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The Ruined Tower of Zenopus: Nutshell Review and Prep Notes, Part One

Holmes Basic is the D&D of my bones.

5e is the game for which I can actually gather a table of players.

So The Ruined Tower of Zenopus, a 5e conversion of Holmes' Sample Dungeon by Zach Howard of the indispensable Zenopus Archives, is pretty exciting.

The result is exactly what you'd hope for. Here's the fun gameplay of a classic old school dungeon, with the clarity of modern layout. There's plenty nice, thought-out additions so that you don't feel like you should have just saved your money and looked up 5e stat blocks yourself. These include some great resources that Zach has developed for Portown and the dungeon factions. There's beefed up versions of some 5e creatures to be more in line with the Holmes/Gygax beasties. There's cleaning cubes, an addition to dungeon ecology that I find delightful (and I keep hoping my players will try to make work as a resource). And there's information on incorporating Portown into Ghosts of Saltmarsh (which I haven't read, not having that adventure).

I've ran this version of the adventure once, for a mixed-age group at the local library. It was a hit. The original is a classic for a reason, providing a good mix of combat, exploration, puzzles, and role-play opportunities.

My $0.02: If you're intrigued at all by this product, go ahead and buy it. It delivers on the promise of its premise.

In prepping the adventure, I made a few changes to fit into my campaign world, and added the sort of fluff and color that I like.

Nothing's more boring that someone else's made up languages, but, like so much world-building, it's hard to resist. I usually ignore it at the table, and you should probably skip the next couple paragraphs.

Most of the NPCs in the dungeon speak Parsasian, with only the educated ones knowing the PC's Common Tongue of Middlemarch.

Portown becomes Bandar Arzoo, an outpost of Parsas, the pseudo-Persia of my campaign. Built on the ruins of an ancient city, the base of most of the buildings are large blocks of milky-white rock, fitted without mortar, remnants from the ruin. The town's master is a badly-mutilated Rakshasa in magical disguise, bidding his time being devilishly charming and enjoying what luxuries his position affords until he is sufficiently recovered to cause some real trouble.

The Green Dragon Inn becomes Tennin Ad-ham, which serves a spiked wine called The Mother of All Evils.

Zenopus' tower is called Tabah, the ruin, by those who don't recall the story of Zenopus, and the Thaumaturgist's tower is Beda-At, the new tower.

Tower of Zenopus Notes
Most of this dungeon is made out of the same white stone, fitted together without mortar, as the base of the buildings in Bandar Arzoo. Small rooms have 20' ceilings, larger rooms have 40' vaulted ceilings.

The stairs descend from within the ruins of Tabah, the Ruined Tower of Zenopus. The entrance has been barricaded with wooden boards, but it will be immediately apparent that there are ample gaps and loose boards, and lightly obscured signs of foot traffic in and out.

Broad stone stairs descend 50 feet. They are choked with dirt and debris (in contrast to the cleanliness of the dungeon to follow). There are footprints in the dirt. A Survival check of 15+ will reveal that this includes humans carrying heavy loads, and goblins.

A. Goblin Abode
Goblin Population:
15 capable adults (standard goblins). Almost all of the goblins are out scavenging or on patrol, leaving 4-8 guards.
4 elderly, infirm goblins
8 goblin children
  • The goblins are more interested in protecting their families than fighting. They are open to negotiation, but stick to an agreement only as long as they have to. If they cannot defend their home, they will try to hold the PCs off long enough for the young and infirm to evacuate. 
  • The goblins have accepted a contract with the Thaumaturge to patrol the dungeon and prevent interference from outsiders in exchange for potions, flattery, and copper coins. 
  • The goblins have clashed with the smugglers, but they now have a sense of the smugglers' routine and avoid them as much as they can. 
NW Corner: goblins have constructed a small shanty town.

  • Six distinct shanty buildings, with crudely constructed lofts, each holding a communal bed. Children and infirm are likely still in bed. 
  • Buildings are made of wood from shipwrecks and old sailcloth. Filled with lots of petty items stolen from in town—scraps of cloth and leather, burlap sacks, broken furniture, mostly empty barrels, etc.
  • Under each bed is a chest; most hold scavenged trash (Goblin Treasures, below), but one has 200 cp. This chest is unlocked but trapped with sleep gas. INT (Investigation) 13+ reveals the trap, and a successful DEX 13+ with thieves' tools disarms it. Otherwise, opening the chest releases a small cloud of sleep gas (5-foot radius). Each character in this area must succeed on CON 13 saving throw or fall asleep for 1d6 × 10 minutes.

  • Goblin Treasures
  1. Ship’s log, covered in meaningless scribbles
  2. Badly chipped porcelain doll
  3. Pebbles in distinct colors (purple, red, yellow, and green)
  4. Shards of sea glass
  5. Chicken feathers
  6. Brittle, dried daisy chain
  7. Dead squirrel
  8. Broken crockery
  9. Corroded and bent cutlery
  10. Thick, felted mat of animal fur
  11. Carefully folded scraps of floral-print cloth
  12. Dozens of mismatched socks
  13. Bones of small animals, and a few human knuckles mixed in
  14. Bag of peppercorn
  15. Shiny brass belt buckle
  16. Knotted ball of colored string
  17. Polished bowl of giant centipede carapace
  18. Scalped human beards
  19. Heavy-duty lock, without key
  20. A taxidermied trout

    W wall: 4 sacks and 10 cloaks hang on pegs. Two of the sacks hold 50 sp each. Another is full of dead chickens and broken eggs. In the pocket of one cloak is a potion of growth.

    SE corner: Goblin Midden. Very foul. CON 10+ Save to remain in the area without vomiting. Eventually, the goblins know a cleaning cube will clear it away.

    S wall: Chicken coop (a few listless, ailing chickens), rat coop, and a bunch of narrow-necked clay jars and mice inside (the mice are dropped in as babies. They can’t exercise much, and become fat and tender as they grow. This is an old Tiberian delicacy that the goblins picked up from the Parsasians.

    Center of the room: Several patches of mushroom garden growing on heaped dirt and nightsoil. The goblins must hurriedly harvest their mushrooms whenever a cleaning cube finds its way into this room, and then start over.

    NOTE: My intention is to set this early encounter as a role-playing scenario, not a combat. I like the idea of the PCs negotiating a very unreliable partnership with the goblins. And I like doing goblin voices. But when I ran this, a 12-year old announced "Goblins are neutral evil!" and that was that.


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for the thoughtful review, and I greatly enjoyed reading your additions. I've been edging towards making the goblins neutral rather than evil (having the rumor about them stealing food from town makes them more sympathetic), and I like what you've done with that. Room A is so large the shanty town construction really makes sense. The rest of their habitation and their "treasures" are great. Looking forward to reading the rest of your notes!

    1. Thank you for all your work carrying the Holmesian torch! And congratulations on its success!

      I'll be posting more notes on the dungeon over the next few days!

  2. Just a quick update for anyone reading this review: The pdf of the Ruined Tower of Zenopus available on DMs Guild now includes a printer-friendly dungeon map and a new full-page illustration by Chris Holmes, son of the original author J. Eric Holmes! Roll20/VTT-optimized maps were also added in an earlier update.

    1. It's really exciting to see that you keep developing this great adventure! I'm glad it has a map, now!


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