Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Retrospective: Snakepipe Hollow

The modern roleplaying game was born in the dungeon and the earliest RPG campaigns revolved around exploring them. 

For those of us interested in the history of the hobby, it's therefore something of a tragedy that none of those "tent pole" dungeons, like Castles Blackmoor or Greyhawk, ever properly saw print. Instead, what we got were smaller, more focused dungeons intended for limited use (which makes sense, since, in most cases, they originated in the nascent tournament scene). While many of these published dungeons are excellent and indeed iconic, very few of them are suitable for long-term play, particularly when compared to the founding dungeons of the hobby.

I mention all of this because I've lately been doing a deep dive into the early years of Chaosium's RuneQuest, with an eye toward trying to put my finger on why I much prefer its portrayal of Glorantha to that of contemporary RQ. An important piece of that puzzle lies in Snakepipe Hollow, a collection of adventures written by Greg Stafford and Rudy Kraft and first published in 1979. Its title refers to a region of Dragon Pass that's home to the three levels of the Caves of Chaos (no, not those Caves of Chaos, even though they also first appeared in 1979), inhabited by all manner of inimical beings, such as ogres, scorpion men, and broos, among many more.

At the start of the book, Greg Stafford pens a remarkable introduction, in which he explains the origins and purpose of both Snakepipe Hollow the product and Snakepipe Hollow the place within Glorantha. For that reason, I'm going to reproduce it in full here:

This scenario pack provides a setting, motivation, and cast of friendly and hostile characters for the referee needing or desiring to construct a RuneQuest adventure on short notice, or for the readers interested in Dragon Pass as a place for active fantasy.

This book presents a unique section of Dragon Pass geography in some detail. This form presents this material in the same way as we prepared and ran it in our own campaign; we believe it will fit well into many different FRP campaigns.

There are several scenario suggestions, including appropriate NPC (non-player character) stats, which offer opportunities for people to enter this wild and dangerous region. These may take them to a part or all of the sections here. Referees are urged to make up their own as well.

The scenarios are not specifically designed for any number or quality of player characters. However, due to the nature of the region, we suggest that there be a good healthy mix of types, with parties numbering six to ten player characters with NPCs tossed in to provide play balance where necessary.

This pack is designed for repeated play. It contains one wilderness and three interior maps, almost 200 monster stats and over 25,000 words of description presented in a modular and flexible format.


There are two points that stand out to me. First, Stafford states clearly that the material in Snakepipe Hollow derives from his home campaign and that it's presented "in the same way as we prepared and ran it." I take that to mean that it's not been notably altered from what he used with his own players. Second, he emphasizes that "this pack is designed for repeated play." Thus, this is not a one-and-done product, but instead something that's able to hold the players' attentions for an extended period of time. 

Viewed from a certain perspective, Snakepipe Hollow starts to sound, to me at any rate, as if it's another example of an early tent pole dungeon. I won't go so far as to call it a megadungeon, since there are fewer than 60 keyed locations within the Caves of Chaos. Further, I don't believe that a dungeon need be "mega" in extent to qualify as a long-term campaign focus, but that's a topic for another post. Nevertheless, I think a reasonably good case could be made that Snakepipe Hollow possesses the level of depth and complexity needed to occupy the center of an entire campaign, especially when one remembers that the Caves of Chaos sit within a larger wilderness area that is every bit as treacherous – and rewarding – as they are. 

If I could refer to Stafford's introduction just one more time, I'd like to note that he calls Snakepipe Hollow a "scenario pack." That's yet another bit of evidence in support of the idea that the Caves of Chaos and the area around it was imagined not just "as a place for active fantasy" – what an evocative turn of phrase! – but as the focus of weeks or months of regular play. In addition to keys for the wilderness and the Caves, Snakepipe Hollow presents multiple potential NPC patrons, groups, rumors, and "help wanted" notices, all of which provide the player characters with reasons for venturing into the Hollow beyond mere treasure hunting. This is not just useful; it's vital, since it'll help frame the characters' expeditions within the context of the larger world, which is exactly what's needed to keep a campaign humming along indefinitely.

