Posts Tagged ‘Dave Arneson


Dungeon! and the Invention of Old-School Play

In Eric’s original post about the original Dungeon! boardgame, he writes “It’s amazing how well the gameplay lines up with the OSR playstyle.” I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that this is because Dungeon! is where the original assumptions of play were first codified.

Level 6 of Dave Megarry’s original prototype for the Dungeon! boardgame

In my first post about Dungeon!, I talked about how the Blackmoor session in which referee Dave Arneson introduced roleplaying’s first dungeon inspired player Dave Megarry to create a boardgame which would systematize the idea of the dungeon as flowchart.

At Gary Con IV, Megarry said that he created the prototype of the Dungeon! boardgame shown at right over the course of about 72 hours in October of 1973. Most of this time was spent working out the right ratio of monster difficulty to treasure payoff.

The Dungeon! board is grouped into six levels, with stairs indicating a change between levels. Each level has its own set of monster and treasure cards. On the sixth level, you may loot the the King’s riches, but fantastic wealth is guarded by equally potent monsters.

Working out the appropriate ratio of risk to reward by level was clearly a priority for Megarry. Given that the law & economics of reward incentives is a major focus for Adventurer Conqueror King, causing me to put a ridiculous amount of effort into determining how much treasure different kinds of monsters should have, I feel a great debt to the first person to come to grips with these issues.

Playing Dungeon! feels like old-school dungeon crawling because you’re weighing the same risk-reward decisions. For my first character, I played an elf whose ability to move through secret doors would let me quickly zip down to the sixth level, where I hoped to score some game-winning phat loot. Unfortunately I soon found that I needed some magical help to take on the guardians on that level, and was on my way to find some on a more shallow level when I died. For my second character, I wanted to choose a more conservative approach but all the easily-reached low level treasures had been snarfed up by other starting characters, so I couldn’t engage in what players of roguelike games (another branch of Dungeon!’s heritage) call scumming and instead had to dive a little deeper than I might have liked. This kind of thinking was totally natural from playing in the Glantri campaign and elsewhere; it’s one of many ways that Dungeon! crystallizes the experience I know from old-school D&D into a fast-acting nugget of crack.

In my next post I’ll talk about another old-school mechanic whose genome I think can be seen in Dungeon! – requiring variable amounts of XP for different classes to advance.

EDIT: As shown in the letter below, Gygax and others added a number of monsters and treasures to each level of the boardgame when it was published by TSR. Doing so would have given him some hands-on experience achieving monster/treasure ratios by level as well. Letters I didn’t take photos of might confirm that this development process began before D&D went to press, in the period when Gygax was shopping the game to Guidon and other publishers.

Letter from Gary Gygax to Dave Megarry, dated April 18, 1975


Dungeon! and the Invention of the Dungeon

Dave Megarry showing a Gary Con IV attendee a variety of editions of the Dungeon! boardgame he created, including the original prototype

Eric’s post about the re-release of the Dungeon! boardgame reminded me that I still haven’t written about meeting its creator, Dave Megarry, at Gary Con. It was awesome and painful in equal measure, as I was torn between:

  • playing the game for the first time and coming close to winning the Guinness Book of World Records’ Longest Game of Dungeon Ever
  • picking Dave’s brain, and that of his wife Rose, both of whom were wonderful to talk to and quite graciously tolerant of my frantic inquisition
  • reading through a folder of correspondence between Megarry and Gary Gygax as the latter tirelessly shopped the game around a number of publishers before finally bringing it out as TSR
  • absorbing an invisible radiance from two artifacts Megarry brought to the convention – his original board for the Dungeon! prototype, and the ping-pong tabletop from Dave Arneson’s basement on which the original Blackmoor sessions etc. were played out. Both can be seen in the picture to the right.

