Tag Archives: Rob Kuntz

When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax co-created 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 photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

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.”

My Two Most Controversial Posts Prompt a Trip Into the Comment Section

The last two months included the two most discussed posts in the 7-year history of DM David, which calls for another trip into the comment section.

In Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters? I considered the pros and cons of asking players to share a role that usually falls to the dungeon master.

Ilbranteloth suggested turning potentially dead characters into an invitation to let players imagine a different twist. “On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse) happens.” Perhaps the character loses a leg and a bit of speed. Or perhaps the player trades death for some dramatic complication. Players focused on story understand that character arcs benefit from setbacks and might be eager to revive a dead character in exchange for a complication that makes a richer story.

After I created a Dungeons & Dragons Summoning Spell Reference, Teos “alphasream” Abadia shared some concerns raised by summoning.

I’m not generally a fan of the summoning spells. They can be too strong (they can be like a fireball of damage every round, round after round, for the casting of one spell), they tie up the terrain impeding movement (especially by locking down melee fighters, preventing a dynamic combat), and they make combat a slog (in almost any combat, the monsters lack the damage to kill more than a couple of the summoned monsters).

That last bit is what kills it for me. At the meta level, the monsters should ignore the summoned creatures, because killing them is basically impossible unless they’re a horde of low CR creatures and the monsters have area attacks. So, the easy move is to target the summoner and break their concentration, but that takes away from what the player who did the summoning wants. I haven’t found a happy medium.

Summoning spells typically offer a choice between lots of weaker monsters and fewer, stronger monsters. When the designers set choices that made summoning crowds far more efficient, they made the spells more likely to turn fights into slogs.

When I play foes with an 8 or higher intelligence who see ongoing spell effects, I start making spellcasters preferred targets. After all, characters with an 8 Intelligence practice even more savvy tactics. When players think their DM unreasonably targets them with attacks, players can get salty, but when concentrating spellcasters become targets, their players know it’s coming.

Two readers added to The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods.

Alphastream wrote, “Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio!

Books like Deities & Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.

The long sales life of books from this era also led to a 2nd edition that remained broadly compatible with AD&D. The designers wanted to make big improvements, but TSR management wanted books like that old Fiend Folio to continue generating sales.

Zenopus Archives wrote, “There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon magazine 12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the Deities & Demigods write-up has the same entries, except for one. To me, Deities & Demigods clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.

In Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League, I wrote about how D&D traditionally motivates both characters and players to seek gold. This tempts players to take the risks that help make D&D fun.

Eric Bohm wrote, “Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.

What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue?

The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted; therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was pointless for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?

Obviously, players can still create characters motivated by greed, but without the incentive of gold, taking risks for treasure seems like a sucker’s bet.

At the start of season 8, I wondered with James Introcaso why the Adventurers League would introduce rules that blocked characters from keeping gold in the season that featured Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks characters with a chance to win a fortune in gold. James speculated that perhaps the potential windfall triggered the need for the rules change.

In How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal, I talked about how relying on a DM’s judgement rather than on extensive rules may have helped fifth edition’s popularity.

Alphastream agreed but saw areas where fourth edition succeeded in making D&D easier to run. For instance, fourth edition’s in-store play program D&D Encounters drew tons of players. “DMs loved being able to run an hour of play with 1-2 pages of very simple (and yet engaging) adventure text. Spells turned into far simpler powers meant DMs could jump in with less experience. True story: Despite playing and DMing D&D for 17 years, when 3E came out, I waited 9 months before DMing my first organized play game because I felt I didn’t know 3E spells well enough to run a game. We’ve taken a step backwards here, in that many DMs again feel they can’t DM (especially at high levels) because of the complexity of spells.

So, I think there is a balance to be struck between these design goals of keeping the game engaging and keeping it easy to learn and simple.

I would also say that while 3E really built up the game and added a lot, 4E in many ways was working to fix problems—the length of an adventuring day, the need for someone to ‘have’ to play the cleric, how many magic items a character had, and even how much experience a DM needed to feel confident. It really took the laundry list of issues, including ‘bad DMs’ and tried to fix them. The legacy of those fixes is excellent. We can see many of those improvements carried on into 5E.

In How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs, I wrote about how D&D struggled to erase the implication that half orcs came from rape. The entry became this blog’s most read and discussed post until another post topped it.

Wil cifer argued that the original implications of half orcs fit history. “Rape was a commonplace occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based on is stupid.

But D&D is a game that gleefully tosses aside historical accuracy and realism in favor of fun. The game features magic and dragons. To unravel any D&D world, just pull any of countless threads and check it for historical accuracy or check how it stands in the face of magic.

Other readers argued that making half orcs the product of sexual violence turns orcs into stronger villains. Andrew wrote, “I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape.

To players like Andrew, crushing evil and righting wrongs feels more satisfying when the campaign shows evil and the suffering it creates. Purely evil creatures make uncomplicated foes that justify killing.

David Streever wrote, “D&D is a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.

In your D&D game, if all the players welcome a darker tone, you can explore any origin you like for half orcs. But for a broader audience, the game benefits when it avoids saddling every half orc with a vile background.

In response to Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself, simontnm gave a suggestion. “If I have multiple NPCs talking I tend to use minis, and put my finger on the mini of the NPC actually talking.

“‘Don’t have NPCs talk to each other’ is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.

The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons prompted Ty to point out the difference between good, real traps and quality traps in D&D. “From a game play standpoint, traps are just a terrible idea all around. Conceptually, in order for a trap to be a ‘good’ trap, it needs to be massively unfair. It needs to kill outright or seriously maim. One minute you’re alive, and then boom, you’re dead. No saving throws, no noticing something off at the last minute, no jumping out of the way.

