Tonisborg Convention Play and Dungeon Lethality

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: ,

 I had the pleasure of running Greg Svensons Tonisborg dungeon using the ZED rules at two conventions this year, and the results were interesting.

Tonisborg is a place not a challenge, so it is up to the DM to decide what, if any, scenario might be in play involving the player characters.  I chose to create an object centered adventure.  In other words, I wanted the players to chase after a specific Mcguffin instead of simply being loot hungry dungeon robbers or some such. 

Tonisborg provides ample opportunity for crafting scenarios because there are so many factions and so many curious inhabitants that must have a story behind thejr presence.

Partly because Tonisborg can be so deadly, and partly because it seems that high level play in 3llb style D&D is so rarely experienced.  I decided to go with 8-12 level characters, and further spiced the fun by handing out character sheets of original players.  For example, someone was playing Lord Oberstar, king of the dwarves.

For this adventure I picked an unnamed Lord and his small retinue found on level seven, and christened him Lord Kervall.  "Kervall" is a name that shows up in one of the MMRPG adventures as a minor noble family of Blackmoor, and I like Easter eggs.

So Kervall and his fours sons (the unnamed fighters with the unnamed lord) are in the dungeon. I decide, because the Kervall family has fallen out of disfavor with the King and Lord Kervall thinks if he finds the legendary crowns his star will rise.  

They have been gone 6 months when Lord Kervall sends a messenger to lady Kervall with partial dungeon maps and instructions to send reinforcements.  Long story short, she hires the party to bring him home instead.   

The first game took place at the Schenectady Wargaming Associations annual "Council Con" at the excellent Proctors Theater venue in downtown Schenectady NY.  This convention dates back to the mid 1970's and is a well attended event advertised in Dragon Magazine.  Known for years as "The Council of Five Nations" it was suspended during covid and was only just starting again under the shortened name.

I had a full table of participants and it was an orderly and thoughtful group.  Following an audience with Lady Kervall, the group journeyed to Tonisborg, met with a Lord Sheriff of the Order of Draconae, spent some time negotiating and questioning him, bought their passes and followed their guide to the dungeon entrance.

Now here is where my cheat for the players kicked in. The messenger from Kerval had given them partials maps with the correct stairs marked to get them to the lord more or less directly.  This was to facilitate the fact that this was a 4 hour convention game and there was no way they could wander Tonisborg and randomly find him.  Further, the route, if followed precisely, would be almost monster free.

This first group made contact with the Order Draconae guards on the second level, questioned them some more, and then proceeded cautiously into the dungeon.  They managed to follow the maps down to level 7 without incident, went around an area of yellow mold (marked on the map), and used an x-ray vision spell to move through a secret door and avoid an oncoming orc patrol.

An ESP spell outside the marked door helped them identify that they had found Lord Kervall and negotiations followed when the Lord refused to leave the dungeon but insisted they had come to help him. The party agreed and followed Kervall on further exploration.  However they soon found themselves in a room with a Cockatrice, which turned Kervall to stone.  Someone shouted to douse the lights and a brief combat entirely in the dark saw several wounds inflicted from friendly fire but some lucky strikes also killed the monster.  The party then convinced Kervall's sons that they really should leave the dungeon carrying the statue with them.

The second game was run at this year's Arnecon convention and followed much the same pattern as the first, but did differ in several ways.

Firstly the players, spent a lot more time discussing terms first with the Kervall messanger and then with Lady Kervall than the first group did.  Then when they arrived at Tonisborg, spent less time talking to the Order Draconae.  However, despite having very high level characters, this group thought that Tonisborg was so scary they needed extra muscle and so hired, following some lucky rolls and intense negotiations, an entire crew of Skandaharian sailors.  This proved interesting as the party then formed a very long group as it moved through the dungeon and they Skandaharrians alternated between bravado and skittishness.

This group avoided the Order Draconae guards on the second level, managed to take the wrong stairs on the fourth level (or was it the third?) and just managed to skirt by a black pudding hiding in the darkness of one of the large rooms they moved through.  In retrospect, I should have had them pudding attack them, but I decided it was in a particular place in the room and they didn't go there.

Anyway they managed to find their way to the correct stair after more discussion, and got back on track.  They passed through the room with Yellow Mold and one character was damaged.  This was the only HP loss of the entire session!  They too found lord Kervall, but instead of agreeing to adventure with him they found a way to overpower him and convince the sons to leave with them.

All in all, nobody died and the objective was achieved in both games.

What I want to highlight from both these games was that the role-play was constant, cooperation was intense, and smart play minimized combat.  Indeed the second game really had no combat at all. Tonisborg can certainly be a deadly dungeon. Old school games can certainly involve a lot of combat, but there is as much opportunity for role play heavy adventuring in Tonisborg or any other traditional dungeon, or in any traditional games, as there is in any "Modern" systems and adventures.


Author: DHBoggs /

I've got a busy gaming schedule coming up.  I'm playing in Virtual Greyhawk con and running 2 games (Lakofka's Devils Dung and Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg) at SWA's Council 42 and thinking of also going to PAGE in January, but the highlight is ARNECON in October.

If you can make it, it will be a great chance for you to meet some of the games earliest players - oh and me if you wanted.  Here is the website with the basics:


If you happen to be in the Schenectady NY area and want to play in one of my games, check out the Schnectady Wargamers Council 42 just a few weeks from now:


Locating Chentoufi in Greyhawk

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: ,

 Related to my last post, and a fun topic in itself, it is something of an open secret that the recent and ongoing "Chentoufi" series of adventures co-authored by Luke Gygax take place in a setting not unlike that his father Gary created in the western Flanaess.  Like the Arabian flavored Baklunish Empire of Greyhawk, the Arabian flavored empire of Luke Gygax's World of Okkorim was decimated centuries previously by a great magical devastation.

In both settings, the heart of the ancient empire was basically fried by a magical cataclysim, leaving behind a wasteland with a few outposts of struggling civilization at the edges.  In Greyhawk, the barren lands are known as "The Dry Steps". In Okkorim, its called the "Blighted Lands".

While I don't for a minute think Luke Gygax is trying to be sneaky here and give us Greyhawk with the serial numbers filed off, I do think it is not unreasonable to suppose Mr. Gygax is designing the Okkorim setting in a way that will (and does) make it easy for those who may wish to transplant his adventures into the Greyhawk setting. 

