Tag Archives: Dungeon crawls

Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

The Dungeons & Dragons game’s original 1974 version offered two types of adventure: dungeons and wilderness. In such site-based adventures, players’ decisions about where to go set the course of the adventure. These adventures revolve around on a map with a key detailing important locations. When characters enter a location, they trigger encounters.

Today’s D&D scenarios mix places to explore, with events, and with clues to follow, but adventure authors took years to stretch beyond numbered lists of locations.

In the years after D&D’s release, every role-playing adventure to reach print was site-based. This extends beyond D&D. Until 1980, a keyed list of locations drove every published adventure for every role-playing game.

The first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked RPG designers what characters in their games would do, the designers would probably answer, “Anything.” Designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun, I had some fun at the expense of C&S. I showed how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

In 1978, after I found Traveller, I failed to imagine what players would actually do in a game without dungeons. Traveller opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular. I concocted a scenario where a villain abducted the travelers and dropped them in a space ship filled with death traps.

Professional authors could do no better. Even though new role-playing games aspired to take characters out of the dungeon, authors of adventures created dungeons…in space. Science fiction games like Traveller (1977) featured players raiding or exploring space ships, star bases, or alien ruins. Sometimes travelers crossed an alien wilderness. Superhero games featured assaults on villains’ lairs. Horror games featured haunted houses. From a distance, they all looked like dungeon or wilderness adventures.

In every single one, the decisions that drove the adventure all amounted to a choice of doors (or to a choice of which hex to visit next).

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave 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.”

Like dungeons, site-based adventures limited characters’ choices, and this made them easy to write and easy to run. Adventure authors relied on numbered locations until they found new ways to limit players to a manageable number of choices.

Borderlands (1983) has players doing a series of jobs for their patron, a Duke

Traveller opened a galaxy of choices, so the rules recommended matching characters with patrons. “Patrons could specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task,” the rule book explained. “Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” A patron’s task often led characters to an adventuring site, but not always. The first scenarios without location keys tended to rely on simple jobs.

Traveller casts patrons as an employer, but a patron can be anyone able to persuade the players to help. Once players selected a task, it limited players to the choices that brought them closer to their goal.

In the 70s, D&D players never needed patrons. By awarding characters with an experience point for each gold piece won from a dungeon, D&D built a goal into the rules. But games from Traveller to Runequest used patrons to match players with goals.

Eventually, even D&D players grew weary of just chasing loot, and D&D characters began meeting patrons too. D&D players began entering dungeons for more than treasure, they sought to thwart giant raids or to rescue the princess from the vampire queen. Nowadays, the cloaked figure in a bar who offers a job ranks as cliché.

The Traveller adventure Twilight’s Peak (1980) took another step away from site-based adventures. Here, the characters begin as crew on a starship that needs a costly repair. As they journey from system to system, hauling cargo and seeking a big score, they investigate clues that may lead to the lost base of an advanced civilization.

Twilight’s Peak ends as a site-based adventure, but it starts as the first investigation adventure where the players chase clues that author Marc Miller calls rumors. “The rumor is ultimately the source of all information for adventurers. Once they have been pushed by a rumor, they may look longer and harder in that direction and thus be moved closer to their goal. But without the initial impetus of the rumor the adventurers will find they have little reason for adventuring.”

In Twilight’s Peak, all the rumors lead to the same destination, but clues can drive a non-linear adventure too. When a scene or encounter gives more than one clue worth chasing, players face a decision that takes players in different directions. Do we check out the hunting lodge shown on the map, or go to town to question the jeweler who made the murder weapon?

Whether called rumors, clues, or leads, the technique’s introduction offered a new way to take players through an adventure.

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

Next: A D&D module makes the next step away from site-based adventures.

Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

In my last post I wrote about how Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session.

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons.

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

The Ruins of UndermountainIn 1991, TSR finally published The Ruins of Undermountain, its first megadungeon in print. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a box kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Kicking in endless doors to fight and loot turned from fresh and thrilling to a tiresome slog. Today, avid D&D players can claim that they don’t like dungeons or can say that their best games lack any combat. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. See “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.” With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A world of fantasy offers plenty of possible justifications for the strange things in the underworld. More on that in my next post.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can being the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

Next: The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax developed Dungeons & Dragons, he played the game seven times a week. He wrote, “As I worked at home, I did not schedule play sessions, but when a gamer or two dropped in on a day, I made haste to finish immediate work and put on my DM’s hat. Evening games with the regulars were generally scheduled a few hours or a day or two ahead.” Weekend games included 10 to 20 players.

