The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear until the first expansion. Try playing the game for a while without a character who can pick locks or disarm traps and you’ll see why thieves were needed. (In some recent, nostalgic OD&D sessions, a common joke was when a character would muse dreamily about a far-off, mythical land called “Greyhawk” where there existed people known as “thieves” who could somehow open a lock without hacking it into ruin with an ax. It was even said that if they pressed an ear to a door, they could sometimes actually hear sounds on the other side!)
In an earlier column, I looked at ways to keep a road trip interesting. That article was about a standard walk in the sun. A different type of journey with problems and possibilities all its own occurs underground.
Any fantasy world worthy of the label is practically hollowed out by a network of caverns, tunnels, and subterranean grottoes that would make terrestrial cavers wet themselves. Regardless of what it’s called—Underdark, Khyber, Svartalfheim, or just “the underworld”—a journey through that landscape must be a different sort of undertaking from walking or riding between Riverdale and Midvale. Players should never be able to forget that their characters are moving through a dark, alien landscape.
Like the Scarecrow, I believe that one of the greatest rewards for having a human brain is the ability to think deep thoughts. To imagine the big picture. To envision a grand machine in your mind and then command its wheels to turn and its gears to mesh. It’s the joy of invention, of imagination, of pure creation.
I’m no scholar of Robert E. Howard, just a fan of his storytelling and his best-known character, Conan the Barbarian. Conan first crossed my reading list when I discovered a shelf of dog-eared paperbacks at the local second-hand shop. I was still a relative newcomer to swords-&-sorcery fiction at the time, and Conan was unlike any hero I’d encountered in the welter of Tolkien clones at the library.
Being young and impressionable, I read the stories nonjudgmentally. I didn’t know what portions came from Howard, from Carter, or from de Camp. The word “pastiche” wasn’t in my vocabulary. All three names got credit for everything, good and bad.
The trap is a D&D icon. Classic dungeons such as Tomb of Horrors and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are famous for their mechanical ambushes. Traps are so central to the concept of dungeons that an entire class—the thief—was developed to deal with them (along with locked doors).
In real life, of course, archaeologists have never had to deal with this abundance of traps in ancient tombs and ruins. No trap of any kind has been found in an excavation: no scything blades, no darts with pressure-plate triggers, not even poisoned needles in treasure chests. Sliding blocks have been used to seal passages but never to squash intruders. Deep pits were dug in the entrance corridors of some tombs, but they were meant only as obstacles. The pits weren’t covered, so only the most irresponsible of thieves risked falling in, and none of them left behind skeletons with broken legs. Tomb architects went to great lengths to keep people out, but no thought was given to killing them once they got in.