Monday, July 13, 2009

Subterranean Apartment Building

Or “The Gnolls in 4G Just Won’t Stop Barking”

Some months ago, I finished Margaret St. Clair’s novel, Sign of the Labrys. The novel is one of the books mentioned in the famous Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide and I decided to give it a read in order to fulfill one of my twelve gaming resolutions for 2009. It is a short novel, running a mere 139 pages in length, and I finished it in three days of casual reading. It is a middling work, both in regards to plot and characters, but it is very easy to see why it made Gary’s list. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, pick yourself up a copy if the opportunity presents itself.

A quick synopsis of the plot is that in the wake of a plague that has killed 90% of humanity, the survivors take to living underground in a vast complex built originally to serve as a communal fallout shelter. In a relatively short amount of time, mankind becomes a very cloistered species, seeking to limit contact and interaction with each other to small doses and living in far-flung sections of a subterranean world built to contain a much larger population. Against this backdrop, an ordinary man named Sam Sewell gets drawn into a plot to track down a mysterious woman named Despoina, whom the authorities believe is the head of a cult or anarchist band dwelling on the lower levels of the complex. The usual revelations occur, authority is questioned, and the modern Wiccan tradition gets a nice plug.

Although the novel is no great shakes when viewed through the eyes of a fan of science-fiction, when read with a gaming mentality, it is quite easy to see why Sign of the Labrys is listed under recommended reading. The book is a great example of multiple beings forced to live in a dungeon-like environment. If you never read this book in its entirety, you should at least do yourself the favor of reading the following except:

It is important to understand what a level is. It is not much like a floor in an office building. A level may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep, and subdivided into several tiers. Also, access to them is not uniform. The upper levels are simple and straightforward; one gets to and from them by stairs, escalators, or elevators. I dislike the elevators, myself, since if power should be interrupted, one would be stuck there indefinitely. But the upper levels are easy.

As one goes down, it gets difficult. Entrances and exits are usually concealed. The reason for this, I think, was partly to protect the VIP’s in the lower levels from unauthorized intrusion, partly to provide a redoubt in case the “enemy” was victorious, and partly because of the passion for secrecy that characterizes the military mind.
Sound like anything you know?

It was a bit disconcerting to see the above written in something other than a role-playing game supplement. While the idea of a giant underground habitat was hardly new ground in 1963, the year Labrys was published, it was startling to see it described in terms that exactly reflect the layout and purpose of the average megadungeon.

Just recently, I finished off Lean Times in Lankhmar, a collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales. Amongst the short stories in that collection was “The Lords of Quarmall.” I’m going to make the assumption that most of my readers are more familiar with Leiber’s (and Fischer’s) tale of subterranean residency, but just in case it’s an enigma to you, the story revolves around two potential heirs to the underground city of Quarmall. Consisting of multiple subterranean levels stacked upon one another, Quarmall is very similar to the Sign of the Labrys’ underground shelter. The two lords-to-be are locked in a Cold War with one another; their forces and followers limited to the areas of Quarmall under the control of each individual noble. When their father dies suddenly, the Cold War heats up and the two brothers go hammer and tongs at one another until the Twain manage to upset the heirs’ mushroom cart in their usual manner.

With both of these tales in my head, I had a sudden satori about the way the megadungeon has come to be viewed over the last 30+ years. It’s the fashion to now look on the old school megadungeon as a prime example of the illogical early days of the hobby. Concerns of dungeon ecology aside, most people will pshaw the notion of numerous creatures of diverse races living in close quarters without eating one another. I once had the same frame of mind, especially when I was a know-it-all teenager. But something happened that made me realize that this notion isn’t quite as far-fetched as one might imagine: I lived in an apartment building.

As most anyone whose experienced such a living situation will attest, there’s not a lot of interaction between the residents of such places (unless you’re living in some sort of collective or commune). You might have a nodding relationship with a handful of neighbors, forged from the occasional meetings in the lobby or the elevator, but for the most part the people who share your roof are strangers. Chances are you like it that way too. If you’re more outgoing, you might be friends with a few people on your floor, but that’s really the extent of apartment life interaction. Your notion of your neighbors is limited to the music they sometimes play too loud or the speculation at the size of their feet when they drop their shoes on the floor of the apartment above yours. I don't see why sentient monsters in a similar situation would react any differently. As long as there are ample resources to meet the needs of the residents, you really don’t have to have any dealings with the ogres down on Level Four or the orcs up on Level One. You might throw a few spears at the hobgoblins who live on the west side of your level if you happen to run into each other on the way to the drinking pool, but is it really worth the effort to trudge all the way over there just to pick a fight?

I recall reading in the 3.5 book, Dungeonscape, the concept of looking upon the dungeon as a city composed of several different neighborhoods: some dangerous, some industrial, some commercial. Although that mindset might work for some people, the idea of the dungeon as an apartment building works better for me. The more I turned this idea over in my head, the more I realized that this had been the unconscious notion steering Stonehell during its development. Rereading “The Lords of Quarmall” really dropped the penny for me because that story had to be my first exposure to this idea and I suddenly saw in print some of the thoughts that I had been having. I even suggested this notion more clearly in my post for the quadrant Monster Dorm.

The next time you’re delving into your own megadungeon, think about your own experience with apartment living (or dorm life or barracks dwelling) and see if you can’t apply some of your own memories of that situation to the dungeon. You might be surprised to see how well they fit.

And if you still balk at the idea of a bunch of blood-thirsty, violent, psychopaths living under one roof without slaughtering one another, I can only assume you’ve never lived in a New York City apartment complex…


Chris said...

I suddenly had a strange echo from another world. An Eddy Murphy-voiced claymation sitcom about the lives of a mismatched group of monsters living in a wildly unsafe subterranean labyrinth. The DJs?

Timeshadows said...

Nice post. I'm glad to have read it. :D

The Grand Wazoo said...

You know those dwarves from 3f are cooking some "Barley soup wart" down in the common area. I think you should go talk to them.

James Mishler said...

Sounds great! Just ordered it off of eBay. Thanks for the review!

JB said...

Welcome to The Projects!

Another thing about apartment building living (from my days when I did this)...when there is some crazy guy playing the music too loud, you're a lot less likely to say anything at all when he has the potential for psychotically pummeling your ass. If your a small clan of goblins, are you really going to throw a spear at that owl bear your see down at the watering hole? Probably're going to tip-toe around that crazy asshole!

Sure some monsters will dominate others like the head of the condo council, but yeah I can totally see monsters (like people) minding their own business as they go about their day jobs of looting and pillaging the civilized villagers down the road...
: )

Matthew Slepin said...

That _Labrys_ quote is almost unbelievable. if I'd read that 20 years ago, I woudl saved myself a lot of trouble rationalizing dungeons.

E.G.Palmer said...

My favorite part of Quarmall is the ventilation system. Tread slaves bred to have powerful legs and tiny heads who ceaselessly walk treadmills to turn the fans which bring fresh air to the lower levels.

AndreasDavour said...

I can barely understand that such a quote exists! What a hoot!

Now I'd love to read that book, and re-read some Leiber. You can always re-read Leiber.

JDJarvis said...

Good post. Half my youth I grew up in a cruddy satellite city of Boston in the middle of miles and miles of triple-deckers and a visit to the projects was like stepping into a dungeon now that I think about it:
"Don't come in on A street", "avoid the doors by the highway, come in the other side", "Never use the elevator" , "If you see someone in the stairwell go back outside and toss a rock up to my window but don't wait there where the guys in the basketball court can see you unless there are a couple of games going on"... all to play atari and swap comics.

jdebetolaza said...

Wonderful post and great reading suggestion!