gaming with one of the original D&D players, part 2

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

Last week I played a D&D game DMed by Mike Mornard, a veteran of Gygax’s and Arneson’s gaming groups. A lot of the original assumptions of Gary’s and Dave’s game didn’t make it through the Little Brown Books into my brain, so as we played, I asked Mike a lot of questions.


At the beginning of our game, I made the mistake of asking the group, “Who wants to map?” Since I had asked first, I was elected to the position. I am a piss poor mapper, especially on non-graph paper. At the end of the game, Mike compared his map to my scrawl, and the contrast was disheartening. On the other hand, my inaccurate, twisted fun-house version of the dungeon was topographically the same as Mike’s map, in the same way that a donut is topographically identical to a coffee mug, and I had been able to accurately steer our group through the map’s twists and turns.

Mike’s map-describing style was approximately like this. “You go ten, twenty, thirty feet north, and hit a wall. You can go east and west along the wall.” He’d wait for input, like “We go east”, and then continue, “Ten, twenty feet east, and there is a ten-foot wide passageway in the north wall. The stonework here is rougher. The north passage goes straight as far as you can see.” As the party mapper, I would sometimes just say “North” or “East”. This presentation felt oddly like a text adventure: maybe Action Castle is closer to the original version of D&D than I thought.

One thing that actually made mapping easier: the fact that our light sources were important. We could only see twenty or thirty feet in any direction, which helped focus our decisions. Even in a big room with lots of details, we were only in the position to see a couple of our choices at the same time.

Mike mentioned that he went to high school with Rob Kuntz, Gary’s eventual co-DM. Rob had an eidetic memory, and when he was playing in Gygax’s dungeon, he didn’t need to map and never got lost. Sometimes he would correct Gygax. Mike did his impression of Gary crying, “Curse you, Kuntz!”

I should add that, as the mapper, I got a lot of the DM’s attention. Mapping is a big slice of the OD&D pie. This meant I was always engaged, and so was the DM, but what did the other players do while I was asking for clarifications about the length of the east wall? Probably zoning out a little – especially since cross-table chatter was frowned upon. So far I’ve only experienced OD&D as the mapper and the DM, so I’ll have to try a different role next time.

character background

Someone asked Mike, “How much character background did you do in the old days?” Mike came back with a pretty quotable line: “The cool thing about your character was what you did in the game.” Characters had backgrounds like “fighter” or, at most, “the youngest son of a landless knight”.

Mike added that DM game pitches should be short as well: the opening crawl to Star Wars is only 92 words long (Mike went on to quote the crawl from memory: I’m a big Star Wars fan but I was outclassed.) Gary Gygax pitched D&D as, “Want to try this new game called Greyhawk where you kill monsters and get treasure?”

I was also interested in this quote because, from this and other quotes about the “Greyhawk campaign”, it sounds like players thought of the game as “Greyhawk”. Imagine if D&D had been published as “Greyhawk”: just that name change would cemented the setting right in the middle of the game, and really changed how a lot of people play, I bet.

Chainmail and game development

Mike commented that Chainmail was still his favorite minis game. He said that when they introduced new players to the game, they would just give the players a few units to keep track of (battles were often played with four or five players). New players could expect to get beaten for a couple of games too.

Mike credited Chainmail’s good rules to Gary’s maxim, “I’d rather have a good rule now than a perfect one in a year.” I’d never heard this ascribed to Gary before, but it makes a lot of sense, and when we’re wondering why this D&D class requires so many XP to level up or whatever, it’s good to remember that Gary, Dave, and the other D&D contributors were coming to the table with new rules all the time: those they like stayed, even if some pieces of them were arbitrary and not fully thought-out. It didn’t make sense to kill yourself perfecting every detail while there was still so much new game-design ground to cover.

This post is getting long, and I still have a lot of game notes to get through! I’ll do one more post, and try to cover Mike’s wisdom on monsters, treasure, character classes, and combat rules.

