OSR The Basic/Expert Dungeon

Yora

Legend
Even before I manged to figure out how to make exploring dungeons fun, I've been really excited about the idea of running long exploration adventures with a whole train of pack animals, servants, and mercenary guards to haul supplies and treasure.
The Expert rules have some guidelines for that as well.

There is a recommendation that wandering monsters in the wilderness should be checked once per day. Though in area's of high danger or great monster populations, it could be up to 3 or 4 checks per day.
I think I actually really first thought about wilderness encounters when The Order of the Stick spend an entire page on the topic quite early in the series. One of the jokes was something that now that they have had one encounter, they don't need to take any more precautions for the rest of the journey, because there's always exactly one encounter, no matter how long the journey. The idea behind that being of course that wilderness encounters are a nuisance that disrupts the story and so GM's don't want to waste any more unnecessary time on that.

Doing only one wandering monster check per day in either 3rd and especially 5th edition would make the whole idea of combat encounters rather pointless. If players know they will face only one encounter per day, they can use all their spells during that encounter, and the next morning everyone will have all spells back and be fully healed. Unless a wilderness encounter kills PCs, they have no consequences.
But in the context of the BX rules, things really look very different. On first level, clerics have no spells at all. Wilderness adventures are recommended from 4th level on, but even then a cleric only has only two 1st level spells. Characters will only heal damage naturally if they rest for an entire day, and even then it will only be 1d3 hp. Also, the party might very well be not just 5 PCs but also 4 henchmen, half a dozen pack animals, perhaps another half dozen mounts, and a number of hirelings to tend to and guard the animals. That's quite a lot of people and animals that might get injured in a fight even when none of them get killed.
Making only a single encounter check per day can still leave considerable marks on the party and seriously affect an adventure before the party even arrives at the dungeon. Or turn the return trip into quite a struggle.

How likely an encounter is depends on the type of environment, but on average it comes out as 1 encounter for every 3 days in the wilderness. This means you can put a dungeon considerable distances away from the next nearby town without having the party completely exhausted by the time they arrive there. Because, again, only about half the random encounters are expected to lead to a hostile situation. 6 days to the dungeon and 6 days back is where it only starts to get really interesting. I think a well equiped party of a decent size could very well handle adventures in the wilderness that take them a month to return back to civilization even at 4th level. Though that of course depends what you populate the wandering monsters tables for the region with.
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
I like rolling for random events rather than wandering monsters during wilderness exploration. You can use a much higher rate, which makes travel more interesting because usually something will be happening every day. I also don’t care much for the rest of the wilderness exploration procedure in B/X (because there’s not much to it, and tracking by distance traveled is tedious), but that’s a separate issue. It’s easy to switch to an events roll without changing any of the other stuff.
 

Yora

Legend
You can just add non-creature encounters to the random encounter tables for the area.

There absolutely are much better ways to track progress to the destination than using the combination of travel speed, terrain modifiers, and hexes. But that's how you calculate the math in the background and doesn't impact what the players encounter and interact with on the journey.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.
Exactly. PUBLISHED megadungeons were rare. But for at least the first five years or so of the game, the principle instruction on how to run the game was first to design a big dungeon of at least six levels (preferably ten to twelve) with tons of rooms, constantly under construction and development. Reading the fan literature of the time, we see that the play culture was full of them; from the MIT one(s) to Cal-Tech, to the original Blackmoor and Greyhawk, or Greg Svenson's Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg (the maps of which are stunning).

But publishing such a monster is a unique challenge. As we've learned, Gary's Greyhawk was run out of relatively sketchy notes and minimal room keys for fractions of each level. The Temple of Elemental Evil megamodule was the first one TSR actually published, but by 1985 TSR's style gave really detailed and verbose keying, which was a bit of an obstacle to actually running the thing.

Actually one could argue that Tom Moldvay's The Lost City is the first TSR published dungeon akin to a megadungeon. It's got something like 10 levels, and connects to a whole underground city (left for the DM to flesh out) if you survive, though the bottom half is kind of sketched out pretty roughly, and the "pyramid then reverse pyramid" structure results in the levels on average not being very big. But it's still pretty amazing and a great starting point if one were to want to expand on a published module to make a "proper" megadungeon. The Goodman Games OAR version of it was the first OAR I bought, and they definitely did the expansion and fleshing-out justice.

I think what Yora's thinking of in terms of their popularity in the OSR was that because there had never been a really successful publication of a good, runnable megadungeon*, actually DOING that. And figuring out how to present the data for such a big dungeon in a clean, clear, digestible manner, became a kind of holy grail in the early OSR. Stonehell being the first generally-regarded success, but several others following, like Barrowmaze.


