Thursday, October 13, 2022

On "The Dungeon As A Mythic Underworld"

[This was originally posted as a comment on a Reddit post but, knowing that will disappear down the memory within a few hours, figured it was worth preserving here as well]

In Original D&D (1974) the advice and procedures for creating dungeons were very strange: dungeons were supposed to be infinitely large and ever-changing, filled with a mostly-random assortment of monsters, treasures, tricks and traps with no particular reason or justification, and there were even weirder rules like that doors are always stuck for adventurers but never for dungeon inhabitants, and that all dungeon inhabitants can see in the dark unless they’re in the service of a PC in which case they lose that ability. 

By the time of AD&D and TSR's first published modules (in 1978) Gary Gygax had mostly moved away from that mode of design and towards a more logical and rational style that James Maliszewski later dubbed “Gygaxian naturalism” (though that is something of a misnomer since other folks/games like RuneQuest and Chivalry & Sorcery both went there first and leaned it to it more heavily - Gary always kept one foot in each camp) and the earlier mode was derided as “funhouse” style and looked down upon, and was largely abandoned by the early-mid 80s (The Abduction of Good King Despot, published in 1987, was probably the last gasp of this style of adventure in the Classic Era). Which was a shame, because that kind of game can be a lot of fun, especially compared to overly-ecologized stuff which can be dry and boring (especially when it jumps through so many hoops to explain and justify its “fantastic” elements that it drains the thrill and wonder from them).

Fast forward about 20 years to the early 21st century, and a few of us were trying on forums to revive the legacy of that old style, to bring back more of the sense of freewheeling fun and adventure that we felt had gotten lost and buried in 2E and 3E D&D. So we went back to the earliest material (books, fanzines, and testimonies of first-generation players) and advocated for the way they did it then and that the game could still be played that way and would be as much or more fun than the other approach. But that effort was hampered because people kept harping on the lack of logic and realism - declaring that everything was arbitrary and dumb and simplistic and they couldn’t suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy playing in such an environment.

Frustrated at being put on the defensive and having the same arguments over and over again, a couple of us decided it was worthwhile to come up with a rhetorical justification that went beyond the reductive “it’s just a game lol” excuses. I was reading both Lovecraft’s Dreamlands cycle and Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces at the time and realized that all of the weird elements of funhouse-style D&D made sense in a world of dream-logic and in the context of the mythological hero's journey; combined with the notion already present in D&D lore that almost all of the classic “funhouse dungeons” were built and overseen by a hostile or insane demiurge of divine or near-divine stature (Zagyg, Halaster, Zenopus, Keraptis, Acererack, Ignax the 27th, etc.) and it all kind of came together. I was (I think, but don’t have any receipts to back it up) the first person to articulate the idea of the dungeon as a mythical otherworld that is specifically counter to the normal logic and natural laws that govern not just our world but even the mundane parts of the fantasy world (the towns, wilderness, and “lair-dungeons” that operate on (what would later be called) Gygaxian Naturalist principles); that entering the dungeon is literally crossing the Campbellian Threshold to Adventure into a mythic otherworld. Either way, a friend of mine named Jason Cone (who goes by the forum-handle Philotomy Jurament) took this idea and ran with it, expanding and formalizing it into an essay that he posted on his blog c. 2005ish.

A few years later, following Gygax’s death, the controversial sacred-cow-slaughtering shift to D&D 4E, and the release of OGL “retroclone” games like Labyrinth Lord, there was a sudden upswell of interest in the oldest forms of D&D with tons of blogs (Maliszewski's Grognardia chief among them) popping up on the subject and bringing those old forum discussions to a new and wider audience. These guys were all really taken with Philotomy’s essay on the Dungeon As A Mythic Underworld and it became something of a foundational text to the budding OSR movement, alongside Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (which popularized the "rulings, not rules" concept that also grew out of those same forum discussions). Between those two essays, all of the things about 70s-era D&D that had been so roundly dismissed as dumb and primitive and broken in the 80s and 90s now had a sufficient rhetorical and game-philosophical justification that people felt freed up to play that in that "old-school" way and have fun with it without having to feel guilty or defensive about it.

But now, another dozen-plus years later, that’s all ancient history. The maxims of Rulings Not Rules and Dungeon As Mythic Underworld have become OSR dogma, stripped of their original context and purpose - i.e. to oppose the then-dominant contrary trends and justify a style of play that had been denigrated and dismissed for decades. What got lost is that these concepts weren’t posited as the only or best way to play, but as an alternative. We never intended to claim that rules are always bad, or that all dungeons should be mythic underworlds and normal logic and ecology should never be employed. On the contrary, one of the original points of the dungeon as mythic underworld is that it’s an exception to the fantastic-naturalistic logic and ecology that govern the rest of the game-world. To me there’s an ideal balance between rules and rulings, between logic and symbolism, between reality and dreams, that Gygax, Jaquays, Stafford, Perrin and a few others instinctively hit c. 1978-82, that really thrills and inspires me even to this day. The pendulum swung too far in one direction in the 80s-90s and diminished that magic, then our attempted correction in the 00s caused it to swing too far in the other direction with the OSR in the 2010s.