Ken W replied, “You need to take the edge off your realism. A trap shouldn’t be ‘instantly lethal’ in game terms any more than a strike with a sword or great axe. In real terms, if you get hit by a swinging claymore, you are likely suffering a severe wound. But the abstraction of D&D combat and hit points means that each hit represents a depletion of stamina, not a mortal wound. Only when you reach 0 hit points does it really represent that fountaining arterial spray we would otherwise expect.

Traps operate in the same space as combat weapons in this regard. The only difference between a trap and an enemy combatant that gets a turn while the PC is surprised is…well—nothing. Except the trap essentially ‘dies’ after its turn is over.”

Good traps in the real world make lousy traps in D&D. The best traps in D&D are in places where everyone expects a trap or that show obvious signs of their presence.

Alphastream wrote, “A trap can be a lot of fun when found, if it requires engagement to disarm. As a DM or author, I try to think through the point of the trap—not just for whatever creatures put it there—but for the game experience. The trap can be hard to find and that’s fun, or it can be easy to find and be fun as well. Think of ‘only the penitent man shall pass’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s fun because you know it is there and need to figure out a way past it. Similarly, traps can be found and that can be the beginning of the engagement.

Beoric wrote, “Perfectly good traps can be suspected because the nature of the trap is not entirely concealable. Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps can be suspected because the tiles on the floor have no grout because they are pressure plates, or there are holes in the wall from which darts shoot.

The trap may also be old, and detectable by signs of wear, like a layer of powdered stone on the floor or vertical gouges on the wall for a falling block trap, or soot on the walls or floor with a fire trap, or spent missiles on the floor with a dart or arrow trap.

Also consider that some traps can be very well concealed if they are not being looked for, but still be detectable if actively searched for. A standard old-school pit trap was pretty much undetectable visually and could only be detected by tapping it.

None of those are actually bad traps. They just have limitations because of their nature.

There is a great discussion of this at the Hack and Slash Trick and Trap Index.”

Alphastream expanded on how traps worked in play across editions.

In fifth edition, it’s still not entirely clear nor standard whether Investigation or Perception is most commonly used for finding a trap. I have my thoughts, which I think are right, but I see it run many different ways. In general, I think that if a trap is one that could be seen with the naked eye, then Perception would work. For example, a pressure plate that has slightly discolored stone, or which is slightly sunken. Otherwise, and in my game this is most of the time, the trap is not obvious and needs Investigation to be found. A well-crafted pressure plate is like any other stone. The only way to find it is to tap at it or otherwise determine what it is, which uses Investigation.

Fourth edition’s concept of ‘trap as monster’ failed due to the underlying math, which assumed a check per round and 4 checks to disable the trap, which was supposed to equate how monsters were envisioned as taking 4 rounds to defeat. The problem is that this cold math doesn’t understand how that 4 round concept wasn’t very accurate—players focused fire on important targets and might take them down in 1 round, while ignoring others.

Players tended to focus fire on traps and break them more quickly than a rogue could disable them. Or players ignored traps in favor of the monsters, and then stepped around the traps.

I like to think 4E’s trap concept is still really cool, but it takes clever authoring to communicate to the players how to engage with it. It is awesome if the cleric immediately realizes that this trap is empowered by a rival deity and they can shut it down and greatly help the party by doing so. That feels really heroic. It’s awesome if the rogue can tell the party that interacting with the trap for two rounds will move the rays of lightning to the area where the enemy archers are standing. These are great cinematic concepts if you set them up right.

I tried my own hand at it with Dungeon of Doom. Nate and I designed a large variety of 5E traps in that adventure, and they provide a diversity of experiences. (You can get the adventure free and also see people play through them, all at https://dwarvenforge.com/descent/.) Thank you for putting up with the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully useful for people given this article.

For Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D, Daniel Boggs contributed fascinating D&D history that I didn’t know.

It is a quirky history, given that a primary reason ability scores were created in the first place was as a means to make ability checks—to put it in contemporary parlance. The D&D ability scores and saving throws arise as a distillation of the concept of personality traits and character skills created by Dave Arneson for Blackmoor. In pre-D&D Blackmoor, players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, or Looks, or Throwing, to see if they were successful at the attempt. When D&D came along, Arneson & co. continued to use ability checks in their games. You can see an example of a Dexterity check in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) where a character must save versus Dexterity to remove their armor in time to avoid drowning in Blackmoor Bay. And of course ability checks are also very prominent in Arneson and Richard Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy game (1978). In writing D&D, Gary Gygax failed to mention this purpose of the ability scores as he apparently preferred to create an arbitrary percent chance and have the players roll percentiles instead. So, you did have some early players who figured it out on their own or who learned it in some way from Arneson, most D&D players didn’t grok the intention behind the scores and thus you got that rather odd system proposed by Ives in Dragon #1. You can see some original Blackmoor characters here.

My post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate sparked such a furor that I posted a follow up. Many commenters took the challenge of changing my mind.

I’ve already recanted my dislike for game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.

Alphastream argues that monsters that bounce from table to table at multi-table events can work, but he sees room for innovation. “I’ve written these, though they aren’t my favorite device for the reasons you mentioned. I think they work best when they are in small pods. The blue dragon in Confrontation at Candlekeep works well because it makes sense (you have 4-6 towers and parties at each tower, the dragon flying in between), it is announced dramatically (so everyone gets the concept from the start), it is central to the action (no one is forgetting about the dragon), and it lets players interact with it once it leaves their table (they can jump on it or fire at it, at the risk of failing at their table). With the second Open I tried to create a different experience, one that still made sense and which provided a combination of combat, skill, and risk-reward. I would tweak it further if given the chance. All of that is to say that I think these can be done well. I think DM David is exactly the kind of person who could come up with a cool version and submit it to an Epic author.

