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Friday, February 6, 2015

Part 46: "Zenopus Built a Tower"

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 


  1. Good post and continued analysis. As you know this is one of my favorite dungeons and I enjoy learning more about it and Holmes as well.

  2. Another good candidate for the CAS wizard is Maal Dweb (who is in "The Maze of the Enchanter" and in "The Flower-Women".

    1. Thanks, I will move those ahead in the reading list!

  3. Am I the only one who thinks that "Zenopus Built a Tower" would make for a great Vacation Bible School song?

  4. @cirsova: Nope, you are not. ;)

    1. Here's one for the kiddos:

      Zenopus built a Tower
      A Tower In Portown
      Zenopus had a Tower
      Until it was knocked Down

      Zenopus had his Tower
      Where he could be real mean
      Until his big bad Tower
      Got burned up good and green

      Now there is no Tower
      Just rocks there in the town
      Zenopus has no Tower
      Because it was knocked down

  5. Excellent analysis as always, Zeno.

    "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.

    Holmes' character Bolgar the Bold used the term "unhuman" in the story "Trollshead" (THE DRAGON #31).

    Maze of Peril mentions "a few serpentmen" at the Green Dragon Tavern. Silith the Serpent Woman was an important character in Holmes' ("The Adventure of the Lost City" parts I and II, ALARUMS & EXCURSIONS #s 17 and 19). Two lizard men work in Caladan: one who assists Misteera the Medium ("The Sorcerer's Jewel," DRAGON #46) and one standing guard for Grink, the gnomish trader ("In the Bag," DRAGON #58).

    1. Great list, Tony. There was also that centaur character in one chaper of Maze, and I recall a town guard with horns - suggesting less than human ancestry. Quite a melting pot.

      Speaking of Holmes' serpentmen, there's also his mention of the "Half-human, half-serpent Naga" in the Manuscript, which may be the same as his serpentmen, particularly Silith, who seems mostly human. This also makes me think that the Naga PC described in Confession of a DM may be one of these serpent woman rather than a typical D&D Naga.

      Several of the Clark Ashton Smith stories I've read recently have featured a nearly forgotten prehistoric serpentman civilization. That could be used for pre-human origins of the dungeons of Portown. Although you'd need to explain why there are some hanging out at the Green Dragon. : )

  6. I could deal with a half-serpent character type than a 'half-naga', because I automatically assume that nagas are pretty powerful monsters. Allowing it as a PC (well, half of it anyway) seems to be a bit much. I could deal with lizardman characters, and even a variation on the Yuan-Ti monsters as PC types.

    Not having read Maze of Peril, I can only guess what the guard with horns really was? A half-goat man? Half-demon/devil? (A 'tiefling'??? Oh my!)

    Portown as a setting & Holmes as a rule set keeps opening my eyes wider every time I look closer at them. :)

  7. I think when this was published that Holmes may have played in Gary's Greyhawk campaign and could have used it for his D&D setting. When I look at a map of Middle-Earth, there really isn't a northern sea. In the various versions of the Greyhawk setting, there does seem to be a northern sea. Also, while the characters start at the Green Dragon Inn, it doesn't indicate directly where the characters go in order to find the dungeon. The text indicates caravan routes to the south and the northern sea to the north are connected. I also see that the pirate cove exits to the "sea," not a river (such as the one next to the City of Greyhawk). Even the coloring book which re-uses the same map indicates starting at the Green Dragon Inn and then riding horses for two or three days to get to the dungeon. Therefore, I think it makes sense to look for a place west of a city where the caravan routes meet the northern sea. It looks like that would be either Vlekstaad or Mosshold based on the routes listed on the map and the fact that the sample dungeon text describes the dungeon as west of Portown and because the pirate cove exists to the west on the sample map. Does this make sense to you?

  8. I'm not sure if Greyhawk existed in its well-known form (as published in 1980) at the time that Holmes wrote up the Sample Dungeon text (prior to Feb 1977). Gygax's earlier maps looked different: Great Kingdom Map

  9. I bought the Holmes book on gaming because of your website. Holmes is aware of the Tolkien connection obviously but I don't get the impression that his setting is Middle-Earth. So that leaves me with a Greyhawk with a sea to the north. Published Greyhawk was published in 1980 so did Gary move a sea into position for his players by 1977...did Holmes play loose with the setting...? It's hard to pin down without a witness for sure.

  10. This was interesting! I've linked your work in my article about D&D books -