OSR The Basic/Expert Dungeon

Yora

Legend
I've been very curious for a while about how a campaign would actually play if you follow the advice in the Basic and Expert rules just as they are written. It won't reveal how people actually commonly played the game back in 1982, but the longer I keep studying the original rules and try to apply them, the more I discover that a lot of things I first thought to be quirky, unnecessary, or impractical are actually really clever design. Now I don't want to dismiss anything before I've seen how it actually behaves in practice and impacts play.

The Basic rules have two pages describing a process to create an adventure (for a low level party). I don't think any of the B-Series modules (or any others from TSR I know about) actually applied these suggested guidelines, except maybe B1 In Search of the Unknow, which predates B/X by several years. But the kind of dungeon you'll get by following the guidelines seems really quite interesting.

The suggested content for dungeon rooms is as follows:
1/3 of rooms with monsters, 1/2 of which have treasure.
1/6 of rooms with traps, 1/3 of which protect treasure.
1/6 of rooms with special features (magic devices, machines, ...)
1/3 of rooms that are empty, but 1/6 of which have treasure

If you apply these to a dungeon with 36 rooms, you get the following:
6 rooms with monsters and treasure
6 rooms with monsters
2 rooms with traps and treasure
4 rooms with traps
6 rooms with special features
2 rooms with a hidden treasure
10 empty rooms

When you add to this the fact that less than half of the monsters encountered will be hostile to the party (because of reaction rolls), things do get quite interesting.
  • In total, this 36 room dungeon will have 6 encounters with hostile monsters. Presuming this dungeon will take 60 turns to complete, there will roughly 4 to 6 encounters with wandering monsters, of which again only 2 or 3 will be hostile to the party. That is not a lot of combat.
  • Only a third of rooms is occupied by creatures, many of which won't have need or the ability to put up lights. If you're underground, this is going to be a very dark place.
  • There will be 10 treasures in the dungeon, which will hold the bulk of all the valuables that the players can find. That does seem much more exciting to find than picking up 36 small pouches of coins.
  • Interestingly, about 3 of the 10 treasures will be in the possession of monsters that are not agressive towards the party. Getting their treasure might still seem very appealing to the players, though.
  • Using the surprise rules, there will be an 8 in 36 chance (22%) that the party catches monsters unaware. This allows them to strike first against the monsters before a reaction roll is made. Not a hard choice when sneaking up on two ogers roasting a halfling on a spit, but what about a group of dirty humans with rusty weapons? (This is also where things like "goblins will always attack dwarves" become meaningful.)
  • In light of all this, clerics getting only a single 1st level spell at level 2, and maybe not even taking cure light wounds every time, is not that outlandish. Similarly, mages being unable to contribute in combat at low levels also isn't quite the end of the world, as only a tenth of turns in a dungeon might inlude combat at all.

The kind of environment described by these parameters really does evoke the image of a nearly abandoned ruin, where something big and nasty might be right behind every corner, but most of the time there's still more silent darkness. Very different from the typical villain strongholds or ant hive caves I see in most adventures.
 

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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
A good breakdown.

One thing I'd like to note that B/X doesn't go into a lot of detail on- as in OD&D, the intent is for the DM to curate and deliberately design and place a few special rooms and treasure hoards, and for the random generation to be used to fill in the remainder. If you go purely by the random generation system, your dungeon will tend to be under-treasured. If you compare the output to any of the B series modules, this becomes apparent, as you've noted.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
This is pretty much how I designed dungeons for the first 2-3 years I DMed. Except as Mannahnin notes there needed to be a few extra treasure hoards/special encounters sprinkled in that went beyond the random generation. I don't know where I picked up that advice - I would have assumed it was in the B/X or B/E books somewhere, but if it wasn't in those I never DMd OD&D so I don't know where I would have gotten it from.

