Gaming Stories: Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon

In  1992, after months of poring over my mom’s old character sheets and marveling at her hand-drawn maps, I saved up a whopping $20 and bought my first D&D boxed set, billed as “The New, Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game.” In the depths of Zanzer Tem’s dungeon, my foray into the world of RPGs began.

A New Basic Set

D&D had seen many different basic sets since its creation in the 1970s, but the “Easy to Master” version was the first new set since 1983. The highly successful set was surprisingly the brainchild of company president Lorraine Williams. I say surprisingly because she was also the person whose terrible business practices led TSR to go bankrupt a few years later. This version of the game 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.

TSR 1070

The solo adventure was Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon, which began as the evil wizard Zanzer Tem captured your character to serve as a slave 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 refused to write “halfling” on my first character sheet. He was a hobbit, damn it!)

Zanzer Tem’s Legacy

You didn’t get a chance to kill Zanzer in the solo adventure, and this caused his legend to grow. Yes, a party of PCs could finish him off in the group exploration of the dungeon, but his place in my personal D&D mythology had already been secured. Zanzer came back in some form just about every time I started a new campaign.

Zanzer Tem

More than 20 years later, 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. A 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, an angry pair of adventurers killed him for his treachery. In this campaign, Zanzer was the leader of a small town, so the adventurers had 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 nearby. 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 where my friend Chris played 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 back.
  • A high-level version of Zanzer’s dungeon where Zanzer busted out an efreet that 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. Later, for reasons I can’t recall, Zanzer did a stint posing as a drow enchantress. He eventually got decapitated while trying to access the power of a dead god.
    • This series of adventures made Zanzer the first villain in my Blackwood campaign setting. The adventure had begun in the Forgotten Realms, but the location changed partway through because my brother George didn’t like using someone else’s setting.
  • I used Zanzer’s Dungeon in a school setting where I taught Pathfinder to some middle-schoolers. In two parallel adventures, Zanzer got a race-lift into both a serpentfolk and a tiefling.
  • And now most recently I’ve introduced my kids to the adventure, allowing them to make their PCs as they go just as I did decades ago. Zanzer’s newest victims include Moana the sailor and Elf Fighter the elf fighter.

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, or Lolth. It always comes down to Zanzer Tem.


Images: TSR Inc, chrislchoi


One thought on “Gaming Stories: Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon

  1. Tiger Spy

    I haven’t played this in 30 years, but I got super nostalgic tonight and had the itch to run it for a friends kids (try it in 5E). Glad I randomly came across this article. Great story for a great adventure. Thanks for the quick trip down memory lane.


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