So how might we do that? Chentoufi is the city around which the various adventures take place.  It rests on a north-south coastline with ocean to the west and the Blighted lands to the east.

Thus we need to find a portion of the Flanaess of the right size with a north-south coastline, just west of the Dry Steppes which is the Greyhawk equivalent of the Blighted Lands.   There is one place, and only one place, that fits - maybe you guessed it - The Gulf of Ghayar.  Any further west on the Greyhawk map and you will leave the Dry Steppes  behind, not to mention there is not really a suitable coastline.

Remarkably, the eastern coast of the Gulf of Ghayar is mostly undeveloped in Greyhawk lore.  The Chentoufi coast can be plopped right in without much fuss.  Below is my attempt at doing just that.  

(Note I did rotate the Chentoufi map about 25 degrees NE in order to make the curving coastline on the bottom of the older line drawn map from the original release fit better to the Gulf of Ghayar coast.  I don't think the slight shift affects the geography very much,  The newer color maps of the Chentoufi coast don't go quite as far south and thus lack the coastal curve that necessitated the compass shift and it would be possible to re-align to North and still make the new color map fit if that were important to your game.  YMMV)

The Gulf of Ghayar Gazetteer and Izmer

Author: DHBoggs / Labels:

Sometimes I find myself moving along and minding my business when suddenly appears a rabbit hole and down I go. Heh.  Some of you will remember I did a couple of posts discussing and mapping the idea that Izmer, the realm setting of the first D&D movie, belongs to western Oerik and Greyhawk - the last post on the topic was HERE. 

Now a month or two back, a creative commons product came our called Beyond the Flanaess:Gulf of Ghayar Gazetteer., hosted on Anna Meyer's website HERE. If you are not familiar, the Gazeteer attempts to flesh out and expand the westward edge of the Flanaess beyond the Plains of the Paynim  into what is variously known as the Sundered Empire Map or Dragon Annual Map.  It basically covers some of the NW Flanaess and some of the NE Sundered Empire region - and this is of course the area there I had put Izmer.

I have a lot of irons in the fire so it takes me a while to get around to looking closely at new products and it wasn't until Friday that I took the time to look closely at this.  What struck me are the maps.  Troy Alleman has once again knocked one out of the park.

  However, Troy did something unorthodox, something I agree with 100%.  In order to explain the warm currents in the Dramidj ocean, Troy added a channel called the Omarra Straight separating the Flanaess from the Sundered Empire.  These maps are so good, I found myself wishing there was a way to fit in Izmer - and then I found one.  By creating the Straights of Omarra, Troy actually created the perfect spot - a mountainous peninsular region on the east shore of the new Straight.  Surprisingly, all that was needed was to move a few mountains, plant a couple rivers and forests, and viola., the locations transferred pretty much as I had them on the previous map. The resemblance to my previous Izmer map is striking, but I think this works even better. Here you go:

Now back to my regularly scheduled programming...

Sahuagin: Origins and Inspirations

Author: DHBoggs /

The Sahuagin are perhaps one of the most intriguing entries in Blackmoor Supplement II.  The creature was created by Steve Marsh, but here I want to explore the idea I proposed years ago that the Sahuagin story is more complicated.

Sahuagin is by far the largest entry for a sentient creature in the 1975 booklet.  Many of the others are only a few sentences or a paragraph at most.  A very good average comparison is Marsh's other creature the Ixitxachitl 

"A race of Chaotic Clerical Philosophers, they resemble Manta Rays (i.e. having a flat blanket-like form) with one in ten being a vampire equivalent (affected by any holy or blessed item, not just a cross). They are found in groups of 50–150 creatures with 40–120 being 1st-level philosophers (or clerics) and the rest of 2nd to 11th level (roll 10-sided die and add one). For every 25 such creatures there is a 50% chance of a magic user of the 6th to 11th level (roll 6-sided die and add six). For every vampire they possess one level F treasure, and one class “A” sea treasure for every magic user over 8th level; magic items cannot be used if hands are required (generally that means that only items that can be worn upon the body can be used)."

By comparison the Sahuagin entry is huge.  It looks like a double entry, and I think that is just what it is.

What follows is purely speculative - Let me repeat for clarity PURELY SPECULATIVE - but I think the anomalies found in this entry are best explained as a mash-up created by Supplement II editor Tim Kask of two separate creatures; one created by Steve Marsh and the other created by Dave Arneson.

First take note that the creature has two titles.  The first is "Sahuagin"  (Saw-gwin or Sa ha gwin - see Marsh explain HERE )

The second title follows in parenthesis as "Devil Men of the Deep"

Now, when discussing the origin of the name and creature Marsh explains the name Sahaugin was lifted from that of a Spanish historian cited in the bibliography of a Mormon missionary pamphlet and some of the details of the creature were inspired by a Justice League cartoon and/or comics.  This last is hard to pin down, but it is quite possibly the creature from a an Aquaman adventure in Superboy Vol 1 202 - which has a "half-man and half-fish" villain called the Devil-fish with characteristics quite similar to the Sahuagin. see HERE)


Speculative Marsh version:  

In the eons past there was a great flooding of the land (although history does not agree when this occurred and it may have happened twice) when the ice caps were melted during a great struggle of the gods to control the planet. When the water rose some of these gods took care that representative portions of all life were preserved and returned when the waters fell and the land became fruitful again. Others sought to change the nature of life so it could adapt to the new face of the world and at the same time preserve its intelligence. Much about the Sahuagin is probably myth but even if half of what is said about them is true then they are, indeed, a terrible threat.With a huge leech-like mouth, large reptilian eyes, and huge ear-like growths on the side of their heads they have an almost alien appearance. On the upper body are two arm-like extensions that act as forward fins and end in two pincer-like protrusions (opposed to each other) which are used to grasp tools and weapons. The main body is reptilian in nature, covered with thick hide, and has a rudimentary tail which is used much like an alligator’s tail for steering and propulsion. The two rear legs are located about 2/3 of the way down the body and are long and frog-like, ending in a six-toed webbed foot which provides great stability when standing on soft sea bottoms and great propulsion when swimming. They have an average underwater speed of 18” with maximum speeds of up to 30” about once every hour. Their tough reptilian hide is similar to leather armor while the body can sustain two hit dice in damage. The mouth can be used to attach itself to or to rend the flesh of the victim with its hundreds of razor sharp teeth. The tail can deliver a pile driver-like punch similar to that wielded by a giant (club damage times two). The powerful pincers will crush anything up to or under bony composition they grasp (as daggers). The back feet can tear apart any victim that is grabbed by the forearms or otherwise act like the claws of a powerful animal. This formidable array is aided by the sensitive ears that can pick up underwater noise as slight as a boat’s oars cutting through the water at ranges of ten miles. The compound eyes are sensitive to light but can see through the darkest depths for up to half a mile (80–90”). Their disadvantages are that their eyes generally keep them 100’ or more below the surface, although at night or during storms they will reach the surface. Their ears are easily damaged by loud noises at close range and they cannot pick out the sound of swimming creatures (of any kind). 10–60 will be found in a single group with a 30% chance they will be in a lair with Class “F” and “A” treasure. The lair will be completely water-filled since these creatures cannot breathe air or fresh water at all. 

