Q&A with the 2nd Dungeon Master in Champaign-Urbana, 1974

Folks whose memories span several ages of creation may recall that my friend Nat Sims was a co-founder of Behemoth3, my first venture into RPG publishing. Nat went on to found the successful iPhone app developer Night & Day Studios, and although being its CEO keeps him pretty busy, over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of playing the card-based diplomatic wargame Here I Stand online with him and some members of his extended family.

The first cRPG, "The Dungeon" aka PEDIT5, may also be from Champaign-Urbana, written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois. Click pic to learn more.

One of my first experiences on the road to the old-school renaissance was hearing Nat’s stories about playing D&D in the 70s with his parents. His mom was the DM for a group of players mostly made up of his dad’s graduate students in a drama program. What Nat remembered most clearly was impatiently waiting for the “grown-ups” to finish drinking wine and describing what their characters were wearing, hoping that at some point during the night they could kick down another door and kill something.

On one visit home, Nat picked up his old D&D stuff including a mimeographed set of rules and one of the dungeons that his mom used. At the time, I thought that the ruleset might have been some draft of proto-D&D; with the wisdom of hindsight I bet it was actually one of the re-typings that were popular at the time as a way to integrate houserules (and avoid buying multiple copies of the expensive D&D “white box”).

At some point I’ll tell the story of what Nat & I made of this ’70s dungeon, my first exposure to the wonderful improv challenge of trying to make sense of a funhouse on the fly – and doing it without any help. (It was the ’90s, so the Internet and OGL-based support system on which the old-school brain trust relies was just a glint in Mozilla and GNU’s respective eyes.) What I want to do now, however, is pass on some conversations I’ve had with the creator of that dungeon, Nat’s uncle Mike Metcalf.

My questions for Mike (presented henceforth in italics) began with:

I’ve been making a point of seeking out all the original D&Ders I can – most recently I met Michael Mornard, who was part of both Arneson’s gaming group in the Twin Cities and Gygax’s in Lake Geneva. I would love to pick your brain about those days! Do you still have any of your old maps and whatnot?

He replied:

I had the 2nd dungeon in Champaign-Urbana in 1974 and went on to be a dungeon master up at Gencon once. My Dungeon stuff is at Nat’s Moms (my sister) who borrowed the stuff once to copy etc.  Used that dungeon with the family once and ended up turning my Mother into a zucchini; great fun.  I think it is secreted away somewhere in their house.  But, I do have stories, experiences and ideas.

One of the things Gary Gygax did before Arneson introduced him to proto-D&D was to run a Diplomacy fanzine. It seems to me that part of why he latched onto roleplaying right away – it only took one session of Arneson DMing his Blackmoor game for Gary before he was ready to start DMing it himself (for his kids, the first Lake Geneva players!) using Dave’s fragmentary notes – was that the kind of writing as if you were a historical world leader that we do while playing Here I Stand and that people used to do in diplozines is much like pretending to be an elf.

 Does this ring true – did you have experience with Diplomacy zines or other correspondence-based kinds of writing-as-if-you-were-someone-else? Or were there “playing in character” aspects of board or wargames that you just brought over to D&D play?

The way I got into D&D was that a friend of mine had gone to GenCon and come back with a copy of the rules and a graph paper dungeon (#1 in the area).  Pretty basic stuff with a list of main character types and monster types etc.  Our group had played ‘Chain-mail’ miniatures and this was a partial take-off on that idea.  We just took to it.  Easy to get into character.  We had already done Diplomacy and, of course, had to play our character-states.  As we killed off character after character (never got to the points necessary for a level-2 – hard damned dungeon), we got into a flow.  I had the never-ending ‘Botnick’ brothers starting with Coors Botnick, Budweiser Botnick etc (down the list of bad beers).  I quickly made a dungeon (2nd in the area) and we played each dungeon in a revolving mode.  Didn’t have a ‘zine at the time – just those rules which were modified by each dungeon master as he saw fit.

