Sometimes we get interesting emails from the O.G.'s, as we like to call them; the people in either Minnesota, or Wisconsin, who took part in creating these games, either by actually designing them, or by play testing them.
Recently, Bob Meyer wrote us a quick note about a game he got to play in:
"[…]Just wanted to let you know that I made it to a game that Jeff ran at The Source in June…
(He's talking about Jeff Berry a.k.a. Chirine Ba Kal an original member of Phil Barker's gaming group)
[…] This is actually the first time that I have seen Jeff run a game.
It was interesting to see Jeff running the game the same way I have been running Blackmoor.
Of course Jeff was running an EPT adventure. (Empire of the Petal Throne by M.A.R. Barker: TSR game company,1975)
It should not be a surprise to me that our styles as a gamemaster are the same, considering that we both go back to the origins of the games."
Here we have one of the original Blackmoor players making an observation about an original Tekumel, or Empire of the Petal Throne player. Bob didn't go into any more detail on how Chirine was running his game in the same way. We'll have to email back some questions.
Perhaps what is most interesting is that the two -Keepers of the Flame- for both games, were in the same room. Bob is the current Blackmoor referee, and Chirine is doing the same for Tekumel by being the oldest active referee from Barker's group. One was running a game and the other was noting how they played the game in the same way despite any difference in the rules.
And just to add some more commentary, when we sat in on the most recent Blackmoor game, David Megarry's praise for Bob's ref'ing was bountiful. He said things like, we played it exactly as we did when we first began.
It's a tribute to Dave Arneson that his Adventure Game play method continues to be passed down to new gamers when these original players run a dungeon game.
The other day we posted an image of Fred Funk's D&D books.
We also talked a lot about how you can help The Movie Project RIGHT NOW by Sharing Links and talking to friends about it Online.
The response was huge with over 100 likes and what's more critical, over 40 SHARES!
Now lets talk a little bit about the Illustrious and Iconic Fred Funk.
In Blackmoor, he was known as Funk the 1st, King of all the Orcs!
(see the image taken from the First Fantasy Campaign: Dave Arneson, Judges Guild, 1977)
Very little is known about what he did then because he was an evil character who would spend most of his time phoning Dave in order to explore the dungeon all day long. He was also giving instructions to Dave about how he was setting up the defenses for his part of the dungeon as he established his own realm deep underground on the 10th level.
He had lots of time to do so as he was a security guard with a phone on his desk!
We're told that he was calling up Dave so often, and was so obsessed with playing Blackmoor, that Dave's parent's friends couldn't get a call through to the house; the line was always busy! This led the Arnesons to put their foot down and demand that the telephone Blackmoor sessions had to end.
Fred also created his own game world with it's own rules variants. Known as Fred's World, his most loyal friends and fans assembled his notes and published the game online after he passed away.
You can Download it here:
Perhaps what is most notable about original RPG'ers like Fred Funk, is their creativity in how they played. Since no one had ever created a fantasy campaign before this, each player was free to explore their own personal style and did whatever they felt like doing. There were no rule books and Arneson actually encouraged players to think creatively with very few limits.
You can see this free-style play when you look at what Fred did in Blackmoor, since he made his own dungeon within Arneson's dungeon; and also in how he developed his own campaign. Everything he did both as a player and DM, has a uniqueness to it that is all Fred.
Fred left a big impression on Blackmoor due to this completely open format campaign style, that was being played in the twin cities. Even today, anyone entering the dungeon below Blackmoor Castle is advised to avoid setting foot on Fred's endless staircase, known as The Orcian way.
It's been fun teasing everyone with photos of an old D&D set on our FaceBook page. We'll make sure to reveal the original owner's name soon.
These little boxes take us back to the very beginnings of TSR when two men got together to form something called G&K enterprises.
When Dungeons & Dragons was eventually published, Gary Gygax and Don Kaye were the proprietors of their tiny game company that hardly anyone had ever heard of. Of course, as we now know, things quickly began to change and the crazy idea would become a global sensation. Tragically, Don never got to see the full result of his contribution to D&D.
Few people know who Don Kaye was. Yet he was the main source of funding for this crazy new game. In fact, all the early copies of D&D were being assembled and shipped out of Don's garage. Not long after the release of D&D Don Kaye died of a heart attack.
Rob Kuntz told us how he heard of Don's passing over the phone from Ernie Gygax. That he just could not believe it at first.
Don had been there from the very beginning as a partner with Gary in this crazy new endeavor. Yet the loss of Don Kaye likely reached much farther into Gygax's life, as he and Don were best friends since childhood and attended high school together.
The legacy of D&D is a shared experience by many people and all of them did their part in helping to make it happen. Don's legacy is that these little unassuming boxes began to appear in gaming rooms everywhere.
Very few photos exist of Don Kaye, we have none in our archive, yet his impact on gamer's lives everywhere is immeasurable.
Thank you Don.
(Photo by Ryan Swan - Copyright the Fellowship of the Thing, LTD.)
Since the very first day David Megarry revealed the lost dungeon of Tonisborg it has become a treasure trove of information.
(Images: Ross Maker, David Megarry, David Wesely, examining Tonisborg dungeon.)
Tonisborg dungeon has led us to think a lot about how difficult OD&D was designed to be. In addition to the rules themselves, the early referee's were much more willing to let players do stupid things which would lead to their untimely deaths.
We've been a having fun calling Dave Arneson and Greg Svenson --KILLER DM's. Of course, we should clarify that what we mean by this is that they aren't necessarily out to kill players; the attitude between 1971 and 1974, is that players should have to work to succeed. And that not every encounter is meant to be won.
If you ignore all the role played situations in a dungeon game, and only focus on the mechanics, certain parameters become common to all dungeons:
1. how you design your dungeon tunnels and rooms.
2. what kinds of creatures and traps you put in these rooms and tunnels.
Think of where it is, and what it is, in your own dungeon, because this will show you how things were different later in this discussion.
If you've managed to keep records, it would interesting to see what kind of mortality rate you have in your own games.
Ok, lets get back to KILLER DM's, a lot of people are over reacting to the term. We'll explain a bit more what we mean by this. From what we can see, Dave Arneson made his game harder on his players in order to make the rewards of surviving his dungeon that much more of a victory.
So lets look at some quantifiable evidence that shows this to be true of the original players. For this we do have solid evidence: Dungeons, and Character Sheets.
First off, we have David Megarry's collection of character attributes. The sheet contains the info on 20 characters. David says that some of these characters may only have lasted one session. The first 12 are likely from the first few years of Blackmoor. We think that the 13th has a notation that she died in Tonisborg. This is likely Megarry's Scholaress charatcer and is from both Arneson and Svenson games and just happened to get killed in Tonisborg, since Blackmoor became a shared world.
Ok, so over the first 2 years or so, Megarry suffers the loss of 13 deaths. Lets just assume Arneson had roughly 15 -20 players in his game during the first few years. Can we assume then, that his players were running about 10 characters during this time? We're looking at an estimate of around 150 - 200 (+/-) characters over 2 years. Certainly, there are those iconic characters who just lived through everything, yet if everyone is averaging 10 characters per year, we're getting a high rate of deaths by comparison with contemporary games. This number is really high at around 80%; if we assume that some live past this 2 year stretch.
In your own games are you getting this number of character deaths, or roughly 6.5 per player per year?
Lots of things will likely factor into this high rate of deaths.
Arneson's players had never played fantasy, or dungeon, RPG's before this, so their expectation of the game would be different from how players think today.
Arneson didn't have the expanded character levels in his game that appear later. It's also likely that players who were used to winning and losing in war games all the time, were not as likely to get attached to characters back then. A miniatures war gamer has a keen understanding that in order to gain ground in a battle, you have to give up blood; the trick is to make the enemy take higher losses than you. Of course in an RPG, if you lose, it's game over.