Now you may think that seems like a fairly complete entry, and it certainly compares well with Marsh's Sea Elves or the Ixichitl entries I quoted above, but there is quite a lot of text left - Enough for a whole other monster.

So now we come to what I'm suggesting originates with Arneson.  Unlike Marsh, we really have no clue from Arneson regarding Sahuagin.  Supposing I'm correct, he may have written about a "creature from the Black Lagoon" type monster, or perhaps an expansion on the lizardman, or, an intriguing possibility I'm going to follow here - a variant of The Sea Devils.

Sea Devils are in fact an amphibious undersea creature of the Dr. Who series, from episodes released in 1972.  Marsh never connected his Sahuagin to Dr. Who, yet the similarities are worth consideration.  Let me quote a description of the creature from the Doctor Who RPG:

"...Sea Devils, are ...2.1 to 2.3 meters tall. They are more turtle-like than are the Silurians, and they do not have a third eye. The five Silurian bone ridges have been replaced by two smaller head crests and by a beak-like nose. In addition to these differences, Sea Devils have adapted to underwater life. Although they are amphibians, Sea Devils can tolerate the extremely high pressures found near the bottom of the sea, and they can easily adapt to rapid pressure changes. Their thick, reptilian skin provides protection against extreme cold.

...Sea Devils are ruthless and relentlessly militaristic, and they have developed a highly advanced machine culture. They enjoy working with metals and wear protective armor at all times. " Doctor Who RPG (FASA)  Fantasy Simulations Associates   1985

It's curious that these undersea creatures are also called "Devils".  It's also curious that the Dr. Who Sea Devils, like what I'm positing is Arneson's contribution to the Sahuagin, has a very hierarchical, cruel and militaristic society.  Here is the remainder of the Sahuagin entry - what I'm calling the Arsoninan bit - with the word Sea Devil replacing Sahuagin:


A constant threat to man, beast and fish are the voracious Sea-Devils whose only friends seem to be the equally voracious and predatory Giant Sharks. Although of an intelligence equal to the elves in many respects, the Sea-Devils have taken and perverted virtually every aspect of civilization to support their sadistic cannibalistic culture.   

It is said that the sea elves and the mermen were created by the Great Gods of Neutrality and Law while the Gods of Chaos bent their will to create the Sea-Devils. In every aspect the Evil ones sought to make the Sea-Devils into the most evil of the evil and many agree that they succeeded in making a race that fit that bill. Many individual horrors both on the land and sea may be in themselves worse than the Sea-Devils but nowhere will there be found a comparable race that as a whole retains the worst possible qualities.

When found in a lair there is a 10% chance that it is actually an underwater community of  100–1,000 creatures. There is then a further 20% chance that this community consists of 1,000–10,000 individuals. The underwater capital city has nearly 100,000 of these creatures residing within its watery limits. These cities will have great fighters and magic users as well asunderwater horrors that live and fight for the Sea-Devils. The ratio of these is as follows: 

per ten Sea-Devils there is a 25% chance of a double value fighter (Hero type)

per sixty there is a 15% chance of a triple value fighter (Superhero)

per one hundred of these individuals there is a 10% chance of a quadruple value fighter.

per five hundred of these individuals there is a 20% chance of a quintuple (5) times normal value fighter (Leader).

per one thousand individuals there is a 50% chance of a six times normal value fighter.

per forty there is a 30% chance of a 2nd-level magic user.

per one hundred there is a 25% chance of a 4th-level magic user.

per two hundred there is a 10% chance of a 6th-level magic user.

per five hundred there is a 25% chance of an 8th-level magic user.

per one thousand there is a 40% chance of a 12th-level magic user.

per group or up to sixty there will be 2–20 accompanying sharks.*

per group of one hundred there will be an additional 10–60 sharks.

per group of five hundred there will be an additional 20–120 sharks.

per group of one thousand there will be 100–400 additional sharks.

*(all totals for sharks are cumulative)

These creatures of evil are usually armed with the trident and the net — the former having a deadly poison on its tip and the latter having hundreds of small hooks set into its fabric. The Sea-Devils have become very adept at the use of both these weapons and these weapons also suit their temperament and regular habits. As an example, the small hooks in the net hinder escape while inflicting great pain on the live victims, and when torn from the flesh have the usual accompanying sharks driven into a frenzy from which they may attack the helplessly snared victims.

The tridents provide the ability to pin and probe the victims while not inflicting any mortal wounds (when the tips are unpoisoned) and allowing the Sea-Devils to remain at a safe distance.

Victims are usually brought to the nearest habitation (although only the ones with over 1,000 in population would have confinement cells for air breathing types) where they are either promptly eaten or penned in with some other predator to provide entertainment. The most common entertainment is to set the sharks on the victim, giving him only a small knife to defend himself. 

There are dozens of variations on the particular theme. Once captured there is very little possibility of escape and the sadistic nature of the captors has often allowed prisoners to think that they escaped only to be set upon by the sharks and guards when freedom (seemingly) is close at hand.

The culture of these creatures allows that there is only one King and he has only nine Princes with lesser positions being held as the situation and population demands. These leaders are always subject to challenge by any other member of the race to their position of leadership. The leaders are usually quite strong and several are reported to be mutations with four arms (this occurs in 1% of the population as a whole) and the fact that the Sea-Devils never cease to grow throughout their lives (much like reptiles) so that the leaders are also usually the older members of the species as well. Unsuccessful challengers are always killed and any cripples that occur in these fights are also disposed of, with especially unpopular types being tortured to death.

