Wednesday, 7 April 2010

I Never Got Dungeons

(Being an extended gripe about cargo cultism, having to craft one's own tools, and related shortcomings of the Pyrites Age of gaming when compared to the present day.)

As a larval gamer I never 'got' dungeons.

It's not that the claustrophobia of dark places, the dread of wicked eyes shining from the darkness, and the glitter of trapped treasure in hidden vaults below the earth, held no allure for me. More likely it's because dungeons as dungeons were rather out of fashion by the late 80s.

Visual Media?

The only pop-culture referent we had for trap-filled, monster-infested tombs which made a lasting impression on me were Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Seven^H^H^H^H^H Mysterious Cities of Gold cartoon, and the kids TV cheese of Knightmare. The Dungeons and Dragons cartoon? Not so much.

Fantasy films? We had some good stuff: Krull, Dragonslayer, Conan, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth ("Come inside, meet the missus"), Beastmaster and Willow ("Throw the baby in the volcano, not-Frodo!"). Yes, they were fun, but they were also the kind of film that could afford microdungeons of four or five rooms at best. The dark lordling with a half-a-dozen minions in his Shed of Doom typical of 80s fantasy films was mercilessly ripped on by Sir Terry in "Last Hero", and the backyard pyramid of Beastmaster is still a laughing stock in our circles. Arguably the best dungeoncrawl/dimension-hopping caper on offer: the Fortress of Ultimate Evil section of Time Bandits and its terrifying Flying Cow Skulls (once again Terry Gilliam wins a game he's not even playing).

Erm. How about games thicky?

Even things you'd expect to make for good dungeon fodder (like the gamer gateway Choose Your Own Adventure books) were of little utility. By their very nature these consisted of rigidly defined railroad choices regardless of whether your character was ostensibly travelling overland, visiting a city, travelling astralspace, or dungeoneering. That's a limitation of the medium though; there's only so much that can be achieved in less-than-400 entries. That said, Livingstone and Jackson's Fighting Fantasy, J.H.Brennan's Dragonquest and Jo Dever's Lone Wolf series pushed the envelope of what was possible within the inherent constraints of the medium. Fighting Fantasy even spun off the super-simple, super-fun Fighting Fantasy RPG series (AFF, Out of the Pit, Titan, Dungeoneer, Blacksand, Allansia), and J.H.Brennan wrote the comedic storygame ("You play you") known as Monster Horrorshow. Fantasy role-playing, yes. But sprawling, dynamic dungeons? Only kinda a good light ...if you're being generous.

Unfortunately the famous, market-leading American game - you know, the one with Dungeon right there in the title - was of equally limited use in my initiation into dungeoneering. Mentzer Basic was over-specific in some regards; too vague in others. Yes, the dozens and dozens of monster descriptions were (and are) nice, but where was the other half of the equation, the blatantly missing 'how to' guide for dungeons? How’s a newby gamer actually supposed to build an interesting version of the Mines of Moria, or even a one shot funnel dungeon worth the crawling? Simply shipping Keep on the Borderlands with the Basic Box, in the same way that Isle of Dread was shipped with the Expert Box as an introduction to wilderness exploration, would have made things so much clearer.

The AD&D core books were likewise opaque on the all-important subject of dungeoncrafting. Yes, the One True DMG gave you rules for random dungeon generation, but only the very driest and most semi-complete of worked examples (pp94-97). Elsewhere a cornucopia of evocative prompting, when it came to the defining core of the game (dungeon crawling), the DMG proffered little practical advice beyond Uncle Gary's faux-magisterial "create and fill at least three levels". Little sense of the dungeon as a dynamic setting escaped the singularity of High Gygaxian pomposity and relentless brand building wickedly parodied by Kenzerco's Hackmaster.

Doug Niles' Dungeoneers' Survival Guide was likewise a chocolate teapot. Despite the name the book had almost nothing to do with dungeons. In truth it was the AD&D spelunking, mine management and subterranean ecology sourcebook: useful in a Silver Age fantastic realism way, but grossly misnamed. Miles of tunnels, caverns by the acre, but hardly a bleedin' 10'x10' corridor or pit trap in sight.

So where was all the good stuff? The common cultural referents and 'how to' guides? It took me several years to find, but it turns out to have been squirreled away in the (now-classic) mid/high level modules of course. Now, for all their merits, mid- to high-level tournament modules not being the most intuitively obvious place for the neophyte dungeon designer in search of inspiration to look.


