Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sample Dungeon Showdown: Battle of the Basics

All right all you Mentzerites and Moldvanians, I get it.  Your Basic D&D was way more accessible than the dense text blocks of Holmesian Basic.  Your rules were generally more concise, systematic, and clearly stated, and, of course, there were affordable options for expansion ($12 for Expert D&D set, vs. $39 for the 3 AD&D books) that allowed you to move beyond 3rd level without resorting to prostitution.  And as a result, you felt no qualms about playing-on with your red books which, admittedly, offered a somewhat sleeker version of D&D than the oft-byzantine rules of Gary & Gygax that awaited.

But I still pity you.

Sure, we Holmesters viewed our dice-deficient Basic Rules as nothing more than a set of training wheels to be cast aside as soon as we could save up enough money from our paper routes (remember those?) to buy those hard-covered, bad-assed tomes that would teach us the ways of Advanced D&D.  But what we did have on our side was a small labyrinth of tunnels underneath the ruined tower of Zenopus.

Zenopus: There's a tower in here somewhere
You see, whilst the red-clad tomes from which you learned your D&D included either the uninspired Haunted Keep or the nearly-as-bland Group Adventure/Castle Mistamere/Ruins of Gygar* we Holmesters had as our maiden voyage into D&D the dungeon now generally--though misleadingly--known as the Tower of Zenopus.**  Amongst the highlights of this subterranean fun house were catacombs littered with sarcophagi (each one its own adventure), a magic sundial, an underground river, pirates harboring a comely damsel in distress, a maze of rat tunnels, and those niches inhabited by skeletons that became a staple of my dungeon-making for years to come.  And all this crammed into 4-1/2 pages.
*seriously, what's the preferred name for the Mentzer sample dungeon? 
**There is a tower associated with the dungeon (see room S), but it belongs to an unnamed thaumaturgist. The actual tower of Zenopus was pulverized with a catapult some 50 years back.

Mentzer: Group Adventure
Moldvay: Haunted Sleep
Meanwhile, in the Red Book sample dungeons you got to pillage compact little forts manned by populations of goblins (Haunted Keep) or kobolds (Group Adventure).  But I'm sure you had fun.  Right?


As you can see from the map above, Zenopus was an amateurish hand drawn affair, it looks like something my kid could draw... in a few years.  Which is good, 'cuz if you want to show someone how to make a dungeon of their own, is it better to impress them with the drafting capabilities of your professional staff of illustrators or would it be more helpful to offer new players an example that looks like something they could actually make themselves? 

Furthermore, Zenopus uses the underground setting to its greatest advantage: unhindered by things like a building footprint or notions of structural integrity, its long corridors, enormous chambers and raging underground rivers meander improbably all over the graph paper in such a fashion that one has no idea what might be beyond the next door or around the next corner. This is fantasy.

By comparison, Haunted Keep's more professional-looking map was clearly drawn using drafting equipment that few gamers were likely to have access to.  Presentation aside, the author chose to confine the adventuring space within a rather obtuse looking tower--15' thick walls!?  Not only did this adventure fail to take advantage of the freedom of movement that underground settings provide, it also cut off a lot of above-ground options--climbing over walls, sneaking through windows--by sealing all the action into a confined space with but a single means of egress.  Room 8 does have that cool looking pit with a bed in it; that's pretty intriguing. 

And Group Adventure's even slicker looking castle looks like it was produced by a cyborg with a ProtoCad chip jacked into its cortex.  Only the above-ground portion of the dungeon is described in the text; the underground level--room after identical-looking room laid out in a monotonously rhythmic fashion--is unfinished.  The general feeling is one of ennui, not adventure.  I'd be surprised if even hardcore Red Box fans would disagree that these maps are unappealing.   

Would you like a glass of lemonade or a packet of yellow, water-soluble powder?
Zenopus is a complete adventure.  A brand new, never-played-D&D-before kid can pick it up and run it to the best of his understanding right out of the box.  I think that's pretty important for an introductory rules set.  Extremely important even.  Once the DM has run an actual adventure, he or she will have an  idea of how dungeons flow and how to set up an encounter, or at least a burgeoning desire to learn more.