You can break down how the characters died on the Megarry sheet as well. Sure, most of them get killed by monsters, but there is even one guy who got lost and starved to death!
We need to check back with David as to what period this sheet covers. If it is from 1971 until 1975, then we're seeing a stronger case for a 80% mortality rate annually. How does your own game compare?
People might say that their players wouldn't play if they died a lot, well maybe today's players are like that. Despite all the mayhem that is being meted out to the players, the original group just kept going back for more -- People were having fun dying!
Some of the responses we've seen to our articles is that in order to have a story, you have to have less characters dying. Arneson invented the RPG extended story concept. He had a lot of story in his world. The Egg of Coot was a constant threat. He was also creating a variety of adventures for the players to go on, it wasn't just going to the dungeon to see what you'd find. Arneson's first dungeon adventures are about being hired to go on a mission into the dungeon to find something. All of that is story, yet Arneson was willing to lose some characters along the way. There is tons of evidence that he was willing to TPK a party if they really screwed up too.
As a Referee, are you willing to make your game a Monty Haul, just because you want to see your story play out, or do you need to be more clever, so that if characters die the story keeps moving forward? i.e. The party gets TPK'ed and the ancient scroll with the riddle and map on it is lost. Or is it? Perhaps the second party to go on an adventure will find this very same scroll and be able to fulfill the quest! Or, now it is in the hands of the Evil Wizard in the dungeon, and is willing to trade it for something of great value.
A true "Sandbox" game is full of stories and even a scroll can have its own story arc for how it got from one place to another.
What about Tonisborg? What has made this dungeon so compelling for us?
Dan Boggs has written quite a but about it. The main thing he discovered after doing a bit of number crunching, is that it is populated according to the instructions given in OD&D , or "The Little Brown Books".
The other thing we all noted is that Tonisborg is drawn much like Blackmoor is drawn. It's made up of a lot of interconnected passages and the rooms come off of these tunnels. This allows players to roam around without having to enter into rooms at all. This extent of the passages vs rooms is very much a Twin Cities style of map. We're not saying this is better or worse, it's just different, yet you may want to consider this when designing your own maps because it looks like a real catacomb, and also serves a purpose.
There are some parts of the dungeon with unique properties, such as the "Special Evil Areas", we'll leave off on discussing that for now but they are intriguing, since the note on the map says that a player has a 1 in 6 chance of being taken away.
Lastly, Greg's maps actually show you which way a door swings!
How deadly is it?
It is perhaps the first dungeon using a D&D draft, or the published rules. So while it is in Blackmoor, it is also not using the same rules that cuased David Megarry to die so often during the first two years. Yet Greg is still a KILLLER DM!
Both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax collaborated on the original game design. And they were likely in agreement on many aspects of D&D that relate to play balance.
OD&D had some elements in the design that were put there to help players. For instance, no 1st level monster has an armor class of 2. This means a first level party with a couple of Main Battle Tank warriors in plate mail, are generally 50% more likely to hit the most armored monsters, compared to what the monster's odds are when hitting back. So there is a bit of a skew toward the party at this point.
A sword, is a sword, is a sword, by any other name.
If you look at how damage is handled in OD&D, there is still that chance that a 1st level monster will get a hit and either really hurt a player, or even kill her. Consider also, that monsters are not real players, if they get wiped out there's plenty more where they came from. A long session that explores perhaps half a dungeon level is a series of potentially brutal encounters for your players. Even with the benefit of hitting all of them more than they hit you, you're still looking at a bad ratio of hits and damage received over an adventure.
Based on these combat averages we can tell that Tonisborg kills characters!
If you look at what the maps show, you find that the quantity of deadliness just gets more lethal the deeper you go.
As Dan Boggs has pointed out, Tonisborg is populated via a random monster distribution that comes right from the rules. Greg told us he created the dungeon randomly, we need to ask him if he meant the monsters, or the map -- or BOTH!
Lets look at what type of monsters one can find. We're providing the charts straight from OD&D. The first chart is used in order to determine what difficulty level the monsters are. If you look at levels 1-4, you 'll see that it's possible to end up encountering some truly nasty stuff while adventuring. What makes it even worse, is that these charts are also the wandering monster charts!
On every level of Tonisborg there are creatures of up to three levels of greater Dead-lification (this is a real word BTW) that can likely destroy , or severely diminish, a party of any size. On level 1 you get a 1 in 3 chance of encountering something from the either 3rd level with a 5, or 4th level if you roll a 6. All of these monsters are already looking really nasty.
What seems most terrifying are the undead on these levels. Both Wights and Wraiths are level drainers, meaning that if they hit you there is also a chance you will lose 1 life energy level; as a bonus to Player Happi-fication (yet another real word) 1st level characters only have 1 life energy level! If you fail your saving throw -- game over. These monsters are deadly!
And of course, Wraiths and Wights can only be hit by magical weapons -- ever get the feeling the DM is cheating?
Look at the first level map section, there are two adjacent rooms, the one with the (2) Wraiths, and across the hall, one with some Evil Priests. You can be sure these monsters are working together thus making this area a really bad hair day for any hapless 1st level parties to discover. Sure you can knock on door 1, or door 2. Yet, it's likely both doors will open at the same time. But hey, if you do manage to kill them, they probably have their treasure stashed in the secret hallway right behind their room.
By level 7, there are more examples of happi-fication and joy. Look at the key section and map sections we've provided. There is that open hallway area that contains the most fearsome monsters of all dungeon creatures. People can argue which one is worse, but at this point since they are located within 30 feet of each other, the Purple Worm in area #14 and the White Dragon in area #15 are about to cause a lot of trouble for the average party of adventurers.
Which one do you disturb first, and will the second come to investigate? What about those Evil Priests in room #13? Anyone who wants to get attacked from behind by a White Dragon while fighting a Purple Worm and some Evil High Priests, please raise your hand now.
Ok, so the map is different and the monsters can be meaner, this has to change how you play the game. How the heck do these guys play this game if it's just killing them outright?
Does this mean every encounter kills the entire party -- no. What it does reveal, is that the Original Gamers are sneaking around and trying to be quiet. They are using the architecture of the dungeon as an aid to their mission, because they can wander the tunnels and avoid really dangerous rooms while entering others.
Bob Meyer told us that The Great Svenni got to high levels because he knew when to fight and when to run.
Sure, you need to kill monsters to gain experience, but the real skill lays in knowing what ones you can handle and what ones to avoid.
It's worth considering that doubling your party size is going to keep from losing everyone. Hirelings were an essential component in many Blackmoor adventures; so that a party could be just a bit more beefy. Maybe your group of 4 players can hire 4 warriors to man the front line in battles. Of course, if a player gets killed, another Blackmoor tradition is for that player to take over as one of the NPC hirelings.
And those seemingly useless items like spikes and oil flasks. Those were good for keeping monsters from chasing you, because you could spike a door shut, or set the floor afire for a few rounds. The same goes for the spells that many players avoid choosing. Sure, we all want to be able to cast Fire Balls, but Hold Monster, or Hold Portal sure come in handy when you find something really nasty and need to run away. Even a Web spell is good for slowing down the front ranks of the band of 50 orcs that are chasing you out of the dungeon.
We also have heard several accounts of personal sacrifice by players. A party would stumble on a really bad situation and the fighters would hold off the enemy long enough, so that the rest of the party could flee. In some cases these brave warriors gave up their lives for their comrades -- This is truly heroic adventuring!
If you use your noggin, you'll know that the architecture of the dungeon can help you as well. There are more stairwells in Greg's dungeon than any other dungeon we've seen; with the exception of the published version of Blackmoor dungeon. If you can retreat to an upper level via one of these tiny stair wells, then you suddenly have the advantage as the monsters can only come at you single file!
