This is the blog. Click here to go to the Zenopus Archives website.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

"Game Wizards" Has Arrived!


Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons is the title of the new book by Jon Peterson of Playing at the World fame. I had eagerly awaited it since hearing about it, and had pre-ordered from Amazon, and it arrived in the mail today, like magic, on its official release date. Shelfie above. 

After checking out the images in the book, I naturally looked up Holmes & the Basic Set in the index and skimmed some of those parts. This lead to reading more parts before I forced myself to stop, so I can start at the beginning. But my early verdict is that it is very readable.

(" As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases ")

In the weeks leading up to the release, Jon made a related series of "behind the scenes" posts to the Playing at the World blog:

There were also several tie-in media articles:

Polygon: How a pending lawsuit changed the original D&D Basic Set (a "never-before-seen piece that was cut from the final book")

Wired: The Missing Teen Who Fueled ‘Cult Panic’ Over D&D ("This story is adapted from Game Wizards")

Friday, October 1, 2021

Sutherland Dragon Details

As promised in my earlier post about on the exhibit of the Holmes Basic cover art ⁠— aka the Sutherland Dragon ⁠— here are several close-ups of different portions.

The Fighter

The greens are more apparent, including in details such as the "emeralds" circling the pommel of the sword poking out from the treasure pile.

In the dragon's chest in the upper portion of this image you can clearly see multi-colored gems encrusted between the belly plates. A few are even gleaming, a detail which doesn't show up well because the gleams are white on a yellow background. 

Note Sutherland's signature, just visible below the shield. This portion of the image appeared on the bottom edge of the box set cover, where a bit more of his name can be seen than here.

The Magic-User

Here we see the wizard unobscured by the TSR logo and the other writing on the box cover.

Sutherland's attention to the lighting is very apparent in the yellow highlights and deep shadows applied to the wizard's blue robe.

The Dragon

Yellow bands of light radiate out from the wizard's torch, a detail that doesn't reproduce well on the boxed set cover. 

The motion lines accentuate the mood that the dragon has just been surprised. Sutherland used motion lines in other illustrations, particularly sword swings, such as on the title page of the Holmes Basic rulebook, as can be seen here.

As a reminder, the exhibit featuring this painting is at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA through Halloween, and then will be at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN from May 20 to September 5, 2022, and then at the Flint Institute of Art in Flint, MI from September 23, 2002 through January 8, 2023.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Ten Years of the Zenopus Archives

Ten years ago today, I made the first post to this blog, "What lies in the (undiscovered) deeper levels where Zenopus met his doom?", which was titled after Holmes' question in the coda to the Sample Dungeon. It was essentially just a teaser post, with just two links, both still active: one to the Zenopus Archives site, which was already under construction, and one to the Holmes Basic subforum on ODD74. But soon after that I started to post regularly, which ballooned to 65 posts in the last four months of 2011, and then 130 the next year, a pace that I have not kept up with since. But I have kept at it, and now it's ten years later, which is almost three times as long as the original era of Holmes Basic, and I have no plans for stopping.


TSR celebrated their 10th Anniversary with a Collector's Set, so I'm doing the same with 10 years of highlights, a sort of "Collector's Set" for the Zenopus Archives:


Caves of Chaos Revealed


Warlock or How to Play D&D without playing D&D?


The Cthulhu Mythos in D&D in the 1970s


20 Backgrounds for OD&D

Fearsome Monsters


Visualizing Castle Greyhawk

Beyond the Door to Monster Mountain


Con Report for NTRPGCon 2016

Gygaxian Orc Tribes


Holmes Ref 2.0

Tales of Peril Book Club


Gygax's "Dungeon Delving" Playtest Reports


The Holmes Basic G+ Community Archive

In Search of the Brazen Head of Zenopus at Gary Con

The Master's Lair, A Play Report


Release of The Ruined Tower of Zenopus 


d20 Unexpectedly Intelligent Monsters in the Monster Manual

Holmes Basic Cover Art: Exhibited!

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Ruined Tower of Zenopus: September Starter Sale

DMs Guild is having a "September Starter Sale", with select introductory adventures up to 30% off through September 7th, and The Ruined Tower of Zenopus has been selected, so it is currently only $1.39!

As a reminder, if you missed the announcement last fall, the pdf now includes a full-page illustration by Chris Holmes (son of J. Eric Holmes) and a printer-friendly dungeon map. The purchase also includes a separate png file of the dungeon map suitable for VTTs (optimized for Roll20).

