Tag Archives: Traveller

How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games

When home computers seemed like rare gadgets, a killer app was a program so compelling that people purchased the computer just to run the application. VisiCalc became the Apple II’s killer app, and then Lotus 1-2-3 drove customers to the IBM PC.

Dungeons & Dragons came with a killer app baked in—the dungeon crawl. The dungeon provided such a powerful setting for the first role-playing game that I suspect the game’s success owes as much to this setting as to the invention of the role-playing game. (For a taste of fantasy role playing without the dungeon crawl, read my post, “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?”)

From Gauntlet to Diablo, the dungeon crawl is now such a popular video game convention that it stands as its own genre. Even folks who think tabletop games are all like Monopoly and see video games as unworthy of attention, know of Indiana Jones, the Tomb Raider movies, and the Mines of Moria. The D&D dungeon may seem conventional by now, but in the early 1970s, nothing exactly like it existed in the popular imagination.

The dungeon has developed such a huge role in popular culture that we struggle to imagine how novel and compelling dungeon crawls were 40 years ago.

In 1977, when I first overheard kids at my new school talking about Dungeons & Dragons, I managed to learn just two things about the game, but these hints electrified me. In D&D, you played a person in the game who grew in power through experience, and you explored dungeons filled with monsters, hidden secrets, and treasures—often magical. I went home, opened the yellow pages, and called countless hobby shops in Chicagoland, searching for one that stocked this astounding game. When I finally located a copy at the distant Hill’s Hobby, I coaxed my mom into providing a ride—but not until the weekend. Still excited, but facing a torturous wait, I sat down with some graph paper and speculated on how a game of dungeon exploration might play.

My enthusiasm was not unique. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

Even when the first role-playing games left medieval fantasy, they kept dungeons or sites that played like dungeons.

Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.”

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Dra'k'ne Station

Dra’k’ne Station

Traveller (1977) brought an entire universe to play in, but for years all the game’s published adventures featured derelict space ships, alien and abandoned research stations, and other location-based adventures resembling dungeons in space.

  • Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”
  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.
Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

The dungeon crawl offers several essential advantages:

  • Ease of play – The dungeon’s walls limited options, making the game master’s job manageable. In a Gamespy interview Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.” More than anything, the wide-open space of Traveller drove designers to attempt to duplicate the dungeon experience in space.
  • Group play – Dungeon exploration provided an activity for a party with divergent skills. A host of role-playing games ranging from Chivalry & Sorcery to every spy game ever struggled to find reasons for characters to work together.
  • Obstacles – Dungeons provided an excuse for monsters, tricks, and traps. Their inevitably-insane architects gave dungeon masters free reign to create a funhouse environment.
  • Goals – The treasure underground gave a reason to explore, and a gave players a common goal.
  • Flavor – Dungeons provided an evocative setting full of secrets and ripe for exploration. For me, the most evocative illustration in the blue box was the underground cross section. I wanted to crack the mysteries of just such an underground complex.

Nowadays, some D&D players dislike dungeon crawls and that’s fine. Forty-some years of evolution have taken D&D to villages, forests, palaces, and across the planes of the great wheel. Dungeon masters no longer prepare for play by following the instructions from the 1974 brown books. “First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld.’” If you dislike dungeons you can still like D&D. (If you don’t like dungeons or dragons, then you probably just play to seem cool.)

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons makes ability checks a key part of play, but these checks took years to enter the game. How did ability checks advance from house rule, to optional rule, to a foundation of fifth-edition D&D?

Before D&D added ability checks, players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. Even so, characters tried things that the rules didn’t cover. For many of these actions, success or failure hinged on a character’s ability scores. Gary Gygax told dungeon masters to guess the odds of success and roll for it. But DMs and players wanted more consistency and less guessing.

In 1976, issue 1 of The Dragon printed “How to Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes” by Wesley D. Ives. The article proposes a sort of ability check before anyone coined a name for it.

