The Dungeon! Board Game as a Foundation of D&D.

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: , ,

Readers of this 'blog have heard the tale of Dungeon! before, so to quickly recap, the game was created by David Megarry in a fevered, 72 hour marathon of creativity in October of 1972.  His goal was to distill his experience as a player in Blackmoor dungeon into a simpler board game playable without a Referee.

Dungeon! is often described as a kind of D&D light or introductory D&D.  Most gamers, and seemingly most researchers have assumed that the Dungeon! rules as published are drawn from the rules of D&D.  In other words, when a rule or feature appears in Dungeon! with a compatible counterpart in D&D, D&D is the source, not Dungeon!.

This is a natural supposition, given that Dungeon! was first published more than a year after D&D, and David Megarry's name appears nowhere in the D&D booklets.  

Is it possible that we've gotten this story backwards and the reality of which game influenced which is the other way around? Could David Megarry actually be an unsung contributor to the foundations of D&D?

To examine these question, we need to consider quite a number of things, starting with an evening, late in the year of 1972. In late November or early December, David Megarry and David Arneson drove through a snowstorm from Minneapolis to Lake Geneva.  Arneson wanted to show Gygax his Blackmoor game, and Megarry's brought along his prototype Dungeon! in an effort to interest Don Lowry, owner of Guidon games.  Gygax was working for Lowry at the time, so both young men went to Gygax to pitch their respective games. 

When it was his turn to demo the Dungeon! prototype, Megarry, of course, explained his game to Gygax in detail.  Of course, this event has always suggested to researchers the possibility that Megarry's original Dungeon game rules could have inspired their analogs in D&D, but without a copy of Megarry's original rules in hand it was difficult for researchers to develop substantive propositions, one way or the other.  The rules to the game generally available had been written and edited by Gygax well after D&D had been published, and it was impossible to know to what extent he had deviated from Megarry's original.

At least, that was the situation until August of 2018, when Megarry was able to get a copy of his second iteration of the rules.  Megarry had given a complete hand made copy of his game to Sandy Rosenberg as a birthday present in August of 1973.  Sandy still has her game, along with Megarry's hand written rules, photos of which she gladly sent to David.

These "Dungeons of Pasha Cada" rules are the oldest extant set we know of, but the immediate question arises, just how old?   According to Megarry;

"It appears after I got my rejection letter on 24 Dec 1972 from Parker Bros., I called Gary and asked if he would represent Dungeon to Don Lowry. There then ensued several phone calls over two months where I added material requested by Gary, the biggest change was player-to-player combat. I would read my changes to him on the phone. I insisted that these additional rules needed to be added to the advance rule section. He finally relented. So Sandy's rules are what got sent to Lowry in April 1973"  Pers Comm July 2019

"So the Pasha Cada name did come about after the prototype, but in Feb-Mar 1973 when I was preparing the prototype to be sent to Lowry. I felt I would need to have a name for submission to a game publisher....  I did not leave the prototype in November 1972 with Gary but sent it directly to Lowry in April 1973 (I have my transmittal letter). Gary had hyped the game to Don and Don agreed to look at it because of this recommendation. Lowry accepted the game for publication and sent me a royalty contract which was executed (I also have this documentation)....  Gary would not get the prototype until August 1973 (I think I have the bus ticket stub for that trip to Lake Geneva, as well)."  Pers Comm, August 2018

The bus trip to Lake Geneva Megarry is referring to is the last leg of a Greyhound Bus Pass summer excursion.  On his travels, he was able to retrieve his game prototype directly from Lowry in Belfast, Maine, and later physically deliver it to Gygax.    

"I returned to Minnesota in August 1973 with the prototype and found a letter from Gary asking for the prototype. My last trip on the Greyhound pass was down to Lake Geneva with the Prototype in early August 1973, just before Gen Con of that year. What I gave him was the board, the cards and a copy of the rule book that I had given Lowry by mail. The board was the original, and the cards were the original but the rule booklet would have been the enhanced Sandy set."  Pers Comm July 2019

These "Sandy set" Pasha Cada rules are not precisely identical to the rules he originally wrote in October of 1972.  We know with certainty of several changes; some slight differences in monsters and treasure, the added "Pasha Cada" name and more significantly the addition of a section of player vs. player rules at the suggestion of Gary Gygax.

