getting her snakes oiled).  It could be a bloodbath, or maybe the party gets their hair done instead.  And don't forget the giant talking head that delivers a terrible curse unless the party completes its dirty limerick.  Bottom line, the encounters were designed to entertain and give the players a wide variety of experiences.  

It wasn't all goofball.  Some were serious encounters, whether the domain of an orcish warlord or the owl bear nesting grounds.  You know, things that make sense in an underworld setting.  These got included because they were cool; but they were still punctuated with gonzo fare because that was also cool, and because magic in inherently absurd and requires a little whimsy.  In retrospect, it was an act of respect to the players...

That's right, respect.  Each encounter was designed to entertain and challenge them, unconstrained by things like internal consistency.  There was a greater variety of monsters to fight and traps to overcome.  Serious dungeons have a reason for being and a realistic ecology, which is cool.  But the characters are just "passing through", and the world largely responds to itself.  Not so for the gonzo dungeon, which is made for them.

Of course, it couldn't last.  I grew up and got sophisticated, and that meant world building, complete with complex cultures and realistic ecologies.  This was creatively challenging and fun to do, and for obvious reasons.  Serious isn't a dirty word, and realism brings its own rewards to the game.  But in the process, magic became a science and wonder went out the window.  Fairyland departed, replaced by a Darwinian consistency.

And I'll come clean.  I was briefly a nerdy douchebag who scoffed at the gonzo fare I'd previously (and enthusiastically) embraced, laughing at silly worlds of kobold cowboys and dwarven rock bands.  I was insufferable.  Luckily, I was only 14 and eventually got over myself, much to the delight of pretty much everyone.  But by then I was sampling a variety of adult pleasures, and it would take a few decades to fully appreciate gonzo.

Did sophistication kill the fun?  No.  Maybe.  Kinda.  Really, it all depends on personal preference.  I won't denigrate serious games because mine is 85% serious.  But the older I get (51 and counting), the more I appreciate the simple wonder of a fun-house dungeon stocked with the players in mind and built to provide them with a variety of challenging and absurd experiences.  Hey, magic could always use a little nonsense. 

Childhood's gone.  But with age I've rediscovered the gonzo dungeon; that underworld excavated by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses (thanks Gary) and built with the players in mind.  A realm where you can dine with demons and play chess with storm giants - and all in one place!  A love letter to the players because it was made just for them to explore with childlike glee and adult avarice.  A place where magic is, well, magic...


  1. Thank you for this post! We're in the same boat, it seems :)

  2. Well said. It took some time for me to ease out of my "a tad too serious" phase. Now I'm trying to encourage the rest of my friends to embrace the gonzo!

  3. You have the knack for writing things I need to hear. I'm trying to get over my autistic obsession for dungeons to have logical infrastructure: food prep, nurseries, forges (with proper ventilation), toilets, etc. A "civilized" castle or keep might have these things. Dungeons don't have to.

  4. I think a lot of us of a certain age are experiencing this. I know I am on the backside of the bell curve of maturity, and frankly don't care. I still prefer some coherency, but fun is key and simpler mechanics (less work) to get to fun.

  5. A great post, and I stumbled here by chance.

    I started with a secondhand copy of Moldvay Basic in 1983 and then onto a bought Expert set. I still have the original dice. As my teens progressed we moved to MERP, Rolemaster, RQ and SpaceMaster. None of these ever seemed as much fun or fluid as D&D. My friends thought that the critical tables and huge damage equalled fun. For me it was meeting scheduled meeting magical and strange that I'd never meet in real life.

    After nearly 30y away from RPG and now diving back into it with my kids and nostalgia I can see the differences between those who think an RPG should be a simulation and those who think of it as a game. For me this is what most of the OSR types remember, that it is a game.

  6. Ah! You and I would have been such good childhood friends! There were so many times we played with some dice and barely any rules!

  7. This is a great analysis. I like to think the OSR is something of a counter-push to the tendency towards "sophistication" as you put it. A lot of the adventures that the OSR has produced have exactly this same aesthetic, and I have to mention my own Castle of the Mad Archmage as part of that trend.