Saturday, February 27, 2021

Rational Dungeon Design

The Dragon #10 (October, 1977) contains an article entitled "Let There Be A Method To Your Madness" by Richard Gilbert, outlining the merits of a rational approach to dungeon design.  It was reprinted in Best of Dragon #1 (1980).



A room in the dungeon, as appearing many years ago (above) and to explorers today (below).  Illustration by David C. Sutherland III


Gilbert's article is significant in that it was published a few months after the Holmes Basic Set was released, which included Dungeon Geomorphs, and provides direction for creating more "realistic" megadungeons.

We begin with the following advice:
Before you do anything with a dungeon, you should have specified where it will be located, what the surface area looks like, and what, in capsule form, its history is.  The two chief items of the history are its age and who built it.  Age is important, especially time elapsed since it was last in regular use, because it determines the condition of any perishable items found within, and for some worlds, what sort of artifacts could be present.  The builder, that is, the being who caused the castle dungeon to be built, is the single most important factor to develop before actually working on the dungeons.


Gilbert goes on to describe the importance of determining what various rooms in the dungeon might have once been used for, as a guide to describing their contents and appearance after many years have passed.*

*This approach was used by Mike Carr in module B1 "In Search of the Unknown" and Jean Wells in the original version of module B3 "Palace of the Silver Princess", both "second generation" dungeons.


The following example is given:

About a thousand years ago, a local tribe erected crude stone fortifications here for their women and children.  The site was in use for a few centuries and then abandoned.  About four hundred years ago, a young, energetic wizard named Nappo claimed the site.  He brought in a few hundred orcs and built the present castle on the old foundations, expanding outward and downward.  The orcs were put to work creating a dungeon complex, which project continued off and on until Nappo’s death...

The builder, Nappo, was a wizard, so at least one level is needed for labs, libraries, and storage of related equipment...

The upper levels should have living space for several hundred orcs, with attendant storage, kitchens, perhaps temple space, and maybe even sewers or some system for waste removal...

Here also would be the main armory, with its own guardroom or other security precautions, plus fairly easy access to drinking water.

Below these levels would lie cells, torture chambers, and anything else intended mainly for the orcs use, such as possibly an arena for practice and entertainment.

Leading off in a separate series of levels would be Nappo’s part of the dungeons.  First, a number of levels devoted to guardrooms, mazes, and traps to snare intruders.  Then would come Nappo’s underground quarters, from which one would gain access to labs, animal or monster pens, and Nappo’s treasury.


Several additional ideas are provided:

Add guest rooms with corridors, plus secret passages for the builder to spy on them.

Was the builder a temporal ruler?  Add throne room, conference rooms, guard rooms, more secret passages, and perhaps a regalia room...

A gourmet requires extensive kitchens and pantries, along with a host of attendant small rooms.

In European history, ruling men created comfortable nests for their lovers, which were as lavish as the men pleased or could afford.

As a final thought, if you want a really well-fleshed dungeon, throw in the religious element.


Those of you familiar with module B1 "In Search of the Unknown" might recognize similarities between the wizard Nappo's dungeon, and the legendary underground fortress of co-adventurers Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown.

I'm not sure if Mike Carr was familiar with Gilbert's article, but certainly many of the design elements are congruent.  This is not intended to detract from Carr's masterpiece in any way, but rather indicates the emergence of megadungeon "realism".

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Forgotten Geomorphs

Following the release of Dungeon Geomorphs in 1976 and 1977, TSR announced the release of Outdoor Geomorphs Set One, Walled City at Gen Con X in 1977, the same Gen Con at which the new Basic Set edited by J. Eric Holmes was featured.

Just as Dungeon Geomorphs were characteristic of the maps for the megadungeon beneath Greyhawk Castle, Outdoor Geomorphs Set One, Walled City were likely modeled after the layout for the nearby City of Greyhawk in Gary Gygax's original campaign.

What is less commonly known, is that a number of additional Outdoor Geomorphs were planned, but never published.  Here's a snapshot from the back of the 1st printing of the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, released at Gen Con XII in August, 1979:


Dungeons & Dragons Playing Aids, as listed in the 1st printing of the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide (1979)

From a historical perspective, it makes sense that the Geomorphs line was abandoned.  Megadungeons and city adventures, intended to be created by individual DMs (without any published examples) were being supplanted by adventure "modules".

