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Tabletop Meditations #5: On Vancian Magic

When it comes to magic in tabletop role-playing games my opinion is a bit conventional in the sense that I dislike Vancian Magic, a system of RPG magic inspired by the Dying Earth series of books and stories authored by Jack Vance. I do acknowledge its importance in not that it was essentially the first codified system but that it is vital to the formation of the tools and ideas in turning magic towards tabletop gaming from whence most current RPG magic systems spring, the magic system I authored included. I don’t particularly care for it because it tends to be trite in my opinion and restrictive as well as losing the mystery or ‘fluffy’ aspects of magic.

It treats spells as pre-packaged single purpose weapons which the wizard “fires & forgets”. The ‘spells as ammunition’ mindset probably owes its inception in the roots of tabletop RPG’s, namely War-Gaming. Aside from justifications for the in-game impact of a Vancian magic system such as the Surgeon Metaphor and the Alzheimer’s comparison, I think it’s also generally not great for mystery or atmosphere and definitely more afforded to war and video-gaming. Though to be fair the descriptions of magic used in the Dying Earth, from whence it is inspired, are definitely apart from the gaming adaptations of Gygax & Arneson. It is more conducive to the fiction of Jack Vance (of course) than role-playing a mage character and more-so in a setting much less like Vance’s Dying Earth.

‘Vancian’ magic is too artificial and strict for my taste but provides a stepping stone when it comes to game design. It does, as is one of the popular arguments against this strain of gaming magic, turns spell-casters into field pieces to be pointed at the enemy as mystic artillery. Don’t get me wrong sometimes I like this aspect of the good ‘ole fire-ball slinging type wizard.

My preference for magic includes a healthy dose of mystery and risk involved as when I play a mage I like to experiment with my abilities even if I might get burned in the end, or blown up which has happened. Game magic does need its well-defined or ‘hard’ aspects to be playable. If magic is too ‘fluffy’ or ill-defined it makes the in-game use of it too esoteric though if it is weighed down by too many rules and calculations then the learning curve for players becomes a bit too steep.

A Game-Master should keep the player characters questioning exactly what an enemy mage may be doing or what they may be pursuing due to the softer aspects of magic and know that it can’t be good or have at least a rough idea motivating them to take action against their enemy as the ‘hard’ aspects will be known to them at least in a ‘meta’ sense and these if overly defined may give the game away in the knowing.

The ‘hard’ aspects of an RPG are the bits of the game defined either in broad terms or in very quantified ‘Hard’ terms creating elements that can be manipulated in game terms allowing players and thus their characters to work with that game aspect, in this case magic, easily due to its consisting primarily of either clear cut rules and/or numeric values. They are also a necessary and operative part of the system and cannot be removed without breaking the system.

Another frequently used name for these ‘hard’ bits is ‘crunch’ but that is also applied to refer to additional more optional bits as well so I will be using the former term throughout this article. In contrast a ‘fluffy’ aspect refers to a soft/fuzzy aspect or something not solidly defined in game terms but may be covered by a broad rule requiring the GM and/or players to interpret it in respect to game-play if it becomes necessary but which still has some sort of impact on game play. Basically anything not solidly or explicitly defined by the game system but still operative in-game which is not outside of the game system.

The workability of magic or what makes something ‘workable’ for a game are the ‘hard’ aspects defined within the game system allowing the participants (Players and Game-Master) not only to understand the general overall concept behind them but also how to use them while still being able to play with the ‘soft’ parts lending some demi-officiated “wriggle room”.

The ‘hard’ gaming aspects of magic allow the participants to grab a hold of the concept like handles and manipulate it as if it were a system of dials, switches, and levers. Now this is exactly how Vancian systems operate but the condemnation, I believe, belongs to the sorry fact that it’s also how most Vancian-based magic systems feel especially if they’re not steeped in the proper atmosphere. They feel very mechanical.

“[M]agic, when present, can do anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write a system or define the rules […] can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Magic]

This core problem with Vancian magic can be traced back to Vance himself and his possible attitude towards the idea of magic if this can be extrapolated from his highly influential work.

“Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding.” [Vance, Jack. 1998. The Compleat Dying Earth. SFBC edition. pg. 582]

The Vancian Magic system originally appeared in Dungeons & Dragons and packages magic into strictly defined “spells” with mostly inflexible game applicable stats along with a description of effects. It is a rules-based magic system which is reliant on and mainly composed of functional rules. The spell-caster using Vancian magic must “memorize” their spells which allows them to cast a certain number of spells per day, this number being based on their caster experience level and the spell list from which they are allowed to memorize spells. The casting often involves certain “components” such as hand gestures and chants etc. and after the casting the memorized spell is essentially forgotten.

“When subsequently cast – by speaking or some other means – the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.” [Gygax, Gary. 2001. Jack Vance & the D&D Game. The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol.1, No.1. Pelgrane Press Ltd.]

