Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg review

Since I got divorced and life changed and kept changing, I've gotten back into RPGs again. That started out with 5e D&D, but running that for close to a year pushed me back to 1e and B/X. If you're familiar with those 3 different versions of the same game, I'm sure you'll understand.

Well, going back to B/X and then 1e pushed me further back in Gaming History. Eventually I ended up falling down an internet rabbit hole and bought a copy of the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary. It's a great movie that I've watched twice already. So when Griffith Morgan advertised that he was reprinting the Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, I jumped on it, even though it was $100 for the book. That was back in January of this year.

 Despite the worldwide paper shortage and overall nonsense leftover from The Covid Year of 2020, ol'Griff managed to get a second printing done and shipped out. And not just a hardcover, a US-printed hardcover! With 80# paper! And a nifty ribbon bookmark! Oh man, this thing is positively glorious. 

So! Now that I've had a week or so to devour this book, let's get into it. It's gonna be a brief review. I'm gonna gloss over a lot of it, because I don't wanna give too much away. But I do want you to know what's in this book and what's it about. Let's begin! 


The first chapter is 15 pages long and is an introduction to the history behind the Tonisborg maps. It includes hi-res scans of the original surviving maps and their descriptive notes, as well as intro text by Greg Svenson, the creator of the dungeon. It's a nice bit of history, especially considering how long ago all of this started. Greg started gaming with Dave Arneson the year I was born, and I'm not a young man anymore. 

These maps (and this dungeon) are unlike anything published by TSR or WotC or Judges Guild or pretty much anyone. There's a way that Arneson and his players put maps together that are pretty unique, and the Tonisborg maps show that. It's a lot of fun to look at and learn about. 


This chapter is 35 pages long, and is absolutely chock-full of great tips for playing and running a game the way they did 50 years ago. It's a deep dive into a mindset that has been (unfortunately) washed over by at least 7 different editions of D&D (not to mention the periodic non-fantasy RPG explosions that have happened during that stretch of time). Rob Kuntz' method of refereeing that he refers to simply as "The Quiet Game" is alone worth the price of the book, as far as I'm concerned. It's fantastic and I love it. 


This chapter is 31 pages long and consists of all 10 levels, redrawn and (mildly) fleshed out. It's pretty much a self-contained module if you choose to run the Tonisborg dungeon for your group. It's very well done: the maps are clear, the descriptions concise, and being able to flip back and forth between the newly-drawn maps and the originals is also very helpful. 

It's an old-school megadungeon. The second ever megadungeon, in fact. Very lethal, but looks like it would be a lot of fun. Haven't run it yet, but when I do, I'll letcha know if it's as fun as it looks.  


As if a whole module isn't enough, here we get a whole ruleset! Well, not a whole ruleset in that it's a stripped-down version of Champions of ZED, but it's more than enough to run a game with. If you don't know, CoZ is a "what-if" set of rules that takes the original D&D rules and imagines what would've happened if Arneson & Gygax would've worked a little closer together and gotten some extra editing and playtesting done before publishing the original D&D rules from 1974. It's a very neat set of rules. Personally, I like them a lot, and the Tonisborg version is also very interesting. If you're a fan of TSR-era D&D, you would like them. Lots of those TSR-era concepts in these rules, but lots of interesting variations, too. The to hit rolls are especially elegant. 

And, as this hearkens back to 1974, there are only 4 races (halfling, dwarf, elf, human) and 3 classes (fighter, cleric, magic-user). The lack of a thief class is addressed in Part 2, and while it seems weird to those of us who are used to the thief being one of the base classes, this omission takes care of all those "why can't I climb or hide in shadows or (insert thief skill here)?" questions that players have been asking since at least the 80s.  


These 10 pages are still part of the rule system, and as with the previous chapter, some of it's very familiar while other parts are a nice surprise. I should note that there are fewer magic items and artifacts here than (say) the 1e DMG, but you can pull pretty much anything out of any D&D book and use it here, with little or no modifications. 

 The treasure types are reduced and simplified, based partly off of Dave Arneson's original treatment, and they're very well-done in my opinion.  


Another 10-page chapter that's a continuation of the rules. This is a stripped-down monster manual, and again: if you wanna use the 1e MM with these rules, they'll fit in pretty much with little to no modification. I, for one, will definitely be adding Monster Manual critters from the 1e book when I finally get this game started up, because there aren't a lot of monsters in this section. There are, however, plenty of monster stats for what you need to run a group through the Tonisborg megadungeon. 

A note: The dragons in this book are based upon the original types, and would be a fun variation if you and your group are used to the typical chromatic/metallic dragons from TSR or WotC editions of the game. 


As with the previous chapter, this is a continuation of the rules and a stripped down version of what you'd be used to if you were running any other edition of D&D previously. I like this chapter because it strips a lot of well-known spells down to their absolute essence, which not only makes them easier to understand, but easier for players to customize if they see fit. Six levels of Cleric and six levels of Magic-User spells listed alphabetically in only five pages! When I say "stripped down" I ain't kidding. 

As with the previous chapter, if you wanna add spells from D&D, you can pretty much do that here with no problem. This gives a Referee a great opportunity to pick and choose which spells he wants in his game, and also gives him the opportunity to make those spells feel special again. It's been my experience that players leaf through the PHB like they're shopping in a spell catalogue and none of those spells really feel special as a result. This approach--a stripped down list of spells with the option to add more piecemeal, later--seems like it would fix that problem. Again: once I actually get a chance to run this ruleset, I'll let you know. 


 There are two appendices here, both of which almost take up a whole page. Appendix A is "Griff's Optional Creature Taxonomy Encounter System", which is a handy wandering monster/dungeon restocking method specifically for the Tonisborg dungeon. Of course, with a little modification, it can be used for anything. 

Appendix B is "Highly Recommended Further Resources"--the Appendix N of the Tonisborg book. Five books are listed here, none of which I've read. However, the author list goes from Dave Arneson to Jennell Jacquays and looks like a good little list of stuff to check out. 

That is an overview of the whole book. It's great! Two things that aren't great are: 

1. There's a missing table in the ruleset! There's a reference to the cost of hirelings that says "the table below" lists the pertinent information, but that table didn't make it into the book. If you've got any edition of D&D, however, you can just use the corresponding table from that book, as the money system is the same as what you're used to. 

2. The index isn't that great. It's good for looking up subject matter, but not much help at all for the rules chapters. You'll have to make your own index for that. I've done that; I might throw it up here at some point. 

All in all, I love this book. Can't wait to run the megadungeon using the enclosed rules for a group at some point. Plus, it's a very neat little collection of pre-D&D history, which I love. This book nicely compliments my 1e and B/X collection, as well as my Secrets of Blackmoor DVDs. 

 I recommend it! If he ever does a third printing, jump on it.