This first ability check suffers from a mechanic so baroque that it reads like a gag.

To determine an action’s success, perform these actions:

  1. Roll d100, add the ability score, and then use this result to determine which die to roll in step 2. On a result of 1-20 roll a d4; on 21-40 roll d6; on 41-60 roll d8; 61-80: d10; 81-100: d12. To cope with results higher than 100, create a house rule for this house rule.
  2. Roll the die determined in step 1 and multiply the number by the attribute. This result becomes the chance of success.
  3. Roll a d100. If the result is less than or equal to the probability from step 2, you succeed!

The method requires three rolls, multiplication of double-digit numbers, and a table. But if that seems too simple, the article offers optional rules accounting for character level and class. All this yields an outcome barely more realistic than a coin flip.

To settle on an ability-check mechanic that required so much fuss, the author must have seen checks as a rare undertaking.

Despite the tortured mechanic, the idea of ability check marks a major innovation. None of the few role-playing games available in 1976 featured anything like the concept. In a few years, every RPG would build on the idea.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978), Gary invented a playable ability check for the Dig spell. “Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.

By the late 70s, the method found in the Dig spell turned into common house rule: To make an ability check, players tried to roll under an attribute on a d20.

The 1980 D&D basic rules by Tom Moldvay made this house rule official. “The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.

Meanwhile, other role playing games advanced the state of the art. Traveller (1977) introduced skills and a single mechanic for skill checks. Runequest (1978) boasted skills and “attribute rolls” that multiplied an ability by 5 to set a percentage chance of success.

In games with skills, the skills cover most tasks a player might attempt, so ability checks blur into skill checks. Fifth edition intentionally makes skills an addition to ability checks.

For AD&D, Gygax showed little interest in ability checks. Improvised rulings worked fine for him. (When the DM is E. Gary Gygax, no player quibbles with a ruling.)

As for skills, Gygax preferred to keep D&D’s class archetypes pure. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but the narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes. Oriental Adventures (1985) extended the concept to create non-weapon proficienciesskills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities.

After Gary left TSR in 1985, his successors on the AD&D team lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. Nonetheless, their additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

Ability checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success.

The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, but suffered a few drawbacks:

  • Class abilities already covered most of a character’s actions, so non-weapon proficiencies rarely came up in play.
  • The phrase “non-weapon proficiency” proved unwieldy. The term evolved from Gary’s own work on D&D, but it forced a lot of extra syllables on players just to avoid contaminating D&D with anything called skills.
  • Roll-under ability checks confused players and designers.

For D&D’s other d20 rolls, players aimed high, but for ability checks they aimed low. This simple difference fostered confusion. The original ability-check rule said, “The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.” That meant a bonus subtracted from the roll—an ugly break from intuition.

A cleaner method adds the bonus to the attribute, so players roll under a higher number.

By now, some Internet critics might scoff at my notion that adding roll-under checks to D&D confused people. I imagine an argument heaping contempt on idiots who clearly lack the intellectual capacity for RPGs. Go back to Candyland. Who would let roll-under checks trip them up?

The D&D team at TSR.

Sometime during playtesting, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide apparently switched its method of applying modifiers, but the book reached print with an incomplete change. The “Sage Advice” column in Dragon issue 118 tried to sort out the mess. “OK, OK, OK, already! You’re right—there is something wrong with the DSG non-weapon proficiency system.

We went through the manuscript and thought we had caught all the places where the text needed to be changed. We missed a couple of simple ones, and this caused a tremendous problem in the system.

TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included a corrected version of non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary.

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained leeway to correct old drawbacks. Ability checks flipped so players aimed for high rolls. Skills embraced the actions characters actually did in the game. And no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

An elegant role-playing game gains maximum play value out of a concise set of simple rules.

Elegant rules…

  • apply broadly so fewer rules can cover whatever happens in the game.
  • play quickly with minimal math and little need to reference or memorize.
  • can be easily explained and understood.
  • produce outcomes that match what players expect in the game world.
  • enable players to anticipate how their characters’ actions will be resolved and the likely outcomes, something I call resolution transparency.