Perhaps the best defense in Greg's dungeon is to remember to bring along a box of marbles that you can roll down a stair well, thus toppling even a mighty Balrog that is chasing you! (we're thinking Dave Arneson is getting a good giggle from the mental image of a Balrog falling on his butt, because it fits right in with his gonzo sense of humor.)
How lethal is your game? Are you willing to become a KILLER DM yourself?
If you still do not believe that this style of play is fun, you can try it out for yourself and see what happens. While you don't want to kill off all the established characters in your campaign, you could run a game with a test dungeon. What if you draw up a map that is full of long tunnels and many staircases between the levels just like Tonisborg has. You can even give your players 2nd level characters to start with, along with a couple of NPC hirelings so that the party can takes losses and continue on their quest. Of course while most monsters will be an even match for the players, you can also sprinkle a couple really tough ones into the mix. Add in some deadly trap doors and other obstacles throughout the dungeon too, since even a barren passage can lead to death.
What's more, don't tell your players that the odds have changed. Let them discover that characters die easily in this new dungeon. It may be interesting to see how they react to suddenly being confronted with a dungeon where the stakes are higher and the feeling of impending doom is a palpable fear.
You may have to drop hints like "You can always run away!"
Next week we won't be posting anything since we will be on the road. We've been invited to take part in the annual Blackmoor game in the Twin Cities -- we're "dying" to join in on the fun.
If you aren't already already aware of it, despite all of our posts about it, this tuesday, May 22nd, is a special day. Even if you aren't gaming, take a moment to contemplate that fantasy gaming took a very big step on this day back in 1971 in Dave Arneson's parent's basement.
A week from today something special is going to happen.
Although Blackmoor comes into existence before may 22nd 1971, most players refer to the in town adventure on this date as the beginning of what has come to be known as Blackmoor. Arneson himself always used that date as the demarcation of when Blackmoor started
Of course before this, there was the druid with the hand phaser, and the card game under a troll bridge. It is even possible that Duane Jenkins became a vampire before this session.
Dave Arneson passed away in 2009, yet his friends keep his memory alive by running an annual Blackmoor game for those who were in the original campaign. We wanted to help the guys celebrate the longest running fantasy campaign ever, by making a little video.
We've been on a tear over our KILLER DM discussion, ironically both James and Greg claim that people didn't die much in Blackmoor. Perhaps they have this perspective because both of them had characters that rose to the highest levels, certainly others did not fair so well.
This year marks the 47th year since the First Fantasy Campaign began. You too can join in and run a game in honor of Dave's memory.
Blackmoor is alive!
Dave Arneson lives in our hearts.
In our last discussion we talked about the change in how people view Character Death as you trace a parallel path between the evolution of D&D and computer games.
Today we're going to look at old gamer culture and see if they had a different way of thinking about things back then.
Ok, so let's just start off by telling you this -- It's your job as a referee to kill a lot of characters!
We'll go with Gary Gygax's assertion that a 50% mortality rate on every adventure is too high. Yet there must be attrition or the stakes are too low. How about if we get an average of 25%? That seems reasonable. So what was the attitude toward killing off characters back then?
We're pretty sure the first DM's made their games really hard on players. It wasn't enough just to be average, or good enough. Players had to be really creative in order to "WIN"; and by winning, we mean that they were able to overcome a monster thus getting its treasure.
The first Dungeon's are Blackmoor (1971), Greyhawk (1973), and as far as we can tell, Tonisborg is right in there as well (1973/1974). Blackmoor and Greyhawk predate the publication of any rules, so as play-test games they are going to be a bit different. Tonisborg arose, or rather -- got dug, when D&D drafts were given to the players in the Twin Cities in the summer of 1973. It then goes on to be altered again when the rules are published. Greg Svenson told us he threw away his play-test draft once he got the published rules.
It's important to get a feel for how people think during this early stage in RPG's. As DM's today, we know all about how a dungeon should be made. We live within a culture of modern gaming where game play and dungeon design are common shared knowledge. It wasn't like this back then at all. Consider that what is contained in the rules for OD&D is sketchy at best, and that until Dave Arneson publishes the first Adventure Module: The Temple of the Frog via the Blackmoor OD&D Supplement II -- there are no good examples of dungeons for people to copy. Everyone is on their own as they try to figure out the best way to make their dungeon.
You may also want to consider that gaming culture changes dramatically from the early days. We've interviewed a lot of early RPG'ers who started before 1974 and they describe things a lot differently; the DM's had no qualms about exterminating characters.
In our interview with David Wesely about his first trip to Blackmoor, he relates the game in great detail. We are even able to corroborate this story with Ross Maker's account of the same adventure. They go into the dungeon with a troop of dwarf hirelings in search of a princess who had been kidnapped by a Balrog. At some point one of the dwarves at the back of the party gets separated and disappears. The rest of the party eventually finds the Balrog, or he finds them; it's always a matter of perspective. It's at this point that things get dicey and the Balrog proceeds to decimate the party, beginning with the dwarves. The Balrog then turns his attention to the Players. Just as Wesely and Maker are about to receive the killing blow from the Balrog, the lost dwarf reappears, comes up behind the Balrog, and clobbers him with one mighty blow. Our hapless adventurers both shout, Hooray, were saved!
End of story. Well, not really.
Wesely says that although he had fun, he also gave Dave Arneson a hard time about the adventure, because he felt that Dave was being too easy on the players; that the rescue of the players by the lost dwarf is making the Deus Ex Machina too obvious. Wesely's advice to Arneson is that he needs to allow his players to get killed in order to make the stakes higher and the game worth playing. Arneson takes this advice to heart, from that point on Dave Arneson becomes a KILLER DM.
We know this because Arneson was known for running games at conventions where he would wipe out entire parties without blinking eye. When asked about this high mortality rate, Arneson would mimic killing players characters by smashing his thumb into the table and grinding it back and forth. This ruthlessness as a DM even comes up when he goes to demonstrate Blackmoor to the Lake Geneva Gamers in 1972. In that adventure Terry Kuntz earned a singular honor. While down in the dungeon, their small party of players: Gary Gygax, Ernie Gygax, Rob Kuntz, Terry Kuntz, and David Megarry, ran into a wizard. Everyone else decided to run away. Terry figured he could take him on and drew his sword. Well, things didn't last long. The wizard drew his wand and blasted him with a fireball, frying him instantly. As the first character to die in Lake Geneva, Terry can now claim to be Arneson's first kill outside of Minnesota.
The KILLER DM attitude is pervasive in the Twin Cities. We asked Dave Belfry about his adventures in Blackmoor fully expecting to find out about an epic high level character with years of history and the countles stories that go with that. Yet his response surprised us entirely, since he said something along these lines - I never had a character that lasted long. As well as - I died a lot of times.
Martin Noetzel is most famous as the Wandering Elf, he related the same thing -- I died a lot of times.
We can take these examples of early gamer culture even farther if you listen to the type of language the original gamers use.
Rob Kuntz says a very interesting word when he talks about playing with Arneson "I loved playing AGAINST Arneson…"
Chirine Ba Kal uses the same language when he talks about playing. He describes a game as playing AGAINST the DM.
We can hear the proverbial screeching tires as everyone who reads this is confronted by this old concept of playing against who ever is referee'ing your game. If we relate back to our previous article on how Computer/Video Games change, consider how coin operated consoles give you 3 lives. You can play your heart out and maybe you may last a really long time, yet in the end, the machine wins and you die -- GAME OVER!
Of course, some of you are now rolling on the ground while squealing things like "But the DM is supposed to be an impartial judge!" Yeah, whatever, all you N00B gamers need to learn your lesson. When you come to a real dungeon game, recall these words of wisdom that are written on the gates of hell: Abandon all hope - ye who enter here!