For old-school enthusiasts, here on the blog I also offered notes on retro-converting it:

Running It Retro, Part I 

Running It Retro, Part II

The adventure went Platinum back in January (1,001 sales), and is now close to 1,500 sales. However, the next badge (Mithril) at DMs Guild doesn't come until 2,501 sales are hit.

Find it here:
The Ruined Tower of Zenopus on DMs Guild

Click here to read reviews of the RTOZ by various bloggers 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Dice Dragon (New Monster)

TSR's Dragon Dice (1981). Art by Jim Roslof.
Detail of photo by Brian Stillman as found here

Dice Dragon

Move: 60 feet/turn, 240 feet/turn flying
Hit Dice: 1+1
Armor Class: 2
Treasure Type: Q
Alignment: neutral (75%)/chaotic good (25%)
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 1d6

These winged but legless micro-dragons, purple-and-blue with a yellow underbelly, are even smaller than their distant kin, the pseudo-dragons, but just as intelligent. Typically lairing in inaccessible crags or the tallest trees in the wilderness, dice dragons are occasionally found in association with thieves or gamblers, as they have an innate fondness for games of chance, particularly those involving dice, hence their common name. Indifferent to coins, they more eagerly wager for gems or precious stones, communicating via a raspy hiss and manipulating the dice with their tail, and storing their winnings in a small container, around which they coil while at rest.

Dice dragons defend themselves with their sharp bite or, thrice a day, a small puff of faerie fire, which does no damage but outlines one target in glowing light for 4d4 rounds (giving attackers a +2 to hit the target).

* * * * *


This new monster is inspired by the art on the packaging for the first set of polyhedra dice that I found after getting a Holmes Basic set with chits, TSR's Dragon Dice (1981), which was their first set of branded dice. My original set - which I still have some of - was pale blue as shown in the advertisement here in a 2012 retrospective on Grognardia. As can be seen there, the marketing promoted the plastic part of the packaging as a "reusable carrying case", hence the container portion of the write-up. 

This art is by Jim Roslof, who also did the cover the B2 Keep on the Borderlands; see here for a "bibliography" of his work on the Zenopus Archives site.

The "neutral/chaotic good" alignment is in accord with Holmes Basic, where some monsters - including all dragons - are written with a dual alignment, and some (like dwarves) are given percentages.

I chose to incorporate a "flame" breath weapon in line with the illustration, but used faerie fire to make it more interesting than just an ordinary flame, and because it seems fitting as it affects the roll of a die. It also helps differentiate it from other old school D&D mini-dragons:
  • The Pseudo-Dragon from the original Monster Manual, which appears as a miniature red dragon but can change color, and has a poison stinger instead of a breath weapon.
  • The Faerie Dragon from the Dragon #62 (and then the Monster Manual II), and breathes "euphoria gas".
  • The Pocket Dragon from the module M2 Maze of the Riddling Minotaur, which resembles a miniature green dragon and has a venomous bite.
All of the above have legs, but I also came across the amphiptere, which as used in heraldry is typically legless, but seems to have been written up in later systems as a miniature wyvern, for example there's a 5e version here.

I also kept in mind Pip the venomous "minidrag", who is winged and legless, from Alan Dean Foster's sci-fi Pip and Flinx series (1972 and on), which I started reading back in high school.

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Holmes Basic Set Cover Art: Exhibited!

"The Sutherland Dragon" on display, photo by myself

About two weeks ago, while on vacation, I saw a cryptic post on FB implying that the original Holmes Basic Set cover art  which I often refer to as "The Sutherland Dragon", after the artist  was on display in public ... somewhere. After a bit of searching, I confirmed that it was indeed being exhibited, as part of the show Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration at the Norman Rockwell Museum in the town of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts. I hadn't heard of the show until that moment, but at the time I just happened to be within reasonable driving distance of the museum, and would not be as close again for some time, so a quick decision was made to take a previously unplanned side trip to the museum!

A Painting Rediscovered

Not all original D&D art still exists, but I've known for a while that Sutherland's painting does, because back in 2013 Steve Winter reported on Twitter that it had been found, like the Lost Ark of the Covenant, "in a crate in WotC's warehouse". Steve provided a photo, observing that the "detail is amazing", which showed that the art had slipped inside its framing while in storage:

(As an aside, I joined Twitter for the first time just so I could comment on Steve's tweet, which eventually led to regular usage, and I recently passed 700 followers).

At the time, Steve also wrote on his blog Howling Tower about the find, which he coincidentally posted on Holmes' date of birth.

I also have a vague recollection of hearing later that it was now hanging up at the WOTC offices. I've played in several games with Steve at NTRPG Con and Gary Con over the years since (Gamma World, for example), so I may have asked him about it at one point.

