KNOCK! Vol 2: The Rot King's Sanctum Session 2


And we are back in the sewers of Cliff's End for the second session of The Rot King's Sanctum (first session here). When we last left off, the PCs had just staved off an assault from the cult of Nithis. Grim the dwarf met his end.


#7 CELLS: PCs find a secret door on the north wall. Open and proceed due north in a rough-hewed hallway. Turning right they hit a dead end but surmise there is a corresponding secret door. All of this is against the wishes of Melvin the gnome merchant who would rather get the hell out of there.

#14 ROT KING'S QUARTERS: As PC push open the door they come face-to-skull with THE ROT KING! Ambrose the Kcyran cleric charges forward to fell this foul thing. Melee ensues, but the is short as the Rot King's wicked beaked mace find purchase against Ambrose's soft skull.

With his death, Melvin bolts, and Desdemona and Snorri follow soon after. The Rot King's laughter echos down the hall and the PCs run smack into Melvin. He beseeches them to leave with him and so the party makes their way to the Central Hall.

DM NOTE: So if you remember, the party is motivated to find the tomb of a great tempest mage. But I am surprised the player attempted to press their luck a little further. But that is sometimes the fun of 1st level characters-- go big and/or home in a body bag. Kidding-- your body is most likely digested by an ooze.

#8 CENTRAL HALL: The PCs scout again the area and proceed quietly past the first bridge, but break into an all-out run toward the east door at Melvin's urging. An alarm is raised by the cult and cultists move to intercept at the PCs rush past the west bridge. Fortune favors them and successful initiative rolls allow the PCs to maintain distance as they slam into the door!

#9 EMPTY ROOM: Desdemona wedges a knife in the door frame and Snorri drives it in with a discarded shovel. WHAM! The cultists fail at their attempt to break down the door, giving the PCs time to escape into the sewers.

INTERLUDE: The City of Cliff's End

DM NOTE: All of the above happened with 1 hour of IRL time elapsed. I told my player (remember this is a 1:1 game) that we'd take some time to play out hiring of new people, outfitting them, and figuring out what else they might want. After all, saving Melvin earned the remaining PCs 500 gp.

DAY 1 MELVIN'S PLACE: PCs are allowed to use his warehouse as a base of operations. Still puzzling over a scrap of the treasure map, the first 100 gp is spent on a scribe to answer questions about a copper hand, the tomb, and the cult of Nithis.

DAY 2 CITY TURNS A DEAF EAR to the CULT ISSUE: The PCs next try to encourage the City Watch to get involved with their plight. After all, wouldn't the city want to know about this cult problem? Nope. City Watch as enough to do without running around in sewers. So the player starts spending money to attract like-minded fortune seekers. After 30 gp, the PC get two new recruits with the promise of a full share each and proper outfitting.

DAY 3-17 SCROLL MAKING: Desdemona creates a scroll with Magic Missle and Shield on it.

DAY 18 KCYRA TEMPLE: Attempted to beseech the temple to get assistance against the cult. But like the city watch, PCs were denied and suspicion leveled against them. Instead, the temple wants the PCs to bring back the body of Ambrose. PCs do part with four emeralds as a gift to the temple and received a bit of thanks from them.

DM NOTE: Alright, so I rolled a "4" on the encounter reaction table which is "Unfriendly, may attack". I figured a wizard and chaotic halfing attempting to seek aid from a lawful church after their cleric got killed, but they didn't bring back the body was a "not gonna happen" on aid. And in lieu of an aggressive action, I figure the temple would more make a demand to prove some sorta of loyalty or at least honesty.

DAY 19 CAROUSING GONE WILD: Desdemona is locked in the stockades while Snorri makes a fool of himself publically. 150 GP owed to Melvin to get Desdemona out of the stocks and fully rested.

DAY 20 CONSULT THE STARS and BACK TO THE SEWERS: The stars offered nothing to this newly formed band of heroes and so it was back to the sewers almost a full month since their initial delve. Surely the cult has forgotten about them.

Yellow is Session 1,
Orange Session 2 ACT I, Pink Session 2 ACT II


#9 EMPTY ROOM: The PCs attempt re-entry back through the secret door where they first must dispatch swarms of rot flies. Their dagger still in place indicated the cult has not been here recently.

#8 CENTRAL HALL: With a much more violent plan in mind, Snorri scouts ahead to perform a ranged sneak attack! One cultist falls, but the new fighters Vayloc and Seranes are able to follow up with bow attacks killing the other one.

#12. TEMPLE SANCTUM: The party bolts across the west bridge and into the sanctum. There they behold the horrible sight of Ambrose's body hung upside down beneath the weeping icon of Nithis-- black tears trailing across the body and into a pool below.

Enranged, the party attacks the priests and cultists performing rites there! One priest is beheaded and the other cut to ribbons by the fighters. But all the fighting draws the attention of the Rot King appearing at the southern door.

The king's fearsome presence and vile chants cast Hold Person on the group freezing Vayloc in his place. Seranes, Snorri, and Desdemona counter with a volley of arrows and magic hitting the Rot King from all directions. Withdrawing south, but far from finished, the Rot King unleashes a swarm of flies to engulf Desdemona in a cloud of suffering-- killing her.

DM NOTE: The player had pretty good tactics here and brought the Rot King from 22 down to 3 hp. I almost thought about making a stand with the King, but figured they would be a little smarter than that. Especially since they still had 2 wererat underlings to send after the very hurt party.

