Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XVII)

And so at last we come to Holmes's famed sample dungeon -- The Tower of Zenopus. More fully fleshed out than either the sample level in Volume 3 of OD&D or the Haunted Keep of Moldvay Basic, the Tower comes with several paragraphs of background that situate it within a larger world. Nearby is Portown, "a small but busy city linking the caravan routes from the south the merchant ships that dare the pirate-infested waters of the Northern Sea." Portown is also home to the Green Dragon Inn, which features in both Middle-earth's Bywater and Oerth's City of Greyhawk. I sometimes wonder if it's a requirement that there be an inn with this name in all fantasy worlds. There isn't yet one in my Dwimmermount campaign, but perhaps I need to rectify that.

Before providing a sample map -- or "floor plan," as Holmes calls it -- of one level of the Tower, Holmes briefly talks about the employment of "men-at-arms." Interestingly, he suggests they be employed primarily when only one character is attempting to explore the dungeon. This isn't evidence one way or the other regarding the decline of hirelings as an element of game play, but it is interesting. Remember that in Holmes's various articles elsewhere, including in his novel, The Maze of Peril, hirelings play important roles. Still, I thought it worth noting.

Holmes's map, as you can see, doesn't use numbers for its key but letters, which, while not unique to Holmes, is still unusual. Though his map is simple, it's not a linear design, with many viable paths of exploration. There's also an underground river and sea cave, two elements that I frequently use in my own dungeon designs. Until I looked again at this map I hadn't realized how much of an influence it had exerted over me all these years later.

The room descriptions in Holmes are lengthy, partially because he describes their contents in greater detail, but also because he often includes game rules in the descriptions. For example, Room B houses four skeletons and Holmes takes time to note that "A first level cleric must roll a 7 or more on two 6-sided dice to turn them away and then make a second roll to see how many are turned away." He clearly intended this section to serve as both a tutorial for dungeon design and a refresher course for the rules he'd already presented.

Rather than go through each room in detail, I'm instead going to offer a few impressions based on what sticks out most in reading through the map key:
  • Holmes is inconsistent as to whether he includes hit points in his monster descriptions, sometimes going so far as to suggest hit points should be rolled up on the spot.
  • He includes cursory morale rules in one entry, suggesting that goblins will run away or surrender if more than half their number is killed.
  • A 4th-level evil magic-user and his 2nd-level fighting man henchmen note that the MU has better saves than a 3rd-level one (by +1).
  • Holmes includes some basic rules for swimming, drowning, and wearing armor in water.
  • There's a clever little magic mask that will answer a single question put to it once a day. This is another element of this dungeon I've used again and again over the years.
  • There are rules for adjudicating knock-down.
  • There's even a "princess" to be rescued, Lemunda the Lovely, as well as an octopus, which is quite nasty, having 16 hit points and 6 attacks per round.
  • The sarcophagus room is a nice companion piece to Mike Carr's pool room from Module B1, with many sarcophagi, some of which contain treasure and others monsters.
  • The Tower of Zenopus seems to have several entrances in and out, including one in a nearby cemetery.
  • In the magician's tower, there's a cage ape that, if released, may turn on his evil master rather than attack the PCs.
  • Holmes also includes a new magic item, the wand of petrifaction, in the dungeon.
And with that, the Blue Book more or less ends. There's a brief section explaining how to use dice and read D&D's peculiar dice notation. There's also an even shorter biography of Dr. Holmes, followed by two pages of reference charts and tables. I used those tables for years after the fact, even when I was playing AD&D, because they were perforated and included everything I needed to play at levels 1-3.

Having now completed this examination of the Holmes-edited Basic Rules, I'll offer a few comments.

First, I think it's true beyond a shadow of any doubt that the Blue Book should be considered part of the OD&D family rather than a precursor to AD&D. Its AD&D connections are few and clumsy and there are enough rules differences between the two games that I don't think the Blue Book would serve as a particularly good introduction to AD&D. As an intro to OD&D, however, it's excellent, especially if one comes to it with a hobbyist mentality rather than expecting a "complete" game without the need to make the game one's own.

Second, I also think it's true that the Blue Book is probably one of the last major products published by TSR that strongly reflected a hobbyist philosophy and esthetic. That is, the Blue Book is not a "professional" product but rather the product of a talented and creative amateur sharing his love of the game with other talented and creative amateurs. It's an artifact from another time and it's little wonder to me that TSR would seek to replace it with something more "polished" in years to come.

Finally, on a personal level, it's been fascinating re-reading in depth a book that was my first introduction to the hobby. I'm amazed at how much is in Holmes that I've carried with me for three decades. I'm equally amazed at how many things I thought were in Holmes that aren't but were instead likely misinterpretations of passages in the Blue Book or house rules I adopted early and misremembered as stemming from it. I won't make the claim that the Blue Book is "the best" D&D Basic Rules ever written, because that's a very subjective claim. However, I will say that I am very glad it was my first rulebook and I wish there were one like it available today. Dr. Holmes was a great teacher and I consider myself fortunate to have learned from him.


  1. Nice writeup!

    For many of us, the Tower of Zenopus was the first example of a dungeon we had ever seen, and it influenced us greatly (the second for me was B1, so I was forever cursed to have every one of my personal dungeons resemble an amalgamation of both of these). I agree this is more OD&D than AD&D, and for someone who purchased both the Holmes boxed set and the AD&D PHB the same week, it was easy to see where we dubbed Holmes "kiddie D&D) and went straight to the "meat".

    Even as teenagers we were really puzzled by Holmes because despite references to further adventuring it was very plain to all of us that the blue book was in no way shape or form an intro to AD&D.

