Remembering the dungeons of yesteryear

This weekend I had a chance to do some old-school, first-edition, dungeon-crawling, goblin-hacking RPGing. The stuff of which the first RPGs were made back in the 70s, before games got angsty and introspective and narrative and all that.

I was actually a bit nervous about running an old-fashioned site-based dungeon crawl. The game we were playing (Castles and Crusades) is a great little system for doing old-school gaming, so I wasn’t too worried about that. But “dungeons” have never really been my forte as a GM. I appreciate the idea behind them, and I like the just-have-fun-and-don’t-ask-questions aspect of most dungeons. But as hard as I try, I have never really been able to silence the voice in the back of my mind that asks those nagging questions like “Why does this random dungeon exist out here in the countryside? What do the goblins eat and do during the 99% of the time when there aren’t adventurers hacking their way through the dungeon? How does it make sense that there’s a beholder in this room, and there’s a green slime in the next room over, and a room full of giant ants across the hall?”

But I did my best to ignore those pesky questions of “realism” and just ran the adventure as written (the module we played was “Dark Chateau” by Troll Lord Games). And it was a blast! Driving home after the game, I was so excited that our dungeon crawl had gone well that I started reminiscing about other dungeons that I’ve enjoyed over the course of my gaming career. I came up with four dungeons that stand out in my memory as being particularly fun and entertaining:

  • The ruined castle of Herubar Gular in the Trollshaws. This was from the sample adventure in the MERP rulebook, and I’ve run this adventure for just about every gaming group I’ve ever played with. This was a multi-level dungeon beneath a ruined castle–nothing too spectacular-sounding, but the real fun of this adventure was infiltrating the ruined castle to get to the dungeon. The castle layout allowed for some truly interesting tactical possibilities, and each of the groups I ran through this adventure came up with a different scheme (some successful, some not) for getting inside. As far as dungeons go, this one was pretty “realistic,” although there were some quirky monsters to encounter (a golem, a kraken, a few others) in addition to the usual orc patrols.
  • Undermountain: The Lost Level. (Incidentally, one of the inspirations for this blog’s name.) This was a single-level dungeon crawl designed to be fit into the Undermountain uber-dungeon, but I just ran it as a standalone dungeon. Fun layout, great monsters (including a pack of animated severed skeletal hands–creepy!); this dungeon had nothing truly innovative in it, but all the pieces just seemed to come together. Also, you know how most dungeons have one or two super-poweful magic items hidden away so securely that the party could only ever find them with the GM’s blatant help? Well, this was the one such dungeon where the party stumbled across the Awesome Magic Treasure on accident, and without any help whatsoever from me, the GM. Cool!
  • Nightmare Keep. Hoo boy, was this one ever epic. By far the highest-level adventure of any kind I’ve ever run (I think it was recommended for a party of 17th-20th level PCs), this 2nd-edition D&D mega-dungeon just about had it all. Because it was so high level, it featured all those insanely powerful monsters that you usually just read about in the Monster Manual but can’t actually use in your game due to their power level. I remember few details of this dungeon (and I’m sure I mangled reworked it heavily to fit my gaming group), but I recall something about an undead dragon turtle and a demi-lich. Good stuff, good stuff.
  • Forge of Fury. This was a lower-level dungeon published back when 3rd edition D&D was just coming out and they were trying to support it with a line of short adventure modules. We had a lot of fun with this dungeon, which involved a good mix of fighting and non-combat challenges–I remember an entertaining bit of diplomacy as the party tried to talk its way past a roper (a bizarre monster that was more powerful than the PCs). The final battle was against a young dragon, and was a tough fight for low-level adventurers; the PCs planned out their battle strategy very carefully beforehand, and it paid off when they were victorious. (I do recall that somebody failed a Dexterity roll and fell into a lake while wearing plate armor, though–I don’t remember how that worked out for them.)

Ah, nostalgia. I can’t say that these four dungeons were the best-designed or most brilliantly written ones available, but they stand out as some of the most fun old-school dungeon exploring I’ve ever run in an RPG. If you should happen upon one of them, pick it up, give it a run through and let me know if you had as much fun as I did. And watch out for the giant centipedes lurking in the room just down the hall–if you pass the gelatinous cube, you’ve gone too far.

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1 thought on “Remembering the dungeons of yesteryear

  1. MM

    heh, I remember the undead dragon turtle and demi-lich. I ran from it and slew it, respectively. I recall that Bill and I spent a solid week planning the exact sequence of spells that I, he, and his Pukel-man were going to use to slay the hundreds of undead nasties that accompanied the lich-king. And then we went into the West . . .

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