Meanwhile, the two Red Book sample dungeons provide merely an appetizer to some further adventure that the aspiring DM is expected to come up with on his or her own.  Fine in theory, but it's as if M&M were saying "Here's this cool game that you can play... as soon as you finish your homework."  Screw that!  This is an introductory adventure, give me something short, complete, and fun so that we can jump right in and see the potential for ourselves before we set out to make our own dungeons.

To be fair, the Haunted Keep is really a step-by-step demonstration of how to use the dungeon stocking method provided in the Moldvanian rules.  For this I suppose it deserves a break, though I would also argue that, flavorless as it is, it doesn't provide a very flattering endorsement of said method.   

Group Adventure, meanwhile, is presented almost as a choose-your-own adventure book.  Several of the keyed encounters are not actually distinct encounters but different outcomes or actions that might occur depending on whether your players cast a sleep spell on the carrion crawler or fire arrows at the kobolds or what have you.  What results is a verbiage-laden adventure with deceptively less action than the amount of text might otherwise indicate.  This much hand-holding seems more than a bit patronizing.

I'm not saying that Tower of Zenopus is a flawless example of dungeon design--even though it is--but I am saying that compared to the two other options presented in the later versions of Basic D&D it clearly shines.  It presents a wide range of encounter types in a classic underground dungeon format, what more could you want in a dungeon primer?  Haunted Keep and Group Adventure, on the other hand, are snooze-inducing exercises in pedantry.  My guess is that many a Red Booker skipped their respective sample dungeon entirely and ran Keep on the Borderland or whatever module came with the set.


Will Mistretta said...

I agree, including the caveat that I never saw that map in the Moldvay book as an actual dungeon or adventure that I was expected to use in a game. In that, it's a definite failure. Really, it was more of a super-brief "here's how you draw and stock these suckers" tutorial.

Of course, the plan was always to ship the book with a complete module, so this difference in the two red boxes makes sense.

Mentzer really has it the toughest here. Buyers of the two earlier boxes could at least count on that copy of B1 or B2 to get them off to a solid start.

Lum said...

I started off in the gaming world as a Mentzerite, but am now unaffiliated in the edition wars. SPOILER ALERT--that effing carrion crawler killed like half my party right at the beginning of the "Group Adventure" You're right by comparison the last red box map looks by far the most boring. And yet somehow I just knew dungeons could be awesome. We started making our dungeons straight away, using styrofoam packaging like it was from the dwarven forge...

Timrod said...

@Will: I don;t think I ever realized that Mentzer came without a supporting module. Tough break kids. I'm sure they turned out fine.

@Lum: And conversely, I was not initially very fond of the dungeon setting despite my Zenopian roots. My first homebrew dungeon was a space ship, my second was a cloud city. But then, Empire Strikes Back was still playing in the second run theaters at the time.

Anonymous said...

You pick on the drawing, but actually, the Zenopus dungeon is pretty well-designed. Look at all the options for movement through it. That's one of the best small dungeon layouts ever published to this day, affording players lots of choices. To say nothing of all the imaginative and fun things within said dungeon!

Definitely the BEST sample dungeon ever made for D&D. One of the best, period.

Timrod said...

Sorry I didn't notice your post earlier, A-no; thanks for commenting.

I am a bit puzzled though; how does one construe "I'm not saying that Tower of Zenopus is a flawless example of dungeon design--even though it is" as "picking on" said dungeon?

Anonymous said...

Oh... I just noticed you said a couple times how the drawing was amateurish or what have you. I think it's actual design is so great, I would not even question the hand-drawn look. Maybe "picking on" was too strong a term!

Timrod said...

Keeping in the spirit of our extreme slow-motion dialog, I will refrain from responding to your latest comment for a minimum of 10 months.