THE RACE TO GET OUT: The next minutes are spent by the party just running back toward the jail cells (#7) and trying to avoid the guards. As they turn south toward #1 ENTRANCE HALL (avoiding the central pressure plate), they are attacked from behind by cultists. Well-placed daggers find their mark in Vaylok and Seranes.

Leaving the halfing Snorri, the PC with the worse stats, alive to escape!


SUMMARY: Great adventure (get it here on itch). I think one I will certainly keep on file as an intro to D&D. And what I cannot stress enough is that The Rot King's Sanctum provides so many little single-sentence seeds to build out a world from. This is vital because a DM can slowly build out which prevents DM burn-out and building things the player(s) have no interest in. And does the adventure itself build hooks for further games? Well, the player now has:

  • A real reason to hate the Cult
  • Still needs to find the lost tomb & who are the Tempest Mages
  • An enemy who will hunt them in Cliff's End
  • Want to better understand the relationship between the gods of rot & healing
  • NPC friend and somewhat a home base
All of which seems like enough to me!

KNOCK! KNOCK!-IN' ON TONISBORG'S DOOR: Using KNOCK! Vol 2 to Individualize a Megadungeon

KNOCK! Vol 2


A recent review of KNOCK! Vol. 2 notes that:

However, there is an issue with Knock! #2. There is just too much of it, too much of it to review, too much of it to read, too much of it to use. 

There IS always a lot in each issue, but it is far from being too much to use. Instead, I think it just requires thought on how articles can be used in prep. Here is my "utility review" for Vol. 1, where I look at how it will help you build a dungeon. 

Let's dive into KNOCK! Vol. 2 and how it will help you livin' up a bare-bones or more vanilla dungeon.

I recently received the Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg which is a megadungeon created and run by one of the original Blackmoore bunch in 1973-- one year before the publication of D&D. Its a very interesting beast that is utilitarianly keyed on purpose, I think, in part to get it to the table quicker. Since the creator understands what they want and is more focused on reacting to the players, less attention is paid to writing keys. In one instance there is: "Balrog. 10,000 GP". 

KNOCK! Vol. 2 seems to have a lot of good tables and articles for spicing up the familiar and fleshing out the bare bones. So, here is how I turned it toward Level 2 of Tonisborg.


#2:0 LEVEL OPENING: Order Draconae has incomplete control of the dungeon; Portions of the level have collapsed or lead to natural caverns

#2:1 WYVERN (powerful 8000 sp type E): Not much to help to change the monster, but we do have "Combat Objectives" (pg 90); roll under the "instinctual" creature collum and get "Attack the nearest NPC or pack animal- drag them into the underbrush". We could also use "30 Tomes of Magic on pg 130. And after rolling get a half shredded tome containing Levitate and Reverse Gravity.

#2:2 BEDROOM; 6x GIANT WEASELS: Again, let us give them a combat objective, and let's also use "What Are The Spiders Doing?" (pg 140) to not just have them sitting around. Sure these are weasels, but the premise is the same. So 3x weasels are (roll 18)... munching on the body of an orc but will... (rolls 2 on Combat Objectives) attack the smallest PC. 3x other weasels are...(rolls 13) grooming bristly faces with shining eyes staring back, but will... (rolls 1 on Combat Objectives) attack nearest NPC and drag them off.

#2:3 STOREROOM w/ 3 FIGHTERS lead by a LEVEL 5 SWASHBUCKLER with TREASURE: One of the fighters is level 1 so could be a squire. Simple enough. And we can use the "Knight Errant" generator (pg 16) to flesh out the others.

So for both the level 4 & 5 Fighters, we have a colored field of ermine depicting a crane; Brunor the Mirthful fights with a crossbow; Palomedes the Bully employs two axes. Their squire is named Ector who fights with a sword.

#2:4: JUMBO BACON: There are 12x giant hogs in this room. Let's give them some sort of malevolent intelligence so their "Combat Objective" is "hold position until reinforcements arrive" and so they will make a lot of noise. 

How else can we make this interesting? I once saw tattooed pigs so what if these things have some weird 12 part scripture on them? Also a reason for their malevolence? Rolling on "d44 Cursed Scriptures of Petty Gods" we get (2,4)... if all 12 pigs scriptures are read you will transcribe Klakyon- Geode Avatar of Incomprehensible Geometries and the reader's flesh will become pristine crystal (AC 18, STR 18, CON 18), but quickly become tumorous as dust crystalizes as well causing them to lose -1 DEX every hour; DEX = 0 is immobile. Maybe pigs have some crystal taint as well.

That's a pretty fun room and sorta gives a reason there might be rival MU factions or clerics here. Also why the Order Draconae might give a lot of guff to MU/clerics.

#2:5 BEDROOM & LABORATORY: So here we have sorcerors and followers also a magic sword made of kill fighting-men. Hmm, I think this has a good connection to #2:4 and the pigs are some ongoing, failed, or incomplete experiment. Certainly, since we have our first MUs, we have to use "12 Sorceror-Corpse Hazards" (pg 33).

...(rolling) So for the 9th Level MU, the weapon used to kill them will stick to the body magically and the body will explode after a few rounds. The 1st & 2nd level MUs do not have any curses on their bodies.

