[Games Anatomy] Going Underground

Volume III of the Original Dungeons and Dragons set, ‘Underworld and Wilderness Adventures’ by name, is what would eventually metamorphose into the Dungeon Master’s Guide in later iterations of Gygax and Arneson’s masterwork. People like to talk up (or down) these ‘how to run a good RPG’ books, claiming that they either contain everything you need to know or are a waste of trees as you can’t learn it. Nevertheless, when Messrs. G. and A. first sat down to promulgate the practice of pretending to be elves in your mate Dave’s dining room, they had to do the tricky job of introducing the core principles of this strange fusion between tabletop wargame, improv theatre and literary homage. The result is a volume that’s pitched midway between ‘rules for populating dungeons’ and ‘advice on how to be a good Referee’, which is probably for the best, because some people need help with both of those…

Comic by Shamus Young, used utterly without permission.
You may like to compensate him for this by reading any of his works.

Rather ominously, the first piece of advice is “Before it is possible to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons, it is necessary for the referee to sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper. Unquestionably this will require a great deal of time and effort and imagination.” I have to wonder how many subsequent innovations in roleplaying have been both efforts to get out of the assumed and inherent dungeon, and to avoid all that effort on the part of the Referee. Vast swathes of the D&D industry and blogosphere are dedicated to that latter bit; random tables, quick-and-easy maps, and damn near every module/adventure/campaign supplement, all coming into being in part because time, effort and imagination sound suspiciously like things that not everyone has.

It’s expected that the dungeons in question be non-linear, with sublevels and alternate ways up and down; it’s expected that players construct their own map as they go along; it’s expected that the dungeon descend to at least twelve main levels and have space for further ones to be constructed; it is in short expected that one dungeon keep a group occupied more or less indefinitely by being so vast and dynamic ‘that players will never grow tired of it’. The sample level presented to us is a bit mental – there’s an ogre, a basilisk, slanting passages which steer the players off course and near-inevitably toward said basilisk, a two-way teleport to anywhere, a one-way teleport in a corridor that you don’t notice unless loads of people are heading down it, shifting walls, trick secret doors that open in different places… it’s less a playable level, and more demonstration of the kind of wacky shit Gygax and Arneson want you to pull, a staking out of territory and an announcement that what this is not is an excuse to walk down endless identical corridors fighting endless palette-swapped monsters.

If I’m honest, I still think of this when someone says ‘dungeon crawl’ –
though Gary and Dave do suggest that things get nastier the further down you go.

More or less every page of this third volume has some piece of good advice on it. One of my favourites, chiming in on something we discussed before, is this little gem:

The fear of “death”, its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance of survival (remembering that the monster population already threatens this survival). For example, there is no question that a player’s character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep… and this is quite undesirable in most cases.

The crucial thing here is that all the provided suggestions for tricks and traps are intended to inconvenience and befuddle the players, not to insta-gib characters. The idea seems to be to induce players, though cluelessness or carelessness, to make choices that bring their characters to destruction.

There are a few new systems introduced for the benefit of players, however; detection of secrets based off the roll of a d6 (with elves having a supernal, inexplicable sense for secret doors – you’d have thought it would be dwarves, but no – and humans being a whole 50% worse at listening for things than anything else). Light is introduced as very important; the players have to worry about how their characters are seeing and being seen, while monsters are assumed to have infravision but no idea that anything’s coming unless the players give them that idea.

Likewise, we have the concept of turn economy, extrapolated from Chainmail’s movement rates. Essentially, two Chainmail moves (converted from inches, on the Chainmail tabletop, to tens of feet along a dungeon corridor, also equalling ten minutes of ‘game time’) can be made in one turn, and a map be made by the players; if they want to move faster, they can double their movement at the cost of the mapping. One turn every hour – every sixth turn – must be spent resting, and two turns spent resting after fleeing or pursuing.

Combat, meanwhile, runs at ten rounds per turn, which makes me wonder if it’s meant to occupy the same structure (in which case a combat round, and all the rolling that occupies it, is meant to simulate a full minute of actually scrobbling each other) or whether it’s meant to shift into a higher gear altogether (with one combat turn occupying a minute or so of time, and hence one tenth of a movement turn).

The fact that this material occurs here is quite interesting, as it creates a cross-book overlap between what players and referee need to know; there isn’t that sense that some knowledge is the proviso of the referee and the referee alone, and what is a matter for the referee’s judgement is clearly stated as such rather than being rooted in Special Secret Rules You’re Not Supposed To Read.

Noe, Davide, thou shalt not be granted access to ye Fiend Folio this daye!

The idea that the referee is somehow privileged and apart
from the players doesn’t really appear here – just the idea that whoever
has the most time, effort and imagination to spare should probably do
the building of the dungeons. We haven’t yet arrived at the Us vs. Them
breakdown implied by the Player’s Handbook (stuff everyone needs to
know), the Dungeon Master’s Guide (stuff you don’t need but I do,
no you can’t know what’s in there), and the Monster Manual (a
contentious tome, which either enables players to make intelligent
preparations based on what their characters know about the world, or encourages players to be metagaming little gobshites who don’t appreciate the value of a good surprise).

There appear the long-awaited Wandering Monster tables: another matrix, in which the level of dungeon beneath surface is cross-referenced with the roll of a d6 to find out which table to roll a die of some sort on to actually generate your wandering monster (the tables themselves are frustratingly arbitrary in their construction, likely to throw up something completely out of kilter with the monsters you yourself put in the dungeon), and then you go back to the previous volume to find out how many show up and what they’re carrying or guarding… and you have a one in six chance of needing to do this every turn.

This is the first thing about the Original Game that I haven’t liked; it’s cruft and busywork and it involves rolling and referencing as an obligatory prerequisite and obstacle to play (though even now, a treacherous little voice informs me that that is a component of play in the game as some would choose to play it). To me, though, it’s quite telling that even the example of play (very dry, with descriptions facilitating mapping rather than atmosphere) doesn’t bother with including a random encounter roll at the end of every turn or folding the consequences of that into the play at hand.

At least the aquatic stuff’s suggested for substitution into tables where appropriate. That’s a start.

So much for dungeons. Despite the name of the game and the insistence of the first paragraph, though, there’s a little more to it than that. The last (the very last) post on the Original Dungeons and Dragons will hit up the second half of the volume, and take us on a spin through the Wilderness.

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