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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.                    ...

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Well Worm (New Monster)

"Front View of a Nematode Monster..." 
Source: Cobb (1914)

This is a new monster for Holmes Basic, one which is featured in Area 19 of The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave adventure (which is indexed here). It originally appeared as part of my list of One Hit Point Monsters.

Well Worm

Move: 60 feet/turn swimming
Hit Dice: 1/8 (1 hit point)
Armor Class: 7
Treasure Type: nil
Alignment: neutral
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 1 point

Well worms, the bane of farmers, are a form of giant roundworm that can infest any type of still water. With a soft yet exceedingly slimy body up to two feet in length, ending in a nasty tripartite jaw ringed with grasping feelers, and the ability to launch themselves up to three feet out of the water, removing even one from a body of water is a daunting task, and they are frequently found in significant numbers (2d20 worms). Being generalists in diet, they can thrive in a number of harsh habitats, even underground, and can slowly creep across land to find new waters.

It is rumored that the slime of the well worm is desired by wizards for use as an ingredient in certain magical oils that render one immune to capture by grasping and entangling attacks.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023



One of Nicholson's full-page illustrations from the Fiend Folio,
depicting a party facing off against the Githyanki. Image Source.

It was sometime in the spring of 1983 that I came into possession of the fifth AD&D hardcover, the FIEND FOLIO. As I recall, I learned from a friend that Kay Bee Toys in the local mall had them on sale for a single dollar (!), a price low enough that I was able to convince my parents to get me one immediately rather than waiting for the next holiday.

A monster stat block & illustration from the Fiend Folio
See more here

While the format was similar to the MONSTER MANUAL, which I had received as an Xmas present just months before, the striking and strange-to-me interior illustrations made it feel like it had slipped in from an alternate timeline. Which it essentially had, being the product of the UK division of TSR, and compiling monsters submitted by readers of WHITE DWARF magazine. The artwork giving it this feel was heavy with dots, lines and cross-hatching, and largely the work of two of the UK-based artists, Alan Hunter, who we lost in 2012, and Russ Nicholson, who passed away last week, and is the subject of this appreciation post.

Death Knight by RUSS
Image Source

Of the two, Nicholson is much better known these days, having contributed more illustrations to the book, and more of the best-remembered monsters such as the Coffer Corpse, Death Knight, Demon: Lolth, Flind, Githyanki, Grell, Norker, Penanggalan, Retriever, Revenant, Skeleton Warrior, Son of Kyuss, Svirfneblin, and Xill, to name just a few. His prominent "RUSS" signature on his illustrations also helped cement his name in the mind of fans of the Fiend Folio.

Svirfneblin (Deep Gnome) by RUSS
Image Source

Nicholson excelled at both types of interior artwork found in the early monster tomes: the static "monster portrait" accompanying each stat block and the dynamic "action scene" depicting characters encountering monsters, such as the one at the top of this post. Both types were found in the original Monster Manual, and the Fiend Folio takes it up a notch with more of everything (sadly, the MONSTER MANUAL II would almost entirely eliminate the second category, making it much less thrilling to peruse, and starting a trend that has unfortunately continued). In addition to numerous monster portraits, larger fill-ins and the title-page monster, Nicholson also contributed two of the seven full-page pictures, which depict parties facing off against Githyanki and a Grell, respectively. All of these images remain indelibly burned into my mind's eye.

Image Source

His art in the Fiend Folio was an outgrowth of his work for the early years of White Dwarf. As a youth, I was only ever able to locate one of these issues: #29 (Feb/Mar 1982), found secondhand at the Game Workshop store in Baltimore, which was the first one in the US.  It featured one exquisite Nicholson, an illustration for the first Griselda story, "Lucki Eddi", a fiction series set in the Runequest world of Glorantha.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
Image Source.

Unfortunately, I don't recall encountering any other publications with his art as a youth. He is also well-known for illustrating the interiors of the first two Fighting Fantasy books, but those mostly eluded me, and I only ever came across one slightly later entry, at our local library. 

Illustration for the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea RPG
Image Source

Naturally in the internet age I've been able to rectify this and have seen many more of his works from a long and productive career. In the last decade, at least before his health faltered, Nicholson was very active on the internet, both on G+ (where he even joined my Holmes Basic G+ Group), Facebook and on his own personal blog, The Gallery: the Art of Russ Nicholson, where he frequently shared large groups of scans of his art, old and new. And he remained very productive in new RPG art, often for newer publications, such as the DCC RPG rulebook and the Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea RPG (see above). I was always impressed by how consistent in style his newer work was with his classic illustrations.

A few years ago at virtual Gary Con, I had the pleasure of playing in a game where the entire party was a Githyanki, a fantastic AD&D scenario called "Secret of the Githyanki" run by Julian Bernick. I played an anti-paladin with a silver sword. And the entire time I pictured us and the setting looking just like Nicholson's pictures in the Fiend Folio.

Farewell, RUSS.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Was the Holmes Basic Rulebook Sold Separately?


Source: Tome of Treasures

There have been a few discussions on Dragonsfoot lately, including this one, about whether the early D&D Basic and Expert rulebooks were sold separately from the boxed sets, which spurred me to post some pictures that show, for Holmes Basic and B/X (Moldvay Basic and Cook-Marsh Expert), that the answer is yes.

For example, above is a section from a 1978 TSR Catalog hawking the "BASIC SET of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS", "complete in a full color bookshelf-sized box", for $9.95...but also the rulebook "only" for an even $5. (Incidentally, I'd love a better scan of this catalog entry if anyone has or can make one that is higher resolution and/or not water-stained).