As I heard it from David Wesely, the story of Dungeon! is inseparable from the story of Dungeons & Dragons. After a few sessions of the Blackmoor campaign, Arneson’s group had explored all of the parts of Castle Blackmoor that could handily be represented by the “Branzoll Castle” model on that ping-pong table. This was back in ’71 or so, well before D&D came into being, and – if I understand correctly – before they were using rules for Blackmoor at all; adapting Chainmail mechanics to provide more structure for the Braunstein-style game play came some time after the first dungeon adventure.

So Arneson decided to use pen and paper to map out the dungeons beneath the castle. (A possible inspiration might have been the siege rules in Chainmail, where the players use pencil and paper to track the progress of their sappers, but at Gen Con ’09 I also heard Arneson talk about using similar hand-drawn maps to deal with fog of war situations in their pre-Blackmoor, pre-Chainmail Napoleonics campaigns which were otherwise played with miniatures).

Apparently Arneson didn’t think that the invention of the dungeon was anything special, but after the session Megarry raved to him about what a great concept it was. For Arneson it might have been a nifty solution to the problem of not having miniatures to represent everything; Megarry perceived that it was an even better solution to the problem of endless free choice. On an unbounded tabletop, you could go off in any direction you liked. This was a difficult for the referee who had to be prepared for 360 degrees worth of adventure, and having too many choices made it hard for players to reach meaningful decisions.

Being a computer science student, Megarry saw that the dungeon acted like a flowchart, providing players a way to visualize the choices available from any given point and referees a way to present a manageable set of options. Excited about this conceptual breakthrough, Megarry proposed to Arneson that he would create a board game based on the dungeon idea, while always giving credit to Arneson for having come up with the concept. A handshake agreement was reached, and the stage was set for the development of what we now know as Dungeons & Dragons.

There’s a great deal more to be said about all this, which I will undertake in future posts; this is just the starting square in an multi-level exploration, not unlike the one in the prototype at right.


When Someone Great is Gone

After last night’s Dwimmermount session at the Brooklyn Strategist, we were doing a post-mortem about how it had been awesome when we were using miniatures on the section of the dungeon that I’d fully laid out with Master Maze, but as soon as we ran out of pieces to build new areas explored in play we started getting confused about who was doing what where. The solution is straightforward – Stefan will come back from Prague and we’ll borrow more of his personal collection; also he is a skilled enough builder to take apart one part of the layout and use it to create a new area at the speed of exploration, so either he’ll be there to help out or someone else will contribute (or learn) that skill. But being of a theoretical bent, we kept chewing over why the problem arose at all.

I usually run without minis and have no problem creating a mental picture of the scene. Why then did the transition from an area we could see with minis to one where we’d use our imagination throw us off? A B-Strat regular who was having a smoke nearby said that this is why, as a book jacket designer, he hates being told to put a face on the cover. “Faces are specific,” he said. “As soon as you see one, you lose the ability to visualize the character any other way.”

So maybe why we don’t post music videos more often is that as roleplayers the words make pictures in our heads that the visuals contradict. Like, I love the image of the absent silhouette but I never envisioned this song as being about a lover. It makes sense; actual dialogue as my son and I are riding in the car en route to the So Cal Mini Con during the summer I was obsessed with “California Gurls:”

KATY: sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle

SON: What does that mean?

DAD: Well, you know how you have to eat your popsicle fast in the summer because the hot sun melts it?

SON: I think it’s private parts.

DAD: OK, you got me. All pop songs are about private parts.

But I always thought “Something Great” is about the death of a mentor, and the reason I’m thinking about it now is that its personal meaning for me is tied up with Gary Gygax. Maybe it’s the timing of when the song came out and Gary’s passing four years ago today. Maybe it’s lines like this:

I miss the way we used to argue,
Locked, in your basement.

In that I hear my nostalgia-for-things-I-never-knew for the days when arguing about wargames over a sand table was an imaginary haven from the real war in another country. In my mind that time seems to have a purity and innocence that ended after D&D’s success cracked this world open. The war outside was over, to be replaced by dirty civil wars within TSR that were soon to be mirrored by the culture wars in which D&D was the devil. That’s the era I remember, in which the AD&D books seemed already artifacts of a magical time long past.

