Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Where did the "rats in the basement" thing come from?

One of my players sent me this really amusing story:

The Innkeeper has a rat problem

It's a fun read, weird grammar aside, and it's a great setup for an otherwise inexplicable encounter area.

At the same time, though, it brought up a question:

Where did this whole "first adventure is killing rats in the basement" thing come from?

The first time I encountered it was playing The Bard's Tale, where it was already being used a joke. And I didn't even get that game until it was a freebie for backing Wasteland 2.

The next time I saw it was in Will Save the World for Gold, and again, joke.

But I'm not sure I ever encountered it for real. Did I miss something during my hiatus from D&D-based games in the very late 80s and into the 2000s? Was it a 3rd edition first adventure? My first adventures were always "go into the dungeon and fight monsters." My first ever game session was in B2 and I fought gnolls. No rats, no basements.

So where is the serious origin of this that lead to it being a joke meme? I'm really curious . . .

29 comments:

  1. I know it's like the first "fighting" tutorial in Baldur's Gate, before you leave the safety of your home.

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    1. I only remember killing rats outside the Vault in Fallout.

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    2. I played Baldur's Gate and I just remember wandering around having kobolds shoot me with fire arrows. I never got more than a little ways into that game before I sold it off. I forgot the rats . . .

      (But I did submit a Murphy's Rule that JK illustrated, based on the game.)

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  2. My experience is similar--it's a supposedly "tired" trope that I didn't encounter until after I'd been gaming for a long time.

    However, back when I was going through old modules and materials from the early 80s when the OSR was first becoming a thing, I do recall encountering the trope a few times. I believe "The Veiled Society" has an initial adventure task involving killing rats in an inn's basement in return for free lodging. (The rat-killing then leads to greater mysteries.) Early sourcebooks from Judges Guild (Wilderlands) and Chaosium (Runequest) feature inns with basements that have secret tunnels leading to larger dungeons; I could see a DM putting some giant rats in the basement as a sort of credible warm-up to venturing further into the tunnels.

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    1. Interesting. It seems like with the really old-school stuff, though, it's outweighed by straight dungeon crawls, goblins & orcs, and whatnot.

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  3. Wow that was a horrible funnel story!

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    1. It sounds like it was a lot of fun, though.

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  4. I think rats in Threshold's old mill was a suggested adventure in the old blue eXpert set.

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    1. I took a quick look and didn't see it, but I only have Moldvay's version handy. I'll dig more.

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  5. In all fairness to B2, there's a fairly memorable encounter with a horde of giant rats just past the pit trip in the kobold's cave. But it's certainly not in the basement.

    All the rats in the basement incidents that I can remember (Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Morrowind, Oblivion) are post 1995, so I'm not sure when it started either.

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    1. One way to awesome-up B2 would be to have the kobolds rush out to meet adventures saying, basically, "Please help us with these damn rats!"

      Be a neat spin on it.

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  6. For some reason this had always been firmly in my mind as part of U1, but it seems not.

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    1. U1, one of my favorites. But like you said, not a basement full of rats.

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  7. In Fallout 1, I think there were rats in the tunnels between the Vault 13 blast doors and the doors to the outside. I doubt a non-fantasy game kicked off the meme, but maybe by 1997 it was a thing already and the folks at Black Isle (?) were riffing on it even then?

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    1. Don't think I didn't notice that we got tasked to clean beetles out of some old guy's basement in Gamma Terra, dude.

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  8. I don't remember this quest from any of the iconic early low-level D&D modules (B1, B2, B3, T1, etc.) either. I think it came from Fallout and Baldur's Gate. Those games were both from Black Isle, right? And then it was put in Morrowind, probably as an homage.

    Coincidentally, my players just fought some rats last Sunday. On the 6th level of a megadungeon, so they were Advanced Dire Rats, much tougher than the average Giant Rat. Unfortunately for the rats, still not tough enough. But when we stopped the wizard was down to 1 FP, so it's possible that the nearby demon toads will come investigate while the PCs are resting, and avenge their comrades.

