Friday, January 01, 2021

The Secret Doors of Arduin

David Hargrave was one of the seminal original dungeon masters who took OD&D, made it into something his own, and shared his vision of fantasy roleplaying with the world. In this regard he should be remembered among such luminaries as Steve Perrin and Ken St. Andre. His original Arduin Grimoire series is a glorious mess. I'd never attemot to run it "as is" any more than I would try to run OD&D straight, but there is a lot of stuff worth looting from them, whether it be the crazy classes and races, over-the-top monsters, kewl magic items and spells, or the awesome-as-heck critical chart.

Although I am a big Arduin fan, I have never been a fan of Hargrave's dungeon maps. To me, they look like big ol' overdone messes. Here's the first one I encountered, from the inside back cover of the original Grimoir:

My first thought when looking at this map is always holy crap, those room designs are terrible! How much time would be wasted describing these rooms to a mapper? I dunnon, maybe David draws the party map for them (which I have done in some games) or uses miniatures with pre-made room tiles. Even the latter would take a lot of time to create before the session. I'm not against odd-shaped dungeon chambers, but in my opinion they have a greater impact on the game when sprinkled lightly among square and rectangular rooms.

My second thought is always and what is up with all those dange secret doors?!? That single level has like 50 secret doors and I just don't. get. it. I like secret doors. They add a lot of fun to a dungeon level because they can accomplish many different things:
  • You can hide a major treasure behind one
  • A sneaky monster can have its lair behind one
  • Big Bad Guy's can get away by passing through one
  • During an encounter some reinforcements can show up from an unexpected direction, catching the party unaware
  • You can roll for extra wandering monsters while the players search for one
But the best thing about secret doors is the wicked glee on the players' faces when they find and use one. Some player just get a naughty thrill of finding something hidden and/or going someplace forbidden. But to make that work, you need to space the secret doors out a bit. Two to five per level is adequate for most purposes. I honestly don't understand what Hargrave is trying to accomplish by placing a secret door in darn near every room and corridor. 

But a map without the context of a dungeon key makes it harder to judge the logic at work here, So I decded to tale a closer look at one of Hagrave's modules. Arduin Dungeon #2: The Howling Tower is Hargave's intro advaneture, suitable for parties of first through fourth level. It is also where my alltime favorite Erol Otus illustration was published:
The essence of D&D in one illo.

Anyway, I decided to take a level from the Howling Tower and color in all the areas that could be accessed without passing through a secret door, just to see what I could see.

So what gives? Most of the areas that can only be reached via secret door are empty rooms of a single 10' square or smaller. I tend to imagine those small spaces are restrooms, janitorial closest, the room with the server stack, etc. Imagine opening a secret door only to reveal a 10' by 10' room with nothing but a skeleton switching out the filter on the furnace.

Despite the abundance of secret doors, there are really only four interesting things concealed by them. Two of the three staircases to other levels are behind secret doors. In fact, the one direct access from this level down to level B (i.e. from first to third level) is hidden behind 2 secret doors coming from the north or three secret doors approaching from the east! If I was to use this dungeon as is, I would go through the key and try to find some ne'er-do-wells who could use this hidden access to cause mischief for the party.

Two stocked rooms are also inaccessible unless the party finds the relevant secret doors. One of them has some nice treasure in an invisible treasure chest guarded by an Ice Tiger, which is the exact sort of monster you think it is. Similarly, Room Five has a nice treasure sitting in the middle of the room, guarded by an armored ogre who has just drunk a potion of speed. I suppose there's nothing wrong with hiding these rooms, but nothing really sets them apart from other rooms on the level. Room Two, for example, has a treasure chest guarded by a skorpadillo (pictured above) hiding behind an illusion.

So I'm not sure I've learned anything about Hargrave's dungeon design logic by this exercise, but doing it has made me think more about my own use of secret doors and room shapes. Nothing wrong with that.


  1. Yeah, I was immediately overwhelmed by the avalanche of secret doors when I first saw Hargrave's dungeon maps. I imagine that Hargrave's reasoning might be straightforward: "Oooh! A couple of secret doors! That's cool. But if two secret doors are cool, then FIFTY would be gall dang AWESOME!"

  2. I think Dave was in the same vein as a lot refs in the late 70s where games were improvised to greater or lesser degrees depending on how the adventure was going. Ha, maps and encounters were often just a jumping off point. Certainly the backstories of Caliban, Howling Tower, and Citadel of Thunder got our characters interested. I think the adventures run better than they read if a ref can wing it and tie things together on the fly which is exactly at least what our group did back in those days as a bunch of young high school punks. Here is an excellent description of a Dave Hargrave Arduin game session. It is super similar to how we ran our own games, more setting up with what was a cool story rather than completing a module. In play it doesn't matter to the characters how many secret doors there are, only that they find one. And the difficulty of mapping oblong rooms is superfluous if your PCs are running away (and slows them down if they are trying to map accurately). There's also all those traps. I heard Dave wasn't happy with the published dungeons, but when my friend Spacin' Jason ran them at the time we were pretty freaked and had a great time.

    1. That's a great tale. I do not get much out of published Arduin dungeons, but the stories are wild.

    2. That story is pretty fun. A lot of Dave Hargrave's monsters and others I've seen from the time period (All the Worlds Monsters a prime example) have some pretty deadly abilities. Reading this I'm thinking Raise Dead type magics seem to have been easily available to balance those things out. Not entirely in line with my old school stereotypes!

  3. Someone once wrote that the absurd number of secret doors and corridors between rooms are rooted in Hargrave being a vietnam veteran - they were there for possible guerilla tactics. You can't get more "fantasy fucking vietnam" than that I guess...

  4. I blame elves. More specifically I blame elves in the OD&D rules because they had such a high chance to detect secret doors and could find them simply by passing near them and were a popular character choice.