Will Niebling was the head of the Metro Detroit Gamers, and an early champion of D&D tournament play at the MDG's annual Michicon and Wintercon conventions. They commissioned Gary to write The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth as the D&D tournament for Wintercon '76 and published it in a limited edition (before Gary revised and expanded it into AD&D module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, published by TSR in 1982). Another of their tournaments, Quest for the Fazzlewood, was also republished by TSR, as D&D module O1: The Gem and the Staff. Sometime around 1978 or 79 Will Niebling went to work for TSR as Executive VP of Sales and Marketing, a position he held through 1982. According to Michael Witwer's Empire of the Imagination Niebling departed due to dissatisfaction with how the Blume brothers were (mis)managing the company, which was a sore blow to Gary, who considered him a friend and ally and without him felt increasingly isolated. Post-TSR, in the 90s, Niebling became CEO of Mayfair Games, the company that obtained a license to print money as the American distributor for the Settlers of Catan series of boardgames. Schar Niebling, as far as I know, is Will's wife. Russ Stambaugh was a student at the University of Michigan (and presumably a member of the MDG) at the time this adventure was written, and later went on to a distinguished career outside of gaming as a psychologist and sex therapist. I'm fairly certain this module is the only published D&D/rpg writing credit for any of the three.
Per his introduction (and backed up by later statements in online Q&As), this was Gary Gygax's favorite D&D adventure that he didn't write himself. From what I gather, it was originally written sometime in the late 70s and was probably used as a tournament module. Gary picked up a copy and carried it around with him to run for impromptu games. After parting ways with TSR in 1986 and founding New Infinities Productions as a successor company, Gary was looking for things to publish. They started with a bunch of novels (of which Gary's Gord the Rogue series are the best-known) and the woefully ill-conceived Cyborg Commando rpg (about which the less said the better), before launching the Fantasy Master line of (ostensibly) "generic" rpg supplements and adventures. One of them was The Town of Baldemar, a decent but kind of bland effort from Bob Blake (who organized the D&D (later AD&D) Open tournament at GenCon for many years). Another was The Convert, a tournament module Frank Mentzer had written for the RPGA (and over which TSR sued New Infinities to stop publication). A few more titles had been announced but not published by the time New Infinities folded in late 1988, including Gary's own Necropolis, which I was lucky enough to participate in a couple playtest sessions of, and which later resurfaced first as part of the Dangerous Journeys rpg (in 1992) and then in a conversion for the "d20" system by Necromancer Games (in 2003). But by far the most noteworthy and memorable of those Fantasy Master products that actually got published was The Abduction of Good King Despot.
The adventure is a (perhaps the) quintessential example of a "puzzle dungeon" (another example of which is TSR's module C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness - which, probably not coincidentally, was also originally run as a tournament by the MDG at Wintercon '79). This is related to but different than the "funhouse" dungeon (exemplified by the likes of module S2: White Plume Mountain and Judges Guild's Tegel Manor) because where those tend to be a more random or arbitrary hodgepodge of elements, puzzle-dungeons have a linear structure (they're based around "solving" a central puzzle) and a tight thematic structure and organization (that just happens to eschew "realism" and "sensible dungeon ecology"). I don't like to give too many spoilers about this adventure's structure, because figuring out its logic is a big part of the challenge and fun of the adventure, but I'll do so anyway (skip the next, indented, paragraph if you don't want to know):
The premise of the adventure is that Good King Despot has been kidnapped by the insane wizard Ignax, who has set up the dungeon as a test for would-be rescuers. The dungeon is a linear gauntlet of 13 encounters thematically tied to the signs of the Zodiac, in order (Aries room followed by Taurus room followed by Gemini room, etc.) along with dead-end red-herring encounters (some dangerous traps, some pointless time-wasters, a couple potentially beneficial) that can be avoided if the players figure out a pattern: the floor tiles of the dungeon are colored in a repeating pattern of red (fire), green (earth), white (air), blue (water); each "correct" encounter matches the element for its astrological sign (so the floor outside the Aries room is red, the floor outside the Taurus room is green, etc.) while the red-herring rooms are the other colors (so the red-herring rooms matched to the Aries room have green, white, and blue floors outside their doors). Each of the main Zodiac encounters has as its treasure a large gemstone corresponding to that sign (diamond for Aries, emerald for Taurus, etc.). In the final (13th) encounter area, the key to freeing the imprisoned King Despot from suspended animation is to use six of the gems (the diamond, emerald, sapphire, pearl, opal, and topaz) to spell out the name D-E-S-P-O-T; the other six gems (along with anything they've picked up from the red-herring rooms) become the party's treasure/reward. The encounters start out as straightforward melee slugfests (Aries is a group of berserkers with ram-horned helmets, Taurus is a pair of gorgons, Gemini is twin frost giants), but as they proceed they become trickier and require less combat and more puzzle-solving (the Libra encounter is a room with a shifting floor, the Aquarius encounter is a room that gradually fills with water, etc.). I've run the adventure several times, and can attest that the further the players get into the dungeon the more the tension ratchets up and the more engaged they become, and as they overcome each challenge (and especially if they make it to and overcome the final challenge) there's an escalating series of cheers and high-fives. Successfully completing this adventure feels like a true accomplishment.It's no wonder Gary was so fond of this adventure. It's got seemingly everything he liked best in the game - it's fast-moving, action-heavy, has a lot of clever puzzles to challenge the players' problem-solving abilities, and doesn't take itself too seriously. It includes numerous pun-type jokes and "anachronistic" cultural references (to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, etc.), and the central thematic premise only really makes sense at the player-level, something that's never addressed in the adventure itself. The tone and feel reminds me a lot of Gary's own Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and I suspect is a fair representation of the mode of play in his Greyhawk Castle dungeons, before things became so serious.
