Running the First Ever 1970s Dungeon Crawl With Old School-Inspired Rules in 2017
Years before the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published in 1974, a wargamer named Dave Arneson decided to try something new. He and his friends were already dabbling in role playing, thanks to David Weseley’s wargaming/role playing hybrid game Braunstein. Inspired by Conan books and late-night horror movies, Arneson drew up a bunch of maps detailing a multi-story dungeon beneath the fictional medieval town of Blackmoor and enticed the player characters to enter it.
This was in all likelihood the first ever dungeon crawl. On October 1, in celebration of what would have been Arneson’s 70th birthday, I decided to run a session inspired by original player Greg Svenson’s account of that very first crawl.
Reproducing the original rules and encounters would be impossible. According to Svenson and other early players, the original rules were quite different from what was eventually published, and they evolved rapidly. Jeff Berry (Chirine Ba Kal), another early player, has described the early rules as essentially improvised.
“A lot of people are assuming that he was working to A Great Master Plan when he wasn’t,” Berry wrote. “He loved to simply play, and he whipped up the game mechanics and ‘history’ / ‘timeline’ to suit the game in progress. I guess that the best way to ‘play like Dave’ is to not over-think the thing — don’t worry about how it all has to make sense somehow.”
So in that spirit, I went about putting together a scenario, dungeon, and game mechanics for the session.
Svenson wrote that previous to entering the dungeon, an evil wizard and his pet balrog “did something” to the Baron of Blackmoor, but Svenson either didn’t know or doesn’t remember what that “something” was. “After doing his evil deed, the wizard fled into the dungeon under the castle, which had apparently been abandoned for many years by the normal denizens of the castle,” Svenson wrote. “So, the Baron picked 30 of his men-at-arms and sent us to hunt down the wizard.”
I decided on the following scenario: The Egg of Coot (an evil being and perennial Blackmoor villain) sent his thrall, a balrog, to kill Blackmoor’s court sorcerer, steal the master copies of his most important scrolls, and destroy all other copies of the scrolls. The balrog then fled into the dungeon beneath the castle (unbeknownst to the player characters, his mission was to slay a necromancer residing on the third level and likewise steal his magic). The player characters were summoned to the castle and told that the stolen scrolls were vital to the magical protections that keep the Egg’s forces at bay. Squires and servants rounded up adventuring kits, and a party of a total of 30 trained fighters into the dungeon to find the balrog and retrieve the scrolls.
Arneson’s Blackmoor maps have been published in at least two sources: the First Fantasy Campaign book originally published by Judges Guild in 1977, and in The Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor published in 2006 by Zeitgeist games.
I went with the Zeitgeist version, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others (more on that in a bit). Svenson described the following encounters: one with a black pudding (apparently the first encounter), one with several formidable giant spiders, one with a beautiful woman who transformed into a snake and crushed another player character, and the brutal final battle with the balrog. He also described the discovery of a magical sword that leveled-up the wielder and made him the “leader” of the group, a room with a fallen statue of the Greek god Poseidon, a triangular room with a cauldron that shot fireballs, and a room with a “devil pool.”
It turns out that both published versions of the maps listed giant spiders in the northern part of the first level, so I left those mostly alone. I decided to make the black pudding and the “snake shifter” non-random encounters: the players would simply encounter the pudding in the first hallway or stairway they picked, regardless of which one, and the snake-shifter would arrive when/if they decided to make camp. I found a triangular room and put a cauldron in it, but didn’t end up having it shoot fireballs. Beneath that room I placed the devil fountain. I forgot about the Poseidon statue. I placed the necromancer’s quarters behind a secret passage on the third level that didn’t have a keyed description. I also added and changed a few things, drawing heavily on various published OSR resources like Veins of the Earth, Hubris, and the Fight On! zine.
For his Braunstein sessions, David Weseley apparently pre-created characters and assigned them specific goals or motivations. For example, the counter-revolutionary student played by Arneson during the first Braunstein game had, among others, the goal to “Save Braunstein from the French Army, which is rumored to be approaching.”
I decided on a truncated version of that, and created five different character shells each with a particular motivation: the knight (serve the baron), the deacon (serve the church, raise funds to build a public university), the castle guard sergeant (impress the baron into making him a knight), the swashbuckling aristocrat (marry into the baron’s family), and the salty war veteran (prove to the sergeant and/or knight that despite your age you’re still every bit as capable as they are).
One thing Svenson mentioned is that although the characters had attributes, they didn’t see their own character sheets. Arneson tracked all those details. Also, looking at early D&D versions, attributes didn’t have a big mechanical effect. They qualified you for particular classes, and above average or below average stats might apply certain modifiers. Since most characters would most likely be average in all but one or two stats, most of the scores were almost meaningless. So, inspired by the game Pits and Perils, which only assigns one attribute to players, I wrote a single descriptor on a bunch index cards: “… the burly,” “… the charming,” “… the wise,” “… the deft,” and “… the stout.” The players drew a card at random, and that become each player character’s defining trait.
