Tag Archives: Chainmail

From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons: the invention of the dungeon crawl

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.

Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

I’m currently reading Playing at the World, Jon Peterson’s sprawling, exhaustive investigation of D&D’s genesis. The book spans 700 dense pages, and seems to encompass a lifetime of research. In writing the book, Peterson explored sources like early interviews, court testimony, and Gary and Dave’s contributions to wargaming fanzines in the 60s and 70s. This is no breezy read; Peterson’s style is scholarly: He cites Greek terms in the Greek alphabet. He includes a quarter-page footnote on whether the author of an 1803 book of chess rules spelled his name with one or two “l”s. (I won’t spoil the answer.) But for anyone who shares my interest in D&D’s early history—or in the games and fiction that inspired the game—the book is a feast. I relish every detail. I drew on Peterson’s discussion of the origin of the dungeon for this post.

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?

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

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.

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

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.

The brilliance of unrealistic hit points

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

After the role-playing game hobby’s first 10 years, designers turned from strict realism and began to design rules that both supported a game’s flavor and encouraged its core activities. Runequest‘s realistically lethal combat systemParanoia 1st edition game fit the fearful world of Call of Cthulhu (1981), as did a new sanity system. Paranoia (1984) built in rules that encouraged a core activity of treachery, while giving each character enough clones to avoid hard feelings.

Today, this innovation carries through stronger then ever. Dungeons and Dragons’ fourth-edition designers saw D&D’s fun in dynamic battles and showing off your character’s flashy capabilities, so they optimized rules that heightened that aspect of the game, possibly to the expense of other aspects.

When Dave Arneson mashed rules for ironclads into Chainmail, he probably gave little thought to supporting the D&D play style that would launch a hobby, but he created some brilliant conventions.

Chainmail gameThe best idea was to give characters steadily increasing hit point totals that “reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage─as indicated by constitution bonuses─and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the ‘sixth sense’ which warns the individual of otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.” (Gary wrote this rationale for hit points in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.)

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D used hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, rising hit points work as an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic─it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep─but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Critics of inflated hit points still had a point. Using hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic can strain credulity, especially when you cannot explain how a character could reasonably reduce the damage he takes. Why should an unconscious or falling hero be so much more durable than a first-level mook?  Why does cure light wounds completely heal the shopkeeper and barely help a legendary hero? Over the years, we’ve seen attempts to patch these problems. For example, I liked how fourth edition’s healing surge value made healing proportional to hit points, so I’m sorry to see D&D Next turn back to the traditional hierarchy of cure spells.

D&D maintains a deliberate vagueness about the injuries inflicted by a hit. This abstraction makes possible D&D’s brilliant use of hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic. Fourth edition exploits the ambiguity more than ever, making plausible the second wind and the healing power of a warlord’s inspiration. 4E explicitly makes hit points as much a measure of resolve as of skill, luck and physical endurance. Damage apparently exists as enough of an abstraction that even if a hit deals damage, it doesn’t necessarily draw blood.

Even as 4E aims for the loosest possible interpretation of a hit, it makes the hit roll more important than in any prior edition. In 4E, melee hits can inflict crippling effects without saves. Just getting hit automatically subjects you to poison, or paralysis, or whatever. In past editions, if the spider bit or the ghoul clawed, you took the damage, but you still got an immediate save.

In the early days of the RPG hobby, many games attempted to fuse D&D’s fantastic setting with a more realistic model of combat damage. Although a few of these games enjoyed success, none recreated the combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing play style pioneered by D&D. At the time, no one seemed to realize that the clever damage-reduction mechanism built into game enabled the game’s play style.

Video game designers figured it out. Virtually every video game that combines fighting with character improvement features D&D-style rising hit points.

Next: Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?

Dave ArnesonWhen Dave Arneson set out to create the combat system that would become a pillar of Dungeons & Dragons, he did not aim to create a realistic simulation.  In a 2004 interview, he describes the system’s genesis from Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules.

Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it…or it killed you. It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have. The initial Chainmail rules was a matrix. That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.

I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.

So the D&D rules for hit points and armor class stem from rules for ironclad ships trading cannon blasts, hardly the basis for an accurate simulation of hand-to-hand battles.

Soon after I began playing D&D, the unrealistic combat rules began to gnaw at me. In the real world, armor reduces the damage from blows rather than making you harder to hit. Shouldn’t it work the same way in the game? And how could a fighter, no matter how heroic, survive a dozen arrow hits, each dealing enough damage to kill an ordinary man? In reality, a skilled fighter would stand a better chance of evading blows, but no better chance of surviving a single hit.

Quest for realism

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a sword in the Society of Creative Anachronism cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Runequest (1978) stands as the greatest early success. Characters’ hit points remained constant, but they became more able to dodge and block blows. Hit locations transformed characters from blobs of hit points into flesh and bone. Armor reduced damage by deflecting and cushioning blows. Arms Law and Claw Law

If you enjoyed the AD&D Weapon Armor Class Adjustment table, but felt it needed to go much, much further, the Rolemaster Arm’s Law (1980) system offered more than 30 tables matching weapons versus armor.

In this era, everyone formulated a critical hit table, because nothing adds fun to a system like skewered eyes, fountaining stumps, and sucking chest wounds. (Follow this blog for my upcoming list of supposedly fun, but not fun, things we did in the early days of role playing.)

I sought realism as much as anyone, first with Runequest, and then with GURPS. I quickly learned that making combat more realistically deadly made D&D-style, combat-intensive play impractical. Forget dungeon crawls; even skilled characters would eventually perish to a lucky blow. As I described in Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map, early D&D combat lacked excitement anyway, so I hardly missed all the fights.

But I would come to realize that my dismissal of the D&D combat system was completely wrong.

Next: The brilliance of unrealistic hit points