Friday, May 15, 2020

One Dungeon per Dungeon Master

It seems that the first dungeon fantasy adventure was born in winter of 1971-1972, in the fantasy wargame campaign by Dave Arneson called Blackmoor. Arneson had learned to play improvisationally as a player with character persona in the wargame Braunstein.

(Some of the historical information in this musing is derived from Jon Peterson's book Playing at the World, a copy of which just arrived to me. The book, based on copious primary sources, is a must-read for anybody who wants to understand the origin of the hobby. I strongly recommend it.)

Arneson's Castle Blackmoor had mines beneath it. Exploring the mines led players to discover many levels of tunnels. In the tunnels were monsters and evil wizards and treasure. The deeper they went, the more dangerous it was. The dungeon adventure with hidden map was born.

Arneson's dungeon is said to have been six levels deep by the time Gary Gygax got a taste of it at GenCon V in 1972, where Arneson ran a session for him and some other players. Gygax wanted in on the new form of game.

Gygax requested copies of Arneson's rules. Arneson, who had collaborated with Gygax on the Chainmail battle rules, provided them in a messy batch and Gygax began whipping them into order. Gygax began running his own, similar game, based on a Castle Greyhawk and his own world, by that name. It, too, had many levels of dungeons beneath it.

(By 1978, in the Preface to the AD&D Players Handbook in which he receives sole-author credit, Gygax would claim to be "the individual responsible for it all," "the first proponent of fantasy gaming," and proposed himself as "a last authority" on D&D, which he originally co-authored with Arneson. Players and fans who revere Gygax today overlook many of his actions and the inferior products he designed over the course of his long career. How many of you are playing his Lejendary Adventures or Cyborg Commando?)

Note that Arneson began with a fantasy wargame that led to one dungeon under a castle, for which the world around the dungeon was named. Gygax imitated him in the dungeon setting.

The model of one dungeon per Dungeon Master was established as the norm at the beginning of the hobby.

One of the three original D&D books, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (1974) advises the DM as follows: "Before it is possible to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons, it is necessary for the referee to sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper."

It's interesting to see that early gamers thought of adventures simply as mazes on hidden maps, custom-designed for players.

As a teenager, in 1974, Craig VanGrasstek wrote his Rules to the Game of Dungeon based on second- or third-hand knowledge of D&D. He wrote in the foreword that "... since there are so many different mazes, run by so many different people, there are bound to be many discrepancies and idiosyncrasies among them. Because of this, it would be nearly impossible to publish a rule book truly representative of all mazes. Therefore, I am writing this with the rules to my maze alone; some of the rules herein stated do not apply to other mazes, just as some rules in other mazes do not apply in mine. This booklet is not meant to be a rule book to my maze as much as it is meant to use the rules of my maze as an example for those who wish to make mazes of their own, but do not live in the Twin Cities area. I would like to hear from anyone interested in making a maze, or anyone with a question, or any other feedback."

It is fascinating to learn from this that in late 1974, in Minneapolis, there are "so many different people" with mazes of their own that he thought no one set of rules could apply to all of them. Every Dungeon Master had a set of rules for his own, unique, maze.

One gamemaster, one maze. Just like Arneson, just like Gygax. Thus, Arneson's prototype model endured for a while.

Page 5 of the original Tunnels & Trolls, developed in Arizona in the spring of 1975 and published that year in June, makes it clear that each "D.M." (the term used in T&T at the outset) should "dig" his or her own dungeon and give it a theme. One player's dungeon had the theme of cave bears, that of John "Bear" Peters. Another's dungeon had the theme of serpents and riddles. These each belonged to a different DM. Every level of depth meant tougher monsters, more treasure, and more experience, just as in Arneson's original Blackmoor dungeon. But it meant that if John Peters in Arizona was the DM, your characters would meet cave bears. That was his maze.

In those days, it becomes clear, every DM had his or her own unique dungeon. If you wanted to go into another dungeon, you had to find another DM, who would have personalized house rules. And if you kept playing with the same Dungeon Master, you kept revisiting the same dungeon, with the benefit of any maps that players had produced before.

Note that there is no "sandbox" setting. You go to the dungeon and you come out. Yes, you could explore the dungeon at will, within the limits of team cohesion and following the leader, but the idea that you could just wander wherever you wanted beyond that was not widespread. There were also wilderness adventures around the dungeon, but the dungeon was the overwhelming focus in 1975.