Which leads us to a major complaint about this system of magic is that of the memorization of spells and the ability to memorize multiple instances of the same spell which after casting are then forgotten which is often compared, unjustifiably, to a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s complaint being that spell-casters after casting a spell completely forget it as if it were never in their heads similar in effect to an Alzheimer’s patient but only in a very selective (and superficial) manner which is not quite equivalent to the real-life disease.

This manner expending of spell magic can be explained within the game system in several different ways but the cognitive dissonance that it can inspire takes some out of the game, me included. It is readily evident even during play that it is completely artificial, designed to work within a game.

“To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game.” [Gygax. 2001. Emphasis mine.]

Not to say that deliberately designing a magic system to function as a part of a game is inherently a bad thing; it just shouldn’t be too evident.

Like the rest of tabletop roleplaying the Vancian Magic System has its primordial origins in the world of war-gaming and was directly inspired by Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth, being adapted by Gary Gygax to Dungeons & Dragons.

“Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games.” [Gygax. 2001]

Essentially the current idea of the magic-user began with Dave Arneson’s seminal Blackmoor campaign which evolved from his miniature war-gaming sessions. Magic as a feature of war-gaming entered into the scene as a means to reenact fantasy battles found in fiction in particular those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the desire to add in new features, most likely out of boredom, to war-games and move beyond just reenacting historical battles but it was not until the fantasy supplement added to the back of the first edition of the Chainmail miniature rules in 1971 by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren that the course of RPG Magic was set.

“Magic spells are the purview of the “Wizard” type in Chainmail. Although unexceptional as melee fighters, Wizards have two ranged attacks they can employ: a “fire ball” and a “lightning bolt”. The former explodes like a thrown bomb, creating a circle of carnage,…, while the latter extends in a straight line from the Wizard, annihilating those in its path.” [Peterson, John. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. pg.42]

A second edition quickly followed in 1972 due to the first edition being a hit.

Chainmail in its second edition thus set a precedent, a foundational one for the future Magic-user class, that Wizards may have inferior or superior levels of power relative to other Wizards, and that some powerful spells may not be cast by Wizards of lesser ability.” [Peterson. 163]

Around the same time Dave Arneson began to apply the fantasy rules to his war-gaming sessions which soon mutated into the Blackmoor campaign setting.

“By the time he brought his Blackmoor campaign to Gygax’s attention, Arneson had introduced a number of innovations in the Chainmail magic system, not all of which would ultimately become a part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Notably, Blackmoor wizards were ranked by numerical level rather than by hierarchical titles [.] … In addition to levels of Wizards, spells themselves were sorted into ranks representing difficulty or power [.]” [Peterson. 165]

The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons later followed this in 1974 with its own integrated magic system. Ultimately though, it was gamers that gave it the name which persists today.

“Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.” [Gygax. 2001]

Vancian magic has a few readily evident strengths. Packaging spells into easily digestible bites rendering them infinitely useable in-game making that aspect of magic supremely ‘workable’ though limited in its mutability is absolutely one. Predictability is another easy to discern strong point in that it makes the GM’s job easier allowing them to have some fore knowledge of what’s at the players’ disposable at any given time. Its primary contribution to RPG magic is something that I myself have a penchant for, modularity though in a limited sense. It excels at the ‘hard’ bits of a roleplaying system due mainly to its creation in the war-gaming arena where wizards (and druids) were field pieces.

Another bonus of a purely Vancian system is the forcing of players to think strategically when playing mages memorizing only the spells they think may need later.

“Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.” [Vance. 1998. 5]

Bad choices however, can lead to a Vancian wizard to become near useless left with nothing to do but either get killed or try to hide in an encounter especially in an unforeseen/unaccounted for one.

There are some fundamental weaknesses. The first is also one of its strengths the nifty packaging of spells which makes them easy to use also makes them fairly inflexible without some special caveats being added into the game (the Feat mechanic being an example). Another inherent in such a mechanical system of magic is that it is unrealistic (so-to-speak) being based on strange logic used in and more appropriate to Jack Vance’s fiction where it is a narrative device as it naturally would-be and was meant to be in the first place; narrative in a work of fiction and that in an RPG being very different.

It’s over-definition not just disallowing for in-game flexibility but it also restricts subtle variation. In fact, variation requires that brand new spells be authored. This ‘rules based’ form of magic also seems to lack in consequences even for the “over-use” of magic leading to a few in-game questions such as the question of technology and wide-spread utilitarian use of magic but those will not be addressed here.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fiction is peculiarly suitable for adaptation into the realm of gaming due to its belonging to a certain strain of fantasy fiction known as Rationalized Fantasy. In Rationalized Fantasy “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence. In such works the laws of MAGIC may be carefully codified, often through elaborate systems of mysticism[.]” [Clute. 801] Basically it’s where something fantastical is explicable in mundane terms. Jack Vance definitely quantified spell-casting and sorcery in this work.

“Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” [Vance. 19]

He even seemed to invent the idea of naming spells in effect packing them and their effects into solid armaments equivalent, but much more powerful than, a standard weapon such as a sword rendering libraries as potent as armories.

“Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.” [Vance. 23]

This is not to say the wizards and magicians found in his fictions could not wield swords and daggers in fact, they routinely did; a decided difference between Vance’s fiction and the “Vancian” system of magic.

In effect with Rationalized Fantasy, the atmosphere of mysticism and mystery which I feel should surround magic in an RPG can be diminished by overly technical game terminology or mundane in-game explanations and too complex a construction of game-mechanics. RPG magic systems should try to maintain atmosphere as well as provide some easy to use and understand ‘hard’ aspects not to mention provide some flexibility.

The main points which are important to an RPG magic system are a sense of ‘workability’, an element of risk to the caster in addition to those on the receiving end, flexibility in its in-game use, and details helping along the atmosphere which should hang over magic and spell-casters like a pall. RPG magic requires definition but that shouldn’t absolutely define its every edge. Magic requires certain ‘hard’ meta-game aspects required to be made use of in-game these should be kept to only the necessities for ease of use and on top of that, a certain measure of risk to the caster and their companions.

Hard aspects should be spare but allow ‘workability’ in a meta-sense more than in-game as that can be explained with mythology or a character-eye view of the game world adding even more color to the game. Risk is essential and provides a sort of ‘internal questing’ the mage character can do providing a thrill with just the casting of a spell as well as all the other potential arcane and enigmatic risks when on the search for or even just perusing certain esoterica.

Magic should also have a sense of its own volition. The artifice shouldn’t be inside of the magic present in a game but should be a structure on top of it through which the magic-user conducts their craft mostly consisting, within the game, the belief system from which they pull their explanations for it. Magic itself should be a nearly autonomous, amorphous mass writhing just underneath the surface of in-game reality.

Is the Vancian system of magic a fair equivocation to magic as presented in Jack Vance’s work? A little, it is somewhat starkly defined in the Dying Earth books but is not as sharply defined as it is within the Vancian system adapted from his work. It is from his work that libraries and moldy old tomes have become synonymous with the RPG magic-user not to diminish the influence of Gandalf the Grey.

“The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.” [Vance. 4]

In most Vancian systems magic grimoires, the spell books of wizards, are nigh useless to non-mage characters, unless they know whom to sell them to that is, but in the Dying Earth non-mages could make use of the magic though  not to the extent as a dedicated spell-caster. The Vance character Cugel the Clever, from which certain aspects of the D&D thief class were taken aside from Fritz Leiber’s the Gray Mouser, and whose specialties are self-absorption and being picaresque rather than anything akin to Vance’s disciplined craft but in a pinch he too can cram a few spells in his skull.

“Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.” [Vance.271]

In his fiction unlike in games that make use of a Vancian system books of spells are useful to anyone who can read, very similar to such items found in lore and more in line with the popular idea of the wizard.

“In the popular imagination, magicians always had books, or libraries of books, containing all their magical secrets. These books were jealously guarded, for if the knowledge they contained fell into the hands of the unwise or the unworthy, anything might happen.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1985. The Encyclopedia of the Strange. New York. Dorset Press. pg.216]

The Dying Earth stories do indeed keep to this idea better than the “Vancian” magic system model. This brings us to another complaint about Vancian systems which did not originate from Vance’s fiction, the ability of mages to memorize more than one instance of the same spell. In the Dying Earth, Mazirian the magician after casting a spell at a homunculus which he was extracting from his vats but to no effect and quickly found himself within its grip. “The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain.” [Vance. 1998. 20]

In fact, none of his mages “encompass” (memorize) more than a single copy of any individual spell in any of the stories. Of course as stated before, the narrative of fiction and that of an RPG game are very different animals.

RPG magic should have flexibility. Modularity in this respect is probably the best way to go from a design standpoint allowing the participants to make use of whatever parts of the system they require at that moment. Modularity also encourages mixing and matching. Game-magic should encourage PC-mages to explore in-game magic not just in its casting but in the formulating of new spells, altering old spells, and hunting down legends, mythical spells and items as well as hard to find components. Players and thus their mage characters should feel as if they’re penetrating the deep mysteries of the (game) universe encouraging exploration.

Also, do not count out the consequences of magic as well not just to counter any perceived in-game over-reliance on it but the effects of magic accruing over-time within the setting as well, where spell-casters may be responsible for some of the supernatural woes found in the game setting shaping non-casters’ opinions about mages and magic. The side-effects of spells, the warping of the world and dimensions, magical residue and even magical contamination are other such approaches to the consequence angle.

Details add flavor and lend to the atmosphere tied to magic and can help make ‘fluffy’ bits of the system to be a little more coherent and help to steer players towards certain decisions when dealing with the softer aspects of a system. Atmosphere is built from not only the GM’s words at the table but also added to by certain details such as specified components and description of ceremony etc. and use of the ‘fluffy’ bits. Keep in mind strange and mostly non-functional details that can evince reactions from players and/or their characters are very important.

