Early D&D is a maze game. Ok, that’s a tad reductive, not least because early D&D is a number of different game systems bolted together, including a tactical skirmish game, a resource management game, a hex exploration game, etc. D&D is also, of course, a framework to improvise outside of the rules and to generate collaborative stories. Most importantly: D&D is whatever works for you.
Still, if we’re being honest, it’s a maze game. Players go down into a maze (designed by the DM), avoid (or disarm) traps, and avoid (or fight, or parlay with) monsters in order to recover treasure. That’s the game. D&D’s preponderance, in earlier editions, for cartographical tricks and traps such as sloping corridors, teleporters, and spinning rooms doesn’t make sense unless D&D is a maze game.
As a maze game, D&D has antecedents stretching back millenia. I’m not suggesting that all these thousands of years of mazes and labyrinths directly influenced D&D (it’s more likely that Appendix N’s Sign of the Labrys was the original “dungeon maze”). Nevertheless, it’s interesting to position D&D in the history of maze games and to consider maze theory when thinking about D&D as a game. After all, there may be lessons from the past we can apply to how we play D&D today.
Personally, I’m most interested in digital maze games. Again, I’m not saying these were influences on Arneson and Gygax. However, some of them likely influenced later CRPGs (e.g. Maze from 1972 seems to have been more influential than D&D, at least initially, on 1975’s Moria, a game which was itself a direct influence on Wizardry and other classic CRPGs).
Digital maze games go all the way back to the 1950s. The earliest example is probably Claude Shannon’s Theseus in 1950. Shannon was an American mathematician and cryptographer, known as the “father of information theory”. Theseus was an electromagnetic mouse, which could solve mazes using a system of magnets and relays (and which represented one of the earliest experiments in Machine Learning).
Theseus was an influence on John E. Ward and Douglas T. Ross when they developed Mouse in the Maze in 1959. Players created a digital maze (using a light-sensitive wand) for an AI mouse to explore in its hunt for three chunks of cheese (or three glasses of martini in an alternate version).
However, maze games really took off in the 1970s and ’80s. Scores were published (including the blockbuster Pac-Man, and the “mysterious” and “uncrackable” Entombed on the Atari 2600). The most interesting, from the perspective of D&D and CRPGs, are Caves (1973), Hunt the Wumpus (1973), and Maze (1973). Between them, you have the primordial (pre-D&D) ancestors of both computer adventure games and CRPGs (particularly the “blobber” dungeon crawlers).
It’s noteworthy, for example, that Dave Lebling was involved in expanding Maze into a full multiplayer game. Lebling would later go on to co-found Infocom and co-author Zork, one of the granddaddies of the adventure game genre.
It’s also possible to draw a clear line of inspiration from early grid-based guessing games like Hide and Seek (1972), to Mugwump, to Hunt the Wumpus. There was also, funnily enough, a licensed D&D handheld version of Hunt the Wumpus released by Mattel in 1981. Mastermind is, of course, a grid-based guessing game, perhaps providing another ludological link with Zhu’s “dungeon-as-code” concept.
Maze games can also be played with paper and pencil. There is a Wikipedia article (without many citations) concerning a Soviet game from the 1970s called “Labyrinth”. It sounds quite similar to a game reported by British gamer Andy Staples on his blog (though he mentions that his friends came up with it independently in the 1980s):
“Then we started playing a game we called mazes. As far as I know, this was one we developed ourselves. It had humble origins – one person drew a quick maze on a sheet of paper, someone else tried to find their way through it as quickly as they could. We didn’t keep score; it was a way of relieving boredom in a world with three TV channels, no internet and few video games, when people still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea (thank you, Douglas Adams)…
Then someone – Jason, I think – added a trap to the maze. If you went down a path with a trap, you were dead and had to start over. We all added traps to our own mazes. Than someone added fire; go down a path with fire and you died. But then someone added a fire extinguisher – if you found the fire extinguisher before hitting the fire, you could put it out and get past. Then Daleks were added, then machineguns to defeat the Daleks. Pretty soon, the only way to get through a maze was to pick up all the equipment you needed to get through the traps, fires and Daleks that lay between you and the middle of the maze. By the end of the summer term in 1981, Jason’s maze filled a piece of A3 paper, covered with twisting passages a quarter of an inch thick. Navigating through it could take an entire lunch hour or a double maths class, with Jason watching like a hawk for any excuse to declare you dead and send you back to the beginning.”
In future blog posts, I’ll try and figure out if there are any lessons we can learn from maze games (digital or otherwise) that might be applicable to tabletop D&D.
Images from Hunt the Wumpus, Texas Instruments Incorporated, 1980, and 3D Monster Maze, J.K. Greye Software, 1982.