The First Rumor Tables, Part 2: Caverns of Thracia or Caverns of Quasqueton?
20 September 2023 | 1:59 pm

My last post (yesterday) stated that the earliest known "rumor table" in a role-playing game module was the one in Mike Carr's B1 In Search of the Unknown, which featured the dungeon known as The Caverns of Quasqueton.

Read that other post first to understand this one.

Paleologos left a comment there pointing out that Judges Guild 102 The Caverns of Thracia had a rumor table, too.

I have read that module but I never knew it in the old days. So, I took a closer look.

Now it gets interesting. We have a tiny mystery here, folks.

The Caverns of Thracia was published in 1979 (not 1980 as the friendly commenter wrote). It was early enough in 1979 that a second printing was called for in the same year. But the weird thing is that the rumor table in Thracia is structured exactly like the one in B1. It explains, under the heading "The Taverns of Thracia" (ha ha), that you roll 1d4 and determine whether the player gets 1, 2, 3, or 0 rumors. Then you roll 1d20 per rumor. Here, however Jaquays specifies that the DM should write the rumors down and pass them out to the players.

There is no way that both modules happened to create, independently, a 1d4 system for coming up with 1, 2, 3, or 0 legends, followed by rolls on a d20 legend table. One of them borrowed from the other.

JG102 calls them "legends" and "legendry," not "rumors." This matches B1's word-choice, too, except that B1 calls them "legends/rumors." The term rumor was introduced for these in B1. This might suggest that JG102's system was invented first, along these terminological lines:

 "legend" JG102 > "legend/rumor" B1 > "rumor" B2

Now add to this the close similarity of some of the rumors:

JG102: "The caverns go no deeper than two levels."
B1: "The complex has two levels." And: "The complex has more than one level."

JG102: "For safety, seek ye the Pool of Watery Wonders."
B1: "The treasures of Zelligar and Rogahn are safely hidden in a pool of water." And: "There is a room with many pools of water hidden within the complex."

The similarities of detail jump out at the reader. Again, one was written using the other as a model.

JG102 was published in 1979. The useful acaeum site states that there was a pre-publication version of B1 in 1978 that nobody can find today (known only because it appears in a picture), but otherwise it first became available in November of 1978, when it was included in Holmes' Basic D&D Set.

Going by the dates alone, it would seem to be settled: JG102, from 1979, closely borrows the model of B1, from November 1978. That would just show the immediate impact of B1, right?

Not necessarily! I believe that Judges Guild D&D publications had to be approved by TSR before they were released, hence receiving the label "approved for use with Dungeons & Dragons." If that's so, I suspect that the folks at TSR had a draft of The Caverns of Thracia before the latter was released, in which case Carr may have borrowed from Jaquays' work before Judges Guild published Thracia (or, was allowed to publish it?). JG102 says in its Designer's Comments that it was "designed to accommodate adventurers of the 1st and higher levels." B1 was similar, although it was intended to instruct new DMs on how to do their job, which is different from JG102.

As an author of published research, I've been plagiarized mildly by people who read drafts of my work and then published something closely related very quickly, while publication delays with presses made my own work, which was original, come out later. In the case of B1 and JG102, we are talking about less than a year of discrepancy in publication. It's entirely possible that Jaquays' legends tables (and other contents) were first, and that Mike Carr had a pre-publication copy awaiting TSR's approval. TSR didn't include an introductory adventure in their Basic Set (Holmes) until its fourth printing, November 1978. Was TSR trying to avoid letting Judges Guild beat them to a market for introductory adventures? Did the people at TSR borrow some of Jaquays' good ideas?

I think a very close comparative look at JG102 and B1 is called for. I am not going to do that here, but there are other obviously similar features deserving immediate comment, which add a little strength to the idea that Jaquays' work was first.

For example, both B1 and JG102 enumerate rooms sequentially regardless of the level, rather than beginning enumeration from 1 again on each level. But Jaquays writes explicitly that this was a novelty: "I have tried something different in the numbering system used. Instead of renumbering each time a level is changed, I have simply continued with consecutive numbers." It sounds as if Jaquays was doing something self-consciously new (different from other early modules like V1 Palace of the Vampire Queen). B1 explains how to use its number key for the novice DMs, but makes no remark about its sequential numbering as anything new. It therefore may well have been copying JG102. If Jaquays had seen it already in a well-known module released with every new Basic Set, why would she explain that she was doing "something different"?

There's another instance in which Jaquays explains the rationale of her work in a way that suggests it's original. She wrote in JG102 about how to start the adventure.