So if you feel [like the Reddit poster this was written in response to] that the Mythic Underworld concept is overused and is too often used as an excuse for lazy or sloppy design, I say that you’re right, and do so as one of the first people to articulate the concept and inspire the guy who popularized it. There’s a place for dream-logic non-naturalistic dungeons, but they should be (at least in my opinion) a fairly minor ingredient in an otherwise Gygaxian Naturalist stew rather than the only ingredient in the pantry.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

"Foster's Miscellany, Volume 1" now available for sale

As mentioned in my last post, I decided to compile the various little house rule and addition tidbits that have accumulated over the last two years since The Heroic Legendarium manuscript was completed into a 20 page pdf which is now officially available at DriveThruRPG as PWYW, under the title Foster's Miscellany, Volume I. No print option because it's only 20 pages (and only 16 of them are actual content), and probably nothing new to anybody who's been reading and downloading content from this blog, but hopefully still worth a look for anyone who liked the Heroic Legendarium (or hasn't bought it yet but would like a cheap preview - about half of the new book is Play Aids that combine HL data alongside the original canon data (class and race info, equipment lists, weapon stats) for convenience at the table.

Since it's PWYW I went ahead and made the preview the entire thing, so you can see what you'll be getting if you purchase it. 

The big adventure-campaign book is still coming eventually (progress has been slow the last month or so but I haven't given up, I swear!) but I figured this was a nice little interim thing which will hopefully be of at least a bit of interest to some folks and will also (hopefully) suffice to get me off of DriveThruRPG's "second class citizen" list where they consign publishers who've only released one title. It also allowed me an opportunity to make a little tribute on to dedication page my dad, who passed away last week, following my mom by just over 13 months (and was an easier way to keep my mind occupied than trying to be creative).

Anyway, I hope y'all will take a look and maybe find at least one or two things that you'll find worth using in your 1E/OSRIC games.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Some new house rules & additions

As a way of procrastinating from doing more work on the adventure-campaign book I've been working on seemingly forever I decided to collect my miscellaneous "OSRIC" house rules and additions that weren't included in The Heroic Legendarium, either because I only came up with them after the contents of that book had been finalized or because for whatever reason I forgot to include them there. A lot of this stuff is pretty simple and minor, to the point that it didn't necessarily need to be formalized in writing, but a couple of them are more substantial and impactful. 

While I'm not so naive as to believe anyone besides me would want to actually use all of these rules and rulings in their games (surely anyone running a 1st edition game at this point has already resolved all of these issues to their satisfaction many years ago), maybe some folks will find something they like here, and - as always - I've already done the work of writing it all up so why not share it, right? So, that said:

Google Drive download link


Update: In a fit of inspiration, I decided to combine this document with the other house rules and play aids I've published here over the last couple years (since the HL text was finalized) into a smallish (20 page) pdf and put it up on DriveThruRPG as PWYW. I'm still a second-class citizen there so it hasn't gone live yet, but should within the next couple days (and when it does I'll probably make another post about it with a link). The Necropolis conversion notes aren't included (both because they're incomplete and because I'm not sure it would actually be legal to upload them for sale there - I know people sell 5E conversion guides for old 1E modules but am not sure what the rules are for that and don't want to take any chances and risk a repeat of last year's Lulu fiasco) but everything else is. Most of you reading this have probably already downloaded anything that you're interested in, but it might still be convenient to have it all in a single file, plus it will at least theoretically reach the people who (shockingly!) don't read this blog.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

D&D Historical Sales Data

Recently game historians Paul Stormberg (at Dragonsfoot) and Ben Riggs (on Facebook) have been sharing a trove of historical sales data from TSR for various D&D and AD&D products. As a nerd, I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff, but was frustrated by the fragmentary and piecemeal nature of it so I decided to copy & paste their numbers into a combined spreadsheet of my own. Once I had collected all of their data and organized it as I wanted it (chronologically by release date, more or less) I also felt the urge to insert placeholders for all of the major items (hardback books and boxed sets) that they did not provide numbers for, which became a massive rabbit-hole because I'd forgotten how many boxed sets TSR released for 2E AD&D (and I have no confidence that I didn't miss some, especially since I had stopped buying any of them by about the end of 1990 - the last two items on the list I ever actually owned were the first Ruins of Undermountain set and the Monstrous Manual - the latter came out a couple years after I'd stopped playing 2E, but I bought it anyway as a reference to replace the terrible looseleaf binders that had preceded it). 