That's the difference in a nutshell: the original game is about surviving through hell, and new games seem to be like when the bell goes off, and all the children run out of the school and climb all over the super safe plastic playground equipment. Yup, it's fun, but it isn't a challenge if no one gets hurt.
And of course you may be wondering how all of this can relate to Greg Svenson and his Tonisborg Dungeon. We're showing you a snippet of the dungeon key from level 1. You may notice that room #2 contains five wraiths.
If you are designing a dungeon, do you populate it with easy to kill monsters and do a lot of hand holding, so that your players are less likely to die? Or do you make things difficult and step on your player's egos a bit?
Judging by what we see in Tonisborg's 1st level, Greg too is a KILLER DM.
We feel we are building a really strong case for making dungeon games deadly again. What do you think?
In our next in this series on dangerous dungeons, we'll drag some of Dan Boggs research into the mix and talk about the actual mechanics involved. If you have any doubts, thus far -- trust us, it's only gonna get uglier.
Detail of Tonisborg Dungeon
One of our previous discussions was about keeping players scared:
Now let's justify making them dead!
We often get Dan Boggs on the phone and pore over artifacts together - long distance.
Dan did some extensive blog posts on Greg's Tonisborg dungeon:
We recently had yet another long distance examination of Greg Svenson's Maps. What Dan found most interesting about this underworld is just how much of a killerl it is. We'd noticed this as well and wanted to examine how this is different from contemporary games. As fans of traditional D&D play we tend to view any campaign with lots of high level player characters as too much of an instant gimme campaign, we can't fathom how an entire party was able to reach their god-like levels of experience.
Screen shots taken from dnd @ https://www.cyber1.org
Here is what Gary Gygax had to say on the subject of character levels just over a year after D&D was published:
"It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level."
So how are these players able to get such high levels so quickly and easily? It seems Gary was somewhat confounded by this himself.
He goes on to discuss mortality within dungeon games:
"…if a 33rd level wizard reflects a poorly managed campaign, a continuing mortality rate of 50% per expedition generally reflects over-reaction and likewise a poorly managed campaign. It is unreasonable to place three blue dragons on the first dungeon level, just as unreasonable as it is to allow a 10th level fighter to rampage through the upper levels of a dungeon rousting kobolds and giant rats to gain easy loot and ex- perience. When you tighten up your refereeing be careful not to go too far the other way."
From: D&D is Only as Good as the DM by Gary Gygax
The Strategic Review April '76 V.2 N.2
Plato: Maze War being played (1973)
It's likely more ink has been spilled on this subject than all the orc blood in all the combined dungeons since the invention of D&D. Players may not worry about this issue, but many DM's do. We can recall wandering into our local game store one day in 1979, and overhearing a mother who was there shopping for her son, brag about how he was a 20th level Wizard. Our games had not seen anyone rise higher than 9th level. In fact, our dungeon parties were always an awkward mix of 1st levels, a couple 5-6th levels and the one thief who had gotten to 9th level. It didn't hurt that he had found a ring of invisibility so he could do solo dungeon raids easily on his own, by going around unseen and picking and choosing what to fight and what to bypass.
This is an old problem. Yet the inflation of character levels can also be connected to how computer games have evolved as well.
The following article cropped up in the gamer sphere and it got us thinking lot about game design as it relates to play balance and difficulty of play. While people often consider the impact of D&D on digital gaming, no one seems to be looking at the impact video games have had on D&D; and there are great parallels between the two.
And while we often see people going off at the mouth about how D&D cured everything from mental illness to cancer, in regard to computer games-- sorry, but computer games came first.
when we see D&D experts claim that D&D was what influenced computer games, we just grimace and think -- they aren't digging deep enough. In this blog article by Jon Paul Dyson, you can see many claims that fall into the usual assumptions about D&D and computer games/video games. What is most evident is that this writer has no clue about early computer game history.
The author reveals that he does not have a long memory either, because he begins with the Holmes Blue Book D&D set, which first appears in 1977. We will forgive him for his romantic dalliance with his own personal experience, as some of our own articles can lean a bit on the smarmy reminiscence side of things too. What is more important is that unless you were there, you're likely to have very little background on computer games. You won't be able to see the deeper connotations of how the two games show similar evolutionary paths. And you won't be thinking that perhaps the two are influencing each other in equal portions.
(By now you're wondering what the heck computer games have to do with D&D. Well, we're sort of circling like hawks right now, so just follow with us on this, and we promise we'll make some kind of grand connection later on.)
Plato Terminal and keyboard showing the Orange Glow of the Plasma Display
While we won't go into every detail of the origin of computer games, we can talk about the place where many of these games originate, and that is on the PLATO mainframes in the 70's.
Check this out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maze_War
Ok, so by 1973 there is a maze game on PLATO. If the image we've found is an original, this makes 1st person perspective an early innovation as well. (Wikipedia is a sloppy source, so the image may be out of context a bit.)
Or, we can look at SPASIM (1974). It's a Star Trek simulator complete with wire frame vector graphics. Having played it as 13 year olds decades ago, we can say that it was incredible, even if it took about an hour to find an enemy ship while playing the game. Yet it clearly is not being influenced by D&D at all.
At the same time it's well documented that D&D computer games originate on PLATO in 1974.
That is the first obvious link -- so lets dig some more and see what happens.
We have two types of games: Computer games and Paper D&D. They originate separately, yet eventually there is likely cross talk between the two types of games and members of their communities. This cross talk seems very direct. Lets consider that CDC had its headquarters in, of all places -- Minnesota! We can link the two communities even more via one of the Blackmoor Bunch: Fred Funk.
Fred worked as a security guard at CDC. Over time he was able to acquire his own PLATO terminal, so he could access the system from home. Chirine ba Kal described being at Fred's house back in the 70's/80's and taking turns playing some of the early games.
Though not related to this discussion, this is a fun place to explore Chirine's miniatures and gaming stories.
A Plato mainframe was also located at CERL in Champaign Urbana. Interestingly. many of the big players during the independent game revolution of the '70's and '80's were in central Illinois. You can place Judges Guild Game Company, physically, very near to the epicenter of this computer game boom that is happening at the same time. This can be said for Game Designers Workshop too, as they were in Normal Illinois.
Head to Head Combat in Empire (1974)
Below is a cut paste from the Wikipeida page on the PLATO computer system:
Look closely and you'll find links to the first D&D computer games: Pedit5, and dnd. Wikipedia can be tricky at times. While Pedit gets the attribution of first D&D computer game, it comes up with a 1975 dating, while dnd is dated in 1974. Hmmm...
PLATO was either the first or an earlier example of many now-common technologies.
Panther was a head to head multi player predecessor of Battle Zone
Hopefully some of the links work. We just want to show just how much game design was being done by 1973 and on. It's actually quite staggering.
The thing one finds in both D&D and computer games early on, is that they are both really difficult to learn. Anyone who was playing D&D in the early days will attest to how poorly explained some rules sections can be. We just had a huge throw-down arm wrestling cum WWF battle with Dan Boggs about the length of a combat round in OD&D.
Some of the action has been preserved on VHS tape: www.youtube.com/watch?v=q91znfQqpGw
Dan left with a bloody nose, yet fully confident he was the winner. We left with black eyes, but we know we're right, so whatever DAN!
Just learning the interface on early computer games was hard. Plato's Empire game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMPC1eG5cko) can take a month just to learn the keystrokes. Play balance wasn't very good to players in the early days either; if you played early computer games, you know how lethal they could be. Yet the market dictates what the games should be, and over time we've arrived at the single player story games, where even a young person can survive and learn to play by starting on a low level setting and working through the entire game, map by map. We didn't get level saves back then either.
