Monday, February 13, 2012

DMG Sample Dungeon Part 4: Cult of the Fiery Eye or Palimpsest of Hommlet

After much delay--my dissertation committee asked for some additional graphics before I put it out for publication--I'm finally getting to the conclusion of my analysis of the Sample Dungeon of the Dungeon Masters Guide.  Today we're speculating what to make of the unfinished portions of the dungeon based on the clues provided in the few room descriptions, background, and the wandering monster tables. Without further ado...

Sample dungeon site analysis.
The author provided wandering monster encounters for the two distinct areas of the Dungeon, the Non-crypt Area and the Crypt Area which conveniently included the room numbers of the wandering monster's lairs, a Gygax standard that I failed to appreciate for too long.  Non-crypt area wandering monsters include bandits, goblins, giant rats, and fire beetles--the fire beetles emit a fiery red glow which illuminates a 10' radius; that's kinda' cool.  But are there any running themes here?  The only one that comes to mind is that these critters are all just looking for a quiet place to lay low, somewhere with a roof overhead where no one will ask any questions.  So the non-crypt area is going to be filled with "volunteer" monsters; whatever manages to crawl, slither or hop down here from the swamp above.  Giant snakes, lizards, ticks, maybe a pack of voracious giant frogs even.  And lots of the rooms will just be empty old store rooms littered with moldy crap and the occasional fungus or slime.

Now let's see what the crypt area has going on in terms of wandering monsters: more rats, ghouls, skeletons--your standard crypt fare; one could expand on this a bit.  But then there's the evil cleric with the hobgoblins in tow from areas 35-37.  An evil cult in league with humanoids occupying several rooms; that's got potential.  Let's say they're beholden to some demon lord and let's riff on  Nunya's notion (from the comments section of Part 1 of this series) and say that the fire opal the monks were hiding was the prized jewel and symbol of power stolen from the temple of this demon lord and turned over to the monks for safe keeping.  The enormous, smouldering opal represents the demon lord's baleful, fiery glare. Indeed, reflecting the significance of this symbol of power, the hobgoblins have an emblem of a fiery eye painted on their shields while the cleric has the same stitched into his robes.

My eye!
So these cultists of the Fiery Eye have set up quarters here in the crypt area, perhaps because they're still looking for that damn fire opal.  And since, as Zenopus points out, using the secret door to area 3 is not a very convenient means of egress--it being 10 feet above ground--they use the stairs up at area 39 which leads, as Zenopus further suggests, to a long tunnel eventually daylighting at a narrow opening amidst rocks and thick briars and brambles over at the stand of brush and tamaracks beyond the monastery.  The cult uses this tunnel for occasional sorties to pillage passing caravans for supplies, treasure, and prisoners which they use for either ransom, slaves, or food.  So a few of the other rooms are occupied by their humanoid allies, some gnolls, bugbears, and maybe an ogre who's got a few human or demi-human prisoners in his pantry.  And perhaps the cult has contacts in the nearby village, other cult members who might feign to provide assistance to the PCs but whose real intent is to obfuscate and assassinate them...

Wait, what's that?  This sounds exactly like the premise of Dungeon Module T1 The Village of Hommlet you say?  Good!  Now we can get to the real thesis of this post which is that the Sample Dungeon in the Dungeon Masters Guide was the original dungeon associated with Gary Gygax's Hommlet campaign back in the 1970s.  For real.*

Monastery vs. Moathouse: One and the Same

First, here's a little historical background for those unfamiliar or who've forgotten the details.  In Gary Gygax's 1979 dungeon module T1 The Village of Hommlet, he included the following bit of background on the origin of the module:
"The area here was developed to smoothly integrate players with and without experience in the Greyhawk Campaign into a scenario related to the old timers only by relative proximity...  and many of the NPCs in the module are the characters and henchmen developed through play... the situation and surroundings have been altered because of the actual experiences of these participants." (Gygax, Village of Hommlet, pg. 3)
Also in 1979, Gygax published the Dungeon Masters Guide which included an unfinished Sample Dungeon composed of a map of a single dungeon level underneath a ruined monastery, descriptions of 3 of the encounter areas, and some background info about the dungeon including a description of the adjacent terrain and a legend that there was an enormous fire opal of exorbitant value hidden within.  I contend that the Sample Dungeon is the original dungeon that those "smoothly integrated players" of Hommlet went through.  Check it out:
"After two miles of distance, the land begins to sink and become boggy... and tall marsh plants grow thickly where cattails and tamaracks do not... A side path, banked high to crossover the wetland to either side, juts north to the entrance of the ruined place."
"[A]fter about a two mile trek along a seldom used road, they come to the edge of a fen... with little to relieve the view save a few clumps of brush and tamarack sprouting here and there.  A narrow causeway leads out to a low mound upon which stand the walls and buildings of the deserted mo*******. "
Pretty similar, right?  A "side path banked high to crossover the wetland" sounds a lot like a causeway through a fen, no? And those ubiquitous tamaracks.  If you haven't already reached for your DMG, the first one is the description for the approach to the Moathouse in T1, the second is from the Monastery in the Sample Dungeon.