Since I was never a player of RuneQuest back in my youth, Snakepipe Hollow is, frankly, revelatory in the way it suggests that the hobby's early emphasis on tent pole dungeons was still alive and well, even in California. More significant still is that the Caves of Chaos and their surrounds may be one of the few published examples of those early campaign dungeons. If so, I think Snakepipe Hollow needs to be more widely known and studied than it seems to be. I know I'll be spending a lot more time with it in the weeks to come.


  1. James, you're onto a subject near and dear to my heart, and I'll be interested to see what you have to say about early RQ in subsequent posts. One thing I find interesting about Snakepipe Hollow is how it approaches published adventure quite differently than TSR's modules of the same period. As you point out, Snakepipe Hollow arises from campaign play; it's designed to give PCs something to come back to multiple times, and the possible missions they can undertake can lead to interactions that take them beyond the Caves. Conversely, modules like the G-series that arise from tournament play unsurprisingly have a narrow focus and will not be revisited. I've long felt that TSR's reliance on tournament scenarios for their modules had a bad effect on adventure design for D&D, and I much prefer Chaosium's approach.

  2. The Chaosium almost always provided Adventure "Areas" to play in and not just a "one and done" module like so many TSR products. whether something small such as Apple Lane, or something enormous such as The Big Rubble, I think the RQ products took an approach more similar to Judges Guild Wilderlands than what TSR would end up doing.

  3. The thing that stands out to me is that it shows a "tent pole" area doesn't need to be some colossal sprawling megadungeon to work, nor does it need to be gentle about how it handles PCs fresh out of character generation. A good part of the considerable play value to Snakepipe Hollow stems from how dangerous it is despite "only" being three levels deep. Even a party full of Rune Lords and Masters couldn't reasonably expect to clear the place in a single expedition, and the place is so Chaos tainted that it will steadily draw in (or spontaneously generate) more occupants over time. There are other things to do in the region, but delving into the Hollow itself is an excellent way to learn caution, resource management and when it's time to retreat to safety.

  4. Apologies if this is a diversion, but I found this quote interesting, "However, due to the nature of the region, we suggest that there be a good healthy mix of types, with parties numbering six to ten player characters with NPCs tossed in to provide play balance where necessary."

    Question is how do you as a GM handle NPCs that you may need to include in a party to give the PCs support? Do you let the PCs direct them, or do you do it? If you do it, do you interject to help the PCs out?

    1. It depends a bit on the system, but personally I usually run NPC allies myself, and don't fuss myself about building them like full characters if I don't have to. In RQ I'd be content with detailing five-eight skills (combat and otherwise) that I expect them to be using regularly, their gear, and what magic they have access to, along with a hit location sheet that shows their HP and armor and lets me track their MP usage, along with a quick bit on their personality and goals (which might not wholly align with the PCs). Everything else is indeterminate until it comes up during play. They might "grow" a skill or spell or small piece of gear if called upon, but usually they'll shrug and say they can't help - the PCs should be doing the work in the spotlight while NPCs provide warm bodies to even up the odds or missing support abilities.

      RQ is one of the more complex systems even when doing a short-form character and I wouldn't want to do more than two-three NPCs like that. Other systems (particularly ones with rules for super low-detail "minion" NPCs) are easier to work with and I can handle more NPCs there.

