Tag Archives: dungeons

Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Building Spells (and the Ones He Should Have Made)

Since 1975, every single player of a wizard or magic user has read the Magic Mouth spell, and then chosen to skip it. Prove me wrong.* Who wants to use a 2nd-level spell to put a message on a wall when a piece of chalk works as well? While Magic Mouth never gets used by players, Glyph of Warding only ever gets misused. Recently, I saw a player use glyphs to manufacture explosive arrows. He overlooked the sentence that says that a glyph breaks if it moves more than 10 feet. That limitation exists now because players of earlier editions dreamed up the same stunt. Without the exploit, no player prepares glyph. Judging from the spell lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, non-player characters shun these spells too.

Why does the Player’s Handbook include spells that players virtually never use? Part of the appeal of these spells comes from nostalgia. Both date from the 70s. Mainly though, the spells appeal to the game’s dungeon architects and dungeon masters. For example, magic mouths and glyphs of warding appear in at least three of the Dungeons & Dragons hardcover adventures.

Compared to chalk, Magic Mouth offers more portentous way to deliver a message. Glyph of Warding adds a common magical trap. The spells weave useful magical effects into both the lore and the rules of the game. They give DMs ready-made tricks for their dungeons. Players enjoy recognizing these familiar bits of spellcraft mixed with the fantastic.

The game’s original Players Handbook includes even more spells aimed at dungeon architects instead of players.

At level 5, Distance Distortion made a corridor appear either twice as long or half as long as its actual length. D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax loved to confound dungeon mappers. I imagine a party of lost players at Gary’s table, growing sore, and insisting that Gary described something wrong. Gary laughs slyly, opens the Player’s Handbook, and points to page 80.

At level 6, Permanent Illusion appealed to a few players, but dungeon masters gained a way to trick or terrify characters and to disguise pits. The spell evolved into fifth edition’s Programmed Illusion.

At level 8, Glassteel made glass or crystal as strong as steel. A few players dreamed of transparent weapons and armor, but I suspect Gary Gygax mostly sought a way to add durable windows to his tricky dungeon rooms. Between the scientific flavor of a name torn from sci-fi and they way walls of force did the same job better, dungeon builders never embraced glassteel.

To last, a few of these dungeon builder spells needed the help of the 8th-level Permanency spell. In fifth edition, Magic Mouth lasts until dispelled, but originally that same duration required an 8th-level spell and a lost point of Constitution. If I were a mad mage building a dungeon, I would opt for painted signs instead.

Permanency helped dungeon architects extend spells like Wall of Fire, Gust of Wind, Wall of Force, and many others. Edition 3.5 featured the best realization of Permanency.

As I look back on the spells for dungeon makers, I see a missed opportunity. D&D could benefit from more spells that filled gaps in the toolkit of Keraptis, Halaster, Galap-Dreidel, and all the game’s other dungeon builders.

The architect of the Tomb of Horrors, Acererak, creates dungeons to trap the souls of heroes, but he faces a problem: Before adventurers die, they keep wrecking stuff. In Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Tomb of Annihilation, Acererak recruits unliving maintenance crews to repair damage for the next party of doomed adventurers arrives. Now imagine an infomercial featuring an exasperated archlich saying, “There has to be a better way!”


Spirit of Remaking

6th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: Touch
Components: V,S,M (a jewelled hammer worth 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Until Dispelled
Save: None

You touch an object or section of construction of large size or smaller. If the target suffers damage, the spell repairs the damage. If the target includes mechanisms, the spell returns these mechanisms to their original state. So for example, traps can be reset.

This spell repairs at the pace of a skilled laborer. The spell will not function while its target is observed.


In Tomb of Annihilation, Acererak uses adamantine parts held together with Soverign Glue to prevent adventurers from breaking his magical puzzles and traps rather than engaging with them. Can you imagine the building expense? Every dungeon builder needs some way to keep adventurers from simply cutting the Gordian Knot.


Ward of Sequestration

6th-level abjuration
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: Touch
Components: V,S,M (a powder composed of diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire dust worth at least 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Until Dispelled

You cause a Large-sized or smaller object to be warded so that if it’s damaged or manipulated in certain ways, then it vanishes to an extra-dimensional space, safe from harm. You set the ways that manipulating the object will cause it to disappear. Also, you can set how long the object will remain in the extra-dimensional space. For example, it could remain sequestered just a minute or 1,000 years. If the object is built into a larger construction such as a wall or door, then when the target disappears, it’s replaced with stone, metal, or similar materials that blend with the surrounding construction. If the replacement materials are removed from the construction, then they disintegrate.


