Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities 7: Dungeons (including: the only picture of a dungeon map in the RC)

Every now and then I discover something odd in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and decide it is worth a post. Considering I started this series 2013, I don't get to write a lot of them (not for the lack of material, tbh). Anyway, without further ado, have another installment of the Rules Cyclopedia Oddities series! This time we are talking dungeons, because the odd thing is: there isn't much to talk about ...

Oh Dungeon, Where Art Thou?

As most reading this will be aware, the Rules Cyclopedia has a bit of everything and can be considered a complete game on all accounts. It spans an epic arc for characters from level 1 to 36, it has a domain game, a mass combat system and some great rules to create and run a setting (among various other things). What it doesn't have is proper rules to create a dungeon, though. Compared to what AD&D had to offer at the time, the topic is woefully neglected. For shame ...

First indication that something is off in that regard is the fact that the game is not only called Dungeons & Dragons, the referee is also still called a Dungeon Master. One would expect that dungeon are a major feature. However, the only picture of a dungeon in the whole tome is this beauty:

I'm actually not quite sure what is happening here ... [source]

Right, that's not even a proper dungeon to begin with. It actually shows people doing the very thing the game is lacking: planning a dungeon. But it gets worse.

You'll have little tidbits here and there how classes relate to dungeons. There is a bit about why wizards build dungeons beneath their towers to attract monsters: For research and to get the newest gossip from the world of monsters (p. 20). There are also spells that have rules for their use in an dungeon environment (cloud kill, among others).

Actually, a huge part of the game is geared towards dungeons: exploration, there is a random encounter section for dungeons and lots of monsters that would (only) live in a dungeon. Standard Rations spoil over night in a dungeon (p. 69) and you will get assigned damage if you are barefoot in a dungeon (p. 70). Movement is different in dungeon settings (p. 87).

You get a lot like that, the game takes every possible aspect of exploring, moving, encountering, fighting and casting under consideration. Dungeons are a vital element of the game if you read it as a player or DM it just around the characters as the game emerges.

What isn't there, though, is proper advice to build and prepare a dungeon as a DM.

How bad is it with the advice?

A DM will find the first proper advice how to build a dungeon on p. 148 (after a few notes what building a dungeon would cost in the Dominion chapter, for some reason) and it looks like this:
"When you design your own dungeons, use straight corridors and square rooms at first. You may try other shapes and twisted corridors when you and the players are more experienced—but even then, it will still slow down the game."
Woah, that's ... I don't know, it's probably and actually a very "old school" understanding of a dungeon. Something you'd see in Gary Gygax's playbook, maybe. That said, there's not much to work with here and he's basically saying that complex dungeon design has no real in-game benefit.

Gygax's binder, Level 1 under Greyhawk Castle ... [source]
Moving on.

Not much else to read about dungeons in chapter 13: Dungeon Master Procedures. There's a bit about thieves and traps, but reading it depressed me a little (which might be enough for yet another RC Oddity ...) and then the RC starts talking Monsters.

Again, we get all kind of incidental data about how the game works in dungeons compared to wilderness encounters. Monsters per room, how monster behavior in a dungeon might be different to encounters outside, more rules about encounters ... and then lots of monster entries before we talk mechanics again (liked the bit about mountain lions wandering further into dungeons than any other cat species would ... long time readers and players will know why).

The next big entry is on page 235 and it's about treasure maps. Read it all here:
"Maps to Treasures (Normal, Magical, Combined, or Special): Each map should be made in advance by the DM. Such maps show a route to the location of a treasure in a dungeon or a wilderness area. The treasure is usually hidden or protected by monsters, traps, and/or magic. Based on the type of treasure given, the DM should select a challenging monster (who has a similar treasure type) and design the map and monster lair accordingly. Note that the map may be partially incorrect, omitting an important detail (such as the type of monsters, dangerous traps, etc.) or giving some false information; however, the treasure mentioned should actually be there. Sometimes maps are only partially complete or are written in the form of a riddle. And some can only be read by a read languages spell."
While I appreciate the advice in general (maps for players need to be unreliable is a big plus here), it doesn't give a DM much to work with at this point. And we are almost through the book, too (yes, we'll go through the whole book here).

The first time we encounter some actual meat about the topic is in Chapter 17: Campaigning. I don't care when it happens, as long as it happens, though. Let's take a look. Well, first of all Allston advices us about dungeons with this little tidbit: "Simple dungeon explorations are very entertaining on occasion, a release of frustrations and a welcome return to the basics of the game." (D&D RC, p. 256). It sets dungeons apart from more "serious" goals you can set for your campaign.

The thing is, I do not disagree completely, it is important and more satisfying to have your campaign manifesting in arcs (planned or not), but using dungeons here as the main contrast to this is a bit much, imo.

