Sunday, April 18, 2021

Dungeons & Digressions

It was brought to my attention this morning that yesterday was an important day in D&D history, since Dave Arneson (according to his club zine) scheduled the first Blackmoor game, described as a “medieval Braunstein”, on 17 April 1971.  With that in mind, I hope that this digression from miniatures for a bit of personal D&D history is of some interest.

As I have mentioned before, I was a wargamer with both miniatures and board games before D&D was published, though a young one without too many opponents available to me.  There is a long-running Original D&D discussion forum of which I have been a member for some time, and there is often a lively discussion about how we managed to play the game back in the day, given that the rules (at the beginning) were somewhat in the nature of some broad open-ended suggestions.

Here’s what D&D Book III, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, has to say about setting up your campaign:

The so-called Wilderness really consists of unexplored land, cities and castles, not to mention the area immediately surrounding the castle (ruined or otherwise) which housed the dungeons. The referee must do several things in order to conduct wil-derness adventure games. First, he must have a ground level map of his dungeons, a map of the terrain immediately surrounding this, and finally a map of the town or village closest to the dungeons (where adventurers will be most likely to base themselves).

There was a discussion about whether there were actually towns, so I pulled out my binder of preserved campaign material from my original game.  I knew that I had a map of the town of Stoneharrow, drawn pretty early in the campaign preparations.  Given that the example campaigns mentioned in the rules, Blackmoor and Greyhawk, both had names in the form of “adjective noun”, I did the same in coming up with the name of my town, which then lent its name to the campaign.

So there we have the palisaded town of Stoneharrow, with quite a bit of open space within the walls where the peasents (sic) could grow vegetables in peace.  In retrospect, except for peculiarities in urban planning (a subject which I researched in much greater depth much later), I am not dissatisfied with it even now.  There are two named taverns, where mysterious hooded strangers might helpfully lurk in corners to hand out quests (though we didn’t actually do that at the time), boarding houses for adventurers segregated by class, a stable for their beasts, an adventure supply store for all your dungeon outfitting needs, an alchemist, and a temple of the local patriarch (in case you might need to be raised from the dead). I don’t know that the characters ever spent much time wandering around there, but the roots of adventure are there, should they be needed.  I am considering a retro game once the pandemic has ended, and I think that I will go ahead and build on this, by adding a few more non-player characters, and giving the poor patriarch a name. 

My favorite writing tool at the time was the Bic 4-color pen, and all of the early material was drawn on 10 square to the inch graph paper.  (I wish that I was getting a sponsorship reward, but I might note that I am still a fan of multi-pens, thought my favorite these days is this fine point Jetstream pen, which also includes a 0.5mm lead pencil.)

Since I was leafing through the binder, I also took a look at the dungeon.  Level 1 (below) is the actual carefully preserved first dungeon map I drew, in which the first dungeon expedition was undertaken by my brother, probably in April 1976.

Like the town map, it was drawn on 10 square to the inch graph paper with the 4-color pen.  I have heard assertions over the years that the early dungeons were intended to be mapped so that you could deduce the existence of secret rooms and such, but the 10/inch paper gave me plenty of room to draw, and I had a lot of solid rock in between rooms and corridors. 

There was quite a bit of space on the sheet of paper when I was done. Later, as the levels were elaborated, I added a level 1.5(B) to the same sheet, and using the same color conventions (black walls, blue secret doors, green room numbers).  Within a few levels, I shifted my color conventions, and eventually habitually drew levels with blue corridors, black cross-hatching marking solid interstitial rock, and red room numbers, like this later level:

For all of the elaborate labyrinth drawing, the actual key was pretty rudimentary.  Here’s an excerpt from the original level 1, down in the lower right corner:

Elsewhere, the book shows evidence of room contents being crossed out as the rooms were entered and cleared. The presence of an unguarded treasure including a pair of Gauntlets of Ogre Power in Room 62 would indicate that nobody ever got to that particular corner of the dungeon, probably because they had found a stairway down to deeper levels. From some of the discussions on, I get the impression that modern players have a tendency to clean out levels entirely.  