How did Gary referee his ongoing Greyhawk campaign for a cast of characters that changed completely from session to session? (Nowadays, dungeon masters like me stretch to keep one or two absent PCs from upsetting our game’s plot.) How did Gary create material for so many games? (I always scramble to prepare one game a week.) In 1974, as Gary focused on publishing D&D, he began sharing campaign duties with a second referee, Rob Kuntz. (I would never dare attempt collaborating on a campaign with a second dungeon master.)

The secret to all these feats lay in the design of the 12+ level megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Castle Greyhawk

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle

Like Gary, D&D co-designer Dave Arneson ran a campaign for a large and fluctuating pool of players. Dave managed with his own megadungeon below Blackmoor Castle.

Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. These megadungeons enabled a style of episodic play that made those original campaigns manageable. Al from Beyond the Black Gate described the advantage well. “The scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to episodic play than for the more common ‘clear the dungeon’ style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign).”

Gary never needed to adjust a session’s difficulty to party size or experience, because players could chose a difficulty by choosing how deep to delve. The game awarded more gold and experience to players who dared the lower levels. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.”

Today, we tout the value of sandbox play, where players can take the game in any direction they want without feeling corralled by some story in the DM’s head. DMs tend to expect sandbox play to require improvisation and in-game adjustments. For instance, the designers worked to make much of the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure play as a sandbox. When I talked to dungeon masters about running it, we always focused on the challenges of preventing the PCs from straying into certain death.

The megadungeon let Dave and Gary to act as referees rather than dungeon masters—that term would not see print until the game’s second supplement Blackmoor in 1975. They could run a game entirely from notes, wandering monster tables, and the whims of the dice. If megadungeon referees choose, their campaigns never needed improvisation or in-game meddling. This gives players more control over their characters’ fate—more player agency—than in typical modern games.

Gary kept preparation manageable. He wrote, “I usually made one-line notes for my dungeon encounters, from around 20 to 25 of same for a typical level done on four-lines-to-the inch graph paper—a few more on five-, six-, or seldom used 8-line graph paper. The other spaces were empty save for perhaps a few traps or transporter areas and the like.” He and Rob Kuntz kept notes. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa, so we winged all of [the campaign management]. Sometimes a map change and encounter key note of something special in nature was made, but not often.”

On page 4 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary made a megadungeon a requirement for play. “A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). ‘Greyhawk Castle,’ for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20’ high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.”

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

Although folks don’t play megadungeons much now, the places remain uniquely suited to episodic play with multiple parties exploring the same space. Scott Fitzgerald Gray ingeniously used those strengths when he wrote the adventure Dead in Thay for a D&D Encounters season. The Encounters program lets players drop in a game store for a night of D&D. Different players may come for any night of play, shuffling each table’s adventuring party.

At first, the program managed these fluctuations by requiring every table to play the same episode in the adventure. The format limited players’ choices to battle tactics.

In Dead in Thay, each table launches their own, unique foray into a megadungeon called the Doomvault. By creating the sort of dungeon that made the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns work, the season rediscovered some of the format’s advantages: episodic play for whoever attends, the freedom of a sandbox where players can change the environment, and manageable cooperation between dungeon masters.

When Shannon Appelcline looked back on the adventure, he wrote, “For the most part, Dead in Thay is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl of the sort you could find back in the ‘70s. However, it presents a more mature, more active dungeon, where the rulers of the realm can react to the players’ actions…and where the players themselves could change an environment.”

Next: One surprising reason Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s

The media keeps telling us how we, the geeks, have won popular culture. Golfers chat about Game of Thrones at the country club. A minister I know boasted that she was a member of her high school Dungeons & Dragons club. The Return of the King won best picture. Fan culture is everywhere. So we forget that in the early days, when D&D burgeoned by word-of-mouth, no one had seen anything like it.

Of course, little in D&D stands as completely new. The book Playing at the World devotes hundreds pages exploring threads of influence. But in the 70s, unless you joined a tiny cult of miniature gamers interested in fantasy, you would have never seen the game coming. Unless you followed a few, obscure genre authors, you would never have seen anything like it. You shared popular assumptions that D&D would explode.

