Sunday, March 5, 2023

[Review] Lost Dungeons of Tonsiborg

Received this thing in the mail a couple days ago, purchased as part of the recent Kickstarter. It was originally only offered as a deluxe hardcover "collector's item" edition at $100 per copy, but late in the campaign the organizers bowed to public demand and added an option for a "mass-market" softcover version at $30, which is what I bought. It's POD quality, black & white interior (I believe the hardcover version has interior color), 164 pages long including an index and OGL boilerplate. 

First, some quick history: Greg Svenson was one of the most active players in Dave Arneson's original Blackmoor campaign and, among other things, a participant in the first expedition into the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor over the 1970-71 Christmas holiday, as recounted here. In 1973, so after about 2 years of play, Greg decided to create his own dungeon, Tonisborg, using the pre-publication draft of the D&D rules that was floating around the Twin Cities at that time (the first rules these players had ever seen, since prior to Gygax drafting and sending these rules to the Twin Cities for comment, Arneson had kept everything in his head as, effectively, a black box). He then lent the 10-level dungeon to his friend and fellow Blackmoor player (and creator of the Dungeon! boardgame) Dave Megarry, who was spending the summer in Boston, where he promptly lost it. But then, 40 or so years later, Megarry found the manuscript (which it turned out wasn’t actually lost, just misplaced) and shared it with Greg and the guys behind the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary, and they decided to publish it as a book, initially in a super-limited-edition deluxe hardcover collector's edition in 2020, and just now in an affordable paperback version (with promises of an eventual pdf version to come as well).

So this is a pretty neat historical artifact - an actual complete 10-level dungeon (maps and accompanying keys) that dates all the way back to before the publication of D&D, written by one of the players in Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. This makes it very analogous to Rob Kuntz's El Raja Key dungeons, created around the same time by a similarly-situated player (as Rob was one of the most active players in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign) and published a few years back on the El Raja Key DVD Archive, but in an incomplete form (IIRC only 2 or 3 of the 12 levels included keys). This book includes both photographic reproductions of the original hand-drawn maps and hand-written keys (one line per room) as well as re-drawn maps and expanded (but still pretty minimalist) keys in something like the manner of the treatment given to Rob Kuntz's Bottle City.  

Looking at the maps, the resemblance to Arneson's style (as seen in the Temple of the Frog dungeons and the Blackmoor Castle dungeons in First Fantasy Campaign) is immediately obvious, and striking because it doesn't really look like much of anything else that's come out in the 50 years since. The dungeon levels are almost all hallways, many of them at 45-degree angles from each other, with tons of stairways and shafts connecting the levels. Sometimes the hallways meet in larger chambers that are almost always odd-shaped. There are only about a dozen rooms per level (only the bottom level has more than 20 rooms) and they're generally very small (10x10 or 20x20) and hidden behind secret doors in the middle of hallways (sometimes a room will lie at the end of a hallway, but more often the hallways end in stairwells or just dead-end). Almost all of them are occupied by monsters, with seemingly little if any consideration given to the inhabitants' size: a 10x10 room might well contain a dragon or purple worm or 18 ghouls or a dozen giant hogs. My guess as to how this would tend to work in play is that the players would wander down a hallway, a monster would burst out from a secret door to attack, and the party would flee to either a wider hallway or chamber to make a stand, only returning to the monster's lair post-combat to collect whatever treasure it might have had. 

It seems worth noting that all but one of the monsters and three of the treasures (with the "specials" all located on level 10) could be - and presumably were - rolled straight off the tables that would later appear in D&D vol. 2 & 3: a spectre with 10,000 silver, 2 gems, 4 jewelry, and a potion of growth; 2 gargoyles with 6,000 copper and 3 jewelry; 4 giant ants with no treasure; 2 wererats* with 3 gems and a ring of human control, etc. This is primitive stuff. But that's okay. In fact it's the point - it's a window into how the game was played in its earliest days, when it was all novel and everyone hadn't become jaded. Your mind is not going to be blown by this - you're not going to get any mystic revelations into the True Spirit of D&D or whatever. But you might get a stirring memory of the first dungeon you designed when you initially discovered D&D as a kid and how thrilling that was. There's probably no point in actually playing it - anyone with a copy of the rules and a set of dice can come up with something just as good on their own. It might be fun to run at a convention, though - let multiple groups delve in and see which one returns to the surface with the most treasure, and let them know the dungeon they're exploring was created in 1973, before the rules were actually published. Pretty neat for a few hours.

I'm a sucker for D&D history and love looking at these old artifacts - First Fantasy Campaign and Rob Kuntz's archive and those over-the-shoulder photos of Gary Gygax's Greyhawk Castle dungeons, and so on. To me, there's something refreshing ands inspiring about seeing what the game looked like to its creators before it become professionalized - when they were creating stuff to play, not to sell. So, for me, this content, which between the 2 versions of the dungeon and a couple pages of history (the history of the manuscript, not in-game backstory) fills about 50 pages, is worth the $30 I spent on it. Which is good, because the other ~110 pages are weird and dubious.

