Wednesday, August 27, 2014

1974 Dungeon Variant, Now for Download


One of the many pleasures of writing about the history of games is receiving unexpected correspondence from the people whose work I study, sometimes people who are very surprised to learn that a pastime they briefly enjoyed decades ago has brought them to the attention of posterity. Such was the case with Craig VanGrasstek, whose 1974 Rules to the Game of Dungeon I covered on this blog (and in Playing at the World) as the earliest known Dungeons & Dragons variant. Craig wrote to me having long lost any copy of the Rules and understandably curious about my interest. This is easily explained: the Rules provide one of our earliest windows into fantasy role-playing as practiced by some of its first fans, a tradition that has survived as "Minneapolis Dungeon."

In the course of my exchange with Craig, he volunteered to make his work available to the readers of today. We therefore present this week the complete text of the Rules to the Game of Dungeon [download PDF] as Craig VanGrasstek originally wrote it up in the summer of 1974. I provide a bit of commentary and context in an Afterword and in endnotes. After the jump, we review three of Craig's play records from 1974, which give further insight into how this important early community went about dungeoneering. Give it a try the next time you want an "old school" experience, and see how it plays!

As my copy of the original text is nearly illegible, I retyped the eighteen-pages of the Rules while retaining pagination and where possible formatting. I had to replace the numbers on the example map, as they were virtually unreadable, though there were only a handful of places where the original text could not be deciphered and a guess had to be ventured. The lost cover has been replaced with artwork of Craig's from this era, one of several Minneapa covers he drew. In the endnotes, I try to clarify both the historical import of the Rules and the system itself, which Craig and I have discussed over the past weeks.

The three play records that follow all date to the months after the publication of the Rules. Those with a working knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons may still find some curiosities in these narratives; inspection of the Rules will clarify most of these oddities. The Rules are best studied with these play records as a chaser, as they illustrate the exercise of the rules, demonstrate a few places where practice differs from theory, and moreover impart a sense of the zany, madcap adventures that teenagers in the Twin Cities enjoyed back in 1974.

The first play record is dated September 22, 1974:

We learn that this expedition sends the party into a familiar dungeon, Blad Mountain. In it, the party encounters bears, gorillas, bulls, snakes, hawks, a giant iguana, a pack of giant rolling meatballs, and a dragon. Weapon breakage seems to be a theme of this session. Note that at the end, next to his signature, VanGrasstek has placed a lollipop with the word "Repent!" next to it: a reference to the fannish cult of comic book character Herbie Popnecker.

Next is October 27, 1974:


In this play report we see some indication of the level ("rank") of participants, as the two warriors are both "eighth rank," which translates to third level. This descent emphasizes gambling, and has many more "weirdies" as adversaries: foes that aren't necessarily monsters, are typically silly, and draw strongly on popular culture. The comic book characters Doctor Octopus, Blue Beetle, and Bouncing Boy all make appearances, as does Prince Valiant. The enormous tribute to Monty Python appended to the play record reminds us that their particular style of humor, which runs through all the dungeon descents, was a fresh import at the time.

Finally, December 13, 1974:


The last dungeon descent is perhaps more sober than the other two. A giant, booby-trapped gem incapacitates a few party members. Later, they slaughter a party of nineteen orcs, and the dungeon also houses vicious boars and wolverines. Even in this descent, however, the best way to escape when trapped by a "Do Not Enter" sign is to destroy a wall with a dentist's drill. VanGrasstek also supplies a handy overworld map to one of the local dungeon masters at the end of the play record.

33 comments:

  1. Brilliant! Thanks for your efforts in making this available. I've downloaded for later perusal.

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  2. lol. Looking at the equipment table, reminded me of a guy I had just introduced to D&D in 1981, who wanted a set of brass knuckles and a Cadillac Coup de Ville.

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  3. Reading note #28, I remember that in Dalluhm, the dwarf has level limits but retains the 10% XP penalty. Perhaps that's a link rather than just a coincidence.

    Also, how do these rules compare to the "Minneapolis Dungeon" games that are sometimes run at Cons?

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  4. Thanks for doing all the work in making these available Jon! I had considered making a side trip on a visit to some relatives to the reserve collection library at Michigan State to view their copy - likely not happening anytime soon. You might be able to check that one against yours for the illegible bits though if you are ever in East Lansing.