I’ve grown to accept that adventures with carnival games work well as an introduction to the game. Alphastream touts another benefit. “I think carnival games can offer a lot of activity in a short time and offer something to every player. Very few things can do that.”

As for the way that using miniatures for the wrong monster sometimes confuses me, Creeper Jr wrote, “I don’t need minis to match exactly, but I find it incredibly helpful if there is some sort of rhyme and reason to it. My portable mini kit includes: 4 goblins, 4 guards, 4 archers, 2 mages, 2 knights/fighters, 2 rogues, 2 large green slaad, 2 giant spiders. Each mini has a color-coded base accent. This doesn’t take up too much room, is relatively cheap to put together, and allows us to quickly identify enemies with sort-of-thematic minis.

Alphastream supports budding mini collectors eager to put minis on the table. “Sometimes a DM wants to buy a box of minis or two and try to use that purchase for their efforts. I get that. I still think it beats Starburst, but maybe that’s because I don’t super love Starburst. If the monsters are Belgian truffles, or Ferrero Rocher, sign me up! Here again, we can imagine we are witnessing the beautiful creation of a nascent miniature collector. They will go from this table to assemble an army of awesome minis on a bed of Dwarven Forge. It’s like seeing the future unfold before us!

Josh rose to defend the dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. “I’m one of the ones who love the picture. The adventurers seem like real people, each different and interesting in his own way. The mage isn’t old. Nobody’s half dressed. The dragon’s of a size that would pose a threat to normal people and level 1’s. It’s a good level 1 accomplishment. And as for the pose, I assume there are a lot of unlisted utility spells, including one that takes the image in a caster’s mind and transfers it to paper. It’s a level 2 spell. Colored prints are level 4.

Commenters replying to How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons? considered a couple of odd corners of the rules for invisibility.

Dave Barton summarized one aspect. “In essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.

This rule especially defies common sense because it grants ranged attackers just as good a chance of hitting when they can’t see their target. Sometimes D&D trades plausibility for simplicity.

Aside from the ability to hide anywhere, invisible creatures don’t get advantage to hide or any other increase to their chance of success.

Pewels asks “How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible?

Saphhire Crook answered, “The issue of invisible light sources crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them.

In 3.5, light sources continue to exist, but their origin becomes invisible, implying that the target simply reflects no visible light (or all light hitting or reflecting off them is magically duplicated and filtered).”

Every so often, someone leaves a comment that delights me. My post on Dave Hargrave, Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games, inspired such a comment from Old School, New.

As a former associate of Hargrave, I’ve been around awhile and have seen innumerable articles written on the worlds of Arduin and its foothills. Many are bad, many are way too ‘fannish,’ and a lot of them are simply misinformed and/or myopically aligned with other gaming systems, to the point of zero objectivity.

This article, however, rates as the finest piece on the subject of Arduin/DH, ever. Nothing else comes close. Incredibly well written, fair, meticulous, and factual.

And you actually dug-up a pic from Different Worlds. Haha! Among other things.

Yes, Arduin wasn’t perfect. Not hardly. But it was grand, visionary, insane, stupid, ham-handed, and utterly magnificent. Kinda like its creator, right?

Anyway, massive cheers for a spectacular blog entry. I should think it’s the all-time definitive description of Arduin and its master—warts and all.

Seriously, Mr. Hartlage, you’ve created something beautiful here.

Thanks! I feed proud to garner such kind words.

The Stories (and 3 Mysteries) Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters

Like every other kid who discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s, the Monster Manual suddenly became my favorite book. I studied the pages, and then turned to books of mythology to learn more about cyclopses, manticores, and harpies. But not all the monsters came from myth. Some started with Gary Gygax and other D&D contributors. Of these original monsters, Wizards of the Coast reserves the most evocative as part of D&D’s product identity:

  • beholder
  • gauth
  • carrion crawler
  • displacer beast
  • githyanki
  • githzerai
  • kuo-toa
  • mind flayer
  • slaad
  • umber hulk
  • yuan-ti

Signed Greyhawk Cover

The Original Beholder

The leap of imagination required for some monsters seems short. When Gary needed “something new” to populate the underworld, he imagined fish men and called them koa-toa. When Dave “Zeb” Cook needed memorable foes for an overgrown, forbidden city in the jungle, he made snake men called yuan-ti. D&D features a long history of frog men, but Charles Stross says a literal fever led him to imagine the extra-planar, chaotic slaad.

The gauth just offers a junior beholder to pit against lower-level adventurers. But where did the beholder come from?

Many of D&D’s classic monsters have better stories behind their inspiration.

Beholder

One of D&D’s original players, Rob Kuntz eventually joined Gary Gygax as co-dungeon master in the Greyhawk campaign. Rob credits his brother Terry with a wild imagination and the idea for the beholder, originally called the eye of doom. Terry provided most of the game stats. Before the creature appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, Gary explained that “All I needed to do was a bit of editing to make it a great addition to the terrible monsters to be found in the D&D game.”

Bugbear

Bugbear, Ghoul and Friends

In the original D&D books, the bugbear sports a pumpkin head. Gary recalls describing the creature as having a fat, oval head like a pumpkin, which led the artist to draw an actual pumpkin head.