I did my best to stack my dungeon levels in such a way as to try to avoid overlapping them in theoretical three-dimensional space.  So I did have a diagram on a large sheet of 10/inch graph paper with the relative position of all the entrances laid out.  There was one set of stairs, and a selection of shafts, mostly leading directly to deeper levels.  What there was NOT was any indication of what the surface terrain looked like. When I go back to this, I think that there will be a fence around the entrances, and a set of guards who will collect your entry fee and log your names and, for an extra fee, be ready to send notice to your next of kin if you don’t return.  The local lord will also demand a cut of your plunder, in proper medieval style.  But, back in the day, we were pretty casual about getting to the dungeon entrance.

My wilderness map evolved over time. The rules books refer you to Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival for “offhand” wilderness adventures, and the monster encounter tables are keyed to the Outdoor Survival terrain types.  I did not personally have a copy of the game, but one of the other group members did, so it seemed obvious to me that the expectation was that you would draw your own map. Hex paper was not easy to come by in 1976.  My first tiny section of the area around Stoneharrow and the dungeon was drawn on “hex paper” made by drawing circles around a coin in a hexagonally close-packed configuration. That map does not survive.  It was replaced by a second map, which also does not survive, which was drawn on a copy of an 8.5x11” blank hex sheet which we scavenged from someone’s copy of Fact and Fantasy Game’s Siege! (in fact, the blank sheet can be seen on the linked Noble Knight illustration of the game).  I attempted to fit several of these copies together, and they were not quite regular, so I had corners that didn’t match up.  After that, I bit the bullet and ordered a package of 6 blank hex paper sheets from SPI, the size of a standard SPI wargame map, and transferred the earlier map. Since the players hadn’t wandered around much, I’m not sure that they would have noticed any transcription errors anyway.

Here is a closeup of the area.  The dungeon entrance is in hex 1933, across the Great River from Stoneharrow (hex 2231), and Lord Harmon’s castle is between, in hex 2132.  All of this was considered to be at the standard recommended 5 miles per hex.  If I were running a game in this region today, Harmon (or his heirs—it’s been 45 years, after all) would certainly be monitoring the comings and goings of adventurers, and making sure that he collected his cut.  

Eventually the wilderness map was elaborated onto all six sheets of the hex paper, of which this one, the Stoneharrow map, was originally the upper right corner in a 2 wide by 3 high array.  Additionally, several of the original players advanced in level to the point where they built their own castles, which were duly drawn onto the map, generally north of the area including Stoneharrow.

I don’t recall how long it took, but I eventually added three more packs of paper, for a total of 24 sheets in a 3 wide/8 high array. In our house today, there is no room large enough to lay it all out at once, but here is the northern half.  The Stoneharrow segment is now the second map from the top in the right hand column.

There are a few geographical peculiarities that are partly the result of my earlier lack of a sense of geography, and partly a result of usually only being able to deploy one map at a time for drawing.  I can remember that I occasionally set them up in the lounge of the dormitory I lived in during my first two years in college (fall 1978 to spring 1980), and that I was still drawing the southern half up until graduation in 1981. By then, we had shifted over to the AD&D rules for the actual game.  I went through a lot of blue, brown, and green magic markers.  Each map is 32” wide by 21” tall, so the whole array laid out would be 96” wide by 168” tall, or 8 feet by 14 feet.  At 60 hexes wide by 32 hexes tall per sheet, that’s a total theoretical area about 900 miles by 1280 miles.  Let’s just say that this was seriously a lot more than was needed to play the game, and most of it was only very lightly described.  

With this year marking the 45th anniversary of my own D&D game, I am still hoping to stage a little revival, and send a party or two back into the Great Dungeon of Stoneharrow, using the original rules as first acquired, without Greyhawk or any of the later supplements.  We might even dig out (recently painted) examples of the early Minifigs lines (Mythical Earth and Sword & Sorcery) to represent the adventurers and their opponents. 