The three Fighters located here are given some character with the "Knight Errant Generator" which we used above; colored field-green, 2 ordinaries, cross, cross, like to duel and all these folks are mirthful and named deBors. They are trying to resist some form of temptation (?).

Since the magic sword "Fregsallo" kills fighting-men, maybe the knights are trying to free one of their number from the curse of the sword (?) or the temptation to use it?

#2:6 6x WEREBEARS: Okay, it's entries like this that make stocking difficult. By Tonisborg standards, because there is a monster section, werebears are lawful, 7HD, and AC 18. Also, this 10 X 20 ft room is far too small. But some of Tonisborg is supposed to be cavernous, so how about these werebears have just dug into this room. There is actually a sublevel that holds their lair. KNOCK! Vol. 2 has some great maps, so let's use "Tomb of Horrors" (pg 165).

And from the "Knight Errant Generator", their quest is to "protect a child from an affair"-- maybe one of the Order Draconae.

#2:7 HALL WITH 4x GARGOYLES: Hmm, the stairwell leads up to Level 1 which is under more complete control of Order Draconae and is near two secret doors of the Sorceror of #2:5. The sorcerer put these creatures in place mainly to keep the Order Draconae out and they have the password on their person. There is a table, "Monster Modifiers" (pg 60), that can help livin' up standard monsters...(rolls a 14)...these gargoyles are 'brutal'.

#2:8 CRYPT WITH 3 ZOMBIES: A lot of text here but not a lot to work with in my opinion, just zombies and a hallway. What if these zombies are victims of the Fighters in #2:5- the folks with the cursed sword? Maybe the sword has enhanced one of the knight's lust for battle and killing? And there is a pretty cool monster, The Dreamcrawler, in KNOCK! Vol 2 (pg 180). The Dreamcrawler is a fallen warrior so seeks battle in a character's dreams. Kinda half curse/half-monster. But fits the theme of untimely death due to betrayal.

#2:9 ARMORY WITH 10 KOBOLDS DIGGING FOR WEAPONS: Big question here for me is why, by the map, are they so close to the Order Draconae? Maybe they have been tasked with clearing out the wyverns in #2:11? Maybe they are gonna "milk" their poison? Are they after the swine? Will agree to PC aid if the bargain is good? To give 'em a little extra, I lean on the "Monster Modifier" table again and get a result saying they are "naturally corrosive", immune to acid, and corrode armor on a Nat 20 and weapons on a Nat 1.

#2:10 FOUR GIANT SNAKES: Hmm... (roll 7 on Crab Spider Table of "What Are The Spiders Doing", pg 142) and get "dashing to perceived safety underneath a defaced alter" and (roll 3 on "Combat Objectives) "will hold this spot". Okay, these are results I can work with- so maybe the alter is to the petty god that helped create the swine in #2:4.

#2:11 STOREROOM WITH 5 WYVERNS: Like the bears and zombies, this feels like too much fidelity to a random encounter/stocking table. The first thing I think is what could be in this storeroom worth digging for? Maybe another spellbook from "30 Tomes Of Magic" (pg 130). But there is also a very handy "D60 Pointless Items" (pg 65)

#2:12 TWO ELVEN MAGIC-USERS: The two magic items in this room are interesting- Potion of Dragon Control and Potion of Lycanthropy Control. Maybe the two elves want to control the wyverns in #2:11 or bears in #2:6. Maybe they want to remove the Order Draconae use these two factions to do it. How about they want to locate "Fregsallo" the magic sword stolen from them?

#2:13 SIX GNOLLS: Where did these come from? Maybe time for a setting and luckily KNOCK! Vol 2 also provides for that. There are two hexcrawls in fact: the first is on the inside dust cover, and the second is on page 210. With megadungeons, I think it best to keep play focused toward the dungeon. The small surrounding area can just help provide NPC wants, factions plots, quests, materials, and hook-- but not keep folks gone too long. With that in mind, I think "Fort Levant" is a good choice and it also has a hex containing a gnoll army!

#2:14 GUARDS! Specifically, the 27x Order Draconae guards that collect "taxes", keep the lower dungeon creatures out and are in control of a cannon (!) in the center of the room. Of the 27 guards, 3 of them are officers. Again I used the "Errant Knight Generator" to find that the 3 officers are ambitious, but want to recover a magic veil.

I also drew a map of the circular room and have barricades erected on the western double doors leading up to the surface/down to level 2 and on the southern door which leads up to level 1/down to level 2. The cannon is between the northern and north-western doors to cover the two barricades. I also think there might be tents built in the room to allow guards to rotate and provide some comfort.

THERE YOU GO! Level 2 of Tonisborg is more fleshed out. We have emerging stronger factions like the Sorceror who summoned demonic scripture hogs, but currently is helping cursed fighters who have sinned against their bannermen. And there are werebear and elven infiltrators and a group of kobolds who are going to sort out some wyverns. I also just have a better handled on how I want to run my version of Tonisborg.

But KNOCK! Vol 2 doesn't just stop there. Several of the articles are about running such a dungeon above. The importance of choice, warning, description, and the goals of DMing are all discussed. I think I will certainly review the articles on "Cheap Tricks" and how not to create a "Screw You" scenario given the asymmetry with some of the rooms.

And KNOCK! is still is a must-have. It really is what I wanted Dragon & Dungeon to be.