In the early days of D&D, many DMs suffered a common embarrassment: Players would dare to enter some dungeon sealed for millenia, and find it stocked with living creatures who somehow survived the ages in their monster hotel rooms. Some smart-assed player would start asking quetions, and soon the whole group starts mocking the absurdity of the DM’s creation.

To avoid ridicule, DMs learned to fill their vaults with undead, constructs, and elementals, but that leaves so many fine monsters unavailable.


Temporal Prison

8th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range/Area: 60 ft (20 ft)
Components: V,S,M (an hourglass)
Duration: Until Dispelled or Triggered
Save: None

You attempt to imprison creatures in spaces where time slows to a near standstill. Creatures within 20 feet of a point you choose within range are affected in ascending order of their current hit points. The spell affects up to 175 total hit points. Subtract each creature’s hit points from the total before moving on to the creature with the next lowest hit points. A creature’s hit points must be equal to or less than the remaining total for that creature to be affected.

Inside a temporal prison, a blink of an eye can take hours. This slowing of time means that imprisoned creatures do not grow older and their body functions virtually cease. These prisons take a crystaline shape that envelops each creature. To the touch, the prisons feel solid and glassy. Bright light that passes through the prisons appears dim and dim light cannot penetrate. The prisons provide total cover to the creatures inside. Moving the prisons by any means other than teleportation breaks the spell

You can decide on triggers that cause the spell to end. The condition can be anything you choose, but it must occur or be visible within 120 feet of the target. The most common trigger is approaching within a certain distance. You can further refine the trigger so the spell ends only under certain circumstances or according to physical characteristics (such as height or weight), creature kind (for example, the ward could be set to affect aberrations or drow), or alignment. You can also set conditions for creatures that don’t end the spell, such as those who say a certain password.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, add an additional 75 hit points to the total number of hit points affected.


*My friend John P. Jones plays a character who casts Magic Mouth on his arrows so they deliver a mix of messages and terrified screams when they hit. John plays a bard and you know how they are. My outrageous generalizations about wizard players stands. John’s trick works because Magic Mouth now lasts until dispelled. John can prepare arrows in advance and still adventure with all his spell slots.

Related: 5 Reasons Someone Might Build a Dungeon Filled With Clues, Tests, and Riddles

The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

In 1974, dungeons tried to kill you. More than just the creatures inside, the walls and stone wanted your life. Dungeons changed when you looked away. (See page 8 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.) Doors closed on their own accord, and then you had to force them open. The dungeon helped its monstrous allies kill you. Doors opened for them. “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.” (See page 9.) Dungeons had one-way doors and gently sloping corridors that lured prey deeper and closer to their deaths. Did the architects of these dungeons aim to foil explorers, or do the walls themselves bend to snare them? Was the door you went through earlier one-way or just gone now.

dungeon table at Gen Con 2015

Decades after the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor launched the game, players grew interested in recapturing the style of those old megadungeons. But D&D had matured. Even players bent on remaking the past wanted to drop or explain the most preposterous elements: Monster populations that defied any natural order. Walls that changed between visits. Doors that opened and closed to frustrate intruders.

So gamers looked for ways to account for the weird essence of those classic dungeons.

Jason “Philotomy” Cone popularized the idea of a mythic underworld, which justifies the strange things that happen in those old dungeons by embracing the unreal as part of a place’s nature.

There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should ‘make sense’ as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn’t necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it.

For more about Jason’s concept, see page 22 of Philotomy’s Musings, a PDF that mimics the appearance of the original D&D supplements.

When Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo created their “love letter to D&D” in the 13th Age role playing game, the mythic underworld probably inspired their notion of living dungeons.

Other special dungeons, known as ‘living dungeons,’ rise spontaneously from beneath the underworld, moving upward steadily toward the surface as they spiral across the map. Living dungeons don’t follow any logic; they’re bizarre expressions of malignant magic.

The game charges heroic adventurers with the goal of slaying living dungeons. “Some living dungeons can be slain by eliminating all their monsters. Others have actual crystalline hearts, and can be slain by specific magic rituals whose components and clues can be found among their corridors and chests.

The concept even explains why a living dungeon might offer adventurers clues to its secrets. “More than one party of adventurers has observed that most living dungeons have some form of a death wish.

Adam Dray gives the best sense of the concept’s flavor.Like any good monster, the living dungeon wants to kill. It’s a mass murderer, gaining more and more power as it takes life. Like a clever virus, it knows that it can’t just instantly kill anything that enters it. It seduces and teases. It lures people into its depths with the promise of treasure.

