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

Note: Many older posts on this blog are missing images, but can be viewed at the corresponding page in the Internet Archive


The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave: Index of Posts

An index of posts describing the Forgotten Smugglers' Cave, an adventure for Holmes Basic characters levels 2-4.                    ...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Return of the Fantasy Trip

"At the beginning of my career, long before GURPS, I created a roleplaying game called The Fantasy Trip. For decades, the rights have been held by Metagaming, a publisher which is no longer in operation. I'm very pleased to announce that I have regained the eight TFT releases that I wrote myself: Melee, Wizard, Death Test, Death Test 2, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, In the Labyrinth, and Tollenkar's Lair.

This is just an initial announcement, to invite you to celebrate with me a day that has been a long time coming!

I have no idea yet about release schedules. I will probably have to answer most questions with "I don't know yet" - but feel free to use the button below to go to the forum discussion of this post, and try me . . . or just share memories of the game!" (links added by myself)

In his 1981 book Fantasy Role-Playing Games, J. Eric Holmes reviewed the first two releases of this system, Melee and Wizard (pictured above), writing that the combat rules, "may be too slow for some players, but they have an air of authenticity which is lacking in the simpler combat systems" (pg 114).

Holmes further notes that, "I have used the "roll less than your dexterity (strength)" system in the practice game earlier in this book". This refers to the sample RPG system that Holmes provides in the book to show how the games work, along with an adventure for it, the Dungeon of Arzaz. While Melee used the 3d6 roll for combat, Holmes instead uses it for a system of "feats" - i.e., "feats of strength", "feats of dexterity" etc, that is more like an ability score check of later D&D. (Holmes uses a Chainmail-like 2d6 roll for combat)

You can read more about "Holmes' Other Game" in a thread from 2009 on ODD74

I've also written before about the appearance of the 3d6-roll-under-stat check in early D&D, which actually predates Melee as an isolated mechanic, but not as a generalized system.

As to myself, I've never owned or read Melee, Wizard or the Fantasy Trip, so I will be looking forward to any reissues of the original material that Steve Jackson puts out. Per his post here, a Kickstarter for a reissue of Melee may be the first project.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Holmes for the Holidays 2017

After an absence of a few years, "Holmes for the Holidays" is back for 2017! 

This year I'm giving away a copy of Holmes' Mordred that I liberated from languishing on the shelf of a local used book store earlier this year. A photo of this book is above.

A bit about this book. It's an authorized direct sequel to the original "Buck Rogers" novel Armageddon 2419 A.D, published by ACE in 1980. Although the publication of this was almost certainly spurred by the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV series that started airing in 1979, there's no relationship between the two other than the white outfit that Rogers is wearing on the cover. And due to licensing differences between the original novel and the original comic strip, Rogers is not even called "Buck" here, instead he's just "Rogers" throughout, which is short for the original "Anthony Rogers" name. Holmes talked about this once in an interview with John Martin of Erbmania:

"In writing "Mordred," Holmes told me he originally included a line in which Anthony Rogers tells someone: "You can just call me Buck." But the editors told him: "No, he CAN'T just call him Buck!" Due to various copyright considerations, the name "Buck" was not available for use by ACE Books. The company owned only the rights to the novel concept, and didn't own anything else associated with Buck Rogers properties."

I read Mordred back in 2012, and posted a short review in a comment to a post on the space 1970 blog about this book series. Here's what I thought back then:

"Holmes' story is a faithful continuation of Nowlan's Armageddon 2419 novel (a fix-up of the original two stories), which was republished by Ace in a mass market paperback in Aug 1978, possibly in advance of the TV show. While the original novel is clearly the "primary invention", in some ways I found Holmes' Rogers story (which begins 60 years later after the death of Wilma) to be more engaging (better/more dialogue and characterization), though the endless descriptions of dis ray attacks (also shared with the original) were still a bit taxing to this reader."

* * * * *

For the give-away I'm using the same system as before: if you are interested, add a comment in reply to this post within the next two days. The two days are the time limit before moderation starts on posts on this blog. After two days, I'll st
op accepting entries and treat the list of comments as a table and roll randomly for the winner, using dice from a Holmes Basic set.

I'll cover postage (media mail) for any U.S. address. I can ship to other countries but I ask that you cover the difference (any amount over $4) in shipping by PayPal; so if you are overseas please only participate if you have a PayPal account and willing to chip in the extra. I'll estimate the exact shipping and refund the difference if I overcharge at all.
This is intended for folks who don't have a copy of the novel, so please don't post if you already have a copy.