In fact, computer game history is littered with the wreckage of beautifully coded, accurately researched, and perfectly implemented simulations of all kinds. We still whimper at the loss of our Amiga computers and the Action Stations! naval game. *SIGH* The problem is, they made these games so real that hardly anyone could play them and win, much less survive for very long.
People want to win games. You can trace the level of difficulty for computer games as a factor of consumer buy in. If the game it s too hard, you reduce the number of people who are willing to purchase your product. These days, games are designed to be sort of stupid. Lots of effort goes into making sure everyone is going to love the new whatever; so the game has to be easy. One should also consider how each game rewards a player, or what we call "Crunchy Bits". It's the Crunchy Bits that get people addicted, and you have to make sure just enough Crunchy Bits are doled out to make everyone feel like they are winning!
And of course as Gary pointed out, you can't let them win all the time, but you can't make them lose all the time either.
Don't think game companies aren't looking at how gambling addiction works too; and using this in their games to keep you interested. Did we say interested? We actually meant, as addicted as a lab rat on sugar substitutes. It is very likely that how hard a game is, is actually being coded into newer games based on your own in game performance. They are dosing you with happy feelings based on your own ability and behavior!
This change in how computer games are maintaining interest is likely influencing how Paper RPG's are being designed these days as well. This is where you find the greatest cross talk and parallel between the two industries. Maybe this is where we see the inflation of character levels in campaigns coming from as well.
(This idea of how there is a correlation between how games are becoming inflated is sort of a quandary, because Gary was complaining about it not long after D&D gets invented. We'll just toss these ideas out there and maybe they will generate some discussion. )
Char set for Future War post apocalyptic dungeon game
If we now turn to one of the original D&D computer games ( which we would add is more like a blending between OD&D and Dungeon! ) you find a much different paradigm. Since players in computer games cannot use verbal RPG play to get out of tough situations, PLATO: dnd reveals a truly lethal game simulation. Here is a video recording of two dungeon dives in dnd: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdPrzb534TY) Even if the core mechanics being used for this game are all "under the hood" and unseen by the player, it still reveals deadliness. Our experience with dnd is that the best approach was to find a nearby exit. Once you had found an exit, you would enter the dungeon and travel to your chosen exit while hopefully gaining some experience by killing monsters and finding treasure -- WITHOUT DYING!. This quick jaunt could be repeated many times until you'd leveled up enough that the first level was less likely to kill you.
Even if the game mechanics may be different in PLATO: dnd, it is very likely it was closely modeling OD&D. The difficulty of survival is very high.
OD&D and all of it's early computer adaptations reveal that the mechanics are making for a very deadly game. Even if Gary was stating that a 50% mortality rate is high, the actual game design may lead to even higher mortality for players if the game is played merely as a combat game. And the same can be said for computer dungeon games. Perhaps there is a dialogue between both types of games as they evolve over time, which leads us to the Monty Haul style we see today.
This is an interesting idea, since early computer games were designed with little regard for a consumer market because there was none. One can assume then that the primary objective was merely to produce a simulation. We'll leave you with a current player record list from Crypt. The code was rediscovered not long ago so it has only been getting played for about 2 years in this instance. Thus far only 1 player has won by clearing all 50 levels.
In our next discussion we'll look at Tonisborg more closely and show you how deadly OD&D dungeons originally were.
Just a quick commentary about character sheets
Last night we got this response in another discussion:
Javier García Now that you talk about all this, I was always curious to see how the game was played in the Twin Cities. I've seen several character sheets on your page and they don't anything to do with what later became D&D. I think you use two six-sided dice to beat your score in a determined skill in order to succeed at using it, right? And there were many skills in those sheets, i. e. 'Brains' in the same list as 'Woodcutting'!
This is actually a really interesting question.
First off, all these character sheets everything to do with D&D. Since we came on the scene about 5 years ago, we've found some interesting artifacts that reveal a path of invention. And different researchers are posing different ideas. Michael Wittig has probably spent the most time studying stats exclusively and posted several discussions about it on ODD74.
Here is just one of these debates:
We won't go into the details because the subject is huge.
Here is a rough break down:
-Some people will want to examine the issue via the semantic meaning of the words used for early stats.
-Others will try to corollate it to how the mechanics work.
-Some doubt that the stats are even used as mechanics in the game.
We spoke with Jon Peterson at Gary Con, and he told us that he thought these stats were being derived from the English war game campaign of Hyborea. (sp?) You can find information on that in Jon's book: Playing at the World.
We're inclined to agree with Jon. But we've never actually seen anything from Hyborea; well, just what is published in Jon's book. Without entire sets of documents, we can't begin to state our perspective.
Where we would likely differ with Jon is on the interpretation. Jon is a very hard analyzer, we are looser and use other sources like interviews in order to gain understanding. Different tools render different results -- the differences lead to good science!
Consider that Paleoanthropologists argue endlessly about how to organize all the different skeleton types they find; and whether one hominid is merely a variance of the same kind, or an entirely new species. They call this theoretical split: Lumpers and Splitters. These differences in opinion are common with all RPG game research as well; it's good to know both sides of these things in order to form your own theories.
We feel the application of stats is changing, so even if Arneson is using someone else's concept, he is turning it on its head and will continue to do so in Blackmoor. Arneson does this with just about everything he gets his hands on. The Alternate Combat System is another good example of Arneson appropriating, yet changing, the way it is used.
There is no proof Hyborea was being played as an RPG, whereas the verbal narrative from the Twin Cities players supports theories that nearly everything they do becomes a role playing game. Worth knowing is that Arneson's 1st Napoleonic Mega-campaign begins with a Braunstein game set in Paris. Comments about this campaign appear as early as 1971. yet as you can see in the sample we provide, the campaign is already 14 months old! (COTT 4th volume, what we call 3b, January 1971)
We feel that Arneson's character event reports in Corner of the Table Top support the theory that Arneson is using the SRCS stats to roll for random events such as illness and the births of royal family members.
It is well documented that everything was being done, for the most part, with 2d6 dice. But we also know Arneson had 6 sets of percentile dice in 1971. As a side note, we have very old examples of Blackmoor rules that have percentages in them.
Yet dice can be tricky!
Percentiles now come numbered as 1 through 20 to create true twenty sided dice, or D20's The early dice are numbered 0 through 9 twice. These are best notated as D 0-9/0-9. These were used either as pairs for rolling percentiles, or in conjunction with a d6 to determine a 1-20 range.
At the same time, the Twin Cities players had some hefty mathematicians in their group. They could combine number rolls on 2d6 in order to create percentage odds, and we know that they did do this a lot. The oral history reveals that many of these guys could calculate combat results faster than Wesely's combat computer could, just by doing it in their heads.
Without digging up all the quotes (Maybe someone else feels like finding them), Arneson intended for stats to be part of the mechanics. We now have evidence of this, that we will be revealing later via Daniel Bogg's, Hidden in Shadows blog. He definitely stated that he had tried using skills and stats early on. Well, he goes on to talk about spell points too, but that is for another discussion. These grew into huge lists as can be seen in the Megarry Character Matrix.
Everything from Strength to Horsemanship is in there. And it doesn't seem like the players see these stats and skills as being differentiated. It's just their stack of abilities. So at this point in time, it's important to understand that stats and skills are not two different things.
Seeing how they are all identical, especially on the Megarry sheets, as far as values from 2-12, indicates that Javier's comment about stats being used to test with, seems like a reasonable assumption. It is a quandary that this mechanic is dropped in OD&D. It seems clear that Dave and Gary were diverging in how they were wanting to design OD&D. Arneson even stated that he was not perfectly happy with the final design.
Well, this discussion leaves a lot to be answered. Feel free to ruminate and propose your own ideas on character stats. We're curious to hear your ideas.