1. Fantasy is for children and a few oddballs.

Forget the The Lord of the Rings, and then name a work of fantasy that was widely known before D&D. Anything you name is a fairytale or fable—something for children. Conan? He’s a comic book character. Every grown up knows comics are for children. Now consider The Lord of the Rings. It enjoyed enough popularity to get cited by Led Zeppelin and some other long hairs, but when Hollywood tried to trade on its popularity, they added musical numbers. Hollywood did not think they could reach a big enough audience of oddballs, so they adapted for children.

In making the 1978 movie Superman, the producers needed adults to see a movie about what they saw as a children’s character. Imagine marketing a Thomas the Tank Engine film to adults. To free grown ups from the embarrassment of buying tickets, they gave a fortune to Important Actor Marlon Brando. For 15 minutes of screen time, Brando received $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the film’s take, right off the top. The film’s marketing rested heavily on the actor’s performance. All so grown ups could gain an excuse to see the movie on date night.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N. A game where trolls lived in dungeons and refused to die. The original Monster Manual revealed beholders, mind flayers, chromatic dragons and countless other dreadful wonders that filled me with excitement.

The public’s unfamiliarity with fantasy contributed to the panic that surrounded D&D in the 80s. God fearing adults saw their teenagers obsessed with spells and children’s fairy tale nonsense, but darker and more violent. They settled on the only logical explanation, demon worship, because the culprit could not possibly be a really fun game.

Meanwhile, I worked to find the books named in The Dragon’s Giants in the Earth column and later in Appendix N. I found none. Admittedly, I suffered the disadvantage of shopping from a mall bookstore. I knew nothing of used book stores or inter-library loan. Nonetheless, few of Gary’s inspirations remained in print. Today, fantasy books of all stripes crowd the shelves. Then, I took years to collect the books that inspired the game.

2. Games are terrible.

In the 70s, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. The winner becomes obvious long before the end, yet they took forever to finish. Games covered prosaic subjects like Life and Payday, or financial wish-fulfillment like Monopoly or, well, Payday. Still, I liked games enough that I even played terrible ones endlessly. (Except, of course, for Monopoly, which I suspect Hasbro makes to convince millions that games are tedious. I cannot fathom their plot’s endgame.) My standards were so low that I liked the 1974 game Prize Property where you launched legal actions against your opponents to stall their building developments. Legal actions. The box claimed fun for ages 9 and up.

People suffered from narrow ideas about what a game could be. Someone wins, someone loses, the game never extends past the board and never continues after you close the box.

Before I saw D&D, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. Working from a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch, I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetSo in a mere 48 pages, the Holmes Basic D&D rule book shattered my notion of what a game could be.

Later, when I described the new game, everyone asked the same questions: “How do you win?” and then, “if you can’t win, what’s the point?” Everyone struggled to grasp the notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning. For more, see “But how do you win?

3. Adults cannot play act a role.

People sometimes say that D&D did not invent the role-playing game. Kids have always role played; we just called it make believe. Saying that D&D just brought make believe to adults misses the true innovations. The revolution came from playing a character with stats that carried to the next session, and from the idea that characters gained experience and improved. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. The combination proved so compelling that just about every computer role-playing game borrows it.

For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

Meanwhile, parents feared that playing a role in D&D would lead their children to confuse fantasy with reality. After all, wasn’t anyone old enough for such a complicated game too old for make believe? Kids talked about being a wizard or a thief and responsible citizens worried that kids believed it. The D&D panic stemmed as much from this unfamiliar blurring of reality as from spells and demons.

4. Dungeons are just medieval jails.

Zombies and vampires appear everywhere in popular culture. Both archetypes seem medieval, but the popular conception of zombies only dates back to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

The concept of a dungeon as an underground sprawl with monsters and treasures, is even newer.

In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.

Now, the dungeon adventure qualifies as a trope that appears in virtually every computer fantasy game.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

In my world before D&D, games gave the fun of launching legal action against fellow real estate developers. When I opened the basic rules, I could brave the peril and mystery of the dungeon shown in the Stone Mountain cross section. Still today, no image inspires my enthusiasm to play as much. I jumped from property law to Greyhawk.

For more, see “From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons: The invention of the dungeon crawl.”

By the end of the 70s, fandom had yet to dominate popular culture, but Star Wars and Superman and Dungeons & Dragons had established a beachhead. The gains would only continue.

For me, the 48 pages of the 1977 Basic Set did more than introduce the best game in the world, those pages turned some of what I understood upside down.

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.

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.)