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    1. I need to use more rats. I have a LOT of painted rat minis. And I can make some Terrible and Dire, too . . .

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  9. Having written at least two "Giant Rat in the Basement" adventures in 1976 I think this meme is pretty old.

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    1. Were those published, or just for your own games?

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  10. It's not just RPGS. Check out Graveyard Shift (Stephen King, originally published in 1970, included in the Night Shift anthology), and Of Unknown Origin, a creepy if a bit far fetched horror movie from the 80s starring Peter Weller. I wouldn't be surprised if you could trace the motif back to 1930s pulp. There's also James Herbert, the Rats, from 1974, which includes a pretty grisly rats in the basement scene involving a baby.

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    1. Like I said below, though, I'm not trying to trace the motif of "rats in tunnels" or whatnot, but rather the idea that adventure #1 is "innkeeper hires you to clear out rats in the basement."

      It's not that "rats in a basement" is a strange idea. That it's some kind of serious thing that was the default for fantasy gaming adventurers to do as their first "adventure" is what I'm curious about. Joseph Mason posted a link to TV Tropes (apparent motto: "It's not actually about TV") and it lists a lot of CRPGs doing this as a first adventure . . . and offhandedly throws out the idea that D&D groups will meet in a tavern and then get a quest to clean out basement rats. Yet the idea of this as a specific first adventure seems to spring from the CRPGs.

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  11. L1 The Secret of Bone Hill (1981) has a good example of this. There is a burned out guard station with a giant rat nest in the basement (along with other secrets). If in town, characters "might be told that a large rat bit the child of a fisherman ... The townspeople are concerned but there is no one to track down the rats and some feel the incident was an isolated one. If the people along this small road are questioned they will have much more to say."

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    1. So far it seems like 2-3 starting adventures out of lots and lots of them go with rats in a basement as part of the possible things you can encounter. Well, sort-of starting in the case of L1. That's levels 2-4, and it's not necessarily the first stop in the adventure, either. Or maybe it is; the one time I played in L1 we skipped the town and I went straight to the dungeon and fought bugbears and skeletons and found Boots of Elvenkind.

      It's pretty understanding that you'd have giant rats in a basement, but again . . . handed out as a quest by the innkeeper thing? As a distinct adventure? Seems more like a CRPG NPE kind of thing. The pre-CRPG examples seem to just feature rats as an element, and quests aren't necessarily tied to the rats. L1 seems about the closest to having it at all, and it's only partial coverage.

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    2. I don't know how common my experience was, but I was buying games with lawn mowing money and most TSR modules were things I wanted, not things I owned. L1 was somewhat obscure (I've never seen it in print and didn't get in PDF until 2005 or so) so I don't think it could be the start of the rats in the basement trope.

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    3. Maybe it's like "you all meet in a tavern" - I know I did that once in Junior High School for AD&D, but never since. Before that, we never did meeting scenes. Heck, people would drop in with a new character in the middle of a dungeon and that was fine. It's not that common in module scripted openings, either, but it might grab the imagination and loom larger than it really was.

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  12. Going back even further, the Sample Dungeon in the Holmes Basic Set (1977) - which is the former basement of the tower of the wizard Zenopus - has three areas with Giant Rat encounters, including area RT Rat Tunnels. This may have been inspired by Rat in the Walls, one of Holmes' favorite Lovecraft stories. See No End to the Rats for more on this.

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    1. I think "giant rats in dungeons" is a distinct thing from "innkeeper hires you to clear out the rats in the basement" though. Otherwise, yes, rats in tunnels goes all the way back to well before the origins of gaming. Holmes is a perfect example of a dungeon with rats - it's not a basement full only of rats, with a quest given by an NPC to deal with rats.

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  13. Several of my GMs started the campaign with this quest, partly because we were already in the inn anyway to fulfill another trope so might as well get an adventure in right away.

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