Players may know how their mages work their magic in-game from a mechanics standpoint but certain details especially those that accumulate over time from an array of game components within the magic system not all or any of them need be functional in-play either. However, over-use of this tactic may diminish the impact of this strategy and so it should be used sparingly but not so sparingly that it can be ignored. These details can seem, in the minds of players and perhaps even GM’s, to amount to a puzzle to which no one has all of the pieces or a riddle with no answer hinting at something stranger just beyond understanding.

Though RPG magic essentially came from war gaming and evolved into quantified Vancian Magic then began to be adapted into various systems of game magic with varying ‘fluffy’ and ‘hard’ aspects/quantities it does not mean that RPG magic should always be strictly defined in its execution all the time. Vancian magic was necessary that it gave a baseline for what was necessary to make magic a ‘workable’ aspect in RPGs by quantifying it in game terms.

The original purpose of the spell-slinger was to serve as mystic field artillery on the field of battle in war-games later becoming the “swiss army knife” characters of OD&D. I find Vancian magic too clear-cut and inflexible, I desire a magic system that allows for flexibility and variation; magic that can serve as its own quest maybe even its own self-contained world within the world of the game.

Spells should be more than ammunition, magic can be a quest unto itself all wrapped in an air of mystery providing yet another avenue of adventure besides Dungeon Crawls, MacGuffin Quests, Bug-Hunts, and Monster-Slaying. RPG magic should be ‘workable’, should carry risk in the practice if not by its mere presence, should have flexibility, and should carry a certain air or atmosphere. When I run a mage I want the arcane power and knowledge that they wield to be something extraordinary and supernatural invoking wonder and trepidation in those not so inclined (or talented). Magic however does need to be ‘workable’ in-game and not just by the GM but also by the players so it may be fully explored, its mysteries penetrated, and the unfathomable risks experienced.

Tabletop Meditations #4: Dungeons

Skulking carefully through a web-choked and shadow-drowned passage, a thick grey sheet of dust over the flagstone floor and the scattered bones probably those of other adventurers hopefully of a lesser skill, watching where you step and hoping the next is not your last propelled onward by the dream of snatching the promised treasure and escaping with your life.

This should be familiar to any avid role-player even those who’ve only had a cursory experience with the hobby as a description of the prototypical Dungeon Crawl. In these games mazes are crawling with strange and often bizarre beasties for the players to battle and treacherous with traps and pitfalls to impede their progress as well as studded with treasures to tempt them. These mazes are most often constructed of various chambers linked by a confusing network of passageways and corridors not to mention stairwells.

Dungeons, ever present in roleplaying games and sometimes the sole focus of a game, imprison their inmates within a complex or maze of rooms often peppered with an assortment of puzzles/riddles, traps, hazards, treasures, and monsters. In my gaming experience dungeons are always, even if not by intention, a confusing conglomeration of chambers meant to serve as a playing field where characters test their mettle and the players test their cunning against that of the Game-Master or the author of the dungeon.

The well-designed fantasy dungeon demands players work as a team, cause characters to take on the roles to which they’re best suited, and pit the Game Master directly against the players though allowing some distance between responsibility and any lethal results within the game. The modern conception of the roleplaying dungeon is not just the fantasy of fulfilling greedy impulses and living out dreams of glory but the path of its evolution and its pedigree down through history makes the fantasy dungeon much more. It is however, a modern invention inspired and informed by certain historical facts, myth, and ideas presented in fiction.

‘Dungeon’ is a colorful word that delivers certain images, sensory information, and can carry certain connotations by its mere mention. It brings to mind not only the medieval justice system but conjures into the imagination skulking enemies, deep and dark chambers dripping with slime and moisture, and such iconic objects as chains & torture collars and hidden treasures. The word itself begs for at least a brief exploration of its etymology.

The English dungeon has an etymology that rises from the French donjon (which translates to keep or great tower) but is more akin in usage and meaning to the French oubliette which means literally “forgotten place”. It is probable that since an often small and high chamber in the keep was used to house a prisoner that dungeon became, eventually, synonymous with ‘prison’. Fiction and horror movies would later alloy the imagery of the torture chamber to ‘dungeon’ also adding to its connotations and power of imagery further making it inevitable that the word and the ideas/images that it carried would find its way into fantasy roleplaying games not to mention the use of the word as an indictment of a cramped and/or damp isolated room in which many tabletop gamers would be accused of incessantly playing their games in.

Dungeons in roleplaying games seem to encompass three central ideas which are essential to their composition. These basic ideas are imprisonment, puzzlement (like a physical riddle, a travel puzzle), and exploration (what’s around the next corner). These three ideas also relate very closely to the idea of the maze or labyrinth. Whereas dungeons contemporaneous with tabletop RPG’s are a very new idea the concept of the maze/labyrinth dates back thousands of years into antiquity and definitely has contributed to the modern concept of the dungeon.

Mazes themselves do adhere very closely to the three core ideas of dungeons and it is no surprise that many modern dungeons resemble them. The maze as a symbol lends some of its meaning to dungeons and that is the circuitous route of a human life represented in its twisted corridors with dead-ends aptly named.

