D&D Classics

We start our adventure drinking at an inn (as is so often the case), before proceeding to the ruins of a tower spanning the earliest editions of the game!

by Bart Carroll


COLOR ME ADVENTUROUS

As part of our Stay at Home, Play at Home material (available for free online), we’ve been including pages from the 1979 AD&D Coloring Album. I had a copy of this myself as a kid, easily my favorite coloring book of all time growing up.

The artwork came from Greg Irons (who also worked on Yellow Submarine), featuring brilliantly detailed creatures pulled straight from the first edition Monster Manual. I took great pleasure bringing these creatures to vivid 64-color life… which also meant I could now stop coloring in the B&W illustrations of my Monster Manual.

The pages also told a sequential story, with accompanying text written in a maturity of language which felt beyond that of a mere coloring book. For example, the story opens with a party of adventures seated at a tavern, “quaffing amber ale and charting their course to wealth beyond belief.” Since “quaff” was not on my fifth-grade vocabulary list, and there were no amber crayons in the box, I had to muddle through some of these details on my own.

The bottom of each page also featured rules for a mini-game, with a dungeon map included in the middle of the coloring album. Admittedly, I never attempted to play the mini-game, but the map always intrigued me—and this issue we look back at how its dungeon connects with the earliest Starter Sets of Dungeons & Dragons and how it can still be played today!

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THE GREEN DRAGON INN        

The first illustration in the AD&D Coloring Album showcases a party of adventurers at the Green Dragon, described as a “busy inn in a town on the shores of the Lake of Unknown Depths.” As a party, they’re depicted like a sports team not yet dressed for the big game—they’re still in street clothes and haven’t donned their armor, studying a treasure map as if going through their playbook one final time. As for their lineup, we’re told they’re composed of a pair of halfling thieves, a pair of dwarven fighters, a human cleric, human ranger, elven fighter/thief, and two lesser warriors (rookies, perhaps), planning an expedition to a ruined castle keep—Castle Greyhawk itself, quite possibly.

The inn they’re meeting at also has an entrenched history. Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk (which we peeked at in our previous issue) detailed the Green Dragon, located in the river quarter along a street crowded with rivermen, cut-throats, and thieves. Adventurers such as these are said to favor the inn as a font of information that includes strange happenings in the city, unexplored tombs, and rumors about lost levels of Castle Greyhawk:

“At night the two-story stone building comes alive with activity, the sound of boisterous laughs and the sight of flickering windows attracting custom from all quarters of the city. Most of the shabby clientele are locals, Dockway bully-boys or bargefolk looking for cheap drinks and good atmosphere. The Dragon provides the latter in quantity, for its proprietor does little to quell light violence and overtly encourages enthusiastic drinking and carousing. Weapons and armor are allowed (and a wise precaution). It’s a dangerous place but a friendly one, as long as no one harms the staff.”

For further detail, we’ve included this excerpt from Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk:

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Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk can be found at the DMs Guild in PDF form for $14.99. The good people of Greyhawk need you. What are you waiting for?

 


TOWER OF ZENOPUS

If the dungeon map in the AD&D Coloring Album looks familiar, there’s good reason. While the adventurers in the album’s story are heading to the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, the album’s mini-game concerns a much different location—one modified from the sample dungeon that appeared in the 1977 Basic Set.

Often referred to as the Tower of Zenopus (named after the sorcerer who built the place), a great deal of information can be found at the Zenopus Archives. We spoke with the blog’s creator, Zach Howard, about this dungeon, its origins, and his own fifth edition conversion: The Ruined Tower of Zenopus.

How did you first get started with D&D as a hobby?

Zach Howard: It was the early ’80s and I was a kid who was already into myths, wizards, and dragons, so Dungeons & Dragons immediately grabbed me when I saw it in ads and stores. After asking for a while, I finally got the original Basic Set (now usually called Holmes Basic after its editor, J. Eric Holmes) as a birthday present in 1982. Somehow my parents ended up with that set even though it was after the release of the next version.

My copy of Holmes Basic was the edition with the infamous chits in place of dice (due to a shortage), and the classic module B2: Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax. I loved the spells, monsters, and magic items, but found the rules for actually playing inscrutable until I met new neighbors who also had the same set. Then over the course of a year, I accumulated all of the AD&D hardcovers and played throughout the ’80s, although the system I ran was really AD&D-lite influenced by my early experiences with Basic.

What led to the creation of the Zenopus Archives?

By the ’90s I had stopped playing D&D regularly, but Holmes Basic kept drawing me back. After I got online in the mid-’90s I ordered a new copy of Holmes’ rulebook because my original was missing part of the sample dungeon, which is known colloquially as the Tower of Zenopus. A few years later I learned that Holmes had written D&D-derived fiction, including several short stories for Dragon magazine and a novel, The Maze of Peril (1986), all featuring the duo of Boinger the halfling and Zereth the elf. I noticed that The Tower of Zenopus and The Maze of Peril shared common elements, leading to a review of the novel and a bibliography of Holmes’ works, which were my first writings related to Holmes Basic. I grew interested in how Holmes, a professor of neurology and an outsider to TSR, came to be involved in editing the Basic Rules.