JENNELL JAQUAYS On Jaquaysing the Dungeon

As part of a Kickstarter for producing a retrospective of her work, I got to ask Jennell Jaquays a question. There was only one question that immediately jumped to my mind and so very nice of her to entertain it!

WD: Hey JennellI have a question: How conscious were you of "Jaquaysing the Dungeon" when you wrote Thracia and Dark Tower? These modules are often (and rightly) held up as excellent examples of dungeon design with several loops, various accesses into rooms, and layered history. So, did you operate with a theory when designing them or was it more "oh this is cool"?

JJ: I would love to say that it was actually a design philosophy from the start, but I never thought of it that way. My college degree is in art. I took a lot of art classes in college, both studio classes and art history classes; enough to have both a major AND a minor in art if such a thing were possible.

Part of that study was an appreciation for historical architecture, including tombs, cathedrals, pyramids, Roman ruins and more. In fact, just before starting to play D&D, I had been in Europe as part of a month-long art class tour of cities in the UK and Europe (London, Paris, Chartres, Geneva, Florence, and Rome ... I missed much of the last part of the trip due to being hospitalized in an ancient care facility in Rome for measles, but that's another story).

Many of my early D&D designs were inspired by the structures of classic architecture, which are often intensely multi-level and interconnected. Think of the design of the great European and UK museums, monasteries, palaces, cathedrals (I visited a LOT of famous churches on that trip) and you'll get a grasp of inspirations.

One of the things about historical buildings is that they themselves have history. If one has owned an old house that has been worked on by owner after owner, one might have an idea how the use and appearance of constructed spaces changes over time. That has always fascinated me.

Next, I was intrigued by what would happen if a Pompeii-like event buried architecture and left it intact. Would the occupants of the structures dig their way out? Would others dig down to gain access to the buildings again? That was much of the premise of Dark Tower. That and Robert E. Howard's Red Nails Conan the Barbarian story.

These ideas played out over and over again in many of my designs in both table top RPGS and even to some degree, my canon Quake 3 maps on computers.

While I will admit to many of my "dungeons" having a monster hotel aspect to them, I made some effort to create an eco-system inside the spaces. Something that I have been attempting to improve on ever since.


KNOCK! Vol 2: The Rot King's Sanctum Session 1

For KNOCK! Vol 2 I do have a much larger utilitarian review similar to my first one covering how to use all the bric-a-brac to spice up the Tonisborg dungeon. However, I've not had the energy lately to write that up, in part because I'd like to run at least the first two levels of Tonisborg with some "ZED" -made characters to get a feel for the dungeon itself.

I *did* have the energy to grab a buddy this week for a 1-on-1 BX dungeon crawl through Emiel Boven's very good The Rot King's Sanctum found on page 219 (and here on itch). So, meet our level 1 randomly generated characters (supplemented with a starting equipment table I made for an old campaign- hence the titles) :
  • Grim the Dwarf Barbarian STR 16, CON 08
  • Snorri the Halfing Tomb Robber DEX 11, STR 05
  • Ambrose the Cleric Preacher WIS 16, INT 03
  • Desdemona the MU Fortune Teller INT 13, DEX 06
While HP rolls were high, the equipment rolls were rather poor so few characters started with an AC of more than 12. But never the less, the "heroes" pressed on and found themselves in the sewers of Cliff's End because...

DM NOTE: Really nice to have a little table of hooks to the adventure going. Especially since hooks can provide objectives other than "kill everything". My player rolled a "2" on the hooks table.

...they were in possession of a map describing the lost tomb of one of the nine Tempest archmages buried under Cliff's End. Also on the map was a riddle: Only a key of copper lend you a hand in opening this tomb.

PCs at the start discussing the Cult of Nithis <(;)>

#1 ENTRANCE HALL: Grim steps up to listen at the door. Upon hearing nothing, he carefully pushes it in. The PCs investigated the first set of statues finding them somewhat hollow and having a small pipe protruding from their mouth. However, greed overcame caution, a pressure plate was triggered and it was only the demi-humans who were left standing. The next turns were eaten up by dragging the human MU and cleric to safety and avoiding a cult party.

DM NOTE: Snorri has an attribute bonus of -3. But those lower save throws are literal lifesavers.

The party returns to the ENTRANCE HALL, but this time it was Snorri the Halfing who crept in quietly and ran right into a cultist of Nithis (DM NOTE: both rolled surprise). A short fight ensued where the PCs got the upper hand quickly dispatched 3 of 4 cultists and fourth ran to raise the alarm. The PCs stayed to grab the emerald eyes from the statues. Grim the dwarf then was swarmed by rot flies. Requiring Ambrose to light some torches to burn them away (with a couple of precious HP lost).

DM NOTE: I really tried to use morale in this adventure to determine not only likely hood of the cultists running a way, but also their willingness to engage the PCs in ambushes. If they failed they were more likely to just track the PCs in pairs.

#CROSSROADS A: The PCs made their way through the north door to a crossroads in the hallway: north, a door but after listening nothing behind it; east, a door; west, a hallway that extends beyond their torchlight.

DM NOTE: I secretly rolled the cultist morale here for room #4. They passed, so I had them organize a ranged counter attack from the north and east.

Daggers fly from the north and east! Grim and the MU Desdemona take the brunt with thankfully little HP lost. Magic Missle takes out a cultist to the east as does Grim's two-handed sword to the north. Cultist break and withdraw but not without a warning from large black-furred shapes in room #4.

