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


5 Responses to “Dungeon! and the Invention of Old-School Play”

  1. May 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    In First Fantasy Campaign Arneson refers to a “protection points” system for stocking a dungeon with monsters of the right level. This may have been a system for doing the kind of balancing Megarry designed into Dungeon! We might presume that, since the FFC rules allow players to purchase armies using a number of points that might have something to do with the economy of their domain, the dungeon stocking might also had something to do with economics. However I have always been completely unable to figure out Arneson’s system for this, so I am going to stand by the idea that Megarry was the first to try to balance monster risk and treasure reward by dungeon level until D.H. Boggs convinces me otherwise. In any case we can safely claim that this key gameplay element was around in the proto-D&D Blackmoor group and would have been part of what Arneson and Megarry brought to Gygax.

  2. 2 joebloch
    May 7, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    There’s an interesting aside in one of the letters Gary Gygax wrote to the ‘zine Alarums and Excursions back in 1975:

    “We also have a wonderful “parlor” version of DandD dungeon adventures coming up fairly soon — great for when there are only non-addicts to play games with, for the family, or when there is only an hour or two for play. The game is well done, and its components are top-quality, and we expect it to be popular for many reasons — not the least of which is it will help DandD enthusiasts demonstrate to the uninitiated why they love fantasy games.”

    That can be a reference to none other than Dungeon! and it’s fascinating to note that it was intended (at least on some level) to introduce non-gamers to the tropes of D&D as it existed at the time, as a sort of “D&D Lite”.

  3. May 7, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Hush, you’re stepping on two posts from now. Please also refrain from linking to the ad from the first issue of Asimov’s SF Magazine in which TSR conflates Dungeon! and D&D.

  4. 4 Dan Boggs
    May 4, 2013 at 1:13 am

    Great post Tavis, Only just found it. Actually, I won’t argue your point regarding Megarry possibly being first to tie deeper levels to greater risk/rewards. The protection point system in the FFC isn’t hard to figure out, I think. the problem is that what points a given creature was worth is less than clear for all but a few of the monsters. But, more to your point, and despite what Arneson says about more points per room as you go deeper in the dungeon, it’s clear when you look at the numbers for any given room in the FFC dungeons that the points were simply rolled for randomly, seemingly without any regard for what level the room was actually on. The lake gloomy scenario shows this most clearly, where all the magic protection points fall in random ranges. One stocking note simply has protection points 30 – 180 (obviously 3d6 * 10) followed by a random monster table. Couple this with the knowledge that the Orc levels were quite deep in Blackmoor dungeon, and there’s a good case that Dave’s original stocking method wasn’t quite as concerned with depth.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2012

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