Still, I can't help but wonder what Castle/Fortress or Ruins geomorphs might have looked like.  Ironically, they would have probably been more useful than the original Dungeon Geomorphs for assembling self-contained, set-piece adventures.

Incidentally, The Acaeum lists Set Four, Rooms, Chambers & Passages as part of the Dungeon Geomorphs series, rather than Outdoor Geomorphs (which makes sense, but isn't in keeping with what's indicated, above).

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Geomorphs of the Mad Archmage

The 1977 Basic Set included Dungeon Geomorphs Set One: Basic Dungeons (which appear to have originally been released separately, the previous year) as well as Monster & Treasure Assortment Set One: Levels One-Three, for stocking purposes.


A dungeon geomorph from Set One: Basic Dungeons (1976).  See also "Dungeon Construction Made Easy!" in The Dragon #6 (April, 1977)


My first exposure to these products was through the later compilations, Dungeon Geomorphs Set One to Three, and Monster & Treasure Assortment Sets One-Three: Levels One-Nine.  I tried using them to create a few dungeons, but was never entirely satisfied with the results.

I think the reason for this was that I didn't fully appreciate these products for what they truly were - components for a Gygaxian megadungeon, modeled after Greyhawk Castle itself, as discussed here and here on the Random Wizard blog, in 2013.

Dan Collins posted an excellent analysis of the first dungeon level beneath the ruins of Greyhawk Castle, about a year ago.  An example such as this back in the day would have provided welcome guidance for using Dungeon Geomorphs to create a megadungeon.

While a classic sample cross section of levels was depicted in OD&D vol. 3, a full megadungeon level never was.  Instead, the types of sample dungeons published were smaller, self-contained affairs (see this list of early sample dungeons for examples).

The individual Dungeon Geomorph sets, in addition to the later compilation set, each include some intriguing encounter key examples, which, as Allan Grohe notes, might have been drawn from Gary Gygax's home campaign.

Rob Kuntz's El Raja Key and the subsequent expanded version of Greyhawk Castle are the types of megadungeons that Dungeon Geomorphs were intended to construct.  (Zach Howard discusses a later, similar dungeon by Gygax in this post.)

It was left to Mike Carr to develop an introductory megadungeon, but in so doing, he incorporated more logical design elements.  This "second generation" megadungeon woiuld ultimately be published as module B1: "In Search of the Unknown".

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Holmes Expanded: Portown and Environs

J. Eric Holmes' Portown is an evocative setting, with great potential as a home base to build a campaign around.  There are several fan-made supplements and published modules that work well together, in this regard.


This classic illustration by Dave Trampier, from the AD&D 1e Players Handbook (1978) is what I think the inside of the Green Dragon Inn must look like, in Portown.


Back in 2010, I mocked up a map of Holmes' Portown, based upon the medieval city of Canea (modern-day Chania) on the island of Crete.  I visited Chania in 2000, and was inspired by its historic old quarter.

Since then, others have expanded upon my roughly sketched map and key, such as RC Pinnell (aka Thorkhammer)'s Holmes Supplement: Portown (2013) and Piazza member religion's Port Gorod (2016) in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, for the Mystara setting.

Most recently, Zach Howard provided a new map for Portown in The Ruined Tower of Zenopus and is working on The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave in the sea cliffs west of town.  Zach's Portown Adventuring Eras is also worth a look, as a timeline for the setting.


Isle of the Abbey:

"Isle of the Abbey" by Randy Maxwell was published in Dungeon #34 (Mar/Apr 1992) and originally conceived as a tribute to Holmes:

My introduction to the D&D game was the old, now legendary, blue book.  From that introduction, I still retain a nostalgic fondness for low-level D&D adventures.  The game has expanded immensely from those early, simple days, and my modules have expanded accordingly.  For this adventure, I wanted to get back to basics (no pun intended) and do a module that required only the rules, monsters, and magical items from the Basic Set (either the old red boxed set of the new black box - the ancient blue book is not required).

