The Alexandrian

Here’s a common misunderstanding I often see voiced on messageboards: Choosing which direction you’re going to go in a dungeon isn’t a meaningful choice because the players have no way of distinguishing between the choices.

While this can be true, the reality is that it generally shouldn’t be true. And if you’re consistently finding it to be true, there’s probably something wrong with the way you’re either designing your dungeon or running your dungeon.


Before we begin, I think it’s useful to remember that there are two types of meaningful geographic choice that can happen in a dungeon.

First, there’s the type most people talk about: Selecting which encounter you’re going to face next. (In other words, if you go left you’ll encounter the goblins and if you go right you’ll encounter the vampires.)

In many cases, this sort of choice is, in fact, a random number generator: If you have nothing to distinguish between the choice of going right or the choice of going left, you might as well flip a coin. With that being said, however, there are several ways you can deal with that it’s probably a good idea to explore them in your dungeons:

  • Foreshadowing. The path to the left has tracks showing that it’s heavily traversed by small humanoids. The path to the right has been surrounded with crude goblin holy symbols and anyone familiar with goblin runes can read the word “NOSFERATU” spelled out in crude syllables.
  • Interrogation. Either friendly or otherwise. For example, you revive the goblin scout you knocked out in this room and you force him to tell you that his tribe lives down the left path and that there are vampires living down the path to the right. But his people also pay tribute to the vampires, leaving them totally impoverished but suggesting that the vampires probably have a huge horde of treasure. (He might be lying about that last bit.)
  • Rumor Tables. Or similar rumor-gathering mechanics. The PCs end up with potentially valuable navigation information about the dungeon before they ever go into it.
  • Arnesonian Megadungeon. In the Arnesonian megadungeon, lower levels are always more difficult. Which means that PCs always have a meaningful choice when confronted with the option of going down or continuing to explore their current level.

And so forth. The choice only needs to be blind if the GM and/or the players choose to leave it blind.


With all that being said, it can be difficult to consistently avoid the “random number generator” with that first type of choice. And, in my opinion, that’s OK because that’s not the most interesting type of meaningful geographic choice in a dungeon environment. THAT choice happens when you revisit known terrain.

See, the first pass through a given chunk of dungeon is like the legwork in Shadowrun: You’re gathering information. You may not know how this information is going to be useful yet, but the more you can learn the better off you’ll be when it comes time to run the “heist”.

The heist, in this case, can take a lot of different forms.

For example, it’ll probably start small: “I think if we go this way, we’ll hook back up to these rooms we explored earlier. Or we can go down these stairs and go into completely virgin territory. Whaddya think?”

But it can escalate fast:

“Oh shit! We’ve pissed off the dark elves! Do we make a straight race for the surface? Do we try to lead them into an ambush amidst the grotto of dinosaur bones? Or do we try to hide out in that secret crypt we found?”

“Doubling back you discover a warband of ogres and orcs have moved into the cavern. It sounds like they’re heading for the surface. Do you try to sneak around through those side passages and warn your friends? Or just stay here where you’ll be safe?”

“Okay, we’ve made an alliance with the goblins. They’re saying they can help us secure the eastern stairs so that we’ll have a secure line of retreat when we fight those feral vampires down on level 3, but we’d need to pay them some sort of tribute.”

One of the key aspects to this second type of choice is to break away from the idea of “room = encounter”. In fact, it’s most useful to break away from the “encounter” mindset almost entirely. The dungeon has to be a strategic landscape and not just a collection of disconnected tactical challenges.

What can really emphasize this sort of thing is any dungeon complex large enough that the PCs will be visiting it multiple times. (Assuming, of course, that the situation in the dungeon changes and grows organically between visits.)

“Well, it looks like they’ve built barricades the main hall. Do we send a magical missive to our goblin allies and try to coordinate a simultaneous assault on their flank? Or do we try to slip through the fungal arboretum and just circle around them?”

It’s in this second level of meaningful choice that jaquaying the dungeon becomes particularly useful. Without the tapestry of interconnections it provides it becomes much more difficult (or impossible) for these kinds of choices to evolve: In a linear dungeon, the bad guys have fortified the main hall and… well, that’s it. You can’t sneak around. And they must have trashed your goblin allies when they came through them. It reduces a rich strategic choice into a boring tactical one.

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33 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Meaningful Choices in Dungeons”

  1. Brooser Bear says:


    “In a linear dungeon, the bad guys have fortified the main hall and… well, that’s it…”

    Why would anyone want to make a dungeon with many entrance points and access corridors, to make it an insecure shelter? You are building underground to begin with so as to make it an easily fortifiable position. But then a second question. I get the rich strategic environment, but why reduce it to a mega-dungeon, why not make it.. a real landscape with hills, rivers, settlements, forests, the kind of place worth invading, defending, and fighting for, as has been done throughout history?

    Gygax & Co chose the Dungeon Adventure for ease of design, and Gygax has left behind a beautiful random dungeon generator at the back of his DMG, and nobody has done for wilderness design what Gygax did with DMG for the mega-dungeon.
    The real meaningful player choice is done at the level of – where are we going to raid, or explore, and why, and you do touch on it with your idea of a “heist”, but why limit yourself to an underground labyrinth. You can use your node based design to get out of the Dungeon, why do you want to keep your game there?

    The first part, you glanced over much too quickly. Foreshadowing presumes good writing and imagination on the DM’s part to leave behind wealth of detail, that the players will have to first – discover, and second – make sense of. No need to write on the wall – vampires here. Interrogation, again, depends on the quality of the DM writing the adventure. Rumor tables, is an inherent weakness, It replaces the RESEARCH that players might have to do, with the ritualistic players drinking in the tavern looking to hear rumors. Funny how nobody mentions the impossible task of having to LOCATE the dungeon site! You think that secret strongholds full of treasure and magic are easy to locate? Forgetting about the military D&D adventure, how about having the players figure out how to conduct basic historic and other research, to see if there is anything worth exploring? Forgetting about the rumor mongers drinking in taverns, how about setting up role-playing encounters of players interacting with local denizens as they explore the uncharted territories. Can the players ask the right questions if the tavern with the rumor mill is not there?