I returned fully to the hobby about ten years ago by joining a local old-school D&D group that I am still a part of. With this came an interest in examining the earliest rules for playing D&D, particularly Holmes Basic and its parent, the original Dungeons & Dragons rules from 1974. I enjoy sharing everything that I learn, which spurred me to start the Zenopus Archives blog in 2011.

What’s it been like running the original Tower of Zenopus yourself?

I love running The Tower of Zenopus! Several years ago I used it to start an ongoing campaign for my kids and their cousins, and just a few months ago had a great time running it as a one-off for a wargaming group I belong to, the Second Saturday Scrum Club. At this point I could DM the adventure from memory, but it always unfolds differently thanks to its circular design.

I’ve also written a sequel version set forty years later, with Boinger, Zereth and company as pre-generated characters, which I’ve run at conventions such as Gary Con and Scrum Con. J. Eric Holmes’ son Chris even played the first time I ran it, at the North Texas RPG Con, which was amazing because Boinger and Zereth were originally his characters!

What was your process for converting the original module to create your fifth edition version The Ruined Tower of Zenopus? Were there elements you knew you wanted to keep, modify, or jettison?

I wanted to keep it as true to Holmes’ design as possible so I kept all of the encounters from the original, either using equivalent monsters from the current edition or creating new ones. Also, in the spirit of the original, I challenged myself to stick with content available in the current D&D Basic Rules as much as possible.

Treasure was converted by reducing the value, as the original relied on gold for XP, which necessitated a lot of valuable treasures. I also reduced the magic items as the original gave out more items at low levels. I added optional expansions or twists for a number of rooms, some of which were hinted at by Holmes. A friend from my local RPG group, Scott McKinley, served as editor and helped greatly by carefully checking my current edition rule conversions.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh features adventures set in and around the town of Saltmarsh— effectively a synonymous locale for Tower of Zenopus’s Portown. Ghosts of Saltmarsh even references Zenopus’s tower as a nearby point of interest. How did you look to integrate The Ruined Tower of Zenopus and Ghosts of Saltmarsh?

Ghosts of Saltmarsh teases the Tower of Zenopus as an adventure site, describing its background but not the dungeon itself, so I included notes for using the converted original as this site. In developing these notes I relied on the excellent write-up of the town of Saltmarsh, which details several factions vying for control.

Ghosts ties the Tower of Zenopus to one of the NPCs in town, so naturally I kept that connection. I then figured out how to tie the NPCs from the original dungeon back to the factions, and how exploration of the dungeon by the adventurers might impact or bring about the possible events provided for each faction.

The Ruined Tower of Zenopus lists related readings. Can you recommend any other media that further inspired your gaming or might help set the stage for those playing through the adventure?

The list for further reading in the adventure draws on the “weird fiction” that Holmes was a lifelong fan of, including authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Beyond that I would of course recommend Holmes’ own fantasy fiction about Boinger and Zereth, which in 2017 was collected and republished as Tales of Peril by Black Blade Publishing. I contributed a bibliography and an article about Holmes’ writings to Tales of Peril. These stories draw on his earliest D&D games with his sons and are a great way to get a feel for his style of adventure. For films, I’d recommend any with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, in particular Mysterious Island (1961), which features several giant animals similar to those lurking in the Zenopus dungeon.

Our thanks to Zach Howard for his time talking through the adventure! As noted, Ghosts of Saltmarsh references the Tower of Zenopus; as an added bonus, we’ve included this excerpt from the book:
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The following background on the dungeon has been purposed from the Basic Set:

One hundred years ago, the sorcerer Zenopus built a tower on the low hills overlooking Portown. The tower was close to the sea cliff west of the town and, appropriately, next door to the graveyard. Rumor has it that the magician created extensive cellars and tunnels beneath the tower. The town is located on the ruins of a much older city of doubtful history and it was rumored Zenopus would excavate his cellars in search of ancient treasures.

Fifty years ago, on a cold wintry night, the wizard’s tower was suddenly engulfed in green flame. Several of his servants escaped, saying their master had been destroyed by some powerful force he had unleashed in the depths of the tower. After years of reported hauntings, the authorities finally rolled a catapult through the streets of the town and the tower was battered to rubble. This stopped the hauntings, but the townsfolk continue to shun the ruins.

The entrance to the old dungeon can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness, but the few adventurous souls who have descended into the crypts below have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all. Whispered tales are told of fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters in the underground passages below the hilltop, and the storytellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the older, pre­human city, to the graveyard, and to the sea.

Portown is a small but busy city linking the caravan routes from the south to the merchant ships that dare the pirate-infested waters of the Northern Sea. Humans and non-humans from all over the globe meet here. And here, at the Green Dragon inn, adventurers gather for an assault on the fabulous passages beneath the ruined tower…

 

The Ruined Tower of Zenopus can be found at the DMs Guild in PDF form for $1.99. A scenario for 1st to 2nd level characters, it also includes notes on how to use it as an adventure site in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Ghosts of Saltmarsh is available now at your local game store, book stores such as Barnes & NobleD&D BeyondRoll20Fantasy Grounds, and Steam.