Thank the dice gods for MB's Advanced Heroquest. It may have been a board-and-minis game created around the time that GW shifted from being 'us' to being 'them', but it had about the best section on combining set piece and random dungeon elements that I'd read to that point. And it was in distro in my particular (infested with inbred Marshwiggles) backwater of the UK . At last, tombs worth exploring! Barrows worth the digging! Evil cult temples worth the sack! Dungeons worth a damn! There’s a good reason AHQ commands absurd prices on the second-hand market to this day.

So yeah. I learned about proper dungeons from the kiddies version of WFRP, not from D&D. From the black comedy setting that wants you to die only after you've suffered for our amusement, rather than from the famous pulp-influenced, rags-to-riches game. For me it was Bogenhafen; not Greyhawk. The Undercity of Middenheim; not Castle Maure or Undermountain. Karak Eight Peaks; not D1-3. HWOBHM; not 70s psychedelic rock.

Appendix N and the Rich British Traditions of Folklore and Fantasy

I'd done my homework as a larval gamer/history geek. Anything with swords, castles, folklore, myths or legends was devoured with an omnivorous disregard for source, quality or coherence. Kevin Crossley-Holland, Roger Lacelyn Green and W.H.White had (and retain) honoured places on my book shelves.

The expected fantasy books weren't much help to me when distilling the essence of dungeoncrawl from the vapour of genre nuance. Games Workshop's fantasy novels and shorts collections were stark and witty, but kinda dungeon-lite. The TSR D&D novels ranged from *meh* to execrable. Most of EGG's Appendix N existed strictly as aspirations to be snapped up on the rare occasions they appeared in libraries or thrift shops. Lovecraft was known, but was deemed old and a bit weird. Fritz Leiber, Two Gun Bob, Karl Wagner and the like were relative exotica. C.L.Moore, Klarkash-Ton and Leigh Brackett were well-kept secrets entirely beyond my ken. Yep. Like I said earlier, f-ing parochial Marshwiggles was we.

The two titans of British fantasy in my formative years were arguably J.R.R.Tolkien and Michael Moorcock. Leastways, they were the most-cited common currency in the geek circles I moved in. I know the Eternal Champion tales have temple/tomb raids, godling-monster shankings, and quests for portentous shineys aplenty, but these things all played a distant second fiddle to the ennui-soaked philosophising. Elric is too busy being Sartre-with-a-sword to check for pit traps. For all Moorcock's prodigious breadth of invention it's not traps, hazards, and monsters that first spring to mind when thinking of Duke Hawkmoon's quest for the Runestaff, or Corum Jhaelen Irsei's one man crusade against the house cards of Swords.

Similarly the Blessed Tolkers, for all his virtues as a mythmaker, writer of dying speeches, and chronicler of overland travel really handwaved his crawls.
  • The Barrow Downs? An evocative, frightening episode instantly turned to crap by the advent of a witless, yellow-booted avatar of cozy folkiness.
  • Moria? Three day journey through a ruined subterranean city, three chambers described, two fights.
  • Paths of the Dead? One glossed-over talk encounter and some Legolas expo-speak.
  • Cirith Ungol? One spider and a bunch of morale 5 Orcs running from a gardener.
  • Beren and Luthien stealing their way into Angband? Glossed.
Bad show J.R.R! Failing to anticipate the future progression of a subculture which arose after you departed this vale of tears, one which I imagine you would have had little enough in common had you encountered it in your day. I thought you were supposed to be a clever boffin type. What good are your wonderful books to a poor confused proto-DM? (apart from the obvious) ;)

Help Unsought, plus Evocative Quotables

My formative literary dungeoncrawl? Not really a dungeoncrawl at all (certainly not a Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Waylander iron-thewed competent hero one), but rather a couple of chapters from Tadd Williams' Tolkien-a-like fantasy doorstopper trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (aka: what G.R.R.Martin's SOI&F is trying to be). To whit, chapters 13, "Between Worlds" and chapter 14, "The Hill Fire" of The Dragonbone Chair. I've included a few passages below:

"He sank down onto the gritty tunnel floor, weeping with helpless, strengthless anger, a barely beating heart in a universe of black stone. The blackness was a choking thing that pressed on him, squeezing out his breath."
-- p225

