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Dungeon!
An Interview with David R. Megarry
James Maliszewski

The Dungeon! board game has returned (with optional rule variants recently provided by Chris Tulach). In honor of the re-release, Grognardia's James Maliszewski wrote about his introduction to the game—and interviewed the game's original designer, David R. Megarry!


I f you started roleplaying in the late 1970s, as I did, odds are very good that your introduction to the hobby was Dungeons & Dragons. My first foray into the D&D rules was through the 1977 Basic Set edited by Dr J. Eric Holmes, which my mother purchased through a department store catalog in the summer of 1979. She originally bought it for my father, thinking he might be interested since he had been talking a lot about D&D (owing to many news stories about it at the time). As it turned out, that Basic Set instead ended on a shelf in the upstairs linen closet of my suburban Baltimore home, where I often eyed it with curiosity. It would not be until nearly the end of that year, during Christmas break from my school, that I finally took the game down myself and opened it for the first time.

Before that could happen, though, I had to encounter another game, albeit one with a very similar title. One of my close friends received as a Christmas gift a board game called Dungeon!. First published in 1975, it came with a vinyl cloth game board that depicted the various chambers of a labyrinthine six-level dungeon. Players could choose to be one of four types of characters: a hero, an elf, a superhero, or a wizard. Each class had different strengths -- only a wizard could cast spells, for example -- as well as different victory conditions. The goal of the game was to wander through the dungeon, encountering monsters and (one hoped) defeating them to gain their treasure.

Both monsters and treasures were randomly determined through the use of cards keyed to a particular level of the dungeon. So, one might encounter giant rats guarding 250 gold pieces on the first level, but a red dragon guarding a huge sapphire worth 6,000 gold pieces on the sixth level. The first character to amass gold pieces equal to the victory conditions of his chosen class and return to the dungeon entrance was the winner. Though deceptively simple in its presentation, Dungeon! offered surprising depth of play, as players gauged multiple factors in deciding their path to victory, such as whether to play a weaker class requiring fewer gold pieces to win or whether to risk descending deeper into the dungeon where the potential dangers were as great as the rewards.

Playing Dungeon! with my friends that Christmas break reminded me of the game stashed away in that linen closet, which I took down and attempted to learn to play. While my early attempts at learning Dungeons & Dragons are, in retrospect, somewhat comical -- my friends and I wondered why the Basic Set did not include a board or playing pieces -- I still have very fond memories of those days. In my mind, Dungeon! will be forever linked with my first furtive steps into this wonderful hobby of ours, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard.

Consequently, I am very pleased that Wizards of the Coast has recently reprinted Dungeon! for a new generation. In celebration of this, I recently had the good fortune to speak with David R. Megarry, the original designer of the game. Mr. Megarry was a member of the Midwest Military Simulation Association, a wargames organization that incorporated clubs from several universities and colleges in Minnesota. Also a member was Dave Arneson, whose Blackmoor campaign was one of the wellsprings from which D&D eventually sprang.

In our conversation, Mr. Megarry kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about his design of the game and his own involvement in the early days of the hobby.

How did you first become involved in fantasy gaming? Was it through Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign or did you have an interest in the subject matter beforehand?

DM: I am trying to remember what kind of fantasy gaming existed before Arneson's Blackmoor and am hard pressed to think of any. I was steeped in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and my other main reading interests were science fiction (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), so in some respects I was primed for a D&D experience. Aren't the descriptions of the Mines of Moria a dungeon crawl, as a matter of fact: corridors to the left and right, noises, sudden attacks by monsters, etc.? So, I would say my fantasy gaming started with Blackmoor.

How did you come to join the Blackmoor campaign?

DM: We were all part of Arneson's Napoleonic [miniatures wargame] campaign for many years. When Arneson tried out Blackmoor on us and the group as a whole liked the fantasy game idea, we became part of the Blackmoor campaign. The Napoleonic campaign had been going on for years before the Blackmoor campaign. This was a very seasoned group of miniature game players.

It's been reported elsewhere that Dungeon! was inspired by your experiences exploring the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor. Is that correct?

DM: Yes, but it was watching David [Arneson] struggle with being the only referee and not being able to play his own game which lead me to the design problem: Could I invent a game which captured the flavor of the Blackmoor experience but not need a referee? I analyzed every aspect of the referee to understand what that position brings to the game, and came up with Dungeon! as the answer.

What conclusions did your analysis present about the role of the referee?

DM: The main conclusion is the referee reveals the fantasy world in bite-sized chunks, creating a system of intermittent positive reinforcement: a little bit of exploring (reveal a piece of the dungeon), a little bit of action (fight a monster). The trick was to take that concept and put it into effect in a board game.

While I had to reveal the dungeon, I was able to get the intermittent positive reinforcement idea in the monster and treasure cards. I was also able to introduce a variability (needed for replay value) with the random distribution of the cards within the levels. I kept the number of character types to a minimum and movement at five spaces to keep the rules simple. My whole idea was to have this game become a standard parlor game, accessible by everyone and that could be played in an hour.

I assume that the earliest playtests of the game were done with the Blackmoor group. What changes (if any) came about as a result of these playtests?

DM: Well, I think we played it three or four times but then the prototype went to Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva. I invented Dungeon! in October, 1972 and visited Gary (with David Arneson) in December, 1972. Gary liked the game a lot and was willing to try to peddle it to [Don] Lowry [of Guidon Games, the original publisher of Chainmail]. I left the prototype with him at that point. I had not made a copy of anything, so this was a very trusting activity. Ultimately I got the board back and the cards but the hand drawn rule booklet was lost. Anyway, the Lake Geneva crowd did more playtesting than the Blackmoor crowd.

Gary made some changes to the board, insisting that there was an imbalance in the movement on the fourth level, but by and large the game has remained essentially as I designed it. Gary did request player-to-player attack rules which I supplied but I insisted they be optional rules. He added a few more optional rules like wandering monsters, but I viewed these as complications to the basic play: Ma and Pa America was going to have enough work to understand the basic rules let alone learn how to fight each other. Arneson and Gygax were both into complicated, lengthy rules in all their games; it took a lot of effort on my part to keep it simple.

Were you pleased with the final results? Was there any aspect of your original design with which you were dissatisfied?

DM: My dissatisfactions were few but significant: 1) My name was spelled wrong!; 2) I had wanted to have cardboard stand-up figures for the pieces but they (TSR) could only afford pawns; 3) It wasn't clear to me that the changes Gary made to the board on the fourth level wouldn't give the wizards a better advantage there. It was supposed to be the area that heroes and elves could be challenged by monsters, but also not have pesky wizards standing in the wings waiting to pick up the prizes they dropped. So far it has not been an issue so I'm thinking it's the usual: "you messed with my game design" feelings that all authors have with their editors...

As I noted in my introduction, I first played Dungeon! as a child and it became my gateway into playing Dungeons & Dragons. Was this part of your intention?

DM: Remember, Dungeon! was a complete game before the D&D rules were finally finished. It was my intention to have Ma and Pa America have a fantasy experience; it is simply a happy side benefit that Dungeon! would lead someone to D&D.

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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