    I have read the B2 Keep on the Borderlands adventure in Junior High. I have read Caverns of Thracia in High School. When I started playing D&D again in about 2009, I ran into DM’s who were running the same old modules with only minor cosmetic changes. For them to roll up a new random dungeon would have been a major improvement since I would have been exploring NEW territory. Unfortunately these DM’s are either lazy, lack prep time, or are terminally lacking in imagination. Furthermore, the quality of the dungeon was not where it was. D&D game was a social ritual for these players, with its own dynamics, and the quality of decisions, adventure, or play, had little to do with why people were actually there. There are bad DM’s out there running truly dull games.

  2. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    *”But his people also pay tribute to the vampires, leaving them totally impoverished but suggesting that the vampires probably have a huge horde of treasure. (He might be lying about that last bit.)”*

    That’s a nice touch, adding in the subtle guidance by the deceitful goblin. It also has the effect of the players having to weigh the data they are presented and look it over for underlying motives. (Maybe 3.5 has ‘sense motive,’ for this and that happens as a PC skill check, rather than Player choice. Not sure how that works in the later editions.)

    *”See, the first pass through a given chunk of dungeon is like the legwork in Shadowrun: You’re gathering information. You may not know how this information is going to be useful yet, but the more you can learn the better off you’ll be when it comes time to run the “heist”.”*

    If I understand the “Second Verse,” it requires a first visit to a dungeon to scout out what the lay-out is, and the meaningful choices only take place on a second or later visit? For an initial encounter with vampires down one path, the initial foreshadowing, interrogation, rumor tables, or arnesonian megadungeon lower depths, would have had to have been previously employed. If they hadn’t there was either a lack of meaningful choices, and/or a TPK? If that is indeed the gist of your point for the second verse?

  3. d47 says:

    Brooser Bear,

    You raise several interesting points and also make some good suggestions, but it is important for us to recognize that different people have different motivations for playing RPGs. As you note, for some people the social ritual is more important than the story being told. The game may seem boring, but they are having fun anyway. Others might be happy playing railroad adventures as long as each encounter lets them do cool tactical stuff. Your group might enjoy roleplaying research to find dungeons, but I guess a lot of people would rather just find a map, hear a rumor or be sent on a mission and get on with it.

    While there is a lot to be said for overland adventures, the potentially unlimited options may actually force the GM to throw even more clues and guidance at players than when dungeon-delving. Great improvisers might be ready to throw something together when the party announces that they’ve decided to hire a ship to travel to a distant land and taste its cheeses, but most people need a little more structure.

    The unknown but (probably) limited structure of a dungeon also appeals to a desire to solve puzzles. One most basic dungeon puzzle is to find everything of interest, which should include things that amaze and surprise even without rolling dice. It’s doable even if new inhabitants move in every time the party goes to town for supplies.

    As for multiple entrances to dungeons, I think you can always make a case for having a backdoor for when the barbarians (or adventurers) batter down your front gate. Then there could be a tunnel in that was once dug by unwelcome guests and magic portals set up by the last powerful denizen who may or may not still be around or coming back…

    Anyway, it seems that you have good ideas for playing with approaches that are different from Justin’s, but are equally valid.

  4. Brooser Bear says:


    Agreed, there are many different ways and reasons and styles of D&D play. Dungeon adventure is its own and original form, and Jacquay has added a good deal of sophistication to the design of it. Too bad that too few DM’s (except those hoping to publish stuff) are creating their own original game material. That may be the casualty of the D&D edition progression.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Brooser Bear: Why would anyone want to make a dungeon with many entrance points and access corridors, to make it an insecure shelter?

    That assumes that (a) the dungeon was built, (b) that it was built according to a unified plan, and (c) that the only priority in building the dungeon was security. That’s a lot of assumptions.

    Why do fortified cities have more than one gate?

    Brooser Bear: I get the rich strategic environment, but why reduce it to a mega-dungeon, why not make it.. a real landscape with hills, rivers, settlements, forests…

    Why not both?

    Which is a question that I think applies to a lot of your comment.

    Neal: If I understand the “Second Verse,” it requires a first visit to a dungeon to scout out what the lay-out is, and the meaningful choices only take place on a second or later visit?

    Not necessarily. These choices will begin to emerge during the first visit (if the dungeon has been designed in a way that allows that to happen): You go to the second level of the dungeon, poke around for a bit, and then find a spiral staircase going back up. Do you go back the way you came or do you head up this way and try to find a different way out? Does the fact that you left an angry giant behind you influence your decision?

  6. Neal says:

    @ d47,

    “While there is a lot to be said for overland adventures, the potentially unlimited options may actually force the GM to throw even more clues and guidance at players than when dungeon-delving. Great improvisers might be ready to throw something together when the party announces that they’ve decided to hire a ship to travel to a distant land and taste its cheeses, but most people need a little more structure.” HAHAHA!

  7. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    *”You go to the second level of the dungeon, poke around for a bit, and then find a spiral staircase going back up. Do you go back the way you came or do you head up this way and try to find a different way out?”*

    Ok. The level of meaningful choices for this situation seems to be more of a gauzy, tertiary grade star kind of choice, compared with a T intersection with goblins on the left and Nosferatu on the right. You get to try to determine where the staircase may in fact come out in the upper level, and that may offer an escape in the future, and a dynamic loop.

    Here’s a related question from a previous post: If you have a D&D type game and your party runs into a group of non-suicidal, highly intelligent enemies (Drow), that’s somewhat more powerful than your PCs, what is expected for the PCs to do? Engage in a fight, and kick ass and win against the odds, or stage a strategic retreat with flaming oil, if they see they’re going to lose? And then come back later when healed up, and keep battering the Drow,etc, until it’s just a matter of the odds favor their dice rolling and they exterminate them? If that’s the case, don’t the Drow (who are exceptionally intelligent) break off losing fights, too? How does this work to make a balanced or realistic play, or does it?

