Gaming Stories: Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon

My first D&D setIt turns out that as of this year, I’ve been playing role-playing games for 20 years. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about that, so I figured I’d spend a few updates here and there rambling on about some of the oddball things I’ve encountered in my games. And I might as well start where I started just about every game I ever played: with Zanzer Tem’s dungeon.

I actually started playing role-playing games a year before I bought my first Dungeons & Dragons set. I just didn’t know I was playing an RPG. I started with the HeroQuest board game, which I wish I still owned. Rather than following all the rules, my brothers and I added stuff to move it beyond a normal board game. We added house rules that gave bonuses when you jumped on a table to attack from high ground or allowed the use of furniture as a weapon. (My brother Andrew played the dwarf. I played the elf. We liked each taking a side of a bookcase or table and hurling it at our enemies.) We also added a lot of banter and conversation between the characters. You know, role-playing.

My mom had played Dungeons & Dragons when she was younger, having been taught by the same hermaphroditic priest who baptized me. (I’m not kidding.) she played some HeroQuest with my brothers and I, but constantly talked about how much more D&D had to offer. After months of poring over her old character sheets and marveling at her maps, I saved up a whopping $20 and bought my first D&D boxed set, billed as “The New, Easy to Master Dungeons & Drgaons Game.” And guess what? The hype was actually accurate.

This basic set was originally released by TSR in 1991 and was, surprisingly, the brainchild of company president Lorraine Williams. I say surprisingly because she was also the person whose greed and terrible business practices led TSR to go bankrupt a few years later. This version of the game, authored by Troy Denning (I think), was very easy to get into. It featured a set of Dragon Cards, which had a rule on one side and a part of a solo adventure on the other side. By the end of the solo adventure, you knew all the rules of D&D.

The solo adventure was, “Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon,” in which your character was captured by the evil wizard Zanzer Tem and forced to work in his salt mines. It didn’t always make sense – one encounter had some orcs come from a room you had just explored and which had no other entrance. It had its share of plot holes – you got a fancy golden key that never unlocked anything, for instance. But it was a lot of fun and taught the basics of the game very quickly. It had memorable characters, including the bully Axel who served as your cellmate and the haughty elven princess Adelle. And it gave me my first D&D character, Bulbo Bottlebottom the hobbit. (I later renamed him to Amadon Leaftender, deciding that Bulbo was the alias he used when he penned his memoirs. And I was going to be damned if I was going to write “halfling” on my first character sheet. He was a hobbit, damn it!)

In the solo adventure, you didn’t get a chance to kill Zanzer. That was part of the group adventure, which used the same general outline as the solo adventure but had a few changes – such as no Adelle, sadly. I linked the solo adventure and the group adventure by deciding that Zanzer had recaptured Axel and started up his old operation after Bulbo had escaped. He should have quit while he was ahead, though, because the group wound up not only escaping but also killing him.

Zanzer died in that second adventure, but he came back just about every time I started a new campaign. I’ve adapted Zanzer’s dungeon to multiple editions and level ranges. If somebody got sent to jail, they wound up in Zanzer’s dungeon. If there was an evil wizard out there, it was usually Zanzer Tem.

Just off the top of my head, a few of the variations on Zanzer’s Dungeon that my brothers, friends, and I went through include the following:

  • The first time I ran a game in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where I didn’t quite get what “Bend Bars/Lift Gates” was supposed to do. My fighter with 18 exceptional Strength ripped the jail door off its hinges and beat the hobgoblin jailer to death with it.
  • I ran this adventure when I introduced my friend Nick to AD&D. Zanzer captured the characters with a sleep spell – or he would have if Nick didn’t notice that elves had 90% resistance to sleep spells. Instead, my Amazonian elf NPC shot Zanzer with arrows for daring to cast a spell on her and killed him. In this campaign, Zanzer was the leader of a small town, so this led them to flee from the law. The town guard found Zanzer’s body and tried to resurrect him, but there wasn’t a cleric of high enough level in town. Instead, he got a reincarnate spell, which brought him back as a very angry woman. She-Zanzer eventually met her death when Nick disintegrated her and telekinetically dropped the ashes in the ocean to keep her from returning.
  • An adventure with a thief who didn’t go to Zanzer’s dungeon but wound up stealing from him. He eventually got roughed up by Zanzer’s thugs and tried to play dead, but Zanzer saw through the ruse and magic missiled him to death.
  • An adventure with my friend Chris as a samurai trapped in a gladiatorial arena. No dungeon again, but the arena was sponsored by Zanzer, who got his head cut off. Never give a samurai his katana.
  • A high-level version of Zanzer’s dungeon that replaced orcs with ogres and so on. The jailer here was my old PC/NPC Garyl Shadowslayer, who had supposedly been charmed into serving Zanzer. The enchantment was a ruse, and Garyl helped the adventurers escape. Zanzer busted out an efreet, who turned again him. In the resulting chaos, the adventurers wound up getting teleported to The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror before finally making their way home and stopping Zanzer and the efreet. Garyl used a wish spell to prevent Zanzer from using his magic ever again – which didn’t stop him from returning with a bunch of magic items and making more trouble later. For some reason, Zanzer did a stint posing as a drow female in this campaign. He eventually got decapitated while trying to access the power of a dead god. (This was actually my first adventure in my Blackwood campaign setting – I had been playing in the Forgotten Realms, but my brother George didn’t like using someone else’s setting, so Waterdeep became Blackwood and Garyl became the setting’s version of Elminster.)
  • My most recent endeavor of teaching Pathfinder to some middle-schoolers, in which Zanzer got a race-lift into both a serpentfolk and a tiefling.

Through all these adventures, Zanzer has used mostly the same tactics: illusions to make a pit appear so fighters couldn’t close to melee, charm spells to divide and conquer, liberal uses of magic missile, and no worries about running away if things got out of hand. When it comes to the face of evil in my D&D games, it isn’t Tharizdun, Iuz, Vecna, Lolth, or even my beloved Red Mage. It always comes down to Zanzer Tem.

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2 Responses to “Gaming Stories: Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon”

  1. Amazing.
    My own first experiences with D&D and my best friend Tom also began with Zanzer Tem’s dungeon and Axel. We did the solo adventure and much like you for several years Zanzer Tem was always the face of evil. He was always coming back and causing problems. The hidden mastermind behind it all.

  2. For me, it was Bargle the Infamous and his brutal slaying of Aleena the Cleric from the 1983 Mentzer boxed set… Thing was, I got this set as well in 1991-2 when I was in High School, already a five-year D&D veteran. I ran this for my dad and a few of my friends. I loved the idea of the Dragon Cards, and the boxed sets that expanded on this starter set. In fact… I just re-bought this starter set and The Dragon’s Den a few minutes ago. I have a bid in on The Goblin’s Lair as well. Now, to finish the series by finding The Haunted Tower.

    Thanks for this trip down memory lane!

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