Rules-light role-playing games maximize economy by applying just a few rules across the entire game, but they sacrifice resolution transparency.

Dungeons & Dragons has never qualified as a rules-light system, but the game has grown more elegant by eliminating rules and applying the rules that remain more broadly. In “Design Finesse,” D&D patriarch Mike Mearls writes, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.”

Elegant role-playing games start with economical rules, yet they still invite players into their characters, give them plenty of freedom to make interesting choices, and provide easy ways to resolve the actions so the outcomes make sense in the game world.

D&D started as an inelegant game: a bunch of mechanics that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax dreamed up as they refereed, which Gary then wrote in his stream-of-consciousness style. In “A Brief History of Roleplaying,” Shannon Appelcline writes, “In various early versions of D&D and AD&D, you had one system to model Strength (a range of 3-17, then 18/01 to 18/00), one to model all the other characteristics (3-18), one to model armor class (10 to -10), one to model thief ability (0-100%), one to model skill in combat (a to-hit number from 20 to 1), one to model clerical spells (7 levels of magic), one to model magic-user spells (9 levels of magic), etc.”

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax

Why so many systems? No one knew anything about RPG design, because none existed. Also, during D&D’s formative years, Gary was an incorrigible collaborator, always willing to add a friend’s new rule to the mix. Each of Gary’s brown-book D&D releases features the work of a different collaborator. Even in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary couldn’t say no to additions like weapon speeds and psionics—additions he regretted.

In 1977 and 1978, role-playing game design took two huge steps: Traveller introduced a skill system. Runequest united all action resolution around a core mechanic. These two games charted a course for elegant RPG design, and virtually all games to follow built on their innovations.

Player's Handbook (2nd edition)

Player’s Handbook (2nd edition)

Second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons cut some rules that no one ever used, but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, designer Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.”

When 2E appeared in 1989, game publishers still limited new editions to corrections and tweaks. If a publisher wanted to create an incompatible new version of a game, they coined a new name, such as Megatraveller and Runequest: Slayers. Of second edition AD&D, Steve Winter says, “The [TSR] executives where terrified of the idea of upsetting the whole customer base and driving away customers, coupled with the idea that if we put out a new book, what happens to all the old books? We have stores with all these books. we won’t sell any new players handbooks for a year while we’re making the new edition because people will know what’s coming.” How different from the modern market, where people accuse publishers of issuing new editions just to spur sales?

It took the sale of TSR, and a new edition from Wizards of the Coast, to give D&D twenty-year-old innovations such as skills and a core mechanic. Third edition simplified by consolidating a myriad of different rules into the d20 check that gave the core system its name. On the whole, 3E isn’t simpler than AD&D, but it took the complexity budget earned through simplification, and used it to add depth to tactical combat and to character options.

Emboldened by the acclaim for the big changes in 3E, the 4E designers felt willing to outdo the changes. The designers attacked some complexities that the third-edition designers had kept as sacred cows. For instance, fourth edition eliminated traditional saving throws by consolidating their function with attack rolls.

Fourth edition tried for a simpler game by focusing on exception-based design. This principle makes trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering playable despite the tens of thousands of cards in print. The 4E designers built a system on a concise set of core rules, and then added depth by adding abilities and powers that make exceptions to the rules.

Even with 4E’s concise core, the thousands of powers and thousands of exceptions produced more rules than any prior edition. Still, no RPG delivers more resolution transparency than 4E. In sacrifice, the edition often fails to model the game world, creating a world with square fireballs, where you can be on fire and freezing at the same time, where snakes get knocked prone, and where you can garrote an ooze.

Among all the simplifications in 4E, only the use of standard conditions appear to remain in D&D Next.