*At least not from TSR or WotC; arguments could be made for Caverns of Thracia (only 4 levels, but sprawling and with tons of interconnections and multiple entrances), Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor (5 levels), or Dark Tower from Judges' Guild, or, after 2000, Rappen Athuk from Necromancer, or Castle Whiterock from Goodman Games. Though those latter two weren't published until 3rd ed, by which point new gamers had lost memory of the dungeon-crawling procedures that you want for running these sorts of things, and older gamers who still liked procedural dungeon crawls were mostly still sticking with AD&D.

I like rolling for random events rather than wandering monsters during wilderness exploration. You can use a much higher rate, which makes travel more interesting because usually something will be happening every day. I also don’t care much for the rest of the wilderness exploration procedure in B/X (because there’s not much to it, and tracking by distance traveled is tedious), but that’s a separate issue. It’s easy to switch to an events roll without changing any of the other stuff.
Yes, switching from purely Wandering Monsters to more multifaceted Random Encounters is definitely a level up in DMing. Although the original tables including normally peaceful or Lawful "monsters" like dwarves, gnomes, pixies, pilgrims, acolytes, merchants, or fellow adventuring parties always implied this.

Still, especially for wilderness travel I very much like building tables with a lot of explicitly peaceful or potentially friendly fellow-traveler encounters, weird events, or hazards like weather or travel mishaps/damage to gear to provide complications and interest other than hostile monsters.
 
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Yora

Legend
I'm going only with anecdotal claims that people didn't play much in megadungeons. Though of course the question remains how average players even in the 70s would have known what's going on in other campaigns.

Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower are certainly big compared to TSR modules, but still far shy of being mega in the popular use. They can actually be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Caverns of Thracia actually looks bigger than it really is, with the first two levels having several giant rooms, and the lower ones being much smaller.
I think it might actually be comparable in size to The Forge of Fury.

I really like the general idea behind The Lost City and might want to use this for a new dungeon one day. With the lower levels added.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I'm going only with anecdotal claims that people didn't play much in megadungeons. Though of course the question remains how average players even in the 70s would have known what's going on in other campaigns.

I highly suggest reading, inter alia, The Elusive Shift.

There is actually a fair amount of really good historical work coming out now about the 70s TTRPG scene.

As for your question (how would they know), well, the actual scene until the Egbert explosion of popularity was fairly small, and a lot of the people involved were connected through official periodicals (e.g, Dragon), 'zines (e.g., Alarums and Excursions), local hobbyist groups, and conventions.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Right.

We do always have to bear in mind that the general tabletop gaming scene was a bit less interconnected prior to common internet access and ahem networking.

And that there was a ton of variance in play from table to table.

And that sci-fi fans who weren't already wargamers grabbed onto it quite early, as soon as '74 or at least '75, and started trying to play more story-oriented games with it.

So if you're talking to someone who's been playing since the 70s and he says that HIS group never did much megadungeon play, I'd absolutely believe him.

That being said, there WAS still a lot of communication between hubs in the Midwest, West coast in SF and LA, and East coast especially in Boston and NY. Fanzines like Alarums & Excursions (started by Lee Gold in LA, in June of 1975), The Wild Hunt (out of Boston, same year), and News From Bree (originally a British wargaming fanzine started in 1970, once D&D took hold in England it almost completely switched over to being a D&D 'zine) included tons of discussion of campaign materials, rules and play philosophy, and even play reports. Simultaneously, D&D started being played a ton at sci-fi and wargaming conventions.

Nearly all of D&D's propagation as a hobby was by word of mouth prior to the fad being set off by the publicity of the James Dallas Egbert disappearance in August of 1979, so most people were learning from and connected to other groups.

And we do have a bunch of surviving written documentation in the zines and from contemporary players that the originally-emphasized big dungeons were the de-facto standard for at least the first few years. But they were also something a lot of groups reacted AGAINST fairly soon, wanting to make their games more drama & story & character-oriented, or get into cities and political intrigue, and what have you.
 

Yora

Legend
I don't know if it was Ben Robbins, Justin Alexander, or someone else, but way back at the start of the oldschool revival, someone made a very good argument that an open world D&D campaign needs to be set up to have some kind of default action that the party can always pursue when they find themselves at some point when nothing else is demanding their attention. And a famous large dungeon or even megadungeon serves that purpose very well.
The players can always decide to go back to the dungeon and continue exploring one of the various passages they had not yet checked out before. If there is anything else they would rather do, like going after some NPCs who tricked, search for the lair of a monster group that keeps ambushing them in the wilderness, finding a specialist NPC to provide them with knowledge or a spell to get past an obstacle, get components for a magic item they want to make, do work on a stronghold, or do whatever else they might want to do, that's great. They can always do that. But when there's ever a point where everything on the to do list is checked off or doesn't seem fun right now, they can always continue exploring a dungeon.

