How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games

When home computers seemed like rare gadgets, a killer app was a program so compelling that people purchased the computer just to run the application. VisiCalc became the Apple II’s killer app, and then Lotus 1-2-3 drove customers to the IBM PC.

Dungeons & Dragons came with a killer app baked in—the dungeon crawl. The dungeon provided such a powerful setting for the first role-playing game that I suspect the game’s success owes as much to this setting as to the invention of the role-playing game. (For a taste of fantasy role playing without the dungeon crawl, read my post, “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?”)

From Gauntlet to Diablo, the dungeon crawl is now such a popular video game convention that it stands as its own genre. Even folks who think tabletop games are all like Monopoly and see video games as unworthy of attention, know of Indiana Jones, the Tomb Raider movies, and the Mines of Moria. The D&D dungeon may seem conventional by now, but in the early 1970s, nothing exactly like it existed in the popular imagination.

The dungeon has developed such a huge role in popular culture that we struggle to imagine how novel and compelling dungeon crawls were 40 years ago.

In 1977, when I first overheard kids at my new school talking about Dungeons & Dragons, I managed to learn just two things about the game, but these hints electrified me. In D&D, you played a person in the game who grew in power through experience, and you explored dungeons filled with monsters, hidden secrets, and treasures—often magical. I went home, opened the yellow pages, and called countless hobby shops in Chicagoland, searching for one that stocked this astounding game. When I finally located a copy at the distant Hill’s Hobby, I coaxed my mom into providing a ride—but not until the weekend. Still excited, but facing a torturous wait, I sat down with some graph paper and speculated on how a game of dungeon exploration might play.

My enthusiasm was not unique. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

Even when the first role-playing games left medieval fantasy, they kept dungeons or sites that played like dungeons.

Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.”

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Dra'k'ne Station

Dra’k’ne Station

Traveller (1977) brought an entire universe to play in, but for years all the game’s published adventures featured derelict space ships, alien and abandoned research stations, and other location-based adventures resembling dungeons in space.

  • Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”
  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.
Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

The dungeon crawl offers several essential advantages:

  • Ease of play – The dungeon’s walls limited options, making the game master’s job manageable. In a Gamespy interview Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.” More than anything, the wide-open space of Traveller drove designers to attempt to duplicate the dungeon experience in space.
  • Group play – Dungeon exploration provided an activity for a party with divergent skills. A host of role-playing games ranging from Chivalry & Sorcery to every spy game ever struggled to find reasons for characters to work together.
  • Obstacles – Dungeons provided an excuse for monsters, tricks, and traps. Their inevitably-insane architects gave dungeon masters free reign to create a funhouse environment.
  • Goals – The treasure underground gave a reason to explore, and a gave players a common goal.
  • Flavor – Dungeons provided an evocative setting full of secrets and ripe for exploration. For me, the most evocative illustration in the blue box was the underground cross section. I wanted to crack the mysteries of just such an underground complex.

Nowadays, some D&D players dislike dungeon crawls and that’s fine. Forty-some years of evolution have taken D&D to villages, forests, palaces, and across the planes of the great wheel. Dungeon masters no longer prepare for play by following the instructions from the 1974 brown books. “First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld.’” If you dislike dungeons you can still like D&D. (If you don’t like dungeons or dragons, then you probably just play to seem cool.)

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One Response to How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games

  1. Simon says:

    “Dungeon masters no longer prepare for play by following the instructions from the 1974 brown books. “First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld.’”

    Yeah, nowadays I buy 10 levels of published megadungeon & run that (Stonehell FTW!) 🙂
    I love how with a true megadungeon campaign I can run it with whoever I want, with as many different groups as I want, and it is all just so amazingly easy and fun. The big trick is to end each session with PCs back in town so that the player/PC group can vary each session as a new expedition readies to set out.

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