Wednesday, July 29, 2020

GenCon 1971 and the Castle Sewer Game

On the eve of virtual 2020 Gen Con, let's turn back the clock a half century and look at one of the more obscure Gen Cons: the fourth, held in 1971. The above gloss on the event appeared in TSR's 20th Anniversary chronology, which unfortunately is not notable for its accuracy: elsewhere on the same page, it asserts that Chainmail was published in 1969, say, and that its "Fantasy Supplement" would not be added to the game until 1972. For that reason, I've long dismissed its report of a "castle sewer" game as entirely spurious... but it turns out there was a man-to-man scale miniatures game at Gen Con in 1971 that involved sneaking through the sewers, and that it did not go unnoticed -- it was actually the hit of the convention.

On August 23 and 24, 1971, Gen Con IV was held at the American Legion Hall in Lake Geneva, the first year that the convention was not based at the Horticultural Hall (which hosted an antiques show that weekend). Contemporary reports suggest that the Legion Hall was hot and crowded, especially after some 250 gamers crammed themselves into the two floors of the building. The main and second floors were reserved for gaming, including the Panzerblitz tournament mentioned in the history above; dealers were relegated to the basement, next to the bathrooms, in a decidedly miserable dungeon layout.

Don Greenwood of Panzerfaust attended the convention and reported "fantasy games utilizing Giants and Goblins drawing particular interest," which is to be expected as Gygax evangelized his new game Chainmail. But Greenwood identified the "most intriguing" game on display "was a village set up for WWII using 2 second rules."

It was a refereed game where a "judge" managed positions of individual troops in the village: that combined with the Second World War setting and a miniatures system where one move equals two seconds of real time suggests it was Korns's Modern War in Miniature. Korns was on the planned event list for Gen Con IV; Mike Carr was supposed to be judging "a small scale infantry action" using Korns on Sunday.

The most intriguing aspect of the setup that Greenwood mentions was that the houses had removable floors, and "a system of sewers underran the table." It is this aspect of the game that is mentioned by all of the reports on Gen Con IV that I can find: John Mansfield in Signal called this setup "the most popular game of the Con," describing it as "a small village clearing game in miniatures" and mentioning how "the roads even had sewers."

A highly abbreviated note from Gary Gygax in Gamers Guide gives us a bit more detail: that it was "a 'town' about 4.5' x 4.5' for WWII street fighting. The town had full buildings which lifted to reveal basements and sewers below - manholes in the street opened." Surely those "sewers" wouldn't have been mentioned by everyone who saw the game if they hadn't seen use during play. So it seems that during the 1971 Gen Con there was a battle involving the sewers -- just not a fantasy one. The reports don't say if the WWII village included something like a castle... but it wouldn't have been out of place for certain period settings in Europe.

So could Mike Carr have brought this elaborate display down from the Twin Cities to run as a Korns game? Gygax tells us otherwise, as he attributes the town setup to the St. Louis Chapter of the IFW. None of the reports mention who judged the game, though, and it is at least possible that someone other than the usual St. Louis crowd (the likes of Oliver Wischmeyer and Mark Jumper) did so over the course of the convention.

But all this does suggest that some half-forgotten fragment of Gen Con lore was preserved in TSR's 20th Anniversary chronology, the idea that an individual-scale wargame incorporating "sewers" was played there in 1971, at a crucial juncture when Chainmail was seeing heavy use, but dungeon adventures in Blackmoor do not seem to have started yet. By August, Dave Arneson had returned from his summer European vacation, and a full contingent from his Twin Cities group staged Napoleonic games on the main floor of the Legion Hall that year -- though Arneson exempted himself from referee duties for the convention, as he planned to play. Given that he was on hand, and this town-clearing Korns game was the "most popular game of the Con," Arneson surely saw it, even if he didn't play in it personally.

No one should come away from this piece believing that Arneson directly borrowed the idea of dungeon adventuring from this "sewer" game: for one thing, his underworld was on paper, not staged as physical terrain. But the thing that makes events like Gen Con so important to the hobby is how they cross-pollinate between gaming communities, exposing attendees to new concepts that can bounce around in their heads for a while and emerge with a fresh spin. The influence of any given event on a particular person is often impossible to measure: but the aggregate influence of a half-century of this cross-pollination on the community is unmistakable. Which is why I hope that we'll all be back together again in person at Gen Con in 2021.


  1. Amazing information as always Jon. Thank you for continuing to post your research findings on these important pieces of gaming history.

  2. Perhaps this is why sewer movement rules were such a priority to include in the wargame Squad Leader (1977)? That always struck me as an off-beat element of WW2 infantry tactics to want to put in a base set.