#PROCEED WEST TO CROSSROADS B: PCs have to choose again: north in the sound of rushing water; south-west where the air is damp and fetid; east toward another door; west down an open hallway where a door is inset. Still interested in the treasure map, Snorri pushes everyone north.

PCs push north to find an acrid green river- two guards argue orthodoxy

#8 CENTRAL HALL: Snorri performs recon moving in the shadows to try and creep by the first hanging bridge. He hangs close to the end, spotting a copper ring underneath the putrid river. The guards argue about Nithis orthodoxy and if followers of Kcyra should be converted then killed or killed outright. Meanwhile, Grim, Ambrose, and Desdemona have to contend with two shovel-wielding skeletons, covered in a velvety yellow mold, shambling into the edge of their torchlight. Ambrose has to hold it together as these desecrated bodies animated by the vile Nithis shamble by and into a door in the CENTRAL HALL.

DM NOTE: Rolled an encounter, but also a "friendly" result on the reaction table, so I decided to see what would happen if the skeletons were just walking by. A potential threat (or not) just to press the player. The skeletons are loaded with yellow mold so just hitting them can be bad news.

#7 CELLS: Not liking the skeletons creeping up behind the party withdraws from the CENTRAL HALL back south and then west. Grim kicks the door in surprising the cultist, Ambrose moved to attack! Desdemona launched another Magic Missle* but it was miscast, causing her to drop asleep. Not good as 2 cultists appeared from the south and east bent on capturing Desdemona for sacrifice. Snorri attacked the cultist trying to abscond with her, but his poor strength made little impact. Grim engaged two other cultists, slicing one in half (10 dmg against 4 hp) but fell to the wicked dagger of the other. In a stunning display of combat prowess, the remaining two PCs won initiative twice and killed two more cultists, causing the last one to run. Desdemona awakened at the shrill pleading the gnome merchant Melvin to hurry up and free him for a sizeable reward in addition to a secret way out! ~FIN, SESSION 1~

DM NOTE: I was using a house rule that MU can "risky" cast after they have used up their slots by making a Save vs. Spell modified by their INT bonus. If you fail, roll a 1d20 on a miscast table.

Grim's last stand. Desdemona is saved!

FINAL DM NOTES: I really like this adventure so far! A theme people immediately get: plague cult, rats, crows, mold, sewers. Great opening room with things to poke and prod, but a big risk and some reward. Small dungeon but a lot of good intersections that make it feel big because choice is always presented to the player.

But there are also a lot of great little extras. A hidden tomb that has nothing to do with the cult. The plague god here is a sibling of a healing god-- debate about who screwed over who. Reference to the city above Cliff's End. And three good hooks: missing person, secret treasure, or because god said so. A small scattered references to other things that a DM could build a campaign from.

All of the above required prep ~30 min before play. I didn't prep anything specific other than a hastely drawn small treasure map and make up a clue in case that hook was rolled. Otherwise I just made myself familar with the general layout. I would have liked to have prepared an Overloaded Encounter Die table for it and included some dungeon weather. And maybe trim the random encounter table a bit. Ten entries seems a lot for a 15 room dungeon. But maybe alterate to a progressive table is the alarm is raised.

RPG'S TONISBORG COELACANTH: Or The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg & The Preservation of D&D before D&D, a Review

The Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg
coelacanth: a living fossil


Let me frame my view of the field for Dungeons & Dragons history.

To me, understanding what actually happened in early D&D has often been a miasma of hearsay and anecdote. Early knowledge about D&D often seems to take on the same form as knowledge about The Bible and Origin of Species-- hotly debated, little understood in context, and almost never actually read. Even early internet sites and user groups are hard to plumb for understanding.

In the past few years attempts at understanding the history of RPGs, especially, Dungeons & Dragons have matured considerably. This is in no small part, I think, due to the emergence of both the indie story game scene providing a counter to "trad" RPG game formulation and the old-school renaissance refining/revitalizing aspects of "classical" RPG game formulation, again, apart from the present trad RPG presentation. But still lacking has been clarity on what the space looked like immediately before and after D&D was released. So as the scene's discourse tortion has heaved and shook the ground, it has become apparent that few really know how a game of D&D was exactly played at its genesis.

Recently three good works have popped up to tackle this unknown: Playing At The World and The Elusive Shift, books written by Jon Peterson, and the Arneson-focused The Secrets of Blackmoor by Griff Morgan & co. All three together create a much clearer picture of how D&D arose. And now recently in conjunction with The Secrets of Blackmoor documentary, Griff, in partnership with Greg Svenson, has released The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg. A complete 1973 megadungeon written by Svenson, one of the original "Blackmoor Bunch" using the associated 1973 playtest rules of the soon-to-be-released Dungeons and Dragons (published in 1974).


The book contains 3 broad sections (these are my conceptual divisions, the book proper lists 8 parts):

  •  Section I CONTEXT: How to run a game of 1973 D&D
  •  Section II DUNGEON: A 100% reproduction of a megadungeon created in 1973 and not something half-remembered. There are actual scans of all 10 levels and keys and a remaster of the same for ease of play
  • Section III RULES: Re-printing of the playtest ruleset of 1973 D&D (which is still used by the same playgroup to this day) containing everything from character creation to how to stock a dungeon; A to Z.
So, unlike a lot of other instances of original play material or stories of play, here we have all the elements from 1973: an era-produced dungeon, era-specific rules used to run the dungeon, and an attempt at the era-correct context for use of those rules at the table. 

