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Monday 16 March 2020

Sample Dungeon Redux

At its heart, the Old School Renaissance is about emulating the style of play of Dungeons & Dragons from forty and more years ago, and about exploring the history of Dungeons & Dragons, so it is always fascinating to see what its adherents will find after ferreting around in the archives. The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is a perfect example of something surprisingly brought back to the attention of the Dungeons & Dragons-playing audience. The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is not a new dungeon, having originally appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, published in 1977, and edited by the late Doctor J. Eric Holmes. What Doctor Holmes did was edit earlier example rooms and develop them into a coherent dungeon design, a ‘starter dungeon’ complete with backstory, context, and reasons for the player characters to venture into its depths. The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is however a new title, it only being known as ‘Sample Dungeon’ in the original appearance in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons book. The Zenopus of the title refers to the doomed wizard who built the dungeon under his now ruined tower.

Designed for a party of First and Second Level adventurers, The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is actually an update from Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but not for use with a retroclone as one might expect, but for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, Basic Rules, which are free to download from the Wizards of the Coast website. This means that it is also compatible with, and could be upgraded to, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and of course, with some effort, could easily be adapted to the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice. The adventure has been updated by Zach Howard, who has experience with titles from this era, notably the 'B1' Series: In Search of the Unknown Campaign Sourcebook which he hosts on his site. One thing that is missing from The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is a map of the dungeon itself. A map of the Portown, the location for the dungeon is included, but not of the dungeon itself. This map is available in the sample excerpt of the 1977 Basic Dungeons & Dragons book which can be downloaded from Wizards of the Coast.

The Ruined Tower of Zenopus takes place just outside of Portown, an important harbour town on the trade routes from the south, situated on a headland. It is notable for the ruined tower of Zenopus, a wizard who disappeared some time ago and who was rumoured to be digging into the ruins of the ancient city upon which Portown is built. It is now home to another wizard known as the Thaumaturgist. Portown and its environs are nicely mapped out to fit the extent of the dungeons below the headland whilst still allowing some room for the Dungeon Master to add her own content.

The dungeon itself consists of twenty or so locations, running from ‘A’ to ‘S’. The design of the dungeon is one of discrete locations separated by long corridors and empty rooms, so adhering to the design ethos that there should be plenty of empty rooms. The various locations include some classics, such as the room with four doors and a statue which must be rotated to face a door before it can be opened; a cave of smugglers going about their business; and a high vaulted room, its ceiling smothered in spider’s web. Now by modern standards, the design of the dungeon is basic, even a cliché, but remember this is a dungeon from 1977, from the very start of the hobby. And just because they are clichés or classics, it does not mean that they do not work.

The author though, does not simply update ‘Sample Dungeon’ to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. He also offers options to make the dungeon more challenging and adds a slew of monsters and magical items. The former include the Cleaning Cube—a lesser form of the Gelatinous Cube, the Veteran Smuggler, the aforementioned Thaumaturgist, Monstrous Rat, and Monstrous Sand Crab, whilst the latter includes the  Brazen Head of Zenopus, Verminslayer Longsword, Lesser Wand of Petrification, and Scroll of Stone to Flesh.

The providence of The Ruined Tower of Zenopus means that it is interesting enough, but the author does even more to make the scenario interesting through a quintet of appendices. The first of these suggests some of the fiction—weird and otherwise—which might have inspired the original author, Doctor J. Eric Holmes, in the design of ‘Sample Dungeon’, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring for the inclusion of the Green Dragon Inn in Portown, Robert E. Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant for the Giant Spider in the cobweb filled Spider’s Parlour, and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for having a strange wizard dwelling near the town. The second develops the occupants of the dungeon's discrete areas into factions, giving them stronger motivations to help the Dungeon Master roleplay their actions, whilst the third gives twenty rumours and then expands upon each and every rumour to great effect. Here the author provides hooks, both false and true, with suggestions as to how to use them, to involve the characters in events in and below Portown.

The penultimate appendix expands upon the place of Portown and thus The Ruined Tower of Zenopus in the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition campaign, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, itself based on the U Series of scenarios for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition which began with U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The dungeon at least is mentioned as a possible adventure site, but not expanded upon. The Ruined Tower of Zenopus does that, suggesting how the scenario would work in and around Saltmarsh. This is very well thought out section and if a Dungeon Master has not yet run Ghosts of Saltmarsh, this is a really good addition to the start of the campaign. The last appendix contains four pre-generated characters. These have been created using the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, Basic Rules, and so include a Cleric, a Fighter, a Magic-User, and a Rogue. They are decent enough, but they are all Human, rather offering a more diverse set of options.

Physically, The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is 1.83 MB, eighteen page, full-colour PDF. The layout is neat, clean, and tidy. It is perhaps a little oddly presented, in that the town and dungeon come first before the hooks that would get the player characters involved, but that makes sense in that they are an addition to the original rather than what included then.

By modern standards The Ruined Tower of Zenopus feels a little too basic and underdeveloped, so initially it comes across as something of a quaint artefact. Which is not to say that it is a poor dungeon design, but rather that tastes and gaming mores have changed. Of course, there is nothing to stop a Dungeon Master running as is, but the author has provided the means to make something more of it, whether that is the use of the rumours to provide flavour and motivation or developing its place as part of Ghosts of Saltmarsh. It also means that the Dungeon Master could run The Ruined Tower of Zenopus as a Old School Renaissance style dungeon and adventure for a group which is familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition or for a group which prefers Old School Renaissance style play who want to try Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. So what you have in The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is a simple dungeon whose update empowers it with a lot of flexibility, but not just that, you also have a fascinating exploration of an early , ‘Sample Dungeon’.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for the thoughtful review!

    Regarding the B1 Sourcebook, I'm hosting that on my site but didn't contribute to it. I did contribute an essay to a follow-up covering module B4: "The Lost City Campaign Sourcebook".