Design concept
Each adventure is distinctly divided roughly in half between areas that are easily accessible from the obvious entrance to the edifice and those areas that are accessible only if you find a secret door.  Thus, an uninspired or very unlucky party could easily wander through half the dungeon and think their work was done.  Also, between the accessible portion of the adventure--we'll call it the Outer Dungeon--and the secret Inner Dungeon, there is a pronounced shift in the mood of the encounter milieu.   In the Moathouse, it is the upper levels--those that are part of the moathouse proper, including the cellars directly directly beneath--that form the Outer Dungeons while in the Monastery it's the "non-crypt areas" on the north side of the map.  In both cases, the Outer Dungeon is inhabited by whatever random outlaws and freeloaders moved into this subterranean tenement seeking shelter from the elements--bandits, giant lizards, goblins, fire beetles...  it's your classic dungeon crawl.  The Inner dungeon, however, is inhabited by those with a reason for being there; those who belong.  In both cases there is a crypt area inhabited by the undead; both also are inhabited by an Evil Cult, the evil cleric and his hobber bodyguards in the monastery; in the Moathouse the cult includes Lareth and his gang of flaming stormtroopers, but also the various humanoids mercenaries--the ogre, gnolls, and bugbears--as well.

Clues to the Beyond
But Gygax was not willing to leave things purely to chance; in both adventures he supplies a hint that there is more to this place than a casual exploration might divulge.  In the monastery, this clue comes in the form of the the map and key found amidst the abbot's skeletal remains in room 2.   In the moathouse, this hint is the locked cache of food, weapons, and Flaming Eyeball sweatshirts in the storerooms (rooms 2 and 3, dungeon level).  Also, to make it clear that this crap doesn't belong to the bandits above, he placed the green slime trap on the stairs up to their lair to indicate that they don't bother coming down here too often.

The Secret Door
In both the moathouse and the monastery the secret door to the hidden, Inner Dungeon is located in a room dedicated to death--the funerary room of the monastery where the passage from the world of the living was celebrated, and the torture room in the Moathouse where the same passage was celebrated in a much more pro-active fashion. More importantly, neither door is located in a typical fashion, each is positioned in such a way that a specific effort by the players will be needed to find it; nine feet above the floor in the Sample Dungeon or hidden in the column in T1.  By strategically locating these secret doors, a generic, "we search for secret doors" is clearly not going to be good enough, no matter how well the dice work in your favor.

However, there are clues to be found that will lead the observant PC to the location of said secret doors--the wall sockets in the Sample Dungeon and the faint trail of blood to the pillar in T1.  And on the other side of that secret door in T1 you will find the same 4 ghouls who ate the gnome in the Sample Dungeon.  

First encounter
Monastery:  Room 1 contains a large Spider lurking on the ceiling over a  "a central litter of husks, skin, bones, and its own castings" patiently awaiting its prey.  In the heap can be found a treasure of 19 sp and a garnet worth 50 gp.

Moathouse:  Area 4 is likely to be the first encounter inside the moathouse (we can only assume that there was a gang of hungry frogs waiting in ambush along the causeway to the  monastery) and it contains a huge spider lurking over "a scattering of husks and a few bones on the floor" and a small treasure trove of 38 sp, 71 cp and an ivory box worth 50 gp.

The descriptions are similar though not exact.  "Husks" and "bones" are constant but the spider in the moathouse has been ratcheted up a notch and the treasure slightly increased: the silver has been exactly doubled and a few coppers have been thrown in for good measure, but the main treasure remains set at 50 gp in value, though its manifestation has altered from a garnet to an ivory box. On its own, this encounter doesn't carry much weight, but as the evidence mounts, the similarities are certainly worth noting.

