“Naive” OD&D Underworld design

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.


14 thoughts on ““Naive” OD&D Underworld design

  1. What’s ‘naive’ is that you bog yourself down in this pre-creative limbo where you place restrictions and shop for sources. Almost all osr gamers think this is being creative, it isn’t, there is zero content in these day dreams.

    It is the same flaw as the ultra popular notion that compiling and using random tables is creative. If used, that kind of crutch for creativity should be long forgotten by the time the interesting idea which might evolve from it is presented for scrutiny.


    1. Kent’s first point is his typical whiskey-induced misjudgement. Intellectually going native CAN open up strange new vistas. But you need to have the endurance to follow where they might take you, and not circle back to another 1973 trope.

      Kent’s second point he copied from me, so it is of course accurate and modestly brilliant. He even stole my “crutch for creativity” money shot. Because that is what it is – rolling an elf with a lisp and a plan for vengeance against innocent pcs is no more authentic that creating a dwarf searching for his lost sons and believing the pcs have knowledge of their whereabouts, right on the spot without tables.

      But I am a compassionate fellow, and will refrain from kicking poor kent any further.

      Anyway, Scott, I’d be interested in hearing the literary works you choose to inspire a new Sample Dungeon.


      1. I’d chime in belatedly by grumbling that random tables are a good way of “stirring the pot” so as to prevent players from getting accustomed to your rhytms and style if you are not naturally enigmatic or bipolar. But they are over-appreciated and no substitute from genuine inspiration.

        I have extracting the breadcrumbs of signal from the first turdpile of noise. Something about reading fantasy literature no doubt. Can’t hurt I guess.


    2. Prelude: The idea in the OP has, after fucking around with it for a bit, turned out to be difficult and not really worth pursuing for me without launching off into something entirely different than the game I prefer.

      I don’t run OD&D as anything really resembling a modern RPG. It’s very abstract and more of a skirmish-level wargame with exploration rules and a few more rules to adjudicate other things you can do. I’ve come to prefer that.

      As I discussed elsewhere yesterday, I’ve settled (for OD&D purposes) into treating “setting material” as hopefully diverting flavor text for an abstract, wargamey exploration game.

      Random tables are very useful for this sort of thing as the role of the “DM” is more expressly that of a referee rather than a motivator for roleplaying and immersion.

      More later when not working.


      1. These days I prefer the skirmishy over the RPGy as well, you can get the same role playing enjoyment out of it but it moves faster. That is why I am using TFT instead of D&D now, it just has more of an S&S feel. YMMV.


  2. I really like the idea of doing dungeons without a grid. In Fate, you instead just have zones that represent a piece of open terrain or an important room while ignoring all the boring and irrelevant little details like individual jail cells, empty storerooms, or uninteresting buildings in a ruined city.
    The Hill Canton pointcrawl system seems like a pretty good approach to put it into practice.

    Random tables also don’t give you a finished dungeon in my opinion. The just give you a very rough outline that then still needs a lot of further refinement and various modifications to become a good adventure site.


  3. I have been scolded at least once for assuming that the Sample Dungeon in the LBB is meant to be played through or even playable. Apparently, it is not. Apparently, it is a deliberate showcase of the sorts of things one might put in a dungeon, jammed into a proximity which the authors would not in fact recommend nor use for themselves. Personally I have my doubts, but I wasn’t There.


    1. Some people will do anything to avoid acknowledging that the stuff published in the old days was not necessarily the pinnacle of the craft, and the guys writing it were not necessarily people we’d want to game with now. I don’t really throw in with the hagiographers or their subjects, who have a vested interest in holding court and keeping their sole supply of adulation and chicken tendies coming.


  4. I really like the “Fate” thing (of which I have zero experience or knowledge of) Yora described. Ignoring the various latrines, cells, empty/dusty/whatwasitfor room after room and getting right to the nitty gritty; i.e. interesting “zone” areas sounds great. Going totally against the Jamal Grognardian grain of emptyness and dust, and certainly almost the exact opposite of what Frank Mentzer seems to be doing in his youtube joints where he describes everything ad naseum, shouting out the occasional “mapper alert!” while the slack jawed, pot bellied mouth breathers take a half hour to map 20 feet of corridor (all during what seems to be the last half hour or so of their game time, yet still adhering unflinchingly to the overly time consuming description and mapping process)

    I wonder how my players woud react? So how does it play out? You describe the dungeon entrance and foyer, then “after a half hour or so of winding passages and rooms empty save for the odd rat or normal spider, which we will assume you are mapping to find your way back if need be, you finally come across the showpiece of the first level, a room of bubbling pools of various colors and humors. We will now go into explore mode as you take the time to check out the room.”

    Man, that sounds sweet. Feels good just typing it out. I may just be changing the way I approach dungeon design, which was minimal as it was already. As the old police captain in The Godfather said to Michael “I must be getting grouchy. Too old for my job. Can’t take the aggravation..”


    1. I think that’s how Barker ran a lot of his Jakallan Underworld … titanic library rooms, etc., where you were expected to know what was in a library and maybe he’d make up a couple things if you asked if there was anything interesting.


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