However, Megarry contends that the addition of the Player vs. Player rules was the most substantial difference between the Pasha Cada rules and his original prototype. 

"The basic rules are what I produced for the original game, but I have not found a copy with just those rules. So, my story is that the basic rules are what I originally wrote and added the advanced rules with the suggested Gary changes."  Pers Comm July 2019

We can largely rule out any influence on Megarry's "Pasha Cada" version of the rules from the draft rules of D&D typed by Gygax (GD&D or Guidon D&D as they have been called), for while it is unclear exactly when the Twin Cities gamers first received these rules, it appears to have been no earlier than late March, and probably closer to June of 1973.

Nevertheless, we do have to concede some uncertainty here regarding the origin of some similar features between D&D and Dungeon because of the phone communication between the two.

Note however, that Megarry places these phone calls in January/February 1973, a time when the D&D manuscript was only beginning to take shape.  So while this line of influence is a possibility and we would be remiss if we didn't consider it, we have to ask how likely it would be for Gygax, over the phone, to have suggested, and Megarry to have subsequently made, additions and alterations to his rules and methods to make them match an unfinished, draft-in-progress ruleset for a largely different game.  Or is it more credible to suggest the reverse, that Gygax having already played Megarry's Dungeon game, and having Megarry reading his Dungeon rules over the phone for discussion and refinement, was incorporating aspects of Megarry's game into his fledgling D&D draft?  

In fact, if Gygax were making some effort to influence Megarry for purposes of compatibility with D&D we might expect a great deal more similarity between the two games.  Yet, overall, Dungeon! doesn't display any particular concern with compatibility to D&D in any of its early version. 

This last point is perhaps the most compelling fact in Megarry's favor.  It seems quite unlikely that Gygax, for example would have suggested Megarry change a handful of specific rules to match those in the fledgling drafts of D&D while ignoring many other similar rules and ignoring whole key features, like the Cleric class for example.  The more recent versions of the Dungeon! game do make these sort of changes, with the inclusion of character classes Clerics and Rogues, more spells, traps, treasures and so on.  This process was in fact started by Gygax himself a year after TSR began publishing Dungeon!  In an article he wrote in Strategic Review vol. 2, #1, Gygax added rules for Clerics, Dwarves, and more D&D monsters.  Yet, in Megarry's 1973 Pasha Cada rules, any concern with compatibility, or even general conformity to unfinished drafts of D&D, such as in the familiar three character classes, familiar terms for spells, magic items and treasures and so on, is simply absent.  There is therefore no reason to suppose any Pasha Cada rules were changed or inserted in the kind of conformity efforts seen later.

Further, it is important to note that Megarry himself holds that his Basic rules were much the same between the '72 and '73 versions, with most of the changes going into the Advanced section.

In short, between the original cards and game board of Oct '72 and the Pasha Cada rules with an absolute terminus anti-quem date of August 1973, we have a solid basis for comparison of features with D&D, and where questions arise, reasonable deductions can be made.

With all that in mind, let's look at some features Dungeons of Pasha Cada has in common with D&D.  Below I identify six items either integral or deeply associated with D&D which seem to first appear in Megarry's material.  These are items which may be uniquely Megarry's.   I have not included the many features which have clear antecedents in either Arneson's early Blackmoor material or are to be found within the pages of CHAINMAIL.

1.)* The Deeper You Go...

"Byword:  The deeper you go, the better they are but the worse it gets."  Dungeons of Pasha Cada, p14

It is important to note that we are actually considering three separate principles here, that have been deliberately entwined both in Megarry's Dungeon! and in D&D.

The first is that dungeons inhabitants grow stronger with depth

The second is that the degree of challenge for adventurers by dungeon level relates to the adventurers character level - i.e. dungeon level equals character level.

The third is that treasure rewards get greater in relation to dungeon level depth.

