In my post, “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success,” I argued that the invention of the dungeon crawl contributed as much to the initial popularity of Dungeons & Dragons as the invention of the role-playing game. In the dungeon, D&D found a fun and evocative activity for a group of players.
The strangest thing about focusing a game on parties of adventures who explore monster-infested dungeons for treasure is that this activity never happens in the fantasies that inspired the game. At best, you can find elements: treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.
Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game—the campaign that spawned D&D—began with a gaming group playing fictional versions of themselves in a fantasy world. The characters became champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. Without any further inspiration, the Blackmoor game might have evolved into a role-playing game such as Chivalry & Sorcery, a game I found short on fun. But somehow, Dave invented a new activity that transformed the campaign and ultimately made a lasting addition to popular culture.
Dave Arneson never gave a good account of his invention the dungeon crawl. By the time people started asking, he obviously no longer remembered the details.
Blackmoor moves underground
The nascent Blackmoor campaign had very few ingredients that seemed to lead to dungeon delves. The campaign used Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules, which never mention dungeons. At most, they suggest using graph paper to map efforts to tunnel under fortifications.
Dave’s Blackmoor games did include a toy castle, which served as the focus for the above-ground battles. Castles can have dungeons, although in 1971, the dungeon of popular fiction was an underground jail rather than a sprawling compound stocked with monsters and treasure.
Nonetheless, in 1972’s second issue of the campaign newsletter, the “Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger”, Arneson reported on dungeons below the castle where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson writes, “By this point, Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.”
So what inspired Arneson to invent the new style of play?
His best account may come from the “My Life in Role Playing” article Dave wrote for Different Worlds issue 3, from June/July 1979. “How did it all start in Blackmoor? I can’t really say. I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend (ch. 5), reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same) and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper. I was also quite tired of my [Napoleonic] Campaign with all its rigid rules, etc., and was perhaps rebelling against it too (in fact I’m sure I was!!).”
Robert E. Howard’s influence
While Robert E. Howard’s Conan never willingly enters a dungeon, he often finds himself trapped in dungeons, forced to overcome monsters to earn freedom.
In “Hour of the Dragon,” Conan is imprisoned in the dungeon under the palace of King Tarascus in the Nemedian empire. A sympathetic slave girl gives Conan a rough map of the tunnels, and then warns, “Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which are the doors to Hell.” To escape, Conan defeats a monster that was one of “the goblins of Hyborian legendry, and were in reality ogres of the natural world.”
In the “Scarlet Citadel,” Conan finds himself chained in “the very Halls of Horror named in shuddering legendry, the tunnels and dungeons wherein Tsotha performed horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic elements of life itself. Rumor said that the mad poet Rinaldo had visited these pits, and been shown horrors by the wizard, and that the nameless monstrosities of which he hinted in his awful poem, The Song of the Pit, were no mere fantasies of a disordered brain.”
Playing at the World summarizes the events that follow. “Conan also begins his tenure in the dungeon of the ‘Scarlet Citadel’ chained to the wall, though in this case he has been left the plaything of an enormous serpent known as Satha, the Old One. Inadvertently freed by an assassin who came to take his life but instead fell to the serpent, Conan sets out with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other to find an exit from the dungeon. In his exploration he meets other monsters, including humans horribly reshaped by the evil wizard Tsotha. Eventually, he finds himself lost in a maze of tunnels with no obvious exit; its various rooms are described almost thoroughly enough that one could sketch a rudimentary map of the area. Finally, he discovers and liberates Pelias, a rival sorcerer of Tsotha, and together they escape when Pelias conveniently resurrects a deceased eunuch on the other side of the bars who can raise the gate. Jointly, the ‘Hour of the Dragon’ and the ‘Scarlet Citadel’ establish dungeons as places to explore, where monsters reside that must be confronted.”
In “Rogues in the House,” Conan is lost in the pits below the house of the Red Priest, where he evades the traps that slay companions who lack Conan’s “steel-spring quickness.” Although the covered city of “Red Nails” lies above ground, its interior shares the ambiance of a dungeon.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s influence
Arneson names Conan rather Tolkien as a source, but I suspect that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings provided nearly as much inspiration. Tolkien’s parties of heroes keep finding themselves in sprawling, underground compounds.
The Hobbit takes readers into the goblin king’s warrens under the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo gets lost in the tunnels and encounters Gollum. Next, the dwarves are imprisoned by the wood elves in an underground fortress. “The king’s cave was his palace, and the strong place of his treasure, and the fortress of his people against their enemies. It was also the dungeon of his prisoners.” Finally, Bilbo and his party reach the abandoned dwarven city under the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug sleeps in the “great bottommost cellar or dungeon-hall of the ancient dwarves right at the Mountain’s root.” Even though the tunnels under Lonely Mountain do not fit the definition of dungeon as an underground jail, Tolkien takes a bit of poetic license and refers to the halls as a dungeon. The dwarves sing,
Far over the misty mountains cold To dungeons deep and caverns old We must away ere break of day To seek the pale enchanted gold.
Unlike any of the Conan tales, in The Hobbit, the adventurers seek the dungeon in search of gold and treasure.
The Lord of the Rings revisits the dungeon again with Moria, the vast underground compound where the fellowship encounters both orcs and the demonic Balrog.
From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons
In 1971, Dave Arneson started with a toy castle and the notion that something might lurk in its cellar. He added a treasure hunt from Tolkien, traps from Robert E. Howard, lurking monsters from both authors—and perhaps from some creature features—to invent a new activity for the characters in his Blackmoor campaign. When Gary Gygax played one of Dave’s Blackmoor games, the experience so fired Gary’s imagination that he went on to do the hard work of fleshing out the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, Gary’s imagination and broad knowledge of sword and sorcery would add countless details inseparable from the game. Ultimately, the dungeon crawl proved so compelling that took root in popular culture.