Sunday, May 15, 2011

Holmes & Cook: The Dungeon

In my recent post about the thought experiment of creating an amalgam of the Holmes Basic & Cook Expert editions of D&D in isolation from every other version of the game, I started going down a bit of an unfamiliar road. Taken in isolation, Holmes seems to suggest that the dungeon is an otherworldly kind of place that is almost a character unto itself.

This suggestion garnered several comments reminding me of the naturalism used by both of the game's founders, Gygax and Arneson. Let me be clear: although the first two D&D books I ever owned were the Holmes Basic and the Cook Expert editions, I never really learned how to play the game until someone taught me. That person did so using 1ed. Thus, I have played with the naturalistic assumptions of Gygax and Arneson from the beginning. One need only look at my take on Rot Grubs to see that naturalism plays a very large role in the way I go about this hobby. This is, in large part, why I find this rather non-naturalistic vision of the dungeon that I am seeing in the pages of Holmes so fascinating.

Part of the reason I even went down this road was Cook's introduction where he has a whole section on how to use the "early" edition of Basic D&D with his Expert Edition. In this section he states:

The monster section has been greatly expanded to include wilderness areas and deeper dungeon levels than were covered in the D&D Basic rules.

Note how Cook differentiates wilderness from the dungeon. His presentation of monsters reinforces this distinction. The stat block provided by Cook adds a few more pieces of information that Holmes does not. One of these is No. Appearing. Here he gives two ranges. The first is for dungeon encounters. The second is for wilderness encounters. Further, he makes a distinction between the dungeon and the lair. He gives an example of a Gnome lair in the back of the book — something that looks like the sample dungeon in the Basic Edition, but which instead of having wandering monsters have 5 times the the normal number range of the monster living in the lair. Cook also states:

A zero means that the monster will only be encountered in a dungeon (or in wilderness) if specially placed by the DM.

Subsequently, there are over fifty monsters that are not normally found in dungeons, ranging from the antelope to the T-Rex. There is also one example that does not appear in the wilderness: Black Pudding.

My own naturalistic mind could see the Black Pudding thriving in a wilderness setting. One might argue that its vulnerability to fire might suggest that it can't be exposed to sunlight over the course of several hours or dry out, etc. I would counter that this would simply mean that it is a nocturnal hunter and its amorphous shape would easily allow it to find shelter from the sun during the day. Thus, I ask: Why would Black Pudding only be found in a dungeon?

These distinctions made by Cook between the wilderness encounter and the dungeon encounter as well as the wilderness monster and the dungeon monster only reinforce a Holmesian view of the dungeon where:

Ochre jellies, green slime, black puddings, etc. are randomly distributed, usually without treasure, most often in corridors and passageways.

My naturalistic mind also questions why the sample dungeon provided by Holmes has eight empty rooms. I grew up playing this game where every single room seemed to have a purpose — every room had something inside of it, even if it was simply dripping water, a funny smell or a pile of bones. Holmes' empty rooms are devoid of anything:

Room E is always an empty room. The size of the rooms and the number of doors is variable, as shown on the Dungeon Master's map.

Why should a third of all dungeon rooms always be empty? Why aren't they being used? Why haven't they been used sometime in the past? Why no other description than empty? Ironically, my own naturalistic thinking leads me to a very un-naturalistic answer: because the dungeon wants it that way.

Given that wandering monster encounters are always tailored to the size of the adventuring party and/or the level of the dungeon, given that that there is the implication that there are monsters that can normally only be found in dungeons (including virtually all monsters unique to the Holmes edition!), it is not much of a stretch to imagine that the dungeon is in constant flux. The reason that there are so many empty rooms in a dungeon is because they are new enough that no one has had time discover them and/or move in. The dungeon itself is a character in the game, constantly shifting and changing its shape so as to challenge those that dare to enter into its depths.

Personally, I find this Holmesian vision absolutely fascinating and even compelling. My naturalistic mind has been flailing about trying to find an explanation for why dungeons should behave this way. Thus, far I have not been able to find a satisfying answer; however, I am beginning to believe that one may not really be necessary.


  1. Brilliant post! One of my pet peeves in any D&D monster stat black is the notion of "where they appear." I dislike this "guide" as it limits the potential of a Black Pudding living outside. In fact without that guideline or rule, how much of your post would be here?

    I say that not antagonistically at all, rather to point out how one simple decision regarding having a rule on a creatures habitat served to limit and potentially block your creativity.

    Food for thought...

  2. Do you feel that there's an undercurrent of catharsis and 'therapy' underlying Holmes? Is his vision of the game more of a 'shared subconscious' where adventure can cultivate bravery?

  3. I really appreciate this series! I am updating my kids rpg and I may take a great deal od inspiration from them!

  4. Have you read Philotomy Jurament's musings on this topic in OD&D, The Dungeon As Mythic Underworld?

    Those two brief essays radically reshaped my thinking about dungeons and, while some of what I create is still "naturalistic" it exists within a framework that is, essentially, the malign intelligence of the Mythic Underworld.

    I've just discovered your blog courtesy of James Maliszewski. This is a treasure trove concerning two of my favorite topics. Thank you for running such an excellent blog.

  5. @scottz
    I'm no're guess is as good as mine.

    Thanks. I look forward to your new edition!

    I'm glad you are enjoying my ramblings...
    Philotomy was one of my first discoveries when I unearthed the OSR a few years ago, so, yes, I have read his very excellent musings; however, my interpretation of it has always existed in context of a biblical geography. In other words, the Mythical Underworld is akin to the Land of Nod — that place where demons reside. It is an expression of the fallen world at its worst. Thus, by the efforts of PCs (who represent a pseudo-Christian civilization) the Mythical Underworld was recoverable. Holmes seems to suggest something else altogether...

  6. This is a great post. A very interesting analysis that gives one all sorts of cool ideas. & it recalled to mind an idea dropped by blizack in this post.

    If I wanted to get really weird, I could say that dungeons (and maybe even the monsters guarding them) are actually spontaneously generated by the AFC's relics. I like the idea of a dead adventurer's tomb slowly burrowing tunnels into the earth, sprouting monsters and traps like a seed sprouting roots...