    If this is just a matter of abstracted “game playing is fun, even if it’s not realistic,” that’s cool. I just wonder if the various editions of D&D I’m a lot less familiar with have some ruling about intelligent adversaries that I’m not familiar with.

  8. Auroch says:

    @Neal: I’m going to take a guess, based on Justin’s previous work.

    He expects his group to retreat from an obviously-superior fight, since those come up frequently enough that they’ve gotten enough TPKs to take the hint.

    They probably come back later when better healed, but when they do, the drow are well-healed as well. If they take several tries, they may find that the drow get the idea, have them tracked, and are ambushed while they sleep.

    Monsters (especially intelligent ones) have lives, too.

  9. Brooser Bear says:

    Justin, funny you should mention environments – the underground dungeon and the wilderness. I did both, and the last campaign turned into a mega-dungeon siege to the exclusion of the rest of the campaign. My bad, I didn’t balance it. But the modest (by mega-dungeon standards) dungeon I created, swallowed up two years of game play.

    It was everything that you describe in your post. The dungeon WAS the strategic landscape, it HAD multiple avenues of approach. I didn’t design the dungeon to make it survivable by players. It started out as an underground stronghold for a robber baron, who went mad, and whose base was eventually put down by his neighbors. It was build in a massive limestone cave complex that was stretching for over 50 miles to large lake. I actually took maps of limestone caves and altered them into the levels and areas of the stronghold. When the Baron went mad, he threw hundreds, if not thousands of his victims (travelers his men took off the highways to rob and hold for ransom) into a 15 foot diameter shaft. While the Baron was sane, he was building a large elevator to lift and lower horsemen and drawn horse wagons. The place had two main access shafts and there about 10 levels in various stages of completion. Mass of rotting corpses polluted an underground lake and attracted vermin, and eventually a pack of Ghouls that took over one level. Goblins took over the best and most defensible level and raided the nearby town. That’s where it ballooned out of proportion to landscape. The goblins raided a town of 2000, I decided that a minimal force for a night raid would be 70 goblins and 20 dire wolf raiders. Of these, there were the elite wolf riders with more HP and better weapons (goblin lances), there were heavy armored 20 or so Goblins wearing plate mail and razor sharp cleavers on sticks to deal with the Ghouls. The Goblin King had two brothers one as his Shaman and the second as the Chieftan of his guard, 7 hobgoblins in chain mail and shields, half a dozen wolf riders and 8 ghoul killers. There was also a work camp of sixty goblins building walls and doing construction to fortify the Goblin stronghold and make it more livable.

    There was nothing obviously superior to make it impossible for the players to win. They did hold several choke points, where they were near invincible, and a goblin phalanx holding a stairwell was the impregnable and almost resulted in a total party kill, when they decided to advance on the players.

    It started out as a randomly generated dungeon, turned into a military adventure, where I wanted exploration, and took over the setting as a mega dungeon setting, only instead of the kill the monster get the treasure, go to tavern, it was we are down on healing spells and almost dead, let’s go back to base camp, catch our breath, heal, and talk to the men at arms to see if we could do it better the next time.

    I spent about five years conceptualizing the campaign setting, fleshed out the immediate area, the local Barony, and along comes this dungeon, and sucks the players in like the black hole. I am not against dungeons, I LIKE dungeon design, but the battle against the goblins had turned the dungeon into a battleground and has overshadowed the other stories and sub-plots that were in the dungeon. There was a level dominated by giant snakes, and one of the local girls (with evil tendencies) kidnapped by the goblins for the slave markets were adopted by these snakes, who were turning her into a sorceress. Ghouls were evolving, and one of the village pre-teen nerds (Rat Boy) befriended and ran away with the Ghoul Chief’s son. The campaign against the Goblins took six weeks of game time and two years + of play sessions. By the end, players were tired of the dungeon and after defeating goblins they had little patience or interest in exploring the truly deserted and unused levels and stuff in them.

    In retrospect, I should have made the dungeons much smaller, and scattered across the area. After two years, the players were little more knowledgeable about the campaign setting then when they first got together.

    So, yes, you can have the wilderness and the dungeon adventures combined, but much care must me taken that your dungeon does not run away from you. The bigger the dungeon, the more likely it to run away from you.

  10. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    First off, you should post this dungeon, someplace, so we can look at this thing!

    My suggestion, if the underground war was overshadowing things, would be to have some NPC mercenary captain, etc, offer to build and then man the brigades for the PCs, and have them explore everything that was open to explore elsewhere. Leaven the troop combat with some actual party exploration and dungeoneering.

  11. Neal says:

    @ Auroch,

    Thanks for the input. The idea of the Drow shadowing the PCs for a later ambush while they sleep, is something I hadn’t considered. Good point.

    *”He expects his group to retreat from an obviously-superior fight, since those come up frequently enough that they’ve gotten enough TPKs to take the hint.”*

    I probably should have made myself clearer. Sure, the PCs should stage a tactical retreat if they can, but what methods ensure that this is a given? Flaming oil would be one method that might work, but my concern would be how can you be sure you’ll successfully back away from a winning enemy, who doesn’t want you to turn and run? What stops them from just chopping you up as you run away? Especially, if they are faster than you?

    Original D&D makes mention of dropping food (that won’t appeal to a Drow), nor skins of wine, and a few coins won’t work, either. Does every combat your PCs see is losing, end in flaming oil, or are there other ways to back away from the whirling blades of combat, successfully?

  12. Brooser Bear says:


    The reason players were clearing the dungeon and not the men at arms (with the whole of local church and wizards guild to keep them alive) was that the powers that be did not want to lose his men to the ghoul sickness or necromancy, and by taking over the ruin, the Goblins were keeping their end of an old bargain, something that needed to be kept an absolute secret. The only allied troops were the frienemy allies from nearby and the powers that be wanted to keep them as far away as possible, so it was the local men at arms that were keeping the area around the siege sterile and safe.