Both 3E and 4E used more elegant rules to produce simpler core systems, but both editions grew as complicated as ever.  In “D&D Next Goals, Part One,” Mearls writes, “New editions have added more rules, more options, and more detail. Even if one area of the game became simpler, another area became far more difficult to grasp.” The D&D Next designers aim to deliver a simpler, more elegant core game, and then to add options that players can ignore if they wish. “We need to make a game that has a simple, robust core that is easy to expand in a variety of directions. The core must remain unchanged as you add more rules. If we achieve that, we can give new players a complete game and then add additional layers of options and complexity to cater to more experienced gamers.”

Next:  How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game.

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

You know about computers and the killer app—a program so compelling that people purchased the computer just to run the application. VisiCalc was the Apple II’s killer app; Lotus 1-2-3 drove customers to the IBM PC.

Dungeons & Dragons came with a killer app baked in—the dungeon crawl. The dungeon provided such a powerful setting for the first role-playing game that I suspect the game’s success owes as much to this setting as to the invention of the role-playing game. (For a taste of fantasy role playing without the dungeon crawl, read my post, “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?”)

From Gauntlet to Diablo, the dungeon crawl is now such a popular video game convention that it stands as its own genre. Even folks who think tabletop games are all like Monopoly and see video games as unworthy of attention, know of Indiana Jones, the Tomb Raider movies, and the Mines of Moria. The D&D dungeon may seem a little tired by now, but in the early 1970s, nothing exactly like it existed in the imagination.

The dungeon has developed such a huge role in popular culture that we struggle to imagine how novel and compelling dungeon crawls were 40 years ago.

In 1977, when I first overheard kids at my new school talking about Dungeons & Dragons, I managed to learn just two things about the game, but these hints electrified me. In D&D, you played a person in the game who grew in power through experience, and you explored dungeons filled with monsters, hidden secrets, and treasures—often magical. I went home, opened the yellow pages, and called countless hobby shops in Chicagoland, searching for one that stocked this astounding game. When I finally located a copy at the distant Hill’s Hobbies, I coaxed my mom into providing a ride—but not until the weekend. Still excited, but facing a torturous wait, I sat down with some graph paper and speculated on how a game of dungeon exploration might play.

My enthusiasm was not unique. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game. Before D&D’s release, Minneapolis fan Louis Fallert played a dungeon adventure with Dave Arneson’s game club, and then concocted his own dungeon-exploration game inspired by the experience. By the summer of 1974, the Minneapolis-area featured 9 dungeon campaigns that had branched from Fallert’s “Castle Keep” game. See “Rules to the Game of Dungeon” for more. In “How leaving the Dungeon left a big hole in role-playing games,” I described how even science fiction games like Traveller struggled for years to leave the long shadow of the dungeon.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

The dungeon crawl offers several essential advantages:

  • Ease of play – The dungeon’s walls limited options, making the game master’s job manageable. In a Gamespy interview, Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.” More than anything, the wide-open space of Traveller drove designers to attempt to duplicate the dungeon experience in space.

  • Group play – Dungeon exploration provided an activity for a party with divergent skills. A host of role-playing games ranging from Chivalry & Sorcery to every spy game ever struggled to find reasons for characters to work together.

  • Obstacles – Dungeons provided an excuse for monsters, tricks, and traps. Their inevitably-insane architects gave dungeon masters free reign to create a funhouse environment.

  • Goals – The treasure underground gave a reason to explore, and a gave players a common goal.

  • Flavor – Dungeons provided an evocative setting full of secrets and ripe for exploration. For me, the most evocative illustration in the blue box was the underground cross section. I wanted to crack the mysteries of just such an underground complex.

Nowadays, some D&D players dislike dungeon crawls and that’s fine. Forty-some years of evolution have taken D&D to villages, forests, palaces, and across the planes of the great wheel. Dungeon masters no longer prepare for play by following the instructions from the 1974 brown books. “First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld.’” If you dislike dungeons you can still like D&D. (If you don’t like dungeons or dragons, then you probably just play to seem cool.)

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.