When you add to this the fact that less than half of the monsters encountered will be hostile to the party (because of reaction rolls), things do get quite interesting.
Less than half the monsters encountered will be initially hostile to the party. IME in those days the party very quickly made sure that most monster encounters turned hostile even if the initial reaction roll didn't indicate it. :)
 

Yora

Legend
Random treasure generation is one of the few things that I actually did throw out before testing it first, and never had used in 3rd edition either. There are lots of monsters that won't have any meaningful treasures, and if you populate a dungeon with a collection of creatures for a common theme, you can easily have situations where there is no meaningful treasure to be found.
If you randomize which creatures populate all your dungeons, then the treasure to threat ratio will approach a statistical balance eventually. Where that balance actually ends up is a different matter, though.

The Basic rules recommend that characters should get about three times as many XP from treasure as from monsters. Which I think sounds like a reasonable balance. So my approach is to simply add up the XP of all the monsters in the rooms, multiply by 3, and put that many coins in all the treasure stashes that are in the dungeon. Doesn't really matter what kind of creatures are guarding the stashes that are being guarded. Not all monsters will be fought, but not all treasue will be found. That should roughly even out.

I don't include wandering monsters in that calculation. Random encounters are meant to be a bad thing. Something that players should want to avoid by not making noise or dragging their feet. They should mostly be a cost, with little chance for reward.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
This is pretty much how I designed dungeons for the first 2-3 years I DMed. Except as Mannahnin notes there needed to be a few extra treasure hoards/special encounters sprinkled in that went beyond the random generation. I don't know where I picked up that advice - I would have assumed it was in the B/X or B/E books somewhere, but if it wasn't in those I never DMd OD&D so I don't know where I would have gotten it from.
The B/X dungeon generation rules are pretty vague about it- they tell you to deliberately design & stock a few "special" rooms as I recall. I'd have to look at the book to quote the exact wording. OD&D is much more explicit that you're expected specifically to "thoughtfully place" some rooms and important hoards, particularly comprised of gems, jewelry, and magic items. The good stuff!
 

Yora

Legend
Somehow it had not actually occured to me that you could stock a dungeon by rolling on the tables. Even though I did have to calculate the ratios from the random tables. Just have gotten so used to doing that for years. :LOL:

I wouldn't randomly generate a dungeon by rolling dice, even if I were to run in a generic D&D setting.
 

FriendlyFiend

Explorer
The kind of environment described by these parameters really does evoke the image of a nearly abandoned ruin, where something big and nasty might be right behind every corner, but most of the time there's still more silent darkness. Very different from the typical villain strongholds or ant hive caves I see in most adventures.
Seeing it laid out like this makes me realise why I've enjoyed games like Forbidden Lands and Beyond the Wall so much - they evoke that 'abandoned ruin' feel so well.
 

Yora

Legend
It's an aesthetic that D&D has always continued to present itself as. But the actual game structure to make it an engaging form of play have been discontinued many decades ago. I always felt that D&D could never provide the kind of adventures that it was promising, or at least I couldn't make it happen.
It took me until quite recently to understand why going from room to room in a ruin with no plot would be fun, and I needed someone to spell it out for me. It becomes fun when it's a struggle where wrong choices can have long lasting consequences instead of a series of setpieces, that individually are nothing special.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
This is very useful information, and definitely puts the power of low-level PCs into context. The abandoned ruin vibe seems very cool, I’d be really interested to try a game that carefully observed these guidelines.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
It's an aesthetic that D&D has always continued to present itself as. But the actual game structure to make it an engaging form of play have been discontinued many decades ago. I always felt that D&D could never provide the kind of adventures that it was promising, or at least I couldn't make it happen.
It took me until quite recently to understand why going from room to room in a ruin with no plot would be fun, and I needed someone to spell it out for me. It becomes fun when it's a struggle where wrong choices can have long lasting consequences instead of a series of setpieces, that individually are nothing special.
Well, sadly the dungeon crawling procedures/turn-based exploration fell out of mechanical support starting in 1989, but some folks did continue playing this way, and the OSR has been re-popularizing this approach.

