When I do anything with or to older rulesets, I often affect a naive approach in which I try to work within the constraints of the period when the ruleset came out. If I’m working with B/X, I try to stick to 1981 source material, trade dress, etc. I’m sure this sort of hipster artisanal fauxstalgic “Method” bullshit is insufferable to some folks, especially when it’s nostalgia for an age I didn’t game through, as with OD&D. All the same, I do it because it’s fun for me.
Messing around with the ever-protean OD&D ruleset and setting iterations I’ve been messing around with since about 2007, I try to work within 1973 period constraints, OD&D having been released in January of 1974. I even use period materials when possible, and I’ve developed a taste for abstract, relatively distanced “wargamey-ness.”
Poring over the 3LB is fun — it’s amazing how much more interesting exegesis becomes when the author’s organizational and expository functions are the apparent product of faulty brain partitioning. This time, I focused on the disconnect between the descriptions of What Dungeons Are (“This sounds pretty cool! Like Gormenghast + ‘The Hour of the Dragon'”!) and the sample dungeon (“This isn’t like that at all! This is fucking retarded!”).
The description of the Underworld is pretty cool: “monsters of various horrid aspect”; “mazey dungeons”; “the dungeons beneath the ‘huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses'”; the overall sense that the Underworld is a weird place that loves its monsters and hates your guts. The mandate that dungeons need about a billion cutaway levels, each nastier than the last, is neat (“Moria!”). But then there’s that boring griefy sample level, which is nothing like the fantasy stories, comic books, and horror movies that a kid in the 1970s would have grown up on. Maybe a movie entirely about pulling books to open secret doors.
I suddenly felt like I’m sure many teen non-wargamers felt in 1974 when they picked up the 3LB: OK, this is not very fantastic. I’m not doing things this way.
The question then becomes, of course, what other way is there to do it? We know now that there are a lot of other ways to do it, and we have decades of examples. The problem for someone like me is that when you’ve been gaming for 35 years, it’s difficult to strip away the accreted preconceptions and brainbugs you’ve picked up. It’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of a guy in 1974 when it’s 2016 and you’ve seen top-view grid maps since 1981, when you opened the Moldvay box and learned that Castle Rodemus and the Caves of Chaos were What Dungeons Are.
I’m now thinking of an initial Underworld with that forced naive mindset: Since I don’t like the kind of dungeon they showed me, how the hell do I make one?
An obvious starting point is the literary and pop culture corpus available to a non-wargamer in January of 1974. By then, there are lots of examples of “underworlds,” including the various Underworlds. I’ll be flipping through some of those over the next few days and trying to figure out how I, as a person who likes those things, would have made “my dungeon.” Then I’ll decide if that sort of project is an iron worth leaving in the fire.