Drop a few hints and let the players take it from there asking pertinent questions of the locals and being generally nosey, a pre-requisite for all adventurers. To speed things up, the referee might want to use the section titled, The Taverns of Thracia, to randomly assign knowledge to characters.

The table of legends here is explicitly stated to take the place of a normal role-playing event: PCs asking around for information about the adventure locale. The legendry is offered "to speed things up" (again, one of the rationales for the use of a rumor table to begin with). The need for an explicit rationale suggests that it was a brand new practice.

[Yet another little novelty in Thracia, not found in B1: JG102's legend table includes two special outcomes indicating that your character happens to know a language relevant in the dungeon. This really brings home the idea that these tables were ultimately about bringing the background of the setting to life.]

As I pointed out here at the start, the dungeons themselves have similar names, too. "The Caverns of Thracia" in one, "the Caverns of Quasqueton" in the other. Both feature a first dungeon level with corridors and chambers of dressed stone and even angles, and a second dungeon level with natural caverns having irregular walls.

Which is prior, then? Thracia or Quasqueton? Which one had the 1d4/1d20 rumor table first? Both modules have had enormous impact. Both are well-regarded today. B1's Quasqueton was the starting point for many munchkins who began to play with Basic D&D sets, but Thracia became an ideal for the OSR people who revived it much later (starting with posts like this one).

I would be inclined to assume, based on the publication dates alone, that JG102, which was published later (by less than a year) borrows from B1, but the textual clues point in the other direction. If anybody knows better, please leave a comment. Can anybody ask Jennell Jaquays or Mike Carr what they remember about this?

Leave comments also if you find more genuine similarities between the two, or if you happen to know about the month-to-month publication history of JG102.

One clarification: B1 was published first. It still has the earliest published rumor table. The point here is that it may have used a few of Jaquays' written ideas months before they were published, taken from a draft copy.

(Thanks again, paleologos, for drawing my attention to JG102's table of legends.)

Alea iactanda est brought up the first Traveller Adventure to be published, The Kinunir. Turns out this may have been the module with the first Rumor table, after all.... if it was published in the first half of 1979. See the comments below. (Thank you, AIE!)

The First Rumor Tables
20 September 2023 | 1:23 am

Role-playing game modules that emulate a putative "old school" often include tables of rumors that the referee can give out to the players. Rumors are a fun way to convey setting information and hints that motivate players to explore and form goals.

Where did the rumor table begin?

It wasn't part of original D&D. It was never a part of the rules themselves. Rumor tables came with modules. The first modules are from 1975 ("The Temple of the Frog" in Arneson's Blackmoor supplement to OD&D) and 1976 ("The Palace of the Vampire Queen" by third party Wee Warriors; "The Tomb of F'Cherlak" by Jaquays in Dungeoneer magazine). Early tournament scenarios used at conventions were also one of the main bases for early modules.

These earliest published dungeons didn't have rumor tables.

The earliest example of a rumor table I can think of is from the module B1, "In Search of the Unknown," by Mike Carr. It was originally produced in 1978, and was included in the D&D Basic Set by Holmes from November of 1978 until the end of 1979.

Mike Carr is a gamer of extraordinary credentials. To name just a few of his early credits, he had created the aerial board wargame Fight in the Skies (1966), which has maintained a loyal following (played at every GenCon since the very first one), and co-created the naval warship game Don't Give Up the Ship with Gygax and Arneson. He was involved in D&D before there was D&D, as part of Arneson's Blackmoor group, where he played Bishop Carr, a very early cleric. In 1976 he joined TSR and got directly involved in D&D. He edited the AD&D Monster Manual and Players Handbook (for which Gary Gygax took sole author credit). He would leave TSR in 1983.

By the time his B1 was published, there was a consensus among D&D players, clear from early zines and early rules sets, that dungeons were kinda stupid if they didn't have back-stories. Yes, players wanted a story and a setting to make it all seem more real and meaningful. Even modules that had no rumor tables were expected to provide a "background," often a text to be read aloud to the players (before such texts were boxed to specify what should be read aloud).

B1 was designed to teach the new DM how to run a dungeon game. As it says on the cover, it was

especially designed as an instructional aid for beginning Dungeon Masters and players, specifically created to enable new Dungeon Masters to initiate play with a minimum of preparation.

The first five pages are, accordingly, fundamental advice for how to use the module and things that we may now think of as basic, like how to compute and divide experience points.