I've played this way periodically at conventions going back to around 2010, and more continually since the pandemic, since I joined a couple of OSR Discord servers and FB group finders, and got into some old school games online. I've been running one for about two years as well.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
It occurs to me that this “mostly abandoned ruin” setup seems directly at odds with the most common advice I see for running megadungeons: to make them living ecosystems full of various factions with which to interact.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Somehow it had not actually occured to me that you could stock a dungeon by rolling on the tables. Even though I did have to calculate the ratios from the random tables. Just have gotten so used to doing that for years. :LOL:

I wouldn't randomly generate a dungeon by rolling dice, even if I were to run in a generic D&D setting.
It's a fun exercise. I've generated multiple dungeons this way by taking a map found online, from Dyson Logos or elsewhere, then randomly generating stuff straight out of the tables. Often the random stuff starts your brain working on imagining connections, and then you make a few little tweaks to give it greater coherence and explain interrelationships between the different monsters, traps and special rooms, etc.

On the OSR pick up games server I played on for a while, one evening a group of us did this instead of playing a regular session. Just took a map, hung out and randomly generated a dungeon, brainstorming themes and connections and tweaks as we went.

Often I'll have some context/seed for at least one main treasure and/or foe there, but those can also be randomly generated using a resource like Matt Finch's Tome of Adventure Design. The Wandering DMs have designed a couple of dungeons live on stream in about an hour (or two, for the first attempt) this way. The two of them starting with a map, first generating a random theme, then randomly stocking the dungeon and brainstorming ideas to give it some cohesion.


Daniel from the Bandit's Keep channel also has an ongoing series of vids where he designs an adventure based on one of the seeds in the B/X books, with a lot of random generation of elements. Here's an example of one he designed, and then got a group to play as a one-shot:


Actual Play - BX D&D - They Once Were Gods
 
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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
It occurs to me that this “mostly abandoned ruin” setup seems directly at odds with the most common advice I see for running megadungeons: to make them living ecosystems full of various factions with which to interact.
You might think that, but they're not inherently contradictory. "Mostly" is a bit vague here.

Megadungeons are supposed to have significant space between monster lairs, which serves a few different functions. It adds verisimilitude, giving the monsters space they'd need to not be in constant conflict. It gives maneuvering room for the party to run from monsters, or to try to move AROUND and avoid a tough monster lair. It builds suspense and gives spaces to poke around in between monster encounters (rooms lacking monsters can still have tricks, traps, and hidden treasure). But searching empty spaces always has a bit of time tension, as your light burns down and you get random encounter rolls. Any given empty room could wind up being the site of an encounter due to wandering monsters.

Once a DM designs/rolls up a dungeon, it DOES make sense to organize the intelligent inhabitants into factions. Brainstorm a bit about interrelationships. But this doesn't mean the dungeon has to be FULL. The bugbears and the neanderthals could live on neighboring levels with a set of stairs, a hallway and a dozen rooms separating their territories, but the PCs could still cut a deal with one group to help them take on the other.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
You might think that, but they're not inherently contradictory. "Mostly" is a bit vague here.

Megadungeons are supposed to have significant space between monster lairs, which serves a few different functions. It adds verisimilitude, giving the monsters space they'd need to not be in constant conflict. It gives maneuvering room for the party to run from monsters, or to try to move AROUND and avoid a tough monster lair. It builds suspense and gives spaces to poke around in between monster encounters (rooms lacking monsters can still have tricks, traps, and hidden treasure). But searching empty spaces always has a bit of time tension, as your light burns down and you get random encounter rolls. Any given empty room could wind up being the site of an encounter due to wandering monsters.