We've been hitting the movie edits really hard and making lots of progress, yet severe burn out has crept up on us.
There's only one cure for mental exhaustion and it isn't taking a nap either. We needed to log some serious time doing what we love -- Gaming!
Fortunately our friends, Matt and Nate Cave Evil, had just sent us an invite to help them play test the new expansion set for for their Cave Evil game series. We had watched their game being played by none other than Tim Kask; when he flew him out to interview with us, and there was no way we were going to miss out on a chance to play this new mod ourselves.
Evil Nate came by to give us a ride. We weren't allowed to drive ourselves, since the exact location of their lair is a closely held secret. In fact, the necromantic laboratory that has spawned every version of Cave Evil lies roughly an hour away from us by War Cult Cart, and is at about 8000 feet above sea level. It should be noted, most evil hide-outs are in remote places and preferably nestled below a craggy peak. We were not disappointed. Did we mention that it was overcast and misty as well?
What we were thinking was: "This is going to be an awesome adventure!"
Although we had met these guys before, we hadn't actually gotten to know each other until this evening. The last time we'd seen Matt, we were too busy running a game of Fletcher Pratt's: Naval Warfare, and he was too busy commanding a German cruiser. So while we did get to hang out, our conversation was directly related to: how many salvos, at what target, at what range, with how much of a spread. We're pretty sure it was Matt who completely pasted a British cruiser severely damaging it.
Another little known secret about the mountain lairs of necromancers, is that when you get there, the first thing you do is fire up the grill. We got to know our hosts better over a hearty pre-game dinner of amazing food and drink.
Nate and Matt are long time RPG'ers. They've run long home brew D&D campaigns, but they've also played a lot of war games. To top it off, they are true aficionados of classic board war games and play them extensively; both Nate and Matt can rattle off game names, and game designer names, off the top of their heads and their collective knowledge about games is encyclopedic. All we can say is that these guys are our kind of gamers.
After about an hour of hanging out it was time to set up the game and get to business. We won't bother to do an actual game review, as we'd have to spend more time playing the game ourselves. And, they probably don't want us revealing too much info about their next game release's mechanics as that is closely guarded info for now.
What is Cave Evil?
First off, it may be the first in a new genre of dark games.
From what we can tell, it is a game that was spawned from darkness. It's truly something new in board gaming as it might be the first Black Metal inspired game of its kind. We're using the term Black Metal loosely. Pick your favorite metal band and artwork, and it's likely it had some influence in this game. If you look at the artwork and read the various character names from the game cards, it's clear that this is feeding from all things corrupted and menacing that are often evoked within the most craven Metal Music you can find.
Ok, all you pop music fans are already having doubts, but keep reading.
At the same time, the H.P. Lovecraft references seem obvious as well. Or are they, this game environment seems even more sinister than Cthulu. It seems like an insult to say this game is a regurgitation, it's not.
Oh oh, we've likely lost all of fantasy and sci fi fans too. This Alistair Crowley imagery is a bit harrowing, but keep reading!
Matt and Nate, along with the rest of their supporting cast of Evils, have created a fascinating world reality. While others might want to do the same old Fantasy game, or Sci Fi universe, Nate and Matt have drawn from their own inner darkness. Sure there are the aforementioned possible influences, but they've taken it farther, a lot farther. What is clear is that the Cave Evils have created a unique and personal head-space. Playing their game with them, you realize they know this place of malevolent darkness intimately. When they pick up a game card to examine the stats, their eyes seem to light up with loving joy; as if they are thinking "Ah there is my old friend again." When you examine the same card, all you see is a black and white rendition of something out of your own personal worst nightmares.
Did we mention darkness yet? This game is blackest black with just highlights of light and grey. We mean this literally, as all the game components are white on black, but mostly black. The effect of the game map, cards, and components is very compelling and challenging, it's that different from what you are used to.
We've seen a lot of horror games and this is by far the most disturbing world milieu we've come across. Perhaps the only other game with this heightened level of morbidity is the Whispering Vault RPG. There are no nice guys here. It isn't a loud colorful comic book world. This is a place of silence that no light ever reaches. The stillness is pervasive and one desires just a small spark of light, or familiar sound to hang onto like a life boat. Yet, what you are more likely to hear, is a distant splash of freshly excised gore, and the last thing you want is for any kind of light to reveal the panoply of psychically unbalanced organisms that populate this world.
If you don't believe this is a dark and disturbing place, here's their video:
Did the little crunchy and squishy sounds make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?
We're not doing a good job of selling this game are we? That's the thing about Cave Evil though, it's a one of a kind vision, and it's a dark vision. If you are at all squeamish, if horror movies keep you from having a good night's sleep, if you want to hang onto the idea that the world is a nice place, or if you'd rather be listening to Nickel Back -- Don't Play This Game!
Those of you who like that tingling feeling you get while watching horror films, or perhaps if you like to see how far you can push the mental limits of reality, or you like your music loud and scary -- You'll Love This Game!
We had no choice and simply embraced the Cave Evil within us as we sat down to play.
Nate set up the board, and explained how the game works to us, as Matt tuned in their own online radio channel. Ok, not only is this a creepy game, but they actually have over 12 hours of menacing background music that you are supposed to listen to while you play.
Even if you don't play Cave Evil, you can use their soundtrack to make your own games become a world of unblinking malevolence: http://www.cave-evil.com/KVVL/index.php#
You have to pull the chain to open the gate!
(Is this the first game to come with its own internet soundtrack?)
The game is actually very enjoyable. It's a lot like other games where you move your pieces around on the board, but it is also a mix of layered possibility due the variety of game mechanics and components.
Everyone starts with a a bunch of cards in hand that can immediately be played to create an army of Cave Evil creatures.
When your turn comes, you draw a card and either add it to your hand, activate it if it's an event, use it to create a cave evil, or discard it in exchange for the value of the card.
Did we mention trading cards for their value? This game is an economic game too! And it has three units of exchange: metal, gore, and flame.
The "Money" chits can be used to cast spells, or to activate and create more creatures for your evil forces.
You can move your pieces, but there are stacking limits on how many creatures can be in one space: 3 small, 1 small and 1 medium, or 1 large creature. In some cases the tunnels are too small for large creatures to enter.
There are other interesting game mechanics we won't reveal, as they are being play tested for balance, and of course, playability.
Since Nate and Matt love war games, Cave Evil is essentially a war game; where you attack each other's creatures in hand to hand combat, use ranged attacks, or cast spells to inflict carnage. And there is a lot of carnage in this game since combat is fast and furious.
Cave evil is addictive. We played for roughly 3 hours and we lost track of time. We were just having too much fun and were completely engrossed as we watched the game play out.
Finally, Matt was able to reach the cave with the altar and stole the artifact, which he carried off the board, thus being the winner in this scenario.
Our earlier disclaimer to those who may be too sensitive for Cave Evil; well now that we've played it, we suggest that you just get over yourselves and play this game. It's the perfect mid-complexity war board game and you really should try it out.
After the play test game, we ended up talking even more about wargaming and game design as we considered how the game went. When we turned to look at the game board again, Matt laid out all the maps from his copy of Robert Bradley's game: "Alesia", from 1971. All you Grognards who are reading this will know of this game. We hadn't seen a an actual copy in a decade. And again, as gamers and game designers, Nate and Matt are our kind of gamers and truly Old School; sure they love to play RPG's, but they know their classic war games like the back of their hands.
We had such a nice time gaming with the Cave Evils. We think we're going to have to go back and do it again very soon. They say they may be up for playing a historical minis battle next time too. Oh oh, time to get out the civil war minis, or the WWII lead ships!
Hanging out with the Cave Evils was exactly what we needed. Our tired brains have been rejuvenated via some awesome war gaming. We're ready to get back to work!