It seem significant (and telling) that while Gary and New Infinities president Don Turnbull (formerly of TSR-UK) were both big fans of this adventure, Frank Mentzer was not and claims (note: Frank = ExTSR) that Turnbull "forced" them to publish it because he was friends with the author. In fairness to Frank, he's not the only one who feels that way. Particularly for 1988 (the era of Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms), this adventure was way out of step with the prevailing zeitgeist of what D&D adventures should be like. In recognition of that, New Infinities framed the adventure as an intentionally "retro" experience (as far as I'm aware the first rpg product to be marketed that way), which in retrospect is sort of a mixed blessing. On the one hand it allowed the adventure to be published in its full "funhouse" glory instead of attempting to water it down to conform to then-contemporary tastes, but on the other it caused them to exaggerate the old-fashionedness and "wackiness" in a way that feels like they were making excuses, that they were trying to create an ironic distance from the material as a defense against criticism. So we get a booklet of illustrations because that's a visual signifier of retro-ness (because old modules like S1, C1, and S3 had them) even though most of the illustrations are pointless and unnecessary (many of them are just portraits of the room's monster that don't convey any additional info beyond what's in the boxed-text), and we get a lot of apologetic "this is how things used to be" and "Ignax is a crazy wizard - don't think about it too hard" asides in the text, and we probably get more "jokey" encounters (like the Gnax Family portrait gallery and the talking goldfish) than we otherwise would have. In fitting with the times, there's also a full page of read-aloud backstory introduction about how the party was gathered together and sent on the rescue mission by Ignax's rival wizard Candelabra (who's busy schtupping the queen and doesn't seem all that eager to see the king return - which is presumably why he's sending a bunch of adventurers on the mission instead of doing it himself) which is both not as funny as it seems to think it is and entirely dispensable.
In addition to that "datedness" (ironically, dating the adventure to when it was published and adventures of its type were out of fashion, since more recently the taste-pendulum has swung sufficiently back in the other direction that there's more appreciation for the funhouse/less-serious approach) it's also worth pointing out that this adventure emphatically does not follow the "Jaquays ideal" of old-school dungeon-design - it's completely linear, the map isn't three-dimensional, there are no monster factions or any sense that there's anything going on in the dungeon when the PCs aren't there (the module doesn't address it, but presumably each encounter area is in some sort of temporal stasis until the PCs open the door to it), it's not expandable or replayable in any meaningful way, etc. If your criteria for how good a D&D adventure is are, in effect, "how similar is it to Caverns of Thracia?" then this adventure will fall very short. This is not an adventure for theorists - it's an adventure that comes alive at the table, that lives in the moment.
As is probably obvious by now, I really like this adventure and consider it one of my very favorites. I've run it three times (once all the way through, twice partially) and it's always been a huge hit with the players. Because of its structure, I've never tried to insert it in an ongoing campaign and don't think it's really suited to that type of use (which is why I put it in the second tier of the canon even though it's one of my favorites), but I consider it one of the very best "one-off" adventures, ideal as both a palate-cleanser - to remind players who've become too jaded and serious that the game is supposed to be about having fun - and as a compatibility litmus-test for players - if you don't have fun in this you're probably not going to like playing in my games, but if you do, hopefully you will. The only drawback there is that as-published I've found it to be too long to play through in a single session. I've found it takes 2-3 sessions to get through. Gary used to run it in a single session (and was still running it as late as 2005), but he used the original version, which was likely shorter than the published version - possibly including only the core encounters and not any of the red-herrings, which would definitely make it quicker, but would also lose some of the charm (a lot of the red-herring rooms are really fun!).
I highly recommend this adventure to anyone who thinks the above sounds fun or intriguing. Unfortunately it's not currently available for purchase (back around 2004 I asked Gary in an online Q&A if he knew who currently owned the rights to it, and he didn't) and not very many copies were printed in the first place so it's not all that easy to find second-hand copies. That said, it's obscure enough that not many people are seeking it out, and from what I understand copies show up on ebay fairly often and the prices they go for are pretty reasonable. Good hunting!