Series Navigation<< gaming with one of the original D&D playersgaming with one of the original D&D players, part 3 >>


12 Responses to “gaming with one of the original D&D players, part 2”

  1. ranthoron says:

    I’d love to hear a recording of that impression…

  2. Tavis says:

    Yeah, it makes sense that Gary’s game was “Greyhawk” just like Dave’s was “Blackmoor” and before that they played “Braunstein” and “Brownstone” etc. with Wesely and then Arneson.

    Up near Albany is a cave where around Halloween you can do a torch (or at least lantern) tour, I really want to experiment with what you can see at what distances under D&D conditions.

  3. Tim Knight says:

    Another great read :) Roll on Wednesday…

  4. […] Dust of Appearance, leveled gaming with one of the original D&D players, part 2 […]

  5. These articles are fascinating. I never tire of learning more about the origins of role-playing. More please!

  6. […] Last week, I played D&D with Mike Mornard, a member of the original Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns. This is the last piece of my writeup of Mike's wisdom. […]

  7. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:


    Tavis, once we did an “explore an abandoned manor house” with lanterns by covering the windows with heavy paper and curtains.

    Let me just say darkness is REALLY ____ING DARK.

    Too long a story to type, but will raconteurize for beer.

  8. paul says:

    I’m looking forward to the story of how Gary invented LARPing.

  9. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Actually, the “explore a house” was with folks in Minnesota, not Dave Arneson’s group either. We did it in the early 80s.

    Again, dark house is dark.

  10. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:


    The notion of “caller” in old school D&D seems to puzzle many players of more current editions. The common notions seem to include the ideas that the caller told everyone what to do, that somehow “the caller was having all the fun.” I’m attempting to explain a bit more about the “caller” and how games with a caller worked.
    The first thing that you need to make the idea of caller clear is how VITAL the map was. If the map was wrong, the party was dead, period. You’d never get back alive, and your names would be added to the list of those who went to find fame and fortune in “that damned pile of rubble” and were never seen again. You HAD to have a map, and it HAD to be correct.

    Anything I tell you three times is true.
    Anything I tell you three times is true.

    To see what I mean by “difficult to map,” read OD&D or AD&D 1E for some examples; one way doors, sloping floors too gradual to be detected, curving passages with changing radii, etc. This combination of difficult conditions and the vital nature of the map meant that every player was watching the caller make the map and listening as intently as possible to the referee’s descriptions. Missing the smallest detail could make all the difference between fame and riches and an anonymous grave.
    There was not a lot of “cross talk” because we were all busy. The caller didn’t know what everybody’s abilities were, so if you had a sword that detected secret doors and you saw a likely place for a secret door, you’d say so. We’d also be discussing our strategy and tactics, but sotto voce; if we were loud, we’d draw wandering monsters. Also, our dialogues were very short; say what you have to say. If the passage west leads to a nest of giant spiders, say “Don’t go west, there’s giant spiders,” not launch into some long winding ramble about how your adventure there went.
    In a way, it’s a “simulation” of the dungeon crawl. Practically speaking, only one person can draw on a piece of paper at a time, so you must have a mapper, and the mapper is the most efficient one to steer the overall course of the party… hence the role of “caller”. The rest of us were certainly involved, though. Our “lives” depended on it.
    I encourage people to try re-incorporating the secret referee’s map and caller/mapper back into their games; it’s a great way to draw the players in. Let me know how it goes.
    I’d also be willing to answer other questions people might have about this.

  11. paul says:

    Very interesting. I always thought mapper and caller were different people.

    I can see how the horror of getting lost in a dungeon can lead to a very intense game: if you miss the turn that leads to the surface, you’ll end up wandering around forever in a MAZE OF INFINITE DEATH TRAPS.

    I never played in mapping-heavy D&D games, so I associate that fear with old video games, like Wizardry and Bard’s Tale, where you might lose a couple of first-level adventuring parties in the dungeons before you had the place figured out.

    Let me know if you play with Tavis: my thief, Roger de Coverley, is level 2, recovered of his wounds, and ready to go.

  12. Matthew says:

    “Mike credited Chainmail’s good rules to Gary’s maxim, “I’d rather have a good rule now than a perfect one in a year.” I’d never heard this ascribed to Gary before…”

    Befitting a wargamer, Gary was paraphrasing Patton:
    “A good plan, executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” – General George S. Patton, Jr.

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