Flaming Eye/Fire Opal

Figure 3. Flaming Eye meet Fire Opal
If you were a member of a cult whose emblem was a flaming eyeball, wouldn't the fire opal be the front runner as your candidate for sacred gemstone?  (see comparison, Fig. 1.a.) Whether the cultists in The Monastery wore a flaming eye or not is impossible to say, but I think I made a pretty fair case back in paragraph 3 about how one might easily extrapolate such.

What is more, and this is the clue that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place, in T1 Lareth's prized possession and the single most valuable treasure in the entire Moathouse is a string of matched fire opals.

Even Scully should be coming around by now but the best is yet to come.

Hall of Zombies
Check out these two maps, and read the description below as it might apply to area 4 on the left map and area 10 on the right:  
CORRIDOR LINED WITH CELLS: Anyone entering this area will be attacked by the monsters lurking in pairs in these cubicles: 12 ZOMBIES (H.P.: 15, 14, 13, 12, 3x10, 9, 8, 6, 5, 4)
If you had to choose one of these two as the map for the encounter area described wouldn't you choose the map on the right?  It looks like a standard AD&D corridor--10' wide, leads to a room at the end--and it's lined with 3 cubicles on each side of the hall which provides exactly enough room for 12 zombies hiding in groups of two in each cell.   Area 4 on the left looks more like a chamber than a corridor--what with its 20'-wideness, pillars down the center, and lack of a portal at the end--plus it's only "lined" with cubicles on one side.  But most importantly of all, it has only five cubicles which leaves two of the zombies homeless!

The encounter description is from T1 area 4 of the dungeon level of the moathouse, the map on the left, while the map on the right is from the Sample Dungeon.**  By now it has to be pretty clear that this description was originally written for area 10 of what became the sample dungeon of the DMG and was then transcribed word-for-word into T1--including hit points for all 12 zombies even though most people who ran T1 back in the day, lacking accommodations for the 6th pair, only threw 10 zombies at their players.***

Exit Strategy
Adjacent to Lareth's den under the moathouse was a long tunnel leading up to a concealed opening at the surface that allowed his cronies to come and go without disrupting the ecosystem of the moathouse above.  The hobbers and cleric in the monastery presumably cannot live off of mold and ghoul-droppings and, as already mentioned, it's unlikely that they use the secret door in the ceremonial chamber, so it seems rather likely that they have a separate way out of the crypt area.

While it's not obvious that such an exit exists in the Sample Dungeon, several clues do allude to such an egress.  As Zenopus Archives pointed out, there is mention of a "secret entrance/exit  from the place" indicated in the background material for the Sample Dungeon.  I had always, assumed that this referred to the stairs down to area 1, but since this area is not indicated to be "secret" it opens up the possibility that indeed, there is a separate, secret portal to the dungeon.  And the conspicuously noted "fairly dense cluster of [brush and tamarack] approximately a half mile beyond the abandoned place" provides the most obvious location for such an emergency exit.  Add to that the presence of a stairway leading up not far from the chambers occupied by the Cleric and his band of hobbers, you have some evidence that the Sample Dungeon had a similar escape tunnel.

And so forth
In light of  this evidence, some things about T1 Village of Hommlet start to make a bit more sense.  For instance, it always struck me as odd that Lareth--who we know has been going to great effort to throw off interest in his location by staging his caravan raids far away in disparate locations--would allow another gang of brigands to operate out of the same location.  Possibly the Great Hope of Chaotic Evil isn't aware of the bandits in the moathouse above, but more likely these are the same bandits transposed from the areas 4 & 5 of the Monastery. Like the extra pair of zombies, they're a relic that doesn't quite fit into the New Order of Hommlet.

This might also explain why T1 was named the Village of Hommlet rather than the Moathouse of the Flaming Eye or some-such.  When EGG decided to modulize the endeavor, he may have wanted to showcase the village as a setting, but also needed some sort of adventure to go along with it.  By the standards of the time, a module with the entire monastery adventure would have been too large for a single module.  Remember, the only other modules around at the time were the G and D series which were originally published as separate, emaciated adventures of only ~16 pages.****  So he took the first level of the monastery dungeon, re-worked it as the moathouse in T1 and used the affair as an outpost of the greater dungeon, which would eventually be the Temple of Elemental Evil which, by the way, had turned from a monastery sacked long ago by forces of evil to a temple sacked long ago by forces of good. 

