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.

12 thoughts on “Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

  1. richgreen01

    I loved Twilight’s Peak back in the 80s – it was just something very different to the other stuff we’d been playing (i.e. dungeons). I need to dig out my copy and give it a reread 🙂

  2. ben

    one question..little related to your post.. in your opinion,¿Why, did D&D switched from the XP system based in gold to the XP system based in killing/bypassing monsters and threats?
    Is there any “official” answer to this issue…?
    For some guys, OD&D till Mentzer (with tradicional XP for gold system) promote a different approach to roleplaying D&D games… after that big change..the game (in his opinion) became a game which just promotes killing everythig..

    Do you think it was an intentional change in the game design?

    1. richgreen01

      I don’t know the official reason but in our games, it just led to far too much treasure being given out! In AD&D you got xp for gold and for killing monsters though.

    2. Daniel Boggs

      It didn’t. OD&D (1974) awards 100 XP per “level” of monster killed, ratioed against a characters level. XP was similarly given for magic items and treasure by value, again ratioed based on level. Just FYI in the 1973 Beyond This Point be Dragons/Dalluhn draft, XP was also awarded for casting spells according to a similar formula and differing in particulars for Ckerucs and Mu’s. Gold Pieces were also worth only 1/10 XP.

    3. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Ben,
      D&D’s switch away from awarding XP for treasure came from an urge to make the game a better simulation of life. Critics of the XP-for-gold rule argued that to improve at monster slaying, characters should have to slay monsters. Most critics failed to see that changing the rule motivated a different play style.


  3. imredave

    Please note that Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT) offered patreons as an option in 1975. There’s even a roll up table for them in the back of the book.Original Dungeons and Dragons we tended to stick to dungeons until about level 5 or 6 due the the danger of the wilderness encounter chart. Conversely in in EPT we roamed the wilderness more due to the large numbers of monsters appearing in even the upper dungeon levels.

  4. ben

    thanks Daniel, i knew that but forgot to mention..

    but in OD&D the main source of XP was treasure, wasn´t it?

  5. Bob Loftin

    Fantastic post. As I returned to this hobby 2 years ago, running a GURPS cyberpunk campaign (not a genre that lends itself to a crawl), I had no desire to do a site-based adventure. Not interesting to me at all. Going to pass this article around.

  6. Lukkas

    You took Traveller and stuck the PCs in a space dungeon???

    Dude Traveller is such an amazing game. Just take a look at the sorts of things characters do during the Rolling Up Process. Those are the sorts of awesome things to do in game.

  7. Pingback: Whether You Call Them Rumors, Secrets, Clues, Hooks, or Leads, These Nuggets of Information Power Adventures and Campaigns | DMDavid

  8. backcountry164

    Keep on the Borderlands was 1979. So it took just 5 year for the game t9 go from closed dungeons to open worlds. That seems pretty quick to me. And of course players realized long before then that they’d need to sell all of that loot somewhere which could be an adventure itself.

    1. Joe Nuttall

      It was actually 1980 – 1979 as a date is a mistake that keeps on getting copy/pasted around the internet. But there were many adventures right from the start that were outside the dungeon – but mostly they were location based encounters (just as KotB is) which David is saying were equivalent to Dungeon based adventures – and those campaigns still mostly revolved around Dungeons (the Wilderness was just for moving between them). If you actually want the first non-Dungeon based D&D campaign, the earliest evidence I can find is Brian Dolton’s campaign as written up in the UK fanzine Demonsblood #2 and #4 from May 1979.


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