Carrion Crawler

In the early days of D&D, Gary hosted games 7 days a week. During weekends, adventuring parties included as many as 20 players with their characters, hirelings, and henchmen. Rob Kuntz ran sessions too. All these expeditions delved the mega-dungeon under Castle Greyhawk. “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.” Rather than imagining a dungeon piled with rotting corpses of monsters and adventurers, Gary conceived dungeon scavengers like the carrion crawler. “I needed something nasty for the clean-up crew, so I thought this one up.”

Displacer Beast

Cover by Gil Kane

Although Wizards includes the displacer beast in D&D’s product identity, the monster owes its appearance to an alien in the 1939 story “The Black Destroyer” by author A. E. Van Vogt. In the tale, a character describes a thing called a “coeurl” that looks like “a big cat, if you forget those tentacles sticking out from its shoulders, and make allowances for those monster forelegs.” The beast first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, but the coeurl lacks the displacer beast’s defensive power. That power comes from the Displacer Cloak, which appeared in the original D&D books.

Mystery: The cloak and beast’s displacement power seems like a defense that Gary could have taken from a golden-age science fiction story. Did Gary invent the notion, or did he adopt it?

Drow

The first hint of dark elves comes in D&D’s fourth supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes (1976), by James Ward and Rob Kuntz. “These elves dwell beneath the earth, and cause trouble for anyone wandering through their territories. They live and cause evil upon Svartalfheim.” Perhaps inspired by the mention, Gary offered more hints in the first Monster Manual. “The ‘Black Elves,’ or Drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The Drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.” The word “drow” comes from Scots dialects and refers to a sort of malevolent being. Gary remembered pulling the name from an old, unabridged dictionary. In Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), the drow made their first appearance. Gary gave them powers “to highlight their unique nature and potency.”

Mind Flayer

Inspiration for the land kraken, but not the mind flayer

Gary credits the form of the mind flayer to the cover of the Brian Lumley book, The Borrowers Beneath. “The cover made me think: Now what sort of nasty bastard is that? So without a qualm I made up the Illithid, the dread mind flayer, so as to keep the players on their toes—or to have their PCs turn theirs upwards.”

Mystery: A few year back, this tale led me to search for the The Borrowers Beneath, and I found a cover featuring a humanoid, tentacle-faced creature that closely resembled a mind flayer. Now, the same search just reveals a cover of tentacles erupting from the ground and a few images of Cthulhu. But in another reminiscence, Gary said the cover that inspired him showed a humanoid creature. What cover actually inspired the mind flayer?

Githyanki

Although Wizards claims githyanki as part of D&D’s product identity, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has a claim to them too. For D&D, science fiction author Charles Stross took the name githyanki and a bit of backstory from Martin’s SF novel Dying of the Light. “I’ve always felt slightly guilty about that,” Stross said. “Credit should be given where credit’s due.” Martin’s githyanki never develop beyond an unseen threat with limited intelligence. But like the D&D monsters, the originals were living, psychic weapons and former slaves of an alien race. Stross credits another legendary author with additional inspiration. “The Illithid/Githyanki relationship probably slid into my mind as a result of reading Larry Niven’s The World of Ptavvs, which features a psionic master/slave race relationship far in the past that nearly killed all the sapients in the galaxy when it turned hot.”

Bulette

Before D&D, Gary’s Chainmail games required miniatures. Back then, no one sold fantasy figures for gaming, so he improvised. He converted a plastic stegosaurus into a dragon. “I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc.” Some of the improvised figures came from bags of assorted, plastic critters sold in those dime stores. The labels marked the toys as “Prehistoric Animals” but few resembled anything from natural history or even mythology. For pictures of the creatures and their packages, see a post by artist Tony DiTerlizzi.

When Gary’s gaming group switched to D&D, they stopped using miniatures, but the strange creatures remained as inspiration.

Gary and his fellow gamers probably never saw the Ultraman television show produced in Japan in 1966-1967, so they never knew the likely basis of the creatures. Most of the toys were knock offs of Kaiju, giant monsters from Japanese entertainment.

Inspiration for the Bulette toy probably came from the creature Gabora, which appeared in episode 9 of Ultraman, “Operation: Uranium.”

In the Greyhawk dungeons, the beast made a couple of cameo appearances, charging down a hall and bowling over adventurers. The players called it a landshark after its back fin and a current series of Saturday Night Live sketches where a “landshark” knocks on doors to deliver a “candygram.”

When editor Tim Kask needed content to fill a page in the first issue of The Dragon, Gary told Tim to write stats for the landshark. The name puts a French spin on the creature’s bullet shape. As for the monster’s appetite for halflings and their ponies, Tim was showing a bit of spite for players who always played hobbits and favored ponies named Bill.

Umber Hulk

Ultraman episode 7, “The Blue Stone of Vallarge,” featured another burrower named “Antlar.” A knock off toy for this Kaiju probably led Gary to devise the umber hulk. The creature’s crude, insectile eyes inspired the monster’s signature confusing gaze.

Owlbear

Some have tried to find a Kaiju that resembles the owlbear toy, but even the closest match takes blurred vision and a big leap of imagination. The toy’s bowl-shaped hair stands out as its most distinctive feature. As badly as the toy resembles an owl or a bear, it also badly resembles a Kappa from Japanese mythology.

Owlbear Toy and Kappa by Toriyama Sekien

Rust Monster

No creature resembles its dime-store inspiration more than the rust monster. The toy lacks teeth and claws, so when Gary made it a monster, he needed another way to menace adventurers. In the original game, powerful undead drained “life energy levels” when they hit. Life draining terrorized players, and Gary saw the power as a test for clerics, ranged attackers, and players too reckless to run. “I don’t agree with those wimpy whiners who are afraid of a few living dead,” he teased. The toy’s tentacles led Gary to imagine a way to threaten something players prized even more than their levels—their magic weapons and armor.

