Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XVI)

Holmes includes a section entitled "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art," in which he briefly discusses the (literally) artistic side of refereeing: making maps. He notes that
There should be several levels and each level should have access above and below and be made up of interlocking corridors, passages, stairs, closed rooms, secret doors, traps, and surprises for the unwary.
Though not a direct quote, this echoes much of the advice found in Volume 3 of OD&D. Beneath the section, there's this famous cross-section:
I can't calculate the way that this single illustration exerted an influence over my imagination. Even now, when I think of a dungeon, it's Stone Mountain that comes to mind. Also of interest is the fact that the text of the Blue Book notes that the Basic Set "includes the introductory module 'In Search of the Unknown'," even though later printings included The Keep on the Borderlands instead.

Next, Holmes provides us with a section entitled "Sample Floor Plan, Part of First Level." Before he actually gets around to showing us his sample dungeon, though, he digresses into a broad discussion of playing the game, including an example of play. Holmes reiterates OD&D by stating that "many rooms should be empty," two-thirds of them in fact. He also explains that
Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety but those which a character might avoid or overcome with some quick thinking and a little luck.
That single sentence alone says a great deal about the culture of play at the time, especially when combined with this one:
The possibility of "death" must be very real, but players must be able to win through luck and courage, or they will lose interest in the game and not come back.
Twice now Holmes has emphasized the importance of luck, something I too think is essential to the appeal of roleplaying games. His use of the term "courage" is intriguing. I suspect he meant "boldness" or "daring," suggesting that players ought not to be timid and paranoid and that be willing to take chances often yields positive results.

Holmes does suggest that the use of "appropriate speech" is an important part of the fun in the game, by which he clearly means "speaking in character." He also provides examples of swearing by deities, such as "Zeus, Crom, Cthulhu, or whatever," which says something about his own inspirations. Of course, he later on adds that
The imaginary universe of Dungeons & Dragons obviously lies not too far from the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's great Lord of the Rings trilogy. The D&D universe also impinges on the fantasy worlds of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Gardner F. Fox, classical mythology and any other source of inspiration the Dungeon Master wants to use.
In addition to the usual Mapper and Caller positions, Holmes suggests that one player "keep a 'Chronicle' of the monsters killed, treasure obtained, etc." This is the first time I've seen reference to such a role but it's possible it is mentioned elsewhere.

In his example of play, most of the dialog is between the D.M. and Caller, with an occasional interjection from another player. What's interesting is that, unlike in Moldvay, Holmes's example never refers to characters by their names, instead saying only "halfling" or "the fighter." My favorite bit from the example is the following exchange:
Caller: "Does he hear anything?"
D.M.: (Carefully rolling a secret die for end-of-turn wandering monster) "No. But the halfling guarding the door reports hearing slithering noises outside."
Player: "Hey, everybody, I hear slithering noises!"
That's pure gold right there.

As noted throughout this series, Holmes considers the role of the referee paramount, even going so far as to note that "the success of an expedition depends on the Dungeon Master and his creation, the dungeon." That's an unusual perspective but one that certainly makes sense in context -- without the DM's preparation beforehand, the game would be impossible. Holmes then ends his referee's section with the following reminder:
These rules are intended as guidelines. No two Dungeon Masters run their dungeons quite the same way, as anyone who has learned the game with one group and then transferred to another can easily attest. You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll -- roll the number and see what happens! The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!
It's almost certainly an exaggeration to call these this the best referee's advice ever given, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that it's excellent advice that I've carried with me ever since 1979 when I first read it. In particular, the notion that no one should expect any two campaigns to be the same is one I like and one that I wish had held the day within the hobby.


  1. Mmm...totally agree with that final sentiment. Thanks for the great series.

    BTW: I think it's these early imperatives to "speak in character" that led to people getting a real feel for role-playing...that and having to "think in character." But that's just my thought on the matter.