With these numbers conveniently combined, I noticed a couple interesting (to me) bits of trivia. While everybody knows that the D&D Basic Set was TSR's all-time best-selling product, with total sales of over 3 million units, if you separate out the different versions of that set (1977 Holmes, 1981 Moldvay, and 1983 Mentzer), the best-selling single product is actually the 1st edition AD&D Players Handbook (with total sales of more than 1.5 million).

In all, TSR had five items that sold over a million units each:

  1. AD&D Players Handbook, 1st edition (1.57 million)
  2. AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st edition (1.33 million)
  3. D&D Basic Set - Moldvay edit (1.26 million)
  4. AD&D Monster Manual, 1st edition (1.16 million)
  5. D&D Basic Set - Mentzer edit (1.1 million)

Additionally, another 6 products sold over 500,000 units apiece:

  1. AD&D Player's Handbook, 2nd edition (776K)
  2. D&D Basic Set - Holmes edit (639K)
  3. D&D Expert Set - Cook/Marsh edit (619K)
  4. AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, 2nd edition (543K)
  5. AD&D Monster Manual II (541K)
  6. D&D Companion Set (537K)

The D&D Companion Set is a weird anomaly on this list, with a sales trajectory in its first 3 years (1984-86) pretty similar to other products, followed by an inexplicably huge jump in its 4th year (1987) to above what it sold in year one (and more than any other product sold that year, except for the brand-new Dragonlance Adventures AD&D hardback), with sales remaining similarly high for the last 3 years of its product life. I have no way to explain that strange late-in-cycle popularity for this set. I almost wonder if the numbers for those years might be off by a factor of 10 (that TSR's records show 132,000 sales when it was actually 13,200, and the same for the following years), which would be more in line with the trends seen for other products released around the same time (and would put its total sales around 250K - still very respectable). If anybody has an explanation for why these numbers are correct and this several-year-old boxed set was somehow outselling both the core AD&D books and the D&D Basic Set by a wide margin for several years, I'd love to hear it. Possibly AD&D fans were buying it because it included rules for topics (domain management, mass combat, top-end monsters) that weren't really covered in AD&D, but if so, why did they wait until 1987 to start doing so? I was active in the scene in those years (reading Dragon magazine, attending GenCon) and I certainly don't remember the D&D Companion Set being particularly popular or talked-about, and although I had a copy (purchased in 1984) I don't remember anyone else from my gaming circle buying it, and certainly not in 1987-90.

Anyway, this is deep in-the-weeds nerd trivia for sure, but since I spent a couple hours yesterday pulling it all together, I figured I'd make it available for anyone else who might also be interested. Enjoy! 

Google Sheets link

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Plugging Away

As of a month ago I'm now working again on a part-time basis (three days a week). In January I walked away from a position I'd held for over 20 years because I was feeling extremely burned out and over-worked, and took about two months off before starting this new position (which happily pays about the same for 3 days a week as I was earning at the other place working full-time. I had worried that going back to work even part-time would take me away from writing, but I'm happy to report that it has actually done the opposite - the discipline of knowing that I have to cram all of my creative work into the four non-work days (but that I also have those four days available for creative work) has energized me and cleared away a lot of the ennui and procrastination that had kept me from doing much substantive writing (as opposed to low-effort social media posts) during my ostensible break time.

Within those last few weeks I've written about 16,000 words of new adventure material (a bit more than the total word count of "Melonath Falls," which was just under 15K words) detailing 76 rooms across 3 levels of a planned 6 level ~140 room dungeon and am not feeling burned out or blocked - I've got a pretty solid outline of what will be on the remaining 3 levels (and have drawn preliminary maps - one thing I did get accomplished before I went back to work) and feel like I can keep my momentum going and actually get this thing wrapped up. 

It's part of the same setting as Melonath Falls and is a prequel of sorts (since it's intended for 1st-4th level characters instead of 3rd-6th), both based on an ambitious outline I wrote several years ago. It's written in the same style so those who didn't like the first one aren't likely to like this one much either, but I'm pretty happy with what I've got so far and hope that those who did like Melonath Falls will feel this is of-a-piece with it (and hopefully superior, given its larger scope and at least theoretical additional lessons learned based on how the last one was received). I'm very eager to get it in front of some players to see how they'll be able to deal with it, and whether or not I've totally overestimated the capability of  1st-2nd level characters (or possibly underestimated it, but that seems less likely). Writing all this stuff and being excited about it but not being able to share with anyone yet is frustrating! 