Since we know Matt and Nate, we figured it would be more ethical if we let someone else review the game. A little poking around on the web and we found this reviewer. Interestingly, he says just about the same things we've said here. Check out this link:
You can speak with the Cave Evils directly via FaceBook:
What if you Aren't Playing the Game Right? Or, On the Origin of the Dungeon Adventure Game as the First Gothic Horror RPG
In 1971 David L. Arneson had a stroke of genius with the singular invention within his fantasy world of Blackmoor -- The Dungeon.
In our usual fashion, we want to propose a crazy idea. What if Arneson's concept for the Dungeon is completely misunderstood. Oh but wait, we'll get even more out there and say this: What if no one truly runs their dungeon the way it was intended by Dave Arneson?
So yeah, most Judges are just doing it all wrong! (We have donned our flame retardant suits)
Since its inception as a game environment for Fantasy Role Playing games, the dungeon remains the most evocative of all. Sure, your players may travel around above ground, or wander into a town, but when they want to take big risks in order to get lots of loot and experience -- We're off to the Dungeon!
Many historians have tried to trace a path to the inspiration of dungeon games within the game rules that were available at the time. Some going so far as to claim a reference to sapper tunnels in Chain Mail medieval war game rules (Gygax and Perrin) as the one true source-- which is ridiculous.
Read this and decide for yourself if this describes a dungeon game:
Copyright 1971, Donald S. Lowry
As you can see, the passage from Chain Mail makes no reference to rooms, stairwells, and multiple levels; much less secret doors, treasure chests, or monsters. Those colorful details require a great leap of creativity in order to invent something that has never existed before within any game. Clearly any historian who would limit Arneson's creativity and resources to just one tiny passage within a small booklet of rules is overlooking the greater picture of all human knowledge. Most of all, the few sentences within Chain Mail are not going to inspire any kind of imagery to place you mentally within a terrifying dungeon adventure.
Of course, it is entirely possible that it was just one tiny piece of the puzzle. Without going into all the drama, Blackmoor did use some components from Chain Mail. We just don't see the correlation between dungeon maps and CM.
What if we look at other publications like the game of Clue. It provides a much closer simile to a dungeon map. It has passages and rooms, and also doors and even secret passages. All of this information is even laid out on a grid just like a dungeon map, yet no one seems to be trying to make a connection between Clue and dungeon games. Hmmm…
Example of the Clue game board from the Hasbro web site:
What do you think, does Clue look like a dungeon?
We think it looks the same, but we don't think it is the actual source for dungeons. Yet the urge to play connect-the-dots with this kind of evidence is strong!
So lets get a little more nuanced about our exploration for the source of the dungeon. What we like to call Source of the Denial.
If you look around you can find almost too many sources that can be attributed to the invention of dungeons, and Arneson would likely have been aware of all of them. How about those little maze and pencil tracing puzzles in the comics section of the newspaper, or the numerous articles National Geographic magazine published about ancient tombs? Some of you will recall the tomb of Tutankhamun, so many articles and books are published on this one site alone, and many have maps and other visual renditions.
If anything - the more you look - the more you find. And the more you find, the less likely you can trace any kind of lineage for dungeon games.
Looking farther into the recesses of our collective memory, one finds mazes carved into the walls of tombs over 2000 years ago. These are found in sacred places and often represent a connection between the world of the living and the after life, even a person wandering into one today will feel this sense of spiritual significance.
If you want to go back in time even more, you can search for articles on Meander Art. We're talking roughly 20,000 years back for some of these.
Each of these suggestions is equally as credible as any other, yet what one should consider is that it's likely Arneson was drawing on all of these things and much more; although maybe not directly for some of the more obscure sources. We are more inclined to view how Arneson got the idea for dungeons as a synthesis of ideas, both his own and others. We also want to point to a big difference in how Arneson himself viewed his dungeon games, as opposed to how most gamers seem to view them today.
This is our big premise: the essence of the dungeon in RPG's is lost. But my maps look just like Dave's maps you say. Well, consider that Dave was drawing on a feeling he had and not just draftsmanship. He created an experience for his players like none other. That experience is based in the same feeling he got over a weekend spent at home.
Arneson claims that he got his inspiration for dungeons after a weekend of reading Conan novels and watching old black and white horror movies. He also says he ate a lot of popcorn that weekend. We suppose that the idea for treasure in the dungeon could come from popcorn, or not.
Strangely, no historian has bothered to actually listen to what Arneson SAYS he did while the idea for dungeons came to him.
Arneson was having an experience of the unknown through these horror movies and fantasy adventure books. The classic Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movies that he was most likely watching were set in castles. These castles had secret passages. More importantly, these castles had dungeons, and of course monsters! Despite being a bit campy even by the standards of Arneson's time, these movies seem to evoke the same sort of experience that Arneson created in Blackmoor dungeon. It's likely his inspirational moment came when he decided to put that same feeling into his games. By all the accounts we've read, he barely had any kind of rules for this first dungeon experience game either; so if it isn't in the rules where is the idea?
We think Arneson's dungeon concept is heavily based in gothic horror, and not a short rule, or visually similar design. The other components are just tools that he uses in order to leverage the experience of horror for his players. The primary component was more along the lines of trying to model a haunted house within a game format. Were his players scared when they explored his dungeons? Oh, you bet they were!
How can we know this?
One thing that can also be said about Dave Arneson, is that he was never a very clear advocate for his own work. Most interviews are vague and he uses language that is best described as insider code. The narratives in his writings and his interviews assume that his audience has the depth of understanding that he has about his life's work. Yet, what we have from him often leads to misunderstanding.
What is even more surprising, is that of all the interviews he gave, no one ever asked him to clarify any of his statements, or even bothered to ask any follow up questions that could shed light on what he was trying to convey. For the most part, it is up to historians and other researchers to try to untangle what he meant based on what Arneson actually created; often this can be done via the oral history provided by those who played with Arneson in the early days of his Blackmoor campaign.
In order to understand Arneson's dungeon it is also important to put it within context. The dungeon game was another variation in an extensive series of Role Playing Games that were being played in the Twin Cities. The game method for Role Playing evolves. It is difficult to say where it begins, the only clear source for it is one text: Strategos by Charles Adiel Lewis Totten (1880).
One can also argue about when the games being played by the Twin Cities gamers become Role Playing Games. Our approach is to step back and just say "ok, this game has role playing in it -- it's an RPG!" We have no way to evaluate the quantity or quality of this role playing, yet we see that the method of play is emerging very early on. We estimate that it begins around 1964.
So we can say that there is a play style that emerges as an extension on Totten's writings. This begins in the Twin Cities, and changes over time. We call this the Role Play Method. Many have tried to define it, but we just call it something and then let it be. It is a very mutable play style and can be used in a variety of games. In fact, what we do is then categorize the games by type: War Game RPG, Military Campaign RPG, Character Driven RPG, Adventure game RPG.
Out of this comes Wesely's Braunstein. It should be noted that the Blackmoor Bunch originally called Blackmoor: The Medieval Braunstein. (Source: Ross Maker from his interview with Secrets of Blackmoor.)
Some historians trace the lineage for Role Play Methods to other even earlier sources, yet the only source in the Twin Cities is Totten. For this one small community of gamers, who invent roleplaying, this creates an evolutionary bottle-neck whereby you cannot infer anything but Totten as a source for these gamers. To do otherwise is to play a very delusional game of connect the dots, which an academic community is likely to describe as rubbish.
Additionally, we ignore game mechanics entirely because Role Playing is not within game mechanics. The two components are separate, yet are merged during game play as needed.
