Friday, July 24, 2020

A Chronology of D&D Sample Dungeons: The Haunted Keep by Tom Moldvay (1981)

The Haunted Keep cross-section by Erol Otus. Source: Old School FRP tumblr

This is material I recently wrote for the Chronology of Sample Dungeons section of the Zenopus Archives site. Think of it as a first draft as I will likely revise/add to it over time.

This is the sample dungeon from the 1981 revision of the D&D Basic rulebook, which was edited by Tom Moldvay. As with the Holmes Basic rulebook, the job of editor involved a significant amount of original writing, including an entire sample dungeon level. While the Zenopus Dungeon from Holmes Basic has no formal name other than "Sample Dungeon", Moldvay specifically refers to his scenario as "THE HAUNTED KEEP" (top left of page B55).

Holmes pioneered the inclusion of an introductory sample dungeon in the Basic rulebook, taking the sample level concept from OD&D Vol 3, which is essentially a collection of examples, mainly tricks and traps, and adding narrative cohesion and gearing it towards beginners. Moldvay takes his cues from Holmes' structure, similarly providing an evocative background in several concise paragraphs (page B55) followed by a single fully described dungeon level (page B56-B57), and with suggestions for expansion.

Moldvay's background echoes that of the Zenopus Dungeon in several respects. The occupants have mysteriously disappeared, leaving the structure housing the dungeon abandoned. The structure is said to be haunted; "[s]trange lights and sounds are often seen and heard in the ruins by the passing townspeople", which recalls the Zenopus Dungeon's bit about the neighbors complaining about ghostly lights and ghastly screams. The Haunted Keep is ruined like Zenopus' tower, although not to the same extent, and thus Moldvay's sample dungeon level is actually above ground in the only remaining floor of the East Tower.  Because the dungeon is named The Haunted Keep, it's not usually remembered that the sample level is actually of the East Tower of this structure (see map below), and there is a perhaps a trace of Holmes' ruined tower concept in Moldvay's likewise ruined tower. 

Moldvay advances the concept of an introductory sample dungeon in a number of significant ways. These changes suggest why Moldvay chose to write a new level rather than just revising Holmes' dungeon.

1. Several of the paragraphs of the background are in quotes, with a suggestion that this could be read to players (pg B55); this seems to be a step in the evolution of TSR's "boxed text" that would shortly become standard in modules. The first modules for the revised Basic Set, such as B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (originally by Jean Wells alone, with Moldvay as a co-author on the revised version) and B4 The Lost City (by Moldvay) were among the first TSR modules to include boxed text.

2. Moldvay provides a motivation for exploring the dungeon beyond simply looking for treasure. On page B51, he lists out ten different "Scenarios", of which the "Haunted Keep" is described as an example of #8, "Rescuing Prisoners".

3. There is the significant addition of a "step-by-step" how-to section that shows how the dungeon was constructed (pages B55-B56), with the dungeon level being the example of the output. This guidance is integrated with Moldvay's instructions for stocking dungeons on pages B51-B52; both sections include steps A-F.

4. The dungeon map (pg B57) includes more room features than the Zenopus dungeon, and these correspond to a separate key of standard dungeon map features (pg B58).

Maps for the Haunted Keep from page B57. Source: Marks Roll Dice 

5. There is a second map showing the outside structure of the dungeon below the dungeon map (shown above). This serves as a bit of a location map, showing a north-south road running through the gatehouse of the ruined keep, as well as suggestion another area for expansion: the West Tower. The introduction also indicates that the "interior of the gatehouse will be similar to the towers, though there will be fewer rooms", although the map does not shown a blank interior area where these rooms would be located in the Gate House.

6. The sample cross-section (of B58) drawn by Erol Otus (shown at the top of the page) is linked to the sample dungeon level rather than being an unrelated cross-section like Skull Mountain in Holmes Basic. This cross-section shows second and third levels of the dungeon, corresponding to Moldvay's instructions for expanding the dungeon. These three levels match the three levels of Basic play, which refer to both character levels and dungeon levels. This was a design decision first implemented by Holmes, who included Wandering Monsters for the first three dungeon levels. Holmes had also intended for his rulebook to include a cross-section of a dungeon with just three levels, but TSR replaced this with the much more extensive Skull Mountain cross-section.

7. The Example of Play (page B59) is also linked to the sample dungeon rather than having it be an unrelated example like in Holmes Basic. The Example starts at end of the first level of the dungeon at the entrance to the second level, and is thus able to continue the description of the dungeon a bit further. This Example of Play is also linked to the Example of Combat earlier in the book (B28), which continues directly from the Example of Play. 

8. Holmes gave some brief suggestions for expanding the dungeon. Moldvay expands on this by giving more detailed instructions for what the DM should include when designing the 2nd and 3rd level of the dungeon (pg B55).

The extra material noted above does mean that the dungeon itself is greatly reduced in size from Holmes' example, with the first level of the Haunted Keep having just 9 rooms described in a little over half a column of text, as compared to Holmes' 15+ rooms described over 3 full pages. This provides less ready-to-go material for the DM, but this was perhaps less of a concern as the Basic Set now included a full module. When the Holmes Basic set debuted, it was packaged with Monster & Treasure Assortments, but these were replaced in 1978 with B1 In Search of the Unknown, and then again in early 1980 with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, which was then retained in revised format for the Moldvay Basic set.


  1. Thanks for this. While I learned from Moldvay and really enjoyed the adventures of Morgan Ironwolf, Black Dougal et al, I've always found the sample dungeon very underwhelming and possibly the weakest part of the book. The frankly dull map just wasn't inspirational enough. In contrast the guidance given on how to create a dungeon and the possible themes for adventures is the best provided.

    The Holmes dungeon is miles better and the DMG sample dungeon also has much more character. I'd need to go back and check the Mentzer sample, but there's nothing sticking in my mind about it.

    Given that it was pitched as Basic and generally aimed at younger players one thing that I thought was really missing from BX was a expanded guide on how to generate your own dungeon adventures. Theming, map generation, dungeon dressing, tips on providing a memorable play experience and lots of random tables to support would've been an excellent product back in the late 70s and early 80s. It's puzzling why TSR didn't provide one when you look at some of the dross they did put out.

  2. I ran this back in the early 80's as a one-off. The group liked it. I didn't bother to create a top-down map for the levels shown in the side view map but just described to the group what I saw as a DM in the side-view map. It worked fine. Dragonsfoot has a version of this now called DF23-The-Haunted-Keep.pdf that expands what the Moldvay Basic book has.