The ultimate plan is that once this dungeon is done it, Melonath Falls, some town and outdoor material I wrote a few years ago, and a couple more sections still to be written, will all be combined and published together as a single volume, likely somewhere around 120 pages in length, which can be run as a low-level "campaign in a box" taking characters from 1st to 6th (+) level over a couple dozen sessions, or can be pulled apart and used in bits and pieces as each individual purchaser sees fit. I don't have an ETA on when this will happen yet because I've still got an estimated one-third or so of the thing still to write (and the not-inconsiderable challenge of procuring professional quality maps, art, and ideally a second set of editorial eyes) but with the progress I've made in the last few weeks it definitely feels like things are moving and the end is a lot more realistically in sight than it was before. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 14, 2022

I was interviewed for a Podcast!

This is sort of old news now (since it was posted on three days ago) but in case anyone hasn't already heard, German AD&D (and other old-school wargames) uberfan Settembrini did a 3 hour interview with me for his podcast, which is now available for your listening pleasure. I've heard from people who've listened to the whole thing (or at least claim to have) that it's not totally boring and incomprehensible, so yay! 

I haven't listened to it (because I don't think I could stand to listen to my own voice for 3+ hours) but from memory we talked about (in no particular order and tending to ramble back and forth between topics) why we like AD&D better than BX D&D, my inspirations and methods for creating The Heroic Legendarium (and the bootleg "AD&D Companion" that preceded it), what makes for good adventures and why Temple of Elemental Evil isn't one, my games with Gary in the 80s playtesting Necropolis (and my attempts at leveraging that experience to create an accurate AD&D conversion of it), using miniatures vs theater of the mind, why I like wargames but am not actually very good at them, why and how OSRIC needs to be updated, whether it's possible to make the Upper Outer Planes a location for interesting adventures, and probably some other stuff that I'm forgetting. 

It was fun having a nice long conversation with someone who shares my enthusiasm for this stuff. Maybe it will also be fun to listen in on that conversation... 

Friday, April 8, 2022

Literary and pop-culture examples of AD&D classes

A friend recently asked me if I had a list of literary or pop-culture characters that exemplify the various AD&D classes (in the same manner as the alignment examples I posted a few months back). I didn't, but it seemed like a fun idea so I came up with one. And, having done so, it seemed only fitting to post it here. Of course I've included the classes from The Heroic Legendarium alongside the canonical ones. I'm sure people could find things to quibble with in some of these, especially as some of the classes have been subtly or not-so-subtly redefined in later editions, but I feel all of these matches are good for how I envision the classes and how they were portrayed in the 1st edition books.

Fighter - John Carter of Mars, Hercules, Sinbad, Robin Hood, d’Artagnan (The Three Musketeers),  Odysseus, Thor (Marvel comics), James T. Kirk (Star Trek), Duncan Idaho (Dune)

Barbarian - Conan, Tarzan, Jeremiah Johnson

Hunter - Orion, Daniel Boone, Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)

Ranger - Aragorn, Natty Bumppo (James Fenimore Cooper), Davy Crockett

Cavalier - Sir Gawain, Sir Tristram, Boromir

Paladin - Sir Galahad, Sir Perceval, Roland Deschain (Dark Tower series)

Cleric - Van Helsing, Friar Tuck, Father Merrin (The Exorcist), Moses

Druid - Merlin, Radagast the Brown, Grizzly Adams

Mystic - Danny Torrance (Doctor Sleep), the Witches (Discworld series), Yoda (Star Wars series)

Magic-User - Gandalf, Circe, Ged/Sparrowhawk (Earthsea series), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series), Dr. Strange (Marvel comics)

Illusionist - Saruman, Morgan le Fay

Savant - The Doctor (Doctor Who), Spock (Star Trek), Sherlock Holmes

Thief - Bilbo Baggins, the Gray Mouser (Fritz Leiber), Nifft the Lean (Michael Shea), Nuth (Lord Dunsany), Satampra Zeiros (Clark Ashton Smith), Aladdin

Acrobat - John Robie (Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief), Catwoman (Batman), Lupin III

Assassin - Black Widow (Marvel comics), John Wick

Mountebank - Cugel the Clever (Jack Vance), Harry Mudd (Star Trek), Professor Harold Hill (The Music Man)

Monk - Kwai Chang Caine (Kung Fu), Remo Williams (The Destroyer series)

Bard - Orpheus, Alan-a-Dale, Richard Francis Burton, Gurney Halleck (Dune)

Jester - Loki (Marvel comics), The Joker (Batman), Will Scarlet