Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, August 30, 2019

Whence the Labyrinth?

Dungeons are probably the most common adventure locale in role playing games; they were the cornerstone of every adventure in the early days, and remain popular today.  Sprawling expansive underground complexes filled with terrifying monsters and fabulous treasures exert a powerful draw upon our imaginations, and a call to adventure that is impossible to ignore.  Dungeons often serve not just as the locale for an adventure, but for the entire campaign, with huge mega-dungeon complexes taking novice characters to the giddy heights of power, as they delve ever further into its depths.

But where do these ubiquitous underground complexes come from?  This is a question that has plagued many of us, I'm sure.  I recall debating this topic ad nauseam with my friends back in high school, railing against the absurdity that such huge underground complexes could reasonably exist, and straining to provide credible rationale for them.  Indeed, this need for rationalization has caused many gamers to eschew dungeons altogether.

Another school of thought is that dungeons represent the mythic underworld, which requires no rationale, and follows its own rules and logic.  This very old-school view hearkens back to the earliest days of the hobby.  This mindset is explained in a thorough essay by Jason Cone in Philotomy's Musings, and is summed up nicely in this post by DM David: The Dungeon Comes Alive in the Mythic Underworld.  The beauty of dungeons as mythic underworld is that it does away with any need to rationalize them: they just are.

I really like the notion of the Mythic Underworld, but I'm the kind of guy who prefers a naturalistic explanation for things; not out of  a pedantic need to rationalize everything, but because doing so adds to the constructed history and culture of my game world, and it helps to fuel my imagination and come up with exciting adventure ideas.  It's easy to come up with a logical explanation for a single dungeon, but how do you account for the large numbers of such complexes that dot the landscape and support the cottage industry of adventuring parties upon which most fantasy roleplaying games are predicated?

One answer lies in early twentieth century history, because it turns out that mega-dungeon complexes are real and not as laborious or time-consuming to construct as my teenage self used to believe.  Ever since the hundredth anniversary of the armistice last year, I've been reading about the history of the 1st World War, focusing most of my reading on the western front with its trenches extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border.  Pierre Berton, in his book, Vimy describes in great detail, the underground network that housed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including a map illustrating passage ways connecting officer's quarters, kitchens, sleeping quarters that looks exactly like every dungeon map I've ever seen.

The bedrock throughout much of France is composed of chalk, and the trenches, dugouts, and holding areas incorporate huge natural karst caverns into their labyrinthine networks, which extended tens of meters below ground.  Because the bedrock is so soft it was easy to dig the tunnel networks, and sappers dug mines and listening posts into no-man's land using nothing more than vinegar and bayonets.  Many of the caverns housed 500 men or more apiece, and Berton claimed that it was possible to walk 10 km from the Canadian trenches at Vimy to the Spanish trenches at Arras without ever seeing the light of day.  These complexes were, in effect, vast underground cities, and the Canadian complex at Vimy housed a population greater than any city in Canada at that time, barring Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg.  These tunnel networks were so vast that soldiers often got lost in them, so that specialist guides were designated to escort units to where they needed to go.  So by any account the underground complexes supporting the trenches of the western front are bigger by far than any fantasy mega-dungeon I've ever seen.

Entrance to a German dugout (creepy clown with free balloons not included)

So how do I incorporate the dungeon complexes of the 1st World War into a fantasy setting?  Trench warfare was a response to the devastating might of modern artillery and the advent of the machine gun, which made the infantry lines and cavalry charges of the 19th century obsolete - a fact that escaped many old generals in the early days of the war.

In a fantasy milieu artillery is called wizards, at least in campaigns where wizards are common enough to be included in the ranks of the army.  TFT is just such a game; wizards are so commonplace that seven of the sixteen listed wizarding occupations on the jobs table are with army or mercenary units, so clearly battles on Cidri are waged with wizards on both sides of the conflict, a situation similar to that depicted in Steven Erikson's fantasy series, Malazan Book of the Fallen (probably not coincidental, as the series was based on the author's GURPS campaign).  Parallel evolution suggests that since mages of Cidri are analogous to artillery on the western front of Europe, similar defensive networks would be built to protect soldiers from near certain death on the open ground.

This inspires lots of cool ideas for a campaign set in the aftermath of a great war.  Perhaps an invading empire laid siege to fortresses along the borderlands of its neighbors as it slowly advanced.  One by one keeps and castles fell to the besieging army that entrenched itself around the defenders, sappers extending tunnels to breach the defenses, defenders digging counter mines. The aftermath of each siege leaves behind a dungeon complex radiating from the hub of a ruined castle upon a field littered with the dead and saturated with magic.  What treasures and artifacts lay forgotten in the ruins?  How many thousands of dead men lie where they fell in the killing ground?  What manner of vermin have grown large gorging themselves on rotting corpses, and warped by magic?  Imagine the number of such dungeons that would lie in the wake of such a war.  Perhaps a necromancer has laid claim to one such castle drawn by the huge number of corpses upon which to practice his art.  Such places also make excellent refuges for bandits, orcs, goblins and other unsavory creatures that come to inhabit the ruins.

I also like the idea of injecting a bit of the 'mythic underworld' into this setting.  Might not such sites of mass killing and magical maelstrom leave an indelible imprint, perhaps tainting the land with the touch of Chaos?  The dead might rise of their own accord, animated by pockets of magic that linger and drift like clouds of chaos through the area, and the dungeons themselves might become semi sentient, like haunted houses, hungry to claim more souls upon which to glut themselves.

So this naturalistic rationale has given me lots of ideas for adventures, as well as provided an historical backbone upon which to build the campaign.  A land littered with dungeons - artifacts of the last great war.  They present a persistent threat to the surrounding countryside, as well as a source of riches that reward those brave enough to dare explore them.  This is why I like to have a logical explanation for dungeons in my game - such rationales help me to build an internally consistent world, and fuel my imagination.  To quote Ray Bradbury on story ideas: "I'll never starve here."