Page 6 gives the background story for the dungeon. A powerful fighter and magic-user had created a secret base underground. They collected a lot of treasure as a reward for fighting a barbarian horde. Eventually they set out into the barbarian lands but they were killed. Now their underground hideout, with its rumored treasure, is available for plundering for those willing to risk the dangers within.

Then comes the first rumor table. It's actually called "Legend Table." Each PC knows a number of legends, randomly determined, about the abandoned underground lair. Importantly, the purpose of the Legend Table is explicit (pp. 6-7):

Prior to the first adventure into the stronghold, the Dungeon Master will utilize this table to impart "background knowledge" (from rumors or legends known) to the adventurers. It will be up to the players to act upon the information they "know"; the Dungeon Master will tell them that these are legends or rumors they have heard about the place, and that is all (it will be up to the players to decide upon the value or veracity of such information).

Each player would roll 1d4. A 1, 2, or 3 indicated how many rumors that player's character would know. A 4 meant zero legends known. Then specific legends or rumors would each be determined by a roll of d20 on the Legend Table. You re-roll duplicates. If your character knew no legends, the book says you have to ask other players for information. It also says that players can choose what to share of the legends known to them. This suggests that the rumors and legends were related on the side by the DM to individual players, and then players may choose to keep their own secrets.

What were the "rumors or legends" for? It says so: they impart background knowledge. They do so in digestible droplets rather than deluges of background information.

How to deliver setting knowledge, and how much background information to deliver, is a matter of preference and dispute still today. There has been a backlash against game settings that require players to digest a book's worth of information and long lists of jargon used in the setting of their adventures. Rumors get around that for a game of limited scope, which is what a dungeon adventure is: they give some flavor about the setting but they direct the players' attention to the place to be explored. In this case, it's the dungeon, prospectively the players' first dungeon experience.

The rumor table offers specific snippets of background knowledge that may be useful, or, when they are false rumors (some being so designated already in B1), misleading. The point is that players feel their characters are in a real world that has some meaning. It's a world with a society in which people exchange information, where the dungeons are dangerous places talked about in awe and wonder. Nobody knows the truth about these places for sure. There are just legends and rumors. That's all we know. Are the PCs going to discover the truth?

Rumors fed to the players are enticing. They are mysteries to solve. They invite exploration. Who doesn't like that?

About the beginning of 1980, the Holmes D&D Basic Set would no longer include B1 in the box. It was replaced by B2, "The Keep on the Borderlands," which is credited to Gary Gygax. (Evidently he wanted the income due from the inclusion of his own book in the set.) B2 rehashed a lot of the topics covered in B1, such as computing and dividing experience. It served the same instructional purpose as B1, as it says on the cover.

B2 also included a table of rumors, but it suggests that the DM should key specific rumors to individuals at the Keep visited before the dungeon adventure. This would, in theory, entice players to socialize with as many individuals in the Keep as possible, setting up a preliminary town adventure.

B2 came out at the beginning of 1980. Gygax's slightly earlier introductory module for AD&D, T1 "The Village of Hommlet" from 1979, includes a town adventure before the dungeon adventure, like the Keep in B2, but there is no rumor table in T1. This makes it pretty clear that Gygax's slightly later B2 took the idea of the rumor table for a "Basic" game from Carr's B1. It also suggests that the rumor table was initially conceived as particular to the dungeon adventure. Dungeons were entirely unseen until explored. They had little meaningful setting around them. Legends and rumors brought the dungeon to life as a setting and hinted at their contents, promising that they were worth exploring.

The first wave of "munchkins" (pre-teens and teens) who got into D&D in the late '70s and early '80s, of which I was one, were exposed from their start in RPGs to one of either two modules both containing rumor tables. AD&D modules up to that point did not have them. Rumor tables came with my young generation's first D&D product, the Basic Set (whether in Holmes' or Moldvay's edition). It was thereafter fixed in our minds as a basic component of what a "module" could or should include.

There's a good chance that some other early RPG product that I've missed contained the seed of the rumor table. If you know of one, leave a comment. Whether there were precedents or not, it's quite clear that Carr's B1 was the first major diffusion point that established the rumor table as canonical.

[Thanks to paleologos' comment, I was prompted to write an immediate follow-up post.]

Hexmaps and Random Encounters before D&D
2 September 2023 | 8:09 pm

Hex maps for boardgames apparently began with Agon, London 1842. Hexagonal chess was invented in Poland in 1936.