"The passageway squirmed into the stone heart of the Hayholt, a smothering, winding, cob-webbed track lit only by the glean of Morgenes' crystal sphere. Broken spiderwebs performed a slow, ghostly dance in the wake of his passage; when he turned to look back the strands seemed to wave at him, like the clutching, boneless fingers of the drowned."
-- p227

"The heat was oppressive, and the air was thick with itching smoke. [...] The tunnel flattened, turning now neither left nor right, leading down a long, eroded gallery to an arched doorway that danced with a flickering orange radiance."
-- p230

"But still, there were angles in the dimness that did not seem natural: right-angled creases on the moss-girdled walls, ruined pillars among the stalagmites too orderly to be accidental. [...] From the corner of his eye he saw one of the shattered columns of the gallery suddenly standing straight, a shining white thing carved with trains of graceful flowers. When he turned to stare, it was only a clump of broken stone once more, half-shrouded in moss and encroaching earth."
-- pp238-239

"The silent lake, a vast pool of shadow below him, lay at the bottom of a great circular hall, bigger by far than the foundry. The ceiling stretched immesurably upwards [...] At the centre of it all, the dark figure lifted a long slender object and the beautiful chamber shuddered, shimmering like a shattered reflection, then fell away..."
-- p241

If you have the time and inclination, I'd heartily recommend reading the whole as an example of scene-setting. Loneliness. Disorientation. Hunger. Mystery. Confusion. Hallucination. Terror. Despair. Now that's a dungeon crawl!

It might have been a case of right place, right time, right mind; but that section of that one unexceptional brick of extruded book-like fantasy product was, for me, the difference between seeing a lightning bug and being hit by lightning (pace Twain). Now that I knew what I was looking for - crushing weight, claustrophobic immurement, and a sense that surface dwellers are naught but ignorant interlopers - I actively sought out similar material.

Combine elements of The Dragonbone Chair with the ponderous quality (Anthony Burgess' phrase, not mine) and austerity-era gothic subfusc (that's mine) of Meryvn Peake's Titus Groan & Gormenghast, from which selected artwork and passages follow:

Gormenghast cover art by Mark Robertson

Don't you just want to know what's around the corners and up the stairs?
I still do, 18 years after first seeing it.

"The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with grey slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers'. [...] Through the character of their trade, their arms became unusually powerful, and when they let their huge hands hang loosely at their sides, there was more than an echo of the simian. [...] Through daily proximity to the great slabs of stone, the faces of the Grey Scrubbers had become like slabs themselves."
-- Titus Groan, pp27-28

"...feeling that here at any rate was his one chance of escaping these endless corridors, followed as best he could in the hope that Mr Flay would eventually turn into some cool quadrangle or open space where get-away could be effected. [...] as his erratic shape approached the next guttering aura he would begin by degrees to become a silhouette [...] a mantis of pitch-black cardboard worked with strings."
-- Titus Groan, p42

or with the overheated Faery Queen fever dream of Moorcock's Gloriana,

"...its outbuildings, its lodges, its guest houses, the mansions of its lords and ladies in waiting, have been linked by covered ways, and those covered ways roofed, in turn, so that here and there we find corridors within corridors, like conduits in a tunnel, houses within rooms, those rooms within castles, those castles within artificial caverns, the whole roofed again with tiles of gold and platinum and silver, marble and mother-of-pearl [...] And in those forgotten spaces between the walls live the human scavengers, the dwellers in the gloom"
-- p9

"A short flight of stairs took her up into barbaric, blazing torchlight, into a hall of asymmetrical splendour, whose ceilings rose and fell and whose walls were studded with huge gems, whose tapestries and murals showed crowded, obscure scenes of antique revels. [...] she had passed them by, pushing open doors into another, darker cavern, filled with the odour of heated flesh, of blood, of salty juices, for this was where her flagellants convened..."
-- pp72-73

Montfallcon and Ingleborough [...] continued their journey [...] through wider, vaster halls, full of decaying pageantry - banners, armour, weapons - dull and dusty, into the echoing gloom of that cathedral of tyranny [...] where rats now ruled, and spiders danced their precise, oft-repeated steps, and shadows moved, scuttled and were gone. [...] Their human figures were dwrfed by obsidian statues of grotesque and anthropoidal aspect - broodind statues, perhaps still dreaming of the heated, morbid and fantastical past..."
-- pp 124-125