Inspiration for the titular roleplaying dungeon can be found throughout history and in ancient myth but cannot be pinpointed to any singular instance or structure though several instances carry very obvious components of the modern dungeon. The roleplaying dungeon has its roots in the Egyptian tombs, the European and English hedge-mazes, the myth of the Cretan labyrinth, and the medieval bottle-prison, the oubliette.

The Egyptian influence especially where it comes to traps and maze-like tombs is nearly self-evident. The ancient Egyptians employed false rooms, secret doors, and simple traps such as concealed pits, hematite powder (if inhaled it shredded the lungs causing the tomb-raider to drown in their own blood), and used huge granite blocks to secure tomb entrances occasionally inscribed with a death-curse, mostly for effect. The Egyptian tombs fit perfectly in with the idea of Exploration and add a sense of danger and risk to the idea of the fantasy dungeon due to the traps laid for and the cyclopean security measures as proof against tomb-raiders. Not to mention such history-based stories as the Curse of Tutankhamen in modern myth contributing an air of mysticism and mystery to the sense of danger.

As Egyptian tombs carry the idea of exploration, hedge-mazes bear the idea of puzzlement, and the medieval Oubliette carries the core idea of Imprisonment. In the Black Tower of castle Roumeli Hissar, built probably by Alexios Comnenus about 1100 A.D. – “[a] dark passage near the head of the stairway leads to the crown of a deep circular oubliette, which is constructed in the thickness of the wall and has no window or any other entrance than this passage. [A] prisoner impelled along the passage and pushed through the opening would fall in utter darkness to the bottom of the chamber 13 ft. below. This is probably one of the earliest examples of a true oubliette, of which there are very few.” [Toy, Sidney. 1939. Castles: Their Construction and History, 1984 Reprint. New York, Dover Publications Inc. pg.83, Emphasis Mine.]

These rather infamous “bottle-prisons” so named due to the bottle-shape of their interiors were probably historically used more for storage than serving as imprisonment as most medieval justice involved execution or fines rather than prison sentences.

“Important prisoners, such as members of the nobility, were sometimes held for ransom […] in a castle’s dungeon.” [Cantor, Norman F., ed. 1999. The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Penguin Putnam Inc. Prisons and Punishment]

As a prison these could serve as pretty inescapable cells though they were dirt floored and situated at the base and in the foundations of castle towers making tunneling somewhat impractical.

Hedge-mazes, a particular example being that which figures in the English myth of Fair Rosamond, which existed in Europe and England for hundreds of years, also figure into the evolution of the idea of the modern fantasy dungeon. Though most archetypical RPG dungeons are subterranean and built of stone the maze that was used to keep King Henry VI’s indiscretions with Rosamond hidden from his jealous queen is considered (probably mistakenly) as a maze of evergreens but the fair treasure, often symbolized by a rose, at the center is a key idea which has carried over into the modern concept.

The hedge-maze brings with it the puzzle aspect, a puzzle that must be solved and the established goal reached. That English maze concealed not only a prize as it were but also served to keep a secret only available to those who were either cunning or treacherous enough to solve it. Of course, Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, did eventually solve it using a spool of thread to the doom of his young and beautiful mistress very much like Theseus in the maze of the Minotaur but there it was the triumph of the hero and the death of the beast.

The Cretan labyrinth, that which contained the Minotaur, probably served as the core inspiration and model of the English myth as it like King Henry’s maze was cleverly built by a master builder, Daedalus but who unlike Louis of Bourbourg, the architect of the English maze, was later forced to escape from a tower prison with his unfortunate son, Icarus. These labyrinth-myths bring to the modern concept the idea of a central prize and that of an occupying monster.

Inspired by history the roleplaying dungeon has been equipped with the imprisonment capability (and escape fantasy) of an oubliette, the complexity of the Cretan maze, and the deliberate dangers of an Egyptian tomb with the puzzle and the game aspect of the hedge-maze. However, it is apparent with a little investigation that the current concept of a roleplaying dungeon is inspired by history but historically a ‘dungeon’ was not existent in its current form even as a prison cell and most probably originated in the Italian Renaissance becoming synonymous with torture chambers and being shaped into the archetypical medieval prison in the gothic novels of the nineteenth century. It seems a modern idea which evolved within the context of the roleplaying game, at least the idea of the treasure-trap laden monster haunted gauntlet certainly is.

The fantasy RPG dungeon’s history can be followed and is somewhat well-documented. The idea itself evolving with the early years of roleplaying games emerging at around the same time as fantasy gaming from the War-Gaming hobby where an opposing army would mine its way under the fortifications of the castle they are sieging into unexpected lower chambers and storerooms which then developed shortly into deliberately constructed gauntlets for heroes to traverse.

At about the time of the evolution of roleplaying games from the primordial soup of war-gaming the idea for dungeons began and one of the major influences of course was popular literature especially that authored by J.R.R. Tolkien, namely Moria the Black Chasm.

