Geomorphs Styles

I've written before about Gygax's Dungeon Geomorphs product (which I like to take as a nice case study to very old-school dungeon layout design). Today, a short observation that recently came to me:

Recall that the dungeon geomorphs come in three categories (originally 3 separate publications): (1) "Basic Dungeon", where almost the entire page is covered with open floor space (and which I think looks immensely odd to our modern sensibilities). (2) "Caves and Caverns", which are rough-hewn in about the way you'd expect. (3) "Lower Dungeons", where there are more blacked-out areas, more cramped rooms, and more oddball geometric shapes. Examples, respectively, below:

So the thing that occurred to me is this: These categories are basically sorted in order of how hard they are to draw by hand with graph-paper-and-pencil. Like, if Gygax is sitting down with a blank piece of graph paper and wanted to draw some rooms, then the easiest thing by far is to just overlay lines on top of the grid itself: and the result is your "Basic Dungeon", where every square is floor space. If you want to get fancier, then you can make some rough squiggles, and in addition to the walls, spend extra time to color in the "dead space", and then you've got "Caves and Caverns". And the "Lower Dungeons" are probably the most sophisticated: not only do you have to spend time with the coloring-in-dead-space issue, but you also have to spend more time initially measuring and plotting out your geometric shapes (like those zig-zag angles or that circular corridor) -- rough scribbles won't cut it like they did in the prior section.

In summary -- These levels get more "advanced" from the perspective of the person drawing them. If you're using raw graph-paper-and-pencil.

So we might turn this around and think about what designs are easier, and which are harder, if you're using different artistic media with which to plan them out? What if your paper is not gridded? What if you use paint-and-brush instead of pen/pencil? What if you use various types of computer software (like some variant of GridMapper)?

Without wanting to slavishly copy the master, perhaps we can import some of his insights to our modern media tools, but using them to their greatest strength, instead of bending them in ways that are complicated for the tools in question.


  1. Interesting. I've always associated the Basic Dungeons with Basic D&D (levels 1-3), the Caves & Caverns with levels 4-6, and the Lower Dungeons with 7-9. This probably comes from the close association of the Geomorphs with the M&TA sets.

  2. Certainly true: And what I'm suggesting is a deeper reason as to why that was the case. As Gygax's game went deeper, his drafting techniques were also getting more sophisticated.

  3. Also his desire to challenge his player's mapping skills? In OD&D Vol 3 many of the dungeon creating tips are geared towards messing with player's maps ("sure fire fits for map makers").

    The original Cross-Section of Levels has caverns on the 6th level, which roughly corresponds to the scheme of Basic Dungeon atop Caverns & Caves. This was carried forward to the Cross Section in Holmes, with Caverns on the 4th-7th level.

  4. Basically agree, except personally as a player I think mapping the Basic Dungeon would be much more difficult (with the others you can be 10' off and still be topologically correct, not so when every floor space is in use). And the Holmes caverns are levels 5-7 (nitpicky award of the month for me).

  5. Yes, that were a typo! :)

    In the earlier prints of the Blue Book there's a suggestion to use the geomorphs right above the Cross-Section, so it's implied that you can use them (and M&TA) to design the upper levels (the set only had the Basic Dungeons).

  6. Oh, great piece of insight, I did not know that. I forget that those early sets had Geomorphs & MTA instead of B2.

  7. Perhaps the change had to do with his eyes getting weaker as the top one is harder to read at a glance and the bottom ones fairly simple.