Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Review: The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg

The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg
Cover Art by Ken Fletcher
: Greg Svenny, Griffith Morgan,  & D.H. Boggs
Publisher: The Fellowship of the Thing Ltd.
Game Engine: OSR Compatible 
Marketplace: Limited Kickstarter Release

 Back when he was researching the movie the secrets of Blackmoor, Griffith Morgan was lucky enough to interview a number of the players and DMs who ran the first handful of Dungeon crawling campaigns from the Twin Cities wargaming clubs. During his interview with David Megarry, Megarry Presented him with a mystery dungeon map. While it was clearly not the work of Dave Arneson, it had the signature sharp angles and broad hallways of the early Twin Cities dungeon maps. As the Fellowship of the Thing team did more research on the mystery map, they discovered that it was in fact the map of the dungeon beneath the Castle of Tonisborg by Greg Svenson.

This dungeon had been used during an early play test of Dungeons & Dragons, and may well have been the 2nd dungeon crawl created after Arneson's Blackmoor. The island and city of Tonis were even canonically a part of Arneson's world of Blackmoor. 

The dungeon itself was thought to be lost: its creator, Greg's Svenson, had lost the original dungeon map and notes when a cleaning lady had assumed that they were wastepaper and tossed them out. He had forgotten that he had given a Photocopy to Megarry (who had moved away) months earlier. This was in a box along with some of the original playtest materials for the game that would be later released as Dungeons & Dragons.

When the Secrets of Blackmoor was kickstarted, a limited series of ornately-bound books in ethically sourced paper were offered as one of the higher-tier backer rewards. Only around four hundred of the books were made as a collector's curiosity.

A few months ago I got into a Twitter conversation with Griffith Morgan about the book, and how I wished that there was a commercially available copy. It looks like an amazing text, but collectors were already reselling at $300+.I asked him if it was possible to have a paperback version made, a sentiment that was echoed by a number of other RPG commentators on Twitter.

In the fall, of 2022, the Fellowship of the Thing production company Kickstarted a limited-run paperback version listed as The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, and as I led the charge of OSR bloggers,  designers, and commentators  in requesting the book be made, I would be a complete asshole if I didn't review it.

And I got a hell of a lot more than I expected.

The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg comes in four parts.

Part one is a history of the dungeon, including the original 1973 maps. The second is a collection of historical accounts and play advice about how D&D was played in its earliest development, with excerpts from interviews and essays by Dave Arneson,  Greg Svenson, and many others connected with the inception of D&D. This might well be one of the best-written collection of GMing advice have ever seen in one place. 

Part three is the Dungeon itself, re-created using more modern notation. All 10 levels and 182 rooms.

The final part is the rules for ZED (Zero-Edition Dungeon ): a re-creation of the pre-release version of D&D that was used for Tonisborg. 

In the middle of writing this article I received an email from The Fellowship of the Thing informing me of downloadable content for Tonisborg. It took me to a PDF with advice on how to play Tonisborg with the intended Old-School feel using Dungeons & Dragons 5.0.

What I Loved

ZED was an Unexpected Bonus

I was not expecting an entire role-playing game to be included in the book - it completely blew miy mind. ZED has the stripped-down and simplified feel that made me fall in love with Swords & Wizardry turned up to eleven. It also includes some design elements of pre-release D&D I haven't seen even in OD&D clones/ This is as simple as D&D gets while still being recognizable as D&D. It is a blank slate that begs to be customized and made my own.

ZED inspired my regular Thursday night GM, Stephen Smith, was so inspired by his copu of The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg that put the World of Weirth campaign on hiatus so that we could explore Tonisborg  Because we can't expect every player to have access to the book, we are using the next closest rule set we could find, Blueholme, to run it, made to be even closer to ZED using a few house-iules.

Which means I haven't just been reading the book, I have been exploring the dungeon as a player.

Stripped Down Play

ZED removes thieves from the D&D equation, and puts things like stealth and sabotage into the realm of narrative instead of mechanics. It is designed clearly for Theater of the Mind play, and with an emphasis on challenging the imagination and creativity of the players. This gives you a foundation that you can build on as you see fit.