* * * * *

12/17 Update, including the Results:

I recruited a dice elf to make the roll for me. There were 18 entries, so we used a spread of 1-20, with a 19 or 20 being re-rolled if it came up. To generate 1-20, we used dice from a Holmes set: a white twenty-sided die (numbered 0-9) and an orange six-sided die as a "control die". If the d6 comes up 1-3, the white die is read as-is, and if the d6 comes up 4-6, 10 is added to the white die. After a few practice rolls, we made the official roll...

...which indicates that number 5 is the winner! That's Patrick Usher. Patrick, please get in touch with me at zenopusarchives at

Thanks to all who entered the contest. I hope to do a few more of these type of contests during the year next year as I have accumulated some extra stuff around here. Stay tuned, and happy holidays!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Gygax's Dungeon Level from Hall of Many Panes

The "Dungeon Delving" map from Hall of Many Pane

I recently found a cheap second-hand copy of the Hall of Many Panes boxed set, a mega-adventure written by Gary Gygax and published by Troll Lord Games in 2005, with dual stats for 3.5E D&D and the Lejendary Adventures (LA) RPG. The Hall was playtested by Gary back in 2002 using LA, his preferred system in his last decade. I was subscribed to his Gygax-Games email list back then and remember his regular play-test reports.

This is my first time owning the final product, so I'd never seen the "Dungeon Delving" Map that was one of the "Many Panes" (Pane 8 / Rose). In the text, Gary describes it at as a "dungeon of the days of yore". Once a party enters via the pane, they are stuck on the level and must explore it thoroughly until they figure out how to leave again.

The published map is a bit of an oddity, as the cartographer seems to have taken a scan of Gary's original map (whatever the source may be), made a negative image out of it, and then drew right over that digitally. The graph from the original paper can be seen in white, as well as many of Gary's notes - some written over completely, some written over partially, and some not written over at all, like the pool in Room 9. The cartographer must have had some trouble following the original notations because, as T. Foster has pointed out, the final map has a number of discrepancies between it and the text of the module.

The design is interesting because it's a rare published example in Gary's early style of dungeons, as glimpsed in the tips in OD&D Vol 3, TSR's Dungeon Geomorphs and the unpublished levels of Castle Greyhawk (CG). In the '00s, Gary kept the original castle notes in a binder that he would use to run it at conventions, under OD&D rules, and a few of the levels were photographed by players of these games. The two most well-known images are of Levels 1 and 3, which I've included below for comparison (see also Visualizing Castle Greyhawk). On the whole, "Dungeon Delving" is closest in style to CG Level 3:

Castle Greyhawk Level 3 ("binder" version)

Below is a list of elements in "Dungeon Delving" that are found in Gygax's other dungeons. Note this list contains spoilers if you think you might ever play through Hall of Many Panes.

Diagonal Passages: In "Dungeon Delving" the central START area is an octagonal room similar in design to the hexagonal room in the northern half of Level 3 (see above). In each, a door leads out to a diagonal passage in four directions: NW, NE, SW, SE - essentially an X-shape with a room at the intersection.

Gary's use of diagonal passages was first illustrated way back in the "Sample Level" in OD&D Vol 3; see Area 3 in the image further down this page. The note for this explained, "This area simply illustrates the use of slanting passages to help prevent players from accurately mapping a level (exact deviation from cardinal points is difficult for them to ascertain)."

His "Solo Dungeon Adventures" article in Strategic Review #1 (Spring 1975) is a close relative of these early dungeons, and was later reprinted as Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation in the Dungeon Masters Guide. In this, Table III: Side Passages includes an entry that the "passage "X's" (if present passage is horizontal or vertical it forms a fifth passage into the "x")".

Diagonal passages and even a few "X-shaped" rooms can also be found in the Dungeon Geomorphs, originally published in 1976-1977, for example in Geomorph A from Set 1:

Geomorph A from Dungeon Geomorphs Set 1: Basic Dungeon (1976)

Room-Labyrinths: A prominent feature of the early dungeons are the maze-like series of empty rooms, which Gygax terms a "room-labyrinth" in OD&D Vol 3. Area 2 of the "Sample Level" illustrates this (see below), with the note stating, "This is a simple room-labyrinth, generally leading nowhere, but "[Room] A would be a room containing a monster and treasure". The section on "Distribution of Monsters and Treasures" further explains, "As a general rule there will be far more uninhabited space on a level than there will be space occupied by monsters, human or otherwise" (page 6). The random distribution instructions that follow give each room a 1-2 in 6 chance of having a monster, which means that on average 33% of the rooms will be occupied. 