A classic trope of D&D is that dungeons get predictably harder by level, with predictably greater treasure, and that this difficulty is roughly matched by character level - Yet this is exactly what we see the Dungeon of Pasha Cada set up to do.  While we have the above quote from the Pasha Cada rules, we can also deduce the same rule from Megarry's 1972 game cards.  He clearly set up the game to be both more challenging by level and more rewarding. 

"I figured out the monster treasure mix. You have to sort of, what I call, balance the game.  You have to make sure that the prizes match the monster type for the level that they're at; so that you also want to give each player, even though they have really disparate abilities, all the way from an Elf up to a Wizard, an equal opportunity to be able to win the game."  
David Megarry, Miniatures, Board Games, and Beyond, YouTube video, published Aug 21, 2012

Now, many will say that this dungeon difficulty principle should be attributed to Arneson, not Megarry.  They will rightly point to Arneson's First Fantasy Camapign booklet, where in 1977 (page 44) he explained how he created a protection point system for stocking dungeons and a method for increasing the points and thus the difficulty as the dungeon got deeper.  

The problem is, in Arneson's published 1972 dungeon material, there is no evidence at all of the increasing difficulty factor he described in his 1977 introduction.  Arneson definitely used points to stock the dungeon, but he definitely did not worry about it being harder as it went deeper or in any way attempt to calibrate dungeon level to his character types.  This fact is well illustrated in the two tables below:

Dungeon Level
Total Monster Rooms
Total Points

4 (Tunnels)

Dungeon Level
Total Monster Rooms
Total Points

The "Level Difficulty" column quantifies the number of points allocated to the level (total of all monster Hit Points) divided by the number of inhabited rooms.  Basically, it tells us the average number of Hit Points players would face per room encounter.  A more difficult level will have a higher average of HP per room.

Even if we suppose that some of the Blackmoor dungeon levels were created at different times using slightly different methods, Glendower was certainly done all at once.  Neither Glendower nor Blackmoor dungeons show any hint of concern for tying dungeon difficulty to dungeon level.  

The same process illustrated above for monsters can be followed for the treasures found in Blackmoor dungeon, with similar results.  I won't bore you with more tables, but suffice it to say the value of Arnenson's Blackmoor dungeon treasures are just as unrelated to dungeon depth as his monsters are.

This is strong evidence that both Arneson and Gygax got the notion of dungeons being predictably more difficult as they go down, with lower levels designed to challenge more powerful characters and provide more treasure rewards, directly from David Megarry.

In fact, in the case of D&D we can be even more specific.  In a series of tables used both for wandering monsters and dungeon stocking found in booklet III Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, on pages 10 and 11, monsters are grouped into precisely 6 levels of difficulty - exactly as is the case with Dungeon!  While the lists do not correspond one to one between games, there may be two reasons why: the first being that D&D has a lot more monsters, and the second that each game handles monster variability differently for practical reasons.

Both games place easier monsters on level one and the hardest ones on level six. but in Megarry's Dungeon, monster variability between dungeon levels is achieved through having more or less cards of a particular monster, so it is more or less likely to appear on the board.  So, for example, Megarry's game has three orc cards on level one, but only 1 ghoul card.  D&D has no cards and so achieves the same effect of determining the frequency of a given monster on a given dungeon level by using a "MONSTER DETERMINATION AND LEVEL OF MONSTER MATRIX" table, where a die roll determines what "level" of monster from the 1-6 list appears on what level of the dungeon.

The D&D method is complex, and appears to be a conscious attempt through the use of dice to model the difficulty and variability seen in Megarry's 1-6 level monster cards.  The same principle of variability over 1-6 levels is achieved.

2.)  Secret Doors

From the start, there were Secret Passages in Blackmoor dungeon, but there is no clear evidence of what method Arneson used to determine if a character had found and opened the Secret Door.  Megarry says, "Arneson had us roll against one of our traits to find a secret door if one existed. I think it was a secret roll and would have been two dice. I used one dice to simplify things."
Pers Comm, May 2017

It's worth pointing out here that the Richard Snider Variant rules have yet another method for Secret Doors - a fact which lends support to Megarry's claim to have developed his own rule.