Like the coelacanth, Tonisborg provides a possible opportunity to understand how gameplay, dungeon, and rules were all related; a swimming fossil. Whereas before this publication, we only had glimpses of each part and always much later in time via other sources. For instance:
  • Context, but no rules or example: There are a few internet message boards where Gygax, Arneson, and early players drop hints and clarifications to how play was done. But we have to be careful because there is often little to directly back it up (i.e. memories of playing in Greyhawk but no Greyhawk dungeon maps to confirm [I think]). Gygax for instance has DMing advice, but rarely actually played D&D according to his own 1e AD&D DMG specifications. So context, but hard to know what ruleset this advice is being provided for AD&D, OD&D, or some amalgamation? There is also almost a different Gygax opinion for every edition of D&D too!
  • Rules, but no context or example: The 1e AD&D DMG (1979) provides us with tons of rules by Gygax, but never really much context on how to implement those rules. Nor do we have a true representation of a Gygaxian dungeon because his own Castle Greyhawk has yet to be published. 
  • Example, but no rules or context: I think The Caverns of Thracia (1979) offers a view into early multi-level dungeon design, but no strong basis for the ruleset used and no context for how it is run. 
  • Example, but not representative: And while we have a plethora of TSR modules, early TSR modules are reprinted tournament designs and later TSR modules initiated the trad linear-story approach to RPG design. In either case, the exploration, risk-vs.-reward Greyhawk & Blackmoor, along with Tonisborg, were/are megadungeons and not represented by ~90% of TSR modules despite clearly being an early formational play environment.
So what are you actually getting with this book?


"Breathing Life Into An Old Dungeon"

The first two chapters of the book cover the history of the dungeon and how old-school play occurs. The book does a good job of trying to cover all aspects of DMing that one might need to make adjudication 1973 appropriate. Each section is also usually begun with a quote from Arneson or some of his players.

The advice covers some topics that the OSR has recapitulated in the Old-School Primer or Principa Apocrypha and some topics that I think are being resurrected.

Familiar topics in the old-school space are dungeon adventures as dangerous and need to be viewed as "war" (asymmetric & lethal) versus "sport" (balanced & fair). This section recommends players understanding that sometimes they need to run and employ retreat and counter attacks to overcome some foes. Or players should be sneaky and interact with the world, not their character sheet. On the flip side, this section councils DMs to be fair, employ environmental clues, how to encourage players to individualize their "basic" character and to remember the goal of the game is fun.

There were a few topics that a less broadcasted in the OSR think-space that I found interesting in the section as well. An emphasis on maps as both tools and treasure which are found as both in Tonisborg. Also the role of stairs as a way to move up and down levels. The meta-roles of a mapper and scribe are mentioned, but no "caller".  And even Arneson's tips on giving out "role-playing points" to encourage players who stay in character. A long section on "The Quiet Game and the Psychology of Fear" explains how Rob Kuntz uses quiet moments in the game to slow it down and increase the immersion. Mainly by asking specific questions which make players think something is about to happen. So various rolls and fakeouts are talked about: The Fake Roll, The Pre Roll, The Reversal Roll, & The Paranoia Roll. There are also discussions of how to use the environmental dressing to keep players on their toes: doors slamming in the distance, bloodstains leading off down a hall on the floor, screaming, and compounding those meaningless events. 

Now some of these could be listed under "Good Tricks for a Good Haunted House", but what is a dungeon if not a good haunted house? It's done the service of keep players on their toes, preventing lazy attitudes, and forcing deliberate choices. But I think this has the potential to be the least accurate portion of the work. The advice is good and certainly is even a bit different than the OSR space, but was it actually how it was done? The quotes span decades and come from a variety of sources. This might introduce misremembered ideas, but again at least its advice tailored to the play environment is delivered in the next section of the book.

"The Dungeons of Tonisborg"

The next section covers the actual ten-level dungeon of Tonisborg itself. Unlike the earlier section, all the maps are redone here, rooms numbered, and entrances and egresses clearly marked to each level and the level they go to. Each level is generally full-page map, keyed entries with sparse text, monster stats, and typical black & white illustrations ranging from PCs in peril to dungeons scenes, to whimsical comics of PCs in peril.

So what immediately jumps out at me when I am looking at this 1973 dungeon?

Layout more resembles actual tombs: First, the maps are more akin to tombs made fantastic than fantastic tombs. What I mean by that is the maps have a lot of long crisscrossing hallways with many, many secret doors that are anchored by large rooms. Kinda like the way an American mall might be laid out.

The Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg

I find this is a little different to more modern OSR dungeons where I think clustered rooms are connected by fewer hallways.

Tonisborg is "Jaquayed" Vertically: Each dungeon level feels like a bunch of "Y" shaped sections connect together at their southern arm and at that cluster there is usually a large room. So, when you proceed down one arm and explore it, you'd have to backtrack a fair bit to find a completely "fresh" arm. This is in contrast to the modern design philosophy which uses loops to discourage backtracking. However, what you do find in Tonisborg is the existence of many stairwells, climbable shafts, tunnels, and vents. So at the end of the northern arms of the "Y" are ways to go down or up. In fact, in further contrast to modern dungeon design, each level of Tonisborg contains on average of ~20 vertical connections between levels! Many spanning two floors, but about 1/3 spanning 4-5 floors.