Or in the words of Walter Sobchak: "Forget it, Dude. Let's go bowling..."
 

Orius

Hero
Here's my old-school inspired dungeon stocking table:

0o0dxHD.jpg


It's roughly based on the old D&D chances, placed on a d20 table and using the 5e classifications. I've only tested it a little but it seems to work decently well.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
There were references to castle greyhawk and other megadungeons in Dragon, the ‘zines, at cons, etc.

But published adventures were usually done first for tournament play, so could only be so mega.

Why was castle greyhawk not released? Gygax was busy, but probably also nervous about it, he himself had moved the bar and reset expectations.
 

Yora

Legend
While I was working on some dungeons for my next campaign, I noticed once again how easy it is to fall into the pattern as thinking of dungeons as just monster lairs and NPC strongholds. I repeatedly kept back to thinking about what kind of monster I could put into the sandbox and what a dungeon build around it might look like.
This is the opposite approach from coming up with an interesting environment first and then considering what kind of creatures and people could be encountered while exploring it.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I feel obliged to mention this thread from rpgnet: Misadventures in randomly generated dungeons and the followup up Fellowship of the Bling thread.
It's really important to note that the OP of those threads and his players were making several fairly sizeable mistakes when doing those adventures. They're still comedy gold, but anyone reading those and thinking that's how B/X runs or should be run will be misled.

Some notable flubs: no retainers or men-at-arms, going for combat often, higher than recommended HD monsters on low levels of the dungeon, finding stairs and immediately going down, among others.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
There were references to castle greyhawk and other megadungeons in Dragon, the ‘zines, at cons, etc.

But published adventures were usually done first for tournament play, so could only be so mega.
True, generally. Some modules, first introductory ones like B1 and B2, were not, but you're right that most of the early modules were originally tournament scenarios. TSR had a regular revenue stream from tournament play at conventions, and then got more cash from it by selling the scenarios.

Why was castle greyhawk not released? Gygax was busy, but probably also nervous about it, he himself had moved the bar and reset expectations.
TBF, it seems that it was never written/finished in the format they used for modules for other people to run. If you check out the couple of rare photos of level 1 of the CG dungeon in Gary's binder, it's a labyrinthine maze with really minimal, 1-page keying. He and Rob Kuntz have talked about how they improvised a lot of the dungeon dressing. It had detailed maps (LOTS of them), but the keying was evidently written as loose, mostly disorganized notes like a lot of us write for ourselves as DMs, and never at the level of detail that people expect from published products.

In the early 2000s he talked about collaborating with Rob Kuntz to complete it as a publishable project, but discussed it being a huge task requiring multiple years of work, and neither of them having the time or financial security to do it "on spec". Gary later worked with Jeffrey Talanian/Troll Lord Games to eventually complete an alternate version of it, Castle Zagyg I: The Upper Works, which is a big boxed set with 5 large interior books, a maps & illustrations handout, and several level map pages as well, but that came out the same year he passed, and he never completed that re-do.

I'm trying to find the post by Gary I was reading last week where he kind of summarized the materials

 

Orius

Hero
TBF, it seems that it was never written/finished in the format they used for modules for other people to run. If you check out the couple of rare photos of level 1 of the CG dungeon in Gary's binder, it's a labyrinthine maze with really minimal, 1-page keying. He and Rob Kuntz have talked about how they improvised a lot of the dungeon dressing. It had detailed maps (LOTS of them), but the keying was evidently written as loose, mostly disorganized notes like a lot of us write for ourselves as DMs, and never at the level of detail that people expect from published products.

Yeah from everything I've read, Castle Greyhawk was never written up in a professional manner. There were maps and notes, and everything was always changing too as Gary's players interacted with the dungeon. Then too, Gary was probably reluctant to publish too much back in the day to avoid spoiling his players on what was down there. Right now, I think the notes are better presented as a sort of academic thing that gives people a look into an important piece of the game's history rather than as an actual game product.
 

Not a big fan of megadungeons but even more against "empty rooms". I just don't see the point.
Every room should have something for the PCs to see/push/find/discover/break/chat etc. Even if it's a thrown away piece of kit, evidence of a former presence, a clue to something, etc.
 

Yora

Legend
This establishes that every time the party enters a room and they don't notice anything interesting, there has to be something hidden that they have to keep looking for.
I don't think that is a good approach to making dungeons that feel like real places and running a game where failures might happen.
 

