Monday, November 17, 2014

Part 41: "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art"

Part 41 of a comparison of Holmes' manuscript with the published Basic Set rulebook. Turn to page 39 of your 'Blue Book' (page 38 for the 1st edition) and follow along...

The next two sections in the manuscript come from the first page of content (page 3) in the third volume of OD&D, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.


Holmes changes the title from "THE UNDERWORLD" to "DUNGEON MASTERING AS A FINE ART". I can think of two reasons for this change. First, Holmes' guidance is mostly limited to dungeons, with just a brief mention wilderness treks, so he no longer needs the original's separate headers for "The Underworld" and "The Wilderness". Second, Holmes' new title helps convey the significance of the work of the Dungeon Master, and that D&D is more than just a board game. Referring to a performing or practical art like acting or photography "as a fine art" is a long-standing tradition going back more than a century. Searching Google Books turns up numerous usages from the 19th century including books such as "Dress as a Fine Art" and "Walking as a Fine Art". In his 1981 FRPG book, Holmes later wrote that "The art of the creative storyteller has been with Homo sapiens since he first learned to build fire in front of his cave and gather around it with a few companions to while away the long winter nights in friendly excitement" (pg 46). 

Immediately after the title, the manuscript has a single paragraph adapting the very first paragraph of OD&D Vol 3. This is the original source material:

And here is Holmes' edit of this material:

The first edition of the published rulebook keeps these sentences unchanged (except for adding a comma between "passages" and "stairs") but adds an additional one at the end: "The geomorphic dungeon levels provided with this game contain many suggestions and will prove very useful", referring to the Dungeon Geomorphs Set One: Basic Dungeons included in the first edition of the Basic Set.

In the second edition (Nov 1978), the Geomorphs were replaced with the new module B1 In Search of the Unknown, so this sentence was revised to "The geomorphic dungeon levels (available from TSR or your retailer) contain many suggestions and will prove very useful", and a new paragraph was added referring to the module: "The Basic Set of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS includes the introductory module "In Search of the Unknown", which will be usable for initial adventuring as well as provide ideas for dungeon construction." This paragraph was left unchanged even in the third edition when the module B2 Keep on the Borderlands replaced B1.


In OD&D Vol 3, the same page continues with an uncredited illustration of a dungeon:

The published Holmes Basic rulebook features a new cross-section, the famous 'Skull Mountain' drawing by Tom Wham, discussed in my previous post. Wham's drawing retains certain features from the original, including a split 4th level (A and B), a cavern at the bottom, and stairs, slanting passages and chutes connecting the levels.

The Holmes Manuscript also has a cross-section, but one that is different from either the original or Skull Mountain:

The dungeon cross-section from the Holmes Manuscript

This was presumably drawn by Holmes himself, or possibly his son Chris, an artist. To my eye, the handwriting is similar to that found on the two maps in Holmes' 1981 book. A nice treat, since we have only a handful of maps from the hand of Holmes.

Holmes' cross-section shares some elements with the original, most significantly a split 2nd level connected by a slanting passage and stairs, and a cavern area at the bottom. Holmes changes the chutes of the original to ladders, and adds an outside area, a ravine  reminiscent of the Caves of Chaos, housing the entrances to the dungeon. One entrance is a mine that goes straight to the 2nd level, whereas the original had two staircases entering into 1st level. Holmes' cross-section is more evocative than the original by having features such as "Hill Side", "Mine" and "Mine Shaft" labeled, as well as drawings of the ravine and trees, and stalagmites in the cave. It's possible that Wham included features from Holmes' version as Skull Mountain also contains two entrances, a main one also labeled "Entrance", and a second one, "The Pit", a vertical entrance in the same approximate location as the Mine/Mine Shaft of the manuscript. However, we can conclude that Wham added the most distinctive features of Skull Mountain, including the skull-face entrance and the domed city in the water-filled cavern.

Holmes' most significant change to the original is to limit the cross-section to three levels, aligning with the scope of the Basic rules, which includes wandering monsters for only levels 1-3. The next page of OD&D Vol 3 states that "In beginning a dungeon it is advisable to construct at least three levels at once...", so Holmes may have kept to this guidance even when constructing a much smaller dungeon than suggested by the original ("no less than a dozen levels down"). While Skull Mountain is fantastic, and perfect for stimulating the imagination of new players, Holmes' original is more line with the limits of Basic. The Moldvay set would later return to Holmes' original idea by including a similarly limited cross-section, drawn by Erol Otus:

Haunted Keep dungeon cross-section by Erol Otus, from the Moldvay Basic rulebook, 1981

Go Back to Start: The Holmes Manuscript


  1. Some thoughts on this dungeon, which really inspired me:

  2. I'm really enjoying this series.