  2. The series still has a little more to go, so I'm not done yet!

  3. The one thing that always rubs me the wrong way in that example is the dictatorial control the caller is allowed to have over the other characters. Fortunately, it's a style of play that has since withered and you don't need to talk anyone out of it these days. The rest of the advice, as you say, is pure gold, as is the Tower of Zenopus adventure.

  4. Like you, those sample maps and dungeons always got my creative juices flowing. I've always enjoyed taking a good idea and expounding on it much more than coming up with something from scratch.

  5. I always got the sense that Holmes's example left out discussion between the players about the course of action that they were taking, instead collapsing into the Caller's announcement to the DM after all the decisions had been made. When I was younger and we still used a Caller, that's how things went, but maybe I'm just projecting my experiences onto the text.

  6. We experimented with a Caller back in the day, but it didn't last. Whatever our characters' alignments, we as players and GM were just too Chaotic. :)

    Skull mountain has always appealed to me, too. I wish they had developed it. Maybe I will, just for the heck of it.

    BTW, if you search "tower of zenopus" on Google, a PDF of the GM advice section and the sample adventure is available at the Wizards web site.

  7. Ever since I first got the Holmes book, I have wanted to map out and design Skull Mountain.
    I still have yet to do it.

  8. I started a pbp in rpol, named Stone Skull Mountain, using Holmes, geomorphs, Monsters and treasures assortment, and the Rogue gallery. Unfortunately, I had to leave it for a while, but now I'm seeking new players.

  9. I think the Caller is a throwback to a more hierarchical and authoritarian time, where hobby groups had assigned roles for individuals, often hierarchically given. You still see this in some hobby groups in Japan today (though not in the role-playing groups I play with).

    It reminds me of how school and public life was organised in those days, and maybe it just faded out as things changed in the outside world (though maybe it was gone by the time of AD&D - so perhaps it was just the groups they played in at that time).

    James, I'm intrigued by your final sentence. Do you really think that modern gamers "expect any two campaigns to be the same," and if so why?

  10. James, I'm intrigued by your final sentence. Do you really think that modern gamers "expect any two campaigns to be the same," and if so why?

    I think this primarily because, as RPGs changed in response to the demands of their fans, especially D&D, there's a greater emphasis placed on uniformity of rules. You can see this in AD&D, where Gygax specifically notes that a lack of such uniformity hampers both the growth of the game and the ability of players to move from one group to another.

    I don't think gamers nowadays are averse to house rules and rules tweaks by any means. But I do think there's (generally) less tolerance for the wild variations that existed back in the 70s, when each "D&D" campaign was basically its own game sharing certain basic rules in common with other ostensibly D&D campaigns but quite divergent in most other respects.

  11. Agreed. In the firts issue of Casus Belli, which was at that time a french wargamers review - and had to becaome a mythical rpg one - there was an article about D&d, which was not yet translated officially in french. I think it was an article from François Marvell-Froideval, who worked with TSR - and that's one of the featres of the game he put on evidence : two tables had a real different game, using a wide set of houses rules, third products and so on.

    But, the same does exists now more or less with the 3rd era gamers - they got plenty of supplements and options, including third party products, so they must make a choice between that material. In the pbp world, it's obvious no two DMs use the same set of rules.

  12. I'll just point out that I do still require a leader/caller position in all my games, and I think it works really well. My attitude is that it front-loads a discussion of how impasse/ disagreements will be worked out (as opposed to one dominant player personality taking over mid-game). It comes with a warning from me, "The idea is not to be tyrannical", and I've never seen it go wrong.

    See #5 here.

  13. "I can't calculate the way that this single illustration exerted an influence over my imagination. Even now, when I think of a dungeon, it's Stone Mountain that comes to mind."

    You're certainly not alone there. I've made a few versions of "Skull Mountain" over the years. One of them we'll be publishing later this summer. It's a highly evocative little diagram.

  14. Stone Mountain Rocks! [Sorry, somebody had to...]

    If it has a twin, it's got to be the one or two maps of the the Lost City and the Pyramids megadungeon in the old Basic D&D module B4.

    Great stuff!