"...the tunnel turned, dropped, climbed, leading them away from Dignity and Charity and Grace and all the other sober demands of office, until they entered a high gallery, all intricate, barbaric carving, with ancient beams supporting a ceiling of panelled wood, and the lanterns casting shadows, displayed inhuman faces and peculiar representations of animal forms [...] They investigated little rooms which still contained narrow beds and benches, lengths of chains and manacles [...] They descended pitted stone and heard water but never saw it. They found wax, so fresh-seeming it might have fallen from a candle an hour or so since. [...] They heard voices, laughter, cries, the rattle of implements, footfalls - fragments of sound [...] as if space itself possessed different qualities within the walls."
-- p171

"More tunnels, another gallery and then, leading from this landing, a stairway into a wide, dark, deserted hall that might, two or three centuries earlier, have led to an outer door. [...] The stairwell zigzagged up, storey upon storey, and through the rococo railings faces peered, as prisoners from bars, regarding her with frank but neutral curiousity. The faces were oddly distorted, not by the filigree of the banisters, but in keeping with their bodies."
-- pp234-235

or the weird and wonderful, gas-lit underworld of C.S.Lewis' The Silver Chair, which epitomised the life of the dungeoncrawler in one haunting refrain:
"Many fall down, but few return to the sunlit lands."

and you've got a particular sensibility going on which is, IMO, pure essence of dungeoncrawl.

So, it ultimately took a cheesy Anglia TV kids show, a Warhammer spin-off board game, and a Tolkien knock-off fantasy series to explain the point of dungeons to me.

Thank goodness those old days are gone.
Thank goodness for the thrumming brainhive of the internet (never again need gaming newbs labour in isolation and ignorance).
And thank goodness for the OSR.

Thoughts? Opinions? Heckling cries of "Did you never watch X...?"

edit, and semi-related: having only recently slighted Talislanta as a Tekumel wannabe setting, I am currently in the midst of an orgy of humble pie consumption on the matter. Why? Because Stephan Michael Sechi has made an array of Talisalanta setting pdfs freely available (fill yer boots here!) to the nebulous ghost people of the interwebs. Truly, he is big; I am small.


  1. Yep. Advanced Hero Quest and the very few dungeons presented in White Dwarf were my primary initiation into dungeons. Gormenghast, Knightmare and Tad Williams are also familiar to me. Good stuff, and interesting to read about overlapping experiences. I remember my first mega-dungeon creation were the caverns beneath Middenheim... I recall running three parties simultaneously through it at school. :D

  2. What an excellent post!

    You mention several things that I've tried and failed to read--several times in the case of Gormenghast--and I think I will simply have to read Memory, Sorrow, Thorn now. And I'm humbled by your keen tallying of Tolkien's shortcomings as a dungeon-describer, which I had not noticed.

    I've got so much to learn, and this is a good start, so thanks!

  3. > Thoughts? Opinions? Heckling cries of "Did you never watch X...?"

    I've misplaced the point of this post?

  4. @Matt: There does seem to be a Brit-gamer standard initiation process, doesn't there?

    @Aaron: Yeah Tolkers would have been all that. If he could have only anticipated our needs as gamers ...from beyond the grave ...against his own tastes and better judgement. ;)

    @Norman: A point? You want the moon on a stick man! It's just a nebulous webloperson whiffling on in the hope that one of these onerturned rocks might turn up something interesting. ;)

  5. Just discovered Knightmare the other day. It looks awesome. But, if I had learned about it when I was the target age I'd thought it lamer than lame.

    Have you read Mythic Dungeons It explained everything to me.

    Besides having way too many words to read I think this post most confuses me cause I don't think there is anything to "get" about dungeons. Whatever you got or not is what there is.

  6. There's a decent audiobook of the Titus trilogy if you find reading Gormenghast difficult. It may work better for you. In a pinch there have been at least two BBC adaptions, the most recent I know is on DVD. It somewhat misses the mark but is entertaining and features a bumper crop of British comedians.

    I still recommend at least looking at Peake's own illustrations for the series and Ian Miller's illustrations. Both are amazing stuff.

    To me Peake is post-Aristocratic Gothic Dickensian fantasy of manners. Great stuff, including his non-Titus works.

    Iron Maiden, Talislanta, Tekumel, Lone Wolf, WFRP etc., all good stuffs and good dungeon / wilderness fodder too.