Keying is Sparse: The book includes the original scans of not only the dungeon maps but also the keys that went with them. What jumps out is that each room description is just about one line: monster + treasure. This does not make for initially exciting setups, but the book outlines how to make these rooms more exciting. This makes Tonisborg more akin to Stonehell than other OSR medgadungeons. On the other hand, I think there is some wisdom to the one-line room key. It means the DM can get a megadungeon to the table fast which feels very similar to the advice given by Nick here on "The Two-Week Megadungeon". Too often I think we mistake good publishing advice for what is needed to get a game going, when in fact room + monster/trap/special + treasure (if any) is all that is needed to get going. The sparse key also reminds that reader that play at the table will bring a lot of energy to whatever is there.

Example of Level 10 keying

Room Size is Small But Unimportant?: Looking at the original map scans and monster placement, room dimensions are less important than distance. In several keys, at the end of long hallways are 10 x 10 rooms containing a dragon or 5+ headed hydra. This seems both pretty cramped for something that large and also pretty bland tactically. But something tells me, the rooms might actually be adjusted on the fly and the actual space is a bit more fluid. Distance is what matters because it affects movement and subsequent encounter checks which alters risk assessment by the players.

"Rules to Play With"

The final section of the book covers Zero Edition Dungeoneering (ZED) which for legal reasons is a copy of the play-test document of that game that would become the "OD&D" edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The rules here are extensive covering classes, mechanics, monsters, magic, treasure and dungeon stocking. We get a glimps into a D&D that could have been-- thief still absent. But a little warning that some of this might also be a house-rules influence too.  All my comments below will mainly come from a BX-heavy background with familiarity with OD&D and 2e AD&D. Let me try to hit some highlights:

Abilities: Characters are generated with 2d6+6, but like OD&D several of the bonuses for high values (15-16+) only range about +1 or 10%.

Classes: Halflings drown 90% of the time but have a +3 with bows/slings. Elves gain a forest direction sense and +1 to welding elvish-made weapons but only gain 1d3 HP per level. While dwarves take 1/2 damage from giant creatures.

Fighters have only a 85% chance of using a magic ring, cloak, or item correctly. Cleric can only keep 40% of money received and hording can cause level loss, but can use all weapons & armor. Magic-users can carry iron but it interferes with spell casting: 10% for a small objects, 75% for say chainmail.

Levels: It's interesting that it seems for all classes the XP needed to progress from levels 1-3 is reduced: Fighter 1>2 = 1000 XP, 2-3: 25000. Also, there is a point about level tiers: Veteran, Hero, Superhero, & Lord. These are more important designations because at Hero level you are able to resist fear & panic and the paralyzing aura of ghosts and ghouls. A PC is also considered "fantastic" and hirelings gain a +1 on all rolls when around said PC.

Combat: Two things here. First, the ZED rules allows a PC to make a number of attacks equal to their "fighting capability" against "mundane" opponents (those with < 4 HD). So a level 3 Fighter can make 3 attacks per round again mundane opponents in a 10' area. The similar leveled Cleric only gets 1 and Magic-Users get 2 interestingly.

Second, weapons are classified as long (2H sword or spear), medium (sword), short (dagger). When entering melee, whoever has the longer weapon gets to roll for the attack and damage first. Except in tight spaces like hallways of 10' or less or doorways, there the smaller weapon gets to roll attack and damage first. I think this is far easier than weapon speed and provides an easy demarcation like melee, ranged, and reach weapon designations provide.

Hirelings & Morale: Nothing earth-shattering here, but I like the strong emphasis on hirelings and morale and their role in play. This is a very important and often underused aspect of modern D&D.

1st Level MU Spells: I also find the composition of 1st Level MU spells lists interesting. For ZED edition they are: Charm Person, Dark Sight, Detect Magic, Hold Portal, Light/Darkness, Protection from Evil, Read Scripts, & Sleep. Very few offensive spells save for Charm Person, Light (blinding) and Sleep. But a lot of dungeon navigation.


How do you like the content? I like it a lot, again, because it is a complete package to understanding early play. Its interesting to me from a historical perspective as well as getting a hold on how D&D evolved. But given the effort and time that I feel would be required to make Tonisborg ready for play, I might run something else like Caverns of Thracia or Anomalous Subsurface Environment.

Is it something unique? Yes! Its context-dungeon-rules is only matched by the more recent Silent Titans which also includes the Into The ODD rules as well as a small how to play section. Another similar product is Super Blood Harvest, but even that product lacks discussion of the procedures of play. So Tonisborg really is a very unique product further enhanced by it fossilizes an important period of time-- the year right before D&D is officially published.

Do you like the old/new maps? Yup. Its important to be able to see exactly how dungeons were conceptualized back in 1973. Quite sparsely. But as I said above, there is wisdom here. I feel like the Blackmoor group understood getting something good enough onto the table for play is better than spending time and energy to make something perfect for publication. If we are worried about "plot", players will almost always provide a connection between two unrelated things.