As reported by Jon Peterson back in 2021, the almost $5 price difference actually played a pivotal role in Dave Arneson's lawsuit against TSR, as "Arneson learned that he was not being paid his expected 5% royalty on the $10 cover price of the whole Basic Set, but instead only on the copy of the Basic D&D rulebook that shipped in the box, which then sold separately for $5". Read Jon's article for the full story.

Here's another piece of ephemera, also from 1978, again showing the availability of each item separately. It's the first page of an Order Blank - an order form - for the Dungeon Hobby Shop from April 1978, which shows the boxed set and separate rulebook available for the same prices, and also provides the TSR Stock Numbers - 1001 for the boxed set, and 2001 for the rulebook. These are the same numbers printed on the products starting with the 2nd printing, dated Jan 1978.

Source: image from Ebay auction

Four years later, and the 1982 Dungeon Hobby Shop catalog has both products still available for sale, but at a deep discount because they have been superseded by the revised Moldvay Basic set. The boxed set now has a product code of T1001, a $10 original price (5 cents higher than above), a $6 sale price, and is described as "Original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Basic Set. Contains all the rules need to play D&D game adventures". The rulebook has a product code of T2001, a $5 original price, a $2.50 sale price, and is described as "D&D Booklet (Original). The original booklet found in the D&D Basic Set. This product is no longer in print!".

(Incidentally, 1982 is when I received my Holmes Basic Set. Did my parents get it for me because it was on sale?)

Image Source:

Here are two pages from one version of the 1981 TSR Gateway to Adventure catalog which show the separate entries for the B/X boxed sets (stock numbers 1011 and 1012) and the stand alone rulebooks (stock numbers 2014 and 2015).

And these stand-alone rulebooks weren't only available for mail order purchase. As T. Foster reports on Dragonsfoot (here): "I can confirm that I purchased the 1981 Expert rulebook as a standalone for $6 at a Waldenbooks store" and "I also purchased the Holmes Basic book as a standalone at a Toys R Us store sometime around 1986 - no idea why they still had it on the shelf when it had been officially out of print for ~5 years..."

The next iteration of Basic, aka Mentzer Basic, arrived in 1983 and changed the rulebook more radically, splitting the material between two booklets, one for Players and one for DMs. This change meant that the rulebooks needed to be sold together, so TSR didn't offer a stand-alone rulebook for this iteration of Basic.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave: Setting Up the Adventure

The Sea Cliffs West of Town
(Image Source)


The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave (indexed here) was written with Portown in mind, but can be placed in any campaign setting. Due to the geography of the dungeon, it should be located near a large coastal town with cliffs or other high land over water to the west of it, as the dungeon entrance is located there. The adventure assumes this water is the sea, but a bay, river or lake should work equally well.

If the adventurers are already in the coastal town, you can add the following rumor to a list of rumors that the player might hear; see Portown Rumors for an example of such a list.

"Down at the docks, a member of the Guild of Shark Hunters is looking for a group to explore a mysterious sea cave that she has discovered" (True) 

If the players are not already in town, simply replace the first clause with "In the coastal town of [name of town], a member..."

If the characters inquire further, they will learn that the angler's name is Fenza the Fearless, who hauls in coastal sharks from her boat, the Reap Tide.

She is easily located down at the waterfront, and after sizing up the party and deeming them worthy, will tell them a story, and make an offer.

"Last winter there was a terrible storm, giant waves and all, that really pounded the sea cliffs west of town. All along the base of these cliffs are piles and piles of fallen rocks rising up out of the water. So, sometime after this storm I was fishing in a favorite spot nearby and at low tide noticed that one of the bigger piles had shifted just enough to reveal the top of the entrance to a cave. 

And finding that brought back a distant memory. When I was a girl, some forty years ago, my pa used to say that falling rocks had once buried a cave full of smugglers and their treasure of platinum doubloons.

Curious, I squeezed through and, sure enough, on the inside it opened up into a long, water-filled tunnel, just shallow enough to walk through at low tide. And on scrawled on the walls were pictures of skulls and warnings to "KEEP OUT" and of "DEATH"...!

I bet the smuggler's treasure is still in there, waiting to be found, but so far I've had trouble convincing anyone else that it's worth exploring, given all the dangerous vermin found underground. I'd go myself if I was ten years younger"

Fenza offers, for a share of the treasure, to show the party where the cave is, drop them off, and then continue to fish nearby until they return to be picked up.

Her fishing boat is not overly large, holding only four in addition to herself, but the players can rent, for 5 gp/day, another rowboat holding up to six, and Fenza can tow it after dropping them off.

Fenza the Fearless: DX 9, F1, hp 8, AC 7 (sharkskin leather), #AT 1 fishing knife (dagger)


By investigating further in town (talking to old timers; employing a sage; researching in the town's free library), the characters may also learn the following rumors about the old smuggling organization:

Roll a d6:

1. "The smugglers who operated in town were once so powerful that they kept dragons as guards." (False; they used giant iguanas to pull carts of smuggled goods)

2. "The smugglers used to be the real rulers of Portown." (True; they bribed several members of the ruling council; evidence of this can be found in the office of the arch smuggler)

3. "Anyone who crossed the smugglers would end up buried in a crypt under their hideout." (False; the smugglers buried their own dead in the crypts, not others)

4. "The smugglers crossed a powerful wizard and were destroyed by his magic." (False; the smugglers stole the platinum doubloons from a wizard and ended up fighting over them)

5. "If you find platinum doubloons, do not touch them! They are cursed and you will never leave the caves." (True; although there is a way to lift this curse)

6. "The smugglers had a secret way into town that was never located." (True; more research into this could lead to the alternate start described in Area 20. For example, players might deduce that the newly uncovered cave is due west of the Green Dragon)