Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Holmes Maps

My birthday is this coming Friday and my good friend and business partner Richard sent me a very kind gift in the form of a copy of Dr. J. Eric Holmes's 1981 book Fantasy Role Playing Games. I'll likely be talking a lot about this book in the coming weeks as I work my way through it, but, having just flipped through it, I came across two images I had to share here:


I have no idea if these maps can be attributed to Dr. Holmes himself, although they certainly look similar to the dungeon map in the Blue Book (another map that may well not be the work of Holmes -- does anyone know its origins?). Regardless, these maps are interesting two me for a couple of reasons. First, they're keyed directly on to the map itself. This is a practice that seems to have been pretty commonplace in the old days. I can recall doing it on some of my earliest dungeons too and I believe that we have evidence that Gygax and Arneson both did this, at least to some degree.

Second, these maps are small, much like the map in the Blue Book. Nowadays, it's taken as Gospel that old school dungeons were megadungeons -- huge, sprawling campaign dungeons that could never be cleared and acted as the axes around which entire campaigns revolved. I certainly don't mean to dismiss that megadungeons of this sort existed, but I suspect, like many things in the old school renaissance, the prevalence of such megadungeons is probably exaggerated. I don't think it's for nothing that there are no published examples of megadungeons in the early days of the hobby, when most modules presented smaller "lair" dungeons. Likewise, none of the older guys I knew back then ran a megadungeon-based campaign. Instead, their campaigns were filled with many dungeons, some of them many levels deep but I don't think could compare to Castles Blackmoor or Greyhawk in terms of their size and scope.

In any case, the maps in Fantasy Role Playing Games are intriguing. I'm going to be reading the book closely to see if any sections of it discuss the creation of dungeons, with an eye toward trying to extract from it any insights into either Holmes's own philosophy of dungeon building or a more general sense of how referees at the time looked at this endeavor.

21 comments:

  1. The drawing at the top of that second map reminds me of Ken Simpson's drawing on page 29 of The First Fantasy Campaign by Dave Arneson.

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  2. That book is awesome. I picked up a copy at a library book sale years ago.

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  3. Sweet! I love that book. I think most of my public library overdue charges in the 80's were because of that book.

    I don't think I ever knew until the days of Google that J. Eric Holmes, the author of Fantasy Role Playing Games, was also the writer of the blue basic D&D book.

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  4. That book is one of the treasured items in my roleplaying-related collection. I'll look forward to your extended coverage of it. :)

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  5. I was pleasantly surprised to read this post. If the prevalence of megadungeons in early D&D is overrated, it's at least in part due to comments like this: I've become ever more convinced that a "tent pole" megadungeon is pretty much a sine qua non for an old school campaign. Dungeons & Dragons was written, after all, with megadungeons in mind and I don't think you can really get the most out of the game if you ignore the whole concept. (James Maliszewski, Dec. 21, 2008)

    I tend to agree with your current views rather than those of 2008, largely because it matches my own experience.

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  6. If the prevalence of megadungeons in early D&D is overrated, it's at least in part due to comments like this

    I think you over-estimate my influence :)

    That said, I don't think there's anything contradictory in saying that, on the one hand, OD&D was written on the assumption that referees would base their campaigns around megadungeons and the rules were intended to support that style of campaigning and, on the other, that a lot of early players of the game never embraced this assumption as their own. Indeed, I think the schizophrenic development of of D&D over the years can be explained because the game was written to support game play that wasn't universally accepted and players and designers alike scrambled to find ways to accommodate these other approaches, often without much regard for the consequences.

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  7. I ran four campaigns from 1982 to 1992 and I never had anything like a "mega dungeon" in any of them. It was pretty much find a dungeon of one or two levels, wipe out the inhabitants, loot, and repeat - with occasional excursions into the woods and town for variety. In fact, having a lot of little separate dungeons tended to facilitate wilderness and town adventures as the players travelled from one dungeon to another. Other campaigns I observed during the same time period seemed to be similar. I can't recall seeing or even hearing about any campaign that seemed to be based around a single gigantic dungeon. I don't see anything wrong with the idea; it just doesn't match my experience and observation during the original "old school" days of the hobby.

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  8. I agree that OD&D was written with megadungeon play in mind; I'm not so sure that megadungeons are a sine qua non for every old-school campaign (and now it seems you're not, either). I have from time to time gotten the impression from this blog that you thought whatever Gary Gygax did was Right, and to the extent that other early players of D&D deviated from that, they were Wrong. I'm sure you did not mean to convey such an impression, and I did not detect it in every post; it is nice to see, though, an unequivocal statement that the way I and most of the people I knew played was not only Right, but cool (though even then it seems to be cool mostly because Dr. Holmes did it).

    And as regards your influence: I honestly think you underestimate it. Maybe not in 2008, but by now, certainly.

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  9. Here in the Netherlands this tome was my real introduction to role playing. Picked it up in a second hand bookshop in 1981. And for me too, it's still a treasured item on my shelves :-)

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  10. Back in the day my own dungeons were 2-4 level affairs and the campaign was definitely one of travelling between many different adventure sites.

    My current dungeons are much the same a mix of small dungeons with three deeper ones (a couple levels deeper than the old ones), but the tendency to diversify is still the same. I like having different feels for the locales, it helps me keep design a little fresher.

    But I'm not sure I would read too much into Holmes' small maps. I mean he was also the guy that had that classic mega-dungeon cross section Skull Mountain and the dungeon of Mazes of Perils (which just has to be written as a campaign journal)is a most explicit example.

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  11. Shadow - I think by 1982 that campaigns were largely modeled after the published adventure modules of the time, and so were very episodic with smaller, more limited dungeons.