Beyond that, the players gave their characters names and picked a signature weapon. I only had three player characters for this session:
Charlie, the charming castle guard sergeant.
Deacon Gravestone, the burly holy warrior.
Dorian, the wise swashbuckling aristocrat angling to marry into the baron’s family.
Charming gave Charlie’s crew a higher starting morale. Burly gave the Deacon a bonus to hit in melee. Wise gave Dorian more of a chance to spot magical illusions, and I dropped him extra information and hints along the way. Stout would have given a character more hits, and swift would have given them a bonus to ranged attacks.
I also let each character pick a signature weapon. Charlie went with a warhammer, Dorian had a saber, and Gravestone eventually settled on, of all things, a pick-axe. He also insisted that his 9 followers should also be outfitted not with maces but pick-axes like he carried (this would be important later).
Note that this was Gravestone’s player’s first time role playing. He had no idea what to expect. He thought it was going to be something more like Risk. And when it was explained that they were going into the “dungeon” he assumed it would be the castle’s basement, not some sprawling multi-story cave-complex thing.
- For group combat, each player character rolled 1d6 for every two people in their own group. A 5 or a 6 was a hit.
- For one-on-one combat, each player rolls 2d6 and an 8 or better is a hit.
- Two-handed weapons deal two hits. One-handed weapons deal one hit.
- During group combat, one hit kills a normal fighter. Monsters, fantastic creatures, and player characters can take a varying number of hits depending on how many normal humans they are equivalent to.
- For example, a 10 human point giant spider can take 10 hits and rolls 5 dice during group combat.
- During one-on-one combat, a shield adds one hit, light armor adds one hit, medium armor adds two, heavy armor adds three.
- Target numbers and hits can and should be adjusted up and down on the fly depending on the circumstances.
- During group combat, hirelings die first so PCs needn’t worry about taking damage during group combat until all the hirelings are dead.
- Each player character’s group of followers starts with 5 morale points. The “charming” character starts with six. That number goes up and down as their group kills monsters and members die.
- When morale drops to zero, the followers will abandon their leader.
- The group or individual with the highest morale goes first. In a tie, monsters/opponents go first.
- There are no skill checks or saves, all of that is handled narratively/freeform.
- Ideally, monsters (“badies” in old-school terminology) should be played by players, not by the referee/GM (since I only had three people and none of them wanted to play the badies, I didn’t press the issue).
The combat mechanics are essentially an oversimplified version of Chainmail’s group and man-to-man combat rules. Instead of using tables for different scenarios, I picked some basic numbers to be the standard ones and just adjusted them on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think this worked very well, as discussed below.
When I first conceived of the idea of doing a retro-Blackmoor game, I thought I’d end up using Daniel H. Boggs’s Dragons and Dawn, a well-researched, pre-D&D Blackmoor-inspired ruleset. But I decided against it. Boggs’s rules are based on later iterations of the game is a more fully realized ruleset than what I wanted. I wanted something looser, rawer. But I did take the idea of hirelings dying first from the Boggs book.
Another important source for pre-D&D rules is Craig VanGrasstek’s Rules to the Game of Dungeon, originally published in 1974 and republished online in 2014. This, along with an account of a convention game run by Arneson published in Fight On! # 2, convinced me not to have mechanics for anything but combat and to handle everything else freeform. Game of Dungeon also convinced me to go with roll-high instead of roll-low.
As mentioned above, Pits and Perils was also an influence, particularly on character creation and combat.
Surprisingly, the player characters hit all of the things described by Svenson (except of course they didn’t see the Poseidon statue I forgot to include), only a few of the extra things I added to the dungeon, and very little of the stuff from the Zeitgeist book.
I started by having the Baron explain that a “fire demon” had absconded into the dungeon with important scrolls and that various squires were running around assembling dungeoneering kits for everyone. I passed around lists of basic gear and asked if anyone wanted to bring anything else. The Sergeant asked for aloe. The Swashbuckler asked for silver crossbow bolts. And the Deacon requested squirt guns full of holy water. I asked if anyone knew if they had squirt guns in medieval times and the consensus was they probably didn’t (I was told subsequently that indeed some sort of squirt gun equivalent probably would have been available). The Swashbuckler suggested filling bellows with holy water and using that to squirt the demon. I laughed it off as a humorous suggestion, but the Deacon insisted that he wanted his followers to find two huge bellows and fill them with holy water.
After surveying the large entry room to the dungeon, the players eventually decided to let Gravestone send one of his followers down the northwest passage — the same passage that Svenson and company went down during the first session (the northern passage was also open, as was a staircase to the south, but the others were caved in).