    1. It's possible, as Greenwood was present for this Gen Con, and he tended to have development input on Avalon Hill's titles in the 1970s.

  3. I do find this possible thread of underground, secondary maps to be quite interesting.

    I have to say that one of the less convincing things you posit in your book is the idea that the levels of Arneson's dungeon were the direct analogs to levels for player characters, so I have thought a lot about the nature of his underground sections. Of course the very different nature of this below-the-surface play which could directly influence above-ground results doesn't make for a simple potential evolution.

    While this is far from real proof, I say it's more convincing than the discussions of the ODD forums (which I'm sure you're aware of) that Arneson happened to see Dracula the week he decided to implement dungeons or something. The most stereotypical medieval thing he could have drawn on were torture devices, and those were largely (at least in pop culture) stored in dungeons. It's not necessary that there needs to be a specific influence - at least in my mind - though I find this sewer play to be a very compelling idea.

    The largest thing I feel the WWII sewers have going for them are the downscaling of the combat. The potential of having smaller scale engagements reflects the Strategos influenced play of the Twin Cities. I could see there being a lot of personal connection in that. It's all vague though!

    1. Just on the posit in PatW that the "levels" of characters derived from the levels of dungeons, I'm curious if you think there's a more convincing explanation for why the strata of characters are called "levels" (rather than "ranks" or whatever else).

    2. Cracking open my trusty copy of the brick, I looked back at all the references to dungeon levels. I think first off there's very little to say that "level" would have been the standard nomenclature for the floors of a dungeon. I don't see any evidence - at least as presented in the book - that the language as such would have been Arneson's default description. None of the excerpts from CotC appear to use that language (I know there's generally very little Blackmoor info, but as far as I can tell level is only used to refer to characters) and I don't see it as immediately obvious that he would reach that conclusion at that time.

      The later Great Plains Game Players Newsletter you cite sort of confuses the language a bit. Sure, it proves Arneson did use the term levels to refer to the dungeon descent eventually, but if there's a correspondence in language then it would be confusing of him to say that "Weaker creatures are on the upper levels". I don't think that really proves any point if we're making an argument on a linguistic basis, as this was also after D&D had been assembled which formed a dualistic relationship of dungeon-level and player-level. In speaking of the origins of the concept, this feels a bit confusing because the ascent of levels of status gets mirrored into the descent of levels in the enclosure.

      The stratification of 'level' as a means of raw power or ability to me seems to predate application as seen here. I would of course need to delve into this more to find how this might affect understanding, but a cursory search led me to some applications of "power level" used as a metric for human ability prior to the 1970s. I think 'level' had a broad enough use by the time Arneson would have picked it up that it did not necessarily have to apply to the use within the dungeon - therefore directly tying one level to the other (which seems to be the implication even though it's not outright stated, that players would reach level three of the dungeon when their character was level three or monsters would be level three) - as opposed to a broader meaning.

      Do I have a better conclusion? Certainly not. I would have to look closely at the language of the sources you've looked at. Certainly I think a strong counter argument could be made that because Gygax found it necessary to preserve the language of the two different 'levels' in the rulebook that it may indicate the wording in itself was very important.

  4. HHWP, you are overthinking it. There is no mystery to why Arneson used "level" to cover near a half dozen things (spells, character advancement, dungeon depths, and whatever else). He was simply conveniently using the word as is. Arneson called dungeon levels "levels" because that is the term anyone might use for different depths or heights of elevation - common for example in archaeology. Keep in mind that the first three dungeon levels of Blackmoor are above ground level in a hill. He did not come up with the idea to tie dungeon levels to difficulty levels - that was David Megarry when he invented the dungeon game. If you actually look at Arneson's stocking lists, you can readily see with a little number crunching that they do not get tougher with depth and hence have nothing to do with character level. If you are really interested in this sort of thing, I have a couple posts on the subject, such as this one:

    1. I think we broadly agree about the influence of Dungeon! on D&D, but I still think Arneson expressed things along the lines of "weaker creatures are on the upper levels" and that for a given creature there is a level "where they would normally be found inhabiting." I mean, even in the FFC tables, you're not going to find a Balrog on Level 1. But that said, the term "level" is pretty generic and the posit about it in PatW was a pretty soft one. It was more that early references to "level" in characters seemed to correlate to adversary spellcasters, and there were references to "bagging" those in a dungeon, which for me anyway drew a line between which level of the dungeon a given adversary spellcaster would normally be found inhabiting and this developing idea of character level.