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.