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.


9 Responses to “Dungeon! and the Invention of the Dungeon”

  1. 1 Travis Miller
    May 4, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    More and more I keep thinking every edition of D&D published should have read “Created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in collaboration with…(a big list of people they played games with)”

  2. May 4, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    The one time I interacted with Arneson in person was at a Gen Con panel called “My Amazing Gaming Group.” Among the others who were part of this circle were novelist Mike Stackpole and, I thought, a wargame designer who was credited for inspiring The Hunt for Red October, although I can’t now confirm that.

  3. May 4, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Dang, you really do learn something interesting every day!

  4. 4 D. H. Boggs
    May 5, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Great piece Tavis! I didn’t know about the fog of war mapping, but of course it makes sense that armies wouldn’t always have detailed maps of thier location and be forced to map as they go along. Maybe that background is why Arneson insisted on player maps so much.

  5. 5 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    May 5, 2012 at 3:13 am

    I played DUNGEON! on that board in Gary’s dining room!

    Also, the “wargame designer who was credited for inspiring The Hunt for Red October” was quite possibly Larry Bond… another old gaming buddy of mine!

  6. May 5, 2012 at 3:28 am

    When it looks like I’m not paying attention in Ramsburgh Dungeon, Mike, it’s because I am absorbing an invisible radiance from you second-hand!

    Yes, Larry Bond it was – I was confusing “Hunt for Red October,” which Bond didn’t co-author, with “Red Storm Rising,” which he did.

    Daniel, the scenario Arneson described was that as one of the players came over for the Napoleonics game, instead of going to set up his armies on what I now now was the ping-pong table, he diverted this guy to the kitchen and started sketching. “Commander, you missed your rendezvous point and failed to hook up with the allied armies. Judging from the sound of cannons over here, you guess that they have already engaged the enemy. Here’s the crossroads where you were supposed to meet, over here is a river. Think it over, I’ll come back when it’s your turn and you can show me where on the map you’re going to go.”

  7. 7 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    May 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    I remember Dave running games like that. Dave would ALSO recruit people to fill things out.

    For instance: Dave was running a Napoleonic campaign. One of his players sent some troops to a town in Spain. The player didn’t know what was there.

    I had expressed some curiosity about Napoleonics… so Dave said he’d set up a battle. So I wound up playing the commander of some Spanish untrained militia who were supposed to “hold the town” against experienced French troops!!

    I don’t remember the outcome, but I don’t think we got slaughtered. Dave said my indecision and inexperience made me a perfect simulation of the local banker’s son who got appointed captain of the militia because the senoritas like the uniform, and then found out people were going to be shooting at him…

  8. 8 D. H. Boggs
    May 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    LOL Mike!

    Tavis – did you know you show up in a whole bunch of Paul Stormbergs photos? http://www.thecollectorstrove.com/gc-iv-dungeon/

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Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2012

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