Okay, okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's more. When you build your setting, having dungeons on the map is among the advice, with hints that there'll be more about the topic later in the book.

There's little stabs towards the subject, though, like this sentence: "If your campaign makes use of dungeons (described later), you can locate a dungeon near the home town [...]" (D&D RC, p. 257. If you've read the book straight up to this point, you'd be at least irritated about the subject: so much space dedicated to playing in dungeons, the game even has it in the title, but there's a huge reluctance to talk about designing dungeons or the DM part of the matter, with little snippets like I quoted above, seemingly advising against it. Damn.

So sad ... [source]
Finally, on page 259 we get the promising heading "Designing adventures and DUNGEONS" (emphasis mine). Suddenly the word "dungeon" is all over the place. We talk setting and stocking and different scenarios ... it's all pretty general and uninspired, but there's still hope. When we get to the part where it specifically talks dungeons, though, it simply doesn't add anything but empty phrases.

Go, check for yourself, if you don't believe me. It starts page 260 and goes on for the most part of page 261. Self-evident stuff, like dungeons can go in all directions and that the first level should be the easiest, but you can experiment there. Some simple terminology, like pits and corridors and trick monsters, a couple of rules about simple random stocking ... nothing solid, there is even the advice to check out published dungeons. It's disappointing.

After that entry you'll have some notes about Mystara (the default setting), some alternate and conversion rules and lots of overland maps. Add character sheets and an index and that's the Rules Cyclopedia for you.

Why oh why?!

Let's talk reasons. I think this is a huge oversight, but maybe it's for good reasons. Well, the cynic in me thinks, they wanted to sell product and leaving a crucial part of a DMs work out of the book would ensure some sales, right?

Doesn't have to be the sole reason, though. Space could have been an issue. Rules for playing in dungeons are all over the book, maybe it was considered enough (although a DM would have to be very, very familiar with the D&D RC to run it that way).

Another reason might have been that Allston (as the one compiling the book) just wasn't too fond of dungeons to begin with and just did the bare minimum because he had to.

Scope might be another aspect and I think it has the most clout here. A possible range of a campaign leads characters from level 1 to 36, with a good chance to play some more for immortality. It means that the reasons to explore dungeons will vanish beyond, say, level 9, but at least as early as when characters get more xp for role playing and clever play than for killing monsters or even collecting loot (read all about it in Part 5 of the Oddities!).

D&D can do so much more than dungeons and giving them more room in the rules would have given the wrong impression there, right? Add to that the huge corpus of works leading to the D&D RC and there isn't much reason to have more about dungeons right there.

Still, it is somewhat odd that what is there, isn't very useful to anyone but people playing for the very first time. No example of play, no example of a small dungeon to show people the ropes ... Nothing.

And that's that

Don't get me wrong, I do love the Rules Cyclopedia. I think it's one of the best D&D books out there for everything it does half-heartedly, everything it does right and most of all for the great potential beyond the sum of its parts. It's just that, as far as dungeons go, it could have done more with little effort.

Well, or maybe I'm wrong and it is totally enough! The older I get and the more I read in this book, the more I think that the main game isn't about dungeon crawls at all.

However, please, feel free to chime in here with your observations, thoughts and knowledge about the RC. I'm, as always, happy to hear it.

Also, check out the other Oddities, if you haven't already:

Part 1: Damage to Magic Items

Part 2: The Druid

Part 3: The "Type of Human" and "NPC Reasons for Appearing" Checklists

Part 4: Race as Class

Part 5: Experience

Part 6: Diversity


  1. The Rules Cyclopedia was never meant to be a "beginner's" reference. That is what the Big Black Boxed Dragon Cards were for. Moldvay's Basic rules had an example of play towards the back of the book ("The Haunted Keep"), and the entire first half of the Mentzer Basic Player's Book was introductory adventure/example of play. The reason there isn't anything more in the Cyclopedia is because what's there is what was in the Menzer DM's book, which was only slightly modified from Moldvay's previous edit. Unlike the Tournament rules and Everything You Wanted to Know About Halberds But Were Afraid To Ask, none of the dungeon design material got trimmed. Some paragraphs were shifted about, but they're all there, in pages 259-262. And... not enough information? I got *years* of inspiration from that small bit of dungeon design advice and starter idea seeds in Menzer's Basic and Expert sets.