    Since then, however, I've learned to appreciate Holmes on it's own merits. You don't need much more than the blue book, dice, graph paper, pencils and some buddies to get started.

  2. great cover to cover of a great book. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts.

    You said "I wish there were one like it available today."

    To me, the appeal of Swords & Wizardry is that it does feel very much like this.

  3. Swords & Wizardry is excellent, I agree, but, leaving aside my own particular issues with its mechanical choices, I find it somehow lacking in flavor compared to Holmes. I realize that's entirely subjective, but there's something about Holmes's authorial voice that adds an indefinable something I don't see in S&W. But, as I said, that's just me.

  4. "that's just me."

    No, I see your point. S&W language is very utilitarian and terse (a strength btw). I've been rereading the original DMG just because the 'flavor' is so enjoyable. And not long ago I tracked down Dr. Holmes' "Fantasy Role Playing Games" book just to read it because I like his author voice so much.

  5. Thanks for the Cover to Cover Blue Book Project. Holmes has influenced my entire view of D&D. His Tower of Zenopus has always been one of my favorite dungeons and I've run it (and it ongoing repercussions) in my current Swords & Wizardry campaign for almost a year now.

    Truly a classic!

  6. I always liked the content of the Tower of Zenopus but could never stand the map, mostly because of how big so many of the rooms are -- especially room A which at 10'/sq. is 100' x 120' (and even at 5'/sq. is 50' x 60') and IIRC is inhabited by something like 6 goblins (who could easily fit in a 10' x 20' room). The other rooms aren't quite as egregious (especially if 5'/sq. scale is assumed), but are still a lot bigger and more spread out than they need to be. Perhaps I should add re-drawing this map to my long list of "someday" D&D-related projects...

  7. I'm slightly weirded out that everyone's calling the Sample Dungeon "The Tower of Zenopus" when it's never actually called by that name in the book, right? The tower itself was "battered to rubble" some time ago.

    With the hit points, I'm still in the same general mode: specify hit points for a solo NPC, but roll on the fly for a large group of the same type. From a statistical perspective, you don't want the standard deviation to allow the one "boss" monster to come up very weak for your PCs; but for a large group a large number of rolls will average towards the mean anyway (central limit theorem) -- thus both (a) less need, and (b) more saved space to skip it for a larger group.

    (As a side note I also hate the old HP listings in descending order, because then you need some randomization procedure to see which PC faces off against which one.)

    My summary of Holmes basic would be this: It clearly comes from OD&D. It clearly points towards AD&D. I do wish it had instead pointed towards/referenced/described OD&D instead. I went far too long not knowing what that meant, exactly.

  8. I'm slightly weirded out that everyone's calling the Sample Dungeon "The Tower of Zenopus" when it's never actually called by that name in the book, right? The tower itself was "battered to rubble" some time ago.

    You are quite correct, but, for good or ill, the name "Tower of Zenopus" has stuck and I've continued to use even though there's no warrant for the name in the text.

  9. Re: Question mask

    There's a creature in Talislanta called a Sardonicus, or Bottle Imp, that is forced to answer three questions a day, but if it is asked four the bonds that hold it will break and it will escape. They're probably the most interesting 1E Tal monster, seeing as how there's a short story in the Sorceror's Guide that featured one and demonstrated how a powerful wizard could put it to use.

  10. Huh. Never heard that before now.

  11. Unfortunately, I started the game with Moldvay's D&D Basic Set, so I can't really discuss about Holme's game, having never played it.

    Anyway, I still feel a strong nostalgia for that game, mainly because the very first time I read about those strange "role playing games", the text was illustrated by the now classical "blue cover".

    So Holme's Basic set IS (and will ever be) D&D to me.

    Still, I cannnot understand the "daggers strike twice per round" thing. :)

    In my first D&D campaign, our DM used that rule. Now I know where it came from.

    Unsurprisingly, we had every character equipped with knives instead of maces, swords or spears :)

    That remains a major problem with those rules...

  12. Excellent access - now we just need to have you analyze Moldvay and Mentzer in the same manner

  13. Interestingly, Holmes' Fantasy Role Playing Games book had a much bigger influence on me then his basic set (which was my intro to D&D, but was returned in disgust for reasons stated elsewhere). The book covered the entire hobby including miniatures and an overview of many of the most popular non D&D rpgs. Thanks to this, I developed an early interest in more than just D&D for my rpg fix.

  14. I sometimes wonder if it's a requirement that there be an inn with this name in all fantasy worlds.

    Well of course there is. Haven't you wondered what the sign of the Inn Between the Worlds looks like?

  15. Excellent write-up. It has been a pleasure leafing through these old pages with you.

  16. Evernevermore,

    I believe there's at least one in-depth series examining Moldvay's Basic Rules already, so, rather than duplicate someone else's effort, I'll probably find something else to look at in the near future.

  17. I believe the "bronze mask" in Room I is a version of the medieval Brazen Head.

    "A Brazen Head (or Brass Head or Bronze Head) was a prophetic device attributed to many medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any question. It was always in the form of a man's head, and it could correctly answer any question asked of it. However, depending on the story, it could be cast in brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and it could answer freely or it could be restricted to "yes" or "no" answers."

  18. The "Tower of Zenopus" seems to be the most popular name for the Sample Dungeon (though I've seen it referred to as Zenopus' Basement, the Cellars of Zenopus, etc). Someone on the Acaeum recently commented that the TLG Castle Zagyg was disappointing because there was no castle, and someone else pointed out that Castle Greyhawk, despite the name, was always conceived as just ruins and the dungeons beneath. In this context the "Tower of Zenopus" is quite appropriate for the dungeons below the ruined tower.