The follower’s torch went out just as he came upon the not-so-random encounter of the black pudding. That follower died. The players decided the rest of the party would pursue. When they saw the pudding, the Swashbuckler immediately decided to try having his men kill it with fire, which worked (slimes are now a pretty standard D&D monster and it seems most are vulnerable to fire. Dunno if the Swashbuckler’s player knew that or just made a lucky guess, but it might be worth changing its weakness and maybe even planting some weird side effect of trying to burn it to keep things interesting).
They eventually found their way to a staircase where a giant spider lied in wait (actually, the Arachnopolis Rex from Veins of the Earth: thousands of tiny spiders making one big spider). They killed it (them) but lost a few men. They decided then to descend that staircase to the second level. That led them to the “triangle room,” which had a pit-trap with the ghost of a guy who led an unsuccessful peasant-revolt and the non-smoking cauldron. After discovering the nearby boiler room and being disappointed that the intense heat they’d been feeling in this area was coming from a furnace and not the fire demon, they headed down another staircase, which just happened to lead them to the devil fountain.
From there, they wandered around and found a couple of brain golems (from an issue of Fight On!), which they promptly killed.
Somewhere along the way they they came across a sword that increased charisma, inspired by the one Svenson mentioned. Svenson described it as blowing non-lawful characters across the room when they tried to lift it, but the Deacon went right over to it and picked it up instead of having a hireling do it. I told the players that the Deacon suddenly seemed better looking and more sensible than he had previously. The other two concluded the sword must be cursed, but the Deacon insisted on keeping it.
Then they ran into a… thing… made of shadow and broken shards of broken glass (created with Vincent Baker’s monster generator from Fight On! # 2). The Deacon had one of his men, later dubbed “Leroy,” run through it to see what would happen. He came out all cut-up. Instead of having him run back through, they decided to see if they could find a path around. After making a loop back to the devil pool, they decided to setup camp for the night in a nearby empty room.
While camping, the Snake Shifter wandered into the room and tried to seduce the Sergeant. He let her hug him, and as soon as her arms were around him she turned into a boa constrictor and started crushing him. He yelled for his men, who had crowbars in their dungeoneering kits, and ordered them to pry him out. The snake was unable to kill any of his men, or the Deacon and the Swashbuckler’s men that were trying to kill it, and the crowbar men were able to keep it from crushing the Sergeant. Eventually, they killed the snake without losing anyone.
So here’s my favorite part: In the morning they started exploring again, and found a monstrous being (I think I created using the Fallen Angel table from Hubris). It had two mouths, four arms, gnarly horns, mushrooms growing off its body, and a staff of despair that lowered everyone’s morale. The players decided to shift tactics and instead of attacking the angel, they asked if it could help them. The angel, which desired beauty, said he wanted them to make him not-ugly, which I didn’t think the PCs would be able to do. But the Deacon offered to say a prayer for him, which reminded me that there was a Dwarven shrine nearby where, if the proper names were invoked, the Dwarven gods would bestow a blessing (a stat increase) on someone. So the angel lead them there. The Deacon prayed to the Christian god, but the wise Swashbuckler invoked the name of one of the Dwarves, who upped the charisma of the poor angel. His horns fell off, his mouths merged into one, the mushrooms fell away. He still had four arms and a staff that was seriously bumming everyone out, but he didn’t look quite so monstrous anymore. So he led the characters back to where Leroy was and then showed them the necromancer’s quarters on the third floor. The angel refused to face the necromancer and left the PCs to their devices and everyone’s morale went back up as soon as he was gone. (The Swashbuckler also developed a backup plan of just giving the angel the Deacon’s magic sword, which I would also have accepted as a good solution. Next time around I’ll probably toss out the Dwarven shrine entirely and leave the sword as the primary way to improve the angel’s lot).
The balrog had already burned his way through the secret passage and killed the necromancer. As the PCs approached the room, the Balrog leaped out and attacked them. He fought as 50 humans. To keep things simple I only rolled five dice for him, but he still had 50 hits. But I was impressed with the PCs “bellows full of holy water idea” — and I’m a big softy — so I decided those things did 10 hits of damage when they landed, and that Dorian only needed to roll a 4 or better to hit with the silver bolts. They lost a lot of men, but unlike the original dungeoneers, they were able to take down the Balrog.
The PCs found a lot of scrolls in the necromancer’s chamber, but couldn’t tell which were the missing ones and which were his own, so they took all his scrolls and books. The Deacon also had Leroy grab a painting.