This is how we came to create our timeline for the evolution of RPG's in the Twin Cities:
1880 Totten's: Strategos A war game, with Role Play Methods. This is their primary source.
1964 Twin Cities war games with Role Play Methods - Primarily via their lead referee: David Wesely, who is expanding on Totten. By 1964 all of the core members of this group have read Totten: Wesely; Scott; Clark; and Nicholson.
1967 Campaign war games with Role Playing Methods - The primary advocate for the campaign in the Minnesota group is Dave Arneson. This is a process that will continue within the group.
1968 David Wesely invents his Braunstein games. Role Playing Methods with a character driven plot. Any comparison between Wesely's design and Modern War in Miniature (Korns) seems very weak when compared to the extensive influence of Totten for the Minnesota gamers.
1969 David Wesely teaches Dave Arneson how to make these Braunstein games and they are both exploring the concept as referee's via many games of this type.
1971 Duane Jenkins creates his western setting Role Playing Game. We do not know enough about this game to say what it is, or is not. It is entirely possible that Brown Stone Texas changed the referee style. The anecdotes we have documented imply that this may be the beginning of the style of referee'ing one finds in Dungeons & Dragons.
1971 Arneson begins his Blackmoor games in parallel to what Jenkins is doing. Arneson sets his game in a medieval fantasy setting. Over time the play style evolves into what we call: The Adventure Game. This is the Role Play method that appears in Dungeons & Dragons and most other RPG's since it's publication in 1974.
1972 John Snider creates his own RPG that gets dubbed Stellar 7 by Arneson. (Corner of the Tabletop V. 4 N. 6) It is the first science fiction setting for an RPG. Although a manuscript is written in order to publish this game as the third of Snider's Star Trilogy: Star Probe, Star Empire, and the Star Empires RPG; the unfortunate schism between Arneson and Gygax leads Gygax to refuse the publication of further Twin Cities products.
In retrospect one could look at John Snider's game and feel great sadness that it was never published, yet what is more important is that we see the Twin Cites Gamers doing what they do best; regardless of whether the Sci Fi game got published, they are exploring more and more settings to put their games into. John was a very big fan of pulp Sci Fi and he wanted to create that feeling of being an adventurer in space. (We promise to include some good stories about the Sci Fi game in the second volume of Secrets of Blackmoor.)
Ok, so what does all this have to do with Dungeons? Throughout the evolution of the Role Play Method, the Twin Cities gamers cite one major element; they are trying to add realism and make players experience what it is like to be in the time setting and personal role of whatever game they are playing - be it a war game set in the time of Napoleon, or the sherif in a small western town. In the case of the dungeon, what Arneson creates as an experience for his players, and what his players describe, is not just a Tolkien-esque underworld like what is seen in The Mines of Moria; and of course, no one seems to question where Tolkien is getting his literary setting from either.
The main concept we take from all of these things is that they are intended to create an experience full of cinematic mental imagery for the players. The players are being transported into an augmented game experience in all the Twin Cities RPG's.
We never got a chance to play with Dave Arneson, so we need to turn to the oral history to get an idea of what Arneson was trying create with his dungeon games. All of the people who were in his games describe a blend of elements in the Blackmoor underworld.
The TV show: Game of Thrones, has a character named Hodor; his one task in life is to Ho(ld the) do(o)r. Blackmoor had an entire troop of original Hodors; who tried to save the party one night in Blackmoor.
Here is an excerpt from when we sat with Bob Meyer, most famous as a wizard named Robert the Bald, and Martin Noetzel a.k.a.The Wandering Elf, as they talked about that fateful dungeon dive:
Bob Meyer - "That briefcase - when we saw that briefcase, we knew we were going to have a great night - That was it - We were going to have a great night!"
Martin Noetzel - "I knew I was going to die again." (Laughing)
Bob Meyer - "Yeah well…" (Both Laughing)
Bob Meyer - "Hey, we were spectacular sometimes, you know. I mean there was the game in the dungeon, when the Balrog scattered the party - And we had guys that volunteered to hold the door - to try to hold the Balrog off - and I think you were on that party weren't cha?"
Martin Noetzel - "I think so"
Bob Meyer (cont.) - "Yeah, I think you were one of the guys - as a matter of fact, we had half a dozen guys who volunteered - and then we had other guys like me, I was a hobbit, and I wasn't going anywhere near that Balrog - and the rest of us scattered - and these guys were trying to hold the Orcs and the Balrog back long enough so that we could at least survive. (holding his hands up mimicking holding a door) So yeah - we - sometimes we died very spectacularly."
Martin Noetzel - "It didn't work very well." (Laughing)
Bob Meyer - "No, it took one turn and he was through."
What they describe is something very much like The Mines of Moria from Tolkien, as a heroic adventure game moment. Well, actually it sounds like a TPK (Total Party Kill) but a truly epic one! Certainly since Arneson cites Conan, one finds epic adventure in his dungeons. Yet what seems to be more important is that Arneson's players are afraid; the Balrog has arrived and the only outcome will be death and destruction!
Rob Kuntz describes his first Blackmoor adventure with these words "Arneson had us scared."
Our interview with Rob Kuntz is our most theoretical discussion on Role Playing Games. Rob was part of the team that was being led by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in order to create Dungeons & Dragons. His insights, and his ability to parse these insights, leads to a very concrete understanding about these games. And his interpretation of what went into the design for D&D is similar to what comes from Arneson's statements.
Rob Kuntz " We automatically built anxiety into the game. Why? Because anxiety leads to doubt - doubt leads to fear - And fear if properly manipulated - leads to terror." - From Secrets of Blackmoor interview
Yet it is when Rob digresses and begins to relate his first ever experience of Blackmoor that you begin to see what Arneson was doing via his dungeon games.
Rob Kuntz "Gary and I differentiated between the game part and the immersion part - they're two different streams. one uh -- and we all got that from Arneson, because that's what he was doing. You know when you look at it - he was - he had us terrified.
We thought we were entering a game. And all of a sudden our imagination is react - he had us - us immersed - and running! And we didn't even know what kind of hit points we had or anything. We - just get the hell away from it, right?
And, we didn't even know what the hell was going on, you know and - that's part of the anxiety and the doubt. - You can't maintain anxiety and doubt like Arneson did, and Gary and myself did and others, who mastered that. You can't - Are you really experiencing fantasy? The unknown? Well you were if you were playing in Arneson's castle."
As the interview plays, It's fascinating to see Rob try to keep an analytical description going as he transports himself back to 1972, along with his feelings in that moment. The level of immersion he is describing seems to over-ride his desire to be clinical. He seems actually immersed once again as he recalls these events.
Both these segments from Rob's interview are describing an emotional cascade. How many places do all of these emotions arise: anxiety, doubt, fear, and terror?
Since Arneson also cites old horror monster films, the only logical conclusion is that Arneson is drawing on the richness of all the psychological elements that first appear in gothic horror. Even if he is creating a medieval fantasy world, the essential feeling in Arneson's dungeon is one of fear and foreboding, and that is only found in the genre of literature and film called horror.
There are several games, that have been created since the invention of RPG's, that focus on horror settings. These games even have die rolls that players must make in order to know if they are afraid, or possibly have gone insane with fear. Yet without the proper ability to create the emotional state that Arneson used for his games, these games are just sets of rules. If one considers that the Call of Cthulu RPG was released in 1981, it becomes clear that they were a bit late by roughly a decade. Dave Arneson had already created his Gothic Horror Movie setting 10 years earlier when he invented the RPG dungeon game.
This is something to consider when you run your dungeon games: Are your players experiencing horror? If they aren't, you may not be playing the dungeon as it was intended by Dave Arneson.
Perhaps you should consider that the core feeling you should create for your players when you run your own dungeons, is that they are not in control while exploring the dungeon, because that will create anxiety and every thing else that comes with that feeling including -- Terror!
TFotT copyright 2018