“Some spoke of Moria: the mighty works of our fathers that are called in our own tongue Khazad-dum…too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear. Long have its vast mansions lain empty since the children of Durin fled.” [Tolkien, J.R.R., 1994 (1966 ed.), The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Company, SFBC edition. pg.234]

No doubt mines have become a type of dungeon within the modern incarnation of roleplaying games among others but they definitely, at least in my mind, are an early inspiration in the development of dungeons in roleplaying.  Of course, that comes with the popular knowledge that Tolkien’s shadow looms large over the early roleplaying games not exclusively involving dungeons and the trend in fantasy fiction of that time (the early to mid-1970’s) so it should be no surprise that the mines of Moria could have added to the concept at its earliest stages.

“[T]he creators of D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] were inspired by the empirically detailed fantasy texts of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lieber and others[.]” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press. pg.101]

“One of the peculiar developments in the past few decades has been the rise of the “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Magic” industries. These role-playing games are derived directly from epic fantasy. They owe everything to the original writers like [Robert E.] Howard and Tolkien.” [Moorcock, Michael. 2004. Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. MonkeyBrain Books. pgs.146-147]

The evolution of the roleplaying dungeon can be marked as beginning within the game of Blackmoor written by Dave Arneson.

“Arneson…shifted the game from the battlefield of traditional war games into large indoor settings such as castles, caverns, and mines. In one of Arneson’s most successful games, the characters were sent to infiltrate Blackmoor Castle through its sewer to open the gates. … To reach the gate, the character had to traverse the castle’s dungeons, which were full of various guards and monsters. … Similar scenarios became standard for fantasy roleplaying games. The indoor environments of the games were known as “dungeons” regardless of the actual nature or purpose of the space. In 1972, Arneson attended Gen Con in Lake Geneva and ran his Castle Blackmoor scenario for convention goers.” [Laycock, Joseph P. 2015. Dangerous Games. University of California Press. pg.41]

Soon after its debut Dave Arneson would refine and expand his design.

“The second issue of the [Blackmoor] Gazette [and Rumormonger], which details events of the late spring of 1972, provides the first mention of the counterintuitive but seminal notion that the “dungeons” beneath Castle Blackmoor were a place where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” By this point, [Dave] Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.” [Peterson, Jon. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. 2012. pg.68]

Not soon after a participant in a Blackmoor game would take the idea of the RPG dungeon and run with it.

“[A] Minneapolis local named Louis Fallert attended one of the University of Minnesota Military History Club meetings and there joined a Blackmoor dungeon expedition. […] After playing in Blackmoor, Fallert felt an irresistible urge to adapt and reinvent it for his own use[.]” (Peterson. 460) Mike Wood, who attended the meetings where Fallert unveiled the Castle Keep game writing a commentary of the foray he witnessed: “[He] was directing […] a couple [of] people in a game he’d just put together, sort of a simulation of intrepid heroes wandering around in a dungeon seeking to find treasure and avoiding death at the hands of trolls, orcs and other perils.” [Peterson. 460-461]

Again the idea would course down to other players within the gaming community and begin to spread as rules were codified and roleplaying games began to roll out. Craig van Grasstek was one of the three original players that Louis Fallert let into his Castle Keep in 1974 in Minneapolis. Grasstek decided to write down a set of rules, his Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974).

“The problem seems to have been one of standardization: “since there are so many different mazes, run by so many […], there are bound to be many discrepancies and idiosyncrasies among them,” Grasstek writes in his foreword.” [Peterson. 485]

Not long after the standardization of the roleplaying dungeon was a fixed play space within the imagination of gamers everywhere. The idea also began to expand into other game realms which were themselves in their infancy. The precursor to all computer adventure games, Adventure, merged spelunking with the maze and elements already codified in the early roleplaying dungeons alloying the meaning of the word in most gamers if not people’s minds. It was developed in 1975 and 1976 by Will Crowther for the enjoyment of “non-computer people”. He created it as a fantasy recreation of his caving; he was an accomplished caver, mostly as a game for his daughters. It was influenced by “some aspects” of the game Dungeons & Dragons which he had been playing. [Montfort, Nick. 2003. Twisty Little Passages. The MIT Press. pg. 10]

“[I]t requires the exploration of a secret dungeon (which most likely would force most players to take up cartography to navigate) where one defeats adversaries and escapes with treasures.” [Peterson, Jon. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. 2012. pg.620]

Will Crowther was however heavily inspired by a roleplaying game titled Mirkwood Tales as told by Barry Gold in an article entitled “Computers and Fantasy Gaming” for Alarums #30 in January 1978 [Peterson.616]. The Mirkwood Tales roleplaying game was a Tolkien themed variant of Dungeons & Dragons authored by Eric S. Roberts around 1977 set in the world of Middle-Earth and adapting the races found in the Lord of the Rings as Player Races: elves, dwarves, and hobbits though “Tolkien is relegated to the second credit” in the Acknowledgments section of the game manuscript.