The PCs hadn’t made a map or used the chalk in their dungeon kits to mark their way, so they just went up the first staircase they found, then up the next one they found until they were sure they were on the first level. That put them in a mostly empty room between two caved-in tunnels. That’s where the Deacon’s pickaxes finally came in handy. He had his surviving followers dig them out. Along the way they found 250GP, which will go a long way towards setting up the university (they didn’t come across much other treasure) and came out in the grand room they started in.
Was it fun?
I stressed out a lot during the session worrying that I wasn’t doing a good job, or describing enough of the dungeon. The Blackmoor maps involve a lot of cases of corridors splitting off into additional corridors which split off into still more corridors, and I worried things were getting redundant. And since I was more or less winging the mechanics, I kept mucking things up and forgetting to apply bonuses and penalties as we went along.
But the players seemed to have fun and as we started talking it over, I was more pleased with the scenes that played out in retrospect than I was while I was fretting overrunning them. The snake shifter encounter and the Deacon having his guy Leroy run through the floating glass seemed particularly memorable.
The guy who played the Deacon, who had never played before, said he wants me to run a game for his parents.
I doubt the players would want to revisit these characters and setting again, but if they did, there are a few hooks for them to keep playing. The other magic items recovered from the necromancer’s chamber could also cause various mischief, and there’s always the possibility of the Egg’s forces invading before the magical defenses are back in place.
Thoughts/Advice on Running it Again
I’d like to run this again at least once to see what it’s like having a player run the monsters. But I’d probably do things a bit differently.
The Zeitgeist maps are nicely presented, but the black backgrounds make it hard to take notes on the map and eat up a lot of printer ink. Also, the key for the first level doesn’t match the map. And while there’s some fairly interesting stuff in the book, and it definitely reduced the amount of work required to stock the dungeon, much of it is pretty standard fantasy fare. The monsters mostly come from the 3E Monster’s Manuel, I think. I guess that fits with the throwback nature of trying to run a session inspired by the first dungeon crawl. But the guy from Fight On! described playing with Arneson as being like “D&D meets Naked Lunch” (presumably with less sex), and I imagine being faced with black slimes, giant spiders, and shapeshifting snakes was probably much weirder for early 70s wargamers than it is for today’s role players. Which raises the central tension of what, precisely, I want to try to capture by running these sessions. (Does anyone know if the other Zeitgeist Blackmoor books have weirder, more Burroughsian stuff in them?)
Next time around I think I might use the First Fantasy Campaign maps and stock the dungeon myself (possibly using a variation of Arneson’s point-buy system for stocking ). That’s probably what I’d recommend others do (though I can’t vouch for the Zeitgeist version of the First Fantasy, which is somehow also meant to be a 4th ed guide to Blackmoor?)
Alternately, though I liked using authentic maps, having people wonder down corridor after corridor did get old, and even the Zeitgeist version left a lot of un-keyed areas. So I’d be tempted to just use a new OSR dungeon like Stonehell, which still leaves some room for GMs to add stuff but has more stuff ready and looks easier to use. But it seems like that might be getting too far off base. Another possibility would be to generate the whole thing on-the-fly from tables. But I might also just stick with the Zeitgeist versions since I’ve already familiarized myself with the first 4 levels and keyed a bunch of stuff myself. I can always swap out more of the traditional fantasy stuff for more weird stuff next time.
The big thing I’d need to decide on before running it for another group is whether I want to stick with a party of 30 people or just cut it down to a more traditional modern party size. If I want go with 30 people again I’ll need to give the rules more thought, as the players ended up hardly using the man-to-man rules at all, and I don’t think I gave appropriate modifiers for the battles that ended up happening. I also am not sure how to design encounters for such large parties, though I suppose I could look to the early TSR supplements when 20+ person parties was the expectation.
It occurs to me that Tunnels and Trolls is already a pretty streamlined, legitimately old school, d6 based dungeon crawling system with rules for mass combat, and it might be worth lifting stuff from there.
I’d also like to track down a copy of Strategos N, since Boggs speculates  that Arneson actually adapted a lot of Chainmail stuff to Strategos N rather than running straight Chainmail (apart from, maybe, the man-to-man rules?)
I didn’t use a battlemat or minis, but next time I think I might need to come up with a way to do that.
I also noticed after I ran the session that Svenson says that stat checks became a part of the game pretty early on. I’d forgotten about some of Arneson's group’s early character sheets with lots of different stats, some pre-dating the Blackmoor days. So I might add in more stats next time, but I actually liked how the single-trait system worked out.
It’s clear to me why giving players access to their sheets and making the rules player facing became standard practice: then the players can remind you when you forget to apply a rule or bonus. On the other hand, things did run pretty fast and smooth with me just asking for rolls and never explaining to players what it meant. If I were to run more sessions in Blackmore for the same group, I’d probably switch over to Maze Rats, Pits and Perils, or 5E. But if I were to run this for another group, I’d still want to use a “secret” rule set.