King Arthur Pendragon

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Dragon Magazine - Up on a Soapbox

For my ultimate quest to create the best megadungeon I can possible create for my group, I returned to the roots of it all: Castle Greyhawk, the most famous of dungeons. Because it never saw the light of day outside Gary Gygax's and Rob Kuntz's game table, it acquired an almost mythical status. I've recently heard quite a bit about it and what I heard made me realize that it was exactly what a good megadungeon should be: not completely realistic, but whimsical, filled with fiendish traps and puzzles to entice the players AND the characters. To learn more, I tracked down several sources, some of which were easier to acces than others. One of these sources is the complete series of Dragon articles written by Gary Gygax: Up on a Soapbox.

The first article was published in issue 287 (September 2001) and the last one in issue 320 (June 2004). In them, Gary describes his experiences running and playing in the Greyhawk Campaign, mainly in Castle Greyhawk, a megadungeon than spanned several levels. These are uniformly excellent articles because they open a window to a past that most of us have almost forgotten, but also because they give us glimpses of a long-lost campaign that - to most of the old grognards - is a kind of Holy Grail, lost in a mythical time. Only elements of it have surfaced since then in different mediums. Now that Gary is deceased, these articles and a handful of other materials are the only link to the original Castle Greyhawk.

The articles themselves are not connected in any way. The author tells us about several situations that cropped up during his and Rob Kuntz's campaign. Thus, we have mainly independent accounts of various moments, involving different characters. One article describes a group's efforts to solve the riddle of "a towering block of carved stone" that radiated magic. In another, the adventures are befudled by the appearance of a mysterious man whose skin is gold encrusted with jewels (according to Gary, no group ever caught him, and it continues to be a mystery to this day). There are accounts of Robilar going solo, and how he was teleported to the other end of Oerth. One article even describes how pit traps evolved from simple pits, to pits with trapdoors and, finally, pits with spikes. Without exception, every one is a small diamond in the rough and a joy to read. I say diamond in the rough not in a derrogatory sense, but because these articles are an account filtered through the mind of the man who lived it and is trying, to the best of his abilities, to describe what was like to be a part of that game. We can only imagine how things were.

From Gary's writing, I have extrapolated several elements that I will incorporate in my own megadungeon. It is also implied that Gary and Rob played with several different groups in the same setting. Therefore, parts of the dungeon were explored by different groups. Most of the puzzles and traps were not designed in a manner consistent with real world logic or even, sometimes, any kind of logic, but prepared only to confuse the players (the aforementioned trapdoors that changed as the groups learned to bypass them and the infamous ring of contrariness). In this sense, there was a sort of duel of wits between the DM and the group, with the former creating increasingly fiendish traps and puzzles and the latter trying to "beat" the obstacles set before them. I like this sort of adversarial/collaborative duality. Let us not forget that these were different times, and gameplay has changed a lot in the interim.

Castle Greyhawk also evolved, as different groups left their marks. Creatures would be slain or move away, allowing the characters to set up camp inside. Some mysteries were never solved and the characters would move on or return to them again and again. In the end, Castle Greyhawk, like any megadungeon, was never intended to be complete cleared or solved. It was a work in progress that constantly tested the characters AND the players' wits and problem-solving capabilities.

Up on a Soapbox is highly recommended reading not only to those who are interested in the history of our hobby, and the origins of the first megadungeon, but also to those who seek inspiration for their own dungeons and settings, like me.

1 comment:

gripnick said...

I realy enjoy your blog. I hope that WOTC puts out another group of dragon magazines on disc, like they did with issues up to 250. It would also be nice if they did the same for Dungeon magazine as well. Is there a way that you could email me at I have a few questions about how you set up and have modified your blog. Thanks,