Friday, August 02, 2019

Recaps & Roundups part 34: Dungeon Geomorphs Set One: Basic Dungeons

While I was reading up on the origins of Judges Guild, I saw a quote in a few places that the TSR only had one game aid available for D&D at the time that Bill Owen and Bob Bledsaw came calling: that product was Dungeon Geomorphs Set One: Basic Dungeon. I had no date for it, except that it was available at some point in 1976. Judges Guild was formed in July of that year, so we know for sure that the geomorphs were available by then (as long as that quote is true, I guess). So now is as good a time as any to take a look.

In the 1970s, dungeon exploration was the major focus of D&D, and the geomorphs are an aid for DMs looking to whip up a quick map. The product consists of five sheets, each with a different section of dungeon map. These sheets can be cut up into sections and arranged to make any number of map combinations. Here's an example sheet below:

That page above features three sections - two squares on the left, and a long rectangle on the right. The exits all line up, so you can combine them however you want, and along with the sections on other pages there are a lot of combinations available.

Gygax designed this product, so this is actually one of the earliest examples we have of what his dungeon levels might have looked like. It also features for the first time the classic blue and white map style that TSR would use for quite some time into the 1980s.

There's a written section that explains how the geomorphs are supposed to be used, which is followed by an example. Each of the sections is labelled with a letter, and each side of the section has a roman numeral. The layout example is given below:

So in the upper left, you'd use geomorph B, arranged with numeral II at the top. To the right of that would be geomorph D with numeral IV at the top, and so on. I messed around with this in Paint and this is what the map would look like.

It's a little weird, because geomorph I is one of the long rectangular strips, and it has a large open section in the middle, so it's really two quarter-size geomorphs. I considered cropping the other part of it and bringing it across, but that's not how it would work if I was using the paper version, unless I wanted to cut the geomorphs even smaller. The result is a nicely functional dungeon layout, although I'd block up all of the passages that aren't connected to anything. There are also some areas with no doors or entrances marked; I'll either fill them in, add some doors, or leave them as secrets only accessible by magic.

Following this is an encounter key, with some sample rooms that Gygax has knocked up. I'm going to reproduce them in full below, because it's actually pretty hard to get a hold of the originals. I don't believe they're out there as PDFs, and the later set that collects the three original geomorph products doesn't have them. Buying the originals is pretty much the only way to see them, so here they are below.


1. A rudely furnished room with an old holy man (lawful/good) who has sworn a vow of silence. He will not fight if attacked. He takes only 2 hit points. There is a pottery flask containing his drinking water in one corner; a small container near his near his pallet has a handful of lentils (all of his food); there are some rags hanging from a nail in the wall, and a wooden begging bowl on a rough wooded table near the door holds 1 silver piece and 3 coppers. If he is impolitely treated or his room is searched he will do nothing, but he will never aid the offenders. If so much as a single copper piece is dropped in his bowl, he will make a holy sign which will add 1 hit point permanently to all the party's members. After doing the latter, he will disappear when the party leaves, and he will be replaced by 1A.

1A. An insane fiend conforming generally to the description of 1. above. He will say nothing until a party is in his abode, but will then attack with two hidden daggers. He takes 12 hit points, with an armor class equal to 5 due to his 18 dexterity. He has no treasure to begin with...

2. A seemingly empty room which contains a gold tube worth 230 gold pieces. It is invisible. Inside the tube is a map to stairway #7, indicating that it leads directly to the 4th level down. If the room is searched, there is a cumulative chance of 2% per person per turn of general searching that it will be stumbled upon.

3. 4 LARGE SPIDERS, H.P.: 6, 5, 3, 2. They tend to lurk directly above the entryway and have a 50% chance of surprising any party entering. Only the largest has normal poison, and if the other 3 bite, the victim has a +4 on his saving throw. Bite damage is 1. If the room is searched, it will be noted that there are heavy cobwebs in the corners. In the SW corner they conceal a small space, and in that space is the skeleton of a man - including a suit of plate mail, a lantern, 2 flasks of oil, 4 vials of holy water, a dagger, a sword, and a mace. There are 167 silver pieces in a rotting leather bag at the far end of the space. All other possessions of the dead fighter have rotted.

4. Steps down to the 2nd level (geomorph E I, central portion).

5. False door which fires an arrow directly out when it is opened. The arrow is magical (+1), and if it fails to hit it will be usable. After the first magic arrow, it will fire only non-magical ones which will break whether or not they hit.

There's no indication of where those encounters should be placed on the map, so I'll have to do it myself. I'd put the entry stairs right where the B is in the upper left. The holy man should live in one of the more interesting-shaped rooms; I'm thinking the triangular one marked E in the lower left. The invisible tube could be anywhere, but I'd prefer it to be somewhere that the PCs might actually think to search: maybe the secret room to the upper left of geomorph E; they're more likely to search a room that's hard to get to. The stairs down to level 4 should be similarly difficult to find, so I'd put them in the triangular secret room of geomorph D. The spiders need to live in a room with a SW corner. It should also probably have no doors, so that the spiders can get about. I'll go with the long,  wide east-west hallway at the top of geomorph D. The false door with the arrows can be the door heading north, right at the top of geomorph B. Finally, there are stairs down to the 2nd level: I'll put those in the cul-de-sac just north-west of the entry stairs: not too hard to find, because I like to make it easy for PCs to venture to lower, more dangerous levels.

I'd be tempted to place this level somewhere in Greyhawk Castle, given its Gygaxian pedigree, but Gygax has said that the encounter keys from the geomorphs weren't drawn from his home campaign, and were made up for the products. Besides, it doesn't match up with Castle Zagyg, which will be the basis for my version of that dungeon. I also considered the sample dungeon cross section from D&D Vol. 3: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, but it doesn't match up: I need a dungeon with stairs from level 1 all the way down to level 4, and I am trying to fit all this stuff together as it appears in the original books. It's something that will need more thought.

Finally, Gygax recommends that about 75% of the dungeon rooms should be empty, with 25% containing monsters, treasures and other notable items. 1-in-5 of these occupied rooms should have a trap. He says that one or two slanting passages, teleport areas, or chutes per level is a good guideline. To me, that seems very sparsely populated, but I'm coming at it from a more modern perspective, having started playing in 1988. This is Gygax writing in 1976, with a solid five years of DMing under his belt, so presumably these numbers worked for him. They definitely suggest a far different, much less combat-oriented play style than what D&D would evolve into.

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