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That Sample Dungeon In the Back of the DMG

Posted by Goodman Games (Creator)

Hi everyone,

We're back with our "Favorite Adventure" essays!

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My Favorite Published Adventure: The Sample Dungeon

By Brendan J. LaSalle

I have plenty of favorite adventures, several of which I have written about in articles and blog-posts before, but I want to write about my favorite adventure that I have never discussed publicly, the published adventure that shaped my gaming habits and my early adventure design philosophy more than any other. It's known as “A Sample Dungeon,” by Gary Gygax, and it appears on page 94 of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I call it “The Abandoned Monastery.”

It has a fully realized dungeon map but only the first three rooms come with descriptions. But how they captured my imagination!

The description toggles between the location’s ancient times (“When the monastery was functioning, the faithful were brought here after death . . . “) and its current conditions (“The monster lurks directly over a center litter of husks, skin, bones, and its own castings, awaiting new victims to drop upon.”). I love Gary’s descriptive word choices. I love how he pays just the right amount of attention to each detail without overburdening. I love that every room has a hazard. I love that opening the door to area 2 blows out all your light sources, leaving you in the dark in a proper horror movie moment, a jump scare that makes sense given the environment. That’s a fantastic detail, one of many in the description of three rooms out of the 39 the map presents.

The Abandoned Monastery is a perfect introduction to dungeon design. You get a hook, a side hazard (that 3rd level thief who covets the legendary fire opal!), some wandering monsters, some judiciously mapped out treasure. You get to see how the master sets a dungeon down. And then you have the rest of the map to fill with your imagination.

I ran the Abandoned Monastery for the first time in about 1982, right after I (finally!) got my own copy of the DMG. I used the first three rooms exactly as written, and used clues from the wandering monster table and the backstory for inspiration to fill in the rest. An evil cleric had taken over the crypt areas, and was raising undead servants to help him dig down in the areas where he hoped the ancients might have hidden the fire opal. The ghost of the Abbot dwelled in the northern section, and if approached respectfully he might give the player’s a quest that could make their fortunes . . .

I was a kid, 12 years old, so my Abandoned Monastery adventure was in turns hyper-dangerous, silly, derivative, and absurd. But my oh my we had some fun.

I used the map several times after that initial game for random dungeons – I used the random tables in the DMG (relying heavily on Appendixes C, G, and H to fill out the adventure), reducing Gary’s creation to nothing more than a staging area for random encounters. Looking back it seems like it should have been terribly dull – the heroes kick the door open, then wait while I roll for to see if there is an encounter, then to see which monsters and how many, random hit points, etc.  But I don’t remember complaints – I remember everyone calling home to see if they could spend the night so that we could keep playing until bed, and then first thing in the morning.

I recall a standout running fight: my two players and their hirelings fled from a randomly rolled dozen striges, opened a door to and unexplored room - knowing full well that anything, or nothing, could dwell inside and their characters were either going to survive or perish based on this one decision and the tender mercy of my crayoned percentage dice.

I rolled: the room held 2 lemur devils, whom my PCs cheerfully pounded into guacamole while the stirges vainly batted their wings against the door. I can still see my friends’ faces, all lit up and excited. Their gambit had worked, and they lived to fight another day. Robbie danced in his chair and nearly knocked his soda over.

We were such dorks. We had so, so much fun.

What did Stevie Wonder say? I wish those days could come back once more, why did those days ever have to go?

Years later, circa 1988, I played in a Sunday afternoon pick-up game at Tulane University. I remember it was so home-brew you could hardly recognize it – I played a pre-gen human ranger minus spells, minus tracking, plus thieves’ skills, a knocked-together class the GM called a Dungeon Ranger, and somebody else had some kind of bird man warrior. My then-girlfriend was mapping – her character had wizard and cleric spells, that’s all I remember.

We reach a stopping point, trying to figure out what our next move should be, and I have a thunderbolt realization – the upside-down map I had watched expand for the past two hours was The Abandoned Monastery! It hadn’t hit me until the DM had us carefully map that tiny half-corridor branching off from Room 25. There had been no limed-over skeleton of the Abbot – the DM was running all original content. But he had recycled that wonderful, iconic map. 

Suddenly I was rushed back into those old days of games that lasted until my mom made me come home Sunday night, those games that lasted all summer. I was suddenly much more invested. The dungeon was realer, my character’s peril more acute. It felt wonderful. 

Also, I was brimming with player knowledge and I meant to exploit it. This to my shame.

“I think we should go back and check every room we’ve been through so far for secret doors,” I announced to the table.

The DM looked at me. I looked back, grinning. I knew, he knew I knew, I knew he knew I knew.

Tulane DM ran an excellent game, and my kinda-sorta cheating didn’t detract from it one bit. For me, anyway. Again, to my shame, and I would probably never use player knowledge like that ever mostly again.

The Abandoned Monastery is a literal blueprint for how to design, introduce, populate, and adjudicate a Gary Gygax-style dungeon. I can’t recommend reading it – studying it – enough. Never forget we stand on the shoulders of master storytellers and inscrutable wizards.

Brendan J. LaSalle is a writer, game designer, and odd-job man who had the good fortune to discover his true calling in 1977 when he was introduced to AD&D. He is the author of several DCC adventures and supplements for Goodman Games, Fat Dragon, Savage Mojo, Hand Made Games, Pandahead Publishing, Troll Lord Games, and others. He is best known as the creator of Xcrawl, the dungeon-adventure-cum-alternative-modern-death-sport he has published since 2012. He lives in Salem, MA, with his wife, cat, and puggle.


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    1. Keith M on

      The Monastery was also my favorite part of the old DMG - in fact the first/only extended example of play with map that I remember. The mineral-encrusted skeleton was cool; I still feel bad that a party of 1st level rookies were apparently eaten by ghouls - no fair! ;)

    2. Greg R

      Thanks for linking the add-ons! Love the sample dungeon. Sometimes a silly dungeon delve is just what the doctor, or DM rather, ordered! ;)

    3. Jasmyn Weatherhead on

      Did you find some more of the gold foil Monster Alphabet?

    4. Goodman Games 23-time creator

      @Cliff: That's a typo - Dungeon Alphabet should be $20

    5. Jim McLaughlin

      I'm loving these "favorites" articles. I wonder how many different ways that map has been used?

    6. Michael Sanders

      The original AD&D DMG is my favorite RPG book of all time. It is filled with chewy goodness at every level. This is why I enjoyed the DCC RPG rulebook when I first stumbled across Goodman Games. Reading DCC transported me back in time and evoked memories and feelings that I associate with the DMG. Thanks for sharing Brendan.

    7. Missing avatar

      Cliff Bernhardt on

      Why is the Dungeon Alphabet $30 as an add on but listed at $20 from the GG store?

    8. Joe Walsh on

      Indeed, those were the days. I used that sample dungeon map several times, too. It was always evocative, and that was one of my favorite sections of the DMG to re-read. Wonderful times!