Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Retrospective: Dungeon Geomorphs

If you ever want a visual illustration of how much the hobby has changed from when I first entered it and today, you need only look to products like Dungeon Geomorphs. Originally published in three parts between 1976 and 1977, my first encounter with Dungeon Geomorphs was in 1981, by which point all three parts had been collected into a single product, with a memorable cover by Bill Willingham. Since I've still never seen the original releases, my thoughts will focus solely on the 1981 collection, though I've  never seen any evidence that, other than the format, much changed between 1976/77 and 1981.

Dungeon Geomorphs is quite clearly intended as an aid to the referee in quickly creating new dungeon levels, much like the Monsters & Treasure Assortment. It includes 48 pages of traditional blue and white maps, each of which is divided into square and rectangular sections (30 of the form and 15 of the latter). Some of these maps feature typical dungeons, while others feature caves and caverns. When cut apart, the maps can be easily connected to one another in almost any combination to create large maps on the fly. I say "almost" because nearly every combination results in at least a few dead end corridors or passages, but their presence may be the result of dungeon design philosophy as much as more immediate, practical considerations. Old school dungeons frequently included dead ends to delay and confuse players as their characters explored. It's a feature that's not so common anymore and one that I admit I had to remind myself of when designing Dwimmermount's levels for my own campaign.

Dungeon Geomorphs was designed by Gary Gygax and his son Ernie and was, I suspect, something of a throwback product even by 1981. Though I owned and liked Dungeon Geomorphs, I cannot recall ever using it to create a truly huge dungeon map. More often I'd take a section or two to expand upon an existing map I felt too small or I'd use it to quickly build a monster lair encountered in the wilderness. Nearly all of the sample dungeons and modules I'd seen in official TSR publications or in the pages of Dragon were fairly small affairs, with about 30-40 rooms per level (at most). Most of these dungeons rarely had more than two or three levels. I doubt I was alone in having a limited view of what a "dungeon" consisted of than did those purchasing this product in its original releases.

As the years crept on, dungeons kept getting smaller and smaller, with rare exceptions, thus making products like this curiosities rather than essential tools for the referee running a D&D campaign. Fortunately, that's changing. Megadungeons -- and geomorphs -- have made something of a comeback in recent years, thanks in no small part to the old school renaissance's resurrection of this ancient birthplace of the hobby as a vibrant locale for adventure. A good place to look for modern day geomorphs is at the excellent Dave's Mapper site, which gives contemporary referees everything they need to create a massive dungeon in seconds.

14 comments:

  1. I would have preferred had he used actual subterranean maps and building blueprints as his reference points in the early days of the hobby. I think it would have given us a more interesting template on which to build the early published and homebrew DnD adventures.

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    1. Actual Subterranean maps have their own issues. I have some experience with this from Harn which uses realistic cavern maps.

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  2. Bought one of these, but never made use of them. But then my preference is for smaller, lair-type dungeons, so I really wasn't the target audience, I think.

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  3. The only real difference between the separate versions & the compilation that Ive noticed is in the dungeon stocking rules. The Caves & Caverns (the only separate one credited to Ernie as well) suggests approx 50% rooms have monsters, treasures & other notable items & for every 5 of these encounters, one trap.

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  4. This isn't all ancient history. Goodman Games came out with a completely useless Dungeon Geomorphs book. I believe it is DCC#9

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  5. with a memorable cover by Bill Willingham

    I can't look at that cover without now thinking of Jeff's gameblog.

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  6. This brings back memories. I don't think I ever used a dungeon made from these for gaming, but I used to like looking at them and imagining what kind of adventures could go on there.

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  7. We started with the first edition Holmes Basic that came with the geomorphs instead of B1 (since B1 had not been published yet...). I ran a weekend of gaming exploring the geomorphs. I didn't cut them apart, so I think I actually had long corridors separating three segments of a level.

    Frank

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    1. I have two sets of these, cut up, but rarely used. I think they just ended up being too much work when I was younger and too different from what I visualize a dungeon looking like now. But they are interesting.

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  8. I've never used these, 'cuz I'm obsessive about drawing my own dungeon levels. Ok, that's not *quite* true... Sometimes I do 'steal' from my fav PC/video/board games! One day I should give them a try, if only to justify the purchase. :-)

    Grodog's Greyhawk and the Acaeum list the differences between the individual Geomorph Sets and the Dungeon Geomorph Compendium(Sets 1-3).

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    1. Sets 2 and 3 had sample encounters by Gygax not included in combined set. Of these, the Aurotyugh, an otherwise undescribed monster by Gygax, is the hidden "gem".

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  9. Meh. I was underwhelmed with these even back in the late 1970's. They likely didn't improve with age like wine either. Drawing dungeon maps was never the problem for me (and still isn't). Stocking dungeons, and differentiating between dozens of rooms...that was what took time for me.

    These days? My D&D campaigns rarely include anything recognizable as a dungeon crawl, as my current player group finds them tedious as hell, and I can't blame them.

    While an occasional venture into small caverns, ruins, abandoned cities, sewers as part of a larger overall quest can be fun, if I broke out a megadungeon in a game today, my players would be not-so-subtly looking for a new GM tomorrow.

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