I’ll tell you of my other Dungeon – where I tired of D&D being an open-ended game to one of fixed dimensions (meaning that it would end at some point – no possibility that it could continue).  After playing many a dungeon trip in many a dungeon and watching other people with more time (I was in veterinary school) make giant above ground (and below) fantasy realms etc., I realized that I was losing interest in the open-ended role playing genre. Yes, one’s character might eventually be killed off (though rarely after gaining a certain upper-levelness) but things just went on and on. I guess I was too much of a history-based gamer. So, years later, I concocted this idea of a Dungeon. I found 4 other D&D players who were interested. Each players tribe lived on an island having a causeway to the dungeon complex with no outside interaction with any other player/side. The dungeon was finite: geometrically 4-sided with a middle entrance level and one level above and below the middle. I stocked the dungeon with all the requisite treasures; once found and removed – no replacement. Monsters/traps were easier in the middle level and more diificult above/below.  As all 4 players and I were in the same room during the game session, I devised some fog-of-war.  Each player could enter the dungeon with 9 men (randomized characteristics but possible to improve).  Each player thought that their entrance into the dungeon was to their North.  In addition, I numbered each room with a color-number that was meaningless to them as to level etc.  Each player did a few moves, exploring, fighting, discovering then passing to the next player.  This was all being done game-time simultaneously so there was the chance that the parties within the dungeon might meet (and fight) each other was.  If one party got to a room previously sacked, they would see the results of the previous visit.  Since ‘North’ was different for each player, orientation of other players experiences was very difficult unless they could recognize the area of the dungeon being described.

A very enjoyable experience – everyone quite enjoyed it.

This evolution of play sounds like it’s coming from the sense of D&D as a “squadron-based war game, with a couple doses of light humor and the occasional funny accent” that James took away from Michael Mornard’s game. What’s interesting is that Nat’s memories suggest that, around the same time that Mike Metcalf was making D&D into a squad competition he found more compelling, his sister’s game was been moving in the direction of “the wacky imaginative, pretend to be a Cleric bullshitting drunk people to convert to your faith, stuff” that James thinks “wasn’t a strong part of the earliest playstyle; it seems to have been an opportunistic growth, like a lichen growing on a rock or something.” (Quoted from here.)

Got other questions for Champaign-Urbana’s second-ever DM? Let me know and I’ll pass them on!


4 Responses to “Q&A with the 2nd Dungeon Master in Champaign-Urbana, 1974”

  1. January 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    I sent Mike the link to this post and he replies:

    “Wow! Quite a site! Thanks for that. I played with Rusty Rutherford, though not in D&D – he also had a world in another fantasy game – can’t remember the name but it had violent ducks and a land called Prax. I had a character named Starth Forlinde in that game (Rusty appreciated the double name). Never played on PLATO. Just to be fair, Tony Svajlenka made the first C-U dungeon, Bruce Gletty the third and we commonly played with Erik Wilson (designer of ‘Barbarian, Kingdom & Empire’).”

  2. January 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    I’ve got more of an archaeology question. See, when I learned D&D, I was living in Rantoul, which is close to Champaign-Urbana. I learned from a friend who had mimeographed sheets from one of those typewritten houseruled versions of D&D, and I’ve been trying to remember as much as I could about that particular set of house-rules and figure out where it came from… and since Mike Metcalf is from the same area and roughly same time period (probably a year or two before me,) it’s quite possible the version I learned to play came from the same source. So: do you remember any details about your house rules? Was there a Piety score and a Magical Conductivity (spell points) score, and did you roll to see how much Magical Conductivity you lost when you cast a spell? Were there rules for a Leech class? (We didn’t use these, but I remember seeing them, and now I wish I’d copied them down…) Where did you get your particular version of the rules?

  3. January 21, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    Mike says:

    “Interesting!. My recollection of the rules set was just a copy of them brought to us by Tony Svajlenka from Gencon. In them there were no piety or conductivity scores though spell points existed. There were only 4 main character classes – Warriors, Clerics, Magicians and Thieves (though the latter came from another rule addition – Greyhawk I think). Definitely no leeches (“out, out, damn leech” – that famous Shakespearian quote!). Six characteristics: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Constitution and something else – ah, Dexterity. Hope that helps!”

  4. June 17, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    Interesting read for me as I lived there when all this was going on and later became a PLATO gamer.

    There is a great deal of assumption about D&D history. One thing worth noting, is that Gary Gygax had Rob kuntz try to reproduce what they had seen the night before when Arneson demonstrated Blackmoor to them. Their attempt was a complete failure. There are sources indicating that Gygex then traveled to the Twin Cities and gamed with the Blackmoor Bunch in order to learn how it was played first hand.

    Michael Mornard, although in the Twin Cities in 1973, Blackmoor began in 70-71, was never a core Blackmoor player, perhaps he played in it a few times, but he was not a main character; instead he was in Phil Barker’s group which is equally as significant. More indicative of this, is that his name does not appear on player phone lists I have that belonged to Dave Arneson.


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Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2012

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