The board wargame was invented in 1953, published in 1954 as Tactics by Avalon Hill. Now you did not need large numbers of figurines and terrain to simulate wars on your tabletop. You just had to buy a kit made of cardboard pieces, a complete game delivering a specific experience varying somewhat with replay. More affordable, quicker setup, fixed playtested rules, no need for a referee. The point of these games was to win against one or more opponents.

The first hexmap board for a wargame was the second edition of Gettysburg, 1961. Its publisher, Avalon Hill, made many games with hexmap boards from then on. (The original Gettysburg game of 1958 had a square gridmap. In July 1, 1964, the Avalon Hill newsletter The General quipped in a headline that “Hex Version Was Hexed” and that they would renew the original.)

An advantage of hex maps was that random movement or placement could be decided with a six-sided die, corresponding to the six faces of the hex. Hexmaps went with cube-shaped dice.

(There are mathematical reasons not to adopt octagonal-space maps for the cardinal directions with an eight-sided die.)

Both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original authors of Dungeons & Dragons, encountered wargaming first through the game Gettysburg. For Gygax it was the first edition, one without a hexmap. Anyway, hexmaps were popularized through Avalon Hill board wargames.

In September of 1972, Avalon Hill published Outdoor Survival, a board game about desperate individuals (not military units or bands of people) alone in a vast wilderness. It was based on a large colorful hex map on a fold-out board representing wilderness terrain of different kinds. Each player’s turn entailed movement of a lone individual in the wilderness. Each hex was five kilometers/three miles across.

Other bloggers have discussed Outdoor Survival in the background to D&D, but I want to discuss a few of the lastingly important specifics about that boardgame as a source of game design.

An optional rule entailed a roll for a random Wilderness Encounter. I think this may be the first random encounter table. It was definitely the source of such tables for D&D and hence for all RPGs.

The movement rules of Outdoor Survival followed typical war boardgame parameters, in which each player piece had a certain number of movement points to spend, and the more difficult the terrain, the more movement points it cost to enter a hex. Getting lost meant rolling a six-sided die to determine which way the lone character wandered, fitting well with the hexmap format.

After movement, for the Wilderness Encounter, the player rolls a die. On a 5 or 6 on one six-sided die, an encounter occurs. The player then chooses one of three columns of a Wilderness Encounter table to look up the results of a second die, with fixed results. Those three columns were:

  1. Natural Hazard
  2. Animal/Insect
  3. Personal

The player chooses the column, say the rules,

for the sake of adding strategy to the play of the game. But in real life, travelers would not have this control over Wilderness Encounters. If you wish to simulate this aspect, substitute another die roll for the choice: a roll of 1 = Natural Hazards; 2 & 3 = Animal-Insect encounters: 4, 5 & 6 = Personal elements.

This seems to have been the basis for the idea of the “random encounter” tables in D&D. As the reader may know, Outdoor Survival had a very large impact on the formation of D&D. The original D&D rules even encourage players to get a copy of Outdoor Survival as part of “Recommended Equipment.”

Dave Arneson had adopted the board of Outdoor Survival for his pre-D&D fantasy wargame as a wilderness map. In his retrospective account of the Blackmoor campaign he ran, which he called The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), he tells just when he adopted the Outdoor Survival map.

After the first year, the guys travelled around more and more and we began to use the Outdoor Survival Board (it was not until the third year that we actually moved into it).

The Blackmoor campaign started in April, 1971. His campaign years did not correspond neatly to real years, but it’s clear that he was using the Outdoor Survival map and travel rules in 1973. It had been published just months before.

Dungeons & Dragons was published at the end of January 1974. The D&D rules recommended the use of the Outdoor Survival board as a basis for D&D Wilderness Adventures. Random encounters were included as “Wandering Monsters,” with separate rules for wandering monsters in the dungeon and the wilderness.

Arneson shows his random encounter tables in The First Fantasy Campaign. It was not one roll to see if there was an encounter and then another roll to determine the creature encountered. You just rolled 1d20 and compared the result with a column corresponding to the terrain type. Most of the entries are blank, signifying no encounter, and the rest indicate a terrain-specific type of monster encounter.

Some aspects of the Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounter table were lost in the adaptation. Arneson’s rules focused on monster encounters—potential combat situations—whereas Outdoor Survival was all about resource depletion. The Hazard Die of recent times is closer, in some ways, to the template Outdoor Survival.

Thus hex maps and random encounters come not from miniatures wargames but from board wargaming. It seems in hindsight to be just an odd chance that the timing was right: the Blackmoor campaign was simultaneous with the publication of Outdoor Survival, just before Gygax developed Arneson’s rules into D&D.

