Part 46 of a comparison of Holmes' manuscript with the published Basic Set rulebook. Turn to page 41 of your 'Blue Book' (page 40 for the 1st edition) and follow along...
This is my favorite part of the rulebook. The introduction is highly evocative, reading almost like the weird fiction that Holmes was a fan of. As he wrote a few years later in an article for Psychology Today, “my
players have wandered through bits of Barsoom and Hyperborea, through worlds
created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, H. Rider Haggard, A.
Merritt, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith” (from "Confessions of a Dungeon Master")
Like the Example of Play, the Sample Dungeon is modeled on a portion of OD&D, Vol 3 (in this case, the 'Sample Level' on pages 4-5), but again Holmes creates something new in his own voice. The OD&D Sample Level is just a collection of examples whereas Holmes presents his dungeon ideas as part of a coherent adventure, almost a mini-setting.
Back in 2006, Gary Gygax wrote, in response to my query, that "J. Eric Holmes did design the sample dungeon in the first D&D Basic Set". This is now confirmed by the manuscript, which includes the entire dungeon as we know it, with only minor changes by TSR in the published version.
In the manuscript, the introduction to the sample dungeon takes up exactly two pages (118 & 119), and has the same title as the published version. In fact there are only two significant changes to the introduction, both in the last paragraph. But I'll go through it line-by-line and note some possible inspirations for the story.
Background — 100 years ago the sorcerer Zenopus 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.
As I've written before, the sorcerer's name is very close to Xenopus, which means “strange
foot” in Latin, but is also the name for a genus of African clawed
frogs, which are social, aquatic, and fish-eating. The use of the name
was presumably an in-joke as Dr. Holmes was a neurophysiologist and Xenopus laevis
is commonly used in biology research. Holmes later
used frog-men in his novel Maze of Peril.
Going by OD&D, the title "sorcerer" would indicate that Zenopus is a 9th level M-U, but he is also referred to as a magician (level 7) or a wizard (level 11 or above), although only the latter is capitalized, at the end of the fifth paragraph ("Wizard's tower"). See here for more.
The dedication in Holmes' 1981 book (Fantasy Role-playing Games) is made to the adventurers in his games, including those "who plumbed the depths of the Wizard's
Tower" - which is possibly this same adventure.
Chris Holmes mentioned to me that "You may find the wizard Zenopus in a [Clark Ashton] Smith story". Smith's work (of which I've only read a select portion - so far), is replete with wizards, but one possible candidate is the wizard Malygris, who has a tower on a hill in a city in the tales The Last Incantation and The Death of Malygris. Another is the Hyperborean wizard Eibon, who has a tower by the sea in The Door to Saturn. The location of sorcerer's tower in the town is also reminiscent of the Conan story The
Tower of the Elephant (1933), as Paleologos suggested in here.
Rumor has it that the magician made extensive cellars and tunnels underneath the tower.
In Lovecraft's The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), the antagonist Curwen, who is occasionally described as a wizard, has a laboratory in a farm outside of town, and several of his opponents become "convinced that a great series of tunnels
and catacombs ... underlay the farm".
The town is located on the ruins of a much older city of doubtful history and Zenopus was said to excavate in his cellars in search of ancient treasures.
The older city is also described as "pre-human", making it reminiscent of the ancient non-human civilizations described in Lovecraft's The Nameless City (1921)* and At the Mountains
of Madness (1931). Holmes furthered this concept in The Maze of Peril,
describing a megadungeon Underworld that stretches to the center of the
earth, built by an unknown prehistoric race.
*Thanks to Falconer at OD&D74 for this suggestion.
Fifty years ago, on a cold wintry night, the wizard's tower was suddenly engulfed in green flame.
A monstrous green flame features prominently in Lovecraft's The Festival (1925), and the town in that story (Kingsport, based on real-life Marblehead) is reminiscent of Portown. See here for further discussion.
Several of his human servants escaped the holocaust, saying their master had been destroyed by some powerful force he had unleashed in the depths of the tower. Needless to say the tower stood vacant for a while after this, but then the neighbors and the night watchmen complained that ghostly blue lights appeared in the windows at night, that ghastly screams could be heard emanating from the tower at all hours, and goblin figures could be seen dancing on the tower roof in the moonlight. Finally the authorities had a catapult rolled 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.
In the Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the neighbors also see and hear strange lights and noises emanating from the Curwen farm.
The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness, but the few adventurous souls who have descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all.
Other magic-users have moved into the town but the site of the old tower remains abandoned.
One of these other magic-users may be thaumaturgist found in the dungeon, whose tower above Room S is among the streets of Portown.
Whispered tales are told of fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters in the underground passages below the hilltop, and the story tellers 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.
Delta found a passage from Lovecraft's Pickman's Model (1927) that ends in a parallel fashion: "Look here, do you know the whole North End once had a set of tunnels
that kept certain people in touch with each other's houses, and the
burying-ground, and 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.
Here we get a thumbnail sketch of a campaign setting. The mention of pirates is possibly a clue to the pirates hiding in the dungeon - this background material is meant to be read to the players, as indicated below.
"Non-humans" appears to be Holmes' term for "demi-humans" (a term that would first appear in the Player's Handbook) but may also include other humanoids. The town in The Maze of Peril had a serpentman or two wandering around.
At the Green Dragon Inn, the players of the game gather their characters for an assault on the fabulous passages beneath the ruined Wizard's tower.
Holmes' Green Dragon Inn most likely comes from Tolkien rather than Greyhawk, as the one in Greyhawk hadn't been published at the time. Holmes also used the Green Dragon Inn in his Boinger & Zereth stories, including The Maze of Peril. See this post.
The Dungeon Master should read the background material above to the assembled players and then let them decide how they will proceed. The
stairway from the surface leads twenty five feet straight down and ends
in the corridor marked START on the Dungeon Master's map. Because of the nature of some of the traps in the dungeon, it is highly recommended that no one attempt it alone. If only one player is taking his or her character into the dungeon, the Dungeon Master should recommend employing one or more assistants. These non-player characters can then be "rolled up" and hired out for a share of the treasure.
In the published rulebook, the second sentence above was moved to the end of the paragraph, but not otherwise changed. This seems a good change as it places it right before the room descriptions. The published version also changes "one or more assistants" to "one or more men-at-arms". Holmes' included guidance on hiring NPCs earlier in the rulebook.
(Some material in this post appeared earlier in "Holmes Basic easter eggs" on OD&D74).
Go to Part 47: "The Occupants are Goblins"
Go Back to Part 45: "Roll the Number and See What Happens!"
or Go Back to Start: The Holmes Manuscript