Mystery: Of all the toys, the rust monster ranks as the oddest. How did a four-legged bug with a propeller tail wind up bagged with kaiju and mythological creatures? Did a Hong Kong designer aim for pure whimsy or imitate some other creature?

Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign

The original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide included an instruction that seemed pointless to most readers, even though Gary Gygax shouted it in caps. In AD&D, he explained, “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” DMs needed to work with players to record every character’s use of campaign time.

Few dungeon masters bothered with such bookkeeping. The 2nd edition explains the reason. “Time passed in previous adventures has little of no effect on the current session. Next game session, the DM announces, ‘A week or so has passed since you last went out.’ An entire campaign can be played this way.”

When I first read Gygax’s declaration, no one I knew tracked campaign time. Still, thanks to the The Arduin Grimoire, I aspired run a campaign that marked time. In a trilogy of little, brown books, Dave Hargrave explored his Arduin campaign’s lore and house rules. See Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games. For me, the most inspiring passage revealed the scope Dave’s game.

“The Arduinian Campaign has been running about as long as D&D and related role-playing games have existed. Game time has been more than 11 years (of 453 days each). Over 480 player characters have been permanently killed in that time, and many more have had to retire due to wounds or afflictions acquired in campaigning. On the other hand, two characters have become Dukes of the realm and half a dozen are Barons (three landed and collecting taxes. raising troops, etc.). One even managed to woo the youngest daughter of the king and just this ‘end year’ all Arduin celebrated their nuptials. So, even though it is a hard and dangerous world, the rewards are usually more than a bold player can ever expect.”

Unlike Arduin, my campaign featured a mere series of adventures for a single party. To most gamers now, that’s a campaign. But Hargrave, Gygax, and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson ran grand campaigns on a scale I dreamed to achieve. Someday, maybe.

When Arneson and Gygax made the original game, they ran campaigns for player communities who floated in and out of frequent game sessions. The original rules suggested one DM and “from four to fifty players” in a single, fantastical campaign. “The referee to player ratio should be about 1:20.” Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign hosted weekend sessions for up to 20 players, but most parties included fewer players. During the week, Gygax let players drop in for spontaneous sessions. Often, he ran D&D for a single player.

The megadungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor helped make those campaigns work. Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.

Once character’s left the dungeon, they needed to heal at a rate of just one hit point per day. “The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful.” Recovery aside, characters involved themselves in projects like castle building, magical studies, and training. “All of these demands upon game time will force choices upon player characters, and likewise number their days of game life.” Campaign strategy involved spending your characters’ time.

Much of this resembles modern D&D’s downtime system, but with the time spent matched to days on the campaign calendar. A character could not leave for a month of training, and also join tomorrow’s dungeon crawl. The campaign calendar forced regular players to keep a variety of characters. TSR’s first employee, Tim Kask, explains, “If my currently-favorite Fighting Man was laid up recuperating, but word had just come at the tavern that a new menace was in the offing with a promise of loot, I played my next-best-for-the-situation character.”

Time in these campaigns advanced in step with real-world time, keeping all the campaigners on the same schedule. “The recommend time period for individual adventure campaigns is roughly on a one to four basis, with one real week equal to one Game Month.”

Arneson and Gygax’s players mostly stuck to dungeon and wilderness adventures, but other early games imply a bigger canvas. The scope of what players achieved in Dave Hargrave’s Arduin campaign awed me.

In the ideal grand campaign, a bunch of individuals and groups don’t just play in parallel—their actions affect all the other players. Groups change over time. As parties form and reform, characters share information. Rumors from the local inn tell the news of the day. Some players develop rivalries. For instance, Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz raced to be the first to retrieve the Magic User’s Crown from under Castle Greyhawk. Sometimes players unite against common threats.

To describe Arduin, Hargrave seemed to channel Stan Lee. “The Arduinian multiverse has been rocked to its very cosmic core by revolutions, wars, assassinations, royal marriages, and the nearly complete and utter entropic destruction of the entirety of it all in one cataclysmic confrontation between utter evil and everyone/thing else that wanted to survive!”

Actually, Stan Lee may inspire more than just Hargrave’s bombast. Much of the secret sauce that made Marvel comics so successful was that events could ripple between comic book titles. In the corner of panels, little notes from the editor revealed the connections. In the early days, Lee would even coordinate each hero’s schedule between books. By those early standards, if Captain America traveled to Europe, he couldn’t spend the same month with Iron Man in New York.

The title “grand campaign” comes from the first page of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), a game that aimed to beat D&D by supporting a grand style. Designers Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus wrote that C&S emerged when “a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our [D&D] characters. The solution was to develop an all encompassing campaign game in which dungeons and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.”

In 1978, C&S boasted the “most complete rules ever published.” The game covered everything from mass combat, to tournaments, to courtly love—everything that fit in 128 pages of 6-point text.

In the grand campaigns suggested by C&S and Arduin, every player controlled a cadre of characters, including dungeon crawlers, but perhaps also nobles, traders, courtiers on so on. All gain space to follow their goals, and some will reach them. In response to all their actions, the campaign world changes and develops.

In my post on C&S, I had some fun at the game’s expense. Unlike D&D, where players join in parties to adventure, C&S and the grand campaign offers fewer reasons to gather at a table and play together. This limits the style’s practical appeal.