The disposal of the victims takes place at an after-the-challenge party where they are eaten by the other members of the group or community. This is also done with sickly members and others thought to be unfit to be a part of the community. The females are expected to bear their share of the fighting and are, visually at least, no different than the other members of the species.

The young are hatched from eggs and at birth, except for a few days right after birth, no different in size, strength, or viciousness than any other tribal member. The birth rate is about 15% a year and the average death rate about 10% a year.


Notice that the original entry has two creation stories.  The first, which I'm pegging as the Arneson version specifically mentions the "Great Gods of Neutrality and Law" and "Gods of Chaos", phrases echoing the "Great Gods" mentioned in the FFC (77:21).

The second creation story involving a flood account I'm attributing to Marsh.  It is more detailed than the first and semi-biblical with certain qualities reminiscent to my ear of Marsh's Mormon faith.  The detailed creature description also fits best with Marsh's other entries and the " Class “F” and “A” treasure" also certainly does.

Whereas things like "100–1,000 creatures. There is then a further 20% chance that this community consists of 1,000–10,000 individuals" and  "per ten Sahuagin there is a 25% chance of a double value fighter (Hero type)" and " a quintuple (5) times normal value fighter (Leader)" are very Arnesonian.

In point of fact, Marsh never ever used phrases like "double value" etc.  but that is a characteristic and exclusive early Arneson thing in D&D published products as we have talked about several times before.  When asked by me about the meaning of this section with its double and triple values, Marsh was unsure what the terms meant.  Granted many years have passed, but I think it quite safe to say Marsh did not write this part of the Sahuagin entry.

Other characteristically Arnesonian features in this part of the entry include the references to captives being eaten and the inclusion of birth rates.  Overall it reads a lot like other Arnesonian monsters over the years.

Are my musings here correct?  Is the Sahuagin a mash-up from two different authors? Probably we will never know - but at the very least looking at the entries this way gives us two monsters for the price of one!

Things Better Left Alone - a Sad Review

Author: DHBoggs /

 Things Better Left Alone

- Pacesetter Games, 2023 (note this is not the Pacesetter brand owned by Goblinoid Games but an entirely different company owned by Mr. Bill Barsh.)

- Designed for Pacesetter's Adventure RPG rules - I do not have these so I can neither recommend or pan them, except to say that these rules use a THAC0 stat, which is rather strange since the THAC0 method was largely unknown by gamers until years after the Holmes Rules were out of publication when TSR released All That Glitters in September 1984, and it wasn't a widely used mechanic until 2nd edition. (edit: see comment by Paleologos)

Be that as it may, appropriate Homes-esque rulesets that could apply include:

  • BlueHolme
  • Wizards, Warriors & Wyrms
  • Holmes 77  

Alternatively, gamers can use a Holmes rules expansion guide like Meepo's Holmes Companion, or The Holmes Treasury. Since it gets mentioned from time to time in the interwebs, I'll just add that The Grey Book is another ruleset that nominally draws some inspiration from Holmes, but in my opinion it is quite far removed and not really an appropriate choice for a Holmesian game.


As the person who edited the Holmes to Level 14 ruleset back in the day, its a safe bet to guess I'm a big fan of the Dr. J. Eric Holmes "Bluebook" edit of D&D, and as a professional historian and the guy who brought Tonisborg back to life you can imagine my excitement upon learning that Pacesetter Games had teamed with Chris Holmes, son of the good Doctor. to publish Dr. Holmes home dungeon maps with notes for the rooms.

Prior to this we have only three published dungeons from Holmes:

  • The Dungeon of Zenopus sample level in the Bluebook
  • The Dungeon of Arzaz in the Fantasy Role Playing Games book by Holmes in 1981
  • The unkeyed dungeon of the Lizard King, also in Fantasy Role Playing Games

Historically, early dungeon keys were basically mnemonic triggers for DM creativity.  For example, a room might have a note that says "4 Skeletons, 3 hp each, chest with 1000 silver".  

It is the responsibility and the pleasure of a Game Master to play off those notes to create a unique experience for each session they run. 

For those of you who have it, you will know that this is much the situation with the Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg. When we prepared the published book, I took those bare notes from Greg Svenson, cleaned them up, and added only such mechanical information as was needed to ease the burden on the GM - such as rolling up the stats for the magic swords, values of gems, languages spoken and so on.  To this I sometimes added terse descriptions and small notes to aid play such as "The orcs may be working for the balrog in room 3" or "the acolytes in this chapel are preparing for a service" or "What is this werebear doing in here?" and so on.  The goal was always to preserve the historical text while aiding the Game Master with a few sparks of creativity so they can run a true piece of history at their table.

In a discussion on Tenkar's Tavern  HERE Bill Barsh of Pacesetter seemed to express similar views:

TC 17:51 ...I really worked hard to make sure that this has Holmes in as it could possibly be. You know if you want to play D&D like you play D&D back in 1977 this is this is absolutely the adventure for you. ...I think we took it we took this thing extremely seriously. I mean I think one of the reasons we really really wanted to do this too was we wanted to get J. Eric Holmes Legacy out there for people to be able to acquire today.


 TC 30:48 ...again this should be more Holmes and less me. Unfortunately there's a lot of me in there just because of what what we were handed, but ...I think the whole team worked really hard to make sure that we kept it as Holmes as we could.

Promising, but that last paragraph does raise a red flag.  Let's take a look at the product and for starters I'll get the potatoes out of the way before dealing with the meat, so to speak.

It is a standard 8.5" x 11" size product and decently thick at 76 pages - currently only available in pdf.

The first 4 pages cover introductory material. Advice is given for tying this adventure to Zenopus dungeon adventure, and the overall situation within the dungeon is discussed with just enough detail to explain the situation without overdoing it.  Overall this is good and useful material. So far so good

Skipping over the dungeon material to page 39,  we have a few very nicely done random monster and treasure tables, and pages 41-52 present a plethora of new monsters and magic items.  A few of these are shown to come directly from Holmes notes, but I'm not going to parse these individually for how "Holmsian" each may or may not be.  As a whole the section seems perfectly useful and good. 