  7. Excellent. Thank you! I had a little different experience across the pond, but remember well seeking anything D&Dish in popular culture. I think Dungeons and Dragons created a kind of genre of its own with the dungeon crawl. I mean the Tombs of Atuan were sort of similar, but no treasure to be had in there. Not so much dungeon as the Mythic Underworld, as Dungeon as the quiet land of the dead.

  8. I suspect I'm a couple of years older than you because when I got started in the Mentzer era, dungeons and associated imagery (that would make a good title for a retroclone...) were everywhere probably because of the FF craze. Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Citadel of Chaos seemed to be on the bookshelf of every one of my classmates and they were dungeon bashes so the whole thing made sense. In a fashion I assume we actually learnt it through a ludography (a good word I picked up from a recent Grognardia post) rather than a bibliography as the typical dungeon concept was a construct arrived at by the neccesity to provide something practical for gaming, rather than a direct lift from literary or mythological source material.

    Assuming that you came into things a couple of years later after the FF craze had quieten down a bit and I see where you are coming from as regards the lack of obvious dungeon sources in books. Also by the time of AH, Dwarf had left all traces of D&D/AD&D long behind and the "GW Hobby" was predominantly 40k-led.

    For about a year now I've been meaning to do a series of blog posts on how the OSR seems very American to me and how our Brit sources are very different, lots of love for WD, Fighting Fantasy artists, Lone Wolf, 2000AD (the great seminal influence that never seems to get mentioned) and, as you insightfully pointed out, NWOBHM.

  9. I don't think you're being fair to the Tolk if you completely neglect "The Hobbit".

  10. Great post by the way. Were you too young to pick up Dragon Warriors the first time around?

    I agree the the OSR can be very U.S.-centric and that the British flavour is different.

  11. Good post.

    You've again brought up the feeling that Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is highly underrated. Indeed If seen it derided as "Tolkien ripoff" on the internet--which misses Williams' point entirely.

  12. Thanks all for your comments.

    @Norm: I'd have killed to have read Philotomy's excellent summation back in the day. Reading it was an uncanny experience of 'this guy is saying everything I always thought, but couldn't articulate'.

    @Gibbering Ghoul: Ian Miller did Gormenghast illustrations? How did this escape me? The thrumming brainhive comes through again!

    @James: *mumble, blush*

    @Telecanter: I think, apart from odd mystery cult stuff (Orpheus and suchlike) and Egyptology, you're pretty much right about D&D inventing the dungeon as setting. Sure we'd had buried tombs, cursed treasures and suchlike before, but there's still a world of difference between a haunted barrow and the endless trap-filled tunnels 'neath the Mad Wizard's Castle.

    @Coopdevil: I thought I was kidding about having to respond to everything you wrote with "+1, what Coop said". Obviously not.

    @Crusty One: Even the non-dungeony parts of "The Hobbit" - Mirkwood, for example - feel dungeony in retrospect. Though I did find riddles an almost complete dead-end. Any puzzle with a single right/wrong answer runs the risk of bringing things to a grinding halt, and did for me more than once. A lesson hard learned. :(

    This is going to sound odd. But I only ever picked up a couple of books in the (excellent) "Dragon Warriors" series by mistake. Being green-spined paperbacks, just like the FF books, they tended to fade into the CYOA shelf in Waterstones.

    @Trey: MS&T is criminally under-rated IMO. Yes, it was post-Tolkien high fantasy, and that's easy to rip on (*cough* Eddings *cough* Brooks). But MS&T was written as a conscious homage to Tolkien's iconic epic, albeit with a leavening of quasi-Arthurian flavouring.

    I'm still not sure where the Eskimo Hobbits came from though...

  13. It's Mysterious Cities of Gold. ;)

    On a less pedantic note, this is a great post, and I echo the call for a close look at the British face of the OSR, the BOSR perhaps. Certainly we seem to have a very different context for our fantasy gaming to our colonial cousins.

  14. And I echo that echo!

  15. Likely the easiest way to find the Ian Miller Gormenghast illustrations in print is the, if I can remember the name correctly, Realms of Fantasy coffee table book. It has IIRC Tolkein, The Land, Howard, Moorcock, ERB, and possibly more along with Peake. Ian Miller illustrated the Peake section.

    He also contributed several inspirational illustrations (some full color) for the Tolkein Bestiary (?) that tends to present a rather interesting view of Tolkein's world. The fall of Gondolin in particular comes to mind.

    I think there's some on page 2. Also lots of decidedly chilling looking orcs from the Tolkein Bestiary.


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