But the biggest limit to the grand campaign comes from the DM’s time. DMs hosting grand campaigns must run a few group sessions a week, plus 1-on-1 sessions for the exploits of nobles, soldiers, and thieves. Then add time for preparation. Who needs sleep?

I do. I have regular games to play and another post to write. Still, the dream of the grand campaign feels as compelling as ever.

Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract

In 1980, Dungeons & Dragons players at my high school traded stories that confirmed Tomb of Horrors as the HARDEST DUNGEON EVER. Then someone told me how to beat it. Just hire a bunch of guys with shovels to excavate the tomb from the skull-faced hilltop down. A laborer worked for as little as 1 gp per month. The excavation takes months in the game world, but only a moment in the real world. Digging out the tomb avoids most of its perils. Most. I don’t think the job site’s days-without-an-accident sign will often count past 0.

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear.

In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. At the end of every 10-minute turn, the dungeon master checked for wandering monsters. On a d6 roll of 6, monsters appeared and probably attacked. These fights punished delay by forcing adventurers to risk death fighting for pocket change—if that. Most monsters lack pockets.

When a dungeon lacks wandering monsters, players can slow the game by taking meticulous care, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. If characters have ample time, many dungeon obstacles disappear. Locked doors fall to axes; walls fall to picks. The Tomb of Horrors stands no chance against a bunch of guys with time and shovels.

Wandering monsters made dungeons work

The threat of random attacks forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to dig around obstacles, characters have to keep moving.

In 1974, wandering monsters did little to diminish D&D’s fun. Even the most routine fights still seemed fresh and exciting.

The original rules made timekeeping easy. Combat aside, most actions in a dungeon took a 10-minute turn and every turn brought a chance of an encounter.

Exploring dungeons did take characters a surprising amount of time. In a 10-minute turn, a typical party could explore just 60 feet of tunnel. “Mapping and casually examining” a 20×20 foot room took 10 minutes, then a search took another 10. For every hour in the dungeon and after every battle, characters required a 10-minute rest. By the rules, searching and mapping took much longer than anyone but Gary Gygax figured.

All the while, wandering monsters kept coming, depleting precious spells and hit points.

Keeping time

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules challenged DMs to do more timekeeping. “It is essential that on accurate time record be kept so that the DM can determine when to check for wandering monsters and in order to keep a strict check on the duration of some spells,” Gary explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Keep a side record of time on a separate sheet of paper, marking off the turns as they pass.”

While timekeeping and wandering monsters kept dungeon crawls moving, players came to dislike the bookkeeping and the interruptions.

Timekeeping created a chore with little payoff. Besides, figuring the passage of time in the game world seemed like guesswork.

Wandering monsters work better when they remain only a threat

The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but the actual monsters just stall the narrative. As D&D players began focusing on stories, wandering monsters seemed like a distraction. Nobody wanted to pause their quest to battle 1d4 random basilisks.

Even Gary seemed to lose interest in wandering monsters. His introduction to the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed DMs to skip them to maintain excitement. “The rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating—if not deadly—but the appearance of such can actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition.” Gary made wandering monsters easy to skip. In the AD&D rules, he forgot to explain when or how to roll for wandering monsters. Nobody noticed.

By fourth edition, D&D eliminated wandering monsters. DMs built encounters according to a precise recipe that required planning, and not the whim of the dice. And because each encounter took an hour or more to play, the game could hardly spare time for random delays that fail to advance the narrative.

The fifth-edition designers returned random encounters to the game, but without much enthusiasm. The Dungeon Master’s Guide warns, “You don’t want to spend time distracted by random encounters that add nothing to the adventure narrative or that interfere with the overall pace you’re trying to set.”

Even though wandering monsters fell from favor, few players saw a sudden rise in tedium.

Action and D&D’s social contract

To keep a brisk pace, many D&D games just rely on the game’s social contract. Players recklessly advance their characters through the dungeon because stopping would bore everyone. Even Gary recommended using social pressure to discourage plodding. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, he advises DMs to mock “over-cautious behavior as near cowardice.”

Tomb of Horrors has no wandering monsters and no time pressure, but when Gary ran it at home, his players finished quickly. Rob Kuntz finished in 4 hours.

Characters can hire crews with shovels, but nobody wants to play that way.

Tomb of Horrors heads a long list of published D&D adventures that lack time pressure. Even when adventures press characters to finish in days, the pressure never trickles down into the dungeon. If the characters fight a long campaign against evil, a few extra days spent in a dungeon hardly matter.

Thanks to the social contact, these dungeons still work, but real time pressure improves adventures.

Too often, players realize that they can rest and resupply after every 5-minute adventuring day. Suddenly they must choose whether (a) to press recklessly ahead for no good reason or (b) to follow a safe and tiresome strategy. No game—no adventure—thrives by forcing players to choose between fun and an optimal strategy.

Next: What could be better than wandering monsters?

How much description should a dungeon key include?

The conventional Dungeons & Dragons adventure includes a dungeon key describing numbered locations on a map. When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax created his first dungeon under Castle Greyhawk, he usually wrote a 1-line note for each room. These notes served as more than just Gary’s reminders to himself. He and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz shared the notes. For more, see “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.”

Early published D&D adventures such as Palace of the Vampire Queen adopted the same terse style.

Tegel Manor and minimal descriptions

Tegel ManorWhen Judges Guild founders Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen published Tegel Manor (1977), its rooms featured minimal descriptions:

B8 25’x16’x20’H Picture on south wall depicts living battle scene. Arrow flies out of picture every 4 r. Arrows stuck everywhere.

B9 25’x24’x20’H Dire wolves head E Wall has Ring of Mammal Control in nose. Stuffed Elf, Giant Ant, boar, etc.