The Dungeon Geomorphs are also chock-full of the room-labyrinths (see above). The original notes for the Dungeon Geomorphs restricted this even further: "Approximately 25% of the rooms and large spaces should contain monsters, treasures and other notable items. For every five such rooms there should be approximately one trap. Slanting passages, teleportation areas, slides and the like should be added sparingly thereafter -- one or two such items per level is a fair guideline".

Detail of the map from S1 Tomb of Horrors

Some other less filled-in Gygax dungeons have isolated room-labyrinths. The infamous Tomb of Horrors has a small room-labyrinth south of Area 8. One section of this leads to a false door concealing a spear trap (more on those below), and the other is a series of secret doors (Area 9) leading to the next area of the dungeon (Area 10). His last publication, Castle Zagyg, also has a room-labyrinth (Area 103) consisting of over 30 10' by 10' rooms with 50 (!) different doors, part of the defenses of his beloved Old Guard Kobolds.

Castle Greyhawk Level 1 ("binder" version)

Transporters: "Dungeon Delving" has three different two-way transporters; A1 & A2 are corridor/stair transporters, and B1/2 & B2/1 and B3/4 & B4/3 are two sets of room transporters. The L-shaped A1 & A2 transporters are in a style similar to those on the Level 1 CG map as pointed out by T. Foster here

Back in the Tricks and Traps section of OD&D Vol 3, the list of suggestions by Gygax include "Intra-level teleportation area, so that a player will be transported to a similar (or dissimilar area on the same level, possibly activated by touching some items (such as a gem, door, or the like)". The "Sample Level" in OD&D Vol 3 also includes two different examples of transporters, one a two-way room-based transporter, the other a one-way corridor transporter, although neither is explicitly "intra-level". See areas E and F below. 

Likewise, in the original notes for the Dungeon Geomorphs he suggests "putting in areas where those who entered are teleported to a similar spot elsewhere". Tomb of Horrors also has a number of teleporters.

The original version of the OD&D Vol 3 "Sample Level"

Pits: In "Dungeon Delving", the pits are marked with X's and are generally at intersections of corridors, similar to the example in the OD&D "Sample Level". See above, the "X" near Room I. The note for this states,  "Note the pit (X) at the four-way intersection containing a secret door on its south surface" (pg 5). The use of X's to marked covered pits became standard in D&D modules, at least for a time, for example the infamous pit in the Kobold lair in the Caves of Chaos.

The text for "Dungeon Delving" indicates that its pits are of three types, all 10' deep: an unboxed X to indicate an open pit, a boxed X to indicate a covered pit, and a boxed X with a cross-bar to indicate a covered pit with spikes at the bottom. I don't actually note any of the third type on the map itself, which suggests one of the mapping errors noted above.

Arrow/Spear Traps: An "A" on the "Dungeon Delving" map indicates an arrow trap that fires three arrows from the dungeon wall when the square is stepped on. Area 14 also has a more interesting variant on this. 

There are no arrow traps in the OD&D Sample Level, but the sample encounters for the Dungeon Geomorphs Set 1 have one that fires when a door is opened. Arrow and spear traps are part of the line-up in the Trick/Trap Table in "Solo Dungeon Adventures", and are part of the standard line-up in the trap tables in the Dungeon Masters Guide, including Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation Tables and Appendix G: Traps. Tomb of Horrors has a number of door-triggered spear traps.

Cage Traps: A "C" on the map indicates a "cage trap" where "spike-ended bars fall from the ceiling above to enclose the exit(s) from the place". There are two of these, each opened differently. In the south, one side must be levered a foot off the floor to cause the bars to raise. In the north, a trapped lever near the cage must be pulled to raise it.

OD&D Vol 3 mentions a "return passage blocked by bars", although no other details are given. Appendix G: Traps in the Dungeon Masters Guide includes "Passage, blocked by falling bars". Most famously, the Moat House dungeon in the Village of Hommlet has a hidden grate that will fall to block the exit when a false door is pulled open; it can be raised by use of a hidden winch.