    Funny how that one turned out. The first group of players burned the secret papers without even looking a them. Gee, it must be real important, the King had it on his person, let’s burn it! The second time around, the players never found them.

  13. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    Your players burning all government documents without reading them, must have been in dire terror that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were pounding on the doors and going to release all the shameful Goblin alliance secrets on the internet!

  14. Brooser Bear says:

    I am not sure. It was a weird player agency. They were definitely into it, just in a different sort of way. Newbies all. A would be assassin, a would be thief and a would be ranger all opted to be regular fighters with strong leanings to the other classes. That first run was in 2008-2009, before Wikileaks & Co. Some things they did great and some things they sucked eggs. The Goblin angle was actually a delicate sub-plot that could have propelled the players to the centers of local power and/or gotten them killed one and all. They picked up on some clues and acted in their own peculiar fashion and side-stepped the whole thing.

  15. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    In your game it sounds like you bother with alignment considerations. Aren’t assassins always somewhat evil, and rangers always good (and not allowed to associate with malignant characters, especially on an ongoing basis)?

    If it were up to me, I’d let the players pick whatever class/skills they wanted, as long as they agreed not to rob or kill the other players. Yeah, I know it’s not a sandbox thing. However, I view it like people who have never met each other before, and agreeing to play a game of pick-up basketball… it’s assumed nobody is going to surreptitiously use a switch-blade to knife other players to increase his success at stealing the ball during the game. Any game taking place in real life requires the players to agree to the meta-rule to behave in a civilized manner. In my book, for everyone to actually enjoy the entire purpose of the game, you need to have agreed upon rules that equal fun for everyone.

    If you want players to be at each other’s throats, then I guess everyone can play that way. For a campaign, though, I don’t think it would work well. The only way I’d trust someone who was a “thief,” in a game where the party wasn’t forbidden from screwing each other over, would be if we grew up in the same village, and he was my cousin, or something like that. If you knew the thief or assassin was going to be playing like a psychopath, then you and the other players should just agree to kill him at the end of the adventure, cause he’s evil and guaranteed to do the same to you. You could tell him/her: “It’s ok, dude, just keep rolling up new evil characters to play in future games, and we’ll wait before killing you for ripping us off until the end.”

  16. Sir Wulf says:

    “What if the bad guys pursue?”

    That’s a question that has as many answers as there are gamemasters. The key factor is to give players realistic options and have the characters they encounter also behave realistically. Some will pursue as releentlessly as bloodhounds. Others can be distracted by small items thrown on the ground (Is it a magical booby trap? A treasure? Food?) or simple spells (dancing lights is popular). Some don’t dare pursue far, for fear of being lured into an ambush. Others are badly mauled in the original fight and refuse to leave their allies behind (even Evil antagonists have moral standards!).

  17. Brooser Bear says:

    Bad guys pursue… Bad guys counterattack… Bad guys gather information… World is just as deadly to a player character as they are to an NPC or a 0 level individual. Certain things are taboo in Midlands (Brooser’s D&D world). Necromancy, Slave Trade, and assassins guilds are taboo, as in you will get strung from the nearest trees or tortured for information and then hanged, if you do those three. First practices human sacrifice, human vivisection experiments considered vile torture. Slave trade in part feeds the first, and makes demon summoning possible. Killing someone for no personal reason is incomprehensible and revolting to the people of Midlands. Mark of the assassins guild is the crowd license to mob violence. Such is the world of Midlands. Illusionists are under suspicion, because they are seen as aiding thieves, casting their illusions, while the others pick pockets or burglarize. Paladins are viewed with suspicion and are harassed and vilified, since they are associated with the Inquisition, which terrorizes a larger and more oppressive kingdom to the North.

    With regards to the player wanting to play an assassin, it wasn’t so much an assassin character class, as him playing a killer for hire, and I tried pitching the Ninja Class on him from the OA and Complete Book Of Ninjas. He opted for the simpler thuggish fighter option. I let my players choose the class they want to play, but they must provide me with reasonable biographic choices to account for any incongruous skills they may pick.

    I don’t want the players at each other’s throats, I want them to work as a team, and they generally do. I want they to bring differing narratives to the game and to share it in the form of stories at the gaming table. So far it has been a failure, I must admit. I don’t really care about the alignment. If a guy commits murder, good or evil character, s/he will face in-game consequences. I don’t need to penalize them for going out of alignment. Where alignment counts, is where a player tries to recruit/negotiate/influence another NPC. There differences in alignment will take away from Charisma. That Rangers have to be good or that if they commit an evil act, they will cease to be a Ranger is nothing but a crude game control and is magical thinking. Druid balance is another load of bull matter. In Midlands, Rangers as a class are dedicated to the survival of humanity and the community of human beings as a species in a world teeming with sentient species that seek to control, enslave, and serve each other on a dinner platter. Druids are dedicated to saving the natural world from being swallowed by the ocean of the alien that it swims in. The Paladins are dedicated to saving the Faith of their Leonian Christian Church swimming in the sea of other religions and other heretical branches of Christianity.

    If a Ranger or a Cleric fails to follow the tenets of their chosen profession or devotion, they will become weak Rangers and Clerics, and likely, weak individuals. I have developed the psychologies of different alignments, how they come to be and what they are, so as to role play NPC’s better. That is all.

  18. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    *”Paladins are viewed with suspicion and are harassed and vilified, since they are associated with the Inquisition, which terrorizes a larger and more oppressive kingdom to the North.”*

    Plus, Paladin-Inquisitors forcibly convert Orcs to Lawful Good, and then execute them. Bad Paladins!

    *”That Rangers have to be good or that if they commit an evil act, they will cease to be a Ranger is nothing but a crude game control and is magical thinking.”*

    Agreed. A typical example of the cheap, unconvincing way over-utilized, of forcing players into an overly rigid system. One, whose genius author never really cared about balance enough to actually rewrite the every place you looked, broken rule-systems. Apparently, Holmes begged Gygax to let him use spell points, in his basic d&d, “blue book,” and Gygax consistently refused. B/X Blackrazor blog, (J.B’s) found something that mentioned his reasons may have been he’d written out too much of the AD&D player’s handbook and wasn’t willing to update anything for the sake of more workable rules.

