Tag Archives: Dave Megarry

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.)

Basic and Advanced—Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game (Part 6)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1975, a surging number of Dungeons & Dragons players craved products for the game. TSR head Gary Gygax hired his Dungeons & Dragons co-author to assist. In January of 1976, Dave Arneson moved to Lake Geneva and joined the staff. Gygax seemed eager for the help.

Dave Arneson (photo Kevin McColl)

During Arneson’s time at TSR, he produced little for the company and nothing for D&D. Through all of 1976, Arneson earned just three credits: for an article on WWII naval combat that appeared in Little Wars magazine, for an introduction to the Valley Forge war game, and for ‘special effort’ on the Lankmhar board game.

Arneson did manage to publish several issues of a newsletter for his Napoleonic miniature campaign. He even printed the March 1976 edition on TSR’s mimeograph. For Arneson, the Blackmoor campaign that turned into D&D just provided a break from his true passion: Napoleonic armies and especially sailing ships. He could not match Gygax’s fervor for fantasy or role-playing games.

At the same time, booming demand for D&D products left the rest of TSR’s tiny staff frantically busy. While Arneson took a big cut of D&D’s profits and contributed nothing new, TSR needed money to grow and struggled with cash flow.

Gygax had welcomed his long-time collaborator, but the relationship between D&D’s creators soured.

After 10 months, Arneson left TSR. Arneson’s friend Dave Wesely told one account of Arneson’s exit. When Arneson refused to accept a reduction in royalties, TSR demoted him to shipping clerk, leading him to quit. (See Empire of Imagination by Michael Witner.) Even if the account isn’t accurate, it probably reflects Arneson’s take.

Gary Gygax (photo Alan De Smet)

From Gary Gygax’s perspective, he had labored for years on D&D. He had turned 20 pages of notes into the original rules. He had bet every cent he could scrape together on publishing an odd, risky game. In supplements and magazine articles, he enriched D&D. He defended it in letters and editorials. His friend Frank Mentzer wrote that for D&D, Gygax “paid the costs in stress on himself, his marriage, family, and friends.” Arneson had only planted an idea.

Gygax wondered why Arneson should get a cut of royalties for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even while working at TSR, Arneson had given nothing new to D&D or AD&D. “Gygax felt that Arneson was but one of many contributors, and felt that the revenues should go to those who built the company and fueled the D&D boom…himself first and foremost.”

When the AD&D Monster Manual reached print in December 1977, the book gave no credit to Dave Arneson. Perhaps Gygax considered the book a supplement. D&D supplements only credited their writers.

When the Player’s Handbook arrived August 1978, Arneson only gets a thank you among 20 other contributors. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never mentions Arneson. As it reached stores in 1979, Dragon published Gygax’s editorials positioning AD&D as a new and incompatible game. Soon, the TSR catalog featured listings for an “Expert” extension of the basic rules. Before, the basic rules led to AD&D; now they lead to a separate game.

In 1979, Dave Arneson sued TSR for royalties.

From Dave Arneson’s perspective, D&D came from his ideas. He had started with a sort of miniature game that had existed for generations and that appealed to nobody (rounding down). Then he had added the concepts that made a revolutionary game. With some help from Dave Wesely, Arneson invented a game where each player controlled a single character, and where a referee enabled players to attempt any action. With some help from Dave Megarry, Arneson discovered the fun of looting dungeons. Arneson’s fantasy game added characters defined by numeric attributes, and characters who could improve through experience.

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax each argued that D&D’s success rested on his contribution. Both were correct, but that didn’t make sharing the wealth any easier. The court fight lasted until March 1981. The settlement granted Arneson a royalty of 2.5% of the cover price of core AD&D books. (In 1985, Arneson sued TSR again. His lawyers argued that the Monster Manual II—a collection of new monsters—rated as a “revision” of the Monster Manual. Stop laughing. The court agreed.)

Despite the legal battles, TSR gave basic D&D as much support as AD&D. Early in the 80s, the basic game outsold the advanced version. Even as players in the States started to dismiss basic D&D as a kiddie version, the basic line thrived internationally.

Creatively, D&D thrived too. While D&D played well as written, AD&D suffered from cumbersome rules that most ignored. Also, Gygax treated AD&D as his baby and kept strict control over its products, but when designers worked on basic D&D, they enjoyed more creative freedom.

In 1985, Gary Gygax set aside any animosity left in the wake of lawsuits and approached Dave Arneson to do modules for D&D. Arneson submitted 4, starting with DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor. The series sold well, but Gary soon lost control of TSR. According to Arneson, new TSR president Lorraine Williams “did not want Gary or me involved with TSR in any way anymore. So, no more Blackmoor modules.”

Many tout the Rules Cyclopedia as the best version of D&D ever to come from TSR.

In 1991, the last of the basic D&D product line, the Rules Cyclopedia, reached stores. TSR vice president James Ward later explained that the reasons for dropping the line were “mainly financial ones. TSR didn’t have to give a royalty to Dave Arneson if no product was made for D&D.”

Until 2000, all D&D products would appear as part of the AD&D line. After Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, they dropped the “Advanced” brand for the game’s third edition. In 30 Years of Adventure, Wizards CEO Peter Adkison wrote, Arneson “was supposed to get a royalty off of any product TSR published in the Dungeons & Dragons line. Previous owners ‘got around’ this royalty by publishing everything as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. To me this seemed silly. I talked with Dave, and we agreed that he would release all claims to Dungeons & Dragons if I simply gave him a big check. I did.”

The split between basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons showed an unflattering side of Gary Gygax. But that side didn’t last. Gary founded TSR as a passionate gamer eager to collaborate—and share credit—with any fellow gamer in a tiny hobby. D&D’s success fostered an ugly side. James Maliszewski from Grognardia calls this persona TSR Gary. During this era, TSR Gary became a shameless promoter of TSR interests, a scornful dictator whose proclamations often defied common sense. In the early 80s, I saw TSR Gary at Gen Con, rushing through crowds, flanked by an entourage. My memory my be off, but I recall hearing the Imperial March play.

In his later years, Gary grew open and generous. Despite his standing, he always gave time to interact with gamers. On enworld, he humbly acknowledged every grateful fan and answered every question. At Gen Con, I spied him at an open table, behind the DM screen, taking fellow gamers into a dungeon. The man even invited random gamers from the Internet to drop by his house to game.

Sometimes, when I feel cynical, I suspect that people never really change. But aside from working with Dave to give D&D to us, the thing I like best about Gary is that he changed, and for the better.

How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success

You know about computers and the killer app—a program so compelling that people purchased the computer just to run the application. VisiCalc was the Apple II’s killer app; 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 a little tired by now, but in the early 1970s, nothing exactly like it existed in the 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 Hobbies, 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. Before D&D’s release, Minneapolis fan Louis Fallert played a dungeon adventure with Dave Arneson’s game club, and then concocted his own dungeon-exploration game inspired by the experience. By the summer of 1974, the Minneapolis-area featured 9 dungeon campaigns that had branched from Fallert’s “Castle Keep” game. See “Rules to the Game of Dungeon” for more. In “How leaving the Dungeon left a big hole in role-playing games,” I described how even science fiction games like Traveller struggled for years to leave the long shadow of the dungeon.

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.)