Megarry's one dice rule:

"To get through a secret entrance, a player must either roll a one or two on one die or else have a secret entrance card." Dungeons of Pasha Cada, p2

Compare to these rules from Gygax:

"Secret passages will be located on the roll of a 1 or a 2 (on a six-sided die) by men, dwarves or hobbits." U&WA, p 3.
"Secret Doors and Traps Detection: When held the Wand will give warning of either thing when it is brought within 2" of it." M&T p34
"The Secret Entrance Card represents a wand which detects Secret Doors." p4 Dungeon! rulebook 1975, written by Gary Gygax.

Clearly, an essentially identical rule regarding the use of Secret Door is present in Megarry's Pasha Cada rules and D&D. 

Interestingly, as shown in the quote above, Gygax interpreted the Dungeon! card as a wand, and similarly has a Secret Door wand in D&D.  Which idea inspired which?  

3.)   Leaving the Dungeon to Replenish Spells

"When the Wizard runs out of spells, or any type of spell,
he may replenish them by returning to the Main Staircase. Upon
reaching the Main Staircase, the wizard stops and draws new spell
cards from the spell deck. The next turn, the Wizard may go back
down into the dungeons." Dungeons of Pasha Cada, 6

"The number in each column opposite each applicable character indicates the number of spells of each level that can be used (remembered during single any adventure) by that character." Men & Magic, p19.

While exactly what constitutes an "adventure" in D&D terms may be a bit ambiguous, it is clear that neither Megarry nor Gygax allowed the re-acquisition of spells while exploring the dungeon.   The rule in both games is that you get a fixed number of spells and if you want to replenish those spells you have to go out of the "adventure" to safety in order to do so. 

There's no particular reason why this should be the case in D&D, it just is.  Later versions of the game changed the rule entirely to allow reacquisition of spells almost anywhere.  So in this case, the original D&D rule seems merely to mimic the Dungeon! rule.

4.)  Medallion of ESP

"The Gold Medallion card allows the bearer to see what the monster is in a large yellow room or behind a door. The player moves to a door square or next to a large yellow room and looks at the monster card without showing anyone else." Dungeons of Pasha Cada,

This one is a bit tricky since magic "Medallion" does show up in Blackmoor dungeon (Level 10, room 10), so it is possible that Arneson originated this item, but we have no description from Arneson regarding what his Medallion did.  Megarry's Gold Medallion is the first to specify a room scrying function.

When Gygax rewrote the rules for the 1975 publication of Dungeon! he altered the name to Medallion of ESP, but kept the rules for how it functioned in the game.  Thus the Gold Medallion and Medallion of ESP are one and the same.  Megarry's Medallion seems to have made the jump to D&D:

 "Medallions of ESP: These devices are usable by all classes of characters, even Dwarves, but the device malfunctions on a roll of 6, so whenever in use roll a six-sided die to check it." M&T p36

5.)  Wandering Monsters

"For added realism a rule for hallway encounters with monsters is
introduced. All the monster cards not used in the set-up should be
put in a box. (All subsequently destroyed monster cards will be put
into this box, too.) Before each player moves or during lost turns he
must roll one die. If he rolls a six, he must draw a monster card from the dead pile box and fight it on the spot."  Dungeons of Pasha Cada, p13

"Wandering Monsters: At the end of every turn the referee will roll a six-sided die to see if a "wandering monster" has been encountered. A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared... The kind of monster is determined on the table below. (For wilderness encounters an entirely different table will be used.)" U&WA p10.

Conceptually, something like wandering monsters do appear in early Blackmoor first, but as far as we have evidence, they are to be found only in a wilderness context.  On page 34 of the FFC we find Arneson's "Encounter Matrix One", which provides a table for populating wilderness hexes and determining random encounters player characters might have while traveling.

There is no evidence Arneson was rolling for wandering monsters during dungeon explorations when Megarry designed his game, and if he was, it was perhaps only in certain cases, such as we see in the dungeons of the Temple of the Frog published in 1975.  In that dungeon, Arneson gives certain of the monsters a percent chance for travel outside of their rooms in certain areas.  So it is possible to encounter a medusa in the corridor instead of in her lair, for example.

