Xandering, Jaquaysing, or Arneson-ing the Dungeon?

Author: DHBoggs /

 Yet another gamer firestorm arose shortly after the passing of Janelle Jaquays when it was noted that Justin Alexander had changed a rather well known post he had made in 2010 regarding dungeon design attributes he gathered from studying the games made by Jaquays.  In late 2023, as Jaquays was breathing her last, Alexander changed the term from Jaquaying to Xandering reportedly at the request of his publisher for his book "So You Want to be a Dungeon Master." Alexander also stated that Jaquays had requested that he change the name, which is true, but the request was only to change the spelling from Jaquaying to Jaquaysing because Alexander had left off the s. Thus the kerfuffle.

Okay, this post isn't a polemic on the rights or wrongs of what Alexander did.  In fact it's an old post I dusted off and finished in light of the controversy.  Jaquays deserves all the credit in the world for innovative game design. I'm a fan. The Catacombs Sourcebook is a favorite reference of mine and The Hell Pits of Nightfang is dear to my heart.  I'm quite sure that Jaquays deserves to be recognized for pioneering creative dungeon design.

I am going to say though, that seemingly unbeknownst to everybody including Jaquays, Arneson did it first.

There's a trope in science fiction of the old master years ahead of his time.  We see it in Highlander for example in the movies iconic katana impossibly made by a legendary master sword smith, Masamune in 593 B.C., or in Star Trek TNG, with the Master of Tarquin Hill who designed ceramic objects that were three hundred years ahead of their time.  This trope doesn't often have real world equivalents, the most obvious real example being Leonardo Da Vinci.

While Da Vinci was certainly appreciated in his day, the revolutionary and prescient nature of his more creative ideas was unappreciated until more recent times. Was Arneson the Da Vinci of dungeon design?

Below I've copied all the principles Alexander cites as core to "Xandering" a dungeon and examine each one in light of Arneson's principle early dungeon's  - Blackmoor Castle Dungeon (1972), and the Temple of the Frog Dungeon (1975). For good measure I will also throw in a few mentions of Tonisborg (1973) because as creator Greg Svenson will readily tell you, he copied Arneson's methods in designing the dungeon.  Here is the list:


Blackmoor dungeon has more entrances than any dungeon I know.  Here is a partial list from the top of my head:

The Elf Stump

The Graveyard

Basement of the Silver Dragon Inn

Basement of the Church of the Facts of Life

The Wizard's Pit

The Well in the castle courtyard near SE corner of outer wall

Main Stair in the Throne room

Western corridor that leads to the hillside west of the Castle

The Temple of Id

Dragon Isle

Etc. etc.

The temple of the Frog dungeon has more than half a dozen entrances to the first level and at least 3 that go directly to the second.  Tonisborg also has multiple entrances.

LOOPS: Branching paths hook them together into a loop. 

I mean, have you seen the maps for Blackmoor, or for Tonisborg for that matter?

Here is a more or less random snip of one level:


I did quick and dirty count of the Stairs in Blackmoor dungeon and came up with 73.  There are also about a half dozen fireshafts, multilevel caverns and so on.  The same is true of Tonisborg to a lesser scale.  Temple of the Frog dungeon has around a dozen connections between the two levels.

DISCONTINUOUS LEVEL CONNECTIONS: (connections that skip levels)

Blackmoor dungeon may well be the most vertically complex dungeon in existence to this day.  The 73 or so interconnecting stairwells, dozens of shafts and pits, vary from connecting only one level to another, to connecting at least ten levels.  Stairs also skip levels, sometimes only one, and sometimes several.    Tonisborg dungeon mimics this on a smaller scale.  


Secret and unusual paths? Yes, in abundance.  Have a look at the tunnels for instance, secret entrances through the graveyard, the well, the wizards Pit, and various hidden caverns. There is also the hidden elevator shafts in a couple of the pillars of the Main Gallery.

Here is one Unusual Path on the first level:


This is a little harder to characterize.  Blackmoor, and Tonisborg have isolated sections that could be sublevels or not, depending on how you characterize them vertically.

DIVIDED LEVELS: (a level that cannot be completely traversed without going through the levels above or below it)

There are level sections in both Blackmoor and Tonisborg that can only be entered by going down one stair and up another or by finding, in some cases, a very difficult secret passage or in other cases by digging through a cave in.  Here is a small section example from level 2 entered only be secret doors or a stair:


Similarly, there are what one might call nested lairs only accessible through a secret entrance, for example from level 3:


There are a couple of sloping areas in both Blackmoor and Tonisborg.  Temple of the Frog dungeon has both chutes and a sloping corridor covered with slippery slime.


Tonisborg Dungeon's main entrance puts you on level 2. The well entrance to Blackmoor dungeon ends at level 3.  If you go in through any of the Blackmoor town entrances it will put you on level 4.  If you go in through the Wizards Pit you will enter on level 4 or 5.  etc.  The temple of the Frog has exterior entrances that put you on the bottom level (2).  So yes, not simply a midpoint entry, but multiple entries to multiple levels.


No this one I have to concede, isn't found in Blackmoor.  The references is to upside down rooms and M. C. Escher like passages.


There is really nothing like this in Tonisborg or TotF, but Blackmoor does have one instance technically falling into this category, in that the Orcian Way staircase only goes down from level 1 but if you try to go back up, it will magically extend upward for a great distance to a trap door, which will transport characters to hundreds of feet up in the air above Blackmoor Bay.

A final point not to be missed is that all these design elements were incorporated by Arneson in the very first dungeon ever made. I'm not sure sure I can stress the enormity of this fact.  Arneson didn't need the years of trial and error that resulted in the design principles of "Xandering" that everyone else did. He intuitively grasped what would make a fun and challenging, repeatable dungeon experience from the moment he first put pen to paper in 1972.  I really find it quite amazing.  Blackmoor dungeon is truly a wonder of the fantasy world, like finding a digital camera in a 1972 time capsule.

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