Pages 54 - 60 contain character sheets for potential hirelings. 

Page 61 describes a Pacesetter magic item called the Green Flame that ties to other Pacesetter adventures.

-Pages 63 -75 are maps, including a newly made map in black and white - note a separate blue and white version of this map also comes with the pdf.  First impressions of these redrawn maps are that they are rather plain, and don't appear to have taken much effort. but look serviceable.

 Very fortunately, Holmes original maps are also reproduced in the pdf. Holmes maps are rich with detail and most of the rooms are marked with terse notes to tell you what is in them. 

Since we have these originals, its easy to check them against the redraws to make sure the redrawn maps are accurate and haven't missed anything.  

Here is where the ugly begins.  The new maps don't match the originals.  I don't mean there are one or two differences here or there, I mean the new maps are seriously, drastically, and deliberately fucked up.  These are no longer Holmes dungeon maps.

Yes you can tell without too much difficulty which sheet of the new maps is supposed to align with which of the old, but details are starkly changed.  There are new rooms added and original rooms removed.  Steps are missing, stairs are missing and even the original entry stair is completely relocated for no good reason.  Corridor sizes are randomly resized, aligned differently, lengths changed and choke points and entire passageways have disappeared. On and on and on.

Mind you, the originals are on graph paper and fairly clear, so it is not as if it would have been even slightly difficult to load them into a graphics program - even a free one like Gimp - and simply create a clean and exact copy to proper dimensions on a new layer.  I mean I can do this - have done this sort of thing - and frankly probably will do so with the Holmes maps for my own use, so I can't begin to imagine what excuse there is for an experienced game company with real graphic artists and cartographers on tap for why the new maps aren't faithful copies - especially given that the new maps are so basic.

Unfortunately, bogus maps aren't the end of it.

The Dungeon

Pages 5 through 48 cover the dungeon key.  This was an opportunity for Pacessetter to clean up the notes on the map, add stats as needed, some suggestions where appropriate and a few bits of obvious detail.  Entries could have been writen in a manner that followed Holmes own model, amply demostrated in his Dungeon of Zenopus (Bluebook) and even The Dungeon of Arzaz.

It was also an opportunity for Pacesetter to add historical information and quotes such as bits and pieces from the Maze of Peril book or Holmes Dragon articles where the events described in the stories correspond  with a location in the dungeon, as quite a few actually do.  Further we could have had small anecdotes from Chris Holmes or anyone who may have played in the dungeon. That would have been super cool.

We don't get anything like that.  What we do get, on the very first entry, is read-aloud BOXED TEXT. 

Now look, I'm not a hater of boxed text per se., but it certainly receives a lot of criticism and more to the point, post dated the Holmes era significantly, so again, the choice to use anachronistic boxed text in presenting someone else's historical and posthumous dungeon design instead of following his own style feels very wrong.

Still I might have forgiven the boxed text if it was not followed by, lets call it "invented" material.  Quite frankly, there is paragraph after paragraph of fluff written by Pacessetter.  Each room is embellished with an entire storybook of material that springs from the mind of Bill Barsh, apparently, and not Holmes.  It is completely unnecessary and so overwrites the true Holmes material that you can't run the dungeon authentically.

Here is a small example.  The new map relocates (!) the original entry stair from a corridor into a room designated as 2 on the new map.  On the original map there are 12 savages in this room (why move the stair to dump the characters immediately into a big fight is beyond me, but I digress).  In the room description we are told these savages are in some kind of religious trance staring at a green flame - a tie in both to other Pacesetter products and to an entirely new Mcguffin added to the dungeon.  I'll just note here that this also isn't the last time tie ins to other Pacesetter products completely unrelated to Holmes are found in the dungeon. 

Another example, room 7 is a simple locking door and moving wall trap, per the map notes.  A true-to-Holmes description of this might have been something like:

"Dark stains (from blood) may be observed on the back of this door and the floor immediately beyond it. Unless held, the door will swing shut and lock and the opposite wall begin to move.  Anyone in the corridor will be crushed against the door in 2d4 rounds unless the lock is picked or the door is forced by a combined strength of 18 or greater."

Instead the Pacesetter description adds an elaborate painting, a bowl intended for a blood sacrifice, spear points sticking out and additional falling walls. Come on man.

Each entry is treated this way, as if it is Pacesetter's personal playground to make up whatever nonsense that strikes their fancy.  Further the made up fluff is very 1980's - 1990's BECMI in feel.  It doesn't read at all like Maze of Peril, it reads more like a Mystara module.

It is extremely frustrating as a historian of the game to see this mistreatment of Holmes dungeon. These ahistorical changes in map and text to the work of a key figure in D&D history are baffling and unnecessary and a missed opportunity.  Its a bit like selling "authentic" copies of Michelangelo's David, where the statue is now wearing sneakers, pants and sunglasses - because, you know, that makes it "better".

This was not a happy thing for me to write about. I really really really did not want and do not like to write a negative review, but the subject is too historically important for me not to be honest about the content of this product.  I want at least to acknowledge that I certainly appreciate the fact that Pacesetter made the product available.

Would I recommend the pdf - Yes, absolutely - the reproductions of the original maps alone are worth it and the monster stats etc. make a nice bonus. Hey, the cover art is pretty cool too. You should buy this product if you have any interest in Holmes or Bluebox D&D.


I honestly recommend you DO NOT print out the new maps and you rewrite or gut the key entirely using the notes on the map as your guide and removing all the Bill Barsh fluff.  Unless of course you would rather play in a 1990 style Pacesetter dungeon than a 1976 Holmesian one. 

Vecna Rebooted and Greyhawk

Author: DHBoggs /

 Having spent most of my life working as an archaeologist and now as a public historian, I suppose it is not surprising that I would be drawn to puzzles involving the ancient past - even when that past is entirely fictional.

The age of Vecna in the history of Greyhawk is just such a fiction with just such a puzzle swirling about the ancient lich, but I honestly had not thought much about Vecna specifically until recently, beyond reading the research others had done.

This Vecna Timeline on Canonfire, for example, covers the character fairly thoroughly - at least to the extent needed for generating backstory in a Greyhawk or Blackmoor campaign. 