ZED will Grow

The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg discusses future expansions to ZED in the form of historical adventures and new material that will be designed to capture the spirit of the very earliest versions of the D&D experience. Griffith Morgan has already given a number of sneak peeks at upcoming ZED projects.

Solid Advice & Context

I don't think I can capture how incredible the second part of the book is. The series of short essays on different aspects and techniques for 

  • playing theater of the mind
  • fostering player creativity
  • running monsters effectively
  • getting the most out of maps
  • encouraging players to run
  • making rules adjustments
  • helping players personalize characters
  • handling light and darkness
  • using metagame talk and non-combat encounters to create tension and paranoia
  • logic puzzles
  • structuring mysteries to drive PCs
  • multliple types of helpful NPCs
  • timekeeping
  • improvisation
  • time saving tools

I've been playing D&D since 1985, and while a lot of this comes from the culture of play from the era when I started, and many of the tools things I have been using for years, I definitely saw some new, clever, and inspiring ideas in there. It is by far one of the best collections of DM advice I have seen in a single place.

I Learned a Lot

While this hardly goes into the intensive detail that The Secrets of Blackmoor does, its descriptions of the early play sessions in Blackmoor and Tonisborg, advice and notes from those early playtests, and reproductions of the rules  gave me a lot of insight I could not have found anywhere else. Even the keys and layouts of the original maps have something interesting to offer.

The Dungeon Itself

I have refrained from reading too much of the actual dungeon module in the third section of the book, after Stephen Smith offered to include me in a campaign to explore it first-hand. I am currently still working on the first level, and in competition with a much more successful part of players who are raiding the same dungeon on Tuesdays (Leave some treasure for the rest of us, damnit!) I cannot speak too much about its details.

So fat it is a confusing labyrinth full of dangerous factions and brutal encounters. It is frightening, tense, and full of terrors... so exactly what I am looking for in a dungeon crawl.

The map is full of strange angles and shapes that make it hard for me to live map using my usual tools, and has forced me to go back to pen and paper mapping, which unto itself is a cool feature of the experience.

I will say that the modernized maps by Toby Lancaster make it a pleasure to look at.

Growth Points

Given that The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg is a conservation effort as much as it is a product for play, it is hard to be critical of it in the same way I would be critical of an OSR module or clone. Pointing out the flaws in  a 50 year-old dungeon and the prototype rules it operated on is much like complaining about the layout of the Rosetta Stone: perhaps one can learn something about making document monument to help future humans understand out language and culture, but you can't help the Rosetta Stone be a better product.

I will however give two points that I believe are helpful for people intending to use the game.

Sheer Brutality

A lot of the conventions of play that have emerged even in the 70s and 80s that are there to make the game last a little longer and  be a little less frustrating  hadn't emerged when Tonisborg was created. It is a dungeon that has no problem sending a group of green 1st level characters straight into the jaws of a dozen 5HD giant ant monsters. The only reason I made it out of my first foray is that the hirelings were all slower than I was.

So far my experience of Tonisborg has been a level of brutality that exceeds even the bloody savagery that most OSR gamers would expect. It is a very different experience. And it is definitely challenging me in ways I never have been challenged before.

I would consider toning it down even if you are playing with seasoned OSR vets.

ZED Requires Framing

ZED is more than just a light OSR clone, it comes with a specific framework of ways to understand the game that is quite different from how D&D was even played when I was a kid in the 80s. It requires a primer to players who have not had a chance to read up on the notions expressed in The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, or at least a background in things such as diceless roleplaying games and Free Kriegspiel.


When I backed this book I was expecting a few historical articles on play and a classic dungeon reconstructed for modern use. What I got was a complete role-playing game, scenario, and guide to DMing and early-form TTRPG play that is better than almost every DM advice book I have had the pleasure of reading. Thanks to international shipping, this book is by far the most expensive item in my collection, but I would also consider it worth every penny I spent. it has been a joy to own and explore, even if I have forbidden myself from reading its largest section.


  1. To be fair the tuesday night group had a very similar experience. They're now working some wilderness adventures in order to level up before they go back down!

  2. I want to know what those ants are protecting. Poisoned food may be the answer ...

  3. Super glad you are enjoying the book. My advice for adventuring in Tonisborg - make friends and allies and play the factions off each other.