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    1. Jon you may have more information about the Spell mechanics but it seems very curious to me. I had expected the spells to all be thrown (literally) types, in the manner of a D&D fireball spell. My previous impression was that the Rules spells were akin to glass balls that shatter and release a magical potion effect in the alchemical tradition going back conceptually to Blackmoors’ superberries (miniature plastic oranges that kept falling off the plastic trees onto the gaming table). However, as I read the rules, the verb associated with spells is either “use” or “unleash”, never throw, toss or hurl. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t see anything that indicates the spell balls are all intended to be thrown or broken to work. Some do seem like they should be thrown, perhaps, but others seem unlikely to be hurled objects at all, like the healing balls, for example. I’m intrigued by the notion that there is a general similarity between the spell balls of Rules.. and the “eyes” of Empire of the Petal Throne, both being small round objects that unleash a spell effect when properly operated. I’ve always thought of the Tekumel eyes to be a uniquely Barkerian addition. Perhaps they are not so conceptually original? There’s also a bit on page 8 “…as many charges of the spell as is rolled with one die.” Now I guess that “charges” here is misleading and really means “balls”, under the concept that 1 ball = 1 spell use, (like the “once used then powerless” spells of Blackmoor) but it is an interesting turn of phrase either way.

      I do note in the play report documents you posted that there is a possibility of spell failure during use (“they kept duding out on him” p 16), a feature very reminiscent of the alchemical spell in Blackmoor.

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    2. Agreed that the text doesn't say that wizards literally chuck the balls at targets. The offensive spells act at range, as wizards can use them from the second line and they randomly strike the enemy's front line, so there's a sense in which spells have this "missile" as opposed to "melee" quality that suggests throwing. But I don't think it's especially clear how we're supposed to understand the operation of balls in a number of respects.

      I hadn't considered the relationship between "balls" and EPT "eyes," which would include light, healing and charming... there could be something to that.

      I too noticed that reference to "duds" but again I think there's some ambiguity here: do "ball" strikes roll to hit? If so, then I thought missing was an adequate explanation of this text, without reading in a separate, undocumented chance of spell failure.

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    3. One of the spells is referred to as a "Wand of Blasting" so it doesn't seem like all of them are actual round balls.

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    4. The "Blasting Wand" isn't literally a "spell," as we would understand it in D&D, any more than the "Wizard's Sword" or plenty of other things one can roll up on the wizard's treasure table - flashlights, Japanese translation books, and so on - are "spells." All of the equipment listed in that table is usable specifically by wizards, and that's why we see it on the "spell" table. The "balls" in subtables II and III were the matter under discussion here.

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    5. Pg 8, "For the first three spell categories, there are as
      many charges of the spell as is rolled with one die"

      The first three subtables are spells. The Gorgon Gorer is referred to as a ball.

      At least that's how I read it.

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    6. Hopefully not too off-topic, but the notion of wizards as people who throw possibly alchemical devices goes back to at least the pulp source of Conan:

      Old Tsotha rose and faced his pursuer, his eyes those of a maddened serpent, his face an inhuman mask. In each hand he held something that shimmered, and Conan knew he held death there... "Keep off" screamed Tsotha like a blood-mad jackal. "I'll blast the flesh from your bones!"... Conan rushed, sword gleaming, eyes slits of wariness. Tsotha's right hand came back and forward, and the king ducked quickly. Something passed by his helmeted head and exploded behind him, searing the very sands with a flash of hellish fire. Before Tsotha could toss the globe in his left hand, Conan's sword sheared through his lean neck. (Howard, "The Scarlet Citadel")

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  5. Well done, Jon.

    I played MinnStf "Dungeon" some. I remember the first time I did, being amazed at how NON-wargame the rules were; magic users could throw spells without being in the front rank, and you could throw spells or shoot into melee without worrying about hurting your friends.

    Decades before World of Warcraft.

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  6. This is an excellent relic of days gone by thank you and Mr. VanGrasstek for the pdf and this piece of game history.

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  7. This is ridiculously awesome. Well done, indeed, and extra thanks to VanGrasstek the Sage for being willing to share this gem!

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  8. As far as the "light balls, spear balls," and other "ball" spells, it was never specified. They were just things. And I'm 99% sure there was absolutely no cross pollination with Tekumel.

