Challenges Of The Underworld

What I am seeking is to run an exploration game set in a fantastic world. The largest fear I contemplate creating such a game is that it will not be sustainable for the long-term. This fear arises from the thought that the dungeon, however large it might be, will not sustain players over longer periods of play. While I think this depends very much on the quality of the play experience in the offered dungeon, it remains a key fear.

That said, the Original Dungeons & Dragons game published back in 1974 is often characterised as focusing exclusively on the dungeon adventure but this is not accurate. Book III is entitled, “The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures” and contains rules and some guidance on providing “wilderness adventure games”. Thus, from the beginning, we were introduced to the idea of exploring the wider lands around the dungeon and the settlement wherein the player characters begin their adventures. We discover, upon inspection, the antecedents of what has become known as the “hexcrawl” within the original game.

Before working further on the character generation approach that I will take with my game, I decided to further explore the original game to uncover what kinds of challenges the characters were expected to succeed in overcoming. What were the original adventurers in fantasy gaming expected to do?


Book I presents the game as having three very clear “Alignments”, or factions: Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. Putting aside 50 years of gaming tradition is difficult, but upon a simple reading of the text I am inclined to believe that the early Alignments were not so much about a moral positioning – as became codified later – as about affiliation to a broad cosmic “stance”.

Only Men and Lycanthropes can belong to any of the three Alignments; some others can belong to Neutrality and Chaos; most creatures belong to only one Alignment. Book II shows us that creatures and even magical swords have Alignment. Book III’s only mention of Alignment is with modification of the reaction of monsters and the behaviour of Patriarchs and Evil High Priests in relation to other Aligned passers-by. Thus, we see a cosmology in which the various races and monsters are categorised according to their affiliation. This implies that furtherance of the goals of your Alignment lie at the heart of the game.

For me, this offers an interesting means to draw player characters into the machinations of the implied factions. If we accept the idea of three factions – which is a reasonable division of affiliation fitting into a common threefold structure present in much of human storytelling – we can interpret the meaning of Law and Chaos as being opposites and Neutrality as being committed to neither.

I have a preference, gained from my experiences playing the Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game, of eschewing the term, “Neutrality” for a blunter designation: “Selfishness”. The Palladium game uses Good and Evil as the opposing forces, making Unprincipled and Anarchistic peoples the middle faction. I prefer this cosmology but the point stands: the first role of the player character is to serve their chosen faction with whom they are aligned.


Reading through the text of OD&D, Book I shows us that survival within the “dungeons beneath” is the primary focus of play. That said, the descriptions of the main classes of character indicate that reaching “top-level” allows one to build castles and charge taxes. Magic-Users will gain the ability to manufacture items of a magical nature. Clerics will not only build a castle but also attract “faithful men”.

Right at the beginning, referees are instructed that it will be beneficial “to allow participants in the campaign to ‘hire into service’ one or more characters” – even going so far as to mention the “acquiring of a regular entourage” and “an army of some sorts”. Thus, the primary goal is to amass wealth and experience to eventually exercise authority over your own territory within the fantasy world. It’s a game about the self-interested civilising of the wilderness one is playing within. This is a far-cry from the modern assertion that the game is about telling an exciting story.


The explanation of Abilities in Book I gives us a few clues as to the sorts of challenges player characters will face. Strength mentions “opening traps”, presumably after they have been sprung. Intelligence can be used to adjudicate whether an action would or would not be taken — interesting to me, given the way in which GURPS handles psychological Disadvantages with a Self-Control roll. Constitution affects resistance to paralysation and being turned to stone. Charisma limits one’s ability to command loyalty. There is repeated reference to combat.

Implied throughout Book I is the idea of communication with the monsters and non-player characters encountered. They can be subdued and offered employment or hired on as additional troops. Each encounter in the dungeon offers a chance to resolve the situation through negotiation. To achieve this, presumably the Referee will need to know the goals and desires of the creatures in their dungeon. This suggests that interpersonal skills will be paramount.

Combat dominates Book I as the primary concern for game rules. Magic-Users and Clerics can cast spells. The Cleric can also turn away or (at higher levels) dispel or dissolve the Undead. The spells imply conditions such as darkness, invisible objects and creatures, hidden magical objects, doors to lock and unlock, evil to be detected and protected from, water deep enough to need to be able to breath under, curses to remove, walls needing to be turned to mud or bypassed, magic to be dispelled, traps to be found, poisons to be neutralised, and diseases to be cured.

Book III tells us a little more, being the Referee’s guide to constructing the location for adventure. We are shown an example map and key, wherein a large feature of the dungeon is presented as being tricks and traps to confuse the players. The assertion is made that, “the fear of ‘death’, its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game.”

The dungeon will feature monsters and treasures, some of which are unguarded but hidden. Combat will be brutal and sometimes the player characters will need to flee. Characters need to find traps, secret passages, and hidden treasures. They will need light, and they are advised to listen at doors. Surprise from monsters is an ever-present feature of the underworld.

It’s an interesting list which helps me to narrow down the core focus for the players. In GURPS terms, we can offer a great many interesting choices from this initial tour of the earliest dungeon game. For example:

  • Let’s include some personality defects to test, such as Greed and Curiosity.
  • Social skills, such as Intimidation, Diplomacy, and Fast-Talk will be useful when dealing with NPCS.
  • Combat skills are paramount.
  • Spotting hidden things will be key: lots of Vision, Hearing, and other sense checks will be called for.
  • Skill with Observation, Lockpicking, Stealth, and Traps are all going to be vital.

Reviewing the Original Dungeons & Dragons game has given me insight into the priorities for character generation. From here, I feel better equipped to design some simple templates to represent the different “classes” of character proposed in the original game.

Game on!

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