Once a DM designs/rolls up a dungeon, it DOES make sense to organize the intelligent inhabitants into factions. Brainstorm a bit about interrelationships. But this doesn't mean the dungeon has to be FULL. The bugbears and the neanderthals could live on neighboring levels with a set of stairs, a hallway and a dozen rooms separating their territories, but the PCs could still cut a deal with one group to help them take on the other.
Yeah, I can see that.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Only tangentially relevant, but....
There's an old online game called Dungeon Robber over at "Blog Of Holding" which implements the random dungeon charts in the 1e DMG. It just procedurally generates a dungeon on the fly and lets you run a (simplified) random PC through it, unto death do you part. It also shows you it's logic on a dungeon-themed "meta-map" that shows those tables in a nice visual format.


It's not the Basic guidelines, but it's still fun to take for a spin and see how a random dungeon based on some of those original random tables works in practice.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
On the subject of procedurally-generated dungeons, and old-school dungeons in general, one item that will pop out at you the first time you try to generate a dungeon from these tables is Specials, AKA Tricks & Traps.

This is the item requiring the most creativity. Coming up with weird and magical stuff to interact with is the most demanding, but can produce some of the most fun parts of an adventure. But it can get quite difficult coming up with several of these in a given dungeon. Courtney Campbell has written an excellent guide for them:


Dan "Delta" Collins also has a good simple digest booklet of traps for OD&D, which is perfectly compatible with other old editions.

 

Retreater

Legend
I can't recall many old school adventures following this design advice ... maybe B1? Certainly the more memorable adventures drastically departed from this play style.
It's interesting from a game design theory, but I never really saw it in practice, and I think most of the advice in the early era was largely ignored, which is why it's forgotten today.
 

Yora

Legend
I believe that the Megadungeon is not actually a classic D&D thing. I think the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk might have been a case, but despite people being really curious about it, it was never released. The later module titled Castle Greyhawk was a very different thing.
I seem to remember people talking about how megadungeons only became popular at the very start of the oldschool revival, and even then only for a short while.

But you could indeed take a Moldvay dungeon and just make it a lot bigger. I used a 36 room dungeon as an example because it felt like a good size for "one adventure". Make it 360 rooms, and you'd have 120 monster groups in the dungeon. And players likely spending so much time in there that they might have another 120 random encounters on top of that.

One archetype of a megadungeon in fiction is the Conan story Red Nails. In that one, the underground city is almost completely empty and the heroes spend a good amount of time there before they even become aware that there are still people living in it.

A little snippet that occured to me and might be interesting to mention, even though it's obvious and banal in hindsight: When you use the wandering monster tables for different dungeon levels and adjust the size of monster groups bases on which level they are on, dungeon levels don't have to be floor levels.
If you have a giant tower, you can have three floors that are level 1, three floors that are level 2, and so on. Similarly, the first floor of a dungeon doesn't have to be a level 1 dungon. You can have a dungeon with four floors that are level 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Sorting the sizes of monster groups by dungeon level is a convenient way to make the players aware that they are moving into a new area with a different degree of danger. This allows them to calibrate the difficulty of their adventure, by chosing to descend a level where rewards a bigger when things are getting boring where they currently are, or to go back to somewhere less dangerous if they feel the current risk is too high. But those gateways between dungeon levels don't have to be stairs. A method that I think is very useful is to have some kind of notable doorway that stands out from the environment to highlight its significance, and to give each dungeon level a different look. Like in Super Metroid, the gold standard for dungeon exploration. :D You can have the ruined cellars be dungeon level 1, the caves dungeon level 2, and the ancient crypt dungeon level 3.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I believe that the Megadungeon is not actually a classic D&D thing.

The megadungeon was definitely a thing in the 70s, and arguably was the prime example of a dominant strain of thought in the hobby at the time (the other being the more character-driven experience primarily driven by the sci-if and west coast sides*).

The so-called MIT megadungeon (which was a meatgrinder) is a good example of this.

I would say that they fall out of favor in the early 80s when you had the explosion of popularity and a lot of younger players come in who were introduced primarily through the modules and who did not have the same exposure to the earlier culture.


*I am simplifying, and this doesn’t mean that there was some east coast/ west feud like the 90s. Pour one out for Tupac and Biggie.
 

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