Where does it fit in my gaming collection? Right now, right beside Playing at the World and The Elusive Shift, on top of The Secrets of Blackmoor. However, the book I think does give very good information on how to DM. I think it illustrates how to create a mysterious and engaging mood for the players while keeping to the forefront the game is supposed to be fair and fun. Two other situations: (1) A convention game to provide a unique experience that most people would not otherwise run at their FLAGs or at home; (2)  I would like to grab a group of 3-4 folks roll up characters by the rules in the back and run through the first couple of levels. Again to get a feel and appreciation for the genesis of the hobby.



 There was an interesting question on Twitter about what is the best system for running The Green Knight. say any because at the core of the story is a simple question: Are you honorable? This is a question independent of the math/mechanics of any system and so can be run with any system.

However, I think another interesting question is: If all your players see The Green Knight how would you change the setup? See below suggestions that jumped to mind in ~10 min-- so some better than others

Roll a d10 for an Alternative Green Knight Story
0-1: Roll to actually land the opening blow: Pass play as normal (kinda boring). Fail well play out the consequences of demonstrating lack of character in front of the king and other knights

2-3: After beheading, PC becomes the Green Knight and is seen as monstrous. What must be done? And does PC care to do it?

4-5: Beheaded Green Knight's spirit possesses the king who then rides off. But the bet still stands, meet in a year

6-7: Beheaded Green Knight's spirit possesses PC, can land a beheading blow to anyone else at any time, NOT of the PC's choosing

8-9: Green Knight issues the same challenge, beheading blow lands, severed head now same as the PCs to the horror of everyone else

BONUS CALL OF CTHULHU SETUP: Replace King Arthur & Knights with Kingpin and bootlegger gang. One night at a party a previously killed rival kingpin shows back up and challenges one brave member to a duel. A PC accepts, kills the kingpin again. 

After much nervous laughing, kingpin re-animates (maybe by some leftover green formula of a late Dr. West) passes judgment on PC that shot them and leaves. Touching off the CoC investigation.

CRAWL OF THE WILD II: Super Cleric Bros. Session 8


We return to the cleric campaign! Previously the PCs had negotiated some blue mushrooms for the return of an obedientary's soul.


The map outlines their travel in the very nice Beyond the Borderlands 'zine. It took them two game days to go from the Sea Witch's shell (hex 3,5) to a hex with blue mushrooms (hex 3,1) and back again.

DM Note: This session was interesting for me because there was not really anything that stood out in terms of big moments, but more small little bits each hex. I do think I need to work on refining the procedures that I want for these hexes. The nice thing is that Beyond the Borderlands provides aspects from weather to hunting. But still I need better refine how I present choices to the players.

PCs set off under sunny skies to pick some wild blue mushrooms.

* 3,5: Back through the raided merchant's caravan where they had a prior run-in with a slaad

* 2,3: The PCs meet Herbert the watcher from Stronglaw Keep who they met previously. They got some information about the noble hunting camp. And further strengthened their relationship and support if they go to Stronglaw Keep.

* 2,2: The PCs encounter fields and fields of berry bushes and strange holes. Wary, they decide to move quickly through and consume rations later.

* 3,2: The PCs make it to the hunting grounds of the nobility. No encounters here save for the baying of hounds and the blowing of horns. Again, they decide to keep moving

* 3,1: The clerics find a cave open where they can see the blue mushrooms in the fading light of the afternoon sun. 


The clerics can detect a nauseatingly sweet odor coming from the cave and while they can see them, they will have to at least walk 40-50ft into the interior of the cave.

DM NOTE: So I wasn't just going to let them saunter in, grab the 'shrooms, and leave. So I set the mushrooms back in the cave and made sure they needed to make CON checks to maintain consciousness in the cave. Also rolled for encounters.

The cleric's first plan was to send in their two followers, Dorn or Varoris, to collect the mushrooms. But the followers weren't convinced it was their place to complete this task [DM NOTE: Both failed their morale check; both clerics also have a -1 on that due to CHA scores].

The cleric's second plan is to get Dorn (sailor background) to tie a rope around Brother Cadfael and send him into the cave to fetch mushrooms. The first attempt is somewhat successful, 3/4 of the mushrooms recovered. So, once more into the breach. 

In the second attempt, Brother Cadfael is surprised by a giant wolf-bat who flattens him to the ground and lays on a vicious bite (dmg 6). Screaming out, Brother Phellius and Dorn pull him out of the cave entrance [DM Note: PC HD roll vs. Giant Wolf Bat HD roll].

The giant wolf bat keeps to the cave, afraid of the light. This gives Brother Phellius an idea to light a torch and grab a bottle of lamp oil. A strong initiative roll later, Phellius has driven back the wolf-bat and not completely ruined all the remaining mushrooms.


The return trip to the Sea Witch is less eventful owning to good encounter rolls. The hand over the basket and the witch hands them one infernal iron coin with which 1/6th the man's soul is encased. 

"Wait, why do we only have 1/6th his soul instead of the full third?" asked Brother Cadfael

"Oh, well I used it to make a compass that would point to the owner's true desire, and its powered by a bit of soul to give it reach into the ethereal and astral. A noble from the hunting camp wanted it." Answered the Sea Witch

"And is that noble a narcissist so it only points to himself?" grumped Cadfael.

"Ha! That would be good dear, but poor business." chuckled the Sea Witch

The night closed with Brother Cadfael *promising* to speak well of the Witch and that elicited a "deal" from her lips. She let them once again sleep in her domain.

DM Note: This was a good move by the player because that is what the witch wants, but it will draw mild rebuke from their god.

And that is where I ended the session.