Posts Tagged ‘Dungeon!

07
May
12

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

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04
May
12

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.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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