Randy Maxwell, from Dungeon #34


The clerics of an evil cult, based out of an abbey situated on a small, solitary isle, were recently attacked by local pirates.  The abbey was burned to the ground, although the pirates suffered heavy losses, and were ultimately wiped out by the mariners of Portown.

The PCs are hired to explore the isle, in order to insure that it's safe for the mariners to claim.  The adventure is designed for 4-6 characters of up to the 3rd level of experience (about 12 levels) with at least one cleric of 3rd level or two or more clerics of lower levels.

Of course, many of us prefer "the ancient blue book" and so I converted Maxwell's adventure for use with Holmes.  You can download my version, here.


Corsairs of Tallibar:

"Corsairs of Tallibar" (1982) by Mike Wilson is a Judges Guild adventure for characters of 1st to 3rd levels of experience.  The "Universal Fantasy Adventure" is system neutral and not associated with any particular setting.

The legendary corsairs were based out of a hidden island fortress, about 50 leagues south-by-southwest from the port city where the adventurers are located.  They haven't been seen or heard from in 75 years, but their island has recently been located.

There are clear parallels between "Corsairs of Tallibar" and module B1 "In Search of the Unknown", which only add to its charm.  A map of the island is provided, along with wandering monster tables for the different types of terrain.

I used the hidden island fortress as the secret base of operations for the pirates from the sample dungeon, members of the same group who attack the isle of the abbey, as opposed to a stronghold that's been deserted for 75 years, which worked out quite well.


Module B4: The Lost City:

Portown is described as "a small but busy city linking the caravan routes from the south to the merchant ships that dare the pirate-infested waters of the Northern Sea" and so I envisioned a desert to the south, the perfect spot for a lost civilization.

Module B4 "The Lost City" (1982) by Tom Moldvay included specific information for running the adventure only using the Holmes rulebook.  This is an absolutely classic module, and one for which I pulled together a multi-author campaign sourcebook.

Moldvay's work is steeped in pulp fiction tropes, and meshes extremely well with Holmes.  I can't think of a better follow-up adventure to the sample dungeon in the Basic Set rulebook, once the PCs are ready to leave Portown.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Holmes Expanded: Sample Dungeon

I used the "sample dungeon" in the Holmes Basic Rulebook to introduce my son to D&D, almost a decade ago.  (You can read about his initial explorations, here).  Those PCs who survived went on to module B2 and eventually, the G series.



Sample Dungeon, Room N:  "Ten stone sarcophagi are scattered about, four empty with the tops off.  Six, however, are closed.  If the adventurers open one, roll a die to see which they have chosen."  Illustration by David C. Sutherland III


Zach Howard provided an in-depth analysis of the sample dungeon as part of his blog series of posts on the Holmes manuscript, starting with Part 46: "Zenopus Built a Tower", essential reading for anyone thinking of running the adventure.

Zach also published The Ruined Tower of Zenopus on DMs Guild, a 5E conversion with multiple appendices, including Further Reading, Dungeon Factions, Portown Rumors, Use with Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and Pre-generated 1st level characters.

An interesting bit of trivia is that The Official D&D Coloring Album (1979) written by Gary Gygax (with Lawrence Schick) and illustrated by Greg Irons, used the sample dungeon as the basis for its own map, as discussed, here.

One of my favorite experiences at Gary Con X in 2018 was a late-night pick-up game run by Andy Campbell, in which he ran a group of us through his version of the sample dungeon.  Andy let me play a Cynidicean PC, and was a memorable DM.

A year later, at Gary Con XI in 2019, I had the pleasure of playing in Zach Howard's sequel to the sample dungeon, In Search of the Brazen Head of Zenopus.  I played Zereth, while my son got a chance to play Maximillian the Centaur!

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Holmes Expanded: Sample Cross Section

The "sample cross section of levels" within the Holmes Basic Rulebook presents an endless source of fascination.  (I can vividly remember when I first glimpsed the illustration, which is all it usually takes to become seared into the mind's eye).


Sample Cross Section of Levels (aka "Skull Mountain"), illustration by Tom Wham, from the Basic Set Rulebook (1977) edited by J. Eric Holmes



Zach Howard posted about a similar Great Stone Skull in "Shadows in the Skull", a Conan story by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (originally published in Fantastic (Feb, 1975) vol. 24, no. 2, and downloadable here).