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  12. It's funny how story gamer Tony Dowler's fabulous Microdungeons "re-invented" the approach of labeling the dungeons directly.

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  13. Holmes did design the Sample Dungeon in the Basic rulebook (Gygax confirmed this). The map for it has many features that tie it to the described dungeon, so he probably drew the original version. It appears to be on graph paper with the same small squares as the above maps. However, it may have been redrawn by a cartographer at TSR.
    Also note that with the second (lower) map above that the rooms are keyed alphabetically, just like the Sample Dungeon in the Basic rulebook.

    That second map above is for a sample dungeon (called "The Eye of Arzaz" on the map, "Dungeon of Arzaz" in the text). This dungeon, along with an entire simplified RPG system, fits into one chapter of the book, so format considerations probably influenced its size.

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  14. I agree that OD&D was written with megadungeon play in mind; I'm not so sure that megadungeons are a sine qua non for every old-school campaign (and now it seems you're not, either).

    I certainly have softened my stance on the necessity of a megdungeon in a D&D campaign. However, I still think that the rules of the game work best with and make the most sense in the context of a megadungeon-centric campaign. A great many of the "problems" with the game are artifacts of players using the game in ways its creators could never have foreseen.

    I have from time to time gotten the impression from this blog that you thought whatever Gary Gygax did was Right, and to the extent that other early players of D&D deviated from that, they were Wrong.

    To the extent that "Right" means "the original intention behind the rules," I still believe that. To the extent that "Wrong" means "using the rules any other way is evidence of crimethink," I've never believed that.

    I'm sure you did not mean to convey such an impression, and I did not detect it in every post; it is nice to see, though, an unequivocal statement that the way I and most of the people I knew played was not only Right, but cool

    Given how often I've been misunderstood on this point, it's certainly my fault for not being more clear, so I'll reiterate: OD&D was written in a certain context and with certain expectations. Playing the game with those expectations in mind is playing it as intended. Many gamers, some of them quite early, decided to do other things with OD&D. Those things weren't intended. Claims to "right" or "wrong" only make sense in context and almost any time I use such words, which isn't often, I mean them within the realm of author intention, not as value judgments.

    (though even then it seems to be cool mostly because Dr. Holmes did it).

    I said nothing of the kind. I said only that it's clear from looking at Holmes's maps that he favored small, more focused dungeons rather than sprawling megadungeons and that this made me wonder if perhaps megadungeons were less common than I had supposed. I made no judgments about "coolness," "rightness," or anything else. It was merely an observation on the commonness of different approaches to dungeon building.

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  15. I mean he was also the guy that had that classic mega-dungeon cross section Skull Mountain and the dungeon of Mazes of Perils (which just has to be written as a campaign journal)is a most explicit example.

    This is true. It's just interesting that, for all the discussion of "huge ruined piles" in the early books, we see no good examples of such dungeons in early printed works.

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  16. I think by 1982 that campaigns were largely modeled after the published adventure modules of the time, and so were very episodic with smaller, more limited dungeons.

    Yes, definitely. I think gamers coming into the hobby after a certain point -- by 1980 certainly, if not before -- had their perceptions of what a "dungeon" is colored irrevocably by the existence of adventure modules, which, intentionally or not, became the primary teacher of new referees when it came to how to design a dungeon.

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  17. That second map above is for a sample dungeon (called "The Eye of Arzaz" on the map, "Dungeon of Arzaz" in the text). This dungeon, along with an entire simplified RPG system, fits into one chapter of the book, so format considerations probably influenced its size.

    So I now see. I haven't gotten very far into Holmes's book yet, so I wasn't aware of the context of the illustrations when I was flipping through the book earlier today.

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  18. Holmes did have at least some affinity for the megadungeon. Here's his description of a colossal Underworld in 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 center of the world ... 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. But rumors of the Underworld were mostly false leads. Most of the contacts Zereth had made did not know how to reach the entrances to the fabled realm, or else their exaggerated claims turned out to be schemes to fleece the unwary adventurer of his resources" (pg 3).

    The name Underworld seems straight out of the original Underworld & Wilderness Adventures booklet, and the unnamed & unknowable prehistoric race provides a quick rationalization for the existence of a megadungeon. The description also reminds me of the underworld in Empire of the Petal Throne (which Holmes reviews in the FRPG book).

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  19. I just started running Tegal Manor for my monthly gaming group and I really like how much information is on the map. Given how much is in Tegal Manor I think the format it uses is pretty optimal.

    However I think for a smaller adventure I would feel a ripped off with such a terse format. I had somebody point out that not only they are buying to save prep time but also to get the author insight on how an adventure is to be run. You simply can't communicate that vision in such a terse format.

    But for a referee doing work for his own game I think the combination of a descriptive map and terse room description would work great. Much of it coming out of the referee head anyway so there is no reason to go into great detail unless absolutely needed.

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  20. "...but I suspect, like many things in the old school renaissance, the prevalence of such megadungeons is probably exaggerated."

    This is a very astute assessment. It plays into the entire "everything was better back in the day" phenomena that goes on. It is probably worth examining what were "mega dungeons" back in the day. If anything, I suspect the concept of a mega-dungeons is one that grew and developed over time.

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  21. If anything, I suspect the concept of a mega-dungeons is one that grew and developed over time.

    Well, I don't think there was anything like a developed theory/philosophy behind the creation of megadungeons in the early days. They just sort of happened and people ran with the idea. Nowadays, when we talk about them, we do so with the benefit of hindsight and that hindsight warps and amplifies aspects of the megadungeon concept that makes it different than its original appearances.

    That said, there really were megadungeons back then and OD&D was written with them in mind. I think many gamers discard megadungeons too casually, even if, at the same time, I also think their centrality gets overplayed nowadays.

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