I did a brief revival campaign back in 2015 or so, and advanced the official timeline the forty years since the original game had begun.  The original characters were occasionally alluded to as the local lords whose neglect of the current situation was allowing goblins to menace the local village.  When I go back to this, I’ll probably continue on from there.

My first campaign ran from 1976 to 1979 using the original rules.  We shifted over to the AD&D rules (at least theoretically) following the publication of the vital excerpts from the Dungeon Masters Guide in Dragon #22 (February 1979) but before the actual DMG was available late that summer.  We continued to play until I moved to Maryland in 1982, but have dusted off the characters during occasional reunions, most recently in 2013 (although we did fight a theoretically linked mass battle using Chaos Wars in 2017).

My second campaign, in Maryland, ran from 1982 to 1985 or so, and was based down in the southwest corner of the overall map, so some of that drawing was eventually put to use.  Eventually other games edged out D&D for play time, and I got back into historical miniatures as my main hobby outlet, but, as you can see, D&D was carefully preserved and stored away, awaiting a return.

So, thanks to Dave Arneson and all the Blackmoor crew, for originating this pleasantly all-consuming activity that has given me so many friends and so much pleasure for three quarters of my life (so far). 


Sunday, April 4, 2021

The first hobbits — Minifigs ME6

 In addition to digging out my original Dungeons & Dragons for my birthday last week, I also took the opportunity to haul all of the 25mm fantasy boxes (of painted figures, that is) up from the basement.  I needed to return the last set of troops sorted out for a batle to their proper storage locations, and I also wanted to conduct a quick census, since I was pretty sure that my estimate of numbers in my running project diary was off.  (I had somewhat over 1600, by the way, rather than the 900 I had estimated—so I hadn’t caught up in a while.)

In the course of that, I took a look at all of the Minifigs ME figures I have painted so far, and decided that I was ready to get back to that project.

The family gamers have been meeting for a group discussion, and sometimes a painting session, on Saturday afternoons for a while. Painting seemed like a good idea yesterday, so I dug around in my supply of figures already primed, and came up with some ME hobbits that had been awaiting attention for a while.  As noted in the title, these would have been the first purpose-cast hobbit figures released, back in the dawn of fantasy miniature production.

I have lost provenance on these, but I think that they are ones that I collected back from my brother, so they’ve been in the family since 1975 or thereabouts, if true.  The ME6 catalog number was a strip of three hobbits, as can be seen on the Lost Minis Wiki.  These guys are one strip, plus a spare spearman presumably representing a lost second strip.  They stand about 16mm tall from the base of the foot to the top of their hairy heads, and therefore are a rather small canvas upon which to work.  The MEs were sculpted in the traditional Minifig manner, prior to the invention of the greenstuff/epoxy sculpting pioneered by Tom Meier (if memory servies correctly), and there was a whole lot of detail with which to work.  The faces, in particular, are quite rudimentary.

When it came to basing them, I decided that I didn’t want to base them individually.  My brother and I have several times run the 1975 Lord of the Rings strategic tabletop game Ringbearer at conventions, and that calls for the Fellowship of the Ring to be pared down to 2 hobbit bases, the Ranger, the Elf, the Dwarf, and the Gray Wizard.  I have been gradually working toward the ability to run Ringbearer alone, and to do the whole thing with Minifigs, so I decided that i would make these guys my 2 hobbit bases, by mounting them in pairs on 25mm circular bases.

I checked my unpainted cache yesterday as well, and found that I have three more strips of these, plus three strips of ME48, the better-armed hobbit militia strip.  If I mount them all in pairs, I will only need to find one more strip to be able to field 2 Dragon Rampant units of hobbit militia.  That’s not enough to reproduce the Battle of Bywater (from “The Scouring of the Shire” in The Return of the King), but would add something unusual to a larger army of allied Free Peoples.