  19. Brooser Bear says:


    Gygax, the man, was flawed and his game system had its flaws, especially when the players grasped only parts of the game mechanics and ran simplified versions. Fate dealt harshly with Gygax for his transgressions, with him losing control over his artistic creation early on.

    Historically, Paladins converting Orcs to Lawful Good and then killing them is similar to the Spanish Catholic Priests arriving in the New World, converting the Inca Indians to Catholicism and then burning them alive so as to save their souls. Africans have a God of Justice, the two-faced God Amadioha. I wonder if He presided over Gygax’ fate and if he will get to judge the aforementioned Priests and Paladins…

    Having rejected AD&D rules, and having come back to use them as a basis for my D&D game, I have to say that I don’t like the point system for spells. It encourages power-gaming by players, and as Gygax said it, it turns the Mage into a Gatling Gun shooting spells until the points run out. I rejected the “Jack Vancian” model for spellcasting, not liking the spells “being erased from the mind” and instead modeled the spellcasting process on the acrobat’s or gymnast’s decaying ability to perform his or her routine, before s/he needs a rest and some warm up/practice. Magic Users can memorize the number of spells allocated in AD&D tables, but they do not automatically cast each spell, and each time they try casting a spell, their chance of doing so successfully decreases, until their technique gets so sloppy, that they can cast no more magic until they rest and recuperate. Clerical casting works a little different, and so does Druid and Illusionist magic. I believe I hit on a viable spell-casting game mechanic without invoking points.

    I had a Paladin NPC in my game. He was dressed in Plate Mail, was armed with a Bardiche and a heavy crossbow, wrote poetry and had a warhorse named “Justice”. He ended up in Midlands after insisting on following his ideals and arguing against the Inquisition with the Papal hierarchy. His friends packed him off to a place far away so as to save him from the heretic’s trial and bonfire. The whole thing went over his head and the players in my second incarnation of the game grabbed him for his accoutrements. Unfortunately, he had puny strength and was overwhelmed by his heavy gear. He was the least effective fighter they had for most of the adventure. He hit it off with another NPC, a tall and forceful shield maiden, who turned out to be one of the MOST effective fighters in the group, who though illiterate, was fanatical in her faith and who would proselytize to anyone who wound listen. I guess, he was a receptive audience. One player started writing chivalric verses to her on Paladin’s behalf. Started as a goof and then it grew. Later on I used the Paladin as a keystone in a one-on-one adventure.

    I do one on one sessions, where appropriate, to encourage divergent narratives and hoping that players will start swapping stories. My players are not story tellers. Unfortunately. Early in the game, the Thief PC did something stupid, got trapped while reconnoitering, and the goblins captured him, while his NPC mate ran back to get help. So, the player’s character spent about a year and four months in goblin captivity, while the player ran the thief NPC character. While in captivity, the Thief got tortured within an inch of his life, was held hostage, and then got rescued alive, in the same amazing skirmish, where the players captured the Goblin King, also alive.

    The Thief was messed up and with mental issues. I gave the player an option to stick with the NPC that he player or roll another character, but the player chose to stick with his crippled character. So, a one on one healing session was called for. The Thief was taken by some priests into one of the back villages to heal and spent about a month there. In the meantime, one of the characters, who dropped out of the group was the NPC Paladin. Having spent the whole combat-oriented game session and not having scored a single hit, having failed to heal a single character by laying on hands, and having become a near casualty himself that necessitated rescue by other players, The Paladin broke down and lost all faith in himself. Inconsolable, the Paladin went with the priests to pray for guidance and find himself. There were a lot of role-playing encounters for the Thief’s player, and there was the business of The Thief’s past and of intrigues present for the player to deal with, in addition, as the Thief was laying in bed, half asleep and miserable after a sleepless night (those little cuts and burns all over his body), in rushes the Paladin, tearful and crying on his shoulder, a supposed rescuer waiting to be rescued and annoying the player’s character. What followed was a series of role playing encounters interspersed with the rest of the one on one game session, and I had a table of outcomes, based on the player’s response, actions, and reaction to each role-played encounter. The list of possible outcomes for the Paladin ranged from quitting adventuring altogether and becoming a 0-level man NPC if the player did nothing or offered no help to the Paladin returning into the saddle, minimal chance, and the Player had to be successful in all his actions and had to push for it. Other options were for the Paladin to become a regular fighter, a cleric, or a thief (if the Thief was supportive of him and made no demands on the Paladin, and let the Paladin follow him). The player actually surprised me with his capability to role-play and his maturity, and as a result of his handling the encounters, the Paladin successfully transformed into a first level Cleric (an Orthodox Christian Priest, the local religion in the village). That the player did not let the Paladin even think about the Thieves Guild, and his other interaction where he did not give the Paladin a real push or a pull, were really surprising.

    Anyway, not all Paladins are bad, and the complexities of the setting only present opportunities for better role-play.

  20. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    Agreed, the connection between self-righteous Paladins (Crusaders and their counterpart Jihadists) and the Inquisition was historically, and is currently, pretty clear.

    As far as fate dealing with people for their transgressions, in that guy’s case it’s partially true. It should have been much worse. Jail time would have been appropriate. He’s still lionized, and his family are casheering in on his propagandized reputation. Who’s looking out for Dave Arneson’s family and their share of the pie?