But casually watching this Bob World Builder Video brings up a whole new level of curiosity.  The basic idea put forward in the video is that Vecna has played a pivotal role in the stories put out by the owners of the D&D IP each time the game has undergone a revision or edition change. 

 The video further highlights that of Jorphdan - another Youtuber - who points out that WotC products going back several years have been seeding mysterious obelisks that were finally revealed to be part of a plan by Vecna to alter history. To quote from a sidebar in Icewind Dale "“These obelisks could alter reality on a grand scale, sending a region or an entire world back to an earlier time, effectively erasing part of history."

Just last month, we got this tidbit from Chris Perkins "...super excited to let people know that our Vecna adventure is going really really well and you'll get to visit a number of cool places and worlds in the course of this adventure." Vecna, Planescape & What’s Next w/ Christopher Perkins | D&D Beyond, April 14 2023

Of course I have no knowledge of what WotC is doing, but it would seem particularly strange for a Vecna adventure involving world hoping to exclude the one world most closely associated with the lich.

One intriguing possibility I mentioned on Canonfire last October is that WotC is planning to bring back Greyhawk - sort of - by recasting the setting into the distant past and thus avoiding any concerns they may have with lets say, politically incorrect aspects of the published material.   It would further have the advantage of not angering Greyhawk fans any more than they already are, by mucking up the large pool of fan material for the current age.

Regardless of how one feels about WotC right now, a detailed empire of Vecna in ancient Greyhawk is surely an appealing idea and if WotC doesn't take that path, perhaps someone else will.  Could Vecna's goal be to remake history by not giving Kas his famous sword or killing him early or...? Well there are lots of possibilities.

Arnesonian Time Keeping

Author: DHBoggs /

The original Blackmoor game as Dave Arneson ran it between 1971 and 1975 may be described as a living world campaign. - meaning that the world moves through time regardless of play. 

In his grand Napoleonic campaign Arneson had scores of players, including many play-by-post participants such as Gary Gygax, and time in the game had to advance on a regular schedule for the game to work.

Although Blackmoor by contrast was played almost entirely in person, Arneson again had to deal with many players who came in and out of the game at various times and locations of play and he again adopted a "living world" approach reflective of his Napoleonic campaign where time advanced regardless of who made it to the table.  Because Arneson had a revolving door of players coming in and out of Blackmoor games, he did not have the "luxury" of pausing the world for a particular player or group of players.

Although this doesn't necessarily mean Arneson would have had to have run Blackmoor with strict 1 to 1 play, i. e. one day of real time equals one day of game time, it does appear that Arneson did something quite close, perhaps even exactly that.  Let me provide some 1 to 1 time examples:

In the summer of 1972, Arneson's most prolific player, Greg Svenson had to leave for a six weeks due to employment at a summer camp.  This occurred during the 2nd Coot invasion, after the Egg's forces captured Blackmoor and the group of heroes who were supposed to be defending it got exiled to Loch Gloomin.  Greg left for camp, but while he was away The Egg of Coot launched an attack on Lake Gloomin and Svenson's iconic character "The Great Svenny" was killed, having been experimentally placed by the other players as the sole defender of the town gate against an army of orcs.  Time did not stand still for Greg or his character, but as a consequence The Great Svenny became almost certainly the first character to be resurrected in a fantasy RPG upon Greg's return to the game.

The next summer Greg again had to leave the gaming table for a while and this time it was decided Svenny went on a business trip to Greyhawk city to explain his absence.  Time marched on.

We can move to one of Dave Megarry's characters for further insight.  David Megarry has actually preserved a log he kept of his character HW Dumbo's activities.  HW Dumbo was Megarry's 5th character - the others having had much shorter careers. It seems the best way to interpret the dates in the table are that they correspond to the real month and day and that 1072 corresponds to the year 1972.  Here is the table:

Note that between June and September Megarry's character was on something of a long hiatus building Freehold.  Freehold was of course Greg Svenson's tower which had been destroyed during the 2nd Coot invasion earlier in the year.  It is apparently not coincidence that while Megarry's character was working on a building, Megarry himself was working on buildings as a house painter and too busy that summer to participate in the games.  Time in the game moved on without him at the table.

In fact, this way of managing time carried straight over from Blackmoor into the OD&D rules.  This isn't especially surprising.  There was only roughly 10 months between the time of Gygax's first RPG experience when Arneson and Megarry demoed Blackmoor to him and the actual publication of the three little brown books.  Gygax did not fail to draw on Arneson's much longer experience running an RPG campaign. In the TIME section of D&D Vol. III (1974) we read:

"As the campaign goes into full swing it is probable thot there will be various groups going every which way and all at different time periods. It is suggested that a record of each player be kept, the referee checking off each week as it is spent. Recon the passage of time thus:

Dungeon expedition = 1 week                                                                                              Wilderness adventure = 1 move = 1 day                                                                                 1 Week of actual time =  1 week of game time...

Actual time would not be counted off for players "out" on a Wilderness adventure, but it would for those newed in their dens, hideholes, keeps, castles, etc., as well as for those in the throes of some expedition in the underworld,"

An entire post could be written about the TIME section, but for our purposes here I only wish to highlight the point of 1 to 1 time being expressed.

No player was seemingly so important that time stood still for them, not even the DM.  In one of my favorite blog posts, HERE Al of Beyond the Black Gates relates an amusing anecdote about a convention game Arneson ran where, 

"Once, when the party's boat was a attacked by a horde of lizardmen, he told us how many there were, their armor class, their hit points, what they needed to hit us, and so on. They were stupid, he explained, and fanatic, and would fight to the death, so we should be able to take care of that ourselves, and he was going to go get a coke and he'd be back in a few minutes to check on us."

As the quote illustrates, the principle of time continuing in motion in the game and the real world concurrently can be found sprinkled throughout Arnesons' gaming, not just in regard to the passage of days and months but in the passing of seconds and minutes.  

Much ink has been spilt in forums, some of it by me, arguing over the intended length of a combat round in OD&D, but whatever the published rules may intend, in early Blackmoor combat took place in the moment.  Attack rolls were often called "chops" and there can be little doubt attack rounds lasted only as long as it took to state an action and roll the dice.  As Greg Svenson Remembered it on Wandering DMs

"At the time I probably thought of it as one swipe with my sword; one attempt or one chop."