“It moreover relies on underworld exploration, combat and treasure to drive an engaging narrative.” [Peterson. 617]

Of course with the codification of the modern idea of the dungeon it wasn’t long before those that were too well designed or deliberately made to be unfair to players became common enough to garner the moniker ‘Dungeons of Death’. A Dungeon of Death being a “dungeon that is considered extremely difficult, in which few characters survive.” [Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press. pg.29]

Even with these bumps in the road dungeons infiltrated and soaked into fantasy roleplaying becoming ubiquitous even in fiction. They could be found everywhere with any kind of subterranean environment becoming a dungeon.

“Dungeons are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. […] If the Dungeon is a pit of the type called an oubliette, on the other hand, you are justified in slight melancholy.” [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. Dungeons]

Roleplaying groups are often wont to find and discover dungeons to explore sometimes exclusively setting out to crawl through such constructs in a style of play referred to as “delving” or as “delves” as in dungeon-delving or more commonly engaged in what is called a Dungeon Crawl.

A ‘crawl’ can refer to anything from breaking into a tricksy guild-house (esp. thieves’ or assassins’ guilds), a mages’ tower, invading a dragon’s lair, or wandering through a cave system. It presents the players and their characters with a challenge which begs to be met as well as granting them bragging rights after meeting that challenge and (hopefully) conquering it. Within the context of a roleplaying game a dungeon serves a couple of major purposes.

The first is to provide a pretty straight forward thrill-packed section of a game campaign. The other major purpose of a dungeon is to provide a stretch in the game which can endure anywhere from one to many sessions where the Game Master just has to rely on the material (hopefully) already written giving them a little break other than running the game itself and having to deal with off-the-cuff bits which dungeons accomplish, mostly, by limiting the wandering scope of the player characters.

“Arneson explained: A dungeon is nice and self-contained. Players can’t go romping over the countryside, and you can control the situation.” [Laycock. 41]

While the running of a dungeon has certain advantages when it comes to the GM’s role they also come with some caveats on the GM’s part as well.

The designing of dungeons demands a particular set of skills and an eye for detail. The Dungeon-Master must know the players that will be entering the dungeon (their ‘delvers’), be familiar with the design of mazes, and a penchant for engaging the delvers within the dungeon. The design of a dungeon requires a certain level of cruelty, ingenuity, and the ability to come up with or adopt details and puzzles that are appropriate to the player group.

The minimum components required to qualify as a ‘dungeon’, at least in my opinion, are a few passages twisted about at least a single room with a minimum of one tricky door, a single trap, and a single monster with maybe a puzzle or riddle thrown in for good measure. Note also a well-designed dungeon should have a balance, but not a particularly predictable, scattering of traps, hazards, obstacles, treasures, monsters, and puzzles which are hopefully not beyond the ability of both the players and their characters.

There are plenty of pre-generated dungeons out there in the ether for purchase or free, known as “Dungeon Modules” taking the hassle and fairly involved work of designing and generating a dungeon off of the GM save for the minor alteration usually needed to work the module into the current campaign and maybe even some modifications to fit it into the game system that the GM may be using at the time especially with those modules written for specific systems. Of course there are a lot pre-gen modules that are “system neutral”. Actual dungeon design is a time consuming endeavor with map-making only the tip of the ice burg though I find that it works better to begin with the map.

Initially you should probably decide on a rough number of rooms to work with and try to keep the number well within that you are confident you can spend the amount of time needed on the design (and decoration) of each depending on the level of detail required per individual chamber. It can get pretty boring when the players are wandering around from empty room filled with detritus to empty room with a pile of rubble or trash strewn over the chamber floor.

Not diminish the use of empty rooms especially when the players have become justifiably paranoid and finally happen upon an empty chamber then take painstaking measures to be careful while making their way through it not to mention the expressions on their faces after they’ve gotten through and have realized it was indeed just an empty room. After deciding on how many chambers you’re going to use you should also know already if the chamber for any reason will require a specific shape or modifications on the map especially when it comes to areas or other rooms outside of that chamber.

This is very necessary when dealing with Trap-Rooms, rooms that are designed as giant traps which are often elaborate and should be used sparingly as these can be particularly deadly. Other map considerations are the support systems and architecture required for certain features such as pools of various types of liquids which would require a source and a drain along with some valves somewhere that can be opened or closed as well as pipes/piping but an inlet and a drain are the most necessary in this particular situation also when dealing with flooding chambers or passageways which also require the addition of an air vent for the escaping air.

Also do not discount mechanical and gear-box areas on the map that may be located above, below or adjacent to a trap/trap-room as well. There are also other considerations that could come into play such as air-vents, sky-light type openings, the floor which can be stone, covered in tiles or flagstones, or be compacted soil etc. Support pillars are a minor consideration but can be useful when there are enemies adding in nice places for cover and to use for ambush and should be placed where it’s obvious that they may be needed for structure but when it comes to a fantasy dungeon the latter use is preferable as you don’t need to be an architect to draw a dungeon map unless the details start to knock on the delvers’ suspension of disbelief.