The video does this well as the shadow moves through the aisles between crates of records and adventure modules. Pulling out any one of them would teach me about how it felt to be alive in a time of magic, and that time had to be now because I was holding some of it in my hand. But I had the sense that the wizards who could teach me how to perform that magic on command were gone, even when I was young and this wasn’t really true.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the formation of TSR. I feel I’m old enough and have shared enough of the same experiences that I can put myself into the shoes of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax or Don Kaye: as an idealist and a hobbyist and a gamer, as a publisher alternately elated or terrified by success, as a father and as someone who would have invested my life insurance into my friends’ dreams if Kickstarter didn’t avert that particular tragedy. I’m not comparing myself to these guys, just saying that having played in a sandbox filled with toddlers I have a little more insight when I roleplay a giant.

So maybe that’s why I hear “Someone Great” as being about the drafts going back and forth that aren’t yet D&D, the pressure to publish because Gary has kids to feed and the tension over whether Dave has creative control and can take his what must seem to Gary like a young man’s idea that there is all the time in the world to get it right :

There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.

And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming, 
Till the day it stops

You have to know that I idolized my friends’ big brothers, and that the two things they introduced me to were D&D and the Beatles, to understand why I take what’s basically a lost-love song, “Paint it Black” with less masochism or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with less mist in your eyes, as being about TSR’s lost opportunities. For me D&D books and Beatles records were secrets of the world before I was born, beams of dazzling dusty radiance the older kids sometimes let slip between their fingers but I could soak up anytime I wanted by opening the covers. AD&D was that Book of Gold, sure, but so was Hawkmoon with its “terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan” Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga and The Einstein Intersection where Delany’s characters “treat the rise and fall of the Beatles the way we treat the rise and fall of Achilles”. (The fact that both of these are basically Gamma World under the skin rather than D&D explains a lot about me and my romance of lost greatness too.)

My omen that John Lennon had been killed was when, exploring a deserted beach, I saw that someone had written STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER in giant letters on the sand. After a long time alone bemused by this, I came home to the news. All the wonder and dread of that writing in the sand collapsed into a specific sadness: now I will never see the Beatles reunite and play live in concert. I guess I was as self-centered in 2008 as I was in 1980, because I had basically the same reaction to the news of Gary’s death.

Here’s Gygax, speaking to Lawrence Shick in 1991 for Law’s Heroic Worlds:

There is no question that the D&D game was the first of its kind, and from its success there sprang a whole industry… I did the AD&D system to go beyond that. Right now I’m working on something new to contribute to Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming. All of that, however, owes the Original D&D game far more than credit for “inspiration”. The D&D game was and remains the start of role-playing games. Dave Arneson and I have spoken frequently since the time we devised D&D. We don’t plan to collaborate on another game, but just maybe one day he’ll decide to combine talents again. Who knows?

This is as bittersweet with lost possibility, as rich with bruised tenderness, as the point where Lennon and McCartney are hanging out together in New York in 1976 watching Saturday Night Live (there is something sad about a rock star even in life). The two men have been making nice in the press for once about what was good about the thing they built together, and now Lorne Michaels is holding up a check for $3,000 and offering it to the Beatles if they’ll reunite and play a show there and then.

$3K in 1974 dollars seems to me about right for the budget to do the first print run of D&D. What was Gygax doing that night in 1976? Was he watching Saturday Night Live and if so what did it mean to him? Was he a Beatles fan too who hoped or dreamed or somehow knew that there was a possibility John and Paul would really hop a cab together and make it happen? Did he think about calling up Dave: “hey, is your TV on?”

Probably not. At the time it was just a joke that’s only imbued with significance in hindsight, right?

 I wish that we could talk about it,
But there, that’s the problem.

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2014
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