Having read the story, which features a Great Stone Skull carved into the chalk-white face of a mountain-side, with access to a small cave-city, I feel it's possible that Wham was inspired by it.  (I hope to get the chance to ask him).

Adam Dickstein shared his memories of a D&D campaign based around Wham's sample cross section, here.  Jeff Sparks published his version as a 36-page pdf, illustrated by Andy "ATOM" Taylor and Steve Zieser (and reviewed at Grognardia, here).



A modified illustration of "The Pit" created for one of my campaigns (you can read a brief summary of the adventure, here).


Like many of us, I came up with my own version for stocking this dungeon:

My theme for the 1st level was "In Search of the Unknown".  The PCs discover the remnants of an abandoned shrine to some dark, forgotten power, with a few remaining active traps.  Wandering monsters include goblinoids from the 2nd level.

I envisioned the 2nd level as a humanoid lair, a hobgoblin king's domain (shamelessly using the map of the 2nd level from module B5 "Horror on the Hill").  The PCs need to change tactics, given that the hobgoblin king's forces are well-organized.*

*on return expeditions to the dungeon, hobgoblin sentries positioned in the eye sockets of the Great Stone Skull shoot arrows at approaching enemies, and use the vertical shaft as a murder hole, dropping rocks and flaming oil

The 3rd level is a mazelike necropolis, filled with tombs of some forgotten race, and crawling with undead.  It's avoided by the hobgoblins, who barricade all access to and from the level if the PCs descend, trapping them below.

Levels 4A and 4B are the tombs of evil priest-kings, devoted to the worship of dark, ancient powers.  Mostly untouched, there are several active traps, but also great wealth and powerful magic items to be discovered.

The 5th level is a natural cavern with medusae and fire-breathing hydras.  The statues of several petrified adventurers can be returned to flesh, providing some powerful NPC allies (and replacements for dead PCs).

I used the map of the Grand Cavern from module D1 "Descent into the Depths of the Earth" in place of the 6th level, with access to the surface world through "The Pit".  I had to restock many of the encounters, but you don't have to.

Finally, the Domed City upon an island in the subterranean lake on level 7 is inhabited by mind flayers, from The Strategic Review #1 (a kind of "city" in the sense that the Acropolis is a "city", a collection of temples for worshippers).

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Holmes Expanded: The Underworld

The original "sample cross section of levels" appearing in the Holmes manuscript was three levels deep, as revealed here at Zenopus Archives.  (The published version of the Holmes Rulebook replaced this with an iconic illustration by Tom Wham).


Sample Cross Section of Levels, illustration from the Holmes manuscript, by J. Eric Holmes (originally posted at Zenopus Archives, Nov 17, 2014)


Holmes incorporated elements from the sample cross section of levels in OD&D vol. 3 (which, like Arneson's original dungeon beneath Blackmoor Castle, and David Megarry's Dungeon! board game, ran six levels deep).

By the time the Basic Set was released, the dungeons beneath Greyhawk Castle had expanded from 13 to 20 levels deep, and the dungeons beneath Blackmoor Castle from 10 up to 25 levels deep.  It was the era of the megadungeon.


Holmes shared his concept of the Underworld in "The Maze of Peril":

Somewhere beneath the surface of this ancient land the tunnels and corridors of some prehistoric race coiled and raveled, delved, and probed unimaginable depths into the core of the world.  Corridors of wealth, they were also tunnels of deadly peril, for many of the rash adventurers who set forth for the secret entrances to the fabled Underworld were never heard from again.

What race or races had built the original maze no one knew.  It seemed, in the opinion of the sages and magicians of the time, that there must have been many layers of dungeons and underworlds laid down, one atop the other, as the world crust was formed, so that now no one knew, or even guessed, how many levels it extended below the surface.

Excerpt from "The Maze of Peril" (1986) by J. Eric Holmes


I ordered "The Maze of Peril" from the Space & Time website, years ago (they probably still have copies, although the novel is available from other online booksellers, as well).  An alternative is the highly recommended anthology "Tales of Peril" (available here).

I like the idea of entrances to the underworld in mundane places, such as the mine in Holmes' cross section of levels, or the base of a hollow trunk in The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins (a mini-dungeon from 1976).