The second step in this process would be to draw the map and arrange the rooms in a way that serves your purpose maybe even making use of labyrinth or maze logic when it comes to the passageways connecting the individual chambers. You should after or just before this stage figure out the obstacles you’re going to throw in the way of the player characters especially doors, collapsed areas, and large bits of detritus, and simple traps which should be mapped. Of course simple traps and doors could be placed in afterwards if they don’t require complex mechanics or support structures that influence the area on the map around them.

Doors can be simple roadblocks, such as a locked iron door or a barred wooden one, or be somewhat complex with special traps and devices built into them. Another thing to keep in mind even while drawing or building the map are the monsters/enemies found wandering within the dungeon and/or occupying certain chambers. Unless there are special circumstances (namely magic, special devices, or super-science) they will need living quarters and the necessary amenities: food, water, etc.

Probably why most dungeons, even those that are not tombs, have a lot of undead and golem type monsters wandering about them as well as the seemingly ever-present rodent and insect-based creatures whom can be relied upon to provide for themselves in the filth of the place also don’t overlook monstrous fungi which may be feeding off of certain bits of the structure of the dungeon itself not to mention the remains of its victims.

After your map is done you can place the smaller components doors, traps, monsters and then come up with the individual matter (writing for the narration) for the chambers which should be a short couple of sentences setting the general atmosphere of the room (scent, sight, and temperature) along with the play components/features within the chamber. Each of those may have a brief description attached to them as well as the general physical description of any readily apparent enemy within as well. Combined together this matter is what composes the entirety of the room description.

A room description is what the GM will narrate to the players when their characters either look into the chamber or when they enter it all based of course on what the characters can logically see at the time based on their positions and point of view. Voila! You have a functional dungeon. The basic steps in designing a dungeon are: Decide on the number of rooms, decide what extra support features will need to be mapped, draw the map, come up with and place the smaller features such as traps/doors, come up with and place enemies keeping in mind the amenities they will need to survive (also known as Dungeon Ecology), and then come up with the details/descriptions needed for each chamber not discounting those for the smaller components as well as enemies. Note also that a well-designed dungeon should have a balanced, but not particularly predictable, scattering of traps, hazards, obstacles, treasures, monsters, and puzzles which is hopefully not beyond the ability of both players and their characters.

Dungeons are a common and even archetypical dare I say cliché scenario found in contemporary roleplaying games and is a mode of play that may also dominate the type of play in which certain ‘dungeoneering’ groups will participate. In roleplaying the term is associated with scenarios involving a map which can be simple or complex with chambers and passages populated with traps, hazards, enemies, and treasures to be had applying to anything from the under-passages of a castle or city sewer to a cave complex, dragon’s lair, or even the interior of a wizard’s tower. Dungeons never quite existed historically in the form the word is now associated with though it still carries some of the historic weight and imagery associated with the word given it by history and literature.

The modern dungeon was inspired and influenced not just by history especially due to the evolution of RPG’s from historical war-gaming but by popular fiction, possibly more so, especially J.R.R. Tolkien and the mines of Moria featured in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The mythological/historical inspirations range from the hazardous tombs of ancient Egypt to the decorated hedge-mazes of 16th and 18th century Europe and Britain not to mention the raging-bull in the room of the Cretan Labyrinth.

In some ways dungeons are directly linked to such ideas as mazes/labyrinths and make use of other ideas with equally as long lineages such as riddles, magic, and monsters. It was developed at the birth of roleplaying games not solely invented by a single person but evolved by the contributions of early roleplayers and their ‘referees’ one of the central figures being a prime contributor to the birth of roleplaying, Dave Arneson.

His Blackmoor campaign is of central interest where concerning dungeons and the refinement and spreading of the dungeon scenario by such individuals as Louis Fallert, Craig van Grasstek, and Will Crowther. Within the context of a roleplaying game session a dungeon can help the GM maintain control by limiting the scope of the game into a finite self-contained space and limit the range of the player characters whose imperative it is to wander. It also adds in some action and thrills to a campaign with little effort due to the nature of such scenarios. For these two reasons the dungeon has become a central part of the roleplaying experience not to mention they can also be fun to design and populate. Designing a dungeon can be as fun as delving and is definitely an exercise in creativity but it can be rather time-intensive. Fortunately there are dungeon-modules galore that can be had for free or purchased via multiple outlets.

A dungeon presents the puzzlement and symbolism of the maze, the potential to trap and imprison like the oubliette, the thrill of exploration as the tombs of ancient Egypt, and the power of mytho-historic imagery and the clichés presented by fantasy fiction stirred into the pot. With it a dungeon drags the connotations of reward and danger as well as the test of cunning to escape and bypass the traps, the strength to overcome resident foes, and the intelligence to solve its puzzles. Even the word ‘dungeon’ itself has the weight of history and color of imagery associated with it that which transcends the gaming table and adds a certain power to any maze-like challenge dubbed as such. Due to the ease of acquirement as well as the ease of design of dungeons along with the fun to be had while delving should leave no questions as to why dungeons are so popular in the current state of roleplaying games.