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[Comments] (1) Dungeon Design: When Gary Gygax died about a month ago there were heartfelt outpourings, recollections of peoples' adolescences, memories of playing AD&D. Or, more congruent with my experience, memories of not playing AD&D but instead scouring the rulebooks and designing elaborate dungeons for the glorious day when you would get your friends as interested in playing as you were. For a while now, but especially since Gygax's death loaded it back into my analytical mind, I've been thinking about those dungeons.

I once designed a sixteen-le layer cake of a dungeon, each level themed around one of the elemental, para-elemental, or quasi-elemental planes, each containing a piece of an artifact that was necessary to kill the big evil guy who lived at the bottom of the dungeon. Yes, this guy had made a decision to live in a place where the theme was "vacuum", or salt or whatever it was. This dungeon was located somewhere in the middle of a field, in my poorly-sketched-out overworld.

What made me find satisfaction in designing this dungeon? What made me feel like this bizarre artificial construction was something you'd find in the middle of a field, in the sort of game where you tried to realistically portray another person? Even then I'd spent most of my life playing games where this kind of thing was an everyday occurrence: Zelda and Rogue and Colossal Cave. But as we all were told last month, all of those games have their roots in D&D.

Penny Arcade did a tribute to Gygax after his death (scroll down), but I think they paid him a more fitting tribute with this 2006 comic (link doesn't work right now but I'm pretty sure that's the one I want). The source of the artifact's power is its name. There will be dungeons, and dragons in those dungeons.

The name was chosen almost at random, because it sounded good; ie. because it's a powerful incantation. Its power grabs me even today when I know that D&D-like rules only explore part of the space of role-playing games. It survives even though I've made the more damaging realization that dungeons don't make any sense.

A dragon wouldn't fit in a typical dungeon. The dragon in The Hobbit had a huge cave to lounge around in, with convenient access to the outside. The enclosed spaces in Howard and Leiber and de Camp can get cramped but only rarely do you get something that looks like a D&D dungeon, because only rarely would a "dungeon" not break the rules of fantasy writing. Most of the time, a dungeon is a trick that only feels real if you're acting it out.

I'm reading Fischer/Leiber's "The Lords of Quarmall" right now, and it's strange mostly because there is this subterranean labyrinth that's laid out like a D&D dungeon. Of course it's also a place where people live, a concern you almost never see in D&D dungeons.

A D&D "dungeon" does not correspond to any realistic space, even if it's nominally a castle or crypt. Where did this concept come from and why does it feel right for dungeons to contain dragons? I started becoming aware that there was even a question here when I read this LiveJournal post a while back. It quotes the original D&D manual as placing the "dungeons beneath the 'huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.'"

The D&D manual refers to the "Underworld". There's no underworld in the Chainmail rules. Wargames strive for realism in terrain, and when I was a kid I instinctively avoided the wargaming parts of D&D; I still would if I still played it. My friend Adi (on the right) plays Warhammer and it looks so boring to me. On the rare occasions when I indulged in a taste for premade AD&D modules, I always skipped the hex paper and went right for the graph paper. I didn't have any figurines; when I DMed, we role-played the swordfights instead of keeping track of where everyone was. We wanted the dungeons.

I think dungeons were something that happened in the transition from a wargame to a role-playing game, or from a game with communally enforced rules to a game where one player was the referee. Was D&D the first game to have distinct levels, each one a challenge from the designer to the player? It feels right, but I can't say because I'm so deeply embedded in that metaphor. If that's true, it's not just that a whole lot of individual games were inspired by D&D; it's that it was the source for one of today's dominant game styles.

In sixth grade I drew out a whole Mega Man game, maps like you'd see in Nintendo Power. It probably wasn't any more ridiculous than, say, Mega Man 4, and it made a lot more sense than the temple of elemental weirdness I'd do later. I followed up Mega Man with an "original" game that was a rip-off of the Goonies II NES game. I was always drawing maps that were supposed to be played under certain well-defined rules.

So, why the hell did Dr. Wily always theme out his robot armies like Vegas hotels? Who put all the stairs and doors and ladders in that huge interlocking set of caverns underneath a restaurant in Oregon? Who would build a dungeon, carve out those twisty little passages, make sure all the rooms were square and stuff a live dragon through the front doorway?

These are the deeds of mad wizards and insane geniuses, like we were when we were younger. Who was I talking to when I drew those maps? I was talking to you.

Update: Uh, I did have one figurine, an ent. Treant! It was a treant! Except it really was an ent because I never used it to play D&D. My mother gave it to me and it was a souvenir of our shared LoTR fandom.


Posted by pedro at Thu Apr 03 2008 00:01

"I was always drawing maps that were supposed to be played under certain well-defined rules."

I did this too, and my friend Robbie and I would "play" them for each other on the bus on the way home from school. It was like the most free-form roleplaying experience of my life. And since we were trapped on the bus, we actually did it, as opposed to waiting for

"the glorious day when you would get your friends as interested in playing as you were."

Also me.

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