In 1978, my friend Gordon tried running Tegel Manor, but the campaign fizzled after his first session. Young Gordon lacked the experience to turn a list of creatures, clutter, and spooky effects into something fun. His manor played as a dreary slog.

In Dragon magazine issue 27, Bob Bledsaw wrote, “Originally we had some bad feedback which indicated that judges felt that the actual description of dungeons was their ‘domain’ and all they desired was a very skeletal framework with the more time-consuming level details worked out. We learned quickly and now design to allow the judge to delete (or modify) that which doesn’t suit the tenor of his play.

Gary Gygax sets the standard

Gary started publishing adventures with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). He included generous descriptions for every location, even the rooms with little to interest players.

CHIEF’S CHAMBER: This room is hung with rugs and skins and there are hides on the floor. There is a bed, 2 chairs, a small table with a tun of cheap wine on it, an old shield and some of the chief’s weapons (in the corner), a chest with his clothing, and other clothing hanging on pegs. A thick chain (for his cave bear) is set into one wall. Nothing of value is in the place.

Gary’s longer descriptions set the pattern for virtually every adventure to follow.

Longer descriptions

When Gamescience updated Tegel in 1989, they expanded the descriptions. The bedroom with the battle scene gets the following description:

B8 BEDROOM (25’x16’x20’H): Opening into the side hallway that leads from the Master Gallery to the Whistling Hall, this room would appear to have been trapped, and to have claimed a victim already. The door stands ajar and a corpse sprawls partway out into the hall, with an arrow protruding from its skull. Two more arrows are lodged in the wall beyond. Any who examine the room further will find a fascinating sight: The wall opposite the door is entirely covered by a vast depiction of a fearsome battle scene—and the picture is alive! Not only does it continue to move, but every fourth turn another arrow flies out of the picture in a random direction. The other walls of the room bristle with arrows stuck in the woodwork, the bedding, other pictures (one of which—a portrait—is bleeding!).

Longer descriptions free DMs from a need to invent details at the table. Even if you have a knack for description, the ideas that spring to mind first will steer toward the obvious—likely the most familiar and blandest ideas.

The update turns the curiosity of the arrow-shooting picture into a possible trap for players to investigate. The bleeding portrait adds another spooky detail. The fuller description makes the room more fun than the version Gordon ran.

On the other hand, the description of the taxidermist’s bedroom adds some color, but little play value.

B9 BEDROOM (2S’x24’x20’H): Entering this room off the Master Gallery, one is immediately overcome by the strong animal musk that clings to the chamber. A stuffed elk stands in one corner, while heads of boar, dire wolf, great cats and other fierce beasts fill the walls, along with hunting bows and spears, all heavily layered in dust. How one could sleep in such a room without keeping a bonfire going is questionable, especially since the eyes of all heads seem to glimmer and follow you around the room.

This description takes a good, middle sentence and pads it like a school paper stretched to an assigned length. The custom of longer description encourages authors to write something even when they have little to add. The format makes authors feel obligated to describe the shelves and pegs in an empty closet. I have quotes from published adventures. Don’t force me to include them.

Matching description to a location’s purpose

A location’s purpose in the game should also figure into the length of its descriptions. If the player characters meet the sheriff about a wanted poster, no one needs an item-by-item inventory of her kitchen. Even the kitchen in the giant chief’s steading only merits a sentence. In the unlikely event that players care about pots and pans, Gordon can improvise.

The Curse of Strahd adventure lavishes detail on every location. The homes of notable NPCs get pages of room descriptions. To be fair, players might explore some of these rooms and author Chris Perkins fills them with creepy, moody details. But unless your players treat social calls like dungeon crawls, they will never enter the Burgomaster’s scullery, much less care about his spooky spatula. As I read the adventure, many locations interested me until I considered how players might experience them. Often then, I  realized that nothing would bring players to the location. I wonder if any DMs led players to explore village houses like dungeons because the places’ descriptions seemed to invite that mode of play?

An avalanche of description does more than squander page count. It buries many great details might actually enter play. For example, in my Curse of Strahd game, every time I needed to find information about the players’ ally Victor Wachter, I needed to find him buried in the page-long description of his workroom in the 5-page description of his father’s mansion. (I have an idea: Trade 2 pages of mansion for 2 pages of index.)

Boxed, read-aloud text

Even though I seldom read-aloud text verbatim, boxed text consolidates and identifies features that require description. I like box text, but not every location needs it. Curse of Strahd includes it for every location. The descriptions are evocative, but DMs who dutifully present the box text for all the empty rooms in a place like the Argynvostholt dungeon will bore players.

Clearly, writing box text for the endless, gloomy rooms in Curse of Strahd caused Chris Perkins to collapse weeping into his keyboard. His follow-up, Storm King’s Thunder, omits almost all read-aloud text. Find a happy middle, Chris.

For more on boxed text, see “Picturing the dungeon – boxed text.”

The influence of one-page dungeons

A few modern adventures skip long room descriptions. Michael Curtis, author of the well-reviewed Stonehell megadungeon follows a style pioneered for one-page dungeons. Curtis explains that the format provides “the minimum amount of information needed to run the dungeon, allowing the referee to customize the adventure to his own (and his players’) tastes.”

stonehell level 1AStonehell dungeon presents each level on 2-page spread, with most rooms getting a just a couple of lines. Features that deserve special attention get descriptions in sidebars. (You can download a free, 6-page sample of Stonehell.)

Even a novice DM could run Stonehell cold, but I wonder if the sparse details offer enough to bring the adventure to life.