    1. I'll have to tackle the comments in order of appearance :) Your first sentence is at least partly wrong. If you read the very first paragraphs of the RC, you'll see that while this is a compilation of BECMI+ and to use as a reference for those who own the previous books, it also very clearly states that you can learn the game by using this book. And while they ditched the examples of play and the adventures, they still are very inconsistent about the tone (offering advice for beginners and examples, there's even a quote in the post above) and still add a shitload of previously established content (the Mystara part as example for a setting, the Monsters, the magic items ... the list goes on). They even added new rules! So the decision to have not one decent dungeon in there, along with all the other examples they included to show how the game can be prepared and run, is odd. That's what I wrote about. I even give reasons why they omitted it. And while it is nice that you got along just fine with the advice on this one page, I have to repeat my argument above that it is at least outdated as far as dungeon design (or the understanding of it) goes. Look at AD&D (which had been published before the RC). So I'm sorry, but I disagree with your assessment here, Robert. The RC lacks in that department and it is an odd design choice worth pointing out. That's what we are talking here: design choices for a book that wants to be complete.

    2. Just one more thing, the word "example" occurs 386 times in the RC. That's a lot of examples for 305 pages and "not being a beginner's guide" ... It doesn't add up that way, I'm afraid.

    3. The paragraph before your cherry picked quote reads: "This book is intended to be a reference volume for those who already play the D&D game... Just about everything appearing in the boxed sets is here—but in a more convenient format. For example*, all the game's spells are in one place, and all the details of creating a fighter-class character are in one location.

      However, though this book is aimed at the experienced user, it is possible to learn to play the D&D game from these pages."

      But keep reading. It clearly states: "The Cyclopedia lacks many of the examples* and the patient explanation you'll find in the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® boxed sets, but you can still learn to play from these rules."

      Allston seems to be making two assumptions: You're either a) a veteran player tired of trying to remember which rule came from which boxed set, or b) a newer player/DM, having bought the book after tackling the Big Black Box ("New Easy to Master") of D&D with its Dragon Card learning pack, which contained that patient explanation, example of play, sample dungeon, and rules and suggestions for dungeon stocking.

      To be fair, looking over pages 258-262, the flow of sections and paragraphs are chopped up, willy-nilly as compared to their original Basic set layout, blunting what was some pretty tight, concise writing.

      * there are two of your 386 examples (well, 413 occurrences by my count). Not every example *is* an example. Fun fact! The word "dungeon" appears 272 times (217 if you trim out instances of "Dungeon Master"), "dragon" 371 times.

    4. Look, we clearly won't agree here. I see where you are coming from, and sure, why not, it's one way to see it. Just not the only way. I'm all for analyzing and talking about the RC and I'm ready to learn something new, but man, I won't pick a fight about it. Nothing good can come from something like that. I appreciate your comments, though, always good to have someone voice an opposing perspective for others to make up their own opinion.

  2. As I never took a character (or even DMed one) above Level 3 in the 1980s, it was all about the dungeons. Level 9 was for people we read about in Dragon or White Dwarf. Level 36 was for people who obviously didn't play properly because it wasn't possible to get that high.

    But I started with Moldvay not Mentzer (and didn't know about RC until I heard about it from you several years ago). Is there really no part of Mentzer/RC about dungeon design, similar to Moldvay's 'Haunted Keep' and the dungeon-stocking tables I used here? -

    1. Mentzer's Basic Player's booklet foregoes the "Haunted Keep"-esque example of play, replacing it with a pair of solo adventures. An example of dungeon design is the first part of the Basic DM's booklet, "Your First Dungeon Adventure," which explores the ruins of Castle Mistamere, followed up by the mechanics and design advice (nearly, if not identical to that in Moldvay's Basic) towards the back of the DM's book.

    2. Well, Red Orc, it has all those pieces as part of the random dungeon stocking method I hint at in the post (p. 261 in the RC, not all of them are tables), but no dungeon or a picture thereof in the whole book to see how that could work. However, you'll have that for the setting creation, the monsters, the spells and the magic items ... that's why I thought it is odd. Just the random stocking seems lacking, considering the name of the game.

  3. By the way, do you really not know what's going on in the illustration? It looks to me like the guy on the right is having a hard time mapping what the guy on the left is thinking about. I read it as the DM is the younger guy with (literal and metaphorical) 'castles in the air' (because you're right it isn't strictly a 'dungeon') and the other dude probably can't work out the angles.

    1. I knew that DM. I *was* that DM.

    2. I have thought for a long time that those guys are planning a dungeon. It just doesn't look like a gaming situation to me (no DM screen, no dice, just two guys and a dungeon ... or castle). Nowadays I see that it could be one guy describing and the other guy suffering because of map duty ...

  4. Yeah, I think the DM is explaining his creation to the poor guy who is trying to map it.
    I thought it was a dungeon as well until I looked at it closer in this post and now it looks like a castle of some type to me. It has outer walls, a bridge at lower left, and a moat.

    1. I agree, jbeltman, that must be it. Still an odd picture and still the only picture that comes close enough to what a dungeon looks like on the DM side of things in the whole book.


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.