So if you've ever wondered what the original "Hommlet" dungeon Gygax mentions in the intro to T1 may have looked like before it was infiltrated with PCs, sullied by Lolth and/or Zuggtmoy, and afflicted with battles over at Emridy Meadows, the answer may have been right in front of you all along.  This humble, seemingly unfinished dungeon hidden under a monastery is actually a vestige of the campaign that spawned one of the great modules of the AD&D era.  The dungeon from which The Moathouse, Lareth, the Cult of Elemental Evil and its affiliated Temple all sprang from this unassuming labyrinth on page 95 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.  Sadly, this connection to the very roots of the game was one of the things we lost as Gygax's creative impact at TSR diminished.

*Well, as "for real" as you can get without confirmation from anyone who actually knows the score.

**In T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil the zombie:cubicle disparity was resolved by hiding the two extra zombies--who presumably had just lost a game of musical chambers--behind one of the pillars in area 21, nee area 4.  

***Case in point: in the used copy of T1 I now own (acquired at a used book sale a few years ago), the previous owner left pencil markings recording the dwindling hit points and ultimate demise of the first 10 zombies while the last two zombies  are unsullied by graphite.  Perhaps the players suffered a TPK at the hands of Wimpy and Gimpy, or, perhaps, lacking a sixth cell to release them from, the DM never put them into action.

****This is based entirely on my recollection of how slender those modules were; I don't have the modules on hand and thus don't know the exact page count.

*******This wasn't intended to be a footnote but since you're here, it just so happens that monastery and moathouse have the same amount of letters.  I am unaware of Gygax's stance on numerology or alphabetology or whatever, but I'm going to write this one off as coincidence and nothing more.


  1. *applause*

    That zombie room is some damn good evidence!

  2. ^I intended to post this last Friday but I passed out for 3 days when I found the zombie connection.

  3. Since Gary is unfortunately not with us anymore, I just asked Frank Mentzer, co-author of T1-4, about this. He hangs out on Dragonsfoot and is very amenable to answering questions. Here's his quick response:

    "Good catch. I was unaware of Timrod's research.

    I noted the similarity when I worked on T2 (as we called it, rather than T1-4). Of course the original T1 module was released in 1979, same as the DMG, so the correlation is natural.

    I don't know for sure, but I believe that both derived from another more sketchy version that Gary drew up between 1976 and 1978. I worked from Gary's original typewritten ms for T2, and from his hand-drawn maps (tho by then he knew to safeguard the originals, as his typewritten originals of the G and D series had been dumped in the trash). A copy of the original hand-drawn T1 map was among them, and I noted that it had been cleaned up for the '79 publication.

    I kept no copies of any of these maps, but Gail has the typewritten originals and original maps as well. Eventually this could be checked, praps in a Gygax Archive made available to scholars."

  4. You have some excellent sleuthing there, Timrod! :D

    For context re: T1 vs. DMG, here are Gary's As to the Qs I asked about the missing maps from the DMG:

    These don't disprove your theory, in my mind---they just show that Gary didn't want to reveal all of the creative cards in his hand: he'd answered in that same style to other Qs in the past.


  5. That's a nice piece of comparative research. Kudos!

  6. Thanks all!

    @Zenopus--thanks for broaching the topic to Frank Mentzer; I keep forgetting that even the guys who wrote the game have access to the internet. Maybe I'll go over there and pester him about some other pet theories of mine.

    @Grodog--That is interesting, and I don't think I would have expected otherwise. If my theory as stated were actually dead on--that the Sample Dungeon was the original Hommlet dungeon--I think word would have gotten out by now. Mentzer's statement that T1 and the Sample Dungeon may have both came from something earlier makes more sense; the Sample Dungeon and the Moathouse are both layers of the same palimpsest.

  7. De nada. I posted pointers to here on a few GH boards, in case you want to check them out:

    - Canonfire! @
    - Knights & Knaves @
    - My Facebook @
    - Dragonsfoot @


  8. Just freakin' brilliant! That's some great detective work.

  9. ^Thanks! I should just retire now; no way I'm finding another nugget like this again.

  10. @Timrod: There's still gold in them Gygaxian hills...

  11. ^ No doubt your right. But let me rest my pan here for a bit.

  12. You did a nice job with these!

    We'll send you for some R&R over at Nulb!

  13. I pinged Luke and Ernie Gygax to see if they could recall any further details, but unfortunately neither can come up with any specifics. I'll have to ask Tim Kask and Rob when I see them in June.


  14. My goodness. Straight to the source eh? Nice work.

  15. (subscribing, nothing to see here).


  16. Bravo! That was some really fun reading right there! :-)

  17. In fact, G1 and G2 only have 8 pages each! G3 doubles in size to 16 pages, with D1 the same, and then D2 and D3 each get a few more pages.