To start with, before the dungeons, there's a ~35 page introduction made up of essays about how to play and run games in the "old-school" style filled with anecdotes and interview quotes from Arneson and various members of his circle (a lot of it seemingly drawn from Secrets of Blackmoor) a lot of which is good advice (though some of it is questionable) focusing on all of the usual-suspect topics: players should focus on strategy and tactics and think outside the box and focus on the situation rather than the game rules; GMs should focus on keeping things moving and building atmosphere and tension and shouldn't be afraid to improvise (rulings over rules) and shouldn't focus on stuff like balancing encounters - challenges should be tough but potential rewards for good play rich (and resource-management concerns should always be considered: light, encumbrance, etc). Generally pretty solid advice (and, I would note, little if anything that Gary Gygax would've disagreed with) but all very basic and old hat to anyone likely to be reading this book (i.e. hard-core collectors and game-historians). 

Early in this section they make this statement: "We do not assume that you or your players have ever played an RPG before. This entire book is a lesson on how to play these games and how to combine new and old play concepts in order to create an enriching play session." Really? Someone who's never played or read an rpg before is going to pay $100 for this book of all things? This ostensibly high-end collectible (when the publishers were arguing against the notion of doing the mass-market edition one of their justifications was that they wanted it to be an archival-quality collectible that people would treasure and pass on to their grandkids) that isn't even available for sale via traditional retail channels is also supposed to be an entry-level product? Bizarre, to say the least. 

These essays could have made a nice pamphlet aimed at new (or at least new-to-old-school) players, and would sit fairly comfortably alongside the many other such pamphlets that already exist, but in the context of this product it all feels pointless and even vaguely insulting, as if to say that anyone with sufficient knowledge and interest in the history of the hobby to be interested in this book would actually need to learn any of the "lessons" offered here - that we're apparently all idiots who need explained to us (over half a page and at least 500 words) stuff like the idea that the referee shouldn't place the map on the table but should instead describe it to the players verbally and have them draw their own copy of the map as they explore. Wow, really? I had no idea! I mean, I've been doing this for 39 years, but  because I've only experienced the debased Gygaxian version for idiots and not TRV ARNESONIAN DND I've never been exposed to this revolutionary concept. Thanks, guys!

This bizarre confusion about who the audience of this book is supposed to be is compounded by the final third of the book, which is an entire "retroclone" version of the original D&D rules. These "Champions of ZED: Zero Edition Dungeoneering" rules were apparently previously published in a standalone version before being included here and purport to be a true-to-Arneson representation of the game. In practice, it appears to be about 90-95% identical to the contents of the 1974 boxed set, including all of the same ability scores, classes, races, spells, monsters, treasure tables, and magic items, all of which are dutifully reprinted. 

As with any retroclone game, there are a few minor differences: saving throws are handled differently (saving throw values are rolled as a parallel set of stats); XP is only earned for GP that are spent (as per FFC); there's a critical hit system when an attack rolls a natural 20 (with a 1-in-10 chance of instant death); etc. I'm pretty sure all of these differences could have been summarized in about 4 pages of house rulings (and, I should probably note here, none of these additions or changes actually appear to be, you know, any good - to the extent any of them actually do represent material that was used by Arneson and present in the pre-publication drafts but was left out of the published game that's, if anything, a testament to Gygax's editing and playtesting to identify them as bad rules). But instead we get almost 60 pages copy-pasting every spell, monster, and magic item description, and every table from D&D vol. 1 & 2. Curiously, except for a couple pages about dungeon-stocking, nothing else from vol. 3 is included - nothing on outdoor adventuring, castle building, barony management, expert hirelings, aerial combat, or waterborne adventures. Maybe this material was included in the standalone version of Champions of ZED but was excluded here as not being relevant to play within the Tonisborg dungeons? 

We even get half a page explaining how to read dice: what "3d8" means, how to use a six-sided die to get a number from 1-3, and how to use 20-sided dice both to generate a number from 1-20 (use a control die to determine if you use the number rolled or add 10) and to generate a number from 1-100 (roll two dice at once where one represents the tens and the other the ones, with a result of 00 counting as 100, not 0). Because, again, in the publishers’ minds there are apparently people out there who were willing to pay $100 for this book (and, for that matter, to read all the way to page 96 in it) who don't already know that. 

So, it's weird. On the one hand it's a reproduction of an artifact from the earliest days of the hobby of interest to the hardest-core game historians. But on the other, it's trying to be a complete stand-alone game and instruction manual for n00bs (who have $100+ to spare and are following rpg Kickstarters). I'm not sorry I bought it, but am very glad I only spent $30 on the softcover and not $100 on the "collector's item" hardcover. When the pdf version is released, I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in the early days of the hobby. If you like original D&D and First Fantasy Campaign you'll probably find the middle-third of this book (the actual dungeons) interesting. 

*This one is a mild curiosity because wererats weren't actually included in the original D&D set and were added to the game with Supplement I (Greyhawk) in 1975. I wonder if maybe they were included in the draft Svenson was using but got dropped from the final product, or maybe he'd heard about them from someone who played in Greyhawk, or maybe it was a case of parallel evolution (wererats, after all, feature prominently in Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar, published in 1968, and seem like a pretty obvious candidate to become a D&D monster), but the last doesn't actually seem all that likely since it would be the only such case in the dungeon - everything else except for the one "special" monster on level 10 comes straight out of the D&D Vol. 2 monster list  (or, for the various giant animals - spiders, beetles, ants, hogs, etc. - the dungeon encounter tables in Vol. 3)