Wandering DMs S04 E06 (TC 50:22)

Time at the table was being measured as time in the game, and thus the question of "how long was a combat round" had no meaning for Arneson's players.

"The basic scenario is Arneson telling us, "10 feet, 20 feet, room 20x20 with an up staircase in southeast corner, down staircase in northwest corner, a passage on the north wall and east wall and an ugly troll standing in the middle of the room. What are you going to do?" We had about 10 seconds to react and then he would announce, "the troll is attacking..who is in front?" We would be scrambling like mad to figure out a strategy."

Pers Comm, David Megarry, Jan 17, 2017

We in the traditional gaming community are so used to the carefully sliced time units of our various rulesets of D&D, that the idea of measuring time in the real world as time in the game seems novel and alien, but in fact the idea fit comfortably within the earliest days of play.

That, by the way, is why you can't waste time arguing and chit chatting at the table without expecting a wandering monster roll...

"Usually if they stay in one spot five minutes screaming at each other a (not too powerful) wandering monster shows up to remind then where they are!"  Dave Arneson, ODD74 Forum: Re: Rust Busting « Result #27 on Jan 14, 2009, 6:51pm »

Arneson's Early Thoughts on OD&D

Author: DHBoggs /

This month marks the 49th anniversary of a debut demonstration game of the newly published Dungeons & Dragons that Arneson ran at the University of Minnesota.  He and his friends were clearly eager to showcase "their" newly published game, but as is often the case when more than one person creates a product, there were some things in the booklets Arneson would rather have handled differently.  

In a letter Arneson wrote to fellow gamer Scott Rich he asked Rich to send in a paragraph to Jim Lurvey's Great Plains Game Players Newsletter explaining the things in D&D he had different ideas about.  Arneson's paragraph was published in Issue 16 on pages 19 and 20.  The content provides an all too brief but nonetheless fascinating early look at Arnesons thoughts on the game. 

Arneson to Scott Rich

“There was also a certain amount of communication breakdown in D&D over populating Dungeon Levels and the wandering creatures therein. For one thing the weaker creatures are on the upper levels but the encounter table compensates their weaknesses by giving them higher numbers, which is OK out in the open but not in the Dungeons. Also the wandering creatures are supposed to be wandering in levels where they would normally be found inhabiting, and again in somewhat smaller levels. Now Blackmoor was not set up as a totally random Dungeon originally but with a overall plan and scheme in mind, not just a meatgrinder for adventurers. This gets me a lot of complaints about lack of action and no treasure (everyone keeps going to the same rooms and I refuse refill them to please them). Another point of mixup was that players were not intended to become harder to hit and take more damage as they progress. Instead they were to take the same amount of hits all the time (with the exceptions of spells, magic, etc.) while becoming more talented in inflicting hits and avoiding the same. This was a great equalizing influence. I should note that I gave them all about twice the potential number of hits (one die roll for the number of dice you roll is a three meaning you cast three die 3, 4, 2 meaning that you take nine hits (but you could take as many as 36 hits). Also the number of hits you could take were partially in relation to the of points the person possesses.”


"There was also a certain amount of communication breakdown in D&D over populating Dungeon Levels and the wandering creatures therein. For one thing the weaker creatures are on the upper levels but the encounter table compensates their weaknesses by giving them higher numbers, which is OK out in the open but not in the Dungeons."

This letter was really quite a surprise to me when I first was able to read a copy, in the sense that it had been mentioned a few times here and there, leading one to expect a bitter tone from Arneson with a laundry list of strong complaints about the "communication breakdown" and what was wrong with the first printing of D&D.  That's what the hype had been, painting Arneson as something of a jerk.  The truth, as is readily apparent and often the case in life, is much more banal.   The paragraph is short and perhaps disappointingly drama free.  Arneson expresses only a "certain amount" of communication breakdown regarding only the stocking of monsters in dungeons, and a "point of mixup" regarding how he envisioned Hit Points and Damage in combat.  From the whole game Arneson finds only these two areas to be important enough to mention that he envisioned them differently - hardly the wailings of an injured man with a list of complaints.  What we do have however, is some fascinating ideas, so lets dive in.


Part 1 Setting up the Dungeon.                

"For one thing the weaker creatures are on the upper levels" - Arneson is telling us here he doesn't like that weaker creatures only appear on upper dungeon levels.  We can infer from that that he preferred an even distribution, or at least a distribution that allowed for the possibility of any creature to appear on any level.  That is precisely what we see in the original, pre-D&D levels of Blackmoor dungeon, where dwarves and goblins might inhabit the same level as Balrogs and Dragons and lowly orcs could be rulers of the very bottom level.

" the encounter table compensates their weaknesses by giving them higher numbers, which is OK out in the open but not in the Dungeons."  Arneson is telling us that dungeon level should not be a factor regarding the number of creatures encountered.  Thus the complex formulas such as in the Holmes rulebook for calculating the number of wandering monsters encountered based upon the size and experience level of the adventurers was not something Arneson approved of.

". Also the wandering creatures are supposed to be wandering in levels where they would normally be found inhabiting"  Arneson is telling us that only the monsters already "inhabiting" the level can become  wandering monsters.  That's precisely what one sees in Temple of the Frog.  There the monsters in each room are given a chance to be absent when the PC's arrive, or encountered wandering nearby. 

"and again in somewhat smaller levels."  This is a little tougher to catch his meaning.  I think the "smaller levels" he is referring back to "again" is meant as the antithesis of the higher numbers he disliked above.  In other words "in somewhat smaller levels (amounts) than the idea of having larger numbers compensate for dungeon level". 

So rather than talking about the size of the dungeon (smaller levels) or the Hit Dice of the monsters (smaller levels) he is talking about numbers appearing (smaller levels of group numbers).  Dungeon size really makes no sense.  Hit Dice makes some sense if taken to mean smaller totals, but no sense if taken to mean only low power monsters should wander.  So by smaller levels I think he is trying to express that the overall strength of wandering monsters should not be jacked up to match that of the Player Characters.  That makes total sense if the wandering monster is but a subset of some group inhabiting the dungeon level - a trio of goblins wandering out of a room, for example.  It is a naturalistic explanation of the appearance the monster.

"Now Blackmoor was not set up as a totally random Dungeon originally but with a overall plan and scheme in mind, not just a meatgrinder for adventurers."