Sloping Passages: Along the NE edge of "Dungeon Delving" is a passage that "slopes up going north 300 feet, so as to bring those traversing it back to the normal level of surrounding dungeon without noticing the incline. Going south the slope is downwards, so as to require the flight of steps up to regain the level of the dungeon proper". This means that if approached from the north, the steps will appear to lead up a level, and if approached from the south, the steps will appear to lead down a level. This is straight out of OD&D Vol 3, which suggests, "Steps which lead to a slanting passage, so the player may actually stay on the same level..." The reverse is also suggested in the Sample Level, where "D" indicates a passage to a lower level with such a gentle slope that "even dwarves won't recognize it".

Carved Face: Area 14 also has a "huge leering face chiseled into the stone wall", reminiscent of other Gygaxian carved faces, including the "great bas-relief face" in the Tricks and Traps list of the Greyhawk Supplement, and of course the Face of the Great Green Devil in the Tomb of Horrors.

Weird Statues: In Dungeon Delving, the START area also has nine statues, a number that reminds me of the infamous room in CG with nine statues - actually imprisoned demigods, later freed by Robilar. The statues here do not similarly house prisoners, but are important to solving the dungeon level. The use of weird statues was suggested in several of the "Trick and Traps: (Additions)" found in the Greyhawk Supplement.

Evil Human Lair with Escape Route: Room 17 of "Dungeon Delving" is called the "Jolly Priest" and is home to an evil priest masquerading as good, ala the "jovial priest" in the Keep on the Borderlands. The description includes his plans for escape via a secret door and nearby passages, which is another design element Gygax often included in his dungeons. 

In the note for Area 8 of the OD&D Sample Level, "The western portion contains the room of some evil man [Room J], complete with two secret doors for handy escape". Likewise, the evil priest in the Caves of Chaos has a secret escape door from his chamber in Area K. And in the evocative yet incomplete DMG Sample Dungeon, the Wandering Monster Table indicates an evil cleric lairs in Areas 35-37, which contain two concealed doors - presumably an escape route.

See also: Gygax's Playtest Reports for the "Dungeon Delving" Level from HoMP

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Maze of Peril Ch 1, Scene 3: "Murray the Mage, It Is"

This post is part of the Tales of Peril Book Club, indexed here.

After the description of the Underworld, the story returns to the table in the Green Dragon where Boinger, Bardan and Zereth discuss their "proposition" concerning the Underworld.

Boinger and Bardan reveal that their partner Murray the Mage has found a secret entrance to the Underworld by studying the "old legends" (one of the "Entrances" referred to by the title of the chapter). 

This is the first mention of Murray, another major character in the story. Like the others, Murray is based on a PC in Holmes' original campaign - in this case played by Chris' friend Eric Frasier, who wrote an essay for Tales of Peril called "My Time as Murray" (page 299).

Boinger explains that Murray will go with them on the expedition, since he doesn't completely trust his partners. They all laugh at this, which we learn is uncommon for Zereth - "he rarely allowed himself more than two" smiles per evening.

They launch into a very D&D-esque "discussion of magical detection schemes, march distances, horse power, mercenary men-at-arms, supply dumps and rations". No further details are given here, but some are revealed during the start of the adventure proper.

A note from the bar is delivered, which turns out to be from Murray himself, who was surreptitiously watching them before departing. Boinger exclaims "Mother of Mithra" - the first of several references in the novel to real world religions.

The note indicates that Murray finds Zereth acceptable and that he will get a "regular share". In his early D&D games Holmes used a rule where hirelings got a half-share of treasure, unless exceptional, as explained in the 1976 Alarums & Excursions article Warrior-For-Hire, also reprinted in Tales of Peril.

This is the last scene in the Green Dragon in the first chapter. The next scene jumps ahead to the start of the party's delve into the Underworld.

The scene ends with Zereth joking that he has no choice but to join the party as he has "but five silver pieces left" in his purse. All of the prices in Men & Magic, O&D Vol 1, are in gold pieces, making it the standard purchasing unit. Silver and copper only appear as part of treasure hoards in Monsters & Treasure, OD&D Vol 2, with a standard exchange rate of 1 GP = 10 SP = 50 CP noted on page 39. So Zereth's 5 SP here is equal to 1/2 of a gold piece.


Murray: Tall, white hair, hooked nose, high-pitched voice, an "old fud" per Boinger. Except for the voice, these are reminiscent of many Gandalf-esque wizards in the days of OD&D. Known as miserly - per Boinger, it is typical that Murray did not tip the barmaid for delivering the note (Boinger gives her a copper piece). Murray as lived in Caladan "for some time now, studying the old legends".