The ideal dungeon description

My ideal dungeon description would adopt the best of both worlds. I want a map overlayed with notes and matched with an abbreviated key on the same page. At the table, the short key offers an easy reference. The latrines, empty bedrooms, and such can get the one line they deserve. More interesting locations can break out into a second, expanded key.

The length of descriptions should match the way players will engage a location. If sofas, throne-like chairs, and urns appear in the kindly widow’s salon, skip the box text. If they appear in the Tomb of Horrors, keep typing.

Descriptions should focus on telling details and plot-critical information—details I can use in play. Don’t bury the evocative bits in lavish descriptions of sleeping pallets and rubbish. If your kitchen description seems like the first thing a typical DM would imagine at the table, you may as well rely on the typical imagination.

How much description do you want in a dungeon key?

The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell helped in ways I still fail to understand, but I’m sure are awesome.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.”

lich_queen_close

When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 g.p. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish and Shapechange retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

In his notes to the dungeon master, author Gary Gygax promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.”

tomb-of-horrors-4e-coverTo back his claim, Gary starts the Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a 19-line poem that promises to lead through the dungeon to the tomb of Acererak, the demilich. In a bit of wishful thinking, players tend to hope that Acererak plays fair and that his clue will help them. They hope that Gary gives thoughtful players a sporting chance to evade all the death traps.

The promise of the adventure seems appealing, but do not feel tempted to play Tomb of Horrors. The adventure defies much of what we consider fun now.

Acererak’s poem tests the player’s puzzle solving ability less than promised. Gary’s son Luke Gygax calls the poem as much a trap as a clue. It tempts players deeper, but contains so many ambiguities that some lines remain unclear even to students of the dungeon’s text.

Rather than testing puzzle-solving skill, the tomb tests other skills: painstaking caution and a psychopathic disdain for hirelings’ lives. It works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverGary did not design a tomb that let a clever group destroy the villain and survive intact. He devised the tomb so an ingenious group could win a battle of attrition and escape richer.

When Gary first introduced the tomb to his own group of players, they relied on masses of disposable hirelings to shield their player characters. “Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th-level (evil) lord [Robilar] went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time. He took 14 orcs and a couple of the low-level flunkies with him. He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich’s tomb and escaped with the goodies.

In those days, adventuring parties included many more characters than now. When Gary used the Tomb for a D&D tournament in 1975, each party of 15 played with the same characters, ranging from a level 12 magic user to a level 4 fighter.

tomb-of-horrors-2e-coverOne of the tournament’s players, Mark Swanson, wrote a first-hand account of the event for the September 1975 issue of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Mark’s war of attrition began when two of his party’s fighters died before they even found the true entrance. Thanks for playing.

Divination spells represented another resource to manage. Many of the traps in the tomb seem capricious. The poem invites players to seek “night’s good color,” probably black. So how could players know that jumping into the black maw of the green devil face leads to annihilation, while stepping through nearby arch teleports them deeper into the dungeon? These challenges tested players ability to use spells wisely. For instance, after one henchman gets sucked into the maw of the green devil face, a wizard might cast Locate Object to determine if his employee’s red shirt remains near. Players in that 1975 tournament could gain help from spells like Find the Path, Locate Object, Divination, Find Traps, Clairvoyance, and Commune. By the time the adventure reached print, many more spells offered aid.

Even with unlimited spells and henchmen, the tomb demands a lot of painstaking investigation to see the end. Locating Acererak demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Mid-way through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of the story seems unthinkable.)

When Gary wrote Tomb of Horrors, nobody thought of D&D as a way to make stories. Players aimed to beat the dungeon and they kept score in gold. The tomb defies our newfangled expectations of story.

The adventure makes destroying the arch-villain Acererak nearly impossible. (See “Player skill without player frustration.”) When Ernie Gygax’s PC Tenser reached Acererak, he scooped all the treasure he could bag and he ran. That qualified as good play.

Mark Swanson lamented the effort his party wasted preparing spells for wandering monsters that never appear. Unlike most dungeon crawls, Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. Potentially, Players can use their unlimited time to counter the tomb’s traps with painstaking caution. This winning strategy accounts for the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, such caution amounts to pure tedium.

Gary never battled slow play. Players in his home group honored a social contract to keep the brisk pace that let Rob Kuntz finish in 4 hours. Later, players explored under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

In Mark Swanson’s account, he draws a sharp contrast between the emerging play style evolving in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and the play style shown in the Gygax’s tournament. “Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A&E if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with chance-met characters, and a more exciting game.

tomb-of-horrors-book-coverEven though I consider Tomb of Horrors unplayable by today’s standards, I still love it. I am not alone. The tomb’s popularity led to official third- and fourth-edition updates, the boxed sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a hardcover sequel that shares the original’s name. The tomb appears in my DMDavid banner.

While I don’t want to play the tomb, I love the dungeon. I love the atmosphere. I love the inspiration it provided. Gary admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations.

The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

Long before I ever read the adventure, I knew the tomb by its reputation and by those illustrations.

Tomb of Horrors features the best villain in Dungeons & Dragons. The villain isn’t Acererak’s jeweled skull. The villain is the tomb.

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

This villain issues a challenge that reaches the real world. Even in the late 70s, a legend for killing characters surrounded the tomb. Among my circle of players, no one dared risk a character to it.

The tomb greets intruders as the skull face on the hilltop, then appears in the guise of the great green devil face. The tomb flaunts a menace and cunning that matches any other villain in the game. When the tomb offers help, it taunts and teases. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this [poem] whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what.” The poem is more trap than clue; this villain deceives. The soul-stealing skull is only the end of the players’ battle.

Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.

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