Update: I was reminded on Twitter that on page 394 of Art & Arcana (2018), there is a small inset showing a WOTC employee holding the Sutherland Dragon with the caption: "Wizards employee Curt Gould poses in front of the beast with a red dragon of his own — the original Dave Sutherland basic box painting that he discovered in a Wizards of the Coast warehouse in 2013". The painting is in the same frame as the current exhibit. This may have been the source of my vague recollection mentioned in the paragraph above.

The Exhibit Curator on Sutherland's Illustration

The Enchanted exhibit opened in mid-June, after which the museum held a virtual symposium, which included a keynote talk (archived here on Google) by the exhibition curator, Jesse Kowalski, who at one point shows Sutherland's art (at ~41:00) and says that "it is probably the painting I was most thrilled to have in the exhibit", and that "I believe it is the first time on view to the public. It's on loan from Wizards of the Coast", and while "'s not the best painting, however, it's such an iconic work that started a whole generation of kids in the basement rolling dice".

Visiting the Museum

After driving several hours we arrived in Stockbridge, where Rockwell had lived, and then at the museum, which is in a beautiful leafy setting with picnic tables and sculptures, which currently includes a complimentary exhibit of contemporary fantasy sculpture, titled Land of Enchantment: A Fantastical Outdoor Sculpture ExhibitionIn addition to the museum proper, which counts George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as donors, Rockwell's actual studio is also on the grounds, having been moved there from another location in town. 

Update: Thanks to a user on reddit, I've learned that Stockbridge is also famous as the setting of Arlo Guthrie's song Alice's Restaurant.

Seeing The Sutherland Dragon

After paying our entry fee and applying my sticker, I zipped through the rooms of the exhibit until I found what I was there for, which was hung next to another classic from the same era, David Trampier's Pseudo-dragon from the AD&D Monster Manual:

It was stunning to finally see the Sutherland Dragon in the person. 
The colors in the original are *much* brighter than the published image on the box cover, and many details are more apparent, such as the colorful, glinting gems stuck in the crevices between the dragon's belly scales, like Smaug in the Hobbit. I'll make a follow-up post with a few closer photos of details of the painting, so here I'll just talk about some overall impressions of the painting as it is on display in the exhibition.

The painting, which the wall text indicates is "acrylic on board", has been re-framed since 2013, and now includes triple matting (see the picture at the top of this blog). I imagine this was done by Wizards of the Coast, who the wall text indicates are still the owners. The catalog for the exhibit (see below for more on this) lists the size as 24 5/8" x 22", which I believe refers to the entire framing, or perhaps just the painted board inside. The new matting is more aggressive than in the earlier frame, limiting the visible portion of the painting to about 10" by 12", which is just a bit larger than the original box cover, which is about 9" by 11". I can guess why this was done, as it has the effect of focusing the presentation on the action of the scene: the wizard and warrior confronting the looming red dragon. And it also emphasizes that Sutherland was painting something just a bit larger in scale than what was needed for the product as published. 

Unfortunately, WOTC's new matting covers up some significant details from Sutherland's original painting. Like other TSR boxed games from this era, the cover art was printed not just on the top of the box lid, but also wraps around to the sides. In the case of the Holmes Basic Set, the left, top and right sides each show the blocks of dungeon walls, which were all part of Sutherland's painting. Since this is an exhibition focusing on illustration, I would have preferred to see the entire painting, along with discussion of how Sutherland arranged a composition that was intended for a wrap-around box top. 

The matting also shifts the "visible portion" of the painting downward from the published box cover, which covers up most of a significant detail that is visible at the top of the published box cover: the archway that connects the top of the columns and frames the dragon. As a positive, this shift keeps uncovered most of what was shown on the bottom box edge, allowing for an fuller unobstructed view of the two adventurers, which I enjoyed seeing.
For a visualization of what the entire painting might look like if the current matting was removed, here is a mock-up of the original art posted on the Xeveninti blog back in 2010. It was made by scanning the entirety of the original box (cover and all four sides), editing these together, and editing out the graphics:

I hope I don't sound too negative here; this was simply an observation I made while viewing the painting and thinking about it. My overall experience at the museum was terrific, I was thrilled to see the painting in person, and it is wonderful that it has been preserved ("it belongs in a museum!") and has been made available for public showing by WOTC.