I, for one, am glad that this is not what people are trying to revive today under the guise of "Old School." It is a lot more like a board game than the role-playing games I played in the early '80s. In fact, one board game was created to capture the experience of these early games: "The Dungeons of Pasha Cada," soon marketed as Dungeon! (1975). I had an old set of it when I was young and my kids have a new version. (It is not an exciting game. I recommend any edition of Talisman instead.)

Already in 1975, Gygax was experimenting with dungeons besides Greyhawk as demonstrations of the product he was eagerly marketing. He ran the first iteration of the Tomb of Horrors at the first Origins conference in 1975, using an idea he "borrowed" from a gamer named Alan Lucien. As Peterson notes (PATW p. 529), players in Gygax's session were deeply frustrated by it: the first deathtrap dungeon on record. Mark Swanson, a serious gamer who played in it with fourteen other players in the two-hour tournament, wrote afterwards, "Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors and Dungeon Roulette. ... I feel no real desire for a second, similar game."

But this shows that Gygax and others were soon dreaming up all kinds of new dungeons, going beyond the one-dungeon-per-DM pattern in order to demonstrate the game. At least they did so for one-shot tournament games. A GM's personal dungeon, with many levels of development, was too large for one-shot games at conventions. It seems, therefore, that Origins and GenCon in 1975 and 1976 were the sites at which the D&D module was born. Players were introduced to the game through one-shot scenarios. That became a new model, gradually displacing the implicit notion that every DM had a unique dungeon to which players returned many times.

Soon, in 1978, TSR would be catching up with fan activities and third-party publications by marketing their own official D&D adventure modules on the model of the one-shot sessions to keep players engaged. The Tomb of Horrors was one of the first published, when this novelty began. Some of the oldest D&D modules were tested as tournament games.

The marketing shaped the hobby. When I first started playing in 1981, it never occurred to me that you would re-play the same dungeons, or that I would take players into the same location over and over. There were seemingly countless adventure supplements available and I wanted to explore them all. Each had an "end-game," be it a story goal, a boss monster to beat, or a treasure to reach. TSR had found an effective way to keep players buying more and more D&D products, instead of wandering off to the games of competitors when the novelty wore thin. This was especially so when new products might introduce new monsters, spells, rules, and classes.

Many game designers today favor "giant sandbox" adventures with sites that can be explored and revisited again and again. They believe that it's the only true way to play to maximize player choice. The module B2, "Keep on the Borderlands" (1979), is still hailed as an original sandbox-style adventure, a site with lots of nooks and crannies to explore on several successive expeditions. It is widely imitated as "original," though most players first encountered it in the red-box Basic set by Moldvay. Take, for example, Gillespie's megadungeon Barrowmaze. The new megadungeons are presented as the "old school," even though they are usually much more rationalized than the actual old-school dungeons that they emulate. But do any Referees out there run one private dungeon over and over, specializing in the same labyrinth of many levels, digging progressively deeper, so to speak, for many years, so that anybody who plays with you goes there and there alone--besides the Referees who have the ambition to sell their megadungeons?


  1. If I may misquote Aquinas, hominem unius carceris timeo.

    I've never understood the appeal of megadungeons, even back in the day (ages 10-12) when most of our adventures were published modules or pointless mazes in the door-monster-treasure genre, usually made up by the DM on the spot. Even then we still mixed it up with city adventures (barfights) and quests into the wilderness for the king.

    I did have a friend at that time who was designing the 'ultimate dungeon' with his brother. It was meticulously drawn on abuot 10 sheets of graph paper, and the monster encouters were, of course, written right onto the map (black dragon; 3 orcs; 12 bone devils). He was very proud of this dungeon, and we all looked at it with awe, but we never tried to play it.

    1. All of us who have run adventures have "over-created" some of them. My players ask me regularly after a session, "What would have happened if we went *that* way instead?" And I say I can't tell them, because maybe some unmet encounters will be recycled some other day. And maybe, just maybe, they'll go back that way some day. And maybe what was there will have moved by that time. It would be like a magician on a stage showing how the tricks worked after the show.

      This is part of the idea behind "lazy DMs" these days. Don't over-do it because you won't use it. Perhaps I was always a "lazy" Referee. I prefer to think of it as economical!

      One of the attractions of the megadungeon is that the players know that they can try to go anywhere and there will be something thoughtfully preplanned awaiting them. If it's not so thoughtful, but rather just a bunch of rooms and wandering monsters, then the dungeon turns into arena fights in tunnels punctuated by impossible traps. I am pretty sure that some players like that style of play, but I was never one of them.

      If the alternative to carefully planned-out dungeons is a bunch of random tables, I'd take the careful planning any day (unless I were playing solo, with no Referee).