Here is the heart of Arneson's objection.  The tables of U&WA create a random, meatgrinder dungeon.  Arneson's point has been echoed more recently by Dan "Delta" Collins, in a rather intense analysis he undertook with computer modeling. HERE 

Delta's analysis shows just how deadly the U&WA methods will be to parties of an experience level equal to that of the dungeon level they are on, but I think Arneson's objection wasn't just to the deadliness of it, but also, and perhaps mostly, to the senselessness of it.  He points out that Blackmoor was set up according to a plan, with forethought, and not just as a monster zoo. Arneson of course, allows for some random input, but expects the result to fall within the confines of an "overall plan and scheme". 

Looking at the surviving original keys we have of Blackmoor dungeon, I'm not sure if Arneson's players would agree that their dungeon delves were "meatgrinder free", but at least we know Arneson's ideal, and it may well have been the voice of experience talking in this case.


" This gets me a lot of complaints about lack of action and no treasure (everyone keeps going to the same rooms and I refuse refill them to please them)."

Here Arneson equates having an overall plan for the dungeon with restraint in restocking areas previously cleaned out by the adventurers.  From this we can infer that Arneson was granting agency to his dungeon inhabitants.  He reasoned that the monsters would avoid an area heavily trafficked by PC's, and act with some intelligence to the threats occurring in their environment.



Part 2 Attack and Defense.

Another point of mixup was that players were not intended to become harder to hit and take more damage as they progress.  Instead they were to take the same amount of hits all the time (with the exceptions of spells, magic, etc.) while becoming more talented in inflicting hits and avoiding the same. This was a great equalizing influence. I should note that I gave them all about twice the potential number of hits (one die roll for the number of dice you roll is a three meaning you cast three die 3, 4, 2 meaning that you take nine hits (but you could take as many as 36 hits). Also the number of hits you could take were partially in relation to the of points the person possesses..”

 This section has a lot of amiguity, but let's start with that first sentence.

" Another point of mixup was that players were not intended to become harder to hit and take more damage as they progress.  

The and is underlined in the newsletter on purpose, of course, and I take that purpose to indicate both these things were not intended to go together.  Arneson is saying if you have a character who is harder to hit, then that character should not also be able to take more damage.  It should be one or the other, not both.  Arneson is arguing that both together is a "double dipping" of the defensive value.

" Instead they were to take the same amount of hits all the time (with the exceptions of spells, magic, etc.) while becoming more talented in inflicting hits and avoiding the same. This was a great equalizing influence."

Arneson here indicates he decided against the "take more damage" growth in hit points (except increases that are granted by magic).  Which means he advocated for a combat mechanic that made characters get progressively harder to hit, while at the same time increasing the characters damage dealing ability by level.

Note that in D&D character's do not become harder to hit as they level up.  The "hit class" of a character or monster depends on their Armor Class, so a 1st level character and a 10th level character are both hit at the same TN depending on their AC.  Nor do they inflict damage at different amounts when using the same weapon.

When Arneson coupled "becoming more talented in inflicting hits" quote with "and avoiding the same", it seems as if he could well be speaking of a single matrix.  This would be a matrix where level was pitted against level so that a higher level character could hit a lesser level more easily, and be less easily hit by a lesser level.  I will note in passing that "X fragments" apparently had such a matrix per Jon Peterson, and we do see similar ideas expressed in other games.  For example, warriors in Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne deal out greater damage against lesser level opponents.

Theoretically, we could also be talking about a ratio here, for example a Hit Dice ratio, where a 4 HD creature had a 2:1 advantage over a 2 HD creature.  That method would seem to be open to a number of complications but may be an idea worth exploring.  

Perhaps most intriguing of all, the Adventures in Fantasy system co-authored by Arneson with Richard Snider also conforms to the principals Arneson outlined here.  Hit points are indeed fixed, being derived from a formula using 3 ability scores.  HP can only be increased a bit through physical conditioning.  

Likewise, one component of the fairly convoluted combat procedure involves the levels of the combatants being compared and the difference between them applied to the "to hit" chance in favor of the combatant with the higher level.  For example, a 10th level human fighting a 5th level human (difference of 5) results in an added 5% chance being given to the 10th level fighter to hit, whereas the 5th level fighter has 5% subtracted from their chance to hit.  Perhaps this AiF system reflects what Arneson had in mind, but perhaps not quite in the manner it appears in these rules.  Level differences between opponents may often be quite small, especially in D&D style levels, and one or two levels only equals 1 or 2 percent - hardly worth caring about.  Given that Blackmoor, at least at one point, was restricted to 20 experience levels, we could imagine a d20 system where you had to get a base 10 to hit (for example) and you subtracted or added level difference from that.  Then even a 1 level difference becomes significant.  Such a level difference adjustment would have to be capped at 10, in this example, but AiF itself has a cap of 15.  So it's not impossible Arneson had something like this in mind.

Whatever the exact method, why is this a "great equalizing influence"?  I think what Arneson meant here was not that some sort of level vs level mechanic was an equalizer, but rather, having a fixed HP number was.  The idea, I suppose, being that anybody, regardless of level, could be killed by a similar blow if it manages to land.

" I should note that I gave them all about twice the potential number of hits (one die roll for the number of dice you roll is a three meaning you cast three die 3, 4, 2 meaning that you take nine hits (but you could take as many as 36 hits).

Though the language here is ambiguous Arneson is no doubt explaining a hit point method he envisioned for D&D.  Since the text above indicates he intended Hit Points to be a permanent number, we can see that characters would range from 1 to 36 HP with an average of 11 HP.   Maybe this average is what he had in mind when he described it as "twice the potential number of hits", because a typical 1st level character had a potential of 6 maximum HP.

As a final comment I should remind the reader that Arneson wrote this letter specifically about changes he had in mind for the D&D rules after the rules had already been published.  We should not infer that any of the things Arneson proposed here were actually play tested or used to any great extent and we must especially guard against assuming that they bore any particular resemblance to Arneson's pre-D&D Blackmoor procedures.   We know, for example that the HP method he describes here was not that of 1972 Blackmoor, and we shouldn't expect the combat method to be either - though it certainly would not be impossible.  Arneson, like all of us, continued to think of ways to build and improve his game.

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Game Archaeologist/Anthropologist, Scholar, Historic Preservation Analyst, and a rural American father of three.
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