Be that as it may, the idea of periodically rolling a 6 on a d6 to check for a randomly generated monster is not to be found in Arneson's early Blackmoor.   Yet we do find that exact rule in the Dungeons of Pasha Cada and in D&D.

6.)  Were Rats

Surely wererats are an iconic staple of D&D, yet they are a monster that was virtually unheard of before D&D was published.  The creature might have been inspired by Fritz Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar (1968), though the book has "Ratmen" not "wererats" and they aren't depicted as lycanthropes but rather as a tribe of intelligent rats who sometimes have a human-like form.  In any case, the wererat enters into the published D&D repertoire with the Greyhawk Supplement (1975).  However, David Megarry has Wererats on his list of dungeon monsters fully two years earlier.  Moreover, this isn't the only time wererats show up in Twin Cities material.  Greg Svenson has them in his Tonisborg dungeon stocking list dating to January 1974, give or take.  As with the "Medallion" discussed above, it is hard to say exactly who came up with the idea first.  This monster might have been something Arneson or Svenson or any one of the other guys first proposed.  Nevertheless Megarry must at least be given the credit for the oldest known listing and game stats, and appears to be the proximate source for the D&D version.   

Concluding Thoughts

The purpose of this essay isn't to demonstrate anything conclusively or to be completely thorough on the subject.  What I hope to have shown is that there is good reason to suppose that David Megarry may well deserve credit where none is usually given.  His dungeon game influenced D&D in many ways, some of them quite subtle, but others, specifically the six points discussed here, appear to be direct carry overs from Megarry's game.  

Of the six points discussed, wandering monsters and dungeon difficulty by level are especially central architecture of the D&D system - hardly a game has been played without some influence from these concepts.

The possibilities we are left with are rather simple: these six ideas were introduced to the game through Arneson, Gygax, or Megarry.  These particular cases were presented because the evidence in each favors David Megarry, as the creator of these aspects of D&D, suggesting his contributions are non-trivial.  The impact of Megarry's contributions may be hard to measure, but it seems time to acknowledge that some of the familiar aspects of how we play the game were the brainchildren of David Megarry, and none other.   

*P.S.  The idea that Megarry was responsible for the "more difficult as it goes down by level" concept was first voiced in a very interesting post by Tavis Allison in 2012,  You can read about it Here


Zenopus Archives said...

Very interesting! As I said over on ODD74, I've suspected Megarry had a larger influence than generally acknowledged ever since hearing that he demonstrated Dungeon the same night as D&D to Gygax & Co. It's so great that the early copy of the rules survived.

Great observation about the number of levels in Dungeon corresponding exactly to the number of Monster Level Tables in OD&D Vol 3. So obvious once pointed out but I never noticed it before. FWIW, regarding dungeon difficulty increasing as you go down the levels, in Gygax's accounts of the creation of the levels of the first Castle Greyhawk (for instance in Dragon Annual 1997), assuming these are accurate he seems to already be doing this right after learning the game from Arneson & Megarry. So he may have grokked this from that first session of Dungeon and D&D.

DHBoggs said...

Thanks Zen - yeah it seems likely to me that Gygax took to heart the idea of dungeon difficulty increasing with depth from that first experience with Megarry's game.

Zenopus Archives said...

Here's something neat. In the Preface to Castle Zagyg, Gygax talks about the "third version" of the castle, from 1998: "I went back, found my original first through fifth level maps, added a sixth "terminal" one I had done as special split level in the late '70s as the "bottom" and used this diminutive collection for convention play". So this late version of the dungeon had a similar six levels like Dungeon and the OD&D Monster Level Charts. (though he doesn't say exactly how difficult the lower levels were in this version).

Grixit said...

Are any of Megarry's documents available to download?

DHBoggs said...

Zen - Cool beans. There are a number of features of Megarry's dungeon that mirror aspects of Blackmoor dungeon (I guess I should write something about that), and the 6 levels is one of them. Initially, Blackmoor dungeon was only 6 levels deep and level 6 of Blackmoor dungeon was originally the home of King Funk of the Orcs - like the Kings level of Dungeon!

Grixit - not at the moment but I believe David is considering how exactly he wants to handle that.

lostthering said...

Thank you for unearthing this.

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