  5. When comparing the style and structure of early modules, and what influences what, the date of publication is critical. I published a complete timeline of D&D scenarios in the 70s ( but I haven't covered Runequest, and there's a big cross-over with D&D. I can't find mentions of Snakepipe Hollow earlier than adverts for it in White Dwarf #17 in Feb 1980 (incidentally Keep on the Borderlands actually appeared in 1980, as per the copyright notice - 1979 was an error that keeps getting perpetuated), so I think it is later than (and influenced by) several other key modules.
    The innovation in scenarios in '78 was to have more in depth naturalistic modules (notably G1-3), whereas by '79 scenarios were expanding from this to be mini-campaigns. There was a prototype of this mini-campaign style with very early Judges Guild Wilderlands material, such as Thunderhold & Sunstone Caverns (though minimal-keyed). At the start of '79 it became more common to include a base village with a scenario (e.g. Dark Tower May 1979 and Village of Hommlet August 79). In October '79 from Judges Guild you get Verbosh by Bill Faust & Paul Nevins, which is a full-on mini campaign, and Broken Tree Inn by Rudy Kraft which is a Runequest mini-campaign of related adventures. (Rudy later wrote D&D adventures for JG as well as lots of Runeuqest for Judges Guild & Chaosium). So it appears to me that this style originates with Judges Guild, Chaosium seem to pick up this style and run with it, in particular through Jaquays and Kraft who were pioneering this style, whereas TSR doesn't.

    1. It turns out Snakepipe Hollow was originally advertised in The Dungeoneer #12 (July 1979) as coming this summer, but at that point it contained Broken Tree Inn - so the similarity in style is not coincidental. Hence the comment at the start of Broken Tree Inn from Rudy thanking Greg Stafford "For Sending The Broken Tree Inn Back When You Did". So the cross over between the two ran deeper than I thought!

    2. Wyrm's Footnotes #7 (late summer/early fall 1979) lists Snakepipe Hollow as published, and also includes a brief explanation of why Broken Tree Inn isn't in it. Since they say that this is a response to questions they got, it seems that Snakepipe Hollow was available for purchase before the end of 1979.

    3. Thanks for that John, I'd forgotten to look through Wyrm's Footnotes. It appears as though just the actual inn itself was supposed to be in SPH but presumably not the rest, and as its possible publication is talked about in the future tense in WF7 I guess that means SPH was published prior to BTI in October 79.

  6. This is an awesome module, sadly I have not run it since 1980 or so, somehow while I start most of my campaigns in Sartar, usually with Rainbow Mounds from Apple Lane, I never seem to get around to hooking the players into Snake Pipe Hollow.

    Yea, Broken Tree Inn was originally written to be in the Stinking Forest. Someday I need to look over it and figure out what changes it needs to be properly hooked back into Snake Pipe Hollow because as a standalone adventure it falls flat. But as a possible friendly base close to Snake Pipe Hollow it could have a lot more potential.

    The expansive nature of RQ modules actually makes it hard to use them all... :-( Griffon Mountain is a whole campaign. Pavis/Big Rubble is a whole campaign. Borderlands is a whole campaign. As you point out, Snake Pipe Hollow could anchor a whole campaign (I ever thought about it that way before, but you're right, there's a lot to do in the area, and repeated chaos goings on will keep things going). Dorastor is a whole campaign. Even Apple Lane offers the possibility of sustaining a "campaign arc."

  7. Snake Pipe Hollow is a great dungeon and saw a lot of action in my long-running original-edition RQ campaign. But I will say any experienced group will eventually strip the place back to the wall studs, and then you are basically done with it. If I could go back in time and whisper in the author's ear, I'd tell him to make it three times as big, with sections that are much tougher.

  8. Snake Pipe Hollow deserves a lot of praise for its organization. The various room features each get their own paragraph, presented in a logical order - starting with die rolls, first impressions, ending with treasure and miscellaneous notes. Even Jaquays praised the presentation in Hellpits of Nightfang, and used a similar method in Quack Keep. It's a shame that even after more than four decades most modules don't even get close to Snake Pipe Hollow's structure in useability.

  9. I've just bought the pdf of this last night as well as the Bushido RPG. I fancied something to read in the dark nights and dreich days.

    I already dipped into this last night and was astonished and excited about the presentation. It certainly looks good.