Monday, July 8, 2013

Blackmoor and the Early Levels of Dungeons

In running Stonehell, I've been given to thinking a bit about megadungeon design - and low-level dungeon play in general. The overall pattern of published dungeons, following the rules for populating a level in the D&D rules, tends towards a fairly high concentration of presumed combat encounters. The modern megadungeon is inclined to have more empty rooms, but it still presumes a fairly high degree of combat, sometimes with new inventions and other times with the cursus honorum of humanoids. All this tends to lead to a pattern of short bursts of exploration punctuated by monster fights.

But if you look at the original dungeon, Blackmoor Castle, as presented in First Fantasy Campaign, it's nothing like that. The first level is very sparse - there are nine rooms, only a few of which have combat encounters. The ones that do have large combat encounters - 60 goblins between two rooms (marked 9C and 9D), another with 16 goblins, one with 32 kobolds. But there are nine or ten ways down, and at least five or six stairways up.

One aspect of this I find interesting is the volume of monsters. Sixty goblins, sweet merciful crap! Older D&D is a game where numbers matter, and that many goblins will overwhelm any party you can throw at them. It makes some other tactical solution more or less inevitable, at least after the first TPK when players knock down the door and charge in. This lets the dungeon have adversaries and factions without stringing them through a dozen or more rooms to make them manageable.

This also makes good logical sense. Who is most able to survive in the first level of the dungeon, most vulnerable to raids, small enclaves or large masses of cannon fodder?

The number of entrances and exits, likewise, is stellar. Figuring out which way to go into a dungeon is important when there are rooms with sixty goblins in them! This also encourages a style much more in line with early megadungeon play, where instead of leveling up carefully on the first floors, players would go as deep as they could and get the best treasure they can find. Making the first level less of a place for accumulating levels and more of a passageway down really creates a different dynamic from the dungeon that I think is worth exploring.

Of course, Blackmoor is a first, and as such doesn't have everything. The FFC notes very few "weird" rooms, which I think should be features of the early dungeon levels. Traps, statues, pools, odd features - pretty much what we see in the Dungeon Alphabet - should round out those early levels and make them strange and foreign, setting a tone much different from a monster-heavy place. In Stonehell, I find myself thinking I'd have really appreciated this style of dungeon; there are some really great weird rooms that kind of get lost in the shuffle because of all the rooms built more or less for combat, particularly in the grind-y Quiet Halls.

These are lessons worth considering for megadungeon design. None of it means that big, sprawling levels are in any way inappropriate. It's just that there are other models for first levels that I think we should look at, and think about in terms of dungeon design.


  1. Sixty goblins.. i would like to see my player companions looks on their faces when a dm will tell them : "Yes, sixty." Now, imho, makes the whole goblin clan one very deadly entity instead of the usual small pieces dealed out throughout the rooms in a dungeon. That also up's the threat level of lone goblins moving around, as they could arouse the rest. New tactics and creative plans should arise from a situation like this. Love it.

  2. The early pre-D&D rules did make large combats like these viable. Characters did their hit dice in damage and damage rolled over from one monster to the next. It would be possible for a 4th level fighter to kill 4 to 5 goblins a round. Some of these rules survived in EPT.

    1. Fascinating! But your 1st level group of PCs starting on the dungeon would still not have been able to take on what would quickly become 60 goblins and would have to find other ways to get treasure.

    2. In Fight On! #2 (free on right now), Greg Svenson details the very first dungeon crawl through the blackmoor dungeon. 6 players controlling 30 characters (all regular men). Greg's character was the sole survivor. They actually didn't encounter any monsters on the first level as they found stairs going down first.

    3. "6 players controlling 30 characters (all regular men). Greg's character was the sole survivor."

      Sounds like the DCC 0-level character funnel. :)

    4. "Sounds like the DCC 0-level character funnel. :)"

      Or an OD&D/BX D&D group where everyone has as many henchmen as allowed.

  3. On level 1 of Gary's original version of Castle Greyhawk, there were several rooms with sizable numbers of goblins, kobolds, and other low-level monsters as well:

    - 9-16 kobolds
    - 7-12 goblins
    - 10-16 bandits
    - 3-7 orcs
    - 2-5 skeletons
    - etc.

    Each of those key locations had up to 7 or more appearances scattered throughout the rooms of the first level map. So, large numbers of cannon fodder were present in Greyhawk as well, just not bunched up in a pair of rooms :D



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