SJB

Explorer
In 2003 Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG (designed by Mike Mearls) did give some thought to these issues so that one might have both interactive ecosystems and disarticulated generation. Here is Andy Slack’s explanation from 2016:

“The thing of note on the Vertical Exaggeration is that the boxes representing levels and the lines showing their connections are labelled; for example a trip from Dimrill Dale (surface) through the First Deep (labelled “P15”) to the Redhorn Upperdeeps (“P20”) takes you along a connecting arrow labelled “P15/T6”. P is the Peril target number and shows how likely the PCs are to run into trouble while there, and T is the travel time in hours – thus it takes 6 hours to travel from the First Deep to the Redhorn Upperdeeps. Levels themselves take an hour to traverse, so the dungeon itself is a points-of-light setting in miniature; long, dark, mysterious passageways connecting densely-packed areas of rooms and chambers. The expectation is that the PCs are not “house-clearing” one room at a time, they have a specific destination in mind and are trying to get there by the shortest route possible to minimise the chance of encounters.”
 

thirdkingdom

Hero
Publisher
This establishes that every time the party enters a room and they don't notice anything interesting, there has to be something hidden that they have to keep looking for.
I don't think that is a good approach to making dungeons that feel like real places and running a game where failures might happen.

Yeah, sometimes there's just nothing there. It's up to the players to decide whether it is worth the time and resources (torches, oil, etc.) to search or not.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Not a big fan of megadungeons but even more against "empty rooms". I just don't see the point.
Every room should have something for the PCs to see/push/find/discover/break/chat etc. Even if it's a thrown away piece of kit, evidence of a former presence, a clue to something, etc.
In megadungeon play empty rooms serve several purposes.

A big part of the original playstyle was navigating the dungeon, with mapping, resource (torches) and time management, being skills tested. Trying to avoid getting lost, trying to find hidden treasures without running into too many monsters, figuring out spots where it made sense to devote time to searches and risk more wandering monsters, etc. The time burned moving through empty rooms is meant to build suspense. Every random encounter check is a chance of a dangerous wandering monster which usually has little or no treasure. So they're an ever-present threat you're hoping to dodge while you search the labyrinth for valuables and magic. Some of those "empty" rooms and corridors WILL wind up having random encounters in them.

I think it's often a good idea to put some little clue or useful bit of dressing or description in an empty room, but it doesn't have to be much. One of my favorite tweaks to random encounter rolls is to make the random encounter happen on a 1, but a SIGN or clue of a wandering monster also be found on a 2. This gives the PCs hints or info about what kind of monsters inhabit the area, especially if you're using random encounter charts at least partially drawn from the monster lairs on that level.

Dungeons with lots of empty space have greater verisimilitude from the perspective of having actual buffer zones between monster lairs so it doesn't look like they would necessarily have killed each other before the PCs got there or be allies like you would assume if they live next door. They also give players the option to run away from and then maneuver AROUND a monster lair that looks too tough.

Remember that if you're primarily seeking treasure (rather than fights), avoiding monsters or running away from them is a legit and smart tactic. Even if, for example, the party decides they want to come back and deal with the Bugbear lair they ran from last time, maybe they use empty rooms in the dungeon to help them do it! Perhaps tricking/luring one or a few of the Bugbears out to an empty area where the PCs can ambush them, rather than just storming the full lair all at once.

If you're playing one of the original rule sets or OSE (or another clone with Fleeing/Retreat/Pursuit rules), read those fleeing and pursuit rules! Note that most of the time monsters which ARE pursuing will break off pursuit once they lose line of sight to the fleeing party; this is one reason why the old dungeon maps have those weird jagged corridors. Although doors serve as well (and Hold Portal can be very valuable if you can put a door between you and the baddies).

Tournament modules, OTOH, often had more dense content in part due to time concerns in limited duration convention play slots, and published designs were often much more dense than the original guidelines for similar reasons- players largely seemed to prefer hitting more monsters quicker, less maneuvering around empty rooms. There's a dramatic demonstration of this contrast between Mike Carr's B1 In Search of the Unknown and Gygax's B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Mike Carr's module is much more about exploring this weird, mostly empty, mysterious space, where the Caves of Chaos has all these lairs right next to each other.

So, all that being said, having a large number of empty rooms is something the game moved away from, but they actually DO serve several purposes when playing the game in the original style.
 
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Orius

Hero
Two more things:

Empty rooms are useful as places to hole up and rest in long expeditions. IIRC, exploring a dungeon in the some of the old rules required occasional rests, and in 5e can be useful spots for short rests.

The old dungeons were designed to be reused. A room that was empty in one playthrough might be occupied the next time as the DM restocked things.
 

Dungeon Delver's Guide

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