    I always hated the so-called ‘Vancian’ model of memorized then forgotten magic. Do spell points breed power-gaming? How so? If they do, then its something to think about. The ‘gymnast model,’ or whatever you’d like to call it, of fatiguing and getting sloppier, with decreasing die rolls, is an idea I’ve considered, too. In B/X Black Razor blog, J.B. deconstructs the early campaign of Arneson, as adapted from Chainmail rules adapted to the First Fantasy Campaign. JB makes the point that Vancian magic being actually based on just Vance’s books “The Eyes of the Overlord” and “The Dying Earth,” is probably so much Gygax bunk. The only commonalities it has are: Spells from a spell book, memorization, and forgetting. The original chainmail rules had powerful wizards on a battlefield that had spells light lightning and fireball. The wizards had spells they knew, and could use them at will, over and over. Further, the wizards were invisible until they attacked. Fireballs and lightning didn’t do damage, it was an auto-kill of a bunch of troops. However, the wizard was now visible, and on a battlefield, a whole army would now be coming to target him. So, he can cast more fireballs, vs a whole army? Big whoop. However, you put that same wizard in a small tactical dungeon environment, and endless fireballs against small parties of opposition is massively overpowered. From there, you get the puny wizards that largely don’t match Appendix N fiction heroes (who cast spells, used swords and axes, and wore armor. All around tough guys). Basically, Vance was just a convenient cover for faulty design work that became the basis for later work, and never got corrected, even as Holmes and others begged for changes to be instituted. It messed everything up for magic users and balance.

  21. Brooser Bear says:

    If you have a set number of points to allocate among your choice of spells, allows you to optimize your wizard for battle the way you would optimize a tank for patrol by selecting the numbers and types of cannon shells to load. How many HE, how many AP, How many FRAG (High explosive/Armor Piercing/Fragmentation). I make it hard for wizards to find new spells, it amounts to playing mini-games and going on mini quests. Wizards have to FIGHT for every spell they get in their spell books!

    The PC Wizard in my game carries a light crossbow, he uses it with a penalty. He is learning to use a sword. Technically, he can learn to wear armor, but he is too weak to be running around in chain mail. I impose no restriction, but the magic users will slow down their development if they seek other skills that will detract from acquiring magic.

    From what I read, I am guessing that Dave Arneson got screwed out of his role in designing D&D and writing the Blackmoor supplement. I am guessing that it must have been a stinkpot hitting the fan, when it became a scramble for Gygax to publish the rules an become an official first author. I can see, where an outsider like Arneson was elbowed out away from the pig feeder. I can imagine that other players too, were forced out as Gygax decided to extract the game rules from what was a communal scene with the D&D style play spreading across the scene by osmosis, and Gygax deciding to write the rules under his authorship.

    As to Arneson, Blackmoor supplement I liked. Temple of the Frog dungeon did nothing for me. From what I understand, Gygax gave Arneson a job at TSR, but Arneson did not produce, and eventually left (according to Jon Petersen, Playing at the World, who looked at Aeneson’s output at TSR.).

  22. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    Ok, I get you on the powergaming aspect with wizards picking a perfect spell for every occasion. If it were up to me to design a fantasy game, I’d give weaker spells and the options for armor and sword/weapon use like Gandalf (and other appendix N sources, probably all of them).

    That possible explanation for Arneson getting screwed out of his role in designing the Blackmoor supplement is one I hadn’t heard. It sounds plausible, though. If Jon Petersen’s, Playing at the World, mentions what I’ve read elsewhere (probably quoting his book…) that Arneson’s output wasn’t what it should have been, I’m wondering if that’s because he wasn’t allowed to design things the way he chose to? Holmes was forbidden from using spell points in Basic, because Gygax vetoed it. Maybe, Gygax and co, as owners of TSR, convinced Arneson it would be a bad match for their other products, and shot it down. Arneson may have gotten fed up with that, and left to do his own thing.

    Certainly, your comment that Gygax may have decided to extract rules from a common scene, where other people were putting ideas into the mix, and appropriate them exclusively to his own name and reputation matches his documented conduct and jealousy regarding his status vs. the other designers (Runequest) that he belittled as beneath him.

  23. Brooser Bear says:

    Gygax seems worse than I thought. If you read the Wikipedia entry for Arneson, Gygax asked Arneson to send him the rulebook that he used to ruin the Blackmoor campaign. When Gygax said that he was going to publish the rules, Arneson thought that his ideas were going to be used and that he was going to be co-author with Gygax. Instead, Gygax told him that there was no time, and so Gygac wrote out Arneson’s ideas into HIS ruleset under his name, and if Arneson really did invent the concept of the Armor Class, then Gygax ripped him off and plagiarized Arneson’s work. Also interesting, if it is true, that after hearing that Arneson was creating Blackmoor world, Gygax started creating his own Greyhawk, and the same fate was dealt Gygax in 1985, that he dealt Arneson in 1979 or so.

    With regards to swords and spells, point allocation is appropriate, where it occurs in real world, and what we all have the equal amount of, is time: We each get 24 hours in day ad spend it differently. A wizard with the fencing skills will likely be weaker than the wizard who just casts spells, if they both work equally hard. Not for the sake of game balance, but because one trained harder and more intense than the other.

  24. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    If nothing else, reading and discussing all the history of role playing games is fascinating. You mentioned something I hadn’t previously known, that the role-playing aspect was part of military drills since the 1950s, which is a very cool bit of historical trivia. Even with the clumsy mechanics, and all too often poor design choices they saddled themselves with, the early settings/campaigns of Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and Kuntz’s Castle El Raja Key led to so many later developments that most don’t realize have their hoary origins in these early creative attempts.

    Steve Perrin’s work (and others) based on Greg Stafford’s setting, produced Runequest. The whole concept went about things differently, with more of what I’d call as an actual planned ‘design.’ Things were planned out logically, rather than merely whatever slapdash idea of the moment was frozen in stone, and both disingenously and vindictively defended from unfavorable comparison with superior competitors’ products, especially those that were the result of actual competent design.

    Runequest also had an eye towards making rules that were based on mostly accurate real-world experience, historical facts, and economics in a system that had mechanics that allowed interesting options. Real world silver based economics, no 10 coins to the pound, and the nonsense of carrying enough spending money requiring 10 hirelings to do it for you.

    Gygax, did indeed get the rules for Blackmoor from Arneson, on the pretext that there were other groups with similar ideas out there, and they should publish as soon as possible. Which challenges the idea that role playing was unique to either of them.