 Two types of D&D wilderness adventures

The third book of the original D&D boxed describes two distinct methods of wilderness adventure. One is “off-hand” and the other is “exploratory.” I boldfaced the terms from the text:

Off-hand adventures in the wilderness are made on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL playing board (explained below). Exploratory journeys, such as expeditions to find land suitable for a castle or in search of some legendary treasure are handled in an entirely different manner.

“Off-hand” means “without preparation, spur-of-the-moment.” Everything was random and the map was provided by a third party.

After describing procedures for the use of the Outdoor Survival map for off-hand adventures, “exploratory adventures” are described:

REFEREE’S MAP is a wilderness map unknown to the players. It should be for the territory around the dungeon location. When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area and thus be able to select a site upon which to build their castles. (Castle building and its attendant requirements will be covered hereafter.) Exploratory adventures are likely to be the most exciting, and their incorporation into the campaign is most desirable.

The explicit distinction between these two types of adventures, usually overlooked, indicates that Arneson and Gygax envisioned two types of wilderness games from the start. One involved wandering on an open map board (the Outdoor Survival map) and meeting stuff at random, having what gamers now call “emergent” adventures dictated by dice results read on tables. The other kind of adventure involved seeking a specific goal placed on a hidden map: finding a place to build a domain or discovering a specific treasure. It “should be for the territory around the dungeon location,” so the dungeon was therefore one of the main destinations imagined.

This concept of an exploratory adventure was exemplified in the classic adventure modules. There is a hidden map seen only by the Referee, but there are specific destinations that the player characters seek. The module B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” represents an ideal type of this kind of adventure, where the area around the Caves of Chaos is to be explored, but the main action is at the Caves themselves. These are not wide-open “sandboxes” entirely at random, but pre-planned zones of exploration with determined places of interest that the players will enjoy.

Here, D&D diverges from the premise of Outdoor Survival very distinctly, but Outdoor Survival has left a strong imprint.

A major innovation of D&D was this exploratory adventure, combining the hidden map of secret places, with antecedents in games like Battleship (which has a long history) or Mastermind (1970), with board wargame rules, in the context of an ongoing campaign of the type enjoyed in miniatures-based tabletop wargames.

Further Observations

Unless there are precedents for random encounter tables before 1972 that I don’t know (leave comments if you do), it seems that random encounters with dice and tables were invented just two years before D&D was published, a mere nineteen years after the first board wargame appeared. In any case, they entered D&D from Outdoor Survival published by Avalon Hill.

Talking about the “wargaming” background to D&D, we need to emphasize the two distinct kinds of wargames from that period. Usually, the history of role-playing games considers the species of wargames that relied on miniature figurines amidst terrain placed on a table and the role of a referee or judge, but Avalon Hill board wargames were different. Avalon Hill churned out many board wargames, each one with novelties to entice the devoted player. Each one had specific rules with no room for Referee arbitration. The Referee was the rulebook and players were adversaries.

This was part of a culture of rules innovation. Avalon Hill’s production pace required their company to design new and exciting rules frequently, each similar to the previous one but new in special ways. They even sold 22”x28” hexmaps on white paper for “amateur battle game inventors” to make their own game maps. Designing new games to be sold as commodities necessitated a lot of rules tinkering because each game needed new rules to make new experiences to sell a lot of games. New rules came out of that, and the Random Encounters Table was one of those that caught on.

Hexmaps became a standard feature of RPG game design through their adoption by D&D, but it could have been otherwise. The board maps themselves are important. Avalon Hill board wargames established the precedent for game scenarios in which the map of terrain and its features was fixed beforehand and purchased like that. Like RPG adventure modules within a few years, those maps could be turned into commodities. Different player groups could, in effect, explore the same settings without meeting.

Outdoor Survival was not very successful as a game (look for reviews of it today) but it was the diffusion point of ideas for rules that RPG players discuss intensely and incessantly still today. The philosophy of the Random Table is a major aspect of tabletop RPG design today. Many developers of tabletop RPG products simply produce books crammed with random tables. All these ultimately sprout from the simple Outdoor Survival matrix. Worldbuilding is implicit in the outcomes of the random tables.

The Kriegsspiel tradition was indisputably important, but it’s also important not to overlook the role of Avalon Hill board wargames. I’m sure there’s more interesting stuff relevant to tabletop RPGs waiting to be dug up in these boardgames, many of them now rare items missing pieces and parts.

If you know better, or have corrections, or earlier antecedents, please do leave a comment.

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