The Origins of Dungeons of Olde, Part 1
May 03, 2016
Dungeons of Olde is something that’s been rolling around in the bottom of my brain for decades, floating up near the surface for a few days or weeks once every few years. It has more ancestors and influences than even I can name. In this first blog post on the DoO development website, I’ll try to trace the evolution of the idea that is now, finally, becoming a playable table-top game.
Somewhere in Austin, late in the last century…
In a sense, the development of Dungeons of Olde started over 25 years ago. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was working as a game developer and writer at Origin Systems, the publisher of the Ultima and Wing Commander series of PC games. I had previously worked in the table-top gaming industry, as a staff editor for Steve Jackson Games, and later as a freelancer for various companies. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of table-top gamers working at Origin. We played board games at lunchtime fairly often, and from time to time, an RPG campaign would start up, run a couple of sessions, and then fade in the face of another deadline crunch.
Many of us were looking for something that would give us the immersive experience of a fantasy RPG, without the overhead of creating and running an ongoing campaign. We played and enjoyed Milton Bradley’s Hero Quest, but we were looking for something a little bit richer. There was a sweet spot for a light-weight fantasy RPG somewhere between Hero Quest and “real” roleplaying games like AD&D and Steve Jackson’s GURPS, but there wasn’t a game system to fill it. The nearest fit was SJG’s Toon—it had about the right balance of rules complexity vs. flexibility, and didn’t require a 20-hour-a-week time commitment from the GM. But the fast-and-loose, Looney-Tunes flavor was baked into Toon, and adapting the Toon system for play in another genre wouldn’t have been much easier than designing a new game from the ground up.
So that’s what I decided to do. I began noodling around with dice, trying to come up with a lean fantasy RPG that was deeper than Hero Quest, but faster-playing than D&D and its peers. I eventually had a draft of a basic rules system that used four characteristics to quantify character abilities on a scale of 1 to 12. I settled on that scale, rather than the more common 3-18 (or 1-20, depending on how you look at it) scale of most RPGs at the time because I wanted to make polyhedral dice a meaningful part of the game—that first draft already included DoO’s central game mechanic, that a character’s stats determine which polyhedral dice he’ll throw when doing things.
But another deadline crunch arose at Origin—no idea which one—and that rules draft got buried in my desk drawer. Out of site, out of mind. By 1992, I had left the game development profession entirely—both table-top and PC—and moved on to other careers. In fact, I didn’t play a game or touch a computer until almost ten years later…
Computers bring me back to games…eventually…
I spent about a decade, from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, as a commercial photographer. I started as a photo assistant in Phoenix, Arizona, but eventually moved to New York City and opened my own studio. This put me in the photo business during the transition from film to digital photography. During the course of this transition, as I began using computers for several hours a day at work again, I sifted through my old floppy disks, and tripped over that first draft of my light-weight RPG rule system.
At first, I didn’t think much of the discovery, but one night I opened the file and read through it. I remembered what I what I was trying to do with that system, and how I was trying to do it. Although I didn’t have a gaming group at the time, I edited and developed the rules a bit further anyway. About the same time, I started playing computer games again, including Diablo, Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Siege, Warcraft, and several more. Working on a table-top rules set, while playing single-player computer games, made me really nostalgic for gaming. But there was no good way for someone a decade out of college to find fellow gamers—social media hadn’t really happened yet.
MMOs didn’t simulate table-top roleplaying perfectly, but they did bring a social aspect to computer gaming, and for a while (a long while, as it turned out), that was good enough. Table-top gaming, and the rules set I was fiddling with, were once again forgotten, and I spent my free time chasing around Norrath, Camelot, Paragon City, Tatooine, and Azeroth for the better part of a decade.
To be continued…
This post wound up running long, so I broke it into two sections. Please continue to Part 2 for the rest of the story.