    They were called "balls" because they were based off the D&D "fireball".

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  9. The wizard would say, "I'm going to throw a light ball." Then they would get to roll 2d6 X number of times to see how much damage they did. No targetting roll, no line of sight, etc.

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  10. Also...
    " University of
    Minnesota Military History Club (a subgroup of the Minnesota Military Simulation Association, or MMSA) where he encountered Blackmoor players. "

    I believe this is actually the University of Minnesota Conflict Simulation Association, the student wargaming club, which was NOT associated with Dave's group. I believe I remember Blue watching us play D&D. Yes, I think it was me and my game he first watched.

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    1. To just the small point of what the group is called: Blue called it the "UofM Military History Society" at the time, which doesn't map onto any group I'm aware of. Elsewhere he just calls is the "UofM Wargaming club." But in Arneson's Corner of the Table, we find references to Blue being a member of the UofM MHC, even being in charge of publicity at one point. That is what led me to believe that it was the MHC he saw that day. But I wouldn't call that a sure thing.

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    2. Huh. I know for sure that in fall 1973 there was no organization by that name, and that in fall 1973 nobody but me was running D&D at Coffman Union on Tuesday nights.

      Other things I can't swear to, but those two things I can.

      And who knows if the club had changed its name. I suspect there's not a lot of archived information on student organizations from forty-some years ago.

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    3. Totally disconnected anecdote: When I was in college 20 years ago, I was part of a student club to which the leader routinely referred to by completely different names (same club, same semester, etc.). Which was frustrating with me trying to get paperwork in order for student government funding requests, etc., because he was going around advertising different names on different weeks.

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    4. Mike, if you take a gander here:

      http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-midwest-military-simulation.html

      ... and look at the flier for the MMSA from 1974, the impression I got was that Svenson and Richard Snider were running MMSA meetings at this point. Many meetings were off campus - another flier I have from this period advertises an MMSA meeting at the College of St. Thomas. Blue was listed as a member of this group when it was still the UofM MHC, but as my blog post over there explains, the UofM MHC evolved into the MMSA and the terms were used interchangeably. I had gathered it was at one of these meetings that Blue witnessed the play of Blackmoor.

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    5. Mmmmaybe. I didn't start going to the St. Thomas meetings until... oh.... late 74. That's where I played in a lot of Dave's miniatures games, and also where I played a ton of STARGUARD with Larry Bond.

      At this point I don't think we'll ever know for sure, but Blue might have seen Blackmoor pre-Autumn 1973, or at a place other than the U of MN Minneapolis campus.

      Or hell, this is over forty years ago, and I'm not 100% sure what I had for lunch yesterday.

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  11. Any chance of a similar download for the Midgard rules?

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  12. Just amazing stuff Jon. I second the Midgard request as well as any other treasures from the dawn of role playing games.

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  13. Holy cow how have I not discovered Jon Peterson, his book, or this blog before now?!?! I haven't been this excited since I opened my Red Box set under the Christmas tree in 1977. Thank you, you wonderful man.

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  14. There is a write-up of a game of Minneapolis Dungeon where it mentions that each player got to pick one special ability. This reminded me of an old magazine article (early 80s) about an RPG set in the world of Xanth. In Xanth, each person has a single magical power. In this article, they describe the scene (there was a centaur and someone fell in a pit), and the players claimed that their game pre-dated D&D. Of course, back then I didn't believe them but now I can see that they were playing a version of the Minn Dungeon game.

    Anyone know of this article? I wish I could remember where I saw it.

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    1. I believe it's the article mentioned here. I distinctly remember a D&D article in Dynamite that include the Vanth scene you mention, and this seems to be the only time they featured it.

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    2. Here's an update on my previous comment. The RPG set in the world of Xanth is described here, in an article from Dynamite's flip cover mini-magazine Arcade.

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  15. This is awesome, and that cover is hilarious!

    Allen Shock

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  16. This is awesome, and that cover is hilarious!

    Allen Shock

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  17. This is an amazing example of just how much of a GAME it once was, as opposed to the Pseudo-Medieval Simulation Kit it developed into. The idea of a dungeon expedition kitted out with flash cameras, jars of Ragu sauce, cottage cheese, joke books and led by a bicycle-chain-wielding Priest - well, gleeful is the only way I can describe it.

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  18. Sounds like you had to be there.

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