    In one of Gygax’s interviews, I think it was in Kyngdoms, he rather disingenously claims he was only sued in one lawsuit by Arneson, where the wikipedia mentions there were five of them. If there were five lawsuits, and you are deceitfully claiming up until the last years of your life, that there was only one of them, you’re a liar. Gygax also claims the suit was only about giving continuing to publish Arneson’s D&D books with his name on them, but the wikipedia article (and others) mentions that TSR was reneging on it’s promise to pay royalties for AD&D, as well.

    That’s just financial fraud, breach of contract, intellectual property theft and embezzlement, pure and simple.

  25. Brooser Bear says:

    I will pass judgment on Gygax on my Blog, before returning to the combat rules I use. Two things I won’t mention in it is that if you look at the photos of Gygax in the early 1980’s, Gygax has something of John Walker the Soviet spy from the 1980’s about him, same touch of sleaze? and his squinting on the photos taken in his later years is similar to that of none other than Solzhenitsyn, the father of the GULAG Archipelago. That guy had his own skeletons in his closet. There were allegations of plagiarism and of him being a snitch, but the very first thing he did, was get himself in trouble by writing a letter to his best friend, calling Stalin all kinds of names. Both were WW2 army officers. Everybody in Russia at the time knew that all the letters were read by the Postal Censors, so you never wrote anything political or personal, or even anything negative, that would draw attention to yourself, when you wrote mail. All except Solzhenitsyn, that is. Well, he went to jail, got out, became a famous author and a Nobel Prize winner. His best friend too had his life ruined, except that Solzhenitsyn never mentioned him by name or even talked about him. So, it was all a bunch of rumors until very recently historians got access to the Soviet archives, and fished out his name – He was Nikolai Vitkevich. The two were close friends. He got ten years as a result of Solzhenitsyn’s letter, and after his conviction, his life got a lot harder. Instead of working as a radio engineer, he worked afterwards as a construction laborer and as a gardener. He did hold anger at Solzhenitsyn, only never saw Solzhenitsyn as a sane person again. Reason for that was because Solzhenitsyn wanted to be a writer since an early age, and he kept a notebook, and in his fantasy life, Solzhenitsyn the young imagined a secret anti-Soviet society, in which all of his friends were members, and he maintained the outlines and observations about that society in that notebook, and he used the names of his first wife and of his friends, and of people that he briefly met, as characters in his fantasy life. Naturally, the Soviet security arrested those people and incredulously showed Solzhenitsyn’s notebook to them and where their names are mentioned. Who in their right mind would do something like that? Solzhenitsyn never mentions or helps financially any of these people after he becomes rich and famous and lives in the US. Solzhenitsyn’s fate rewarded him just like it did Gygax, but he got the same obscurity. Putin invited Solzhenitsyn back into the post-Soviet Russia to be the official “Conscience of Russia” and to be the Russia’s official moral compass. It didn’t work. Solzhenitsyn tried to make some moralizing speeches, and it didn’t work. The young people didn’t know or care who he was, or how he is relevant. He dies shortly thereafter in obscurity, and is officially venerated by the Russian government, or something to that effect. So, here you go, another tangent we went off on, a Mazes and Monsters from another time and place. But check out the later photos of Gygax and Solzhenitsyn, they both seem to be squinting similarly. A good spot to close the discussion of Gygax. A short post on why I use his AD&D as a basis for my homebrew will be on my blog.

  26. Brooser Bear says:

    Correction: Vitkevich DID NOT hold anger at Solzhenitsyn.

  27. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    I’d never heard any of this about Solzhenitsyn. He sounds like an utter narcissistic sociopath. That is somebody it’s clearly very bad to have as a “friends like this…” kind of scenario. The little I knew of him was that he wanted to bring back a Czar and a duma consisting of an aristocracy, doctors, and one or two other segments of society to govern things. Struck me as fixing the 3 times broken leg of communism, by twice breaking the other leg with Czarism. Czarism would be preferable, but, that’s effectively what they have right now. Unlike North Korea, it’s just not a hereditary office, yet.

    Previously there were some Gygax photos I’d seen. I copied the one of him holding the small (child’s?) skull and mugging for the camera. He looked creepy, but maybe it was Halloween?

    The article in wikipedia about Arneson, I’d seen before, but I rechecked it. It makes mention of Gygax getting Arneson to turn over his rules for Blackmoor, but nothing about excluding Arneson from writing the supplement with Gygax based on Gygax’s claims of time considerations. Where is that from?

    There are interviews (, by Ciro Alessandro ), where Gygax mentions that Arneson stated in ANOTHER interview, that Gygax is the actual writer of most of OD&D, but it’s casuistry. The obvious thing Gygax neglects to mention… is that Gygax, was the sole author in the sense that he solely REWROTE the material, as a FINAL draft. That’s like an editor, claiming to be the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book, rather than the actual author! In a court of law, if you made disingenous deceptive statements like that to a judge or jury, it would be an act of contempt of court, and you’d spend time in jail.

  28. Brooser Bear says:

    The quote about Greyhawk from Wikipedia, I believe, was that Gygax started feverishly working on Greyhawk after he hard of Arneson working on Blackmoor. I agree with your assertion that Gygax put his name on the final draft that he edited. What I was saying, was that Gygax excluded Arneson from the TSR’s board of directors. Had he included more of the active gamers at the company’s helm, it would have been harder for the Blumes and Williams to get rid of him.

    It would be revealing to see how many gamers from the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association made it into TSR as staff, management, and members of the board of directors. Then we should look at how many members of Arneson’s group were taken on board. One thing to consider is the age and the timeline. Gygax was born in 1938 ad married at 20. By 23, he had 2 kids. By 28, he had 5 kids. In 1970 he lost his insurance job at 32 and went into the gaming business. Gygax screwed over Arneson in 1973, when Gygax was 35 and Arneson was 26. Arneson was single and would not get married for another 11 years. This shows the differences in maturity between Gygax and Arneson at the time Gygax sold the game of D&D as his own. Nothing grows you up like having kids, and Gygax had 5. No wonder Gygax was able to screw over other gamers who submitted their ideas to him, he was older and more mature than they, and he was able to bully them and get his way. Another question that would be revealing about his character is, why did he divorce his first wife, just as his fortunes took off?