If you like the living dungeon concept, in “I, Dungeon,” Mike Shea gives more ideas for a living dungeon’s motives and vulnerabilities.

Some 13th Age reviewers found the living dungeon concept too fanciful. For them, the biological whiff of the concept of a burrowing dungeon felt too dissonant.

For me, I think the mythic underworld resonates when it feels less alive and more haunted or cursed. Not cycle of life, but living dead. Stones that echo with so much hate and hunger and chaos that they mock life.

To make such a dungeon frightful, avoid putting a face to the wickedness. The evil cannot manifest itself as a ghost in a sheet or as a personified “Dungeon Master” working controls at the bottom level. For inspiration of a haunted place look to 1963 movie The Haunting, which never shows ghosts but proves scarier for it. Or see the 2006 movie Monster House, which my kids couldn’t bear to watch through to the end.

Imagine a place, perhaps one haunted by a massacre or some other legendary wickedness, perhaps one abandoned by god. This site devours all that is living and good that intrudes. It hungers to snuff more lives, so perhaps it pulls gems, gold, and lost treasure from the depths to lure more victims. Imagine a place that seems to summon—or perhaps even create—malign horrors to infest its halls. Imagine a place that waits to test the boldest heroes.

Next: Megadungeons in print and on the web

How leaving the dungeon left a big void in role-playing games

Nowadays, designers of role-playing focus their game’s design around an answer to a central question: “What will characters in the game do?” Modern RPGs focus on some core activity and optimizing the system so players have as much fun as possible engaging in that activity. For example, fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons focused on characters that show off flashy stunts and powers in dynamic combat encounters. The system reworks the non-combat pillars of the game into an activity that, as much as possible, plays like combat. For more, see my post, “The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked.”

While the first role-playing games did not optimize their rules to support a style of play—at least not intentionally, see “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” 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.

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked an RPG designer what characters in his game will do, he would probably answer, “Anything.” Part of what made RPGs so exciting was that characters could do anything. Rather than focusing on a core activity, 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, while showing how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

Traveller also arrived in 1977, and grew to become the hobby’s most successful science fiction RPG. (If you’re interested in Traveller, see this outstanding look at the game’s roots in written science fiction.) Perhaps the game owes some success to the way it pioneered role-playing’s most common adventure hook:

One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power. Such patrons will, if they hire a band of adventurers, specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task. 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.” (Book 3 Worlds and Adventures, p.20)

This notion of characters seeking patrons for jobs hardly matches the high concept of the dungeon crawl, but it became the dominant adventure hook in just about every RPG, including D&D.

But once hooked, what will the characters do? Traveller offered a single paragraph of guidance: “Once the patron and the adventurers have met, the responsibility falls on the referee to determine the nature of the task the patron desires, the details of the situation (perhaps a map or some amount of information), and to establish the limits of the patron’s resources in the pursuit of the task.

Traveller’s patrons provided an enduring and now pervasive hook for adventures. The actual adventures opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular.

In 1977, I ordered that original Traveller box from Game Designer’s Workshop, and then devoured the rules. As a young, unsophisticated gamer in a new hobby, the game proved so open-ended that I struggled to create adventures for my players. Of course, I was just a kid. Surely sophisticated professionals could do better.

Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

In 1979, when the first issue of the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society brought the Annic Nova adventure, I hoped to see a model for adventures. Annic Nova was an abandoned ship drifting through space, ready for the players to explore. At last, I thought, it’s like a dungeon in space. But it wasn’t at all. Unlike, say Metamorphosis Alpha’s starship Warden, Annic Nova held no monstrous mutants or aliens, no automated defense systems, just an abandoned ship drifting. Annic Nova provided only an adventuring location and gave little help to me.

With an entire universe to play with, the professional designers went on to create more starship deck plans, which they then used as dungeons…in space. GDW and Judges Guild followed up Annic Nova with the following adventuress:

  • Adventure 1: The Kinunir (1979) presents a 1200 ton battle cruiser as a location for adventure.
  • Dra'k'ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station

    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.

When Traveller debuted, the hobby was just three years old. The general public still struggled to understand games that you could not win. The only experienced game masters were the guys named on the box cover. Leaving the long shadow of the dungeon took time. Traveller enthusiasts rank the last adventure on my list, Twilight’s Peak, as a classic. While largely location based, this module provides a fully-realized adventure that stands with modern designs.

Eventually, we all learned. Now, an experienced game master would mix the Annic Nova with an untrustworthy patron, a second team of lawless rivals, and some other wild cards to brew up an adventure.