Exhibition Catalog

I bought a copy of this at the gift shop, and you can purchase it online here. It's nicely done, edited by the curator of the exhibit, and lavishly filled with color images from the exhibit, plus other images not in the exhibit. There's an 11-page section called "Gaming", which includes a ~1/3-page image of the Sutherland painting — I, of course, wish they made this one full page like some of the other illustrations in the book — and a really nice large scan of Trampier's Pseudo-dragon, as well as other gaming art, including an Elmore and an Easley that were also in the show.

Thy Deadline

If you want to see the exhibit in person in Stockbridge, get there by October 31st of this year!

Update: Mike S. on FB found info here on where the show will later move to:

  • May 20 to September 5, 2022: Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN
  • September 23, 2022 to January 8, 2023: Flint Institute of Art in Flint, MI

Future Posts

I plan to make a few follow-up posts with some closer shots of the Sutherland Dragon, and also a few of the other artworks in the exhibition, including Trampier's Pseudo-Dragon. I'll update this section with the links once they are up.

See also:

Smaug versus the Sutherland Dragon

David Sutherland Day

Sutherland Dragon in Lego

Dragon+ 5 Wallpaper inspired by Sutherland Dragon

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave #10: Driftwood Hermitage

This is an installment of The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave, which starts at Area 1.

Area 9


Sea  ===C  10. Driftwood Hermitage

(C = concealed)

10. DRIFTWOOD HERMITAGE: The water-filled passage from Area 9 opens into the north end of a large natural cavern, dimly lit during the day via cracks in the ceiling. On the eastern side, a wide rock ledge rises two feet from the water, and on this rests a large wooden hut built against the cavern wall.

If the PCs enter during the day, roll a d6 to determine where Mar Nes the Hermit, a former crabber who is now a wereshark, is currently located:

1-3: in the shelter, asleep

4: in the shelter, awake

5: swimming underwater, and immediately aware of the party

6: out of the cavern, with a 1 in 10 chance of returning each round

At night, Mar Nes will typically be out in the sea hunting for fish.

Ledge and Hut Exterior. The water is 20' deep throughout the cave, and the ledge rises straight from the bottom, so a boat can easily be pulled up alongside it. 

On closer inspection, the hut is built from large driftwood and decorated with a variety of sea shells. A curtain of old ropes serves as a door, to the back of which are tied several buoy bells that will clang loudly if passed through.

The Hermit Crabber. If the hut is approached and Mar Nes is awake, or awakened by someone attempting to enter, he will cry out that they should speak through the door as he has a contagious skin disease (e.g. leprosy). This is not true, although his rough skin does have an unnatural grey tone. He will also give a fake name (Grink) that townsfolk will not recognize, and claim to have climbed down here years ago through a crack in the ceiling that is no longer accessible.

While not pleased to have his lair discovered, Mar Nes is inquisitive and will try to learn more about the PCs by acting the part of a hermit. He will trade information about the caves for food (other than seafood) or alcohol. Being a smuggler in his youth, he knows the general layout of the cave system prior to the cave-ins, including the tunnel above the waterfall in Area 9. He also knows of the Sea Changed in Area 8, which he avoids, and how to slow the change with daily application of vinegar.

However, if any character possesses the unholy symbol from Area #7, there is a 1 in 6 chance each round that it will trigger Mar Nes changing into wereshark form and charging forth in an attempt to take it.

In truth, after decades successfully crabbing out of Portown, Mar Nes was bit by a wereshark when pulling up a crab trap. He fended it off with his lucky silver knife, but was infected with lycanthropy. Abandoning town, he remembered these caves and found this spot to lair in, hunting for fish in the sea at night. Due to his force of personality, he has maintained a fair degree of control over his lycanthropy. He occasionally returns to Portown in human form to sell old treasures from shipwrecks for money for his family, and to bring pretty seashells to his beloved young great-granddaughter.

Mar Nes the Wereshark (DX 8, AC 3, HD 5, HP 31, #AT 1 bite x 3d6, immune to normal weapons in shark form)

Hut InteriorInside are rough furnishings, including a sleeping mat and sitting logs. Hidden behind a loose rock in the back wall is a cavity holding a barnacle-encrusted gold brooch worth 50 gp, or double that if properly cleaned, several seashells, and an oilskin wrapping holding drawings made by a young child.

Underwater TunnelThe only other exit from the cavern is submerged ten feet beneath the surface of the water in the west wall, where a ten-foot wide underwater tunnel leads several hundred feet to the west to the sea.

There is only one above-water exit from this area, which is the passage from Area 9. There is also a tunnel concealed underwater that leads west several hundred feet out to the ocean.

Chronologically on this blog, the previous post installment was Area 9 and the next posted installment will be Area 11.