  29. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    I’ve seen some quotes by Gygax as to how quickly he wrote up Greyhawk. Something like one level per week. That may have been for his gamers, but maybe it was also for publication?

    The fact that Arneson was excluded from the board of directors is telling. Arneson didn’t have any cash to become an equal partner, but, the D&D product was half (at least) his baby, and it would have strengthened Gygax’s hand vs. the Blooms, later on. However, Gygax seems to have outsmarted himself with this maneuver, in the longer run.

    I knew he divorced his first wife, married a second one, and had a final kid with #2 wife. It seemed odd to me, too, to wait so long to divorce, but that happens, now and then. However, I didn’t make the connection that he divorced just as he was getting successful/famous/rich! That would be very interesting stuff.

  30. Brooser Bear says:

    Arneson and other gamers had no money, but Gygax still could have packed the board of directors with them. The reality of small businesses is that being the money partner does NOT automatically buy you equal partnership, only a good share of the profit. Gygax could have created a corporate structure, where Blumes could have had the 30 or even 50% of the profits and had little or no say in running the company. I don’t know what the dynamic was between them. Also, the allegation that Blumes have run the company into the ground in 1985 may have been exaggerated. Remember, that while in Hollywood, Gygax spent years living it up in a mansion as an absentee scion of a fortune.

  31. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    I’ve looked for info on that whole period. I know Gygax went to Hollywood, but not that he lived in a mansion. In Lake Geneva, he did move into a string of ever larger houses, for a while. The last one, had a swimming pool on it’s roof.

    From the official story, the Blumes ran up debts to expand TSR, whereas Gygax was very much in favor of no debts, and only expanding at a rate you could afford, which I think is to his credit. You can’t predict future sales to pay off debts, which is just what happened. There were misteps, and the Blooms now had debts, and they secretly got into further debt to pay them. Kind of like people living on credit and getting more credit cards to pay off the last ones.

    The Blooms were also big on having huge numbers of employees, I think they had over 200 working at TSR, which Gygax in interviews implied was way beyond what was necessary for a company of that size.

    If these are accurate recollections, then the Blumes massively destroyed the company. If Gygax, himself, was living high on the company’s funds, too.. I’d be interested to know that.

  32. Brooser Bear says:

    Gygax rented the King Vidor mansion overlooking Beverly Hills, see the text below and also the reference to the complete article. Also a reference to another discussion about Lorraine Williams, and the pic of her. Blumes practiced nepotism, as did Williams, to an extent. Nowadays, there is a drive to canonize Gygax, partly fueled by the WOTC, probably to advance the acceptance of D&D as a mainstream hobby, I think. Anyway, the text and the links below:

    Gygax’s own position at TSR had become weak by 1982. In order to finance the publication of D&D in 1974, he and his partner Don Kaye had brought in a friend named Brian Blume, whose father, Melvin, was willing to invest money in the company. Kaye died in 1976, and Brian got his brother Kevin named to TSR’s board. Gygax was the president of TSR, but the Blumes effectively controlled the company; to keep Gygax further in check they brought in three outside directors, a lawyer and two businessmen who knew nothing about gaming but always voted with the Blumes. So Gygax moved to Los Angeles, and became president of Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment, which produced a successful D&D cartoon, and set out to produce a D&D movie. This was, to put it mildly, a strategic retreat. Gygax rented King Vidor’s mansion, high up in Beverly Hills, with a bar, a pool table, and a hot tub with a view of everything from Hollywood to Catalina. He had a Cadillac and a driver; he had lunch with Orson Welles, though he mentions with Gygaxian modesty that “I find no greatness through association.”[36] Here a whiff of scandal enters the story. Gygax had separated from his first wife, the mother of five of his six children; he had not yet married his second wife, Gail.[37] In the interim, well, it was Hollywood, and Gygax was in possession of a desirable hot tub. Gygax refers to the girlfriends who used to drive him around—he doesn’t drive; never has—and to a certain party attended by the contestants of the Miss Beverly Hills International Beauty Pageant. But he also mentions that he had a sand table set up in the barn, where he and the screenwriters for the D&D cartoon used to play Chainmail miniatures. This is perhaps why Gygax, unlike other men who leave their wives and run off to L.A., is not odious: his love of winning is tempered by an even greater love of playing, and of getting others to play along. He ends the story about the beauty pageant girls with the observation that Luke, who was living with him at the time, was in heaven, seated between Miss Germany and Miss Finland.
    Gygax spent a lot of money in Hollywood. According to Brian Blume, he paid the screenwriter James Goldman, best known for A Lion in Winter, $500,000 for the script of the would-be D&D movie, but a movie deal remained elusive. Meanwhile, TSR had other problems: believing that it would continue to grow indefinitely, the Blumes had overstaffed the company; they invested in expensive computer equipment, office furniture, a fleet of company cars. But TSR’s growth spurt was over. By 1984, the company was $1.5 million in debt, and the bank was ready to perfect its liens on TSR’s trademarks: in effect, to repossess Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax got word that the Blumes were trying to sell TSR, and he returned to Lake Geneva, where he persuaded the board of directors to fire Kevin Blume and published a new D&D rulebook to raise cash.[38] At the same time, Gygax looked for people to invest in the company. While he was living in Los Angeles, he’d become friends with a writer named Flint Dille, with whom he collaborated on a series of choose-your-own-adventure-type novels. Flint arranged for Gygax to meet his sister, Lorraine Dille Williams, who, in addition to the Buck Rogers fortune, had experience in hospital and not-for-profit administration. Gygax asked Williams to invest in TSR; Williams demurred, but agreed to advise Gygax on how to get the company back on its feet.

  33. Brooser Bear says:


    I posted a comment on Gygax’s time in Hollywood along with some revealing links,
    but it is awaiting moderation. If you don’t see it here, contact me at my Midlands blblog and I will post it there for you.

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