Monday, May 10, 2010

Primordial D&D: Eric Holmes and the 11 year old’s dungeon

Over the weekend I heard the sad news of the passing of yet another figure of the Grand Old School, Sir J. Eric Holmes, OBE; known as Rupert to his friends.* He’s a strange figure to me because even though it was his “Blue book” rules that introduced me to the game in the early 80s, I was not aware of his existence until at least 25 years later. At the time that I started playing the game, authorship of game rules was not a matter of interest—just as I cared not who wrote the rules to Monopoly or Trouble. And since it was a short 2 or 3 months after learning the game through the “Blue Book” that my older sister’s boyfriend generously loaned me his AD&D rulebooks, by the time authorship did gain meaning for me, there was only one name that mattered and it ended with an “x.”

Our gang immediately shunned Holmes’s work for the more detailed, and (slightly) better illustrated world of AD&D. Even to this day I wonder why anyone would be interested in reviving any of the Basic editions of the game; they all seem so limiting and just plain boring to me. [This from someone who has been reveling in playing the even older, more limiting rules of OD&D of late, so yeah, I acknowledge the paradox and mean no offense to those who do enjoy the Basic/etc. versions of D&D.] Despite this inclination, the Blue book and, especially, the Tower of Zenopus (the sample dungeon included with the rules) formed, for me, the primordial soup from which all dungeons evolved, and elements from Zenopus would prevail for some time in my dungeoneering** before they eventually withered from the repertoire.

Anyway, the news of Holmes’s passing has had me reminiscing about those early, primordial dungeons; back before my gang started taking the rules too seriously and insisting that dungeons make sense and all that. Which is to say, before puberty struck. A few key dungeon elements keep coming to mind that were persistent in the adventures that my friends and I subjected each other to in the first year or so of our playing days, and while not all of them are directly poached from Tower of Zenopus, they are intrinsically linked, in my mind, to beginner’s D&D, no matter which version one actually played. Below are a few of these game elements.

  • Enchanted Sarcophagi: I had no idea what a sarcophagus was but after Zenopus came along, I immediately became an eleven year-old sarcophagus expert. Designing intricate boxes to contain the dead and imbuing said caskets with awesome and terrible powers to inflict/pass on to anyone brave/stupid enough to lie down in one. Of course, they were usually crammed with corpses—animate and otherwise— or moldering sacks but once they were emptied, climbing into them often offered some sort of reward. This could be based on our tendency as kids to play in the nearby cemetery—often climbing down into freshly dug graves—or , more likely, just daring each other to do so. I’m pretty sure I never got the nerve up.
  • Underground water body: Absolutely essential to a dungeon experience for those who cut their teeth on the Tower of Zenopus.
  • Giant crustaceans: I offer this as a sub-item because, well, something had to live in or near the underground water. And if it was just a giant pike then staying out of the water eliminated any threat. While I’m pretty sure that there were giant crabs in the river under Zenopus, the crustacean infestation in my early dungeons, I think, was also encouraged by my youthful fascination with, and dread of, the abundant crayfish that inhabited the rivers and streams I played in as a kid. Anyway, they were never giant lobsters in the dungeons. Lobsters are too closely associated with food and, even though they are vile, Cthulian looking critters in real life, the word “lobster” immediately conjures up images of hot, tender, white flesh doused with melted butter and eaten with a dainty, little fork.
  • Cloud city: the inspiration for this one is pretty obvious to anyone who has ever seen the original Monster Manual or DM’s Guide. That’s right, 2/3 of all core AD&D rule books had a cloud city prominently displayed on them. Probably about 2/3 of all dungeons I made in the 1st year of playing the game had a cloud city floating overhead and some means of getting your ass up there. I don’t have any clear recollection of what purpose these cloud cities served; they were just, ya’ know, cities on clouds. They were always ruled by Titans or cloud giants whose good will could not entirely be relied upon, not even for such things as return trips to the ground. What seems strange to me now is that despite their prominence on the covers of the core rulebooks, there is virtually no other reference to airborne urban centers anywhere else in the game; not in any modules or rules. Please, someone correct me if I'm wrong on this. 
  • Peaceful interlude: My early dungeons always had a room that served as an oasis from its dark and dangerous surroundings, usually inhabited by a wizened and kindly old man or elf. The room occupied some kind of intra-dimensional space, often aglow with warm light and equipped with a cozy breakfast nook overlooking a tumbling stream and a sun dappled glade of maple and beech trees—despite its presence 8 levels beneath the ruins of the Castle of Demonic Arcana or wherever. It was usually hidden by a secret door that only chaotic good characters (the preferred alignment of 11 year old boys everywhere) could locate. The wizened gent who haunted these chambers generally did not venture outside of his comfy parlor and offered no direct or material assistance in thwarting the evils of the dungeon; just a moment's respite from the harshness of the environs and, perhaps, a few cryptic words of advice or trivial tidbits of dungeon history. Generally, such a room could only be visited once. Players so gauche as to try to take untoward advantage of its hospitality would either be unable to locate the secret door or, should they locate it, find an empty, un-extraordinary chamber. I don’t recall an actual source within the game for such an encounter area—Tower of Zenopus did not, to my recollection, have one—so it might have been the likes of the Last Homely House or Tom Bombadil’s place or the other oases of safety that are prevalent in Tolkien’s work: Tolkien being, at the time, the only fantasy literature of which I was even aware.

* Mr. Holmes was not, to my knowledge, actually a knight; an oversight that I'm sure the queen will soon be addressing.  Also, probably no one called him Rupert either.

** I use the "-eering" suffix here not in the mountaineering sense--as in exploring dungeons-- but in the femineering sense


grodog said...

Some excellent ideas, there, Timrod!


Timrod said...

Hey thanks Grodog. Just wanted to say that a several years ago when I was hesitantly dipping my toes back in the world of D&D I came across your Greyhawk website; totally hooked me. Anyway, glad to meet you all these years later.

Zenopus Archives said...

Just found your blog. Great post on the Zenopus dungeon elements. I've added a link to this in my Holmes Basic Blog roundup.

Slipjoint said...

As far as cloud cities go...

The D&D cartoon had a castle in the clouds.

Dragonlance had 'flying citadels' in the novels which played a pretty important role in one of the books. There's a great painting of one by Keith Parkinson.

One of the 2E books has a flying castle in the sky inhabited by cloud giants. I think it was the Book of Lairs or something similar.

That's just off the top of my head. I'm sure there's probably a bunch more that I missed.

Gary said...

As far as deep dungeon R&R goes, I've always had a soft spot for town levels - a big cavern full of shops & taverns and such. Screw realism.